Johnson Pass – Part 2: Steps Into the Wild

This is the second in a multi-part post. Part 1 discusses the idea and some of the logistics leading up to a trek through Johnson Pass, Alaska. Part 2 documents Day 1 of the adventure. Part 3 finishes the adventure.

“You can’t be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion or challenge the ideology of a violet.”  -
 Hal Borland

On June 22nd, just before noon, we reached the north trailhead of Johnson Pass. We stepped out of the car into a breezeless 82°F (27°C) day. We began situating all of our gear (trekking poles, camera, bear spray, GPSr, etc.) and strapping on our packs. This was the first time I had actually put my loaded pack on my back – I was shocked with just how heavy all of those little, light things I placed in my pack could be when all added together. Little did I realize it at the time, but I wasn’t wearing my pack properly either, and much more weight was hanging on my shoulders than there should have been. Regardless, my enthusiasm outweighed my discomfort and we set off on our adventure.

062212_0138The information kiosk at the trailhead stated the following information:

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Public Use: Moderate
  • Length (one way): 23 miles
  • Trip Time (one way): 2 – 3 days
  • Condition: Good
  • Recommended Season: June – October
  • Elevation Gain: 1000 feet

There was also some additional information about the trail that I probably should have read (but didn’t), instructions on how to build a “Backcountry Bathroom”, a large topographic map of the trail (though oddly enough, it didn’t cover the entire route), and the obligatory logbook. I logged us in and we hit the trail.

We ambled forth, fenced in by large spruce and other vegetation reaching for the sky. The Sun was staring us down from straight overhead, as can be expected this near to the June solstice. Soon, views of a rushing creek appeared through the trees to our west. We passed a couple of hunters going the direction opposite of us. My pack was heavy and not adjusted properly; though, it being my first backpacking trip I continued to assume that was just the burden you had to endure to enjoy multiple days in the wilderness. I couldn’t help but conjure up mental images of the Apollo astronauts, as they traipsed along the Moon’s surface; monstrous packs and low lunar gravity, each step exaggerated… hop-like. With a full G of gravity, I carried all of the awkward mass that those lunar-trekkers did, but without the respite of a reduction in weight. No temperature-controlled suits here either.

Weight. Heat. Bright. Two miles in. But then… From above our shoulders towards the west, a swift stream tore out of the mountain snow-pack, slicing across the trail in front of us with just enough width to require us to wade across. I think we were both a little excited for the opportunity; surely, the cool water must feel refreshing, and besides, aren’t these the types of activities that adventures are made of? We slipped out of our molten boots and into some foam clogs. I took off my pack and the various gear hanging from me and decided to carry the load in two crossings. I put a foot in the water to get a feel for the temperature and footing. It was frigid and I knew that the longer I kept my foot in, the less I would want to cross the stream (twice). Out there, decision-making is easy, as there are many times you don’t have a choice. This was one of those times. I grabbed my pack and put one step in front of the other for the few steps it took to get across. At first, shocking cold; then, numbness. I made it across, back onto sun-soaked ground. Easy; except, that’s when the pain kicked in. It was as if being in the water numbed my feet and exiting marked the beginning of the thaw. It felt like every brain-freeze I’ve ever had from eating ice-cream too fast had been taken and compressed into my feet. Pain coursed through my feet and up my leg before finally leaving me as quickly as it came. I would have to re-think that whole, “Oh, I’ll just make two trips” idea the next time we came across one of these.062212_0158

We continued on into a lush valley framed by snow-capped mountains. The soundscape was composed of the rush of fast-moving water accompanied with the calls of a hundred birds. When the birds weren’t singing, they were dashing in front of us on the trail. A porcupine, feeling the same weight of the relentless Sun that we were feeling, splashed along the edge of a small pond. A mountain biker heading our same direction passed us and before too long he passed us again heading back the way he came.


