Since my last blog I have experienced a couple of firsts at Sheep Mountain Lodge. First, I took my exam and passed. I am now a Certified Surface Weather Observer for the National Weather Service. Second, I felt my first earthquake. There was a 5.4 tremor centered near Willow. I went to my room during my work break and was sitting on my bed when I felt it vibrate for a couple of seconds. No damage.
Yesterday morning I thought the light rain was passing, so I decided to take a hike down to Lion’s Head. OK, for those of you that are sooo anal-accurate, it was really a walk because it was along a roadway. I left Sheep Mountain and it wasn’t long until it started with a light rain again.
The first three weeks I was here the weather was at least in the 60s, sometimes the 70s, and sunny. Lately, it’s the weather I had expected. The temperature rarely goes over 55 and if it’s not raining, it is still cloudy.
I brought along some rain gear so I was good. The West Glenn Highway winds through the Valley cut by the Matanuska Glacier thousands of years ago. To the south is the Chugach mountain range, on the northside is the Talkeetna mountains. This time I was walking west from Sheep Mountain Lodge which is located at mile 113.5.
At Mile 113 is a turnout. There are many of these located along the National Scenic Byway, usually at some of the more popular photo opportunities. Here there is also a large picnic table with some posters of the area. Four posters at this turnout include one about the colors of Sheep Mountain. The mountain was created by volcanic forces and have a high gypsum content. While still underground, iron content mixed with superheated water and oxidized the iron. Now much of Sheep Mountain is a rust color.
A second poster is about the Dall sheep which from time to time frequent the mountainside. Gypsum is high in calcium and magnesium and the sheep lick and eat it for these nutrients.
A third poster is almost the requisite Alaskan Bear Country Poster. I was almost ready to write that there is no real bear population in this area. What I can say is that there has never been a problem of bear encounters in this area. A grizzly with two cubs have been spotted last week near the trails. Most likely they were just passing through. There isn’t much of a food source right now in the valley to sustain. In late July-early August, however, the area is rich with wild blueberries and cranberries. I wonder if there will be more sightings then.
The fourth poster is of Lion’s Head. It is an old root of an ancient volcano. It was covered by many glaciers, the last the Matanuska. The glacial action has eroded most of the old volcano, but the root has remained steadfast. If you’re traveling the Glenn east from the Anchorage area the first view looks like a lion’s head lying down with it’s snout facing south. Traveling from the east it looks more like a sphynx.
The rain dissipated, well for another mile, and I enjoyed the scenery as I walk. There were a few snowshoe hares now and then. We have noticed a seemingly sharp decrease in their population lately. I have heard and seen an occasional coyote. But more likely is the sharp increase in growth of the brush. The hares can hide easier. With the continual light, you can almost see plants grow.
The most frequent bird in the area seems to be the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia). Or maybe they’re just so much more noticeable. There are certainly many Common Raven (Corvus corax), and numerous sparrows, finches, pewees and warblers. Not on this trip, but I’ve also spied the Gray Jay (Perisorecus canadensis). I think I saw a Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula), but it was far enough away that I couldn’t be sure.
There is another turnout about at Mile 107.5. Here I stopped and took some photos. The West Glenn Highway at this point takes some sharp turns for a classic winding road shot. Lion’s Head at this point is directly south also. It looks totally different from this angle. You can also glimpse the current Matanuska Glacier from this turnout. There are some guard rails at the edge of the parking area since there is a steep drop on the other side. I leaned against it staring out at the scene, glad I came here.
I popped open a can of Sprite I had brought with me. I was thinking about heading the rest of the way. There is a small trail that takes you around and partially up. It started to rain again, this time harder then before. The winds also increased, and I decided to head back. Maybe I’ll head back this way again when the weather is more pleasant.
Around Mile 109, there is the Grand View RV Park and Cafe. It’s small, at least compared to most of the RV parks I have seen. One of the Sheep Mountain Lodge lodgekeepers picks up some extra hours here when they need extra help. I decided to eat lunch here. I had their reuben and FRIES. OK, so french fries are normally no biggie. But consider that this is the only place for at least 50 miles in any direction that serves them. The sandwich was also very good. They have recently installed a brick oven and at night they are the ONLY place that also serves pizza.
The rain stopped again as I was leaving the cafe. I turned around and got the photo of the cafe with Lion’s Head behind it. It looks somewhat odd because from farther west on the highway, Lion’s Head looks like it’s on the northside. But that’s because all of the winding. It’s really on the southside. From this vantage point, it seems like it’s in a totally different position.
Nearing the Sheep Mountain Airport Road I spotted the old remains of a young moose most likely killed on the highway. There’s a lot of brush growing around it. I had saw it on an earlier hike when it was more visible, but I had not identified it then.