With a dearth of snowfall this winter and unseasonably warm temperatures, winter has eluded some of us in Alaska, particularly those in the southcentral region near Anchorage. For whatever reason—climate change or shifting jet streams—I have a timeworn remedy, using one of these approaches: 1) Gain elevation, for example, go to one of the nearby passes; 2) Go north to a higher latitude via one of our few highways.
So, fed up with the lack of snow and drizzling rain, friend Jeff Worrell and I loaded snowshoes and gear into my car and headed north about 150 miles to Hurricane Gulch on the Parks Highway. Located only about 45 miles south of Denali National Park, this would almost be considered Interior Alaska.
We knew we were in winter as soon as we stepped out of the car. It was about 10:30 a.m. and the temperature felt like 20 degrees Fahrenheit, chilled somewhat by a breeze out of the north. And taking our first steps into the woods, it appeared that the snow depth was about three feet. (On most years in this area, the depth would have been six to eight feet).
The relatively shallow snow depth made the going a bit more difficult, because the snow didn’t cover up the thick brush along our route on the south side of Hurricane Gorge. The plus side of that, however, was that the nearly impenetrable brush blocked snow machiners (aka snowmobilers, for those in the Lower 48). This allowed us some serenity as we traversed the flats toward the low foothills above the gorge.
With my old-school 56-inch wooden snowshoes (equipped with high-tech bindings) I floated easily over the soft snow, sinking in only a few inches. Jeff’s shorter snowshoes sunk in a few inches more, but threading our way through the clumps of alders and willows, we made good progress.
I’ve asked REI and other outlets why snowshoe manufacturers don’t make a long, high-tech version, somewhere in the 56-70 inch range, and they’ve offered no real explanation. On numerous occasions I’ve been out with the shorter, high-tech snowshoes and had a horrible time—sinking in a foot or more. I now keep my 56-inch wooden snowshoes in my garage, where they are readily accessible, rather than my storage shed.
By 2 p.m. we reached a plateau at about 3,000 feet elevation that afforded a great view to the northeast into the headwaters of Hurricane Creek; due north toward the open expanse of Broad Pass that ramps up to the small community of Cantwell; and west to Denali, with wispy clouds huddling around its 20,237-foot, snow-clad summit—the highest point in North America.
The wind subsided and the temperature rose to about 25 degrees. So for about half an hour we enjoyed the view, ate some lunch and basked in the warm sun. On the north side of the gorge about a mile away came the unmistakable whine of snow machine engines. We then spotted their tracks crossing relatively steep terrain and some definite avalanche chutes. But from our vantage point, the area’s slopes seemed to be stable, and having side-hilled a relatively steep slope to reach this point, we heard no settling snow, or “whomping” sounds.
Several years ago I skied into the area, but descended down into Hurricane Gorge in search of ptarmigan. For most of its distance, the gorge has quite steep walls, and I can recall having difficulties climbing back out of there.
Every year seems to bring different conditions. In March 2014, I snowshoed to the same general area that Jeff and I had reached; but there was a firm crust and I didn’t even sink in an inch. With those conditions, I could have climbed some of the nearby peaks without too much difficulty.
Backtracking over our trail, Jeff commented it was “rejuvenating” to get out into real “winter.” Looking back over our shoulders in late afternoon, we noticed that the moon was more than three-quarters full.
“Wish I didn’t have to work tomorrow,” Jeff said. “It would be great to camp up here for a night. With the moon it will be bright, and maybe the aurora would come out.”
I agreed, and we made tentative plans to do that on another trip.
I learned a long time ago not to wait for seasons to come to me, but to go out and discover them. Spring will most likely come to we Alaskans early this year—heck, there is hardly enough snow for the classic Iditarod Sled Dog Race—but I’ll probably be out “finding” it before most people think it has arrived. I’ve created my own calendar and assign my own definitions to the seasons.
Frank Baker is a member of Garage Grown Gear's storytelling team and a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River, Alaska, near Anchorage. To contact Frank: firstname.lastname@example.org.