Aside from seeking some exercise, Pete Panarese and I had only one good reason to tromp up Harp Mountain in South Fork Valley on Dec. 10 of this year: It was simply to enjoy sunlight for a few hours.
Only 11 days away from the Winter Solstice, we knew the sun would only be visible for about 3.5 hours, that is, if we climbed up above the valley to see it. The trail to Harp Mountain begins at the end of Hiland road on the east side of South Fork Valley – in other words, on the opposite side of the valley from the main South Fork trailhead. Park outside of the Fire Lane signs.
It felt like about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and fortunately, there was very little wind as we followed footprints that had been broken through about five inches of snow. Roughly 600 feet up the mountain we met two guys on their way down.
The pair mentioned seeing a sheep near the Harp’s 5,001-foot summit. Along the way, Pete and I saw deep scratches in the snow where the sheep, apparently more than one, had been digging down to get at the grass.
I’ve always been intrigued by how sheep and goats manage to survive our long and harsh winters, especially in their alpine habitats. In addition to putting on considerable weight before winter, it seems they must become adept at locating wind-blown slopes and sheltered areas where they can find grass and other vegetation upon which to browse.
Layers were shed and put back on several times as we moved higher on the ridge, trying to find the exposed rocks of wind-blown areas for better footing. In about 2.5 hours we were at the summit, basking in the alpenglow that was now changing from a dim yellow to pale pink and finally, a deepening red.
Hanging just above the darkened ridge near Temptation Peak, the sun was now creating an ethereal, intoxicating light that painters and photographers dream about. It made me think of former Alaska poet laureate Tom Sexton, who finished one of his poems with the lines: “…at times it is possible, even necessary; to believe we are here for the sake of the light.”
I couldn’t stop taking photos, even though my fingers were turning numb. With the sun slowly dipping behind the mountain, the light’s mood shifted and became more somber.
I’ve probably said it before, but the view from Harp Mountain is among the finest in Chugach State Park. This is especially true considering it is so close to civilization. Far to the north, the peaks of Denali, Foraker, Hunter were illuminated in a deep crimson. To the southeast above Eagle River Valley was Ram Valley and Korohusk peak, then Mount Kiliak and Yukla peak – all aglow in the setting sun.
Directly south was Polar Bear and Eagle peaks; and swinging west to the back of South Fork valley above Symphony and Eagle Lakes were Cantata and Calliope and Triangle peaks. Farther to the west was Anchorage, Cook Inlet, Rendezvous Mountain, Mt. Gordon Lyon and Hiland Mountain.
As reported in one of my earlier articles, the musical names assigned to many of the mountains, glaciers and other natural features in the area came from mountaineers, many of whom were with the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) and were among the first to venture to these places.
Having enjoyed some hot drinks and snacks, we began our gradual descent. We purposefully lingered in the magical light.
But nature had one more show in store for us. A nearly full moon popped up over the ridge behind us. We jubilantly thought we’d descend to the car in moonlight, but it quickly dipped behind the mountain as we descended into South Fork Valley.
In past columns I’ve railed on incessantly about light, but at this time of the year when there isn’t much of it, I feel like it’s a worthy subject. I find it much more uplifting than writing about its opposite – darkness – which will remain omnipresent throughout the rest of December and January.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is a member of The ECHO News and a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. Contact Frank via email at: [email protected]