At the end of the world

At the end of the Harding Icefield Trail, it feels like the end of the world.

There is no grand finale, no plunging cliff, no soaring overlook. Just flags through the snow, and tracks, and then nothing. Snow, and rock, and Exit Glacier, and the far reaches of the Harding Icefield on the horizon, still heavy-coated with thick sugary white.

It felt slightly anticlimactic—but all good things must come to an end. So does this trail. Last week, our crew braved rain, cold, and biting katabatic winds from over the icefield to flag the route through the crumbly rock and snow of the alpine zone. It was cold enough for a dusting of fresh snow on the mountaintops just above us—in July.

Our toes were numb through rubber boots and wool socks, and visibility was low. But morale was high as we reached the end of the trail, at the end of the world, snapped photos, and called in a radio check to the Exit Glacier Nature Center. Morale was not quite so high when they didn’t answer back, perhaps too far to hear.

After working on it all summer, flagging it and grooming the snow, the trail feels like an old friend. We hike it twice a week, hauling in flags and re-vegetation signs, shoveling snow off the summer trails and sending hikers up the stabler routes over rocks.

We know the plants, looking up geoms and Sitka valerian and buttercups in Pojar’s Guide to the Plants of the Pacific Northwest. “You packin’ the Poj today?” I’m asked pretty much every other day. Over lunch on the rocks overlooking the glacier, we key out flowers, learn taxon, argue over the defining characteristics of a saxifrage. We’re learning the birds, varied thrushes and ptarmigans and possibly a white warbler. We watch for marmots in the meadows, and bears, and wolverines on the hike up.

It’s our trail, in a way. And our gift to visitors and staff at Kenai Fjords. It’s our legacy, albeit a fast-melting one, this shoveled-marked path in the snow. Even at the end of the world, that has to mean something.