The Moss Campion

We could see it from 50 feet away as we descended off the summit cone of Camp Robber Peak. There, just beyond the last boulders of the ridge bloomed a small mound of Moss Campion. Despite the overcast, the purple mound shone on the brown shingle slope, unprotected by any boulder and not even half-hidden below or behind a dimple of dirt or a few small stones. No other plant grew anywhere in sight. All alone it bloomed on that smooth, exposed slope.

Such starting sights of thriving plant life occur rarely above 5,000 feet in Alaska. On a sunny day this high landscape, made up of mountains composed of rock, dirt snow, and ice, appears bright and big, but not beautiful as much as austere, a grand and hard landscape of big mountains and big glaciers, of loose rocks and ledges, of crevasses and cliffs, of avalanches and rock slides, and of snow and rain and battering winds overhead. In this hard land lived goats and sheep, an occasional vole, and a rare bird or two—and sporadic blotches of lichen and clumps of Moss Campion.

Approaching the summit ridge of Camp Robber Peak

Leah and I had come up into this world but for to stand on the top of Camp Robber Peak. We began far below, in the green lowlands at the beginning of Crow Pass Trail. The first miles of hiking took us up through a landscape of alders and meadows, of blooming flowers and fleeing marmots, of chirping birds and circling hawks.

A mile after crossing over Crow Pass and starting down Raven Creek valley, we turned off the main trail onto a narrower trail. After climbing up and around a corner a quarter mile above we entered the Clear Glacier valley.

Climbing toward the Clear Glacier valley

But we could not yet see Clear Glacier. That big chunk of ice still lay out of sight up and around the end of the valley. We still had a mile or more of climbing through the green world below before we would even catch our first glimpses of that glacier.

Within a quarter mile the low brush and grasses of the valley floor began to mix with more strands of rocks and boulders. Within another few hundred yards, after turning a corner coming in sight of the snout of the glacier 500 feet above, the brush gave way to more rocks. As we crossed the upper end of the valley, hopping numerous glacier-fed streams as we went, the brush gave way to rocks, sometimes big slabs of ice-scraped and shaped bedrock.

9 Crossing one of the run-off creeks of Clear Glacier

Then after crossing one luckily lingering snowfield over the final and largest stream we started up the 100-foot wide gully leading to Steamroller Pass. Rolling over into the cirque at the top of the gully, we passed only one patch of tundra—a 100-foot-square area fed by springs in its midst.

Climbing into the cirque above this tundra we left what the last of the green world below and entered the world of snow and rock. First we wound our way up wide troughs of snow dropping down through the high rock piles in the base of the cirque. Eventually we climbed above the shaded snow below and began final climb up the rock headwall to the wide pass above.

On Steamroller Pass

Upon reaching the pass and looking over the fluted far side, we saw, some 4 miles away, beyond the sheer-walled gorge of the pass, the green expanse of the upper Bird Creek drainage.

From the pass we swung left and crossed a wide bowl toward the humpbacked summit of Camp Robber Peak. After a high and airy traverse over the humpback we stood on the summit.

Raven Glacier from Crow Pass

From there we looked out over an unrolling chaos of glaciers, peaks, and ridges extending away from us to the hazy horizon in all directions. Some of the nearby peaks, like Crow Peak and Magpie Peak, rising just across the upper end of Clear Glacier to our immediate south, rose in ragged detail into the sky. Other peaks, like the Front Range, visible some 15 miles due west beyond the Ship Creek drainage, lost all detail with distance. Still others, like the great 7,000-footers rising on the far side of the Eagle River 10 miles to the north, maintained their imposing presence through their sheer massive size of piled rock and hanging snows. Only to the southwest did the mountains give way to water, the gray, cold waters of Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet stretching into the indistinct distance.

The sense of self diminishes to near nothing when confronted with such a chaos of size and power unfolding on all sides for such great distances. We did not speak much in the presence of such powers.

Then it came time to descend. After taking some care descending the steep and rocky summit cone, we reached the saddle below and began crossing to the far side. Then the Moss Campion, blooming just below the far end of the saddle, caught the eye. So bent on our destination, we passed just below it on our way up earlier.

Looking down the far side of Steamroller Pass

Now, looking down and across the saddle, it made its presence obvious. On such a dull and cloudy afternoon its purple color shone like a small bright island on the brown shingle slope. A few moments later we stood above it.

It seemed wondrous finding such a small, solitary plant on such a high, windy-scoured ridge. Its very existence gave mute testament to the persistence of life—the will to simply survive. The exceptional (meaning different, not better) creature wants more than to merely survive. Such creatures usually have more intelligence, which means they seem to require more stimulation—stimulation such as dolphins find in playing with a piece of drifting plastic, dogs find in chasing balls, and humans find in watching TV.

