Wickersham One Week Later

Wickersham One Week Later
The view of Wickersham Dome from the Summit Trail – June 2, 2023

Last weekend was different. Spring was in full force; the trees and hillsides were verdant, wildflowers were in bloom, and the air was warm, hinting at the approach of summer. Cat and I took our dog, Tut, up Wickersham Dome via the Summit trail, where we saw the season’s first wildflowers. It seemed like the perfect timing to return a week later for more flower identification for my Alaska Wildflower Guide.

Woolly lousewort poking through the snow at the Wickersham summit
Woolly lousewort poking through the snow at the Wickersham summit

I was pleasantly disappointed.

In Fairbanks, the last week had been chilly and rainy. Our previous 70-degree Fahrenheit weather dropped to highs in the 40s, with scattered showers, wind, and rain filling most days. Thursday night fell to 31° F, and rumors of a dusting of snow at the nearby Cleary Summit led me to believe that there might be some snow near the summit on our next hike. However, I was unprepared for the five-plus inches of accumulation, even at the 1,000-foot lower elevation at the trailhead.

I hiked with two of our climbing team members and one of their parents. Despite the snow, the hiking was surprisingly manageable. The snow and semi-frozen ground kept the usually very muddy trail in check, which was a welcome change.

Snowy landscape and green hills in the distance
I loved the juxtaposition of the white snow with the greening valleys

The snow depths along the trail varied considerably, influenced by factors such as elevation and the amount of sunlight reaching different areas. In the more shaded spots, the snow accumulation on the trees suggested that as much as 8 inches of snow might have fallen.

Despite this, the summit was largely devoid of snow, having been swept clean by persistent winds, as it commonly is in winter. However, there were still numerous drifts nestled near the rock outcroppings, some reaching a formidable height of 3-4 feet.

Despite the scarcity of snow on the summit ridge, a generous amount of rime ice was apparent on the rocks and grass. Hard rime, a unique phenomenon, forms when the supercooled water droplets in fog freeze onto surfaces. These droplets, borne on the wind, swiftly crystallize upon contact, layering the landscape in a stunning, icy veneer.

Thick rime ice on a narrow strand of dead grass
Rime ice on dead grass
Rime ice formations on a lichen-covered rock
More rime ice on one of the rock outcroppings

We wandered around some of the rock outcroppings at the summit for a while. Earlier in the hike, one of the kids asked me how windy it would be at the summit on a scale of ‘windy.’ I told him I thought it would be at least ‘W•I’ or ‘W•I•N.’ Once we were up top, he informed me that it was, in fact, ‘W•I•N•D•Y.’

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A rocky outcropping in alpine tundra covered in snow and a sharp deep snowdrift to the left
Windblown snow at one of the rock outcroppings near the Wickersham summit
Snowy landscape with green hills in the background
White summit and green hills
A lone snowy tree standing in the taiga against a blue sky
Sparse spruce trees and some blue sky to the east near the summit
Hikers walking down a snowy outcropping on Wickersham Dome
Time to head down

The descent went considerably faster than the climb and was noticeably more tranquil (the kids were quiet). Upon exiting the dense spruce forest and reaching the first clearing, we were greeted by the Sun. It emerged, casting a brilliant glow on the trees and enveloping the landscape in a radiant light.

Sunlight on the snow-covered trees and landscape
The clouds were clearing, and the evening sunlight was perfect!
Sparse snowy spruce trees and partly cloudy skies
The snow glimmered in the sun along with the green leaves of the undergrowth
Snow on the trees and in the tundra on the side of Wickersham Dome
Looking back at the lower flanks of Wickersham Dome
Snowy landscape with rolling green hills in the valley below
Snowy landscape with rolling green hills in the valley below
A weather-worn spruce tree lower on the trail covered in snow
A weather-worn spruce tree lower on the trail – I like to think about how old these tiny trees can be

This was unquestionably one of the more visually stunning trips I’ve made to this area. While the scarcity of blooming flowers was slightly disappointing, the sheer beauty of the landscape more than compensated. The unexpected snowfall was not only gorgeous but also served as a powerful reminder of the unpredictable and dynamic nature of the weather in the Alaskan interior. Yet, it is this very unpredictability, this untamed nature, that makes every journey here truly unique. I look forward to whatever surprises my next visit will hold, knowing each adventure enriches my appreciation for this breathtaking wilderness even further.

One last look at the tundra before heading into the forest

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