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Warming up to Wolverine in winter

  • Author: Bill Sherwonit
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 21, 2016

Turbulent air pours through the Chugach Front Range, pushing plumes of snow dust along ridgelines and hillsides. The wind pushes hard against our bodies, too, and drives stinging bits of snow, ice and frozen dirt against my face. The air's rough touch feels both intimidating and refreshing, in a vaguely familiar way. Years have passed since my body has been buffeted so fiercely by alpine gales. Fortunately the air is warm, in the low to mid-30s, and the uphill trudge is keeping me plenty warm despite the wind chill that 50 or 60 mph gusts can produce.

My hiking buddy and I have met only two people, a young couple, since starting our ascent of Wolverine Peak Trail this midwinter afternoon. And they're the only people we'll see until we descend back into the forest's relative calm. Stopping briefly on their retreat, the pair explained that they had hoped to reach the top of Wolverine, but far below the summit ridge the pounding wind had knocked them flat a couple of times. Pushing higher and risking injury didn't seem worth it.

That will be my strategy, too: ascend only as high as feels safe. Of course, "safe" is a relative term. Better, I suppose, to say "reasonably safe."

Even in my physical prime, I never was one for extreme sports or adventures. I'm not about to seek such challenges now in my mid-60s.

If that's so, some might wonder why my companion and I headed for the hills on a day when high-wind warnings were issued for Anchorage's Hillside. In fact, those big winds were predicted to arrive later in the day. The breezes that whooshed through birch and spruce trees early in our hike had a soothing nature. It was only when we ascended out of the forest and into subalpine habitat that it became clear we were entering a windstorm. By then, I was reluctant to turn around. Despite the roaring winds, the day was a beauty. And the hiking conditions were prime for a winter walk in the mountains.

Let's push on and turn around when things begin to get gnarly, I suggested to my companion.

Denali simply smiled and ran ahead.

A sweet-tempered, smallish dog who weighs about 35 pounds, my 3 1/2-year-old collie mix loves roaming the hills. And from what I can tell, she relishes a good challenge.

New normal

While many people have lamented the Anchorage area's mild and largely snow-poor winter, I have embraced what seems to be our region's "new normal" -- at least the past few years -- and visited the mountains far more often than I ordinarily do in winter. As long as a person has decent ice grippers for his (or her) feet, hiking in the Chugach foothills east of town has been consistently good and often superb.

It's a curious thing. As much as I love wilderness landscapes and the experiences to be found there, several years have passed since I went on an extended trip deep into Alaska's wildlands. It seems my own new normal, as a 60-something guy, is to do more exploring and hill climbing in the Chugach Mountains, usually on day hikes and especially in the Front Range that graces Anchorage's eastern edge.

I use the term "climbing" very loosely. I never became a skilled alpinist, so what I do is probably best described as scrambling. Or simply uphill and ridge-top walking. Most of the Front Range peaks are ideal for that sort of exploration.

And because the local snowpack has been thin in recent winters, I've found myself much higher in the hills than normal. For most of the 34 years I've called Anchorage home, I largely stuck to valley bottoms when skiing, snowshoeing or hiking the Chugach Mountains in winter, rarely venturing to ridgelines and summits. Yet this season I've made "first winter ascents" of several Chugach peaks and hilltops -- McHugh, Near Point, Rusty Point and Peak 2 (a neighbor of Flattop) come immediately to mind -- and for the first time in memory, I ascended Flattop in January. This isn't to brag; getting to the tops of these hills in winter is no big deal to many alpine recreationists. But it's a new ambition for me. And greatly satisfying.

Here's another thing: While many explorers constantly seek new ground and different challenges, I'm the sort who likes to repeatedly return to favorite spots and get to know them better. Wolverine Peak is a great example. It's not that I'm lured to its summit again and again; in fact Denali and I hiked to Wolverine's 4,491-foot top only once this past year. But I — we — love exploring the mountain's flanks and bowls, especially the east-west ridgeline that connects to 3,563-foot Rusty Point, and the alpine basin on that ridge's north side. Between May 2015 and January 2016, we explored that high country a dozen times or more.

Sheep of Rusty Point

Rusty Point has been a personal favorite for more than a decade. It first grabbed my attention when I lived on Anchorage's Hillside, the most prominent Chugach landmark visible from my yard. Sometimes, through binoculars, I would watch Dall sheep grazing on the green or brown slopes beneath the ridge. It seemed a remarkable thing, to watch wild sheep move about their alpine homelands while I stood in my suburban neighborhood, with its houses, streets, gardens, garbage pick-up and lawn mowers.

Eventually I ascended to Rusty Point and, looking back toward town (again through binoculars), located my neighborhood, street and even my house. That was a kick, but what has kept drawing me back since then are the solitude, the wildlife and the inevitable discoveries, whether dazzling wildflower meadows, wolf scat or unexpectedly rich patches of alpine blueberries.

