From fall to winter ...and back again

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - 20:16
What a difference a week makes
Snow covers the South Fork area Oct. 3. Just a week later, most of the snow had melted.

On Oct. 3 as I ascended a ridge in South Fork (Eagle River), the slopes were white with new snow. Everywhere it looked and felt like winter. And with layers, gloves, wool hat and boots large enough for big socks, I had dressed accordingly.

The highest elevation of my hike was at about 4,600 feet, overlooking Hanging Valley Lake. Pausing on the ridge at a spot that was sheltered from the wind, I had a snack and drank some water. I didn’t realize that the hardest part of my trip, a 1,500-feet descent, was ahead of me.

On the climb, I had attached REI Kahtoola MICROspikes to my boots, and they definitely helped with traction on the slippery terrain. But on the relatively steep descent, the wet snow began balling up into 5-inch-thick clods, causing me to slip and fall about every four steps.

My spiked traction devices had become a liability rather than an asset.

I should have taken them off, but I figured having them on was better than nothing.

When I finally reached fairly level ground and removed them, the snow immediately quit balling up. A short, somewhat easy descent that should have taken no more than 20 minutes required more than an hour of painstakingly slow down climbing.

I took a lunch break at Hanging Valley Lake, about half of which was now frozen, and spotted a couple of ducks, I think Buffleheads, that were part of a larger group that I’ve seen on the lake for many years.

“Better get going soon,” I thought. “Your time is running out.”

The thin layer of wet snow that was around the lake persisted until about halfway back down Hanging Valley. Approaching South Fork, I was again back into the rusty brown colors of late autumn. A cow moose browsed on willows high on the brown slopes and blended in well.

Take two: A week later, on the afternoon of Oct. 10, the slopes of South Fork’s ridges were nearly free of snow, as I made my way up the ridge to the west of South Fork Valley. Cresting out at about 4,000 feet, it was 50 degrees, and there was no wind.

I sat in the sun for about an hour, taking in the sweeping view of South Fork and Ship Creek valleys. Clouds were lying low in each of these areas as well as Eagle River Valley and covering part of Anchorage.

The big peaks at the back end of South Fork Valley were mantled in snow as they would for winter’s duration.

I’d forgotten my binoculars, so was unable to really scan the area for sheep and other wildlife.

Mostly, I enjoyed just sitting in the warm sun — something that had been quite rare during the month of September.

It was 6:15 p.m., and I wanted to wait for the nice sunset light, but I knew it would take me at least an hour to get back to the parking lot — and by then it would be dark. Reluctantly, I slung my pack and headed down.

I knew there wouldn’t be many days like this before the arrival of permanent snow. Actually, there were two more bluebird days following that one. During that time, I saw several hikers out with their kids and dogs.

On the very last nice “autumn” day, Oct. 12, I spotted a white, large-wing glider soaring silently over Blacktail Mountain toward Mt. Baldy.

I’ve been told that it’s powered, but I heard no engine noise. Only moments before, one of nature’s gliders had soared directly overhead: a large, mature bald eagle.

That night, crisp and clear, the aurora borealis put on a spectacular show in the skies above Eagle River. I was grateful nature finally gave us a small taste of autumn.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To reach Frank: [email protected].

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