Sunshine brings warmth to midwinter Chugach hike

Monday, January 7, 2019 - 10:29
  • Eagle River’s Pete Panarese silhouetted in the low-hanging sun during a recent hike near Mt. Baldy. (Photo by Frank Baker)
  • Eagle Rivers Pete Panarese takes a sunbreak on the ridge leading to Blacktail Rocks. (Photo by Frank Baker)
  • Setting sun above the fog blanketing Anchorage and part of Eagle River. (Photo by Frank Baker)

It was cold enough on Jan. 4 for our boots to make loud crunching sounds in the snow. But absent wind, it wasn’t so cold that we needed to cover our faces with balaclavas. Cresting over the ridge east of Mt. Baldy, we immediately felt warmth from the afternoon sun that hung lazily above the Chugach Mountains to the south.

Anchorage was blanketed in dense fog that reached to the edge of Eagle River. West across Knik Arm, Mt. Susitna (Sleeping Lady) lay in bright sunlight, with dark shadows stretched across her body. Far to the north, the Alaska Range giants — Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter and Denali — dominated the horizon.

Metaphorically, at the beginning of 2019, we could have been climbing above the obscuring fog in search of clarity after a year of turmoil and confusion, particularly within our federal government. But our mission was simpler and more direct: At this dark time of the year, we sought a place with bright sunshine.

Back in the day, my father and his friends would never climb a mountain unless they were hunting or prospecting for gold. For friend Pete Panarese and I, escaping mid-winter’s gloom for a sunbreak is a perfect reason to climb high — and it’s become something of an annual tradition.

Sun’s warmth

I disagree with those who believe the low-hanging January sun doesn’t convey warmth, especially if one is shielded from the wind. Crossing the ridge, if we turned away from the sun and then quickly turned back, there was a definite burst of heat upon our faces.

And aside from its warmth, the sun at this time of the year casts long shadows and creates a beautiful palette of colors over the mountains — from a golden yellow to salmon pink and deep crimson.

After hiking the windblown ridge out to the base of Blacktail Rocks, we took a lunch break in front of a rock outcropping — which in itself added a couple degrees of heat — and enjoyed a great view of Meadow Creek Valley and Mile High Saddle.

This year I hiked up and watched Eagle River’s New Year’s fireworks from the east hump of Mile High, but must admit there are plenty of locations with better views that are not as cold. A noted local mountaineer, Richard Baranow, mentioned to me that one year he watched the fireworks from the summit of 6,925-foot Peeking Mountain, which is quite an amazing feat — particularly in winter.

Looking for wildlife

Peering into Meadow Creek Valley with binoculars, we expected to see moose — but there was no activity. Early in our hike as we skirted around Mt. Baldy on the old Wallace homestead, we spotted a young bull moose about 500 yards away. He was browsing on low sedges that he’d exposed by scratching off the surface snow.

Retracing our route back toward Mt. Baldy, I was almost expecting to feel the ground move as a result of an aftershock from the Nov. 30 earthquake.

“I felt a 5.0 magnitude outdoors a few days after the earthquake,” I told Pete. “I was taking a break during a hike near Eklutna Valley when it came. It was strange — no rattling house sounds — only the deep rumbling and the ground moving.”

On the return hike we met a young guy with a dog. The man agreed it was good to find a place with sunlight. He mentioned that he was a pilot, and since the fog had grounded him that day, he decided to stretch his legs and go for the alpine view.

Even though the sun is gradually climbing higher — adding more than two minutes per day — over the next month or so we’ll probably continue climbing up to greet the sun and take in its energy. It’s like a magnet.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired grade school teacher.

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