After 5 miles in,  Bench Creek grew quieter, but this only made way for the sound of more waterworks. A low rumble in the distance gave me the impression that we may come across a waterfall before too long. We continued at a moderate pace, though we lingered through any savory spots of shade we came across. A mile or two later, we crossed a bridge near the convergence of Bench Creek and Groundhog Creek (just before the Groundhog Creek camping spot). The cold water was rushing through the shaded canyon with such force, it generated a refreshingly cool mist that surrounded and rejuvenated us. We enjoyed the spot for a few extra minutes, observing the rock features of the surrounding canyon walls and a massive waterfall high in the mountains to our east.


Following that enjoyable rest, we continued. The next couple of miles brought us onto some of the steeper sections of the trail. By 7.5 miles in, we had both depleted our water reservoirs and had to stop and pump water out of a small stream (my Katadyn Hiker filter worked liked a champ). At this point, the trail opened up into a valley again and sections of the trail were wet, but not deep.

Then, something strange happened…

As we crossed a flooded area of the trail, I skirted around the deeper parts by walking at the edge of where the water met vegetation. My footing slipped slightly. Reflexively, I caught my balance by grabbing a handful of whatever plants were within arms-length. Fortunately, I avoided falling into the water. Unfortunately, I had the pain of a dozen thorns coursing through my hand. Except, these were no ordinary thorns. I looked my hand over, but saw nothing. I began rubbing various parts of my hands, expecting more sharp pain but at least being able to pinpoint whatever had intruded my skin; however, the sensation didn’t change. There didn’t appear to be any thorns in my hand, just the pain of a handful of thorns. Then, just as I was wondering if I was maybe suffering from heat exhaustion and becoming delirious, Terry announced, “We must have just walked through some stinging nettle.” What I was experiencing in my hands, he was feeling in his exposed legs. Thankfully, he had encountered it in his yard before and knew what it was. What a strange, nasty, yet interesting, little plant.

Finally, we could see Bench Lake up ahead. Though we intended to camp at the southern end of Johnson Lake – a mile beyond Bench Lake – it was motivating to approach a real milestone. A float plane took off from the lake as we approached. We came across the following memorial:


The Sun was finally dropping towards the western mountain peaks, the air was starting to cool slightly, and our stop for the evening was not too much further ahead. But Johnson Pass wasn’t going to give up that easily. We met our biggest stream crossing yet. We went through the regular routine of removing our packs and preparing our gear for the crossing. I took my first load over, only to struggle to find any dry, solid ground to place my pack. Marsh was the best we could get underfoot. On the other side of that stream, there was little where else to go as the entire trail and surrounding area had swelled with frigid water. Terry scouted a path for us, but it still involved climbing through alders and jumping over and wading through some additional streams. My boots were eventually soaked and I got tired of swapping them out for Terry’s foam clogs (we shared!). Cold, exhausted, and sore – I walked the last few miles to camp in in the clogs, partially fueled by bitterness and resentment for the situation. We reached the highest point on the trail, the official site of Johnson Pass, and snapped a couple of pictures. I lacked the motivation to pull my tripod out of my pack and ended up just setting my camera on a rock, setting the timer, and accepting whatever the camera ended up recording. My photo-cropping skills came in handy for the resultant image:


From that point, it was another mile or so, slogging through a streambed that would normally be the trail. I watched as the Sun set behind a tall peak, just to re-emerge as our vantage angle brought it back out again; the Sun set half-a-dozen times this way. We reached the southern end of Johnson Lake and ducked into an established camping spot and set up for the night. We needed water for cooking, so we hiked ahead a quarter-mile or so to the next stream crossing and pumped water… glacial milk, really. We boiled water, cooked our Mountain House meals (Lasagna with meat sauce is actually pretty good), and enjoyed some cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon that I had placed in my bag, frozen solid, that morning; when we cracked them open, they couldn’t have been at a more perfect temperature. We cleaned up camp, placed our gear in an appreciated bear box, and set down for the night. The Sun had set behind the mountain to our west for good, but the peaks to our east were high enough to still be completely illuminated with the reddish light of that evening’s proper sunset.

Everything was quiet, beautiful, and I was at peace with myself and the world.

True serenity, at last.

Continue reading with Part 3.

3 replies on “Johnson Pass – Part 2: Steps Into the Wild”

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