But all creatures do desire to survive and often show astounding persistence in doing so. The Emperor Penguin in the Antarctic winter, the water snakes at the bottom of black oceans, the chamois on the sheer slopes of the Alps, and a cactus in the Sonoma Desert all show this persistence—as did this little purple clump of Moss Campion on a ridge of Camp Robber Peak. It just needed (wanted?) a little sun and a little water to persist as it does. One might even admire having so few needs and yet so great a will.

Crow Pass in the late evening on the hike out

Some four hours later as the time approached midnight Leah and I arrived back at the car. We had had a day worth remembering, but not just because of the length of the day, the long climb, and the views from the summit, but also because of a small purple plant surviving as best it can, as it only knows how, high on a bare ridge.

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Cloud shadows in Grubstake Gulch

The landscape shifted constantly, as fast as minute to minute, and even moment to moment. One moment the ridge spread out from my feet in a glow of green tundra. The next moment it lay under a veil of gray shadow.  And as the earth shifted, so did the sky shift. One only had to look around to see its many moods. Directly overhead moved billowing white clouds. To the southeast loomed two high, charcoal thunderclouds. Seven miles to the east rain fell in gray sheets over Government Peak. Twenty-five miles to the west sunlight filled the length of the Susitna River valley. Fifty miles to the west, though, banks of slate clouds hid the closest summits of the Alaska Range. Nor to the south could one see Anchorage or Cook Inlet for the curtain of washed lead that dropped in the way.

Lingering snow from a spring avalanche

As so many philosophers going all the way back to Heraclitus have told us again and again things change continuously. One does not often witness it so graphically, though. On a hike or climb the weather usually stays relatively constant: If you start out under a cloudy day it usually remains a cloudy day. If you start out on a sunny day it usually remains a sunny day. If either day changes it usually does so once, with clouds dispersing to sunshine or sunshine disappearing behind clouds. Thus a day can change, thus, in turn, changing the mountains.

We also see mountains change from season to season. Buried under snow and ice in winter, carpeted in green in the summer, and cloaked in yellow in the fall. We also know they change over larger spans of time, rising with the shifting of continents and falling in long slow periods of erosion. We know they change due to the lashing of water and wind and the pushing and pulling of glaciers and earthquakes.

Fair weather clouds moving over Bald Mountain Ridge

We know all that but this change occurred almost too quickly, an all too immediate reminder of time passing. The changes on Bald Mountain Ridge (the long ridge just north of Wasilla) occurred rapidly with the light coming and going and the wind rising and falling in the shifting light. And it occurred over many hours.

Thunderheads over Matanuska Peak (on the left) and Pioneer Peak (on the right) with Knik Glacier in between

And as the light and wind came and went, so did the mountains appear to change beneath them. Off to the northeast two towering thunderclouds framed the darkened snout of Knik Glacier. To the south another long line of heavy clouds hung over the brim of the Chugach Mountains. To the north rank after rank of billowing cumulus clouds extended over the Talkeetna Mountains, their shadows rolling over ridges and summits as they moved. Though brought about by the mere movement of light and wind, such sights created both an exhilarating and disconcerting mood as the hours passed and the views came and went.

Most people would agree that the appearance of permanence, the illusion created by slow change, makes one comfortable. Few like their schedules or routines changed or disrupted. Changing shifts, starting new semesters, moving to a new city all nudge us off-center to varying degrees. Then time passes and we adjust to a new schedule or routine. Things once more take on the appearance of permanence.

The ridge leading north to Hatcher Pass

Thus the rapid changes occurring around me on the ridge did not change or disrupt the hike as much as my sense of it. Moving through a world in seemingly too much flux made it seem like one should hurry a little bit and linger a bit less. Yet no reason dictated the need to heed this small tug of urgency. Though the day had already begun to wax toward evening when I reached the first summit of Bald Mountain after climbing up from Hatcher Pass Road, enough light would stay to hike all night. In addition, I could see my entire 14-mile route around the rim of Grubstake Gulch.

Looking south across Palmer Hay Flats to torm clouds over the Chugach Mountains

But as I moved along the ridge the changes around me began to slow. The winds stilled and the clouds dispersed, making the day seem calmer, slower. And as the day slowed, I slowed, feeling less need for hurry.

As I turned around the upper corner of the gulch and began rising toward the last and highest summit, the terrain turned more rugged. Some short gullies and narrow ledges needed the use of hands to climb. The last few hundred feet to the summit, though, proved a gentle walk up a broad slope.

The highest point on the ridge

As the long shadows of night began to fill the valleys I paused on the summit for a few moments in to look at the low light glancing off mountains and ridges. Then I started my descent into the darkening upper end of the gulch. After a 500-foot descent I dropped down an embankment onto an old mining roads climbing high into the valley.

