Autumn seems to rush past us like a gust of wind, and try as we might; it’s difficult if not impossible to prolong it so we can savor the brilliant colors, brisk mornings and snow-dusted mountain tops.
One method that works to a small degree is to get outdoors as often as possible, and when doing so, look closely at the little things, the subtle changes that are precursors to winter. In a previous article I wrote about trying to suspend time, and I suppose that is what I intended to do on September 22, when I retraced steps taken last year and hiked up a trail in Alaska not far from Denali National Park.
It was a bluebird day, with 20,237-foot Denali (formerly named Mt. McKinley) and its neighboring giants looming white on the western horizon. The temperature was about 45 degrees Fahrenheit as I began my hike. But I guessed that up on North America’s highest peak it was not much above 10-15 degrees.
Working my way through the woods on a rather muddy trail, I nearly stepped on a few Spruce grouse that erupted suddenly into flight, disappearing into the trees. Ascending the 3.4-mile trail, I noticed frost crystals had formed from the previous night’s dip in temperature. The crystals were now melting in the warming sun.
Cllmbing onto the ridge at about 2,000 feet, I noted that the autumn colors were not nearly as vibrant as they were the previous year. I was about a week and a half too late for that. Most of the blueberries had already fallen off their vines, but some of the vestigial fruit remained for the picking. The black bears, a common sight in this area, had probably given up on berry foraging and descended to streams where they might find salmon.
My route took me past a small lake that had apparently begun to freeze the night before while the wind was blowing. Small waves that had lapped onto shore were frozen in place, a stark reminder of winter’s rapid advance.
In autumn I attempt to seek out such things—the transitions. The frozen waves reminded me of an autumn many years ago when I was moose hunting with my stepdad. His type of hunting involves waiting, so at dusk we staked ourselves out at the edge of a big clearing.
It was chilly for just sitting around—about 35 degrees—and as a teenager I was incredibly bored. But my boredom was soon interrupted by a mosquito that touched down on my hand. I was about to swipe it away when I realized it had hardly any life in it. It wasn’t trying to bite me. It was just sitting there, and I theorized it was just seeking out some warmth.
Just for curiosity I blew on it lightly, and it seemed to come to life. It flew a small distance into the air, then returned back to my hand. This went on for quite a while; the mosquito just didn’t want to leave the warmth of my hand. The situation kept me entertained while my stepdad peered out into the meadows. It seemed obvious that the insect had come to the end of its lifespan. I speculated that my warmth was keeping him alive.
Reaching for the crest
I continued to hike upward, boulder hopping on rocks coated with black algae. I finally reached the ridge at about 3,800 feet, where my boots left tracks in a thin layer of new snow.
I had a late lunch as I took in the view, the high tundra lakes to the east brilliant blue in the mid-day sun. There was no wind and the sun’s warmth seemed to be saying, “Winter is coming soon, but not just yet.”
After about half an hour I headed down, taking it all in, trying to hold onto every moment. I passed by the small lake again, and in the brief time during my ascent its frozen waves had melted.
In the pervasive silence I sensed something else, something quite difficult to describe. It was an expectancy, as if the land were waiting. This was that precious moment that I had been seeking. The land was waiting for winter, and for an instant in time, I felt like I was part of it.