Mid-May hike feels more like winter than spring

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 19:00
A spring hike can quickly turn into a wintertime excursion in the Chugach Mountains, writes columnist Frank Baker.

The Chugach Mountains were a world of snowy whiteness May 19 as I hiked up Twin Peaks trail above Eklutna Lake, one of my favorite areas. It was a sparkling clear day and at 11 a.m. the temperature was in the mid-40s, and rising. Snow had melted off the first half mile of the trail and as I moved into snow up higher, hiking was still manageable without snowshoes.

I’d taken along some short, cleated snowshoes anyway, since I’d planned to access the ridge that leads up to Pepper Peak. At about 2-1/2 miles, where the second wooden bench is located, I spotted something moving across the valley toward the Twin Peaks, to the north. I didn’t need binoculars to tell it was a grizzly bear and a cub, which looked large enough to be from last year. She and the cub were moving uphill fast, entering some rather steep and rugged terrain inhabited by Dall sheep.

“Maybe she’s looking for a gourmet meal of sheep,” I thought to myself. “She must be rather desperate for food to take on those challenging slopes.”

I took a short break at the bench, got into my snowshoes and began the ½ mile trudge up to the ridge to a point where I could see Eklutna Lake. To get there my elevation gain from the second bench would be a little less than 1,000 feet.

Looking back to see how far the bears had progressed, I had another surprise. Soaring directly over the pair, between the Twin Peaks, was a parasailer. I know he was low enough to see the bears, and I wondered if he was wondering: “If I crashed and lived through it, would the bears get me?”

Glancing upward toward 5,400-foot Pepper Peak, I saw another parasailer gliding on the updrafts. Earlier, at the first wooden bench along the trail, I’d seen footprints headed directly up the steep slope instead of the round-about route I generally take. They must have been those of the two parasailers.

Wondering what other excitement awaited me; I continued the slow uphill trudge. Thankfully, the snowshoes were only sinking in a few inches, and even on some of the steeper sections, I had good traction.

A slight wind out of the southwest wind greeted me as I crested the ridge about 3 p.m., ready to sit down in the snow to enjoy the view and a late lunch. A Bald eagle soared about 1,000 feet below me, and the occasional cluck and cackle of ptarmigan filled the air, which was now at least 50 degrees or higher.

Yet, with all the whiteness everywhere, it still felt like winter. Its grasp seemed about two weeks longer than on a typical year.

As soon as slipped back into my snowshoes and began the downhill trudge, following my own tracks, I spotted two dogs, followed by four people--three young women and a young guy. Moving closer, I noticed that they weren’t wearing snowshoes. A couple of them were in tennis shoes!

“Thanks for breaking trail for us,” one of them chimed.

“I’m surprised the trail held you up,” I responded, noticing that in the wet, sticky snow they were only sinking in a few inches.

“It was great coming up,” came another energetic voice.

We chatted awhile and I told them about the bears on the other side of the valley, but to not be concerned — they were very far off. Moving down the mountain I was half laughing at myself, fully equipped for a bivouac, carrying a 25 lb. pack of gear; while the young folks looked like they were on a Sunday picnic outing.

“On some days in the Chugach,” I thought to myself, “it would be unsafe to travel so light. But on this day the weather will be kind and forgiving, even to the unprepared.”

Travelling a lot lighter, and with quite a few less years under their belt, the four passed me on the descent, thanking me again for the trail breaking. With their youthful vigor and determination, I doubt they would have needed a trail.

On the way down I spotted a red helicopter to the south at a low elevation. It appeared to be hovering and maneuvering in pursuit of something. I learned later that it was the Alaska Department of Fish and Game performing Dall sheep research, perhaps tagging operations.

Returning to my truck after the 5-1/2 hour outing, I thought again about the bears, wondering how they were faring in their search for food in this mid-May world of white. I wondered if like us, in their own way, they complain among themselves about the weather.

I have to think that somewhere in their DNA ancestry, they’ve encountered this kind of aberrant weather before, and perhaps take it in stride.


Frank Baker is a freelance writer from Eagle River. Write to him at [email protected].

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