Hanging onto autumn at Hanging Valley Lake

Monday, November 5, 2018 - 15:26
  • Al Beck approaches Hanging Valley Lake. At 3,000 feet, there is a thin layer of snow. Photo by Frank E. Baker
  • On the trail into Hanging Valley from South Fork, Eagle River. Photo by Frank E. Baker
  • Frank Baker at Hanging Valley Lake, a favorite hiking destination. Photo by Jeff Worrell
  • Barrow’s goldeneye duck on Hanging Valley Lake at spring time. Photo by Frank E. Baker

The mountain at the head of Hanging Valley known only by its elevation, 5679, was dusted in new snow as we hiked along the trail Oct. 14, breathing in the last of what everyone agreed was an over-extended autumn.

It was a partly cloudy day that showed signs of improving as friends Jeff Worrell, Al Beck and I moved farther into the valley.

The tundra had become a dark reddish-brown as it awaited the first snow that already reached higher elevations. On the five-mile (one way) trip to the upper lake, or tarn, we spooked a small group of Willow ptarmigan from the bushes. They were only partly turned into their winter-white plumage. During most years, they would already be completely white.

Passing the big rockfall about four miles into the hike, we could hear the calls of small pikas, but we couldn’t see them. The word pika is derived from the Siberian name for this animal, puka. In North America, they also are called “rock rabbits,” “coneys,” and “little chief hares.” I’ve heard them in this rockfall for many years, but have seldom seen them.

I kept looking right (south) to the ridge above us for eagles. The ridge parallels the trail and during hikes in past years, I’ve spotted both bald and golden eagles.

The lower lake was covered by a thin veneer of ice. I mentioned to my friends: “One winter I snowshoed in here with a snow shovel and carried ice skates. I cleared a space on the lake and ice skated around for a while until I convinced myself I was cold and not having fun. I think I did it just to say I did it!”

“That sounds like you,” Jeff said.

After tromping up a steep hill to our right (south) about 400 feet, we reached the upper lake, which was still open. We noticed five Barrow’s goldeneye ducks still on the lake. They were named for John Barrow (1764-1848) of the British Admiralty in recognition of his support of Arctic exploration.

On my Hanging Valley Lake goldeneye sightings over the years, they have usually been paired. The most I’ve seen at one time is 16.

“Most of them have probably already left,” I told my friends. “Ice will be covering this lake in just a matter of days. I believe the ducks over-winter on the U.S. West Coast and in Canada.”

We hiked to the far end of the lake for lunch and predictably, the ducks moved away as we came closer.

“There’s an echo here,” I said, demonstrating: “hey over there!” And the quick return: “hey over there!” I mentioned that I’d come to this spot once with my big Newfoundland dog. He barked and then kept on barking because he thought there was another dog on the other side of the lake.

Across the length of the lake looking north we spotted a good-sized bear den dug into the side of the mountain. But with blueberries still on the vine everywhere in the valley, we didn’t expect bears were headed to dens just yet. Thus, we remained alert.

Using binoculars to look above that denning spot and slightly east toward an area called Overlook, I expected to see Dall sheep — or at least footprints in the snow. But none were to be seen.

There was no wind and the temperature felt as if were about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Had we been about an hour later, we would have been blessed by some direct sunlight peeking over the ridge forming the cirque. After a leisurely lunch, with some delicious smoked salmon courtesy of Jeff, we packed up and began hiking out to the trailhead.

Heading down into South Fork Valley and the main trail, the sun began peeking out of the clouds. We agreed this was probably that last “autumn hike” of the year. It was finally time to prepare — mostly mentally — for the long winter ahead.

Getting there:

From Eagle River Loop Road turn onto Hiland Road and drive 7.2 miles into South Fork Valley, then turn right on South Creek Road where there is a Chugach State Park sign. Follow South Creek Road 0.3 mile across the river and turn right on West River Drive. The park entrance and trailhead are on the left. After hiking about two miles and down to the bridge crossing South Fork, hike another ¼ mile where you will find the Hanging Valley trail cutoff, to the left.

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