Chugach State Park
|A summer tradition|
Most years, overcast and often drizzly weather is the summer norm in Chugach State Park, so when the sun does shine, crowds of people come out to play. Especially on weekends. On a midsummer Sunday afternoon, with the sun shining hotly, the Eagle River Nature Center's parking lot is filled to capacity. Outside the center, a group of backpackers who've just completed the twenty-six-mile Crow Pass crossingChugach's most popular overnight routerelax and trade tales from the trail. Other visitors stroll a nearby nature trail with interpretive signs and a salmon-viewing deck. Inside the log structure, volunteers answer visitor questions and offer advice.
About twenty-five road miles from downtown Anchorage along the park's northwestern edge, the nature center is one of Chugach's primary gateways and gathering spots. Among its chief attractions are natural history displays, spotting scopes, and year-round naturalist programs ranging from mushroom identification to bird-watching walks and midwinter stargazing.
People constantly move in and out. Some have questions about trail conditions; others ask about camping, giardia, or wildlife. "There's so much paranoia about bears," says a center staffer. "People are constantly asking, 'Are the bears out today?' or 'Any bear attacks today?' " Truth is, black bears are commonly seen along the Crow Pass Trail but attacks by either black or grizzly bears anywhere in Chugach State Park are extremely rare. During the park's first twenty-nine years, only two people were killed by a bear defending a moose carcass.
Still, bears seem to be on the minds of many visitors, especially tourists, so at least once a summer, and usually more, the center hosts a bear-awareness program. By summer's end, more than 50,000 people will stop here, making it the single biggest attraction on Chugach's northern end. For many, it's the only Chugach experience they'll have; for others, it's the starting point for even grander park adventures, both land- and water-based.
Coming home to Chugach
Late October. Winter has returned to the Chugach Mountains. The afternoon sun casts a warm, golden glow on the landscape, but the warmth is an illusion; a cold, chilling wind rips down the mountainside. The wind plays games with snow that fell earlier in the week. Pick up the snow here, move it over there. The same wind that reshapes the landscape bites at my face as I walk up Flattop. With summer giving way to winter, Alaska's most-climbed peak is now cold and forbidding. Snow and subfreezing temperatures have chased away the crowds.
Suddenly the world goes silent, except for the wheezing of lungs, as I ascend a steep gully that momentarily shields me from the wind. Flattop's last twenty to thirty feet can be intimidating in winter. Wind-built snowdrifts accumulate at the top of the chute, creating a near-vertical drop-off. It's not bad when the footing is solid and the snowpack stable; but when the snow is crumbly or a heavy load has been freshly deposited... well, even Flattop can offer risks not worth taking. On this day, there are no such problems. The snow is powdery but compact.
Finally, I'm on top. The wind again howls and cuts through my clothing. I retreat from the edge and Anchorage disappears from view. All that's left are the mountains. Private moments such as these are among my happiest times in Chugach State Park. It's been a good day, a good climb. Rejuvenated, I descend.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication