In the northlands, you will succumb to winter, but not before tasting the richness of the autumnal land and sky.
The Season Of surrender
In the boreal forests, the birch and aspen leaves are barely rimmed with gold, but here among the White Mountains, a ruddy flush spreads across the alpine tundra. Late in the afternoon, I heave off my pack and sink against the earth. It is like lying on the pelt of a living animal, pungent and warm and soft. I pluck idly at lowbush cranberries and close my eyes against the sun. The morning's brittle frost has eased away in the light.
The light. In the fall, it is providential, bittersweet, draining away moment by moment.
This is how autumn happens in Interior Alaska: One day, the green dreaminess of summer wisps away. You realize that in the late hours, when the sun once poured heedlessly across the landscape, darkness spreads. Below your feet, the globe tips toward winter. You will tip with it.
There is only one way to reconcile yourself with the northern calendar's peculiar balance of seasons. You must see fall as more than the shim wedged between solstices, separating days blurry with light and possibility from ever-lengthening nights that pile up in drifts, one after another. Otherwise, it becomes too easy to look behind at summer receding with all the things undone, or ahead toward the advancing smother of winter.
I look around instead. Deep reds seep into foliage knitted close to the ground, so that the hills smolder with quiet fury. Black spruce shadow the valleys where a low, chill mist will rise tonight. The bony whiteness of the bare tors ahead is like a prophecy of snow. A part of me imagines turning south and walking as quickly as I can, marching far away from winter.
But somehow winter always finds us, and today I cannot abandon the generosity of this view, the benevolent light pouring down. Like the unseen bears, I will groom crimson berries from among crimson leaves and consider it reason enough to linger. Equinoxes are not marked by months but by such moments.
The creaking rattle of sandhill cranes drifts down from the sky. If geese form Vs, then cranes shape hieroglyphics with their angular, prehistoric wings. When enough of them gather, they eddy together, revolving in arcs that intersect and merge into a great wheel. They will turn and turn until the circle breaks and the cranes funnel into a wide stream, coursing southward along a meridian known only to them. Somehow they will decide that this is the day, this is the very hour, to gather themselves up in one simple desire that leads far beyond these horizons.
Once again, I remain behind. Under a sky marked only by passing birds, I reap the intense richness of Alaska, berry by berry. Every year, I rediscover a curious thing about autumn: Lowbush cranberries are sweetest after the frost. And fall, it turns out, is the right word for the season when we yield to the changing light, when we gather ourselves up, when we surrender to what lies ahead.
-By Sherry Simpson Photo by John Warden/Alaska Stock
The autumn weather is hard to predict in the Wind Rivers-unless you listen to the elk and coyotes.
They know what's coming.
The Season Of Chance
After the first dusting of snow, the Wind Rivers empty out fast. I meet people staggering under heavy packs, boots wet and squeaking. They look at me curiously-all I have is a fanny pack.
Fall is chancy in Wyoming, especially at 10,000 feet. Septembers past, I've enjoyed late-summer calm and also suffered nights at 3°F. So I packed with care. Still, as a backcountry hydrologist, sampling and writing about mountain streams, I've learned to get by with the minimum to make way for the weight of science. A good ultralight bag, a pad and a bivouac bag, and food and clothing essentials bring the whole load to 18 pounds.
At Dad's Lake, I strike west under clouds to the outlet and follow game trails down the knuckles of granite, looking for a way to the river below. Each attempt ends in a puzzle of deadfall and bog, so I follow the country's grain toward Francis Lake.
With a big pack, this would be bad, but now it's something like fun. I exit a gorge to surprise a big coyote digging under a stump, winter coat ruffling. He stares-a yellow burn-then dashes into the woods.
I hear the river through ragged firs and emerge to walk upstream. The sun, seeking a low arc, strikes under clouds with a hazy golden light. High snowfields are no longer melting, so the water is low and clear. Brook trout gather in the tributaries, starting their brief spawn. In October, streams begin to freeze, and the ice holds until April or May. Where the canyon walls loom and the river roars white, I find a level spot.
The tiny stove yields steaming soup. Watching clouds build, I write until dark and then roll out the bivy sack. I've spent long, painful nights up here, but this isn't one. I wake up, warm, as a front gusts in: small dry flakes in slow waves. This isn't a shutdown storm, big and wet, when moist southerly air runs head-on into arctic chill. The snowflakes tick and brush, sending me back to sleep.
I rise to brilliant sky. The straw-colored meadow is patched with white. By the time I pack up, droplets sing from the trees. In no time, I'm brushing through willows, their leaves, dark burgundy and brown, sticking to my wet boots.
