Sunday, September 21, 2015 Harding Icefield Trail hike

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 7:37 am, sunset 8:03 pm, for a total day length of 12 hours and 26 minutes. Tomorrow will be 5 minutes and 24 seconds shorter.

Brilliant sun and blue sky today with a few scattered showers, low of 34º, high of 55º, north wind.

Today was a perfect day to visit Kenai Fjords National Park to hike the Harding Icefield Trail at Exit Glacier. Frost glistened on the benches along the main trail at mid-morning, but would soon melt. Yellow cottonwood leaves crunched underfoot while green and yellow leaves rustled overhead in the breeze, ready to fall. Bird-wise, it was pretty quiet.

The Harding Icefield Trail branched off the main trail, starting at mile 0, elevation 522’. The first bird I heard shortly after the Bridge at mile 0.8 was a SLATE-COLORED JUNCO chipping from an alder; two more hopped into sight. I noticed the alder male catkins tucked into their tight green sheaths, the female cones in their condensed balls, and quiet, brown, leaf buds, waiting patiently, ready to emerge next spring.

Next were the cheerful calls of busy BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES as they flitted about the willows near Marmot Meadows at mile 1.4, 1558’ elevation. Many of the willows bore “willow roses”, evidence of tiny wasps at work. This is where I got the first good look at the spectacular blue ice of Exit Glacier. 

At the Top of the Cliffs at mile 2.4, 2475’ elevation, a cold wind blew off the nearby glacier, the long, fissured, blue tongue visible to the top. A group of German visitors spotted a black bear and two cubs wandering along the cliff edge below, causing much excitement.

A possible GOLDEN EAGLE sailed along the face of the ice, long tail, small head. Five mountain goats rested in ones and twos on the mountainside behind us, including a nanny with one kid. Two noisy RAVENS flew over the rocky terrain and in a flash were specks near the mountaintops.

As I continued hiking, 5 PIPITS flew up and swirled around, calling. They should be migrating soon. I didn’t expect to see Hoary Marmots this late, but an adult and youngster thrilled me, and a lot of other hikers, at times feeding right along the trail, or just a short ways down. They were eating lupine leaves and sedges when I passed.

Up and up. The green and gold grasses and sedges and maroon fireweed gave way to a barren, rocky landscape with patches of snow. The emergency shelter at mile 3.9 was a welcome sight, even in a non-emergency. The trail ended at mile 4.1 at 3,482’ above the valley, at the edge of the Harding Icefield. Smooth, seemingly endless ice and snow extended to the horizon, with snowy nunataks protruding like sentinels.

Tucked behind a ridge out of the chilly wind, I thoroughly enjoyed the amazing views, quite pleased to be there. Nearby plants like moss campion and Sibbaldia hugged the ground, also trying to get out of the wind. Their flowers are long gone and their seeds scattered to the future.

The sun continued to roll across the sky, and so I had to roll on as well. Shortly after passing the emergency shelter, I spotted a large black bear walking away from the trail (good bear!) I wondered why he was up here in the rocky, almost barren landscape, with apparently nothing to eat. But what a view!

Back at the Top of the Cliffs, I paused to watch a small flock of BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES flit past. To my amazement, I heard the flutter of wings, and one tried to land on my hiking pole! I was sorry the top was so slippery, as it didn’t stay. What a nice surprise!

By now, the mountain goats were done resting and moved quickly up the incredibly steep slopes with sure feet. A nervous hiker on his way up reported a large black bear just off the trail below so I was careful to make noise. The only mammal I saw, however, was a red squirrel scurrying through the alders.

Soon I was back to the interpretive sign and register. There, I took note of the bear information: “If a grizzly bear attacks you, play dead. If it starts to eat you, fight back.” No wonder that guy was nervous!

On the way home, I screeched to a stop to take a photo of a brilliant rainbow on Mt Alice. What a place we live!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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