Alaska Life

Mountains, snakes and a mini-Stonehenge in Southwest Alaska

DILLINGHAM — After we shared a $45 pizza at the Windmill Grill on my first day here, Yvonne Leutwyler took me to the area's most popular hiking trail — up Snake Lake Mountain. After experiencing Dillingham and Nushagak Bay from sea level, I was eager for a more elevated perspective. I had no idea on that first trip up the mountain how often I would return.

Despite blue patches of sky, a cool September crosswind rustled the mountainside brush, bent the long brown grass, and took the edge off any warmth the sun provided. Still, even as darker clouds rolled in from the Muklung Hills to the northeast, the hike offered the altitude and vistas I craved — and eventually a bonus rainbow.

Snake Mountain trail, like all but two of the trails near Dillingham, is an unofficial path. Only Nunavaugaluk Overlook and Warehouse Mountain trails have signage and official trailheads. And they, along with most of the rest, involve some bushwhacking along fragments of old game trails, most of which are either draped with burgeoning alder and willow growth or slowly refilling with moss and lichens.

Snake Lake Mountain runs east to west in the middle of a swath of tundra that drains on one end into the Wood River and on the other end into the Snake River via either Land Otter Creek or Snake Lake. Regardless, all the water ends up in Nushagak Bay.

To the north of the mountain lies Big Valley, to the south is the Land Otter Creek drainage. The mountain itself rises like a crescent of rock and lichen with an eastern summit of about 1,700 feet and a western summit of about 1,500 feet.

Above the only switchback on 8-mile Snake Lake Road, the trail up the western ridge begins as a pair of four-wheel-drive tracks. It deteriorates into a narrow path through alders and blueberry patches before rising into spikes of uplifted basalt. Most people who climb the western ridge stop at these fins of stone, then turn to admire the broad blue expanse of Snake Lake below and the snow-tipped mountains beyond.

Snake Lake's proper name is Nunavaugaluk, which I'm told means something like "No Good Lake" in Yupik because, despite its size and location, it is unattached to the salmon-rich system of lakes in Wood-Tikchik State Park. Certainly, the lake's un-Alaskan name (there are no snakes in Alaska) refers to the abundant meanders of its outlet, the Snake River, as it writhes toward Nushagak Bay.

The trail up the eastern ridge is less popular because of its unattractive trailhead, which begins in a small gravel pit used by locals much of the year as a rifle range. The trailhead is littered with shell casings, shattered glass, electronics debris and splintered plywood. An old car lurks nearby, its windows long since blown away and its rusted body, like some odd colander, perforated with thousands of bullet holes.

Hikers who begin here must either tread delicately across glass and gravel or wade into the willows and start uphill to intersect the trail. Hikers who end here must watch for live target practice.

The payoff for climbing this ridge includes less driving on a poor road and the trailhead's proximity to the mountain's true summit.

In winter, both trailheads get little traffic because Snake Lake Road itself receives little traffic. The road has only two residences — the home of Richard, the caretaker for a boarded-up lodge at the lake, and the home of Michael and Nancy Favors, whose driveway is at mile 0.4. Michael Favors plows the steep road to his driveway, but the rest of the road is unmaintained.

I have walked the final mile many times and have climbed that eastern ridgeline every month of the year. A few other diehard hikers have done the same. Very few people, however, do what Yvonne and I did that first day — run or walk the road along the mountain and then traverse the mountain back to the beginning.

This circuitous route offers all the best views and a chance to touch both summits, plus extra mileage and exercise on the winding road along the mountain's southern flank. Although we commonly see songbirds or corvids, it's also possible to occasionally spot wolf, brown bear or moose. Since moving to Dillingham in 2013, I have reached the true summit of Snake Lake Mountain 43 times, having been turned back prematurely less than 10 times, usually by high winds blasting cold air out of the north or visibility teetering on zero.

On that first trip west-to-east across the spine of Snake Mountain, I discovered two of the oddities the long ridgeline is known for. The first we have dubbed mini-Stonehenge.

Lying perhaps 100 yards east and downslope from the rounded western summit, this circle of stones, with a diameter of perhaps a dozen feet and a height of 2 feet, is isolated in mid-ridge. A single 2-foot rectangular stone perches in the center of the circle like some ancient but unbloodied altar.

We assume that hunters, scanning for prey, built the circle many years ago to shield them from the winds that sweep the ridge. Perhaps, though, the circle is more recent. Perhaps it was even built on a lark by whimsical hikers bent on creating and perpetuating mystery on the mountain.

Descending the same ridgeline from mini-Stonehenge brings intrepid trekkers to a message writ large in lichen-speckled stone. First visible from the rocky circle, the message seems unlikely, as if one's eyes are being tricked. But the eyes are correct. The all-caps exclamation, placed just where the saddle between the summits begins to bend upward again, reads "EAT PIE!"

Although it took less effort to write the note than it did to construct mini-Stonehenge, someone decided that lugging all the pieces of those stone letters into position was worthwhile. I'd like to believe in a deeper meaning, but I remain skeptical.

A friend named Mark Samuelson climbs Snake Mountain on clear nights during a full moon, and he convinced us to try it once. Perhaps we shouldn't have foregone future attempts due to 50-knot winds that blasted us with granulated November snow that night, but sometimes hard work falls short of just reward.

One of the best rewards — and clearly worth the effort, despite the accompanying rain — was a rainbow spilling into Big Valley on that first traverse.

Gray and black rain clouds smudged the horizon as broken sky above permitted enough sunlight to produce a spectral display. Scattered showers pelted the ridgeline as we trotted along, stopping with our cameras and peering through the bands of color to the mountains and lakes beyond, knowing we would return.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.