Finally back on a trail (mining road) in Grubstake Gulch

That left but a 3-mile hike under a now clear sky to reach the car. The road took me along two old deserted mines. They too have changed: once places of noisy activity, they now stood as silent reminders of days of yore when people climbed into these hills searching gold and not adventure. Now only the sound of the creek 200 feet down to the right filled this valley with noise.

As I neared the bridge across Willow Creek, a grouse jumped out to lead me away from her chicks hidden in the brush.

“Don’t worry, mom, I won’t bother your kids.”

Self-portrait on the descent into Grubstake Gulch

But she kept zigzagging down the trail with wings extended and beak a-squawking. When she finally veered off the trail, giving me one last squawk, there again remained only the sound of the stream and my shoes shuffling down the road.

After my passing only the sound of the stream would remain—the only apparent constant in this world of change, at least constant for the remainder of the night before a new day brought new changes to the ridges and mountains rising toward the changing sky above.

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Looking from the cirque across the valley to Raven Glacier

A tide of golden light rushed over the landscape when the sun emerged in the late summer evening from behind two of the few clouds in the sky. Just before dipping behind the north ridge of Crow Peak some 2,400 feet above and behind Crystal Lake, it dropped below the clouds. Its rays immediately dispersed the shadow on the dark wall on the opposite side of the valley lit the slope with emerald and amber light. Then, only moments later, the sun dropped below the ridge, the light disappeared, and the wall sank back into shadow.

In the sudden chill the sun left behind, I rose from the grass beside the lake’s outlet where I had stopped for one last break and turned to my pack. But instead of reaching for my pack, I took a step back. There, less than 20 feet away, a full-grown goat stood perched on 5-foot boulder at the edge of the clearing.

“Good evening, goat,” I said after recovering from the surprise.

He looked down at me silently. Then, as I again reached for my pack, he turned and slowly sauntered away, its rear swinging behind it as it climbed into the tundra on the far side of the trail.

Then a clattering of stones came from above. High on the steep  face nunatak above descended three other goats Hopping from ledge to gully to boulder,, they made their winding way down, dropping stones as they descended.

Climbing back onto the trail, I turned to watch them as they zigzagged down toward me. Then I turned down the trail leaving them to their world—a world we can only visit.

We can visit this world for a day, a few days, maybe a month, but to do so we have to carry so much of our world with us. And when we run out of what we carry we eventually must leave. I had only come for a dozen or so hours. Now the time had come to return to our world, but not before climbing to a remote corner of their world.

Near the crest of Crow Pass

One would not immediately think that hiking in Crow Pass would allow access to a remote spot, but while most people stay on the trail below some venture into the heights above. Some climb Jewel Mountain and Summit Peak above the east side of the pass. Some climb Crow Peak and Camp Robber Peak on the west side of the pass or venture over Paradise Pass to Grizzly Lake at the headwaters of East Fork Ship Creek. Those that make such climbs often cross paths with no other people.

Self portrait from the crest of the cirque

I had scrambled into a shallow but steep cirque tucked between Clear Glacier and Crow Pass. Though many people hiked Crow Pass Trail, upon leaving the trail and clambering up the steep tundra toward the rocks above I left all people behind. I would not cross paths with anyone until dropping onto the trail again for the hike out.

A precariously rooted flower

But evidence of people’s passing did mark this upper valley. At the upper end of the cirque, above the last tundra in the high world of rocks and snow, highlighted by an occasional lone flower or weed, a plastic water bottle—still full—lay among the rocks.

 

Looking out across Clear Glacier

Above this lone bottle the slope of loose stones and gravel slanted steeply upward for 500 feet to a serrated ridge top. After a very laborious scramble I stood atop that ridge looking down and across the white and blue expanse of Clear Glacier and the long hump of Camp Robber Peak silhouetted against the sky at its uppermost corner on the far side.

Then I turned up the ridge, slowly made my way among the rocks and ledges to the crest of the next buttress. Down 2,000 feet to the left nestled the waters of Crystal Lake and the Crow Creek valley dropping into the. Over 1,000 feet down to the right unfolded Clear Glacier. Behind me the knife-edge ridge I had just climbed pointed far down the Raven Creek valley toward Eagle River and Mount Yukla and the great 7,000-foot peaks stretching away to the snow-peaked horizon.

Up here, in the land of rocks and ice, of little water and much wind, we can stay for but an even shorter time. If we have hiked the equipment up this far, we might stay a night or two. But lack of water and food will eventually drive us back to the lowlands. Having neither enough food nor the water, and certainly not enough warm clothes and no shelter, my short time in this high country quickly ran out.

Turning around, I began making my way back the way I had come, glissading down snowfields when possible, having to clamber over rocks when necessary, dropping back out of the long sunlight of evening on the high ridges into the cool shadows of the valleys.

Just after reaching the trail, I heard voices. Moments later, three bare-breasted young men, each carrying a beer, came over a rise in the trail. We talked for a moment, them asking about the river crossing, me wondering why the mosquitoes didn’t plague their bare skin. Then we parted company, each heading down to our own place of rest for the night.

