Gaining inspiration and perspective on South Fork ridge hike

Monday, August 12, 2019 - 11:20
  • Bird’s eye view of Eagle Lake (left) and Symphony Lake in South Fork Valley, a popular hiking and camping destination. (Photo by Frank E. Baker)
  • Frank Baker walks along a ridge leading to unnamed peak at 4,219 feet, in background. (Photo by Frank Baker)
  • The only water source along the five-mile route is this small stream. (Photo by Frank Baker)

Sweat mixed with sunscreen and insect repellent stung my eyes as I turned right (west) off the main South Fork trail onto a smaller trail into the second pass that in my opinion is incorrectly named “Rendezvous Pass.” Likewise, signage on a post at the first pass is incorrectly labelled “Hunters Pass.”

For as long as I can remember, the first pass was primarily a route to access Rendezvous Peak to the north and the area above the Arctic Valley Ski area, including Mount Gordon Lyon. While the first pass is sometimes used by horse hunters, the main access to Ship Creek Valley for hunters has traditionally been the second pass, about two miles from the trailhead.

My goal on this August 3rd evening was to access the ridge from the second pass and hike south, paralleling the main South Fork trail below and reaching the high point at 4,219 feet. With enough time, I planned to descend to a small tarn and continue down to South Fork Creek, cross, and take the main trail back.

Even with the sun mostly obscured by clouds, the temperature was about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which is too hot for this lifelong Alaskan, especially if there is no breeze.

A water source

Fireweed and tall grass had overgrown part of the trail, and often the only way I could determine if I was on it was by feeling with my feet. Taking a break before the long climb to the ridge, I examined the contents of my one-quart water bottle. It was early in the hike and the bottle was only about half full. Then I remembered a small stream that comes off the mountain. But this late in a very hot summer—with all of the snow melted—would it still be flowing?

I worked my way upward and over to the stream’s small draw and listened. I was delighted to hear the sound of gurgling water! I drank greedily from my water bottle before refilling it in the tiny, ice-cold stream. I seldom use a water filter, and in decades of drinking from Alaskan streams, have never had a problem with giardia. I might have built up immunities, however, after so many years of drinking unfiltered water.

Continuing my ascent, I glanced down and noticed that the stream only daylighted for about 150 feet on the slope, the only water along my entire route. After an hour-long plod up the alpine tundra, I finally reached the ridge overlooking Ship Creek Valley, where I was welcomed by a light breeze that offered some cooling. And mercifully, the wind liberated me from haranguing insects.

The ridge hike south to the 4,219-foot peak was straightforward over a well-worn trail that skirted around the steep sections. Occasionally the sun peeked out of the clouds and with a steady breeze, the hike now became pleasant. I came to a can of pepper spray resting atop a moss-covered rock. The can wasn’t weathered, so apparently it had been placed there recently. I picked it up and continued past point 4219 and around a couple of other sharp peaks.

Gaining perspective

From here the view opened up to Eagle and Symphony Lakes on one side, and upper Ship Creek and Indian Valleys on the other. I was about to sit down for a snack when

a young guy popped around the cliff edge, apparently moving very quickly.

“Was that your water bottle back there?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, not the slightest bit out of breath. “Figured I didn’t need it for a while.”

I dug into my pack and handed it to him. He was traveling light. “How far did you go?”

“Triangle Peak,” he replied, resuming his run. “Have a good one.”

“You too.”

I soon found a grassy spot and plopped down for a rest. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been blown away by someone, albeit younger, going farther and faster. On this hike my round trip was going to amount to about 10 miles with roughly 3,000 feet of elevation gain, taking me nearly six hours. His dash to Triangle Peak at the head of South Fork Valley, about 22 miles round trip with at least 7,000 feet of elevation gain, probably took him less time.

I took a long rest and observed a few things that a runner wouldn’t. Through binoculars I spotted 5-6 tents scattered around Symphony Lake. An eagle soared high overhead. Looking into Ship Creek Valley I saw two Dall sheep grazing about 1,000 below me. Across South Fork Valley near Hanging Valley trail was a moose browsing amidst the willows.

I looked at my watch at 8:30 p.m. and determined I didn’t have time to make the planned loop trip before dark, so I packed up for the homeward journey that would retrace my route, determined to stop at the stream for water.

The ridge had offered a sweeping vista of Chugach peaks and adjoining valleys carved long ago by glaciers. But the main perspective on this evening came from my brief encounter with someone who was going so much farther. Rather than diminishing, however, it was uplifting.

I am glad there are people around who can go farther. And in Alaska, we have many. They inspire us and prompt us to dig a bit deeper in our endeavors, including sojourns into our vast and beautiful back yard in the Chugach Mountains.

Getting to South Fork Trailhead: Turn onto Hiland Drive from Eagle River Loop Road and follow it several miles. After crossing South Fork Creek continue for another couple of miles to South Creek Road, where you turn right and cross South Fork Creek again. Then take another right on West Creek Drive. The parking area for the trailhead will be on your immediate left.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah,a retired elementary school teacher.

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