I stretch the tape, wade a cold current, and take notes, interspersed with warm-up jogs in the sun. By noon, the snow's gone, except in the woods where it dusts the scarlet fireweed.
Long meadows of glacial outwash constrict to rocky scrambles, then open again as the river meanders through frost-cured grass. On a streaked rock, a brood of ducklings basks, gathering strength for their first long flight, then plops into the gleaming flow and lines out for the bank.
Where the woods close in, I hear a bugle. A bull elk stands at the rocky ford, the tines of his antlers burnished white, and restates his challenge. At his back, cows and calves flee up a broken draw. One cow lingers to drink, and the bull shakes his beard. She trails the band into the ragged shadow as he turns his gaze on me. He bugles once more, the shrill peal echoing, and follows.
Gone. And yet, in the telling, always there.
-By C. L. Rawlins uPhoto by Layne Kennedy
In the blonde light of morning, you realize that summer will have no encore, but that life goes on in the dark waters.
The Season Of Shadows
In late August, you begin to notice shadows. They are deeper and darker, like pooled water. Step into one and you can feel its chill. Look out from it and you see a new brightness, as though the sunlit world you left had been wiped clean and polished, like a mirror.
I live in Maine's lower Kennebec Valley, but spend as much time as I can a hundred miles or so upriver. I started out with wood canvas canoes, because that was all there was. I have seen no reason to switch to any other kind. In whitewater, the canoes teach you to respect their fragility and their surprising toughness. Those are qualities they share with horses, trees, and any other living thing.
I recanvas them about once a decade, replacing planking and ribs as necessary. I can expect to do this two more times with each, if I am lucky.
To my constant surprise, I have become an old-timer. It does not feel like being something; it feels like being the shadow of something-not a reality, but at least maybe a proof of it.
Late in September, I stand fishing at the foot of a gravelly run. The sun has not yet cleared the ridgeline behind me. A cold steam rises from the pool. Landlocked salmon are moving toward their spawning now. They are torpid and moody, indisposed to much of anything.
First, the blonde light catches the crowns of the pines on the ridge across the river; they look sacred in it. Then, it makes its way down the ridge, on a diagonal slant. Every morning now, it reaches the water later, strikes it more glancingly.
The air is thinner and sharper, as though Maine had climbed up out of the lowlands of its summer and into a more strenuous altitude. The mind is more lucid, quieter, less distracted by expectations.
The sun reaches the far edge. I still stand in shadow, casting. In a curl of current across the river a fish rolls-a good one by local standards, which are the only standards that matter. I cast. The tenth cast to him is no different from the first; on the eleventh he takes. He leaps once, at once, into the sunlight; he is glittering, heavy, and gone, all in the same instant.
Time to reel in now, take down the rod, lift the canoe, cradle it against the thighs, and slide it hand over hand into the silky blackness of the river water. Time to clamber into it, clumsy in my waders as a wet dog; time to head downstream. At each bend, there is a sporty little rip to negotiate, but in the glides and pools of the reaches, I can lift my eyes from the water and look back upstream. The ridges, some shadowed, some sunlit, draw across the river like curtains closing together behind me. This is the final act-no encores for the river, not this year.
Offstage, the homing salmon nose further upstream, smelling out tributaries and the tributaries of tributaries, thrashing on up through shallows and rills. In that tiny water, they must appear immense and mythological, as though they had swum up out of the deep unconsciousness from which life emerged, and to which, at this season, it returns.
-By Franklin Burroughs uPhoto by Jeff Scher/ERG
You can still find gold in the Sierra, and it's just as precious and fleeting as the ore pulled from the ground and streams.
The Season Of Riches
There's still gold in the Sierra Nevada, and this morning I intend to find it.
Dozens of marked-up maps clutter the seat beside me, my cheat sheets to riches. I'll need them later, but right now I'm late by at least an hour. The predawn sky has gone from black to deep purple to a hint of blue, and I curse myself for having slept so soundly.
It's early October, and this northern half of Yosemite National Park is deserted. Mine is the only vehicle on Old Tioga Road, and I had the campground pretty much to myself last night. As I pass Tuolumne Meadows, there's just enough light to get a sense of how far this high meadow stretches, but I'm not paying attention to the sights. Some primitive portion of my brain is watching for animals on the road, but other than that, I can think only about the canyons to the east.
For five years now I've made this trip a late fall ritual. Last year, I didn't find any gold at all and spent the entire winter and spring in a deep funk as a result. I'm not greedy. Even a minuscule vein can make me happy. But getting skunked two years in a row would be unthinkable.
As my truck reports the strain of the climb up Tioga Pass, I ignore its protests and push harder. I just might make it. If I can get to the other side of the crest before the sun clears the horizon, the task ahead will be made easier. More important, I'll know whether this will be a good year or another winter of despair.