Over time I've built something of an intimate relationship, not only with Rusty Point but that entire ridgeline. And I've done so with two dogs, first Coya and now Denali, both of them mixed-collie rescue dogs with a love for roving the hills. Coya was with me when I crossed paths with a wolverine on this ridgeline, an encounter that strengthened my connection to this place and gave it new meaning. A few years later, I spread some of her ashes at Rusty Point after she succumbed to a rare and virulent cancer. About a year after Coya's death, Denali entered my life and she's been exploring Anchorage and the Chugach Front Range with me ever since.

This past year, my relationship to the Wolverine Peak-Rusty Point area deepened in unexpected and exciting ways. First, while traversing the ridge on a Saturday afternoon in mid-May, I heard a kind of guttural calling. The voices were so unexpected, and unusual for high alpine tundra, that for a few moments I convinced myself I must be hearing the clucks of willow ptarmigan, coming from somewhere in the basin below. But the more closely I listened, the more certain I became: These were the hiccupy gulps of wood frogs. What could be stranger, or more marvelous, than to hear the love songs of frogs while walking a high alpine ridge?

It didn't take long to pinpoint the likely source of the calls: two small tundra ponds, not much bigger than large puddles, hundreds of feet below.

A stop at the ponds on our return to the trailhead confirmed my suspicions: six wood frogs were visible in one clear, shallow, tannin-stained pond, most of them stretched out in what appeared to be relaxed poses and two couples in a mating embrace.

I suppose it helps to be enamored of frogs and know something of their lifestyles to appreciate the delight that their presence in this tundra pool stirred in me. It seems wondrous enough that frogs inhabit Anchorage. But to find them in an alpine pond, at an elevation of close to 3,000 feet, wow!

Much more common here are Dall sheep and I always check for their presence when visiting the Wolverine Peak-Rusty Point area. The same day I heard the frogs, I spotted two distant sheep, lying atop a steep, rocky buttress. Through binoculars, I could make out a tiny lamb, cuddled against its mom. The lamb was the smallest I've ever seen, likely no more than a day or two old. Ewe and lamb lay quietly in the sun, hardly moving except for an occasional shift of one or the other's head. At least for the minutes that I watched, they seemed the perfect image of serenity, the lamb cuddled safe in its mother's embrace.

Blueberry surprise

Late August brought another rewarding discovery, when, hiking toward the Wolverine-Rusty Point ridgeline, I happened upon a rich patch of tundra "blues."

Over the years I've found some impressive blueberry patches on Wolverine's subalpine slopes, but these were located on the lower slopes of a rubbly alpine hillside where previously I'd never seen more than a scattering of the fruits. The more I checked around, the more blueberries I found growing close to the ground, plump and juicy.

I like combining berry picking with alpine hiking, so I normally don't collect more than a couple of quarts on any outing. Over the course of a few hikes, I gathered between a gallon or two blueberries, from a spot where I've never seen anyone else picking. (For good reason, I suppose; to reach the area a person has to hike more than 90 minutes from the trailhead.)

Hiking later in the fall, I decided to meander more widely through the bowl, curious to know if I'd missed some other rich patches. Yes, indeed; now softened and shriveled by sub-freezing temperatures, several gallons' worth of blueberries remained on the frosty tundra. I sampled a few, their tangy, purplish-blue juices darkening both hand and tongue.

Frozen frogs

Though pummeled by winds once we reach open tundra on our midwinter walk, I can't resist checking out those berry patches one more time. The groaning, whistling air seems to push across the alpine landscape in waves; moments of relative calm followed by extended gusts powerful enough to nudge me sideways. At times I have to brace myself to stand upright. The toothy ice grippers wrapped around my boots help me stay on my feet but once, caught off balance, the wind knocks me to my knees.

Denali, too, gets blown around, but my grinning dog seems to be having great fun. She loops across the largely bare, wind-swept tundra in great circles, runs out and back, snaps at small slabs of snow dislodged when I punch through hardened drifts.

Our path also takes us to the tundra pond where more than seven months earlier I watched frogs laze in warming sunshine. It's now one huge block of grayish ice. I can't help wonder how the frogs are doing in this largely snowless winter. My guess is that they're doing fine, for one simple reason: The species' overwintering strategy is to burrow into the ground and then huddle alone in shallow, earth- and snow-covered shelters, while temperatures drop and their bodies slowly stiffen, then literally freeze as they enter a state of suspended animation. How they do this is remarkable.

As air and ground temperatures drop toward freezing and below, the frogs' still and slowly hardening bodies internally remain hard at work for some time, with one organ kicking into overdrive.

