Early Winter Hikes: Grab ‘em When You Can
There is a transition period before full-‐on winter, for which I’ve coined an acronym—BSS. Don’t be alarmed. It means Before Skis and Snowshoes. This is the period after the first light snowfall, but before the big dump that on most years comes in November, or later.
I’ve been out hiking four times since our first snowfall of roughly four inches, and it’s been relatively easy to get up into the Chugach mountains. And with no snowpack built up as of this reporting date, there has been no threat of avalanche, at least in our general area.
One of my favorite locations for a short hike at this time of the year is to the mountain ridge that is east, or behind, Mt. Baldy. Instead of going straight up and over Baldy, I take the gradual trail through the old Wallace homestead. The trail circles around Baldy and ramps up to the ridge that leads to Blacktail Rocks.
This route is longer but much easier than going directly up and over Baldy. And as anyone who has hiked with me will testify, I am always doggedly seeking the easiest way.
On some years, even after heavier snows, people tromp out the trail, making it relatively straightforward to access the ridge without snowshoes-‐-‐where sunshine can be found-‐-‐even on our shortest winter days.
On October 26 of this year, I took that route. Traction was good all the way up to the ridge, thanks to my Kahtoola micro-‐spikes. I met a couple on their way back down the mountain, and the woman mentioned she wished she had invented them.
I’ve seen folks wearing Kahtoolas in the Grand Canyon during winter months and in an unlikely place, Hawaii, where mud can become as slick as ice. Today, the micro-‐spikes are everywhere.
There were a few people on Baldy and a couple out on the ridge. Aside from a few knee-‐high snowdrifts, hiking was easy as I moved east on the ridge and took in the view of South Fork, Meadow Creek Valley, and the big mountains at the upper (south) end of Eagle River Valley. Thinking I might see a moose, I glassed the Meadow Creek area with binoculars, but only spotted tracks.
I leisurely hiked out to the base of Blacktail Rocks to find a lunch spot, where I was passed by a fleet-‐footed hiker and his dog. They climbed up to Blacktail’s the first pinnacle and soon returned back past me.
“Nice day,” I commented. “Yeah,” he replied. “Didn’t feel like going all the way up.”
The Alaska Range giants—Denali and Foraker—were prominent on the northern horizon, but not illuminated properly for a photo.
“I’ve become spoiled,” I thought to myself. “I want them both painted in pink alpenglow, with perhaps a moose silhouetted in the foreground, or maybe a full moon hanging in the sky.”
In the past, I’ve seen ptarmigan near Blacktail Rocks. I recall being up there on a cold winter day a few years ago when I had to pull out my 700-‐weight goose down coat. I felt “all puffed up.” To my surprise, there was a lone ptarmigan sitting nearby whose feathers were so fluffed out that he looked like a round white ball, slightly bigger than a softball.
“Great minds think alike,” I chuckled to myself.
Hesitant to leave: Predictably, a light wind began to blow from the southeast in mid-‐afternoon, and it seemed like a good time to head back home. I was reluctant to leave, however, because as the sun gets lower the light often gets nicer. I would have stayed for the sunset had I remembered to bring my headlamp.
This long and generally flat ridge is a destination I’ll revisit throughout the winter, simply to catch a glimpse of the sun. Fully exposed to the south, the area receives about 3-‐1/2 hours of direct sunlight on the shortest winter day.
Frank E. Baker is an ECHO Alaska news team member and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: email@example.com