I run through the canyons and trails in my mind: Rock Creek, Virginia Lakes, Spooky Meadow, Wheeler Crest. Which should I try first? Surely one of them will yield the riches I seek.
Suddenly the accelerator becomes more responsive as I near the top of the pass. A bright, orange glow begins to dominate the horizon, making it difficult to see the road. As I top the pass, I pull off the road for a moment and scan the terrain below.
And I see it. Gold. In the canyon below, a solitary slash of bright yellow stands out amongst the dark green pines. This riverside grove is only a hundred yards long, but I can't take my eyes off it for fear the light will change and the gold will disappear. Never mind the spectacular peaks around me and sunrise over Mono Lake in the background. I stand in one of the most dramatic spots in North America, but at this moment all I see is this sunlit patch of gold.
Oh, this will make up for last year, I think, instantly forgiving myself for the morning's slow start.
It doesn't always happen this way, but in a good year-and this is going to be a very good year-the aspens and other deciduous trees on the eastern slopes of the Sierra put on a display that rivals any in the country. Just one glance has told me what I needed to know.
My body is relaxing now. I pull the nearest map off the seat and check my notes. Soon I'll be hiking up to my favorite, private place, setting up camp so that tomorrow's sunrise will put me at the end of a rainbow. And I'll fill my pot with Sierra gold.
-By Thom Hogan Photo by Londie G. Padelsky
Autumnal Sampler Where to get your fall fix
Be prepared for short days, snow creeping ever lower down the peaks, and grizzlies wallowing in the lowbush cranberries.
Pinnell Mountain National Recreation Trail, 27.3 miles long, follows a chain of alpine ridges northeast of Fairbanks. The trailheads can be reached at Twelvemile Summit (milepost 85.6 on the Alaska Highway) and Eagle Summit (milepost 107.3) on the Steese Highway. Contact: Bureau of Land Management, Steese/White Mountains District, 1150 University Ave., Fairbanks, AK 99708-3844; (907) 474-2200; http://aurora.ak.blm.gov/ Steese/PMT.html.
Thompson Pass offers sweeping vistas 35 miles from Valdez on the Richardson Highway. The tundra is trail-less but easy traveling by Alaska standards. A campground is available at the nearby Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site for $12 per night. Contact: Alaska Department of Natural Resources Public Information Center, 3601 C St., Suite 200, Anchorage, AK 99503-5929; (907) 269-8400; www.dnr.state.ak.us.
Brooks Mountain Range presents almost limitless hiking opportunities from the Dalton Highway, which follows the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Livengood (83 miles north of Fairbanks) to Prudhoe Bay. The best routes are in higher elevations and along river drainages. Stop at the Coldfoot Interagency Visitor Center for advice. Contact: Bureau of Land Management, 1150 University Ave., Fairbanks, AK 99708-3899; (800) 437-7021; http://aurora.ak.blm.gov/arcticinfo/.
Wind River Range, Wyoming
Shivering gold aspen adorn the mountains midslope, while higher up, alpine larch glow reddish gold before shedding their needles entirely.
Middle Fork (of the Popo Agie River) Trail is the major access route into the Popo Agie Wilderness in Shoshone National Forest. Once you're in, numerous five-day or longer loop hikes lead high into alpine lake country and provide astonishing views of the panoramic peaks. The high point of the trip is Wind River Peak, a 13,192-foot nontechnical but challenging climb.
Contact: The Popo Agie Wilderness is administered by the Washakie Ranger District of Shoshone N.F., headquartered on the southeast corner of US 287 and WY 789. Contact: Washakie Ranger District, 333 Highway 789 S; Lander, WY 82520; (307) 332-5460.
Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area lies farther north, still on the east side of the range and within Shoshone National Forest. Glacier Trail (#801) runs 25.4 miles along numerous high ridges between forest and meadow, and is dotted with alpine lakes. Contact: Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area is administered by the Wind River Ranger District, 1403 W. Ramshorn, Dubois, WY 82513; (307) 455-2466.
Bridger-Teton National Forest's 3.4 million acres encompass the entire western slope of the Wind River Range. Lakes and streams abound here on the wetter side of the mountains. The Bridger Wilderness has more than 600 miles of trails and contains a section of the Continental Divide Trail (via Lester Pass and Hat Pass to Big Sandy Opening). Contact: The Bridger Wilderness is administered by the Pinedale Ranger District, 29 E. Fremont Lake Rd., P.O. Box 220, Pinedale, WY 82941; (307) 367-4326. Or contact the Continental Divide Trail Alliance at P.O. Box 628, Pine, CO 80470; (303) 838-3760 or (888) 909-CDTA.
