I'm one of those people who despise Alaska in the summer -- twenty hours of daylight, mosquitoes & biting black flies, not to mention hordes on the highways and tourists taking over the towns. My time is late winter/early spring when there's a "normal" proportion of day and night, snow for outdoor sports and photography not to mention the heightened activity of the Aurora Borealis or northern lights. So last March when business took me to Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula, I was thrilled to say the least. With snowshoes, cold weather gear and extra camera batteries packed away, I headed north to see what passes for early spring in the 49th state. But before describing these two great hikes, let me digress with a vignette on the "patience" in the subtitle.
Scheduling my arrival Friday night gave me a weekend in the Anchorage area. After breakfast on Saturday I headed up to the Glen Alps Trailhead, one of Anchorage's favorite near-in jumping-off spots for trips into Chugach State Park. At just over 2000 feet, the overlook gave me a good view of the city, Cook Inlet and the volcanic range on the north side of the inlet. But amid all this grandeur I was miserable. It was a cold, raw, overcast day, temperature around 20° with a stiff, biting wind, and even with three layers of clothing and my ski mask, I was freezing. Believing that a successful outdoor adventure must be at least be moderately enjoyable, I decided to call a weather delay on the snowshoeing and wait for Sunday when conditions certainly would be better.
Pulling back the hotel drapes on Sunday morning revealed a new 3-inch covering of white on my car and I could not see across the street. The front desk clerk told me snow was falling at over an inch an hour and it could keep on for an hour or two. That proved to be an enormous understatement. Based solely on the "several hour" estimate, my eternally optimistic-self predicted that I would be snowshoeing in the sunshine that afternoon. That in turn propelled me to Anchorage's REI store to buy a few cold weather additions to my inventory. Driving was exciting, even with minimal traffic, and by the time I returned to the hotel, 12 inches had fallen and the radio confirmed a continuing rate of an inch an hour throughout the afternoon and early evening. So much for my Sunday afternoon outing.
At breakfast the next morning the paper proudly proclaimed that 28.5 inches had fallen on Sunday, a record for Anchorage in a 24 hour period, even closing the airport for half of the day. Disgruntled tables of aircrews in the restaurant attested to this rescheduling, but the sun was finally out and it was beautiful…unfortunately it was also Monday morning and I had other commitments.
By Friday my business was finished, and I returned to Anchorage from Kenai. Saturday dawned sunny and I headed back to the Glen Alp Trailhead, and more specifically the Powerline Trail for my storm-delayed hike. As the name implies the trail follows the service road for a row of large electrical towers as it heads south and east up a broad, gently sloping canyon drained by the South fork of Campbell Creek. But before beginning on the trail, I again headed up the short overlook trail (just to the left of the restrooms) for a sun-drenched view of Anchorage and its surroundings.
It's about six miles from the trailhead up to Powerline Pass and the access is via one of two trails departing to the right of the restrooms. (One trail is for hikers one for bikers, both take you where you want to go.) The route to the pass is an out and back walk and you can bite off as much of it as you wish. I spent an entire day on the trail, but the snow was very deep powder, and it was slow going. It seemed to me that the mountains might have gotten twice the 28 inches dumped on the city, but it was hard to tell. After a brief descent from the 2200' trailhead, the route climbed gradually up the broad canyon to the pass at about 3500'. The terrain was only lightly forested so visibilities were expansive. Signs at the trailhead warned of avalanche danger, but the trail looked safe to me, and I had ample company. I was sharing the main canyon with a number of cross-country skiers (snow machines, Alaskan for snowmobiles, were also there but were restricted to a corridor on the far right side of the valley.) I took two opportunities to explore the left side of the canyon, areas where single tract summer trails go deeper into Chugach State Park but I stopped at the canyon's edge unsure about the avalanche condition on the other side. All in all this outing proved to be an easy-to-reach outdoor experience virtually in Anchorage's backyard. And the transmission towers make it almost impossible to get lost.
Flying into Fairbanks for the second stop on my trip, I could tell that the city had not been affected by the huge storm that hit Anchorage, but there proved to be enough snow on the ground for snowshoeing. I had already decided to try a night walk north of town along the Alaskan Oil Pipeline - night because I wanted to get a view of the northern lights and the pipeline because it had a well-cleared path beside it that is easy to follow even by starlight. A maintenance road parallels the entire 800-mile pipeline, along a right-of-way that must be 30 yards wide. This makes nighttime navigation through the forest fairly easy, and the swath exists even when the pipeline is underground, as is the case in several sections along this walk.
