My links to a wilderness trail

Friday evening, month of April. I have come to celebrate Alaska's change of seasons with a walk along my favorite forest path, the Turnagain Arm Trail. The route I follow predates Anchorage by several years. Cut across a wooded hillside, it was built in 1910 as a telegraph line and later served as a winter mail trail. Nowadays, it's a popular hiking trail in Anchorage's "backyard wilderness," Chugach State Park.

I've hiked here, off and on, for the past decade. In recent years my relationship with the trail has deepened, and now I routinely come here once or twice a week, usually in late afternoon or early evening. But the walks are hardly routine.

This trail is one of my important local landmarks. It's where I note the passing of seasons and continue learning about the plants and animals that inhabit Anchorage's wild edges. Even when nothing special happens, it's a place of solitude and great delight. And there's always the possibility of surprise.

The entire trail is 9-1/2 miles long, but I amble along at a leisurely pace. I normally do only the first mile or two, then turn around. A few years ago I began keeping a journal to record observations and discoveries, but many are etched deeply in my memory as well. Numerous spots along the way have become personal mileposts.

Leaving the trailhead, I recall the furtive movements of a young black bear as he passed through dense summer foliage, a fleeting forest shadow. Along another stretch, Mom and I looked for four-leaf clovers during her July visit several years ago, then surprised - and were surprised by - a browsing cow moose with calf.

Deep into April, the woods are nearly free of winter's grasp. Only a few patches of white slush are scattered through the mostly brown and gray forest. Here and there, green sprouts poke through leaf litter. Gray, fuzzy catkins soften the ends of willow branches, and spring's first mosquitoes buzz slowly through the air.

It's been a marvelous evening with temperatures in the high 40s. T-shirt weather after winter's deep chill: a faint swirling breeze and the sun playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. I've been serenaded by the welcoming fee- bee-bee songs of black-capped chickadees and scolded by loudly chattering red squirrels. I've watched bald eagles spiral above the mud flats of Cook Inlet's Turnagain Arm and flocks of gulls skim the chocolaty water.

Now, as I head back to the trailhead, the sky thickens with gray clouds and the forest slowly edges toward darkness. My mind is drifting among memories of other hikes when I notice movement along the forest floor, 100 feet ahead. Whatever it is, it has scurried behind a large cottonwood.

Putting binoculars to my eyes, I see what appears to be a furred, beige foot. I imagine it belongs to a snowshoe hare, in the midst of its seasonal change from white to brownish-gray.

I advance up the trail, first making certain I've marked the spot in my mind. Looking again, a form takes shape. I can't believe it: I seem to be looking at the face and body of a lynx. Part of me won't accept this fact. Lynx are so secretive, so elusive. It's true that several have been seen around the Anchorage area recently, as their numbers rise in response to a peaking population of hares, their favorite food. Still, can it be?

Maybe it's a coyote. No. The face is distinctly feline. Then maybe it's a house cat that's gone feral. I shift positions to gain a different perspective. Now I see the telltale sign: tufted ears, tipped in black. I've hoped for so long to see a lynx in these woods. Now that it's happened, I can scarcely contain my glee. Instead of a joyfully shouted "Yes!" however, I remain quiet - and almost calm.

Hopeful now of an even closer, clearer look, I walk to where the trail bends toward the cat. I don't attempt to hide my approach, because the lynx is all too aware of my presence. But I try to be casual, nonthreatening.

I stop again, and now the lynx fills the field of my lenses. I see how wonderfully it blends in with the forest. Sitting still, the lynx is perfectly camouflaged. Its fur is tawny, grizzled, a blend of white, brown, and gray-black hairs. Its face is whitish beige with thin black streaks outlining the mouth, as if delicately painted by a makeup artist. I can also make out the sleek black whiskers and the black-edged ruffs that flow along the lynx's face like huge bushy sideburns.

The lynx's caramel-colored eyes watch me intently. I wonder what it makes of me and how often it sees people along the trail - far more often than hikers see lynx, of that I'm certain. In the hundreds of times I've walked this trail, this is the first time I've seen any sign of this northern wildcat. I would have missed this one, too, had not a slight movement caught my random gaze.

The lynx sits on its haunches, once crouching low as I shift positions, to keep me in view. Its eyes are alert, yet show no alarm. I sense caution, but not fear. Once, the cat blinks and closes its eyes slightly, as if sleepy. We watch each other 10, maybe 15 minutes. The lynx seems content to remain still indefinitely, and I have no pressing need or desire to leave. I wonder if I'm keeping the cat from its evening hunt - or from a mate, perhaps. This is the courting season for lynx.

I'm the one who finally yields. Brightened by this unexpected pleasure, I resume my walk, not looking back. Back home, I'll describe the meeting in my journal. But already I'm recalling details, firmly imprinting the lynx on my memory and connecting it with this spot. Already, it's become part of my relationship with this forest, this trail. A Friday night, month of April.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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