Looking south down on Crystal Lake (on the left) and Crow Glacier

Crystal Lake lay deep in shadow when I stopped beside it. The hut on its shore seemed empty. There, after a quiet moment beside the lake’s outlet, and then rising to the surprise meeting with the goat, I bid the goat goodnight. Then I turned down toward my distant place of rest, leaving the goat to his world—at least until the first people started up the trail tomorrow.

The last light of the day

“Enjoy the quiet,” I told him as we looked back at each one last time.  He then turned toward the other goats descending the rocks above him as I turned down the trail. They could now reclaim the world in which they lived and which we only visit.

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On the crest of the ridge above Turnagain Pass

The sun reflected fiercely off the snow spreading out around me like a coat of soft, wet enamel. Sunglasses would’ve helped. Even partially shielding my eyes with the cup of my right hand glare off the snow stung as I circled along the rim of the deep cirque dropping away on my right.

On such a bright, warm day—one of the few in many weeks—it seemed surprising to see no other life than the greening flora on this high ridge above the west side of Turnagain Pass. Other than the labor of my breathing and the squish of my feet in the snow, nothing else moved or made a noise. No hawk hovered overhead; no vole scurried over the ridge nearby; not even a bug buzzed in the tundra underfoot. I had the ridge all to myself, creating a unique feeling of solitude—hiking alone in a very big place.

The next ridge to the west

The next ridge to the west

At the far end of the cirque, snow gave way to tundra. Dropping my hand from my eyes, I began climbing the upper edge toward the summit of the next buttress on the ridge.  Arriving at the summit I found it under another sheet of snow.

Looking down the wind-packed berm hanging over its far edge, one could see 2,000 feet down into the Seattle Creek valley and then up the far side to a serrated wall of 4,000-peaks rising against the blue, cloudless west sky.

Self-portrait on the way to the highest buttress

Having now reached the top of this buttress, the goal since it first came in sight when I climbed onto the back of the ridge, I did not want to end the hike yet.  A whole lot of high country still extended about me. I only needed the flimsiest of reasons (if I needed one at all) to continue hiking. On the far side of the buttress I found that reason. Across the next cirque beyond this summit there loomed another, higher buttress. So the ridge drew me onward and upward.

Passing around the next cirque I hazarded a couple of approaches to its thickly corniced edge.  Avalanche debris below the 15-foot-wide cornice made me cautious, but a solid wall of snow at one point held me long enough to take some pictures of this still deeply snowed north flank of the ridge. I shook my head at the power of the sun and wind: In just over a quarter mile, from the east side of the ridge above Turnagain Pass to this west side of the ridge above Seattle Creek, one passed from green tundra to avalanching snow.

At the far side of the cirque the snow again gave way to tundra. And, again, upon approaching the summit of this buttress I climbed alongside another berm of snow hanging off far side.

The lone ptarmigan on the ridge

Rounding over the final few steps to the top, a small, quick movement pulled my eyes down and to the left. There, 20 feet away, a ptarmigan fluttered in a hollow of snow. With the sun behind it, it its form made distinct silhouette against the snow.

 

As it surprised me, so did I seem to surprise it. I stopped as it hopped across the snow. It lifted into the air seeming bent on flight but flew only tight circle before skittering back to where it started. As long as I kept my distance, it stayed. To think it reluctant to leave a fellow sentient being would amount to pathetic fallacy, but one could not help thinking such a thought in the solitude we shared.

Then I cooed to it. It whistled in return.

I took another slow step towards it. Twice more it lifted from the snow as if to flee, and both times it rose into the air only to circle quickly back to the same spot. Then it hopped two steps, as if to take flight again, but it did not. Warily, it seemed torn between the need for safety in flight and the desire to stay. In the end, as I made no further movement towards it, it stayed.

So for a moment we shared the ridge.

Cornice on the north side of the ridge with Pyramid Mountain and Turnagain Arm in the background

After watching it for a few minutes, I left it to its solitude and walked the few steps to the far side of the buttress to take a break and look back down from where I’d come.

Down the valley to my left flowed Seattle Creek. Down the valley to my right flowed Ingram Creek. Together, after flowing more than 8 miles from where I sat, they passed on either side of side of Pyramid Mountain rising at the far end of the ridge. Just beyond that mountain they reached the waters of Turnagain Arm. On the far side Turnagain Arm the Twentymile River valley reached for another 15 miles into the high, heavily snowed Chugach Mountains. Over toward Portage to the northeast rose the tell-tale hump of Maynard Mountain. Nearer to the east rose Tincan Mountain and Kickstep Mountain.

It then seemed time to go, but not to hurry the going. In a long, leisurely curve along the back of the ridge I followed a very indirect way down through the wide views extending from the quiet ridge.

