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Fuller Lakes Trail: Spring is in the air

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2005

 

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  The view from the north side of Lower Fuller Lake. Photo by Joseph Robertia

The view from the north side of Lower Fuller Lake.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Spring is a time of migration. Flocks of birds fly in from the south, caribou herds make their way to their calving grounds and salmon head up river to spawn. So why not follow nature's example and do some migrating of your own?

It's just a short drive to get out of town and head for one the best spring hiking trails in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge — the Fuller Lakes Trail.

This hike is seasonally bountiful with both flora and fauna — from sprouting wildflowers, plants, shrubs and budding trees, to abundant wildlife that has yet to move to more secluded areas (as many species are prone to do in mid- to late summer when trails become more heavily traveled by people).

This — combined with a moderate grade of incline, a total elevation gain of only 1,400 feet, and a distance of just 6 miles round-trip — makes for a relaxing evening hike after a hard day at work.

Or, if spread out slowly through the day, this trip could also be made into an enjoyable weekend hike that the whole family should be able to make, young and old members alike.

The Fuller Lakes Trail offers options for those looking for more or less trail time. Those interested in doing an easier hike, yet still want a reward at the end, may opt to only go as far as the Lower Fuller Lake —a round-trip distance of only 4 miles.

At the other end of the spectrum, energetic hikers can opt to hike past the Upper Fuller Lake, for a challenging traverse to Skyline Trail by way of a ridge walk over numerous peaks in the Mystery Hills — a one-way distance of 12 miles.

Regardless of which option is chosen, the starting place is the same — Mile 57.2 of the Sterling Highway. The trail begins on the north side of the highway and the stairs should make it clear that this is an uphill trek the entire way.

The trail quickly transforms from constructed wooden steps to a well beaten dirt footpath through the forest.

Plants and shrubs that will bear fruit later in summer are presently in the flowering stages, and examples — such as currant, watermelon berry and high bush cranberry — abound throughout the hike.

The trail also moves through a forest of spruce, birch and intermittent groves of aspen, and gives way to hemlock higher up. Spruce grouse are frequently flushed out along the way at this time of year.

As the hike gains elevation, willow shrub is intermixed with unfurling ferns, some of the first lupine blooms of the year and bouquets of false hellebore.

Plants pesky to hikers later in the year, such as devil's club and cow parsnip, are also just beginning to grow, but not yet far along enough to cause any skin irritations.

 

The Lower Fuller Lake hike is seasonally bountiful with both fauna and flora, such as this bouquet of false hellebore.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Moose and bear are not as common on this hike as they are on some of the other hikes in the area, such as those off of Skilak Lake Loop Road, but bear in mind that both species are still present in the area and may be encountered.

As the trail continues upward, it at one point switches back near Fuller Creek. Listen for the sounds of running water — they are the most tell-tale sign of where to look to get a glimpse of the creek.

Increased songbird activity is another giveaway that the creek is nearby. Many species nest close to the water, including a few ground nesting species, so be careful where you walk.

Also, about two thirds of the way to the lower lake, don't forget to look back for a scenic view of Skilak Lake. If you forget on the way up, don't worry — it will be hard to miss on the way down.

After the 2-mile trek, the forest gives way to Lower Fuller Lake. A foot bridge across an outlet stream is the path taken to continue on the the upper lake, but the lower lake can be a great place to take a break.

Following a footpath to the right on the south side of the lake, a downed tree on the shoreline makes for a good bench to look out over the water and take in the still snow-capped peak of Round Mountain on the other side.

This spot also offers a good chance of viewing the lake's resident beaver colony. The industrial rodents aren't very active during the day, but hikers arriving at the pond in the evening stand a good chance of seeing them, or more likely of being threatened by them, as they often will slap the water with their tail before diving under as a way to warn off pesky human interlopers.

Even if not fortunate enough to spot the beavers, their hard work is present everywhere, from the white pulp of freshly chewed down trees on the shore, to the dam at the south end of the lake and two lodges at the north end.

Lower Fuller Lake is also a good place to fish for Arctic grayling for those that pack a rod up. Fishing a well-placed dry fly on the surface, or a small spoon or spinner underwater, can be too tempting a treat for these fish to resist.

As the hike continues upward from the lower lake, there's good news — most of the uphill hiking is done, as there is only 100 feet of elevation gain left between the lower and upper lake.

Two small ponds are the next feature encountered and are often a good place to observe goldeye with their crisply contrasting black and white plumage, as well other species of waterfowl.

 

Many species of birds nest close to the water, including a few ground nestling species.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

The bad news is that from these ponds the trail becomes noticeably less developed. The willow is thick and growing into the trail much of the way, and gets even thicker the closer the trail gets to the upper lake.

The trail also seems to be perpetually flooded or muddy in this area from snow melt from the mountains on the east side of the trail.

This section is a good place for long pants and gaiters — lower leg coverings that protect against scratches from brush and also keep mud out of hiking boots.

Don't be too focused on your feet though — taking the time to look up can pay off dividends in this section. The steep sides of the mountains to the west of the trail are a great place to spot Dall sheep, which with their all white pelage, can really stand out against the dark-colored rock.

A herd of just under a dozen of the agile ungulates — mostly ewes and calves — have been observed in this area in the last week.

At Upper Fuller Lake, there are a few scattered areas to set up a camp if staying for the evening. However, firewood is scarce so be sure to bring camp stove if intending to cook a hot meal.

The lake is a great place to use binoculars to glass for shorebirds while waiting for the sun to set in what is frequently an amazing array of colors.

Die-hard anglers may also try for the upper lake's resident population of Dolly Varden, but fishing in this location typically takes time and patience compared to the fast-paced action of wetting a hook in the lower lake.

For more information on hiking the Fuller Lakes Trail, consult the United States Geological Survey map Kenai B-1 (NE) and C-1 (SE), or call the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at 262-7021.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.



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