“I hiked as far as I could with dear Autumn, and in the end I didn’t go. I kept her in my soul.”
A shiver had fallen across the Kenai Peninsula when I set out for a hike into the Chugach National Forest. The temperature dropped into the teens overnight, leaving a thick layer of frost on the fallen leaves of the early October morning in Alaska. I looked at the thick ice crystals covering everything in sight and knew my days of hiking through the brilliant colors of Alaskan fall were quickly coming to an end.
The temperature had risen to about 30 degrees Fahrenheit at the lower elevations by the time I made it to the trailhead. Dense summer undergrowth on the forest floor had largely disappeared at the edge of the forest. I began my trek believing that my trek would be relatively easy and carefree.
I soon found that the huge leaves of the devil’s club were bright yellow but hadn’t fallen off the plant yet. The devil’s mace spread out on both sides of the path as I marched further into the forest. Before I knew it, I was walking into a huge area dominated by the broad leaves of the prehistoric-looking plant.
Devil’s club obscured the path with its yellowed leaves blending in with the colors of Alaskan fall. My leisurely stroll through the Chugach National Forest turned into quite an arduous and painful task. All I wanted from my day hike was to enjoy the gorgeous fall colors of the Kenai Peninsula, but it turned into something else entirely.
Life in the Alaskan wilderness is changing fast and my “comfortable walk” quickly turned into a much more difficult prospect. I didn’t expect that the dense growth of devil’s mace would be so widespread in the last days of autumn. This vigorous group of plants played an irksome role, but thankfully the layers of clothing I wore to insulate against the freezing temperatures kept the devil’s club spikes off my skin.
Leaves that looked almost two feet wide barred my path at every turn. The leaves and stems of the devil’s club are covered with needle-like thorns that break off easily. The spines of the plants whipped against my bare hands and face as I trotted down the path. Only my desire to enjoy the fleeting colors of Alaskan fall allowed me to move forward.
Autumn in Alaska starts much earlier and is relatively short compared to the fall season in the Lower 48. Leaves begin to change color in late September and by early October most of them have made the short flight to the ground. Perhaps it’s the impossibly brief nature of fall in The Last Frontier that got me through the thick devil’s mace that day. Eventually, the “termination dust” moved farther and farther down the Kenai Mountains with each passing day. My opportunities to enjoy the vibrant yellows of fall were dwindling fast and would soon be gone entirely.
Blood started dripping from my hands as the Devil’s Club lived up to its name. I looked down and felt blood trickle down my fingers. A splash of crimson fell on one of the huge leaves.
I watched my blood run down a vein in the leaf as I passed it. My legs and feet carried me up the slope, but my mind wandered. The red shot my blood gave to the yellowish devil’s club reminded me of the Native American legend of hunting the great bear.
The story of the Great Bear’s pursuit is part of various Native American cultures and provides an explanation for the changing colors of the leaves. The myth also explains the constellation Ursa Major, better known as the Big Dipper or the Great Bear.
According to legend, a group of seven hunters were out in the wilderness when they encountered the largest bear they had ever seen. The hunters immediately began tracking the bear. They pursued it all summer long. The bear had reached the end of the world when autumn came upon the earth. The Great Bear stood where the land meets the sky as the hunters approached. It jumped off the edge of the earth into the night sky hoping the hunters wouldn’t follow it.
Some of the hunters decided to return to their villages instead of tracking the Great Bear to the skies. Three of the hunters were brave enough to follow the bear, and all fell off the edge of the earth into the night sky.
The bear ran away with the men in hot pursuit. The intrepid hunters got as close to the bear as possible and fired their arrows.
The arrows found their target and blood spurted from the Great Bear. The bleeding bear continued to run away across the night sky. Blood of the Great Bear dripped from the sky and stained the leaves of the trees. It has been said that the blood of the Great Bear continues to create the brilliant palette of colors we enjoy every fall.
We now know that as summer rolls into fall, the reduced sunlight of the shorter days signals plants to stop producing chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is important because it helps trees harvest energy from sunlight through the process of photosynthesis.
Chlorophyll is more prevalent during the long, sunny days of the spring and summer months, so leaves are completely green. As the days get shorter and chlorophyll production decreases, the predominant green color begins to fade. This makes the red, orange and yellow tones more visible.
Many of the spectacular colors we enjoy each fall are actually in the leaves all summer, but red isn’t. Anthocyanins produce the red hues we enjoy in trees like red maples and scarlet oaks, but are not found in leaves until the chlorophyll is broken down. As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, the chlorophyll breaks down revealing all the colors.
As I pondered the story of the hunt for the Great Bear, there came the distinct sound of a large animal breathing heavily from the forest. It suddenly occurred to me that I should probably focus more on actual bears that I might stumble across while hiking the Kenai Peninsula. I continued my hike on this beautiful October day until I came out of the spruce and fir forest.
The unique glacial waters of Kenai Lake and the Kenai River greeted me. Turquoise water reflected the colors of Alaskan fall while low clouds ripped through the trees. I marveled at the remarkable scenery, snapped a few photos and continued my walk around the edge of the magical water.
Along the way, my eyes feasted on a variety of glorious views. I thought of the goodies of fall as I lifted my eyes to the mountains. The “Abandonment Dust” covered the hills in a blanket of white powder, and I knew that the harsh, dark days of winter would soon engulf The Last Frontier.
While I had wandered as far as I could with dear Autumn, I will always keep her in my soul.
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