OK, so it's been sunny and warm this week, with cranky brown bears and greening trees. But spring's fickle weather was worse than cruel to hikers and trail runners in Southcentral Alaska up until a few days ago.
But now, blue-sky days have been liquidating the last dregs of winter. Some low-elevation forest routes in Anchorage have morphed into mud holes rife wtih stagnant ponds and mounds of filthy, rotting snow. I finally got irritated with all the wallowing required by a simple outing beneath the trees. I wanted green sprouts -- and the feel of a firm trail that didn't squish into cold goo beneath my soles. I wanted a taste of summer.
So, during the first week of May, I went looking for it about 20 miles down Turnagain Arm, an area known for early green-up. I parked in the gravel pullout at the Windy Corner trailhead in Chugach State Park near Mile 106 of the Seward Highway. One empty car shared the lot. High wispy clouds hardly dimmed the sunshine, though a stiff breeze and 45-degree temperatures belied the notion that I might open a door into summer. Maybe it'd be warmer further up, in the trees.
Before I started hiking, I glanced up and made eye contact with a Dall sheep perched on the cliff directly above my car. It had short curved horns, possibly a ewe, and it glared down at me with what might have been consternation.
Suck it up, I thought. There are more where I come from.
Not 100 feet up a mostly dry trail, I discovered proof that winter had vacated this locale. A birch tree with emerging leaves, all wrinkled and shiny, each about the size of a squirrel's ear -- the old-time Anchorage sign that it's safe to plant southland vegetables in the garden. Then a dark-eyed junco trilled from the top of a dead spruce tree, and another answered from farther up the slope. Soon I was noticing the calls of other birds -- the telephone ring of the varied thrush, the weird alien jingle from an American robin. The males had launched their spring battle for mates and turf.
At that moment, a large group of hikers arrived at the lot below me -- car doors slamming, excited chatter, barking dogs. I hurried to stay ahead of them and then ducked up a steep game path toward a rocky outcrop. I watch the crowd pass below me, oblivious to my presence as they continued on the two-mile trail toward Rainbow. I might have been a Dall sheep enjoying my own private cliff. Or a bear waiting for clear passage.
I kept climbing higher into the forest, following a winter moose path littered with oval nuggets up a dim ravine. With the terrain and trees cutting the wind, I grew warmer. Except for a seep that rippled with current and then disappeared into the earth, the ground was almost completely dry. The vanished snowpack had left behind a wide-open forest floor where all the litter and most brush had been pancaked flat. Little green plants dotted the brown expanse -- wrinkled cow parsnip, unraveling ferns, six-inch-tall sprouts of fireweed. Though most buds remained tightly rolled, one stand of alders had unfurled leaves so shiny and green they looked like they'd been waxed. A patch of devil's club stood naked, the thorny stems easy to step around. In a month or so, all this brand-new growth would jungle up, rising as high as my face, making the terrain almost impassable. For now, my zippy progress felt like cheating.
Still, the ground grew steeper and steeper. I crawled on hands and toes through roses and alders, and emerged into a rocky meadow just below some cliffs. I scrambled the last gully on scree and mossy rocks, and stepped over the lip into cold sunshine and wind.
I stood at the base of a rugged bowl with a panorama of an upper mountain still covered in snow. Here the scattered trees were no longer budded, and any new plants were sparse and miniscule, hardly breaking the mat of dead grass. In the lee of the hills were mounds of rotting snow, the first I'd seen. A thousand feet above the road was the boundary of stubborn winter.
I noticed a black shape on the slope across a deep cut in the mountain -- possible sign of a bear. But when I looked through binoculars, it was only a shadow. I kept scanning and discovered half a dozen Dall sheep in a herd, grazing a south-facing green patch below the snow. To the unaided eye, they had looked like snow remnants. With a little more effort, I caught sight of sheep all over the mountain -- up in other meadows, in the rocks, on the ridges. A big ram was grazing close to the ravine.
The ram suddenly bolted uphill, obviously spooked by something. A bit more scanning scared up a startling image: A human wearing a bright blue backpack, stalking up the distant slope on a route parallel to the jittery animal. Two other sheep, actually closer to the person but clearly out of sight around the curve of the mountain, scrambled in the opposite direction.
When the ram paused, the person grew still and seemed to be taking a photograph. The other sheep escaped unnoticed.
Hah, I thought, feeling smug. I had the jump on whole scene -- the white sheep, the infant vegetation, possibly clueless humans above and below.
That's when I happen to glance directly above.
Four Dall sheep, two with fully curled horns, nestled on a cliff overlooking my spot. All of them were studying me. I felt eye contact. I felt disdain. The motionless tension in their vigilance suggested that they had been watching me for a long time, and they didn't seem impressed at all.
If You Go to Windy Corner
Where is it?
Driving south from Anchorage, Windy Corner is a hiking/running trailhead and wildlife viewing site at Mile 106.6 of the Seward Highway, past both the McHugh Creek and Rainbow trailheads in Chugach State Park. Pull completely off the highway into the gravel parking areas and be aware of oncoming traffic. The terminus of the 9.4-mile-long Turnagain Arm Trail from Potter begins at the stairway on the mountain side of the highway.
This location may offer the best highway-accessible spot to view Dall sheep in the world, with the critters often perching on ledges just above the road. A short climb up the trail reaches a sweeping view of Turnagain Arm and even better sheep viewing. As the route traverses another 1.9 miles to the northwest to the Rainbow trailhead, the mixed birch-spruce forest hosts the usual Southcentral Alaska wildlife and plants. The proximity to Turnagain Arm wind and open water accelerates snowmelt and green-up here, making Windy Corner a premier portal into spring for winter-weary hikers and runners.
Tell us more.
Windy Corner lives up to its name, enjoying gusty springs and summers, plus hurricane-force blows during fall and winter storms. Dall sheep perch on the cliffs overlooking the highway and can be found farther up the mountainside whatever the season. From a local game management unit population that has ranged from about 2,600 to 1,340 animals in recent decades, scores of sheep began visiting the site in the early 1980s. Scientists speculate that the animals were attracted to minerals exposed in the soil by blasting for highway reconstruction or simply found the exposed slopes offered good food access combined with protection from predators. Ewes and their offspring pioneered the area, but more rams have been seen in recent years, possibly after learning to use the site as youngsters. The sheep usually spy human visitors first and will often be watching intently when first noticed. Sheep viewing improves the further upslope you climb. Be careful. Be prepared for bears or moose, slippery footing and bad rock.
The Turnagain Arm Trail toward Rainbow climbs until it merges with the Old Johnson Trail, an early 1900s wagon route carved into the mountainside before the existence of the Alaska Railroad or Anchorage. Alert hikers can spot gold-rush era cutbanks.
After the trail levels out, game paths offer the most sensible routes uphill. The terrain rises steeply toward open tundra through a mix of jungled hollows, open forest and windswept meadows. Ravens nest in the cliffs, and bald eagles ride thermals. Beluga whales may be spotted on Turnagain Arm during rising tides. Moose calve in the ravines and find winter browse in zones kept clear of snow by Turnagain's wind. Watch and listen for forest birds like the dark-eyed junco, varied thrush, chickadees and American robin.
Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com