Returning to the green world below

Upon reaching the highest brush, I unexpectedly flushed two more ptarmigan into the air. These two, having no need for me, darted across the snow just below me, their brown and white mottled wings flashing in the sunlight against the green spruce forests 1,000 feet farther below.

Now, as long as I trended downwards, the hike would eventually, a bit reluctantly, come to an end. One, after all, rarely has a ridge almost entirely to one’s self.

The sense of solitude experienced in so big a landscape can really get into the brain and bones and make one never want to leave it behind and above.  But at least I had the memory of sharing a few moments with a lone ptarmigan to carry with me back into the crowded lowlands below.

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On one of the last, long days of spring the evening light splashed over the ridges and valleys as the winds above south Anchorage hurried the clouds above.  Beneath those clouds a long line of hikers weaved their way up the west ridge of McHugh Peak.

This hiking group, the Reformed Sisters-In-Sloth, hike every Tuesday night during the course of the summer, but the Tuesday of the week of the Summer Solstice has turned into a tradition. On that Tuesday they climb McHugh Peak.

Though not the tallest mountain in the Front Range of the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage, McHugh Peak can easily lay claim to the title of most massive mountain. Its broad base, covering more square mileage than any other peak in the range, stretches from Turnagain Arm to the south and Rabbit Creek to the north and from Bear Valley to the west and Rabbit Lake to the east. This geography results in a variety of routes to choose from when climbing it—up to five or six if you know the mountain well. And those who own property anywhere along the base of the mountain can usually include at least one more option.

One of these private property options begins in the backyard of two long-time members of the group, Clarence and Maureen.  Their private trailhead, beginning on the slope in their backyard option marks the beginning of this yearly Solstice hike.

At 6 pm, the usual departure time for all Tuesday-evening hikes, the group began filing up the trail. Before long the group of some 20-plus hikers, along with numerous dogs, formed a long line along the trail. Some moved small clusters of four or five hikers. Others moved up the mountain in singles or pairs. Once above tree line one could see this long colorful bead of hikers stretching up the ridge as the wind moved the light across the landscape about them.

After about an hour some begin to turn around.  Others linger in small groups, deciding how much farther to go. Nor does it matter how far anyone goes. Everyone just goes as far their ambition carries them.

As the first “sisters” returned to the house, they settled into the annual barbecue capping off this annul hike. As people ate, the beer and wine ran freely while dogs looked on longingly. Those lucky enough to wander off-leash even managed to scrounge some tidbits.

Unfortunately, one hiker ankle broke during the climb but fellow “sisters”, including a doctor and some members of a ski patrol, got her down safely and saw her off to the hospital.

Near 10 pm the last three hikers, some of the few that had actually climbed the near 2,500 feet up the ridge and across the plateau beyond to the summit (4,301 feet), join the party.

By that time the partying had reached only its halfway point. Not until well after 11 pm, with the broken rays of the sun still streaking down through the gray ceiling over the outer edge of the Anchorage peninsula Cook Inlet beyond, did the party dissolve. Then, with final adieus, the last of us parted in the dimming light of the descending short night.

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Above the Fuller Lake valley

It befuddles the brain as to why the bureaucratic powers that decide such things dubbed these mountains the Mystery Hills. First, on a mere technical level, by definition a hill has an elevation of less than 1,000 feet above sea level. Once over 1,000 feet high it turns into a mountain. Yet each of the eight substantial “hills” of the Mystery Hills range rise from well over 2,000 feet to just over 3,500 feet above sea level.

Second, it remains a mystery as to why they seemed mysterious to someone. Standing out in plain view, they have little mystery about them. Though small, this range rising just north of Skilak Lake, this small range consists of the last summits of the Kenai Mountains before they drop into the lake-dotted flatland of the western Kenai Peninsula. This means that when driving up Sterling Highway from Soldatna, you would have them in sight for close to 40 miles before passing along their southern flank.

Looking back across the traverse with Skilak Lake and the Alaska Range in the background

In regards to these first questions, perhaps someone thought that compared to other Alaska mountains, this small, short range seemed mere “hills” by Alaska standards. Perhaps someone also thought of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour—for they do make for a rather magical tour over many hills above some wide-spread country with some very long views. From the summits of many of the Mystery Hills one can see from Denali to the north and down towards Homer in the south. It took a recent hike with some friends for me to rediscover such mysteries for myself.

After a gray and windy May, spring seemed to have finally arrived as eight of us started up Skyline Trail leading up into the westernmost Mystery Hills. Under a blue sky and a hot sun we climbed methodically above tree line. Sweating in the green woods seemed a novelty compared to the previous month.  After popping above tree line the trail reached its uppermost end at a saddle between the first two hills from which we could then look north across the Mystery Creek flats to Cook Inlet.

