Friday, December 9, 2011

Remembrance of a Warmer Climb - Eagle Trail State Recreation Area, Fall 2011

View of the Tok River Valley from trail's end
 I should have taken more photos, but it was only going to be a short walk before breakfast—just a 2.5 mile stroll to a spot overlooking the Tok River valley, then back to the truck and a drive in to Tok in time for breakfast. Yeah, that’s the way it was supposed to be.
We had driven down to the Mentasta Pass area at the end of September for an extended weekend and camped the last night at the Eagle Trail State Recreation Area (16 miles south of Tok on the Glenn Highway). It’s a lovely campground located next to Clearwater Creek and at the base of the Mentasta Mountains. Many opportunities for hiking, including a short nature trail on a portion of the old Slana Cut-off—a road (following the old Valdez-Eagle Trail) constructed by the military during World War II to link the new Alcan Highway with the community of Slana, 60 miles to the south.
The nature trail hike the evening before had been an easy outing and we figured the slightly longer lookout trail would only be a little tougher.  A map at the trailhead vaguely outlined the trail but didn’t show topography, trail length, or how much rise in elevation to expect.
The lookout trail started about a half mile up the nature trail, and in hindsight, perhaps the flight of stairs that led to the upper trail was a hint (which we didn’t take). After the first short steep rise the trail led along the edge of a ridge through spruce and aspen to an opening overlooking the valley. There was a bench there and as we sat down I thought to myself, what a lovely little hike.
Along the trail
But the trail didn’t end there and we pressed on, up through the spruce forest—along the occasional zigzags that didn’t show on the map—the brief 45-degree rises—always up.  It was a beautiful clear day and a nice trail (with benches to rest on occasionally) but we soon began wondering how much higher—how much further it was to trail’s end.
Out biggest failing was not bringing along a water bottle. (After all, the hike was only supposed to last an hour or so.) Fortunately, there were lots of ripe low-bush cranberries along the trail, and we ate berries to slake out thirst. (Not a bad before-breakfast appetizer I thought.)
An occasional grouse crossed out path, and robins and grey jays flitted about, but otherwise we saw no animals. There were occasional moose tracks though, and black bear scat.  The bear scat wasn’t fresh enough to be of immediate concern, so we pressed on.
Betsy at the top
We finally reached the lookout and it was well worth the effort. The rocky outcropping at trail's end was about 1,500 feet elevation above the valley floor (our starting point) and provided a panoramic view of the Tok River valley. The rocks were nature-made chairs (some with backrests) and if a person brought along binoculars it would be a great place to spot game. (Oh well, another item to add to the take-along list.)
The trip to the top had taken about 1 ½ hours—not the anticipated 30 minutes. We had abandoned hope of getting to Tok in time for breakfast, but we were hungry, so reluctantly started back down the trail.
Me at the top
Bear scat at the top of the trail was fresher than at the bottom, so we talked and made noise on the way down. My wife. Betsy, does a pretty mean raven imitation, and as we descended she cawed or clucked periodically. To our great surprise AND amusement, at one point her raven impersonation raised an alarm throughout the grey jay population. We were suddenly surrounded by a cacophony of jays, evidently warning each other about the intruder. The only thing I can figure is that ravens and grey jays are competitors and the thought of a raven in their territory was more than the jays could stand.
Knowing there was water and food back at the truck, our pace quickened and the trip down the trail took half the time of the ascent (making the total round-trip time about 2 ½ hours). We didn’t make it to Tok until lunch time (which means we missed the really great biscuits and gravy at the White Bear Café), but we do not regret our “little” jaunt up the mountain.