It was a bluebird morning. There was no wind and the sun was warm on our faces as Pete Panarese and I skied into South Fork Valley, headed for Eagle Lake.
It was my first major outdoor trip in more than a year after knee surgery, and in every fiber of my being it felt like a physical and spiritual rebirth.
The first 2-1/2 miles were over a packed trail, but there was plenty of soft snow along the sides to slow our descent to the first bridge. From the bridge we followed a broken trail set by a mountain climber we met who was returning from a failed attempt on 6,390-foot Mt. Cantata, which looms over Eagle Lake. He mentioned that heavy winds a day earlier thwarted his effort.
The trail the climber had set stayed mostly to the right, or west, of the established summer trail that has a lot of hills. We felt fortunate to have a set track, because in some areas the snow was about 16-18 inches deep.
Even though the ambient temperature was about 10 degrees F., the rising sun was definitely overpowering the cold. Entering a shaded area, it seemed like the temperature dropped five degrees!
About 3-1/2 miles into our trip we stopped on a knoll for a snack break and spotted five moose bedded down on the left, or east side of the valley. They also seemed to be enjoying the warm sunshine. On the other side of us in the distance, we heard a ptarmigan’s distinctive squawk. Before getting underway, I remembered to apply some sunblock to my face.
The climber’s trail meandered around the valley quite a bit, but our progress was steady and we reached the lake about 1 p.m. We soon found a nice lunch spot with a great view of 6,955-foot Eagle Peak, which although many thousands of feet lower, somewhat resembles K2 in northern Pakistan, at 28,281 feet.
Pete mentioned climbing Eagle Peak twice from the Eagle River Valley side several years ago, and I noted my single summit with the late Dave Gahm in July 2005, via the gully from Flute Canyon. Viewed from the Eagle and Symphony Lake area, Eagle Peak is quite an impressive natural feature.
Aside from the climber’s trail leading up toward the old shelter, there were no other tracks on the lake, human or animal. With no wind, the silence was palpable.
About 2 p.m. we packed up and began our six-mile return trip, which expectedly, was much easier because it was mostly downhill. On the return we often lingered to take in the beautiful landscape. The frequent rests were also quite welcome!
I removed skis and opted to hike up the big hill after the bridge, while Pete remained in his waxless skis. We reached the top about the same time, so I don’t think hiking provided any advantage.
Weary but really thankful for such a special day, we arrived back at the car about 6 p.m., making it a nine-hour outing.
After a year of knee rehabilitation, injections and physical therapy for lower back issues, I felt like I had returned to myself and the land that I love. For me, the long recovery period revealed a truth found in a Joni Mitchell song lyric:
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone…”
Frank E. Baker is an ECHO team member and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher.