January Ice

Brilliant sun, mostly calm, temperature in the twenties. Nine of us, including my granddaughter Carly, home from college for the holidays, follow the ridge above Furrow Creek as it flows beneath the ice into the ocean. Our path is narrow, hardpacked in the middle, riddled with holes on either side where previous hikers have plunged into the deep snow.

We’re headed for the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, a hazardous place for humans in the summer, but a resting and nesting place for migratory birds in the spring, summer, and fall. Sandhill cranes, ducks, geese, and shorebirds ply the thick gray mud for invertebrates, algae, and salt-resistant plants.

Now in winter the tidal flats are covered with ice, making it safer for humans to venture out onto the mud that in summer could trap us in its quicksand-like hold. We switch back down the ridge behind Trish, our hike leader, until we reach the windswept tidal flats. Close to shore, we pass a ghost forest, naked bones of black spruce trees, no doubt remnants of the 1964 Earthquake when the land sank some six feet and salt water washed over them.  

We follow a rough trail of other footsteps across the drifted snow, farther and farther onto the ice. Trish aims for a lone tree far out on the ice, roots elbowing out of the snow. Behind us, an unobstructed view of the Chugach Mountains. In front, the jumbled gray and white ice bergs flowing with the tide along Turnagain Arm.

Now we make our own path, occasionally breaking through the crust into the smooth ice below or plunging our hiking sticks into slushy brown water.

“I’ve broken through in this area before,” yells Diane.

Trish continues, undeterred from her goal until we’re within a few dozen strides of reaching the tree. I scan the horizon beyond the tree, bergs bobbing in the tide much closer than before. Too close. The warnings from my childhood about death on the mud flats rush back to me. Since, I’ve invited Carly with us today, even though she’s twenty years old, I still feel responsible for her.

“I’m stopping here,” I shout. Others stop. Reluctantly, Trish pivots and settles for a picture of us snaking along the ice. As we turn into the wind to head back our bodies cast long shadows across the ice.  Friends standing straight and tall together in the sun. A rare January day on the ice.

Blog: January Ice
Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge