Hikers walk around the base of Byron Glacier on Sunday, June 18, 2023 near Girdwood, Alaska. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Out of the Office: Surveying the Chugach

The longer I live in Alaska, the more I worry that I’m taking it for granted.

Like a lot of transplants, I spent the first 12 months ogling at the scale and supremacy of the Last Frontier’s mountains, lakes, rivers, forests and wildlife. I still harbor a deep appreciation for all those features, but in a way that evokes feelings of familiarity.

Dropping into Seward, for example, feels like catching up with an old friend. Winter pastel sunsets are like pulling on a soft sweater.

It’s always fun, then, stumbling into a new place that takes my breath away.

Byron Glacier, near Portage, is an unassuming beauty that I visited with friends on one of the only sunny days in June. We walked and talked along the short trail leading to a towering delta of snow capped with blue ice. I dipped my Sawyer water bottle in the glacial stream running out of the snow and pulled long drinks of the cool water through the filter.

While my friends scaled the rocks at the edge of the snowy mound, I reclined and closed my eyes against the sun. The sounds of dogs barking and people laughing filled the air and a chilly breeze rolled off the face of the glacier. We stayed until we’d had our fill of the small valley then headed back down the trail.

Two seasonal workers with the Chugach National Forest were surveying recreators at the trailhead and my friends wanted to participate. When they encounter a group, the workers said, they survey the person who most recently had a birthday. That meant me.

Under the beating sun — one of the few real sunshiney days Southcentral has seen this summer — I fielded what felt like a lot of questions about what had brought me to that particular trailhead that day.

What type of recreating had I done in the Chugach National Forest that day? Hiking, observing wildlife. How often have I recreated in the Chugach National Forest in the last 12 months? Probably 15 or so, but maybe more. And then, of course, the usual demographic information.

Many of the questions required me to take inventory of the recreating I’ve done in the Chugach National Forest. I recalled a 26-mile trek last fall to and from the Swan Lake Cabin on Res Pass, huddling against the wind at Gull Rock near Hope this spring and wading around a chilly Ptarmigan Lake outside of Seward.

I was suddenly very glad we’d stopped to talk to these rangers. It was like their questions had flipped on a carousel of memories in my mind and it was nice to be reminded of how many happy moments I’d shared with friends and family in the Chugach.

Of course, the two forest service staff were mostly looking for quantitative rather than qualitative data, and a lot of my treasured experiences didn’t fit within the structure of the questions being asked. Still, I walked away from the exchange with a renewed appreciation for all the Alaska outdoors has given me.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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