Seizing One Of The Last Autumn Days, A Hike To The Williwaw Lakes
On a cool and crystal clear morning of August 19, Monday, a working day for most people, there was an unexpectedly large number of cars in the Glen Alps parking lot-‐-‐ a popular Hillside gateway to Flattop Mountain and a number of trails in Chugach State Park (CSP). “Doesn’t anyone work, or are people just playing hooky today?” I asked my friend Pete Panarese, who like me, is retired and launches outdoors in good weather every chance he gets. “The weather forecasts are becoming more accurate and people are taking advantage of the one good day predicted for the week,” he offered.
With clear skies and plenty of daylight, we knew we could take our time on the eight-‐mile loop trip that would take us from Glen Alps (Powerline Pass) up and south across a large open area called the Ballpark, near O’Malley Peak; down into the Middle Fork (Campbell Creek) to the Williwaw Lakes, and back out (north) via the Middle Fork trail to Powerline Pass and Glen Alps. “I’m hoping we’ll see some moose when we return on the Middle Fork Trail,” Pete mentioned. The tundra was ablaze in autumn colors and a few blueberries were still there for the picking as we crested the ridge near Little O’Malley Peak and looked south across the broad expanse called “The Ballpark.” After a short break we continued a gradual climb south toward the base of O’Malley Peak, then followed a steep trail down toward the Middle Fork of Campbell Creek. We saw a few people on the trail, but not nearly as many as we thought we would, considering the number of cars in the parking lot.
On our descent we passed Black Lake, a tarn nestled beneath O’Malley Peak’s towering cliffs, and named for its black appearance. At this point in our hike the view of Williwaw Lakes and upper Campbell Creek opened up, including 4,710-‐ foot Mt. Elliot and 5,445-‐foot Mt. Williwaw.
A solemn remembrance: Once on the valley floor, we took another break and luxuriated in the crisp air and brilliant autumn colors. The moment was tempered with sadness, however, as I recalled the ill-‐fated trek of Alaska National Guardsman Nephi Soper, who disappeared this past winter on a hike that began February 18 at Prospect Heights trailhead. His intended 20-‐mile route was through this valley and east over a pass to Long Lake. From there he planned to traverse another pass between Tanaina and Koktoya peaks and descend steeply into Ship Creek Valley and hike out to Arctic Valley.
Soper’s remains were found this summer, June 5, near Tanaina Lake. His cause of death has not been disclosed, but it has been speculated that it could have been attributed to avalanche, injuries sustained in a fall, and/or exposure. There was a snowstorm during his trek through the mountains that would have made an already serious winter hike even more challenging. One can pore endlessly over maps, scan Google Earth until your eyes burn and read hiking books ad infinitum-‐-‐but you don’t truly appreciate how big 495,000-‐acre CSP is until you get out there and hike in it. I was tromping the Chugach Mountains before the park’s inception in 1970, and on every trip I’m still awed by its vastness.
Looking south to the head of the Campbell Creek Middle Fork, I thought to myself: “It is so far. At that point, Nephi Soper’s planned journey was not even half over. And it was in a snowstorm.” As we got back on the trail and headed down-‐valley, I managed to shake off those thoughts and rejoin the mood and spirit of the day. Parts of the trail were muddy, but gazing upon the saffron-‐red mountainsides, we hardly noticed. Nature’s paint brush was everywhere, from the deep-‐green hemlock trees to the yellowish-‐gold willows and aspens.
Trail improvements: Returning to Powerline Pass on the Middle Fork Trail, we noticed significant trail improvements. These included some strategic rerouting of the trail, sturdy boardwalks and bridges, some brush and other trimming, and trail matting. Pete mentioned that the recent work had been done by Alaska Trails Volunteers, led by Anchorage’s Steve Cleary. The group also performed some rehabilitation on the Bird Creek Pass Trail that connects to the North Fork of Ship Creek. Pete’s eagle-‐eye spotted a bull moose on the last mile of our hike, and high on the side of Little O’Malley Peak, we spotted a black bear doing what bears do best at this time of year: munching berries. Living in Eagle River, I don’t get to the South-‐Anchorage trails very often. But every time I do, I’m reminded that it’s good to range away from our own back yards once in awhile. There are other great hiking gems to be found in this incredibly beautiful place that we live.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.
To contact Frank: email@example.com