A hike into winter’s stark beauty

A hike into winter's stark beauty

I am increasingly becoming very fond of taking afternoon hikes on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in the winter.  The refuge wraps around the western side of Anchorage, from Point Woronzof all the way down past Potter Marsh.  While trekking out onto it in the summer time is generally not recommended, as the glacial silt often has a quicksand-like quality to it, winter is a completely different story.  The frozen, snow-covered surface offers a rather stable surface for exploring.  However, for any time of the year, it is best to go at low tide.  Not only is it safer and offers a larger area to explore, it is a transformed into a magical boulder field of stranded, large chunks of ice, waiting for the next high tide to be liberated and back en route to the Gulf of Alaska via the Cook Inlet.

I chose Kincaid Park as my point of entry.  Until the new Campbell Creek preserve is completed and ready for use, Kincaid Park offers the best access to the heart of the refuge.  You could enter and hike down from Point Woronzof, but that lies on the northernmost portion of the refuge.  Plus, the area out from Kincaid Park is rather expansive at low tide.  Once you hike down the trail from the chalet, there are several access trails leading down the bluff to the flats of the refuge.  With my camera gear tucked inside of my Lowe Pro Orion AW bag and my tripod strapped underneath, I headed down, carrying my snowshoes in case the snow was deep and unmanageable on the coast.  As it turned out, I did not need them.

I reached the bluff and shuffled down its steep slopes to the mudflats, looking out onto a vast, flat expanse of snow and ice crystals, with a line of ice boulders in the distance.  At that line is where I would find the swift moving waters of a still-outgoing tide, where deeper channels allowed the broken ice of winter to keep flowing past.  While the sun was still up and casting a late pinkish alpenglow hue on the snow, I photographed some of the grasses growing along what is presumably a sandbar, looking to the north and the trio of Foraker, Hunter and Denali.  As the sun reached its destination on the horizon, I focused on a couple of grounded ice boulders and the background elements of the sun and Mt. Redoubt, which I could see was spouting off some steam that was nicely backlit by the sun.  Even after the sun went down, I continued to work.  I find that the post-sunset hues of dusk offer some of the best colors in the winter, and the slower shutter speed allowed me to capture the movement of the ice and water as it sped past me.

My only company during the entire time was a cow and calf moose that came along, working their way from the south and up into Kincaid Park.  Otherwise, I was completely alone and isolated in a magical winter landscape, a few minutes drive (after a half hour hike back up to the car) from the heart of a nearly 300,000 population city.  The only way I even knew I was near a city from this vantage point was the frequent movement of aircraft overhead, working their way either to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport or Merrill Field.  I could not think of a better place to live.

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