City Wilds - Denali the dog

Denali on Rusty Ridge





It seems likely, perhaps inevitable, that January 6, 2021 will join the list of other memorably shocking dates in American history, a list that in the last century alone includes Dec. 7, 1941; Nov. 22, 1963; and Sept. 11, 2001.

I’m certain that (if cognitive functions hold) I will forever remember where I happened to be and what I was doing when word reached me that a mob of Trumpists had violently stormed and briefly taken over the U.S. Capitol after being prodded by our increasingly desperate and unhinged president. Partly that’s because my surroundings and good spirits contrasted so greatly with the mayhem in Washington, D.C.

 I’d been hiking through the woods for more than an hour when I pulled out my iPhone to check its “Health” app and noticed that two new emails had appeared in its mailbox. Though I know it’s not a good idea to check emails while adventuring in the wild, sometimes I’m weak. So I looked. And one email immediately caught my attention. It had been sent by the Daily Kos, a progressive news and activist online “media platform.” 

To be honest I don’t often get my news from the Kos, but a “Breaking News” bulletin grabbed my attention: “Violence from Trump supporters getting worse, multiple police injuries, Capitol invaded.”

Yikes! I thought. The last I’d known, Congress had begun the process of certifying president-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory, something that figured to be a long and drawn-out process thanks to Republican political theatre. But this?

Though shocking, the news wasn’t entirely a surprise. The Cult of Trump—many of its more rabid members being white supremacists and nationalists—had been building to such riotous action for weeks, fomented by their leader’s fatuous and self-serving claims that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from him.

I’d actually predicted that if Trump lost the election, uprisings would follow, likely accompanied by some violence. I hadn’t pictured this exactly, but it made sense, something of a last stand. At least I hope it is, though there’s the inauguration itself and still two weeks to go before that, reasons to remove Trump from office as quickly as the law and the constitution allow, whether by a second impeachment process or the 25th Amendment, though I realize that’s unlikely to happen.

I quickly read a series of unsettling headlines, then put the phone away. The details could wait. I was determined to have the hill-climbing adventure already under way. Our nation might be sinking deeper into chaos and madness, but on this day I would seek out a calmer and more joyful reality with my devoted hiking companion, Denali.

Actually, I’d already moved into a state of what might be called wild delight. Here in the Chugach Front Range, everything about the day had so far inspired pleasure. 

The morning was a mid-winter beauty, with temperatures in the twenties, the sky a patchwork of blue and white, enough fluffy clouds to reflect the sun (hidden from me by the mountains) and give the landscape a warm glow. The air’s stillness and the forest’s silence created a sense of deep peacefulness as Denali and I walked through the woods.

It also helped that few people were on the trails, which meant we largely walked in solitude, adding to the serenity of the morning.

I’d set my sights on Wolverine Peak, among my favorite mountains and one of the few I visit in every season. Over the past 10 to 20 years I have forged a deep connection with Wolverine; and on its slopes and ridges I’ve had a multitude of memorable experiences, both physical and emotional. And, I’d say, spiritual.  These include two wondrous encounters with wolverines on the mountain’s flanks, the second one especially mysterious. 

Here I’ve adventured with two dogs and spread the ashes of my first one, Coya, while mourning her death. I’ve picked bunches of “wild tundra blues,” celebrated summer’s abundance of alpine wildflowers and migratory birds, and introduced Jan, my girlfriend, to the joys of hiking to Rusty Point and along the spine she so aptly named “Rusty Ridge”—my tentative destination on this day.

I’ve had moments that range from fright to sadness, excitement, and pure bliss. And yes, there have been times when plodding upward through deep snow on Wolverine’s lower flanks has been more drudgery than anything, and kept me from getting to its upper reaches.

On this day the trail was hard-packed but not icy except in spots, ideal for a winter ascent. Still, once in subalpine terrain I added ice grippers to aid my 71-year-old footing. Now two days into my 72nd year, I’d come to see this as my birthday-week hill climb, a gift to myself.

Do I sound over the top in my elation? I suppose I was, but sometimes that’s what the mountains do to me.

And the best was yet to come, I felt certain of that. Still, I wasn’t sure how high on the mountain I’d get, because clouds moving quickly past Wolverine’s upper slopes suggested strong winds up there.

