One day we’re hiking into Hanging Valley-‐-‐ a side valley accessed from the South Fork Valley trail—in a landscape of browns and yellows and reds, the colors of autumn. Overnight, with the first snow of the season, the area is transformed into a world of white.
A week later and with temperatures rising above 40 degrees F., most of the snow melts and it’s back to a rather drab brown and gray landscape. It’s so warm many of the bears refuse to head for their dens.
I think Alaska’s dramatic and often abrupt seasonal changes make life interesting, even if such changes require some preparations and adjustments, as described in an earlier column.
I have a good friend—Kathy Valier-‐-‐ who lives on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where seasonal changes are quite subtle compared to ours. During the winter months, islanders only lose a couple of hours of sunlight, and temperatures (both air and ocean) only decrease by a few degrees. Their most dramatic change, she says, is the monsoon, or rainy period, which generally comes in mid-‐October and lasts through mid-‐April. She mentions that most plants are greener during the winter months because of the abundant rain.
“Because our plants stay active all year, we are more aware of their activity, not quiescence,” she says. “I know it is autumn when the java plum drops its purple olive-‐shaped fruit. Guava is abundant now in people’s yards and gardens, along with breadfruit, limes, and star fruit. Soon there will be oranges and grapefruit, which will last us into spring. Other trees like the Rambutan bear fruit in winter.”
But unlike our southern friends in Hawaii, who sport shorts and t-‐shirts and flip-‐flops year round, October and November mark the time when we Alaskans dig out hats, gloves, warm boots, sweaters, long underwear and down coats and give them prime real estate in our closets. For me, many of these items-‐-‐including Gortex pants and polar fleece jackets, occupy easily accessible hook space in our garage.
Prudent preparation: Eagle River’s first real snowfall of about 3-‐4 inches came October 21-‐. The following day I hiked back into South Fork Valley, headed for Hanging Valley. I carried snowshoes on my pack, but quickly realized they were not needed and stashed them alongside the trail.
It took about three hours to tromp all the way back into Hanging Valley’s upper tarn, which was frozen and covered with snow. Hiking through the new layer of snow was akin to walking on a sandy beach, so it was a bit tiring –yet not nearly as difficult as going that distance in snowshoes.
The sky was clear and the temperature was mild – not any colder than 25 degrees, yet a slight breeze out of the southeast was cooling things down. Unlike some of my early-‐winter hikes in past years, I had my gear dialed in pretty well: warm winter boots, a couple of layers beneath a Gortex jacket, long underwear beneath Columbia nylon pants, medium-‐weight gloves, and a warm wool hat. And at this time of the year, I always take along a headlamp.
The only item I forgot to bring were the Kahtoola microspikes, which would have been handy on the 400-‐foot descent back into Hanging Valley from the upper tarn.
About 2/3 of the hike into Hanging Valley was in the shade. But to my surprise and delight, the sun was shining at the upper tarn, raising the temperature by about five degrees! Thirty minutes later the sun dipped below the cirque ridge, my signal to pack up and begin the hike back out.
There were a lot of ptarmigan and coyote tracks throughout the valley, but I saw no movement as I shuffled back toward South Fork. In late afternoon sun, the mountains were now bathed in pink alpenglow. On my way back I observed two hikers coming into Hanging Valley – the only people I saw all day.
Visual extravaganzas: Each season bestows its own visual feast. In these northern latitudes, spring is a genesis of explosive green; summer brings deepening green and flowers; autumn unfolds with its reds and yellows and browns, and winter dresses the land in white.
In winter, the retreating, low-‐angled sun ushers in long shadows by day and at night, an extravaganza of light, with lingering sunsets that paint the mountain tops crimson. Star and moonlight illuminate the mountain slopes; and with eager anticipation, we look for mesmerizing auroras that sweep the sky.
My friend on the north side of Kauai also notices the shift of light throughout the year.
“Being in the tropics, the sun goes north of us, so that from the end of May through the end of July, shadows fall to the south. I see it on the cliffs behind Hanalei, which are illuminated in the summer and in shadow by August. And there is a more subtle change to the quality of the light in October and the way the air carries sound.”
Kathy adds: “The migration of Pacific Golden Plover, Humpback whales and the nesting seasons of seabirds mark our seasons. In summer the plovers come to you to breed in Alaska, and the Humpbacks come from your seas in the winter to breed here in the warmer water. Albatross nest here in the winter, while shearwaters, and petrels nest here in summer. We also do have ducks that migrate to Hawaii for the winter, including pintails and the occasional snow goose and cackling goose.”
If we venture outdoors often, we might become more sensitive to nature’s ever-‐changing sights and sounds and moods. What sometimes appears as a static, lifeless landscape might reveal something completely unexpected: sunlit plumes of snow blowing off the mountain ridges; an odd-‐shaped array of clouds; the sudden visitation of a raven or magpie; converging animal tracks that offer a beginning to a story that ignites our imagination: how does it end?
Whether in the far north or deep south, the changing seasons invite us to take a break, refocus, and perhaps tune into what they mean to our lives. And if we look long and hard enough, I have no doubt that we will find it.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and Echo news team member who lives in Eagle River. To reach Frank: firstname.lastname@example.org