Photos by Robin Song
Host and producer Robin Song hikes and does some birding in the Anchorage bowl on summer solstice. Audio is 6 min 36 seconds. Text follows.
[audio:http://ktna.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/NatsObs6-24-12-Solstice-hike.mp3|titles=NatsObs6-24-12 Solstice hike]
The plan for my annual Solstice hike was to make a trek up Campbell Creek Valley on the north side of Flat Top Mt in the Anchorage Bowl. I headed for Anchorage on the 20th of June, Lyra riding beside me in the car. I stayed at a friend’s home in south Anchorage so I could get an early start the next morning. When the alarm went off at 7am, I saw that dark clouds had moved in, during the shortest night of the year, and it was now raining up in the mountains. I decided to return to bed, setting the alarm for 9. It had been a long drive to the city, with a side trip at Reflection Lake to go birding, and I was still tired. At 9 I saw that it was still raining in the mountains. Plan B was to head to Arctic Valley and hike to the ridge top and do some birding, but the clouds were also down on the summits of those mountains, and it was raining there as well. I chose to do some birding in Anchorage, hoping the clouds would lift as the day scrolled by.
I took Lyra to Jewel Lake, where I had gone birding in past years. Several Lesser Canada Geese stood on the east shoreline while kids and dogs played on the mowed grass of the city Park. Out on the lake I watched a family of Lessers swimming while a pair of Common Loons floated nearby. I was amazed at the large number of goslings with the pair of adult geese, but when I studied them I saw that some of the goslings were different sizes. I had read that often one pair of adult geese will “baby sit” the goslings of several geese while those adults eat and preen. These two certainly had a busy time keeping all the goslings in line.
Later in the afternoon I saw a few patches of blue sky appearing above the Chugach Range, so I packed a lunch and headed for the mountains. It seemed that lots of folks wanted to hike up Flat Top on the Solstice, for the parking lot was nearly full. There was a lot of snow still laying in ravines on the mountains, but that didn’t stop the people, their kids and dogs from making the hike. I was glad to be going in a different area, where there were far fewer people. We did encounter several people with their dogs and it was evident that this is a popular trail for going with canine friends. Lyra was thrilled to be able to play with many different breeds of dogs before their human companions headed on down the trail. She was also delighted to find many snow patches stretching across the trail. She leaped and rolled and ran on each one.
When we set out, the clouds had moved off and the sun beat down through a clear blue summer sky. I was soon overheating and mighty glad to be able to pack snow into the brim of my cap, which cooled me down for awhile. I talked to a few hikers and they told me of a trail across the creek about two miles up the valley. I knew I probably couldn’t make it that far, having hurt my right heel a few days before. I was hoping the rest I had given it would help, but the drive in had started it hurting again. I would go as far as I could.
The birding was great. I encountered Wilson’s Warblers, Varied Thrush, Fox Sparrows, Redpolls, Juncos and Ravens. There were a couple of warblers I couldn’t identify, and I photographed them to work on that back at the cabin. Snow patches still covered the creek in places and the water gushed from under the snow and ice, making for dramatic photos.
My heel grew more painful the longer I hiked, and I finally had to turn back after a mile or so. I was disappointed not to make my goal, but I hoped to be able to return to this wild and scenic valley in the future.
Driving back that evening, I decided to go to a place I had driven by for years, always promising myself to stop and explore, but never had. It was the southwest end of the Palmer Hayflats. Driving down the day before, I had noted the iris in bloom in the marsh grass. I found a safe place to pull off the highway, and when I drove there the evening of the 21st, the sun was just right for taking photos. Unfortunately, a solid bank of clouds was rising out of the west and I could see that the sun would soon be obscured, so I hurried out onto the flats. There is a four-wheeler trail going into the flats, heading west, and Lyra and I walked along the dirt trail. Coming around a belt of trees, I caught my breath at the scene before me. Acres of iris and Shooting Stars dotted with the deep brown heads of Chocolate Lilies stretched in front of me. Getting down to photograph the wildflowers, I also found white Ladies Tresses and bright yellow Alaska Buttercups. I was glad I had brought along bug repellent, for I was soon engulfed in a cloud of hungry skeeters. I had to keep re-applying the bug spray, for they would let me know when it was wearing off with sharp stabs through my black tights.
It wasn’t long before I lost the sun behind the clouds, but I vowed to return before the wildflowers were past their peak. I was amazed that all these years I had driven past this place and never discovered its secret- the splendid array of colorful wild blooms. This was the first time I had seen Chocolate Lilies outside of other people’s photos, and I was charmed. In my wildflower books I read that these flowers have a pungent scent, and out of curiosity I put my nose to a brown lily. Wow! The description in the books of a smell like carrion was indeed accurate! The beautiful blooms smelled like carrion mixed with fresh horse manure. I did not see any insects plying the blooms, and I waited to see just what flying critters would be attracted to such a scent. Nothing arrived to collect nectar and pollen, and since I was losing the light, I decided that question would have to remain unanswered, for me. Perhaps on a return trip I would discover the secret.
In all, it was an adventurous and pleasant summer Solstice for Lyra and me. Birds, wildflowers and mountains had made the day one to remember, for me. I hope this special day was also memorable for everyone else. And now…on to summer!
By Robin Song