September in Alaska. The sun is still warm, and the bustle of summer is winding down. Most of the tourists have come and gone. The streams and trails are returning to their quieter state, and locals are reemerging to take advantage of the final days before the snow will fall on braided streams and the peaks of the Front Range of the Chugach Mountains.
As a year-round resident of Alaska, the shoulder season represents a true transition. Fall is a time to reflect on the adventures of the months before, and also a time to mentally prepare for the tough winter months that are to come.
In between looking back at fish pictures from the summer and getting prepared for winter, I found myself unable to say “no” to any invitation for outdoor activity. I’ll blame it on my chronic FOMO (that’s “fear of missing out”) combined with my desire to stock up on happy memories to think about when negative temperatures and less than six hours of daylight set in. They’d be here before I knew it.
So naturally, when some girlfriends invited me on what started as a casual weekend hike, I couldn’t say no. Miranda fired off the first group text, asking us if we were all down to head out to Eagle and Symphony Lakes the following Saturday. Anna responded asking if folks would be willing to trail run it - it was a 12 mile out and back and she needed to be back in town by mid-afternoon. Tela chimed in to ask if I’d bring my rod and reel since there were supposedly grayling in Symphony Lake. Michelle agreed to all of it - as long as we could stop for a post-adventure beer at one of our favorite local breweries on the way back.
In under five minutes, our casual weekend hike had turned into a 12-mile lady-gang, trail run, fishing trip. Classic.
photo by - Meghan Barker
On Saturday morning, we piled into Anna’s car to drive out to the trailhead. Light grey clouds weaved in front of the sun, and we stuffed different layers into our backpacks before tightening them to our chests and hitting the trail.
It only took 10 minutes for us to run before we stopped for our first break. Stopping was partly due to dripping sweat as the clouds had uncovered the fall sun and needing to take off a layer. It was also due to the massive bull moose that had come within 100 feet of the trail, grazing on bunches of willow. We stripped down to our sports bras, carefully crept by the moose, and kept on moving.
A few miles later, we ran into a family hiking with their small children, two of whom were young girls. The parents shoed the little ones to the side of the trail to let us go by to maintain our tempo, and as we ran past, I heard one of them say “wow, they are hiking really fast!” At that point, we were huffing and puffing and had slowed from our starting pace. But the genuine impression we left on that little girl as being fast trail runners was enough to make us collectively laugh and keep pressing on.
We reached the lakes only a little while longer and were met by misty clouds coming back over the lakes. We put layers back on and started to walk along the boulder field that separated the lakes to the backside of Symphony. We pulled out a mix of snacks and flies that we had hauled out and got our rods set up.
photo by - Meghan Barker
In between the small pools and beaver dams, we found huge schools of grayling. Almost immediately Tela and I had fish on, and I reeled mine in to see up close the beautiful purple and silver scales they donned. As I took the fly out of the mouth of the first fish, I found myself remembering to take a “heart photo,” a mental snapshot to store in my memory that I would only access in the depths of winter when I needed a reminder of kinder times. I let that fish swim back to the others, and we continued to reel in grayling before making the call to pack up and head back to get Anna home in time.
As always, the way back seemed to go much faster than it took to get out there, leaving us with ample time to stop in Eagle River to pick up Greek food from the local restaurant and take it to the brewery. Tela’s boyfriend, Josh, and some of his friends were going to meet us there, and when they arrived, they found five dirty, sweaty, and hungry women going to town on feta fries and fried cheese. If they thought we had any intention of sharing, well, we didn’t. We finished our food and beverages and headed back to the house.
Showered and still full a few hours later, my tired legs piled into bed before 8 pm - a very reasonable time for a 24-year-old on a Saturday night. I figured I’d fall asleep immediately, but as usual, my mind decided now was the time to start going for a 12-mile trail run. I quickly found my thoughts going all over the place. I was thankful for the incredible day I had experienced with my girlfriends. I was grateful that we had been safe, and the only wildlife encounter was the bull moose and the dozens of grayling that were eager for our flies. I was impressed with the fish we had caught, as well as the food we put down after. I also found myself irritated that winter would be coming soon, bound to take away opportunities to have these kinds of adventures again. But with every winter comes spring, and with every spring, summer. And knowing that, I rolled over and fell asleep, dreaming of the fishing adventures Alaska would bring in the summer months to come.
photo by - Meghan Barker
But before I could get to summer, I’d have to deal with winter first. So fast forward a few months to January in Anchorage. We had seen weeks of temperatures in the negatives, and for the second time, my car wouldn’t start due to a frozen gas line. I called Miranda to help me - I needed to pick up some HEET and more gas to try and get it warmed up. As I stood in –11 degrees, pouring more gas into my car, my mind went to my “heart photo album.” While my fingers were freezing here, I remembered that glorious, friend-filled fishing trip in September, my fingers too were freezing as I pulled grayling after grayling off my fly. I closed my eyes and felt the day coming back from the place in my mind where I had tucked that memory, saved exactly for times like this.
I finally got my car started and hopped in to meet my friends at the local brewery. While we sat around catching up after busy weeks of holiday travel, I couldn’t help but compare this gathering to our day in September. While the fish and warm temperatures were lacking now, the community and sense of accomplishment were still here. Not every day do you get to celebrate an incredible time running through the valley with your friends, topped off with successful fishing and a good meal to boot. Sometimes, that celebration is getting your car started in weather that makes you want to say more expletives than normal. Sometimes, the accomplishment is getting out of bed when the darkness of winter makes you want to stay curled up and cozy. But every single time, whether your day is filled with fish or frozen fuel lines, the joy and gratitude come from being with other people who you know will have your back in the good and the bad.
I’m raising one up for my badass lady friends who push me to run faster, fish more, and embrace every element of this Alaskan life. Cheers to you.