On the saddle at the uppermost end of Sklyline Trail

From the saddle, a well-traveled trail carried us up and across the slope of a large bowl to where we passed over a lingering cornice of snow onto the ridge. A short windy climb then led us onto the long summit of the highest peak in the western Mystery Hills (3,295 feet).

Here three people in our party decided to turn around. The other five of us, though, had only just begun our tour. But we did not begin before a good rest taking in the wide views. A number of miles beyond the highway just below us, the great sheet of the near-15-mile-long Skilak Lake wound around Skilak lake Overlook. To the east the Kenai Mountains rolled away in ranks of snowy ridges, while to the west we could look close to 100 miles out to the snow-capped volcanoes Mounts Illiamna and Mount Redoubt rising out of the haze of Cook Inlet. To the north we could see the farthest, looking past Mount Susitna all the way to Denali and Mount Foraker—almost 250 miles away. All of this amounted to a very long and wide view, indeed.

More immediately at hand, and of more immediate concern, from this summit we could also see almost the entirety of our route along the 10-mile big horseshoe-shaped ridge that swung south before turning north to the broad-backed ridge miles across the valley between us. Far below the other side of that ridge lay Upper Fuller Lake and the trail we would walk back out to the highway.

After our short break, we began our hike through those hours. As we hiked in and out of some big hollows gaps in the ridge, picking our steps carefully down before slowly trudging up the other side, the scattered clouds came and went overhead, bringing alternate periods of cooling winds and hot sunshine. The hours didn’t matter much, though, as the long day slowly passed. What mattered was the faint trail leading us forward, up and down over bare hill after bare hill. At a certain point, now thoroughly immersed in the journey, we simply stopped counting them.

In the late afternoon we reached the edge of the deepest gap in the ridge, a gap that dropped back below tree line. From that lowest point in the long ridge, we started the steep climb up to the highest point on that long ridge—the broad, hump-backed ridge we had looked across the valley at during our first break.

When we reached the top we could finally look down on Upper Fuller Lake and the final miles of our hike. Here a particularly chilly north wind picked up as a large cloud moved overhead. For the first time all day, the hour seemed late.

Descending the back of the last ridge with Mount Susitna on the center horizon

The light cast our long shadows behind us as we moved down the spine of the ridge to where we could drop east into the Fuller Lake drainage. In the spruce and willows below we came upon an old trail that we followed through bogs and spruce and willow out to Upper Fuller Lake. After a boggy walk down the west shore, we reached Fuller Lakes Trail. Then it only remained to follow that out through the hot, golden evening back to the highway.

By the time we had wound over all the summits between trailhead for Skyline Trail to the parking area for Fuller Lakes Trail we had hiked close to 18 miles and climbed over 6,000 feet—making for a quite a full day. And what a day we had. Yet on this fine summer day we had only seen one party of four people on the ridge. Now that seems mysterious, considering the journey these “hills” offer.

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3 Sheep below Twin Peaks

Karma saw it first. We had just turned around on the rocky riverbed of Eagle River and headed back to shore, when she sensed something and turned around and froze, looking intently up and across a thin braid of the river. There a grizzly moved casually across the shingled flats. Even from 250 yards away we could see its wide, powerful haunches swinging back and forth behind its black and brown head. By grizzly bear standards not big, making it seem perhaps a year or so old. Still, big enough.

I called Karma back to my side. Then, for a long moment I stood watching it.

Its presence stopped time. Its movement changed the landscape. The entire world immediately around us—the bare woods on either shore standing free of snow and the wind and mists blowing through the still snow-covered mountains, massive 5,000-, 6,000-, and 7,000-footers, overhead —served only to frame the bear.

For a brief moment I thought about turning right around and climbing with Karma back into the trees. If it saw us moving away, though, it might charge. If so, it would overtake us in a matter of seconds.  Given the distance and the water between us, it seemed best to warn it of our presence and stand our ground.

An impressive bear print on Rippy Trail

“Hey, bear!” I yelled.

It stopped. It half-rose into a crouch and looked toward us. Rocking its head back and forth, it seemed trying to count and judge. Then it dropped back to all fours. We waited.  But it didn’t charge. Instead, it turned and ran. We watched it lumber quickly back to the far shore. There it paused, looking back once, before climbing slowly into the woods.

Karma took a step towards it.

“No!” I ordered.

She turned and we climbed back into the trees on the near side.

So spring has come.

3 Sheep on ridge near Peak POW_MIA

Now until next winter anyone venturing into the wilds of Alaska becomes part of the food chain. That first bear of the season only reminded one of that fact.

Usually—and I stress usually—grizzly bears want little to do with us humans. If we allow them enough space and time, they will usually run from us. Many times I have come across evidence—such as fresh scat or prints—that indicated a bear, upon hearing someone coming, skedaddled. A number of other times I have, with much relief, watched the rear ends of grizzlies, both males and sows with their cubs disappear out of sight after they heard us coming.

