The weather is warming while the grass and brush are still low.
The wildlife viewing can be spectacular as animals move and feed all day following a long winter on short rations. Migratory birds are returning, and especially in June wildflowers will be erupting almost everywhere you look.
The scenery is unimaginable, to the point you’ll kick yourself if you forget a camera with fresh batteries and lots of space on its memory card.
Best of all for anyone looking for an “Alaskan” experience, you aren’t likely to encounter another soul.
You can expect better weather and warmer temperatures later in the summer and into the fall, but there is a tradeoff. The vegetation is so dense it’s hard to get around, and the biting insects will make you nuts.
Hiking in spring and early summer requires planning and preparation, however. You need to start your day in nice weather, but you have to be prepared for sudden changes.
You also have to be ready for changes in the terrain, especially if you follow the receding snowline into the high country.
As you climb higher into the hills and mountains of Kodiak, the terrain changes dramatically from the brushy, boggy lowlands. The grass suddenly gets short above the brush line and rocky outcroppings emerge.
Once you break clear of the last band of alders and reach the shorter vegetation above, you’ve actually moved into tundra.
After the struggle through brush at lower elevations, it’s like moving into another world. If you’ve driven to the top of Pillar Mountain above the town of Kodiak, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s so easy to walk!
But there’s a catch in such easy walking.
You can cover many miles in no time at all. Before you know it you’ve traveled much further than planned, which of course means you have lots more ground to cover on your return trip.
Add in the lengthening days, and it’s possible to walk so far that you simply can’t return before darkness falls. Even if you don’t plan to stay out after dark, it’s always a good idea to carry either a flashlight or headlamp with spare batteries.
You’ll need it!
I’ve also learned to beware of “shortcuts” when returning from the high country. What looks like a reasonable and direct route from above can reveal itself to be a miserable route once you leave the high country.
Unless I know the country really well, I always return to lower elevations by the same route I followed earlier in the day.
But the high country can really fool you. It’s easy to miss the point at which you broke out into the open. I have learned to carry flagging tape used by surveyors, and to mark the point at which I broke out of the brush.
Be liberal with the tape too, because you just might be looking for it after dark by the light of your flashlight. Be sure to remove it before you descend though, on behalf of the next person that climbs into Kodiak’s high tundra.
You’ll quickly discover another distinct difference between Kodiak’s high tundra and the lowlands.
It’s virtually a desert up there!
The higher you climb, the less likely you are to find water sources.
I’ve learned to carry two liter bottles of water at a minimum, but also to carry a water purification pump. I consume so much water on the climb up, it’s easy to run out before the end of the day.
Any time I stumble upon a water source, I replenish my supply. But as with all water sources on Kodiak, you have to take precautions to avoid Giardia or “beaver fever.” Always filter the water before you drink it.
Other differences will affect your visits to the high country.
If you think it can get windy on the road system, wait until you climb higher!
The mountains and passes funnel and intensify the air movement, so you often find wind in the high country even when it is calm at sea level.
You should also expect sudden drops in temperature. Even with no weather change there’s usually a significant drop in temperature as you climb.
But let the wind come up or change directions and the bottom can fall out of the thermometer.
Worst of all is when one of those nice, fleecy white clouds settles onto your mountain. From the outside it’s a great addition to your photos. But once it settled over you, you’ll discover more than fog. It’s usually windy, and often laced with rain.
Any time you venture into the high country, be sure to carry a good raingear, both pants and a hooded jacket. Even if it doesn’t rain you’ll welcome it for cutting cold wind.
I vastly prefer a good grade of raingear made from “breathable” fabric to plain nylon or the heavier stuff worn on commercial fishing boats. Beware of the lightweight plastic variety, however. Not only do you sweat like crazy when wearing it, but you’ll also discover that it’s a magnet for snags and punctures.
I also pack more clothing than I think I’ll need. Fleece pile is best, both for the extra insulation it provides and for the fact that it’s light and compressible. I like to carry both light and heavy hooded jackets, as well as fleece pants.
You certainly won’t wear them while climbing into the high country, but you’ll welcome all or part of the array any time the temperature dips. Along with the rain gear, you can achieve surprising warmth while adding very little extra weight to your pack.
As always when hiking, you should pay special attention to the care of your feet.
Kodiak poses special challenges for hiking boots. They need to be waterproof on behalf of the wetlands you’re likely to traverse at lower elevations. But even waterproof boots suffer from the big hole in the top of each, the place where your foot passes on the way in.
No matter how tall my hiking boots, I always manage to find water just a little deeper.
It’s best to wear hiking boots made of breathable fabric so any water on the inside, including sweat, has a way to escape. But you also need to carry spare socks. I usually carry two pairs, on bad days I still manage to return home without a dry sock to my name.
As a final word, you’re very likely to see bears in the high country in spring. With the low vegetation you’ll see them at a distance and easily stay out of their way, except as you approach breaks in the terrain such as ridges and outcroppings.
Always make a little noise and approach hidden terrain with caution.
But in truth I’ve had bigger problems with another animal in the high country.
Eagles may well be nesting on some of the outcroppings.
If you get too close to an eagle nest they’ll do their best to drive you off. That might well mean parting your hair. Right down to the bone.
When I find myself suddenly under aerial assault, I depart quickly. But I also pull my daypack up on top of my head.
Talons can damage Ripstop nylon, but at least they won’t draw blood in the process.