Monday, July 29, 2013

Climbing Bird Ridge

The view of Turnagain Arm from the highest point on Bird Ridge

One of my daughter's friends has raved about the Bird Ridge hike, which is about 20 minutes south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm, comparing it to Mt. Marathon in Seward.  Both trails have races on them, though Mt. Marathon is up and down while the Bird Ridge race is just up.  Both have pretty hefty elevation changes, but the landscape of each are quite different, as I discovered yesterday when I did the hike.

We went into this hike without knowing much about it.  I'd climbed a short lower section of it a few years ago, but didn't have a clue about the elevation gain or trail conditions further up.  It was a hot day--somewhere in the 70's with only a few occasional whiffs of breeze--and a brilliantly sunny day.  We had 2 or 3 liters of water in our hydration pack and snacks for the top.

We parked in the overflow parking lot, hoping our vehicle would catch a little shade.  The trail begins with a nicely paved section, then a raised boardwalk, then nicely graveled.  Where it meets up with the other parking lot trail there is a restroom, and then the climb begins.  At first the trail is mostly protected by the trees, and already at 11 a.m. shade was on my mind.  There were rocky patches with no shade as the trail went up, up, up and always up.  It was just Aurora and I, and Aurora is in amazing shape and probably would have been happy to run up that trail.  For me, I huffed and I puffed and every so often yelled at Aurora to wait up so I could get some water (I made her carry the hydration pack in an attempt to slow her down!).

The rocky trail up with the view obscured by a fog that rolled in
We would look up and wonder, "Is that the top?" and we would get there and yet another section of trail rose above us.  Once we got up over the initial steep and rocky section the trail's incline, while less steep, was hard-packed dirt more often than not.  There were patches of alders and scrub juniper bushes that offered patches of shade in those upper reaches, though eventually even those petered out.  Birds did indeed flit about, above us, below us and around us, which I was on the lookout for since I wanted to see if there was a reason it was called Bird Ridge.

You can see the trail following the spine of Bird Ridge

I was a bit annoyed by the crowds of people on the trail:  we met 15 people or so the 3 hours we were on the trail so that is Alaskan standards of crowds.  But what was more annoying was climbing at the same pace as other people and having to listen to their conversations.  Eventually we left them behind as Aurora set a steady no-breaks pace (except to wait up for me, and once I drank some water, off she went again).  I was happy that most everyone had their dogs on leashes and their wasn't too much dog poop on the trail.

Finally, we were sure we saw the top:  it was a finger-like promontory and it seemed the mountain was about done.  Nope.  We got there and there was yet another outcrop beyond it.  Aargh!  But I appreciated that there was a stake driven in at the highest point so that we knew we'd indeed arrived.  It had been a long hour and a half, and in that time I'd only caught my breath once, when we'd stopped to admire the view long enough for me to breathe.

Heading back down, Aurora wanted to run.  It didn't help that a very fit older man jogged past us; I could see Aurora itching to take off and keep pace with him.  I was tired, but now that it wasn't a cardiovascular challenge I figured I'd let gravity do it's work and pull me down the ridge, particularly on the better trails up high.  Well, this was my first climbing hike of the summer, so about a third of the way down I started feeling my legs, and by halfway down by knees were screaming, my quads and glutes were cramping and blisters were popping up on my feet.  I kept looking down thinking that the cars on the Seward Highway below still looked awfully small and they weren't getting bigger fast enough.

At this point my goal was simply to make it back to the car--not keep up with Aurora, not go fast, not look good.  Stopping was not a pleasant choice because by now the flies were horrendous.  When Aurora would stop and wait for me I could tell how close I was getting to her by the volume of the slap-slap-SLAP as she smooshed flies.  Even when I got to a flat section, my legs were still screaming, though a slight uphill near the end was a welcome relief.  It took us an hour to get down the 2 1/2 mile trail from the top.

Later that evening, back home and soaking my blood-blistered feet in peroxide water, I looked up the elevation change of the hike.  Aurora guessed it was 3000 feet; I guessed 2000 feet.  Boy, was I ever off!  The DNR website says this hike is a 3505 foot climb.  Yikes!  I felt horribly out of shape on that hike, and I am going to be feeling this one for a week (today, my quads are seriously sore!).  Once I found out it was over 3500 feet, I mentally readjusted and now I think I'm in pretty darn good shape to do that hike in an hour and a half up, in the heat, first climbing hike of the season.

The views of Turnagain Arm and the Chugach Mountains were tremendous, and while I do like the hike more than Mt. Marathon in Seward, I actually think the view is prettier in Seward (Resurrection Bay, glaciers, more snow on the mountains).  The Bird Ridge trail has more vegetation, flowers, grass and birds than Mt. Marathon, making the hike itself more scenic.  I'll do this one again...someday....  Next time I'll have to psyche up to do it, though, because now I know how high it is!

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