Once, on a near 24-hour climb of Mount Rumble at the headwaters of Peters Creek, Jim Sayler, Niles Woods and I came to the edge of a hanging valley which dropped to Peters Creek. Looking 500 vertical feet down the lip of the hanging valley we saw a sow and two cubs by the creek.

To warn her of our presence, Jim called out, “Hey, bear!””

Even with the noise of the creek, that sow’s head jerked around and looked right up at us. All three of us knew of bears’ incredible senses of smell and hearing. Still, her sudden and exact pinpointing of our location knocked all three of us back on our heels.

She didn’t charge us, though. We had given her enough space to gather up her two cubs and crash across the creek. But one cub wouldn’t follow her across the deep, swift creek. She had to cross back two times before this second cub finally followed her across. All the while, we stood watching with wonder as this sight unfolded below us. Five minutes after she and her brood disappeared around the front of Mount Rumble we started down off the lip of the hanging valley.

We do, however, remain on a black bear’s diet. As a result, they sometimes investigate our presence, sizing us up for a possible meal. Often they just leave us alone, often fleeing from us, and sometimes just ignoring us, seemingly aware of the fact that while we may prove too difficult to kill, neither can we easily kill them—making for a rather nervous balance of power. But a hungry bear can do desperate things. Many people have reported the eerie and scary experience of having a black bear stalk them. Some people get attacked and killed after such a stalking. Others sometimes successfully fight the bear off, proving to the bear that they will take too much effort and trouble to make a meal of them. In some ways this proves a relief: we can seemingly fight back by yelling, throwing rocks, swinging sticks, and generally making ourselves seem too dangerous to attack.

A wolf below Harp Mountain

Wolves will also eat humans, but usually—and, again, I stress usually—only in packs. I have come across solitary wolves a number of times in the wilds, making for a usually and spooky experience. Once while climbing a steep grass gully behind Harp Mountain in the central Chugach, I had such an encounter.

As the gully rounded up into the notch at the top of the ridge I sensed something watching me. Turning around, I saw less than 100 yards away, a wolf standing in a snowfield eyeing me, perhaps weighing me up.

As it stood, I managed to click one or two pictures of it. Without a telephoto lens, the photos make it hard to differentiate it from a dog. If one could have seen it turn away and turn down the valley on the opposite side of the ridge, they would know it a wolf. It had that unmistakable easy lope by which wolves move over the landscape, seeming without effort gobbling up big chunks of terrain in but a few hours.

I have seen many other wolves and bears up close, which always makes the heart go pitter patter. Luckily, I have only seen wolves traveling alone and not in a pack. I think if I happened into the ken of a pack I might not now sit here writing.

Many a moose has charged me. Many a tarn has dive-bombed me. And even one or two black bears have stalked me.

Some of these fellow creatures acted to defend their young. Some acted to make me lunch. They would have acted the same in confronting most any creature. The bones of many creatures that one comes across in the wilds—sheep, moose, caribou, rabbits, birds, and fish—remind us again and again of this fact. To them homo sapiens remain just another creature of the wilds—rare in some places and now far less vulnerable than millenniums ago—but still just another creature. We may make some bears more wary of us and some wolves choose not to attack us, but that doesn’t make us any less a part of the food chain—just an uncommon link in it.

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“Tis a month before the month of May,
And the Spring comes slowly up this way.” (“Cristabel” by S. T. Coleridge)

Climbing the lower trail

Turn north and the headwind ripped at the clothes and numbed the face. Turn south and the sun blinded the eyes. Merely by turning 180 degrees one felt the temperature rose from 15 to over 40 degrees. So does April make apparent its two faces. When the sun shines, glaring off the snow, heating the air, and reddening the face, the month smiles benignly. But when the north wind blows, cutting through the air, and freezing the eyelashes, the month frowns most frowardly. It can switch from one to the other in one day to another, or from one to the other in one day. As Karma and I discovered on the crest of big, fat crest of Bald Mountain Ridge, it can also switch if you just turn around.

As we started up through the still bare woods, the temperature had hovered around freezing. But the views from the open flats along the snowmachine trail gave glimpses of the warmth of the sun in the cloudless sky above. As we trudged north toward the south-facing flank of the ridge, the alabaster snow still lay thick above tree line. Where the last pins of green spruce ended the snow rose, but for a few black rocks, unbroken into the empty blue sky. It looked very inviting.

It took some effort to reach that open high country, though. The higher we climbed, the steeper the trail, and the more grainy the snow underfoot. It felt like climbing a steep dune on a wide beach. Once above tree line, the snow turned crusty, but not crusty enough to hold a human’s weight. Karma could walk easily up the crest, but I wallowed often in deep holes of powder snow.

