With less than ¼-inch of snow on the trail, clear skies and temperature in the mid-20s, it was pleasant as I turned left (east) out of South Fork Valley and ascended into Hanging Valley.
It was early afternoon on October 19th of this year, and contrary to my personal calendar that denotes winter only beginning on November 1st, it truly felt like winter—especially when a sudden breeze chilled my face.
The trail’s scant snow covering was undisturbed, except for the tiny footprints of voles, squirrels, small birds and occasionally, that of a coyote. Moving into Hanging Valley, I entered shade and felt the temperature drop quickly by at least five degrees.
Unlike most of my hikes, in which I tote enough gear to bivouac, or conduct an outdoor sale, I didn’t bring very heavy clothing; mainly because I didn’t expect wind. Moving quickly I stayed relatively warm; and I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of my 8-1/2 –month-old knee.
About halfway into the valley, several groups of Dall sheep were congregated about halfway up the mountain to my left, or north. South-facing, the slope was free of snow. Through my binoculars I counted a total of 27, which included some lambs. Most of the animals were bedded down, apparently enjoying the warm sunshine.
I tried taking a photo, but both my battery and its spare read: “Battery Exhausted.” I tried heating the camera against my body and after a while it allowed a few photos. But the sheep were too far away for a decent shot.
Maybe I’ve seen too many photos taken by professional photographers, for example, in ALASKA magazine.
After gawking at theirs, I’m compelled to throw rocks at most of mine. But in my own defense, I sometimes venture to places that lend themselves to a good picture. I realize that doesn’t necessarily make me a good photographer, maybe more of an opportunist.
Passing the first large lake at valley bottom and angling uphill toward Hanging Valley Lake, I could see sun striking the ridge toward where I was headed. “I’m sure that by the time I get there, the sun will fall below the horizon,” I sighed. “I’m not going to race up there to catch those last moments of sunshine.”
Across the valley the sheep were still in bright sun, and I envied them. One of Hanging Valley’s drawbacks at this time of the year, I’ve found, is that most of the hike is in shade.
Glorious sunshine: I crested over to the lake and was elated to find the sun a couple of degrees above the ring of mountains, technically called a cirque. There is a large rock not far from the lake’s outlet—one of my favorite spots—and I plunked down in front of it. The rock was clearly gathering the sun’s radiant heat. Almost immediately, my hands felt warm. I estimate the difference between the shaded valley bottom and in the sunshine by this rock to be at least 10 degrees! With the valley and lake entirely to myself, I enjoyed a leisurely lunch.
“Two weeks from now at this time of the day, the sun wouldn’t be hitting here,” I thought.
I noticed there were no animal tracks on the snow-covered lake, which probably only froze a week earlier. My small duck friends (Barrow’s Goldeneye) were now long gone for warmer southern climes.
Reluctant to leave this nice spot, about 3:30 p.m. I packed up and headed down into Hanging Valley.
I noticed the sheep were still in direct sunlight and had consolidated their group. In the past, I’ve generally seen sheep at the head of the valley and up toward Overlook, and not at this low elevation. Perhaps like me, they were just grateful for some afternoon warmth on the snowless ground.
The breeze kicked up a little on my return, but with the hood raised on my lightweight down coat and heavy gloves, I remained toasty. Re-entering South Fork Valley, I was again in direct sunlight for part of the return trip to the car.
After nearly nine months of knee rehabilitation and not actively hiking on a regular basis, this relatively easy 10-mile round trip hike (1,700 feet elevation gain) was rather taxing. But it was good to get out in what I’ll still label “Pre-winter,” even though it felt like winter was everywhere around me.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank, email: firstname.lastname@example.org