Fall is rushing in; the leaves are turning yellow and brown; the clouds are boiling over the peaks. My knee has been sore for the past two weeks from a fall, but I was antsy to get into the mountains again and not lose the fitness I'd gained during the summer. Mark and Lisa from Talkeetna stayed at the house last night, which is always a joy for me. We had a leisurely coffee at Kaladi down the street, and by 10:00 am, I'd decided to head uphill.
Wolverine Peak overlooks Anchorage and beckons this morning. The peak's 4,550' elevation belies the effort to reach its summit, but since Anchorage is at sea level, the mountain gives the feel of being in the Rockies. From the trailhead it's close to 12 miles round trip to the summit; this should be a fine workout. I'll be back by 3:00 pm if I hustle, leaving the Prospect heights' trailhead at 11:00 am. A sign at the trailhead warns of recent grizzly bear activity, right where I'm headed. What's new? There are over 65 of those bears in this area, but I've never had a problem. Looking through the trees I see the goal in the distance.
After a couple of miles along a very well maintained flat trail, crossing Campbell Creek, the trail forks uphill towards the peak. Up till now I had been cruising at a good clip. In spite of the knee, I hadn't lost much of my precious conditioning.
Up I went through the spruce and birch forest, the trail still a bit muddy and slick from a week of wet weather. I've been here before and power up the steepening trail, hoping for my first unobstructed view of the mountains. Soon I break out above treeline into the sub-arctic tundra. It is definitely autumn here: all the plants have changed color. Seeds litter the ground from the sedges, grasses and flowers along the trail. Suddenly I see a beautiful blue harebell. What are you doing blooming at this time of year??? The rest of the plant world is going to seed and shedding its leaves.
The broad expanse of the tundra stretches ahead; Wolverine Peak looks more distant than when I started. The trail heads straight up with no switchbacks. The sky is pretty black, a breeze is blowing, and the weather report is for rain. "Strong winds to 70 MPH on Turnagain Arm and on the hillside" was the weather report on the radio this morning. Hmmmm! I see the clouds scud by at a fairly good clip. The only blue sky in hundreds of miles is directly over Wolverine. I'm sure it's just a sucker hole, but it lures me upward.
This whole landscape is the product of continental glaciers that receded as recently as 10,000 years ago. The valleys are U-shaped where the glaciers gouged them out. Even the tremendous Susitna Valley stretching from Mount McKinley south through Cook Inlet was filled to thousands of feet with ice. I look on the ground and see granite boulders. "No granite in the Chugach", I say. These rocks were transported south either 40 miles from the Talkeetna Mountains, or a hundred miles from the Alaska range and deposited 4,000 feet high on the ridges of this peak. I look out and see a huge granite erratic stuck in the ground.
Two hours on the trail, and I've covered nearly five miles uphill. The summit and the speck of blue sky are now within reach. I'm on a ridge leading to it, but as I reach it, the wind hits me in the back. It's stiff, maybe 20 knots. And it's coming from the wrong direction; well, not really. It's the rotor wind blowing back like an eddy in the river as the more powerful wind flows over the summit, then drops over the summit and washes back at me. I'm wearing a thin cotton shirt, and although the temperature is in the fifties and I'm working hard, my temperature drops. Gusts increase as I move uphill. I have a jacket in my daypack, but I'm reluctant to put it on; I'm sweating and think I'll just sweat harder with the coat.
The ground is composed of the granite and limestone rocks from afar, signs that this was part of the glacial outwash. I'm still amazed that the foreign stones are so high up this mountain and try to picture the ice over a mile thick flowing through here. Then I remember my days on Mount McKinley (Denali), where even today on the Kahiltna Glacier, the ice measures a mile thick.
At my feet the ground is red with reticulated willow, one of the 46 varieties found in Alaska. Interspersed are blackberries and moss. It's a beautiful carpet!
Searching the ground, the dogwood that was so recently in bloom with little white flowers and green leaves, now sports red leaves and orange berries.
I'm now well up the peak, and the wind has increased against my back, maybe 40 knots. I lean back, and am blown uphill. Looking down the cliff I see the remains of a crashed helicopter, it's twisted hulk like an extinct dinosaur, so out of place here. But it's on to the summit; no turning back now, no matter what the weather. Suddenly, a gust blows me back a few feet, and I lean into the wind. I'm on the summit ridge, looking down the cliff to the north. Wind is coming from every direction. I can't believe this is the only patch of blue anywhere, and it has stayed in this spot for hours. My ball cap goes into the pack. I'm afraid it will be blown off to the next valley. I have a little wool hat in the pack and a pair of light gloves. The wind is rocketing off the rocks, knocking me around like a rag doll. "The summit at all costs", I say. Once on Mount Dickey with a bunch of life-long friends, I was leading the charge to the summit, and one asked Thor, my son, "Is he always like this?"
I look north: it's raining, and the distant mountains are dim. I'm in my element and couldn't be happier. I stop to take a photo and move on.
The summit is almost calm. I put my cap back on, take a photo, grab a drink of water and nibble a bit of my peanut butter sandwich. I can't stand all the energy bars: most taste like compressed sawdust. The best are regular candy bars; my favorite are Snickers and Payday, because they have lots of nuts. But mostly I bring a good sandwich and an apple. I've found I have more long-lasting energy with real food.
I scan the horizon in every direction. To the north I see where Denali should be. To the east, the Chugach range. Looking up the broad valley I see the Willwaw Lakes and promise myself a camping trip there before the snow flies.
To the west, Cook Inlet, and Anchorage. It's a long way down, so I don't tarry on the summit too long. The wind will be in my face. I jump down the trail, full of energy. My coat like a sail as I lean into the wind and float down the mountain.
My only stop is to look at another willow plant, that is now bright yellow next to its red cousin. Looking across the tundra, it predominates and gives the ground its tan and yellow hue.
Further down, the wind is pushing the krumholtz flat. I know it's a powerful blow, but not uncommon here. It has shaped the vegetation and this landscape over the years. I'm flying down the mountain at high speed, but I worry that I'll be sore tomorrow. "I'm too old for this", I say to myself as I slow to a trot. "The Hell with it", and I break into a little run straight down the hillside. "I can make it to the car in half the time I hiked up", I tell myself as a little race begins.
Soon I'm back on the flat, racing to the car to meet my goal. Suddenly a huge split birch tree is right in front of me. I'm retired! I'm in no hurry. So I stop, look at the tree for a minute, fish out my camera and take it's picture. What a great day!!
- Ridgway, Colorado,
- March 31
- Retired Associate Regional Director of Operations and Resources, National Park Service, Alaska; now living at the base of the San Juan mountains in Ridgway, Colorado.
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