Approaching the top of Bald Mountain Ridge

Still, for all the labor, it felt good to climb above the last trees the bare heights—until we finally topped the broad crest of the ridge. Just as we topped the last fold of the ridge’s southern flank the full force of the north wind—some 15 mph of cold, blasting air—hit us head-on. Bearing off to the west, we trudged up the last steps to a 100-foot broad plateau overlooking the Palmer-Wasilla valley to the south and the Susitna River valley to the west. There we found a single snowmachiner taking in the view. Donned in a full snowsuit with a helmet on, he could withstand the wind.

With the wind whipping about us, we chose not to linger. After clicking a few quick pictures with numbing fingers, we continued on. For a few minutes we headed north, hoping to get a view down the far side of the ridge. But between the post-holing and the wind, we did not get very far very fast.

Looking south across Knik Arm to Pioneer Peak and the Chugach Mountains

Above us stretched the blue, spotless sky. Around us stretched the rolling rises of the snow-covered ridge. Below us stretched the wide forested and river-mazed valleys.

Snowshoes would’ve made it easy going, but I had none.

Turning to face the warm sun, we started southward, knowing that the brightening days would eventually even calm the north wind’s strength. But one could not force the issue; one could only wait. Spring would climb to these highlands at its own pace.

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Looking down into the Anchorage bowl from Middle Fork Loop Trail

On downloading a pile of pictures taken during January, the last photo seemed odd. Far from remarkable, it showed a view across Cook Inlet in the last light of day with the purple silhouette of the Alaskan Range in a pink sky. Though it had nice colors, it had no obvious form or structure. Neither did it first seem to have any specific subject matter. Then I remembered the ravens.

On that night I had headed into the hills in the hopes of clicking some photos of the full moon. The moon rose late that night, though, long after sufficient light for any photo taken with my small camera had disappeared. I did manage to click some landscape shots, but nothing still hidden moon. As the day dimmed, I clicked a final series of photos of the orange-lighted southwest ridge of Wolverine Peak. Then, as the darkness deepened, I put my camera away, thinking for good.

A few minutes later I dropped into the basin of Middle Fork of Campbell Creek, crossed the bridge, and then turned down through the cottonwoods on the far side. In the deepening evening I heard no sound but the crunch of my shoes in the snow. Five minutes later, the trail led me through a wall of willow out onto the open meadows beyond. Suddenly there spread far below me the many lights of the Anchorage bowl and the purple silhouettes of Mount Susitna and the Anchorage Range rising across Cook Inlet.

In the increasing dark and cold, it seemed now but a matter of reaching the car, some five miles away down on Campbell Airstrip Road. With enough clothes on, good trail to follow, and the moon soon to rise, I looked forward to a pleasant but uneventful hike out.

The west ridge of Wolverine Peak

As I circled around to the front of Wolverine Peak, though, I suddenly heard a confusion of cawing coming toward me. Looking up, I saw a clutch of ravens winging up from the city. Like me heading for the car, they seemed heading for their roost a well-protected copse of cottonwoods hugging the base of Wolverine Peak’s southwest ridge. Stopping, I watched as one clutch of twenty or so flapped upward and around the ridge. A few moments later a few wildly flapping stragglers hurried after their cohorts. Then a hurrying pair passed overhead.

O’Malley Peak on the right and Wolverine Peak on the left

I turned to continue downward, but not before the cawing of another clutch rose from the darkening city below. As they winged overhead, I cawed to them. As if in response (or so my vanity would like to think) this group ceased in their journey upward and began circling directly overhead. Diving and cawing, lunging and cooing, in singles and in pairs, they wound around and around in the dimming light overhead.

One could wax purple, imagining them aware of the passage of time and their attempt to seize the moment. But they probably just wanted to play, not needing any reason as to why. After three or four minutes of continually circling above me their ring began to break apart. The majority soon gathered into a group and continued upward toward Wolverine Peak’s southwest ridge.

Two, however, turned back to the city below. Maybe they wanted to make one last search of the garbage bin behind McDonald’s on Spenard Road. Maybe they wanted one last warming air bath in the roof vents of the Hilton. Maybe they just wanted to fly a little more before returning to the roost. Lifting my camera, I stretched the telephoto lens to its maximum length, and clicked a photo of those two ravens, the last photo I would take that day.

Now, over

The two ravens

three weeks later, I remembered taking this photo. Looking at that photo carefully I could make out in the left center the little silhouettes of those two wayward ravens flapping eastward into the waning light. I remembered then lowering the camera from my eyes and watching them until they passed from sight.

In the great scheme of things seeing a few ravens in the sky may not seem especially wondrous. One usually sees many on most winter days in Anchorage. But at the right moment in the right place, such a sighting makes for a memorable moment. In such a moment one might even imagine seeing into the life of another animal living in the world, a world in which it seemed much more at home in than any of us. Thus did this seemingly unremarkable photo recall a remarkable moment.

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