If we tell people in the Lower 48 that until the recent snows, we’ve been pining for winter, patiently waiting for those halcyon days of blue skies and white, fluffy snow, of skiing, snowshoeing, sledding and the like — they would think we were daft.
“You live in Alaska!” they’d exclaim. “You always have cold and snow.”
The entire Eagle River Valley was blanketed by a thick layer of clouds on Dec. 22 of this past year as Pete Panarese and I crossed the ridge east of Mile High saddle and headed toward the slopes of 4,285-foot Mt. Magnificent, which was now bathed in mid-day sunlight. With very little snow, mild temperatures and nearly calm winds, the going was easy as we pushed upward.
Alaska’s wildlife can put meat on some folks’ tables, are subjects of dramatic photographs and often grist for compelling stories. But sometimes these creatures are teachers with valuable lessons, not only about getting along in the outdoors, but life itself.
The best words to describe my movements as I climbed out of South Fork Valley into Hanging Valley Dec. 19 of this year were “thrashing,” “floundering,” “slogging” and “flailing.”
On almost every step my 31-inch-long Tubbs, lightweight, state-of-the-art snowshoes sank deep into the soft snow — sometimes more than 12 inches. I regretted not having my trusty 58-inch-long, traditional wooden snowshoes that would have kept me up on the surface as I broke trail.
When one has lived nearly three-quarters of a century, there are memories of many Christmas trees: from the thick and long-needled Blue and Sitka Spruces we chopped down outside of Seward, to the more sparsely branched White Spruces we found in the wilds near our cabin at Nancy Lake, to expensive greenhouse trees and finally, the reusable, pre-lit trees with no scent and lights that flicker on and off with minds of their own.
With only a thin layer of snow over the trail, the temperature hovering just above zero and not a breath of wind, hiking conditions were perfect Nov. 12 of this year as I departed the Eagle River Nature Center and trekked deeper into the valley.
I knew the sun would be hanging back behind the mountains throughout the day. But whether in sunshine or shadow, a trip deep into upper Eagle River Valley — its 7,000-foot mountains looming high on all sides — is always a visual feast. For me, it’s akin to entering a cathedral.
The temperature was about 15 to 20 degrees on Nov. 22 and I was getting a pretty good glide on my touring skis as I shuffled along the Eklutna Lakeside trail. Unlike the gray, overcast skies around Eagle River, the clouds were breaking over Eklutna Lake’s south end and the sun was trying to peek through, casting a soft, peach-colored light on 7,522-foot Bold Peak and surrounding mountains.
The first views of Alaska that I can remember were in Seward in the late 1940s, when I was about three years old. It was instant love. From our front yard on 4th Avenue one could look out on Resurrection Bay.
On winter afternoons its waters became restless with whitecaps and darker blue than the sky as seen in photos from the top of Mt. Everest. Beyond the bay the eastern skyline was dominated by the rugged Kenai Mountains and 5,265-foot Mt. Alice, a mountain that became woven into my dreams.
Beneath the thin layer of snow, my Kahtoola spikes dug into the unfrozen ground as I climbed slowly upward through the woods toward the ridge directly above, or north, of Eklutna Road. It was Nov.7 and the ridge was awash in mid-day sunshine — one of the main reasons I chose this location. Fully exposed to the south, the ridge receives ample sunlight even during winter’s shortest days.
Not far from Hanging Valley Lake two sets of coyote tracks crossed the snow-dusted trail and headed down into the valley toward the creek. With disturbed snow exposing the dark tundra beneath, the tracks were easy to spot as they meandered uphill on the other side of the creek and disappeared in the stunted willow bushes. I stopped briefly and scanned the area with binoculars.