Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone

I test the glassy roadside ice, then climb back in the truck to stretch spikes over my boots, then click across the bare roadway to the trailhead. Off the road and on the snowpack, click turns into reassuring crunch. Trekking poles will add additional surety on icy patches.

Even though Juneau is not yet on pandemic lockdown, I am alone on the trail. I often walk the trails alone—especially in winter. Busy in summer, this trail sees little traffic in winter. Lacking in foot traffic that would wear a path, the trail is lost beneath the season’s generous undulating piles of white.

The trail needn’t be seen for me to find my way, as I have walked this trail countless times, and in all seasons. In the summer, I hike here a couple times a week, teaching guests about the flora, fauna, and natural history of this early successional forest slowly maturing in the wake of Mendenhall Glacier. But even though it is easy to find my way, I quickly discover that the details are lost, or more accurately, different details stand out.

There is no visible twisted stalk or dwarf dogwood, no bear tracks, no American dippers hunting the frozen stream—though I am sure the latter are nearby, and I hope to hear their early spring calls.DSC_7775.jpgInstead, on either side of me, the raspy single calls of tone-deaf varied thrushes buzz through the spring wood. One sounds like a referee’s whistle, the next like an old fashioned analog stove-top alarm, then some digital sound effect. As the name suggests, these odd calls are like snow flakes: no two sound the same, but all are unmistakably from the varied thrush. As different as each individual call may be, like snowflakes, you always recognize them for what they are.

As East Glacier Trail inclines north along Thunder Ridge, the Sitka spruce and western hemlocks that dominate this young forest grow older, taller, thicker. As I climb in elevation, I am walking through time. It has been much longer since glacial ice polished the top of this ridge than when it scoured the valley floor.

A pair of logs—trees recently fallen and cleared from the path by Forest Service chainsaw—reveal their histories, and I marvel at the reddish rings and thin, crispy bark of the spruce compared to the greenish hue and thick bark of the hemlock. I will return to count the rings of these twins and perhaps learn how many years have passed since the glacier retreated from here, or maybe I will see anomalies in annual rainfall. Aldo Leopold tells me I can learn such detailed information in the rings of trees as what years there were booms and busts in rabbit populations. I wonder what secret these growth rings hold.DSC_7780.jpgSoon I come to the stairs—192 steps that zig-zag their way up the steepest part of my climb. The piled and worn snow on the treads looks otherworldly—glowing white in the dark canopy, like cotton candy lit from behind and tucked into the corners of the thick, wooden stairway timbers. I would not attempt this climb without the aid of my spikes and poles.DSC_7901.jpg



The girth of the trees has increased dramatically now, as has the depth of the snow, and trail at the top of my climb is unrecognizable to me. Though I know exactly where I am, my perspective of the landscape is markedly different from atop a mere couple feet of snow.

At first, the forest up here is quiet. I haven’t heard the thrushes for a while, but piles of shredded spruce cones in the snow bodes the coming bird-like chirping scold of a little red ground squirrel.

Last spring marked a big spruce pollen year. On certain clear days, the massive billowing yellow clouds wafting from the canopy made the Tongass look afire. Big pollen in spring leads to banner cone yield in fall, which leads to fat and happy squirrels producing lots of kits in spring, leading to successful predators the following season. I look forward to a summer of fox-, coyote-, owl- and weasel-watching opportunities in a summer that is likely to be void of tourists as we face a global pandemic.

When I come to the turn, and the trail emerges from the woods momentarily at the top of Nugget Falls, I find the waist-high cable that usually serves as handrail to be at my ankles, and there is nothing protecting me from stepping off trail for a dangerous tumble down the mountainside. The sloping cliff face above me is hidden in a merengue-like coating, the trail a narrow, boot-wide vee cut into the icing. I imagine the saxifrage growing from the cracks in the rock, biding its time beneath the snow. I think about that word “saxifrage.” From the Latin saxum ‘rock’ plus frangere ‘break,’ it is aptly named. Soon it will break free from the snow to show off its clusters of tiny purple blooms. Yarrow, too, is sprouting somewhere beneath the snow. Waiting.DSC_7934.jpgAs the trail winds its way back down the ridge, breaks in the canopy afford views of the frozen lake below, and snow-covered peaks to the west. In summer, I look down and compare the colors of the chalky, greenish glacial melt to the blue snow melt and rainwater flowing into the lake from the ridge. This time of year, for a little while longer, all is white.

