Natural Observations-Solstice hike

A solstice hike into the alpine setting in the Reed Lakes area off the Hatcher Pass road was rewarding for its wildflowers, scenery, birds and wildlife not seen at lower elevations. Host and writer of this week’s Earth and Beyond program is Robin Song. Audio is 7 min 45 sec. The text follows.
Alpine Forget-Me-Nots

Photos by Robin Song

Last year I spent the Summer Solstice hiking up a mountainside on the west side of Hatcher Pass. I had lost my Australian Shepherd, SnowAngel, in late March, and this was the first time I had gone camping and hiking without a dog by my side. It was splendid country, but a bittersweet hike, for me.

This Solstice I had almost ten-month-old Lyra along with me. This was her first camping and hiking trip and I had decided to explore the east side of Hatcher Pass. A friend had recommended the trail to Reed Lakes, a place I hadn’t been, before.

Setting off on the Parks highway, at mile 94 I spotted a yearling moose standing in the northbound lane. No cars were in sight, and I slowed to a stop, grabbing my camera. As I snapped photos, watching the moose walk across in front of my car, his twin sister stepped from the forest onto the pavement. A car came over the hill in the distance and both moose accelerated into a slow trot and disappeared into the forest on the west side of the road. Underway once again, I took that as a good omen. Just a mile farther a handsome male red-shafted flicker flew across in front of me. I smiled; this was going to be a great trip.

The weather was heavy overcast, and I knew that could mean rain in the mountains, but I was determined to stay my course. I drove up Hatcher Pass road from the Wasilla entrance and stopped beside Little Su Creek to take some photos. I studied the map on the pullout’s display, and noted that the hike to Lower Reed Lake was 3 and ½ miles. It was another mile to Upper Reed Lake. That seemed manageable, but I knew it would depend on the terrain.

I turned up Archangel Road and drove until the rocks and potholes were too rough for my car. I backed Corvus into a pullout and decided to walk the last mile to the end of the road. I had passed the turnoff to the Reed Lakes trail, but I was going to camp in Corvus and hike that trail tomorrow. According to the map, at the end of this road were the ruins of Talkeetna Mine. Clouds were settled on all the mountaintops, but we only received a light sprinkling during our walk. When we came to a bend where I could see the remains of the mine in the distance, I decided not to go the last quarter mile or so. It was late, and I wanted to save my energy for tomorrow’s hike.

At nine o’clock the next morning I was ready to hit the trail. I slipped Lyra’s dog packs on her and as we set off her tail waved in the air like a plume. Australian Shepherds are herding dogs, by nature, but Lyra was happy to be a pack dog for the day. I had only given her about three pounds to carry, which would lighten as we ate our trail snacks and lunch. At 42 pounds, I knew she could handle it.

A mile in, we came to a willow grove- the last of the trees before we started climbing. A flock of Wilson’s warblers were singing in the trees. They are difficult birds to photograph, as they are tiny and rarely still. To my delight, I found that they were curious about Lyra and would come close to peer at her, giving me a second or two to try and capture their bright yellow essence with the camera before they flitted away again.

Up we went, Lyra bounding on ahead. The alpine wildflowers were at their peak, and I snapped photos of Forget-Me-Nots, violets, Alpine Arnica, paintbrush, Mountain Avens, and others. White and Gold-Crowned sparrows and juncos kept us company. The number of people using the trail that day surprised me. Dogs accompanied a good percentage. Lyra invited each dog to play, and they romped briefly until their humans called them to keep going. Everyone was hiking faster than I was, but I had a good many years on most of them, and a bad back kept me at a slow and careful pace.

Higher still, we came into Alpine heather blooming across the slopes. They sent a delicate aroma into the cool air. While it was overcast most of the time, with a few brief interludes of sun, I was grateful it wasn’t clear and hot. The sunshine would have been better for photos, but I liked the contrast of misty clouds and rugged mountains.

I had been told I would need to cross two boulder fields. When I came to the first, I stopped and watched a man picking his way across, coming down from the lakes. I talked with him and he said it wasn’t too hard, but to be careful. I was mainly concerned about Lyra, and I removed her packs and added them to mine. I had brought along a camera monopod, and now it came in very handy, helping to steady me as I slid down huge boulders and climbed up others, always the sound of rushing water far below my feet. Lyra showed that she was part mountain goat, for she had no trouble with the boulders at all. I watched in awe as she picked routes for herself and leaped across spaces with ease. She didn’t need my help, after all.

The snow patches increased in size as we came out of the second boulder field and walked along the shore of a large pond south of Lower Reed lake. Some snow patches were laced with bright pink algae. Marmots whistled whenever Lyra came into their view with her dog packs on. Pikas called from boulders strewn along the base of the mountains around us. I watched two birds on the islands in the pond, and looking them up later, I discovered they were Wandering Tattlers- a first sighting, for me.

Finally we topped yet another ridge and there lay Lower Reed lake below us. It was still mostly covered with ice and snow. A pair of Harlequin ducks paddled in the open water along the shoreline. I sat on the hill above the west shore and watched little birds out on the ice hunting insects. When Lyra came into their view, a few of the birds flew across the lake to have a closer look at her. I discovered, as they perched on boulders near us, that they were American Pipits and Grey-Crowned Rosy Finches. It was my first sighting of this finch species.

A two-tiered waterfall sent water from Upper Reed lake over a cliff to the north. I had been told that if I hiked up the ridge past the waterfall, I could see Upper Reed Lake. I had talked to a couple of women who had been there earlier in the day. They said it was also mostly ice-covered. Much as I wanted to go have a look, I knew I didn’t have the energy to do so. I still had a long hike back, and two boulder fields to cross once again. After a good rest, I headed on down the valley, Lyra frisking ahead. Her packs were much lighter, now, and she was having a great time.

When we got back down to the valley floor, a couple of hours later, Lyra would find sticks beside the trail and bring them to me to throw for her. I was sore and tired, but her high enthusiasm was not to be ignored. I didn’t have much energy left to throw her sticks, but she would bound after them chew them into pieces, and search for another big one to bring to me. We arrived back at Corvus at 8pm. Once settled in, Lyra was soon fast asleep. I had a long drive ahead, back to Talkeetna, but my mind was full of wonderful memories of a day in the mountains. It was a glorious Solstice for me, and I hope it was for you, as well.

Solstice Hike, 2011, by Robin Song

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