Hiking to find short-lived 'green' season
Within the summer season, July is typically the “green” season in Chugach State Park, with the wildflowers at their peak. A hike into South Fork’s Hanging Valley Lake during the first week of July was intended to immerse myself in that short-lived “greening.”
By mid-to-late August, the green of most mountain slopes begins to succumb to the approaching autumn, with shades of brown and rusty red creeping down the mountainsides and onto the alpine tundra.
I began the hike at the South Fork Trailhead, but instead of taking the main trail into Hanging Valley, I followed the ridge to the south that parallels the trail, ascending to about 4,300 feet over a couple of miles. Before climbing up the ridge, I accidentally spooked out a new hatch of ptarmigan, with confused chicks running helter-skelter and mamma and papa chasing after them, quite distressed by my presence.
I also came upon fresh black bear scat, and from that point stayed alert with my pepper spray handy.
Moving up the ridge, I spotted an eagle gliding swiftly toward Eagle River, pushed by a tailwind. I was too far away to tell if it was a Bald or Golden eagle.
After about an hour and a half, I reached a high point on the ridge that offered a good view of the south end of South Fork Valley, with Eagle and Symphony Lake the prominent features. I looked hard with binoculars to see if anyone was camped near the lakes, but didn’t see anyone.
The wind from the southwest was gusting to about 40 miles per hour and created a strange rattling sound on some nearby flowers. It almost sounded like canvas or a tent flapping in the wind and for a moment had me really faked out.
I tolerated the cold wind for a few moments to take some photos, and just then a large eagle winged past me. This time I was close enough to tell it was a Golden — considerably larger than an adult Bald Eagle. He was also flying with the wind and effortlessly making his way north toward Eagle River.
“What’s the attraction?” I thought. “Getting into position for the upcoming Bear Paw Festival?”
I put on an extra clothing layer and a hat and ducked down below the ridge on the Hanging Valley side for a brief lunch, then descended the approximately 1,200 feet to Hanging Valley Lake — staying mostly on grass.
A young moose was hanging around the end of the lake and was quite curious as I came down the slope. He looked like he had just walked around the lake and got to a spot without any browse, and wanted to move toward where I was. I planned to stop there for a break, but my instinct was that he wanted to be there. I hiked to the opposite end of the lake and looked back. In just minutes, he was exactly where I had been standing — where browse was plentiful.
I counted nine small ducks on the lake that I believe are Lesser Scaups. The most I have seen over the years is 14. They remain until freeze up, and I have no idea how far south they travel on their annual migration.
The breeze continued in late afternoon and kept the mosquitoes at bay as I made my way out of Hanging Valley on the main trail, taking in the greenness that not only filled the lower elevations but had advanced half way up the mountainsides.
We look for changes in the landscape, but oftentimes those changes are too subtle for us to notice. Perhaps that’s why we feel a sense of timeliness as we journey to familiar spots. They don’t seem to change, except for the obvious seasons within seasons — such as in July, when nature rolls out its green carpet and treats us to a profusion of wildflowers.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank, email [email protected].