It’s a known fact Southeast Alaska possesses the biggest and best wildlife and wilderness recreation opportunities in the world. Bald eagles fly higher, have better vision and are more hygienic here than anywhere else. Humpback whales are 30 percent larger, better looking and sing jazzier songs than their Atlantic counterparts. Alaskan brown bears are not only significantly bigger than their brethren in the Lower 48, but they’re also more personable and open to communication. Many naturalists have documented bears responding well to interpersonal assertions known as “I messages”, and think their sometimes aggressive behavior may be inspired by low self-esteem, abandonment issues and post traumatic stress from occasions when their dads tried to eat them.
For wilderness recreation, not only does Alaska have the biggest and best mountains to climb and ski, we also have some of the world’s most exciting slogs. For those not familiar with the term, a slog is an activity dating back to the ancient involving walking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. It’s usually very slow and ungraceful. You don’t have to be coordinated or athletic, and you can do it just about anywhere. My favorite thing about slogging is that it slows my mind and body down, and makes me more cognizant of the world I’m traveling through.
Slogging will likely become the next big thing in the pantheon of outdoor activities once everyone realizes how boring skiing, climbing and whitewater kayaking are. In preparation for the “slog fever” that will soon break out, I’m working on creating a magazine, a guide book and a fashionably sensitive yet practical clothing line for slogging.
My go-to winter slog is a hike and snowshoe up Thunder Mountain. The mountain has two maintained trails. One route begins just past Glacier Valley Elementary School at the end of Jennifer Drive. The other begins at a pullout on Old Glacier Highway a little north of the DOT building. The initial stretch of each trail, especially in the winter, can be a little bit of labyrinth.
On Jan. 9, I parked at the end of Jennifer Drive and started off through the rain and gloom with the hopes of being rewarded with a pretty view or an encounter with wildlife, something an afternoon walk in the mountains is usually good for. A network of trails snake through the swamps and forest surrounding Jordan Creek. I followed a newly-built fancy walkway and took the first small and unmarked trail to the right, which led to the mountainside. From there, I hopped across Jordan Creek and followed a snowed-in trail up a steep hillside to a bench covered with blown down trees. Old mountain goat tracks followed the route for a short while before turning toward a cliff. At the top of the next steep section there is a mellow ridge that can be followed all the way to the top of the mountain. I strapped on snowshoes, plodded through the wet snow and studied a variety of animal tracks crisscrossing the forest floor. A squirrel had scurried from one tree to the next. Nearby, an ermine’s bounding tracks showed the little predator took a brief interest in the squirrel’s tracks before continuing its hunt elsewhere. Faint, nearly symmetrical tracks of a small rodent led from one burrow-hole in the snow to the next. Miniature dinosaur-like tracks of a porcupine wound around the base of a massive spruce tree covered in ice-rime. A flock of ravens swooped through trees, frantically hooting and hollering, engaged in a wild game of horseplay.
At about two miles from the road, I passed the junction where the Jennifer Drive trail and DOT trail connect. The tracks of a marten, its large furry paws preventing it from sinking into the deep snow, bounded along the fringe of a meadow. This seldom seen member of the weasel family spends a lot of its life in trees and is the most targeted fur-bearer by trappers in the north. Trees gradually grew smaller and further apart. A crow-sized raptor whizzed by close enough to make me stumble. By the time I looked up, the bird was more than a 100 yards away. A peregrine falcon or a merlin, perhaps. Faint tracks of a lone rock ptarmigan crossed the snow nearby. There are few birds I feel as strongly about as ptarmigan. Other ornithological oriented folks gravitate towards hummingbirds, raptors and waterfowl, but me — I’ve always been a ptarmigan sort of guy. They have feathered feet, biannual changes in the color of their plumage and the ability to thrive in some of the most brutally cold environments. It’s hard to not be impressed. I have mild to extreme breakdowns when people confuse ptarmigan with blue or spruce grouse. For a while, educating people on the differences between the three species of ptarmigan (white-tailed, rock and willow) was the only real meaning I had in life.
The snow deepened and the clouds thickened as I plodded above treeline. Ravens, croaking and hooting, rode the wind in and out of the fog. A few stunted and snow covered bull pines and mountain hemlock trees waved and crackled. I studied ptarmigan wing prints and evacuated ptarmigan dens — ptarmigan will missile deep into the snow for insulation and to get out of the weather — as I broke trail to below the final steep section. This slope is notorious for being prone to avalanches; I don’t recommend anyone going up it in the winter unless they have a fair amount of experience in the mountains. On a clear day, a hiker can look out on Stephens Passage, Admiralty Island and the Coastal Range from here. That day, there were only varying shades of white, but still there was something electrifying about being in the mountains in a storm.
I plodded down toward the treeline. Perhaps I’d go to the Hangar later, meet up with some skier friends and inspire them with exciting stories about squirrel tracks, rowdy ravens and nearly getting hit in the head by an unidentified bird.
A raven croaked, the wind whistled and I dreamed of what my next slog would be.
• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at email@example.com.