I sat on the porch of cabin 5
at Sheep Mountain Lodge at milepost 113.5 on the Glenn Highway, a National Scenic Byway. It was sunny with moments of warmth between the cold gusts that had been blowing all day. The normal songs and chirps of warblers and sparrows were drowned out by the sound of the wind. Across the valley the mountains were iced with snow – in some places still solid, while in others the snow was more streaked, like glaze running off the sides of a cake. A ‘river’ of snow filled a narrow canyon.
I was awed by the scenery. Suddenly, a Black-billed Magpie sailed over the willow bushes at the edge of the property. And I thought back over our stay at this beautiful location.
It was cold and clear on the first early morning walk on the cross-country ski trails behind the cabins. Cindy made sure we stopped to watch the Dall Sheep raising their young on the cliff face of the Talkeetna Range, which rises to 6,300 feet.
A large sign posted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game provided information about Hawk Owls that frequently nest here in the Black Spruce trees. They perch atop the spruces during the day. We scoured the tree tops with no luck. Mark used his recorded Hawk Owl call – a loud hooting trill – to see if he could attract one’s attention. No Hawk Owl responded, but a number of passerines flew agitatedly into the trees and bushes near where we were standing in order to check things out. It was clear they had heard this sound before. Orange-crowned Warblers, Slate-colored Juncos and a Boreal Chickadee were prepared to ‘mob,’ or gang up on, the owl. We later learned that the owl population is subject to fluctuations and may at times be rare. No one was seeing Hawk Owls in eastern Alaska at this time.
As we descended the trail for breakfast, Mark shushed us and pointed to the top of a gnarly spruce. I was expecting a Hawk Owl; however, it was a Merlin sitting tall and dignified. It was the first time I had seen this falcon when it was not flying swiftly by.
After breakfast we drove five miles down the road, then off to the Trail Creek area along the Matanuska River. The terrain was very different from what I had pictured for Alaska,
and the low shrubs reminded me of the Shin Oak of eastern New Mexico. These bushes were alive with birds – Blackpoll Warbler, Fox and Tree Sparrows and Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers. Pussy Willows were starting to blossom.
Further down the road at milepost 123 we watched Barrow’s Goldeneye, Horned Grebe, Surf Scoter, Greater Scaup and Bufflehead. A Tundra Swan was lingering and hanging out with an American Wigeon, while a Trumpeter Swan was already sitting on its nest. It was easy to hear the call of the Alder Flycatcher that sounded like “free beer.”
“Look at these tracks,” Robb pointed out. “See how the hoof prints are shaped like a broken horseshoe. You can compare it with the hoof print of the moose over here. Their tracks are more elongated.”
On the following day, we drove to a more forested habitat along the Little Nelchina River, gray with glacial silt.
Adjacent to the parking area was a two-foot long ammonite fossil. As we walked through the woods, spongy with peat on the permafrost, we stopped to watch a Bald Eagle flying down river. Although we saw eagles every day, we never tired of them.
Each of our meals at the Sheep Mountain Lodge was a gourmet treat. On the first night, when the waitress asked me whether I wanted soup or salad, I presumed I would have to choose soup, since all I had seen in Alaska was iceberg lettuce. She laughed and answered “Never,” when I inquired whether the salad was made with iceberg. My dinner entrees included grilled salmon and seared scallops. It was hard to resist the desserts, especially the strawberry rhubarb pie.
After dinner the last evening, Zach Steer, 33 who owns the lodge with his wife Annjanette, regaled us with tales about experiences as a musher. He has completed both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. Zach came in 3rd this past winter, completing the approximately 1,200 mile Iditarod in 9 days 7 hours 28 min. 12 sec. He told us about shipping dog food and supplies ahead of time to the various check points and the mandatory rest periods. Volunteer veterinarians check the animals along the way, provide care if needed and are authorized to pull a dog.
Zach owns 25 dogs, plus five he shares with a friend, including one that had just been born that morning. “The dogs rest at this time of year,” he told us. Even though we were wearing our fleece jackets, it was too hot for the dogs. He will start training runs of one to two miles in mid August. They will work up to fifty mile training races by winter. We had an opportunity to see the dogs in his kennels at the lodge.
The wind continued to blow the next morning as we headed for Glenallen. At Eureka Pass, elevation 3,322, the thermometer outside of the roadhouse read 38 degrees. I started having anxiety about Barrow, and then remembered I wasn’t wearing the two additional layers I brought for that part of the trip.
We were headed to the Copper River Valley.