“The earth has music for those who listen.” ― George Santayana
August 30 – September 1, 2012
To follow-up our Johnson Pass adventure, Terry and I set our sights on a multi-day trek from Girdwood to Eagle River, completing another section of the Iditarod National Historic Trail. We decided to spend nights over the course of the 24-mile trail, starting on the evening of August 30. After work, we gathered our supplies and drove to Girdwood. We parked and were on the trail shortly after 6pm. From the trailhead parking lot, we watched a black bear criss-cross a snow chute on an adjacent slope. Starting as late as we did, our plan was to climb the 2,000+ feet up to Crystal Lake and pitch a tent for the night.
The steepest section of the Crow Pass trail exists between Girdwood and Crystal Lake. In fact, after climbing less than three miles from Girdwood, the remaining 20+ miles are almost entirely a gently-sloping downhill heading north.
The trail begins as wide as and flat as a road. One or two gentle switchbacks will take you up the first mile. You quickly reach and pass treeline as you find yourself surrounded by mountains. The trail becomes less-pronounced after about two miles, as you make your way past relics from the historic Monarch mine, which operated from 1909 to 1938.
Crow Creek zips through a steep valley to the west, separating you from the steep slope of the mountains just on the other side. Sheer cliffs loom over you to the east and north, as well. You find yourself feeling dwarfed amongst the formidable stone. Scan the cliffs to the east and you’re likely to view mountain goats, as they expertly maneuver through impossible cliff sections. Below them in the talus fields you find yourself walking through, you may hear some quick chirping sounds and catch a burst of movement through your peripheral vision. Pause and watch closely and the shapes of hoary marmots will begin to expose themselves within the nooks and crannies of the stacked rocks. Members of the genus marmota, these large rodents are visibly similar to groundhogs. Their call is a high-pitched chirp, which has earned them the nickname “whistle-pig”.
We continue climbing. Milk Glacier becomes visible in front of us as we cut west, Crow Creek rushing down below us. The elevation gain is steep, but I’m feeling fine. A few minutes later, our climb levels out and we head over to the Crow Pass cabin, and the shores of the small Crystal Lake. Just as we arrived at the cabin, the wind quickened and a snow flurry whipped up. We took advantage of the empty cabin, rather than fighting the wind and snow to pitch a tent outdoors. It was exciting to go to sleep knowing that from here on out, the rest of the trail is virtually all downhill.
The next morning, we got up, filtered water from Crystal Lake, and continued north on the pass. The air was chilly, with alpine winds gusting. Within just a few minutes, and after crossing some pools and small boulders, we arrived at Crow Pass proper at an elevation of 3,883 feet. We stopped briefly for our obligatory handshake photo and gawked at Raven Glacier.
I struggle to describe glaciers with words; they can only be fully articulated by experience. At a glance, they appear as massive and unmoving as the mountains, solid sentinels and icy fortresses. Spend a few minutes analyzing a glacier and you’ll realize these are complex, living structures. Glaciers spawn rivers, creeks, and lakes. House-sized slabs of magnificently blue ice regularly calve and crash on the ground or in the water below. Crevasses creak and crack, new fissures are born. All the while, the glacier slowly flows out of the ice-field above. Underneath, the glacier effortlessly carves its way through mountains, pulverizing bedrock, turning stone into powder. Glaciers have a way of confusing the human sense of scale and perspective. A glacier that appears within a stone’s throw can be a mile away. It’s not until you approach the glacier that you get a complete sense of how large they are, but by then, you’re looking at a wall of blue ice, decorated with labyrinthine passages. with no way of fully realizing its height or depth. I’m consumed with bittersweet emotions: both elated by the opportunity to co-exist with these rivers of ice, yet wracked with grief knowing that mine very well could be one of the last few generations that will enjoy this opportunity.
We pick our way down the trail, carefully finding our way across the top of this moraine. We pass a couple as they take delicate steps down the same moraine. While the clouds are just above our heads up here in the alpine, we have a miles-long view down the valley. Sun shines into the valley, an invitation that beckons. We reach the bottom of the moraine and strategically cross streams; Raven Creek mixes with the runoff barreling down from the mountains on the other side of the valley. The convergence of all of this water requires careful navigation. On drier days, this section is probably much less challenging. From this point, the trail parallels Raven Creek for a number of miles as we slowly descend into the valley. Flanked on each side by steep mountains, I feel strangely comforted. Golden sunshine now dominates the landscape and the colorful vegetation pops out at us. We cross a couple of bridges that take us over the torrential flow of Raven Creek, as it slams through the gorge it has carved out of the valley. Back on the east side of the creek, we take a rest in a field of cranberry and moss. I toast a Pabst Blue Ribbon towards a half-dozen mountain goats that gracefully grip the slimmest of rock ledges and frolic in out-of-place grassy fields high up on the mountains. By this time, I’m halfway through my 10-pack of burritos and chocolate/cherry trail mix.
The trail continues to ramp down the valley. We now have some distance between us and the rushing creek; it’s below us and to the west, as the trail sidehills us on the eastern wall of the valley. Now, the vegetation–pushki (cow parsnip), alders, and grasses–grow high along each side of the trail. Visibility becomes very limited, and I become more alert knowing that this is the type of terrain that’s conducive to bears surprising human, and vice versa. We make plenty of noise as we travel through this living flora tunnel. A couple passes us the other way; they haven’t seen any bears, but are being just as cautious as we are. If the bears don’t get us first, we’ll be to my most anticipated part of the trip in a few hours: fording the glacially fed Eagle River.