Resource: Hiking Wyoming's Wind River Range, by Ron Adkison (1996; Falcon Publishing; 800-582-2665; $16.95).
Warm days and crisp nights, blazing displays of hardwood foliage, and no blackflies. Just be prepared for wintry weather starting in September.
Kennebec River drains out of Moosehead Lake and runs all the way to the ocean at Bath. Much of the lower river has been dammed for hydropower (hence the landlocked salmon) and contains mainly smooth water that's navigable all season. The stretch from just below The Forks, where the Dead River adds its flow, to the tiny town of Caratunk is 9 miles long and has flat water, as well as Class I-II rapids suitable for the less experienced paddler. Contact: Maine Forest Service, Department of Conservation, State House Station 22, Augusta, ME 04333; (207) 287-4990 or (800) 367-0223 (within Maine only).
Moose River, also a part of the Kennebec watershed, rises in the mountains along Maine's border with Canada, then flows east to Moosehead Lake. The three-day Moose River Bow Trip can be done anytime after ice-out and is a circuit trip, so no car shuttle is required. It is a popular trip, however, so you may want to time your visit for midweek, especially during peak leaf color. The lake and the river's flat water and Class I rapids are navigable all season. Contact: Obtain fire permits from any Maine Forest Service Ranger Station. The Maine Forest Service (see "Kennebec River" above) can point you to other ranger stations and provide general information.
The East Branch of the Penobscot offers a fairly accessible paddling trip with a true wilderness feel. The East Branch drains the area north and east of Mt. Katahdin and is dam controlled, making it possible to canoe this river much of the season. Henry David Thoreau paddled this river as part of his formative Maine travels, and many parts don't look much different than they did in his day. Contact: For dam-release information, check the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company Web site: www.bhe.com. For general information and more details about dam releases and water levels: Matagamon Wilderness Campground, P.O. Box 220, Patten, ME 04765; (207) 528-2448.
Resource: The AMC River Guide: Maine, edited by Katherine Yates and Carey Philips (1991; Appalachian Mountain Club Books; 800-262-4455; www.outdoors.org/publications; $11.95) is the best single reference for the state.
Fall foliage usually peaks in late September, and the most colorful quaking aspen are in the creek canyons along Highway 395, especially from Bridgeport to Bishop.
Hoover Wilderness provides an accessible hike that progresses through a full complement of eastern Sierra tree life, topping out at a string of beautiful high alpine lakes at the northern edge of Yosemite National Park. From the Green Creek Campground just outside of Bridgeport, take the trail southwest toward Green Lake, then head south to Summit Lake, about 7 miles in. For a quick overnight, continue on the trail to the Virginia Lakes region. For an ambitious four-day hike, pop over Summit Pass to connect to the Pacific Crest Trail, which will take you down Cold Canyon and eventually to Tuolumne Meadows. Contact: Bridgeport Ranger Station, P.O. Box 595, Bridgeport, CA 93517; (619) 932-7070. For the long route, you'll need backcountry permits from Yosemite National Park, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; (209) 372-4461.
Wheeler Crest sits just above Rock Creek, one of the more spectacular aspen and birch-lined creeks in the area. About 3 miles up Rock Creek Road, almost opposite Red Mountain, a trail to the left quickly climbs almost 1,000 feet, then parallels the crest, granting a bird's-eye view of the canyon. The John Muir Wilderness surrounds you, and numerous trail options lead to your choice of alpine lakes, Sierra peaks, or the potential to link up with the John Muir Trail. Contact: Inyo National Forest Headquarters, 873 N. Main St., Bishop, CA 93514; (760) 873-2400.
Ansel Adams Wilderness is easily accessible from trailheads on CA 158 just north of Silver Lake. A tough 3,000-foot climb past Agnew Lake and Gem Lake to Gem Pass eventually rises above the trees and into the spectacular landscapes memorialized by Ansel Adams, the famed landscape photographer who preferred to capture the colorful surroundings on black-and-white film. For a three-day trip, continue past Waugh Lake, climb Donohue Pass on the John Muir Trail, then connect with the Pacific Crest Trail through Lyell Canyon to finish at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. Contact: Inyo National Forest Headquarters, 873 N. Main St., Bishop, CA 93514; (760) 873-2400. For Yosemite backcountry permits: Yosemite National Park, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; (209) 372-4461.
Resource: California's Eastern Sierra: A Visitor's Guide, by Sue Irwin (1992; Cachuma Press; 805-688-0413; firstname.lastname@example.org; $18.95) is a thorough introduction both to the natural history and the exploration of the area.