WILLIWAW CAMPGROUND- Sometimes in the fall, Dorie Kelley and Michael Hughes just like to sit in their lawn chairs and listen to the music of the summer migrants fleeing Alaska for winter.
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At times, Hughes said, the honking Canada geese and the trumpeting sandhill cranes pass over this quiet camp spot by tens of thousands as they make their way in shifting V formations toward the portal to Prince William Sound that we know as Portage Pass.
Flight elevation, Hughes said, is usually somewhere around 4,000 feet, just above the tops of the tundra-covered ridges and hanging glaciers that bracket the valley along Portage Creek.
"Last year, we camped the third or fourth weekend (of September) and we saw lots of flocks," he said.
"Sometimes, the best camping is in September," added Kelley.
From September on into October or November, weather permitting, some Alaskans find camping best for several reasons:
Most tourists have gone south, and many locals have called it a season. Finding a campsite is much easier.
"Sometimes this place gets crowded," Hughes observed of Williwaw in the summer, making reservations a necessity.
Bugs are finally gone.
The leaves are golden early on, and after they start to drop, the wildlife becomes easier to spot. Along with passing geese and cranes, Portage Valley sees a significant migration of swans and is home to a fair number of resident moose and bears.
The scenery is no less spectacular. In fact, between the tundra going red in the fall, the soft sidelight of the season painting the dying grasses gold, and fresh snow dusting the ridge tops, some might argue the scenery is more spectacular.
And last, if not least, the camping is free.
The U.S. Forest Service stops servicing this and most other Kenai Peninsula campgrounds after Labor Day. Once the federal agency stops providing services, it waives the camping fee.
The lack of services mainly means campers need to bring their own water and pack out their own litter.
For recreational vehicle campers, that isn't much of a handicap, and while it might make things a little more difficult for car campers, it's still not much of a burden. It's not like anyone has to pack anything more than a few feet when car camping.
Some Kenai campgrounds do close in the fall, but most remain open at least until the snow flies. Check with the Forest Service ranger districts in Girdwood or Seward for specifics.
Crowds, as Hughes noted, are seldom a problem this time of year, but don't expect to have the campground to yourself either. There were only a couple of open spots at Williwaw on a recent weekend.
Good weather combined with free camping had lured quite a few people, said Chugach ranger Joe Williams.
Good weather in September can make Alaska such a lovely place it can be painfully hard to leave, as Homer residents Pat Matthews and Patty Linehan could attest. They were camped out here on a Saturday. They were trailering south, or trying to, for Washington state's Whidbey Island.
Linehan confessed that on the first day of their trip, they only made it as far as the Deep Creek Campground, which is run by the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and is located just north of Homer along the Sterling Highway.
The day was sunny and warm. The campground was almost empty. Cook Inlet was blue and peaceful. The Augustine and Redoubt volcanoes were looming on the horizon across the water with the Aleutian Range mountains sprawling out behind, all white and massive and rugged.
"It was gorgeous," Linehan said.
The pair couldn't drive past, so they pulled in.
By Saturday, with their Toyota hybrid four-by-four towing a cute but tiny trailer, they'd made it only a couple hundred miles closer to their eventual Lower 48 destination. End-of-season camping was proving so good they were having a tough time just getting off the Kenai Peninsula.
This glacier-studded valley was a lot like Deep Creek - too pretty to pass up.
So they turned off the Seward Highway, drove back past looming Explorer Glacier to this campground beneath an unnamed hanging glacier and settled in.
Saturday evening found them sitting in lawn chairs, chatting, enjoying a nice bottle of Chilean cabernet and feeding logs onto a crackling fire in the Forest Service-provided fire pit.
"The glacier has really retreated since this spring," Matthews said as she looked over her shoulder at the tourist-attracting jumble of ice climbing up the mountainside behind her. "But it always retreats in the summer."
As with the dozen or so other glaciers in and around Portage Valley, the one above the campground lives in a state of flux between summer melt and winter snows. Snowfall on these slopes is annually measured in the tens of feet.
Nearby Alyeska Resort above Girdwood, about 15 miles north, set a record last year with almost 24 feet of snow in the month of December alone. A record 93 feet of snow fell there in the winter of 1997-98.
Knowing snow is coming again only made Matthews and Linehan appreciate the late-season camping more.
"We live in Homer," Matthews said, "but lately we're going south for the winter."
They planned to camp their way south and east through Alaska to the Canadian border no matter how long it took, and they were loving every minute of it.
They'd spent long summer days working in Homer, Linehan said, and this was the reward.
"Nobody feels sorry for us now," she said.
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