The University of Alaska Northern Lights Prediction Center had rated the next few days as "active" on their website, and now all I needed was a clear night. For reasons related to the physics of the light-producing-phenomena, the spring and fall equinoxes are usually above average for lights activity. One unpleasant fact of northern lights life is that midnight to 2AM is the period of optimal activity.
Two days later, I got my clear skies, so with camera, tripod, snowshoes and warm clothing, I set off a little after 11PM from the visitor's center. Turning right to follow the pipeline along the road on the left side of the elevated pipe, I crunched along on the frozen snow. The night was moonless and calm with the temperature about 10°. Shortly the trail doglegged to the left and descended into what is probably the best lights viewing area on the route – I was tempted to stay there, but I knew I'd stay warmer walking.
I continued hiking for an hour up a long hill (the pipeline was underground at this point) to a position where the lights of the city began to become apparent. So far they were the only lights I had seen, and going farther would have made seeing, much less photographing, the Aurora very risky. Besides in all candor I was getting tired, and it was with a diminished sense of anticipation that I turned around and headed back down the hill.
Halfway to the car, I thought I saw movement in the sky. At first it seemed like a reflection in my glasses but soon a fairly sharp greenish strobe penetrated the sky to the northeast. Then the strobe broadened and began to undulate. Out came my tripod, camera, headlamp, remote shutter release, etc. and the show began. I tried to be careful to keep the lens headed into the most intense lights but yet out of any man-made light source. I also bracketed my exposures (one, two, and four minutes at ASA 100) and most of the longer exposures turned out well. Soon yellow and then red light entered the patterns and the overall movement slowed. I tried, but didn't always succeed, to keep a ground reference, or horizon, in every scene, as a snowy foreground seems to add interest to Aurora photos. My tired brain tried but failed to estimate what effect the movement of the lights would have on the clarity of the pictures -- none as it turned out, but I should have been using ASA 200 or pushing a stop or two to compensate for the movement. But what does happen with the slower film is the stars are portrayed in vivid colors, particularly blues and bronzes, albeit it with some blurring. How the film over a period of several minutes sees these colors when the human eye doesn't is beyond me, much like so many things in life these days.
It was a weary but happy hiker/photographer who tumbled into bed at 4:30AM back at the hotel. For a few seconds I thought about the patience thing again, and the next thing I knew the alarm was going off.
Glen Alps Trailhead from Anchorage: Take the New Seward Highway (Alaska Highway 1) south from the center of town to the O'Malley exit and turn east (toward the mountains) 3.7 miles to Hillside Drive. Turn right on Hillside and go one mile to Upper Huffman and turn left. Follow Upper Huffman for .7 miles to Toilsome Hill Road (only one direction -- up) which will turn into Glen Alps Road. One and nine-tenths miles from Huffman you'll find the parking lot for the trailhead. Parking is $5 and is on the honor system. The half-mile Anchorage Overlook Trail departs the parking lot from the "downhill" side of the lot, left of the restrooms. Access to the Powerline Trail is via one of two (take your pick) trails leaving the parking lot just to the right of the restrooms. Junction with the P.L. Trail is about a half mile away from the lot and you will see signs for it at the beginning of the access trails.
The best place for information and maps in Anchorage is the Alaska Public Lands Information Center 605 West 4th in the Old Federal Building (907) 271-2737.
Map: Chugach State Park available at the PLIC mentioned above.
Distance: As far as you want to go; route described 12 miles out and back.
The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline Viewpoint from Fairbanks: The easiest place to access the pipeline is from the viewpoint (AKA the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company Visitor's Center and it is closed from October to April) and it can be reached off the Steese Highway. The Steese Highway (Alaska Highway 2) begins on the eastside of Fairbanks at Airport Way and Highway 2. Going south on #2 (from Airport) puts you on the Richardson Highway, while going north on #2 puts you on the Steese. Follow the Steese 8.4 miles out of town and the center will be on your right. There is a large parking area and you would be well served to acquaint yourself with the access during daylight hours.
To access, follow path past the visitor's center building (on your right) under the pipeline and turn right just after crossing under the pipe. Keep on the left side of the pipe until it goes underground and then it doesn't matter. The forest will be cleared along the access and it will be easy to follow in starlight and the snow makes everything even brighter.
The best place for information and maps in the Fairbanks area is the local Alaskan Public Lands Information Center (downstairs in the historic Courthouse Square) 250 North Cushman Street (907) 456-0527, although you really don't need a map to follow the pipeline. The Public Lands folks also have videos on the Northern Lights. The University of Alaska Northern Lights Prediction Center website is: http://www.pfrr.alaska.edu/~pfrr/aurora/INDEX.HTM
Distance: Just as far as you want to go; my route described totaled about 5 miles out and back.