Frank E. Baker

Autumn rushes past us like a breath of wind. As the sun reclines lower in the sky, the air chills, leaves change into yellows and deepening reds and new snow creeps slowly down the mountains, we pause and look across our changing landscape.

“So little time before winter is upon us,” we reflect. “Where did summer go?”

I’ve been hiking and climbing in southcentral Alaska for quite some time, and I’ve often found that one of the most difficult journeys is from the couch to the door, and from the door to the car. Most people would agree that getting into the outdoors, even for short hikes, is a good prescription for improving and maintaining health. Besides, many of us spend too much time indoors during the long, dark winters. So here are some relatively easy hikes that are close by and don’t require the exceptional fitness of champion runner Ali Ostrander.

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.

With summer upon us, hiking and camping opportunities abound in our vast back yard: Chugach State Park. With nearly one-half million acres, the park is one of Alaska’s premier recreation areas.

The time-weathered road angling up the mountainside was quickly narrowing. Hiking slightly under an elevation of 3,000 feet, I was literally following the footsteps of gold seekers from the last century.

I soon came upon an open adit, or tunnel, where gold ore was taken from the mountain. From this point the raw ore was loaded onto a tramway that transported it about 1,000 feet down the mountain to milling equipment. 

The clouds were dark and a steady southeast wind was whipping up white caps on Eklutna Lake Aug. 24 of this year as I biked back to an old picnic spot where I took my children many years ago.

The lake level was high from August rains and waves lapped up close to the trail, threatening to wash it away as it has done several times over the years.

After more than three hours of steady climbing, I crested the ridge at 6,000 feet and looked over the other side, to the north. The iron-mineralized mountain slopes, composed of what geologists call gypsiferous rock, were bright orange in the mid-afternoon sun. 

The gray, rocky ground ahead of me seemed to be moving. Then I realized the motion came from a family of five Rock ptarmigan, all perfectly camouflaged. Still breathing heavily from the uphill push, I told them in my own brand of ptarmigan-English that I was not a hunter and they had no worries.

We must have spooked the Dall sheep below us, because almost in unison they bolted across the grassy slope and formed into a single line on the ridge to the south.

All lambs and ewes, they moved quickly toward Eklutna Lake, crossing over the next ridge and out of sight.

“It could have been something else below us that we can’t see,” offered my friend Pete Panarese, implying that it might have been a bear.

I confess to being a motivation junkie. I get my fixes from spectacles

like the Olympics, Alaska mountain running events, the Alaska Mountaineering Club (MCA), friends, books and movies.

Admittedly, my primary aim is selfish. Motivation is infectious. The supreme determination that vaults some people to extraordinary heights inspires me to pursue my own goals, however modest by comparison.

There has been plenty of good material written about how to respond to bear attacks. But after having my own share of close encounters with the ursine kind, I prefer total avoidance. And what has worked well for my fellow hikers and me over the years has been to make a lot of racket.

I’ve hiked with people who didn’t want to make noise so they could “see a bear.” That immediately signals to me that they’ve never been charged and felt their heart pounding so hard it felt like it was going to burst out of their chest.