Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My PFD Came One Day Early On Blackerby Ridge

Every time I looked at the weather forecast, I had to rub my eyes. The rain followed by showers followed by more rain was easy to believe. But what was this sunny weather predicted in the middle of the week? At one point the forecaster was bold enough to call for “abundant sunshine”, which remains one of my favorite weather descriptions. Plans needed to be made.

Scott already committed to a nordic ski trail project for the day, so I had to go through my list of potential hiking partners. Some could not take time off work; others were out of town or had conflicting plans. I was on my own.
When I was working full-time I used to love to take every possible chance to go up in the mountains alone. I savored the peace and solitude away from the downtown crowds I dealt with on a daily basis in our retail shop. Since I’ve retired I’m not so anxious to be alone, but rather enjoy the opportunity to talk and socialize on the trail with friends. Still, if I was going to hike alone, at least I knew how to handle myself after many years of solo travel.

Wednesday, October 1 – we measure our sunny days in Juneau one by one this year, now officially the rainiest year on record. A thick early morning fog promised clear skies in just a few hours as I drove to the Blackerby Ridge trail head. I had no illusions about the condition of the trail before me, which is a steep, nasty climb through the woods under the best of circumstances. But with all the rain this summer and fall I knew it would be a muddy scramble most of the way to tree line. After that, I would probably be up to my ankles in fresh snow. The clear skies and unlimited views from the ridge would be my reward.

I am not as familiar with the Blackerby Ridge trail as I am with the Spaulding trail, which I’ve memorized turn by turn. But to help the time go by as I climbed up alone, I pretended that I really did know each section of the trail and could visualize what was ahead. I surprised myself that I actually was very familiar with many parts of the trail – the climb up next to the huge fallen tree, the steep dirt cliff with a fixed line, the fallen tree trunk with the step cut into it, where the trail went left and then right and then straight up again. Looks like I need to add this route to my bedtime visualization exercises.

Soon enough I was up to the first meadow that offers a breathtaking view of Mt. Juneau. This is the moment when all doubts about being alone are instantly erased. I wanted to pull my camera out and start taking photos, but I was too anxious to keep moving until I was right on the ridge. Up until now I had kept my good camera with the telephoto lens protected from the wet, muddy trail and didn’t want to take the time to dig it out quite yet. I would soon regret that decision.

As I climbed through the scattered brush and trees to the open ridge, a slight movement above caught my eye. I was astounded to see a large mountain goat lightly tripping down the hiking trail without a care in the world. He had no idea he was headed straight for me. I held my breath and slowly sank to my knees, silently cursing to myself for not having my camera out. I fumbled at my pack’s side pockets, never taking my eyes off of the goat who was now less than 50 feet away from me. I managed to grab my smartphone and slowly raised it to snap some photos. The goat spotted me and stopped still. Because I was kneeling, I don’t think he could figure out what I was. I kept very quiet and took as many pictures as I could, praying that one of them would turn out. Finally I put the phone down and just stared back at him. He was only 30 feet away and still checking me out, moving his head a little from side to side. I quietly said, “It’s o.k. I’m not going to do anything. I just want to go hiking on the ridge.” He started a little, and then seemed to catch my scent as he whirled and disappeared up the trail so fast I could barely keep my eyes on him.
My original goal was to hike on the ridge and take photos, maybe look for mountain goats and try to capture them with my telephoto lens. But within the first 90 minutes of my hike I’d already come closer to a goat than I ever had in my life and I wasn't even on the ridge yet. Lesson learned: always keep my camera at hand when I go outdoors, no matter what.

I probably wasn't going to see goats or any other wildlife on the ridge as I'd originally hoped, because it was covered in new snow and my footprints were the only prints evident for a long distance. Instead, I soaked in the views of the newly snow covered peaks. A falcon circled overhead and a group of ravens played in the wind thermals, shooting up and floating in random, playful patterns against the blue sky.

I knew right away that I would not try to go up Cairn Peak at the end of the ridge, although there was plenty of time. Since I was alone and not sure of the footing in the fresh snow on the steeper sections, I decided not to risk it. I later learned a small group of runners came over Observation and Cairn Peak from Granite Creek after I left the ridge and they said the footing was good, but I tend to be more cautious when hiking in the mountains without a partner.

I traveled to the last high point on the ridge before it drops over to Cairn Peak, stopping and looking around and trying to take it all in. The clear, brilliant sky was difficult to comprehend, my mind was so fogged by the endless succession of rainy days, but I did my best to enjoy it. Summer was most certainly over, and the chilly breeze along the ridge kept me bundled in layers I hadn’t had to wear since early last spring.

As I wandered the length of the ridge, I gazed at all the delights the unusually brilliant weather had to offer. The sky was so clear I could see Mt. Fairweather in Glacier Bay National Monument, rising over 15,000 feet high and about 100 miles distant. The peaks of the Juneau Icefield looked close enough to touch, and the new snow on the previously bare rock had a lacy, decorative look. Douglas Island and Admiralty Island were lush with green, red, and gold fall colors.
Mt. Fairweather - 15,325'
The ravens continued to fight for my attention, swirling so close overhead that I heard the rush of their wings as they approached me from behind. They perched boldly on the ridge in front of me, waiting until the last second to take off again and begin their acrobatics. I studied the falcons that occasionally appeared more closely. One was small and swift – perhaps a sharp shinned hawk? The larger one I positively identified as a peregrine falcon, although my camera was not quick enough to capture it.

I looked for a wind protected spot to eat some lunch, and settled behind a rock where hundreds of ground blueberries glistened in the midst of the cold, crunchy heather. They tasted slightly past their prime, a little sour, but not bad. When I first raised my hand to my mouth I started with fright – it was dripping with red and I thought maybe I’d cut myself on a sharp rock further down the ridge. Closer inspection revealed it was only blueberry juice, and I laughed out loud.

I leisurely picked my way back, stopping to take more photos and admiring the 360 degree view of mountains, blue sky, glaciers, and fresh snow; basically trying to put off the inevitable stumble down through the woods as long as possible. I kept hoping to see my friend the goat once more, but he stayed well hidden. One of the runners reported seeing him later that day when they descended, so he must not have wandered too far. I wondered what the odds were of having another close encounter like that again in my life.

Stumble, trip, half-fall, catch myself, keep moving down and try my best not to twist an ankle – that’s how I descend the lower part of the Blackerby Ridge trail. Going uphill taxes the lungs and leg strength, and going downhill challenges balance and coordination, so it’s a full mind/body workout. I played the trail memory game backwards, and once again was pleasantly surprised at how many little details I recalled, which helps the time go by so much faster on a rough descent.

Back at sea level, one could almost pretend it was a cool, late summer day as the sun continued to shine and runners jogged along Twin Lakes in shorts and t-shirts. Tomorrow would bring a sure sign of fall – the annual PFD (Permanent Fund Dividend) issued to all Alaska residents on October 2. I sighed with a happy tiredness, and smiled as I considered that I’d received my own PFD one day early this year: the priceless gift of a Perfect Fall Day in the mountains.