Savoring autumn before the whiteness comes

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 20:00

The air was crisp and cold as I biked along the Eklutna Lakeside trail, savoring the very last moments of autumn. The sun was already shining on Bold Peak and the other big mountains to the south, and I knew that as I drew closer to those mountains and into the Eklutna canyon, I would be in shadow for most of the day.

Pedaling along at about 10 miles per hour, the wind chill felt like zero degrees. But I’d prepared with an extra layer, top and bottom, as well as some heavy wool gloves and wool hat. It was autumn, but I’d dressed for winter.

The trail was snow-free, but frozen hard. Water puddles were covered with a thin layer of ice that I steered around.

It was October 12, and my goal was to bike to the Serenity Falls Hut at about Mile 12, stash my bike and then hike another two miles up to the toe of Eklutna Glacier,. (I hiked there this past May and wrote about in a June 2, 2011 Mountain Echoes column). Total distance one-way: about 14 miles.

Most of the trees along the lake had dropped their leaves, now standing like thin skeletons against the stark blue sky. Fluttering around on the trail and nearby bushes were the ubiquitous, moth invaders. When I stopped to pump a little more air into my tires, one of them landed on my arm. I quickly swept him off and muttered something unrepeatable in a family newspaper. I’ve always tried to understand how every creature has a purpose in a given ecosystem. I can’t figure out a reason for these moths, however, except to eat everything in sight.

I spooked a couple of spruce grouse along the way and after nearly two hours, arrived at the Serenity Falls public use cabin, now unoccupied, where I stashed my bicycle. After a quick log entry, cup of coffee from my thermos and a couple of cookies, I headed out for the glacier. I quickly lost the trail but was relieved to find it again for the last half of the journey.

Going back in time: If you’ve been to Exit Glacier near Seward, you probably noticed the signs marking the positions of the glacier in different years in time. In the Eklutna canyon there are no such markers, but as you progress closer and closer to the glacier face you see evidence of what it left in its swift, mile-long retreat over the past century. Near the Serenity Falls hut there are trees and bushes, but as you move up-canyon there are only bushes. Soon you enter a land of smooth, polished rocks, small plants and moss. And after that, near the glacier’s toe, it is just rock and ice.

Only a few hundred yards from the big gravel flat that lies in front of the glacier, tucked between glacier-smoothed boulders, was a one-foot-high spruce tree. It appeared quite healthy. “Way to go!” I said out loud. “You’ll make it.”

With canyon walls rising thousands of feet above me, I didn’t expect any sunlight. But to my surprise, the sun was traversing a narrow gap in the mountains above the glacier. It looked like I’d have about 30 minutes of direct sunlight, so I plopped down in front of a rock, dragged out my lunch and thermos, and enjoyed the temporary warmth. There was no wind and it was unearthly quiet. Far away and high in the cliffs I spotted a couple of goats.

I quickly realized that as the sun began dipping below the mountain, there might be a chance for a sunburst-type photo. I quickly readied my camera and soon began snapping away, knowing the opportunity would last only seconds. Without the sun, the temperature immediately dropped about 10 degrees. I took a few more photos and packed up for the long trip home.

For the return trip I had two backup plans if I ran out of daylight: my headlight, and the full moon. As it turned out, I needed neither, arriving at the parking lot by 6 p.m., with daylight to spare.

Like I do every year, I stretch autumn out as long as I can. I like greeting new seasons, but I always have a hard time letting go of the old.

On the bike ride back along the lake I spotted a few trees that still held some of their yellowed leaves. “Hangers on,” I thought. “Just like me.”


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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