We never saw the lynx, but its broad round tracks were all around.
From the trailhead at Mile 39.5 on the Seward Highway, just north of the Seward Y, the Devil's Pass Trail descends to Quartz Creek, then climbs through birch, aspen and spruce toward the pass. The pass itself is prone to avalanches, but the rolling hills in the valley are prime for cross-country skis or snowshoes.
Last Saturday, new snow iced the trees, and the snow on the iron footbridge over Quartz Creek was about as high as the handrails. The creek, still open following an exceptionally warm winter, flowed through between boulders capped with snow. Slides had cut broad brown swathes down the overlooking bluffs.
The tracks of snowshoe hares -- a favorite prey -- were the harbingers of the lynx. The hare tracks became abundant about a mile from the highway. There, we left the trail and cut north through an old burn toward the hidden valley at the foot of the 4,600-foot peak northeast of Devil's Pass. Fresh avalanches marred the steep slopes above.
Leaving the burn, we snowshoed through twisted hemlock and spruce. At the foot of the mountain, the trees give way to open muskeg and broad views up the valley to the mountains near Summit.
We followed a tributary to Quartz Creek along the toe of the mountain, passing a beaver lodge and dam, then climbing along the edge of the mountain to avoid the open creek. We spotted the lynx tracks emerging from a grove of cottonwoods, following the creek, then climbing a boulder slide to a view down the valley toward Kenai Lake.
From there, the tracks turned back to the creek, but we kept following the shoulder of the mountain toward Devil's Pass. Cutting through the woods were canine tracks the size of my hand. Wolves? While the lynx had barely sunk into the snow, these tracks were 6 inches deep.
We met the trail and followed the switchbacks to the pass, a steep V between 4,000-foot peaks. Our dogs flushed a hare. About three miles from the highway, the trail emerged from the trees to views of the mountains all around. But the slope above was deep with windblown snow -- an avalanche waiting to happen. We took a break to enjoy the view, then headed back. Halfway to the highway, the dogs flushed three grouse. We found more lynx tracks nearby.
The U.S. Forest Service advises against traveling Devil's Pass until late spring when the avalanche danger has passed. Once it is safe, the hike is worth the trip. For a while, the trail is little more than a ledge in the wall of the canyon cut by Devil's Creek. The remains of winter avalanches offer the chance to fill water bottles with snow for the steep climb. Eventually, the gorge broadens to an alpine valley, and the brush gives way to alpine tundra. There is an excellent tent site about six miles from the highway on the bluff overlooking Henry Creek.
About 10 miles from the highway, the Devil's Pass Trail meets the Resurrection Pass Trail. there is a rough Forest Service cabin at the junction. From there, it is a 17-mile hike to Cooper Landing, with public-use cabins at Swan, Juneau and Trout lakes. For cabin reservations, call 877-444-6777 toll-free or visit www. reserveusa.com on the Internet. Many popular cabins must be reserved months in advance.
It's a 21-mile hike from the Devil's Pass cabin to the trail head at Hope or a 10-mile hike to the Summit Creek Trail and the trail head at Mile 44 on the Seward Highway. The Summit Creek Trail, which offers spectacular scenery, is avalanche-prone and extremely dangerous during winter.
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