A winter walk yields a windfall of gifts

The thermometer outside the house reads 4 degrees F. at 2 p.m. Skies are blue, the air is calm, and Rusty Point - a Chugach landmark visible from my yard - is bathed in golden light. A good day to be among the mountains, to visit Chugach State Park, the "backyard wilderness" of Alaska's largest city, my adopted home.

Walking along a forest trail, I welcome the cold as it engulfs me, presses in on me, makes my wind pants stiffen and crinkle. I drink in mountain air, feel it swirl through my mouth, rush down my throat, cleanse my lungs. I feel it on my nose and cheeks, first as a coolness, then a tingling, a burning. The cold seeps through mittens and boots, lightly touching fingers and feet, and sends a wave of shivers through arms and shoulders.

So nice, for a change, to simply be with the cold, to appreciate it.

Looking for wildlife, I see only tracks - moose, arctic hares, and voles - until a flock of pine grosbeaks passes overhead. I count 14 of them dipping, swooping, and chirping. I wonder if they are among the group that regularly visits my feeders. Male grosbeaks are mostly red; females are gray with yellow to olive-green splotches.

Robin-size birds, they are year-round residents of the Anchorage Bowl's spruce forests, yet I never noticed them until setting up some feeders a few years ago. Now they add pleasure to both my home life and winter walks. Perched atop spruce trees, whistling brightly, they ornament the Hillside forest with holiday cheer. How did I miss them for so long?

Chickadees, magpies, ravens, and a small swarm of redpolls (tiny, sparrow-like birds with black chin spots and red patches on their heads) also chatter among the trees. They, like grosbeaks, are new acquaintances of mine, welcome guests at my feeders.

My walk now takes me into alpine tundra. Feathery clouds have drifted across the sky, but enough sunlight filters through for me to watch its changing hues on the mountains. Midafternoon's soft yellows subtly yield to peach, rose, and then lavender as day's end approaches. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the sunlight dims and disappears. In its wake, a fiery sunset casts a purplish-pink afterglow on the Chugach Range and prolongs day's passage into night.

Ravens, returning to their nighttime roosts, are silhouetted against the evening sky. Some fly alone, some in pairs. Others come in bunches; I count 15 ravens in one group, 22 in another. The two flocks join above Blueberry Hill, and the ravens engage in a swirling, spiraling winged dance. The dance abruptly ends and the birds resume their evening commute from city into mountains. In all, I see hundreds of the big, black birds. A local biologist has been studying their movements, but their roosting habits remain largely a mystery.

Across Cook Inlet, Mts. Redoubt and Iliamna stand dark against a blood-red sky. Below me, Anchorage is a mass of shimmering lights. It's all beautiful, all connected: mountains, sky, forest, city. Alaska's winter cold. Grosbeaks, redpolls, and ravens. And me.

In a time of gift-giving and receiving, I appreciate the gift of mountains. More than ornamented Christmas trees, Yuletide carols, or Nativity readings, they remind me, this holiday season, of the wonder in this world, in my life.

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