The trail drops us below treeline and into forest. We’ve entered a completely different environment, one of many we’ve experienced on this trip. The woody shade offers respite from the beating sun. A branch snaps and we lock eyes with a large cow moose; she nonchalantly continues munching on willow branches. A few breaks in the trees provide a rare glimpse of snow and ice: Eagle Glacier.
The sound of Eagle River escalates with each step. The trail walks us right to the edge of the river, where we get our first taste of what we’ll be soon wading across. A sign affixed to a tree points out the way to the “Ford Site”. We go up and down a few small hills next to the river, gaining a few views of the broad glacier, before bringing us to a dried gravel streambed. I can only assume that what we’re walking on now is a part of Eagle River during times of heavy thaw. The trail has been erased, but we notice a kiosk up ahead towards the glacier. The kiosk provides information on crossing the river: travel as a group, link arms, maintain as many points of contact with the riverbed as possible, loosen backpack straps in case you fall and need to get out them in a hurry, cross between the posts identifying the best ford points, etc.
This is the part of the trip that I have been thinking about the most during the weeks between committing to this trip and now. I had waded through frigid snowmelt on Johnson Pass and found the experience nearly unbearable. It wasn’t so much the stepping into the water that hurt–you go numb quickly–but moreso after stepping back out. The thawing of human bones is an excruciating endeavor. If I found those shin-high, few-step treks through snowmelt a challenge, how was I supposed to cross a broad river, waist-deep, yards away from being a glacier itself? I purposely left that question unanswered when I set out on this trip.
I swapped my boots for some crocs, left my hiking pants on, and stepped in. Jarring at first, but numbness quickly set in. Tunnel vision took over and my only thoughts were making a beeline across this river without getting debilitating cramps, slipping and falling, or deciding it was just too much and that I’d rather turn around and climb my way back up to Girdwood.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it felt nowhere near as bad as the smaller streams I waded through on Johnson Pass, even though it was considerably longer (it wasn’t until I got home and watched the video that I realized that it took over four minutes to cross, most of which was spent in the water [I apologize for the video quality, but I wasn't setting out to make a great film of the crossing. I merely let my camera dangle from my neck and record while I crossed the river.]) I also wasn’t expecting it to be as deep as it was, nearly waist-high. In spite of this, it was a piece of cake. I’m not sure why, but it may be attributed to a few different things. It might have something to do with me leaving my pant legs on. I’m thinking that it perhaps added a layer of insulation that saved my shins the brunt of the frigid river. If not that, it could be general conditioning. I was in overall better shape for Crow Pass and perhaps my body had better circulation. Finally, this crossing came at the end of a long, hot day of descending down the valley. Maybe my legs were so hot from all of the effort that the chill of the river was mitigated. Whatever it was, I’m glad it happened and I look forward to it on future trips.
After the crossing, we quickly dried off and got back into our boots. We wanted to get moving and get our body heat back up. On the north shore of the river, we entered tree cover. We crossed over another stream, this time with the aid of a tree balanced over both shores. Just above my head was a rope to use to maintain your balance as you cross, but I didn’t notice it until I had already tight-roped my way over (it was blocked by the bill of my hat). Once across we ran into a group of women that had just crossed the river not too long before us. We followed them for a few miles as the sun went down. We opted to camp next to each other and share a fire. We cooked some food, hung our food in the trees, and got a restful night of sleep.
The next morning we got up, ate breakfast, broke camp, and headed out for the remaining few (6 – 10) miles of the trip. The rest of the hike is mostly level ground through forest, with the occasional stream crossing (nothing you have to get wet about). At one point, you have the forest and river to your left and piles of shattered rock at the base of the steep peaks to your right. We split up from the women during this section, as they picked their way across the rock field and we took a path in the trees. Throughout the rest of the hike, we leapfrogged each other as each group would stop for breaks. Following the rock field, we crossed through a muddy path surrounded by grass taller than us. My bear-awareness perked back up and we made sure to make plenty of noise. This part of the trail generally has a few negative human/bear incidents each year, even as recently as a couple of days before us passing through the same spot. My “bear-dar” pinged through the roof as we passed a bear’s cache site (a half-buried moose). Getting between a bear and its cache is nearly as bad as getting between a bear and its cubs. Fortunately, we made it through this section relatively quickly. As we made our way closer to the end of the trail, we started running into people out on day-hikes. The more people we passed, the less concerned I became about the bears. The last couple of miles are always the longest, and this was no exception. The trail takes you up and down a few moderate hills, out near the river, and then back into the forest. The last stretch features a man-made gravel trailbed and a boardwalk through some particularly wet sections. A sign was posted on a closed gate on one of the side-trails, saying it was closed due to extreme bear activity.
Finally, structures became visible and we arrived at the Eagle River Nature Center and the end of our trek. Overall, it was a very enjoyable way to experience Alaskan wilderness. If you’ve got time for just one trip like this, and you feel up to the challenge, Crow Pass would be my top recommendation.