A lone, unseen pacific wren sings his long, warbling song among the varied thrushes who had fallen silent in the higher elevations, but are once again calling, out of sight and out of tune.

Drainages tumbling down the ridgeside are spanned by small wooden footbridges that, covered in snow, beg to be photographed. I take great time to look at every angle, move in close, back away, shoot high and low, looking for just the right composition. I am in no hurry.DSC_7945.jpg


At the end of the trail, I stop to look at a willow tree. Last year’s willow roses—galls that form from the terminal bud of willow trees after being chewed by wasp larvae—are less obvious without leaves on the trees. Resembling dried, brown roses or carnations, these oddities began as rose bud-like growths formed around the tiny larvae. Along with providing safe home and nutrition for the developing insects, the galls protect the trees from over-browsing. Moose and hares will not eat the branches with roses on them.

Every time I look at these little marvels of nature, I am reminded of the words of Edward Abbey, who asks and answers a profound question in this simple poem:

What is the purpose of the giant sequoia tree?

The purpose of the giant sequoia tree
is to provide shade for the tiny titmouse.

On my way back to the truck, I stop at an observation deck to take a photo of the glacier. In a few decades, the rapidly retreating ice will no longer be visible from the valley. Until then, and perhaps not for some time after that, no amount of snow will change the recognizability of this view. Only when the lakeshore retreats and the forest encroaches will this scape be dramatically changed and maybe not identifiable.

Truckside, as I stretch the spikes back off my boots, a familiar and beloved voice bends my ear. Zeet, zeet, zeet! An American dipper is somewhere along Steep Creek just into the woods.

Like so many things today, he is unseen, but there is no mistaking his presence. Like saxifrage and dogwood, thrush and wren, and even the trail itself, I don’t need to see him to know he is there.

In some way, all these wonders of nature are like the virus that has changed the lives of nearly everyone on the the planet: unseen, but known. As I remember this day a week later, we are now on orders by the City and Borough of Juneau to “hunker down,” and I wish I hadn’t chosen to walk alone on the trail that day.

I walk the trail through this world alone a lot; I always have. Being alone allows for stopping to ponder a bird song, photograph a snow-covered bridge from a dozen angles, explore a game trail into the unknown, or wait for a weasel to emerge from a den. I tend to agree with Bend Heinrich who said in his book Ravens In Winter, “There is no greater pleasure than eating roasted moose while resting under a spruce and contemplating ravens,” and I have always thought of pondering as a solo activity.

But when I walk the trail today, I am deprived of making the choice to walk alone. To one degree or another, that is a choice that is being made for all of us now. For the health us all, we are being asked to walk alone.

Tomorrow, again, I will walk a trail alone. I will listen to birds, search for tracks in the snow, gaze out at the ocean looking for whale spouts, and imagine the unseen flowers curling their way, bright green and eager, to the waiting sun above the ice.

Tomorrow, and the day after, I will trust, like the saxifrage, snake plantain, dwarf dogwood, and yarrow, that on the other side of the unseen, the sun is shining above the ice.

And when, on some distant day after the day after the day after tomorrow, when the snow and ice have melted away, I will remember how it felt to be alone not of my choosing, and I will invite a friend to walk the trail with me, to sit under a spruce and contemplate ravens, to ask the purpose of the lowly willow tree, to ponder together. Today, I realize that maybe walking the trail and pondering does not have to be a solo activity. But for now, I will walk alone.



Add Yours →

I was hoping your travels didn’t strand you away from home.
This story is not only beautiful, but reminds me, with all the photos, of how true solitude is an experience best found when there is deep snow. No sound but music of your own production, words of your own thoughts. A profound surrender yet oneness with nature. Thanks for taking me back to that experience.

Jim, thank you so much for continuing to share the beauty and wonder of this world, even in these trying times. We met you In the Minneapolis airport several years ago, and are still inspired but your stories

What do you think?