Walking up a section of trail that rises ramp-like along a hillside, while connecting subalpine and tundra habitats, I met two giggly young women, descending from their own trek to the top and clearly having fun. Yes, it was really windy at the summit, they told me, but not scarily so. And, they exclaimed, “We saw five goats!” not far off the trail when they neared the top.

Inwardly I corrected them: Dall sheep, not mountain goats. But outwardly I simply welcomed the surprise and happiness of their unexpected encounter; that’s what seemed to matter most. I always love to share the alpine heights with wild, white sheep and hoped I would be as lucky as they’d been to see the animals.

I told the women I wouldn’t be going to the top of Wolverine, but would try to reach the ridgeline that connects the summit to Rusty Point, a favorite destination. Even as we talked, the wind seemed to rise and it began to come in waves, gusting then slacking.

By the time I reached the huge cairn of stones that’s called the Rock Pile, it was clear that to reach Rusty Ridge, Denali and I would traverse mostly bare ground, blasted free of snow by recent gales. And as I expected, the scattered patches of drifted snow had been hardened by those same winds, easy to walk across. In short, simple hiking and hill climbing to the ridge, except for getting blown around a bit.

Shortly before reaching the ridge, I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the mountain slopes, looking for sheep. Eventually I found four cream-colored alpine creatures, grazing on the windswept tundra several hundred yards from where I stood. I grabbed my phone, took a picture of Wolverine’s upper heights, and texted it to Jan with the note, “Somewhere in this picture there are four (or more) Dall sheep.” (Later I’d find a fifth.)

“Going to the ridge line?” Jan texted back.

“Almost there.”

Then I added, “Is it true the Capitol is under siege?”

“Yes it’s frightening.”

“Happy to be up in the mountains during these crazy times.”

I again put the phone away and then Denali and I completed our ascent. As usual, she’d been following her nose across the tundra, but had stayed close. Much of the time she wore a big smile, now and then wagging her tail. A happy dog.

The wind was whipping through a saddle close to where we topped the ridge. In the distance toward the south, the sun was partially hidden by a large cloud mass, several lenticular layers stacked one upon the other, perched above Flattop and Peaks 2 and 3. It appeared a squall was moving through, perhaps bringing snow. All of it looked glorious. I took another picture and sent it to Jan.

Her simple reply: “Wow” 

Denali and I followed the ridge a few hundred yards, then stopped behind some rocky outcroppings that slowed the wind. There we ate some snacks, drank some liquid (she, cold water; I, hot mint tea). Once finished, we resumed roaming the ridge. But the wind gusts had intensified and were now kicking up snow from the drifts. Higher on Wolverine, large snow plumes blew off the peak.

“Okay girl, it’s time to go down.”

But not before another biscuit treat of course.

We took our time descending and I stopped every now and then to check the mountain slopes for some sign of a wolverine, which from experience I knew travel here now and then. Perhaps I’d spot one searching for a meal—or playing in the wind, like us.

 By the time we made it back to the Rock Pile, mountain gales pushed hard against our bodies, requiring us to brace ourselves now and then. I noticed two hikers up high, approaching Wolverine’s summit and figured they must be getting hammered.

The winds eased considerably when we returned below the brush line and the air again was mostly calm when we re-entered the forest. 

We moved quickly through the woods and reached the car five hours after leaving it, now curious to learn more about the attack on the Capitol. I got inside, turned on the engine,  and then turned on the radio. It was already dialed in to KSKA, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” was playing. 

The first news I heard: Twitter had deleted three of Trump’s tweets and locked his account for at least 12 hours. Not long after that, the Senate came back into session and first Mike Pence and then Mitch McConnell harshly condemned the violence that had forced them to hide—but of course they made no mention of their own complicity in the events of recent weeks, recent days, recent hours, while they’d tacitly approved Trump’s incendiary behavior and false claims.

I knew that I’d be listening and watching the news—first public radio, then PBS—over the coming hours, to gain more insight into what some were already calling a terrorist attack on Congress, an insurrection, a coup attempt, another “day of infamy.” I’d have plenty of time to digest the horror and shame of it all, sadly none of it particularly surprising.

Before leaving the Prospect Heights parking lot, I turned my attention back to Wolverine Peak and surrounding hills. Though the winds up high had been wildly raucous, arguably even violent at their peak, they’d paradoxically been part of the mountain’s calming and cheering effect on me. On this day there was no place I would have rather been, on a mountain I love dearly, one that is far, in so many ways, from the craziness wreaking havoc on our country.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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