On December 5 of 2016 the skies were clear, the temperature was about zero degrees Fahrenheit and with only a few inches of dry snow, the trail was good for hiking. But snow-covered tree and bush branches leaned over and devilishly dumped snow on us as we brushed against them. There is nothing more invigorating than snow melting and running down one’s neck when it about zero degrees.
With a constant ski pole tapping, however, we cleared most of the overhanging branches ahead of us as we moved upward.
Pete Panarese and I were on the Austin-Helmers Pioneer Ridge Trail, which begins at Mile 3.9 on the Knik River Road. From sea level it rises up 4.5-miles through boreal forest to alpine tundra, and following a ridge at 5,300 feet, connects with a non-technical route up Pioneer’s south peak, at 6,398 feet.
Our goal for the day was not quite that ambitious, however – only to hike about 2-1/2 miles and roughly 2,600 feet up to the first of four picnic tables that are along the route.
To our north and northeast, on the other side of the Knik River, the Talkeetna Mountains glowed salmon-red in brilliant sunlight.
Since the trail is in the Mat-Su Borough, the Chugach State Park annual pass does not apply. So after depositing the $3 parking fee, we headed uphill at about 12 noon. There were no cars in the parking lot, but a single set of tracks indicated someone had been up the trail recently.
Moving upward, we noticed quite a few Snowshoe hare tracks, and about 30 minutes into the hike we spooked a Spruce grouse from a nearby tree. The ubiquitous Chickadees were active in the area – amazing birds considering how small they are and how well they have adapted to the cold of northern latitudes.
As usual on such outings, a few clothing adjustments were necessary as the exertion warmed our bodies. For me, keeping extremities warm is always a challenge, and I’ve admittedly become quite fond of the chemical warmers – particularly for the hands.
I’ve never experienced serious frostbite. But some minor nips to hands and feet over the years have made them somewhat sensitive.
Some people, and I include myself to some extent, are afflicted with a blood-flow problem called Raynaud’s syndrome. I’ve read that there are some prescribed medicines that relax blood vessels and arteries to improve blood flow. My tried and tested remedy over time has been simply to acquire the warmest hand and footgear available.
We reached the picnic table in about 2-1/2 hours and quickly geared up for the inevitable “cool down” experienced when stopping for a break. We noticed that the tracks of the lone hiker ended at this table. As I recalled from a previous trip, the table was on a 20-degree slant. In order to use its surface for a short picnic, we both had to employ our best anti-gravity skills. (In a recent contact with the Mat-Su Parks Department, a representative mentioned that an effort will be launched this coming spring/summer to level the table).
Brief history: Along with three others higher up on the mountain, the table was carried in pieces to its location by volunteers with the Colony High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
It’s easy to see why the first table was placed there. The view to the east is spectacular, with the sprawling Knik Glacier ramping up to Mt. Goode, Marcus Baker, and other Chugach Mountain giants.
The Pioneer Ridge trail was blazed back in the 1980s by longtime Alaska resident Austin Helmers, a lifelong outdoorsman and public trails advocate who retired after a 40-year career with the U.S. Forest Service. He worked on the trail project for about 25 years. Although assisted by volunteers with local Mat-Su organizations, such as the Mat-Su Trails Council and Student Conservation Association, as well as the State Forestry Division, he did much of the trail work himself. Helmers passed away in 2010 at the Palmer Veteran’s and Pioneer’s Home at the age of 93.
Having cleared the overhanging tree branches of snow on our ascent, the hike down was a lot easier and faster, taking not much more than an hour back to the parking lot.
With this winter’s lack of snow, I’d planned to start very early with a headlight and make a long day of hiking the 4-1/2 miles up to the ridge, at 5,300 feet, where the view to the south opens up to Eklutna Lake, Eklutna Glacier, Whiteout Glacier, and surrounding peaks.
But I think I’ll save that proposed adventure for a warmer day in the new year, when we have a little more daylight and hopefully, not too much snow.
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@example.com