Dearth of snow extends hiking season


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Eagle River’s Pete Panarese atop 5,400-foot Pepper Peak in the Chugach Range.

Frank E. Baker

The lack of snow during the back half of October going into November has definitely prolonged the hiking season. The situation offers little solace to winter recreationists who are impatiently waiting to ski and snowshoe, or commercial enterprises like Alyeska Ski Resort that count on every day of the ski season. But just the same, it’s truly a unique time of the year to be outdoors.

For one, there is still plenty of daylight and lately, sunshine. Leaves from bushes and trees have dropped, making it easy to walk through the woods with great visibility. Traction on dry, frozen dirt and rock is great. With the right layering, one seldom overheats, even during strenuous hiking. And last but no less important, there are no bugs! I’ll qualify that statement. A few infernal moths from our recent infestation have survived and as late as Oct. 25, I observed them fluttering about trying to see what else they could destroy.

It was about this time several years ago that I took a moonlight walk up Twin Peaks trail above Eklutna Lake. I heard a tremendous rustling in the woods and soon saw white objects scurrying around on the leaf-cluttered ground. They were rabbits (Snowshoe hares) that had turned white ahead of nature, and were really exposed. “Lucky for them there is no hunting or shooting in this part of the Chugach Park,” I thought to myself.

So lately, I’ve found myself nearly begging my friends who work eight-to-five jobs to take a least one day off work to get out with me on some hike or another. It’s easy to forget just how rare these kind of days are.

And while snow is needed to insulate the ground and prevent our plants from dying and septic systems from freezing, we received so much of it last winter that no one, except those I mentioned earlier, are anxious for its return.

And if high pressure systems hold the snow at bay for a few weeks in November, something happens that thrills a unique group of Alaskans: Ice boaters. If the lakes freeze solid and it doesn’t snow, you’ll see them out on the lakes waiting for the wind to fill their sails and propel their lightweight craft to fantastic speeds. Avid ice skaters also revel in such conditions.

I remember one year while skating across a glass-smooth Eklutna Lake, I heard something scratching ice behind me. It was a skater with those long-bladed speed skates. He passed me like he was standing still, reached the end of the six-mile-long lake and was on his return before I got half way there!

On another year when Eklutna Lake froze early with no snow covering, I ice-skated to the south end of the lake and spotted people being pulled on sleds that were equipped with parachutes. They were starting high on the bluff above the lake’s south shore, and rocketing down onto the lake.

The sight prompted me to affix a large plastic bag between my two ski poles and see what kind of a push the 30 mile-per-hour winds would offer as I made my way back down the lake. My improvised sail worked, but my arms became really tired holding it up. After that I schemed about how to install some kind of expandable sail system to fit into a pack back, but never came up with a prototype. Somebody’s probably already invented it.

But getting back to hiking, the little snow that we have received has mostly melted off the south-facing slopes and hiking is really easy. Last winter dealt us such a vengeful blow that it feels good to get out and “cheat” this emergent winter by a few weeks…maybe a month!

On Nov. 7 my friend Pete Panarese and I climbed 5,400-foot Pepper Peak above Eklutna Lake and enjoyed clear skies, an abundance of sunshine and with very little snow, relatively easy hiking. I’m not sure how long this dearth of snow will last, but we plan to take advantage of it as long as we can.

Our snow blowers are gassed up, our snow shovel is by the door; our generators are at the ready, our snow tires are on and the back of the pickup truck is ballasted with about 500 lbs. of concrete blocks. But ready for winter? Nah. Let’s keep winter away a while longer.

The Snowshoe hares that are turning white will just have to hide in the woods a little bit better.

 

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To reach Frank: frankedwardbaker@gmail.com

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