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Story Last modified at 10:28 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Spring jaunts lead to the end of two valleys

by Frank E. Baker


Some of the best hiking of the year takes place in late spring, when the seasons change from brown to green, seemingly in an instant. This view was shot from Upper Eagle River.
PHOTO courtesy Frank Baker

Two separate spring hikes deep into valleys within Chugach State Park, one in April and the other in May, and each about the same length – 25 miles round trip – were quite rewarding.

The first hike on April 21 was to Glacier Lake, which is as far as you can go in Eagle River Valley before reaching the glacier. I was joined by Pete Panarese, formerly superintendent with Alaska State Parks and now retired. It was a crystal clear day, very little wind, and for most of the hike we had hard-packed ice to walk, either on the river itself or along its sides.

We set out from the Nature Center about 8:30 a.m. and by 10 a.m. we had passed Echo Bend, about Mile 4, and were walking briskly on the frozen river, much of the time on overflow. We were both surprised how easy the walking was – like a city sidewalk.

We walked the 12 miles to Eagle Lake in just under six hours – and we were by no means hurrying.

One the way we spotted Dall sheep on the side of the mountain, and before reaching Glacier Lake we came upon fresh wolf tracks. We made a wager on who would spot the first bear or wolf, but neither was spotted. An eagle soared near Yukla Peak, staying aloft on the thermals. We traded opinions on whether we would give up a year of our life to be an eagle for a day, but I don't think we reached a conclusion.

I made this hike a couple of years ago at about the same time of year, with similar conditions. Spring comes a little later to the back of the valley, as it is closer to the Gulf of Alaska and receives more snowfall. But melting ice and open water along the river were obvious signs that spring was on the way.

After a brief lunch we packed up and began the hike back out, admiring the jagged, sunlit peaks towering thousands of feet above us. It took roughly the same length of time to get back to the Nature Center. All in all, it was a great day in the warm spring sun.

Eklutna Canyon: My second spring jaunt was a bike hike to the end of Eklutna Valley, West Fork, on May 11. I left the parking lot at about 11 a.m. With these long days there was no hurry. I love taking this 12.7-mile ride around Eklutna Lake back into the canyon. It's still quite early in the year, however, and at Mile 7, for about one-tenth mile, there was hard-packed snow and ice across the trail, which required walking the bike. Other than that, it was a good trail all the way under clear skies and with very little wind.

Moving through the area that was burned by last summer's forest fire, I was delighted to see willows, fireweed and other green undergrowth popping out of the ground everywhere. The floor of the blackened forest was turning green! About Mile 10 I saw a grouse standing on the side of the road, with nothing but a burned-out forest behind him. "Life really finds a way," I thought to myself. "Careless campers burn your home down, and yet you still survive. Way to go!"

At the very end of the West Fork canyon, if you follow the trail that begins after the 12.7-mile sign, there used to be a sign warning hikers not to try to get up onto the glacier unless properly trained and with mountaineering equipment.

I biked into the Serenity Falls hut at Mile 12 to sign the register, but noticed that some folks were already there, so continued back down the trail. I pulled into the airstrip at Mile 8 and took a break at the picnic table, taking in the view of Bold Peak, the Mitre, Bee's Heaven and other surrounding mountains.

By 6 p.m. I was back at the parking lot – another 25-mile jaunt – after a long bike ride, yet I felt invigorated.

Driving back down Eklutna Road, I observed that spring doesn't occur in Alaska in days – it's actually in hours. On the drive up Eklutna Road at about 10:30 a.m. most of the trees were brown. Returning at 6 p.m. many of them at Mile 2 were green. I call it: "The Spring Explosion."

"These are some of the best days of the year," I thought to myself. "I hope lots of other folks are taking advantage of them."

Frank E. Baker is a lifetime Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.