After false starts, spring season is on

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2004

Remember the snow on April Fools' Day? Was that nature's little joke? Perhaps announcing that 2004's summer had just been canceled and it was winter again?

Those ready to spring outdoors for spring sports had to put plans on hold, or change them. So, instead of grabbing kayak paddles, Gail Findley and I pulled out cross-country skis. Instead of down to the water, we headed up to the mountains.

The snow was deep enough that we could put the skis on shortly after starting up the 3-mile trail leading to the John Muir Cabin to enjoy winter. The snow was sticky even at the cabin's 1,500-foot level. So we took advantage of that traditional April Fools' activity - building a snowman.

We lunched inside the cabin. Outside, falling snow and swirling clouds blocked any view beyond a hundred yards. The world looked obscure, shadowy and without substance.

"I wish we'd brought our overnight gear up," Gail said. "It would be nice to spend the night in the cabin."

We left the night at the cabin to the snowman and skied back down the trail through the fresh snow pleased with our winter outing. "This was a good day in my life," Gail said.

There's an exhilaration in returning to spring sports after they've been shelved for the winter. One week later the low-level snow was gone, and we chose a winter/spring transitional trip. The first two-thirds of the trail to the Mount Roberts Tram was dry. The transition back to winter came on the final third over packed snow.

Brad Curé and his college-age daughter, Jessica, also were making the hike to the tram. They chose the Mount Roberts trail because its quick elevation gain provided exercise for both the legs and heart and because, unlike other area trails to alpine, it was accessible this time of year.

"This is definitely a spring thing," Brad said.

Another spring thing was the frequent thunder of small avalanches bouncing down chutes on Mount Juneau. "You could also get the sound of big waves from the avalanches," Gail observed.

She was right, and the next weekend we followed that sound to the water and a real spring outing. Paddling around the back of Douglas Island on Easter weekend has been my modest tradition for the past couple of decades. The 25-mile trip has been a personal acknowledgment of the arrival of spring, although in truth some past trips have taken place in snow storms.

Not this year. A forecast of light winds from the north dictated False Outer Point as the starting point. The promise of sun on Sunday kept us optimistic for the weekend's weather. To make a longer outing, Gail and I left on Friday afternoon and camped at Middle Point. Lynda Giguere would join us Saturday morning.

With extra time the next morning we took a walk through the amazing forest behind our tent site. The forest floor was soft and mossy. "Like bounding on a mattress when you were a kid," Gail thought.

During the summer, forest excursions may be more battle than walk because of thick devils club, blueberry bushes and alder. In early spring those obstacles have yet to sprout, so our stroll was unusually clear.

The area seemed "enchanted" in the sense that it evoked childhood memories of how fairy tale forests most certainly would have looked.

"If you were a kid playing here," Gail said, "you could make up lots of stories, like Robin Hood."

Whether walking in the forest, or along the beach, invariably interesting items appear. It's clear I'm a better observer than explainer because the items usually raise more questions than I have answers.

During this 45-minute walk, for example, we saw and wanted to know more about a large tepee frame in the woods, wrens feeding in dead beach grass, a manmade pit covered with large and mossy planks, a hundred-yard stretch of burned trees, an old cabin remnant, a strong mint-like smell on the beach, tracks of a small animal in the sand, and a cat-sized, furry animal that darted 18 inches behind Gail.

After Lynda joined us, we loaded our three kayaks and paddled southward with light following winds providing a gentle push along Stephens Passage under sunny skies. Perfect conditions.

The conditions added to the appeal of this trip. But I've enjoyed it many times in less favorable conditions. Sometimes rain. Other times even snow. Regardless, I'm always amazed at the wilderness experience that exists on the back of Douglas Island, even when you are less than 10 straight-line miles from a state's Capitol.

As the easy miles passed so did the subjects of conversation. They included retirement, personal funeral arrangements, Lynda's plans for a trip to Italy, the peopling of North America, movies, paddling techniques, previous kayak trips, other places we'd consider living, healthy foods, exercises and even an open-air opera, sung in Italian, by Lynda.

By late afternoon we started talking about where to spend the night.

"I like to get to a camping place early enough so there is time to 'be' there," Lynda said.

Shortly thereafter we selected a small gravel beach and set up tents. Then we practiced "being there" by walking the beach, cooking supper, lounging around a campfire, and marveling at the red pastel sunset.

Easter morning we found stronger winds that caused us to launch our kayaks through small beach surf. Once on the water the winds pushed us merrily along. Most of the waves were two feet high, but periodically four-footers would lift us from behind.

"We kind of got bashed around in those," Lynda said thinking back on the morning's wave ride.

"I took two over the deck," Gail said, describing waves that had flowed over the spray skirt covering the kayak's cockpit.

We took a break at Marmion Island, the point where Gastineau Channel and Stephens Passage meet at the tip of Douglas Island. The 5-mile paddle up Gastineau to our car at Sheep Creek was made more difficult than expected because of strong winds.

The previously peaceful trip had ended with a wind hammer, but that didn't lessen our enthusiasm for the early-season adventure.

"The annual kayak around Douglas on Easter weekend is a spring ritual for me," Lynda said. "I wish I could have spent another night out."

It'll be easier for Lynda, and everyone else who likes the Juneau outdoors, to spend more nights out now that it's really spring. And that's no April Fools' joke.

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