Sunday, May 19, 2019

THE MYSTERY OF THE MYSTERY HILLS

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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