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Spring Angel Rock hike is both invigorating, desolate

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Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2012 12:15 am

FAIRBANKS — If there was snow down here, what was it going to be like up there?

That’s the thought that went through my mind as we started up the Angel Rocks Trail last weekend in the Chena River State Recreation Area.

There were still big piles of snow in shaded spots on the first mile of trail that paralleled the Chena River.

Fortunately — depending on how you look at it, since it was the first week of May — the snow was frozen as hard as concrete so we could walk right over the top of it, but I couldn’t help wonder what the trail was going to be like higher up.

Snow isn’t something I normally have to worry about when hiking the 8 1/2-mile trail from Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs. Usually it’s gold leaves that are falling, not snow. We typically hike the trail in July, August or September, when the Chena River valley is sea of lush green or gold, depending on if the leaves have changed color yet, and the blueberry bushes are loaded with fat, juicy berries.

But with my son’s seventh-grade class planning to hike the Angel Rocks Trail last Thursday, which also happened to coincide with a day off for me, I couldn’t resist seeing what the trail would be like in early spring.

Snow on top

The patches on the first mile of the trail were the only snow we encountered on the way up Angel Rocks, a relatively short but steep, two-mile climb. The trail was surprisingly dry, probably because it was still frozen. The temperature had dipped into the 20s the previous two nights and barely reached freezing during the day. We could see where the trail had previously thawed when temperatures were warmer, evidenced by footprints frozen into what used to be mud.

I was counting on the cold temperatures to work to my advantage. If there was still snow on top of the ridge leading to the hot springs, which I was sure there would be, I was hoping it would be frozen enough so that I could walk over the top of it instead of postholing into it.

While the kids stopped to enjoy the view and eat lunch on the rock formations at the top of the trail before heading back down to the trailhead, I turned right and continued up the ridge on the trail leading to the hot springs. My two canine companions, Hobbes, a 9-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, and Raymond, a 6-year-old chocolate Labrador/Chesapeake Bay retriever mix, came along.

It wasn’t long until we ran into snow. As I’d hoped, it was frozen hard enough that both the dogs and I could walk on top without punching through, but I could see where someone before me had postholed their way up the trail in warmer weather, following in snowshoe tracks someone had made earlier in the winter.

The snow made for easier walking than the normal trail in some of the rockier sections leading up to the ridge top and it also provided water for the dogs, which meant I didn’t have to share what little water I was carrying with them. Whenever they got thirsty, they just reached down and grabbed a bite of snow.

In some places, the trail was bare and obvious. In other spots, it was buried under three or four feet of rock-hard snow. The only signs of the trail were small pieces of pink flagging tied to bushes.

The dogs, of course, could have cared less. They ran this way and that, doing what dogs do best — peeing on bushes, scooping up mouthfuls of snow and sniffing anything there was to sniff.

Gray and lifeless

With greenup still a week or two away, the patches of ivory-white snow also offered the only color to be seen for miles once we crested the ridge above tree line at 3 Mile. The hills and valleys that are so full of life and color later in the summer and fall were about as desolate and black and white as it gets for as far as the eye could see it. The distant mountains were topped with a fresh layer of white on an otherwise gray canvas. The only sign of life I saw as I traversed the ridge was an occasional pile of old caribou poop on the trail.

Even so, there was something beautiful about the bleak, lifeless, silent landscape. There was something invigorating about knowing that in a few weeks the hillsides would be awash in a fresh coat of green and flowers would be popping out of the rocky ground.

Likewise, there was something foreboding about knowing that in less than four months those same hillsides that had yet to turn green would be covered in a carpet of gold leaves and the blueberry bushes now buried under three feet of snow would be past their prime.

Only in Alaska, where summer is so short and winter is so long, can we be thinking about fall before spring has even sprung.

It was a thought I tried not to dwell on as we descended the ridge and headed back into the trees above Chena Hot Springs for the last few miles of the hike.

Still, it felt good to be out in the country just before it burst to life. It made me want to return. It won’t be long before Alaska awakens.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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