The sun shone brightly through a thin layer of high clouds October 14 of this year as I slowly plodded up Twin Peaks Trail above Eklutna Lake.
It was early afternoon, and the difference between sunny and shady areas was notable. In the warm sunny spots, an early morning frost was melting off the trail, leaving a thin layer of mud. In the shade, the trail was frozen solid.
Now 8-1/2 months after total knee replacement, I decided to put the new unit to the test by extending my hike beyond the gradual 2-1/2-mile trail that ends at the second wooden bench. From there I would follow the more primitive trail upward and south about a half of a mile to connect with the ridge the provides a great view of Eklutna Lake and rugged mountains huddled to the south. That ridge ultimately leads to Pepper Peak, at 5,450 feet, which is a strenuous but worthwhile climb if you are prepared for scrambling.
It was a Saturday, so I expected to see quite a few people. Hiking deeper into the Twin Peaks bowl with East Twin Peak looming on my left, or north, I met a hiker who had seen a Dall sheep (ram) on the slope below the peak. On past hikes, I’ve observed scores of sheep on that side of the bowl, just below the rocky precipice. However, today they seemed to be absent–perhaps camouflaged by the season’s new snow.
I was passed a couple of times by younger, faster hikers, some with dogs. High and to the west on the opposite side of Eklutna Valley I heard a faint squawking sound. Looking up, I saw a large formation of geese, probably Canada geese, winging south. It looked as if they were at an altitude of about 3,000 feet. Moving up the trail, I was at roughly 1,800 feet.
Although it signals the onset of winter, seeing and hearing the migrating geese, as well as Sandhill cranes, is always a welcome sight.
One side of this ragged “V” formation was a long line comprised of at least 50 geese. Like cyclists in the Tour de France race, each of the followers was taking advantage of the dead air created by the bird in front of them, or drafting, which significantly conserves energy.
I’ve sometimes wondered how often the birds switch leaders and change position during their long migration. Are there disputes high in the sky about these positions? Or does there exist among the migrants some kind of cooperation—a recognition that some are stronger and others are weaker—that the goal is to get the entire group to its destination?
Pondering the thought, another hiker passed me at a brisk pace. I concluded that if I were one of the migrating geese, I’d be drafting at the best spot I could find, and defending that spot vigorously!
A separate season: Hiking upward but still below the snowline, which I estimate was at about 3,000 feet; with no leaves on the trees, warm sunshine on my face and no bugs, it seemed like this was a season unto itself. While still a part of autumn that lasts until November 1st, as outlined in a column about my seasons, this felt like a sub-season of autumn, perhaps to be named Pre-Winter. While many folks are impatient for the arrival of snow and winter sports, I savor this brief transition period. I look for that odd tree that still has a few leaves hanging on—that withered bush with a few red currant berries or rose hips. Like me, they do not want to let go of autumn.
Along the trail, the chirping of Black-capped chickadees filled the leafless woods as they frenetically gathered seeds for the winter. I’ve always been amazed by these small birds that overwinter here. With thick plumage and ability to rapidly metabolize food, they are extremely well adapted to our northern climate. One internet source courses.hamilton.edu/winter-species/black-capped-chickadee notes that they bulk up in fat as much as possible during the day, reaching about 7% body fat by the evening. At night, with rapid metabolisms, they begin to burn as much fat as possible to keep their body temperature high and stable. One study showed that their body fat was reduced to 3% by the next morning.
Taking a rest: Cresting over the ridge at about 2,600 feet, I plunked down for lunch in front of a fairly large spruce tree. At the extreme edge of the tree line, which has definitely advanced upward in the past half-century, the White Spruce was among a few pioneer conifers that had taken root this high. Capturing the sun’s heat, and with no wind, the tree provided some additional warmth as I sipped coffee and admired the view.
Bold Peak to the south was reflected in glassy-calm Eklutna Lake. The Chugach Mountains’ new snow was brilliant white in the mid-day sun. The mountain slopes were now a desiccated brown, save the green of sparsely situated spruce trees—one of which I was sitting beside.
The descent in late afternoon was uneventful and I reached the car about 6 p.m., concluding a six-mile, five-hour trip. I stretched out my left leg. The knee seemed to have stood up to this day’s test.
But I still envied the geese. If it were humanly possible, I would have like to have drafted some of the younger men and women along the trail.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank, email: firstname.lastname@example.org