Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cold and Clear, Autumn Hikes Take Priority

Gold Creek

I was in the lead of a small group of loosely acquainted hikers recently, heading up a trail toward the sandy alluvium at the mouth of Gold Creek, a striking stream that cuts through the mountainside about three miles from town.  I had only just met one of the women hiking with us – a registered nurse new to Valdez.  Another of our compatriots that day was a friend with whom I’ve hiked on a number of occasions.  A fourth acquaintance joined in at the trailhead.  My husband, Matt, the instigator of the hike, brought up the rear.
 The group had thrown aside household chores, honey-do’s, and other obligations to take to the hillside path under a clear autumn sky.  Temperatures were anything but warm, yet the draw of beaming sunshine was impossible to deny.  In Valdez, we are used to rain and wind and snow – it’s coastal, after all – but, the past year has been so gray and wet that even hardened Valdezans have taken to grumbling.  This summer the temperature in town hit 70 only once.  July was the coldest July on record.  During the month of September, two major rain storms resulted in flooding throughout the community – basements had to be pumped, the park strip turned into a rice paddy, and the highway through the narrow Keystone Canyon was closed for fear of inundation.  After recording 26” of rain, the National Weather Service declared that month to have set the record for the wettest September ever.

Trail to Gold Creek
So, in October, when the clouds miraculously dissipated and cold air settled into the Valdez Arm, Valdezans emerged from their homes, awed by the sun.  Some people took advantage of the dry conditions to catch up on work around the house that had been put off during wet weather, but not us.  Our hiking cohort played hooky all afternoon.

The hike to Gold Creek is not difficult.  It gains a few hundred feet in elevation over its course and much of the way it is nearly level.  On the day we hiked, the ground had frozen solid and we were able to easily walk across earth that had, just days before, been ankle deep mud and standing water.  The tide was receding and even the grassy flats that are often swampy with seawater were dry.  Here and there, running streams trickled under ice lenses and above us, ice falls were forming on exposed cliffs.
Ice Falls forming on the Icy Point Trail

Willow and alder, the bane of Valdez hikers during summer months, were bare and regressed from the trail.  Straw-like grasses lay dormant.  Bronzed ferns were crispy curlicues.  Limp cow parsnip plants retained watery green streaks in their leaves and hollow stalks.

When we arrived at Gold Creek, the land bore evidence of the torrential rains of the past month.  The spit where our trail reached sea level again was completely washed in sediment from the flooding creek.  The campsites were washed out and sand covered the ground through the brushy groves.  A stalwart foot bridge was partially buried in gravel and stood askew, having been bombarded by trees and shrubs ripped up and carried down stream.  When we arrived, the creek was back in its banks, lazily meandering out across the ginger-hued grass lands to the ocean. 

Another great fall hike:  Snowslide Gulch - 18 Mile
At the mouth of Gold Creek, we took a long break, enjoying the glare of the sunshine off the white-capping ocean, the soft give of the sandy earth, and the bracing wind that brought with it the reminder that winter was not far away.

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