While their eyes freeze into a whitened stare and ice crystals form in their abdominal cavity, the liver of hibernating wood frogs produces unusual amounts of glucose, a syrupy, sugar-rich solution. Entering the bloodstream, the glucose is flushed into all of the body's cells, which keeps them from icing up and also prevents dehydration or other damage. So freezing occurs only in spaces outside the cells.

By the time their winter preparations are complete, the wood frogs here, like elsewhere in the frigid north, will have frozen eyes, frozen limbs, frozen lungs, frozen liver and a frozen brain. In the end, even the heart freezes up. In all, about two-thirds of a wood frog's body will turn to ice. If you were to drop a frozen frog onto a hard surface, it would sound much like an ice cube. And if bent too far, its limbs will simply snap. And yet the animal is alive. Is this not something of a miracle?

My mind moves from the fantastic adaptations of wood frogs to memories of blueberry delights as we reach the hillside that stretches up to the Wolverine-Rusty Point ridgeline. I pick a few of the frozen, shriveled fruits and pop them into my mouth, but they now have little taste.

Turning my attention to the slope above me, I hike a couple of hundred feet higher and think briefly about going all the way to the ridge. But the gusting air seems fiercer now and is likely to be ripping along the exposed spine. So I'm content to stop, turn my back to the wind, and for several minutes peek out my hooded wind shell and watch streamers and plumes of snow and ice crystals race across the hillside.

It's a treat to be here with Denali at the edge of this alpine bowl, no sign of any other people or wildlife (where do Dall sheep take shelter in such conditions, I wonder), just the two of us, the frozen berries and other hardy alpine plants, the rocks and ice and snow, and of course the wind, roaring wildly across this landscape, scouring the snow and blasting against anything in its path.

Memories and stories

I'm confident we'll have other opportunities to go higher this winter. And we do. A week later, we ascend to the Wolverine-Rusty Point ridge on a glorious afternoon, with temperatures in the 20s, only light breezes, and a cloudy sky that opens up late in the afternoon to reveal expansive blue skies and golden sunlight.

This time we share the mountain with several commuting ravens, heading deeper into the mountains for the night. Denali, as usual, is far ahead on the final ascent and the ravens seem to take great pleasure in testing and teasing her. A few swoop low over my pup, within a few feet of her body. She ducks, then jumps at one bird. Other ravens land nearby and bait her into chases, back and forth across the hillside. I'm not worried about the birds' harassing play; only a few minutes behind, I'm confident they'll disperse and keep their distance once I catch up. Which they do. Dogs are fun to tease, but humans need to be avoided.

Later, while Denali is nosing around the tundra, I spot a distant shape that grabs my attention. When I put binoculars to eyes, it becomes the upper body of a Dall sheep. Stepping atop a rocky ledge, the animal stares intently in our direction. A few moments later, a second, smaller sheep -- a lamb -- joins what must be its mother. While we watch each other, I wonder if this could be the same pair I saw cuddled together in May. I descend from my own rocky perch and rejoin Denali in a protected tundra swale, where we snack on treats and I enjoy the presence of ravens, dozens of them now flying through the mountains.

Two weeks after that -- by now it's late January -- Denali and I make our first winter ascent to Rusty Point on another mild and largely calm afternoon. Snow has fallen since our last visit and there's been more drifting, especially up high. Though the danger of snow slides seems minimal given the patchwork of drifts and bare ground, I carefully pick my way along the ridge while staying on its gentler northern side, now and then dislodging small snow slabs an inch or two thick. Less cautious, Denali scampers about, occasionally making me anxious when she stands atop small cornices that extend over couloirs that drop steeply to the south. When I call to her she looks my way and grins, stubbornly staying put, until finally I move on. Then she follows.

Gradually the winds pick up, so we don't stay long upon reaching our destination. I scan the Front Range's peaks and valleys, then look toward my long-ago Hillside neighborhood and the Anchorage Bowl, then at Denali, the great peak of the Alaska Range. Memories and stories, all around me.

Again we have the entire upper mountain to ourselves, and we'll go more than three hours without seeing another person. Heading down from the ridge, I look toward Wolverine's summit. If we'd started earlier, this would have been a good day to climb up there. But the spring equinox is still nearly two months away, plenty of time for us to do a winter ascent of Wolverine, if that's what we choose.

I look toward Denali, ask what she thinks. She briefly returns my gaze then plunges downhill, her face in a grin, tail held high, having a great time.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit writes frequently about Alaska's wildlands and wildlife and is the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife". He's also contributed the essay that accompanies Carl Battreall's images in the book Chugach State Park: Alaska's Backyard Wilderness. On Feb. 13, he and Denali plus a bunch of other people and dogs hiked to the top of Wolverine Peak.

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