Johnson Pass–Part 3: Last Leg

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

“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” -Henry David Thoreau

June 23, 2012 –
My trail journal for this day only contains a single entry, mentioning packing up camp and heading out – our rests were fewer than the previous day and I wasn’t motivated to do much more than sit still when we did take our breaks. Though my boots were still plenty wet in the morning, my socks did a fantastic job of keeping my feet quite comfortable. I wear a thin, synthetic liner sock under a synthetic or wool (SmartWool is great) outer sock. The combination works great. The liners wick moisture into the outer socks, which dry fairly quickly — even in hot boots. The outer socks keep the feet cool and absorb shock from the trail. They work great in colder temperatures, as well; how socks can keep you cool in the Summer and warm in the Winter is a sort of sorcery I don’t understand but greatly appreciate!

I slept well and after a meal of Mountain House Scrambled Eggs with Bacon (also not bad), I was refreshed and ready to go. We had about 11 miles to go, with the rest of the trail being mostly downhill. The Sun was lingering below some peaks to the east, but it was only a short matter of time before it was blazing overhead. There wasn’t a cloud in sight and I knew it would be another exhaustively hot day.

Not even half a mile into our trek, Terry made a god-awful sound and jumped backwards. The sound is hard to describe, but if there was a recipe for it it would contain the noise of a busted vacuum cleaner, the shriek of a cornered shrew, and something resembling the sound of an unidentified primate; a non-human one. Since I was behind Terry, I wasn’t at first sure what he saw that could make him react with such a panic. Surely, it must be a bear, or a rabid coyote, or a pack of angry marmots. As Terry determinedly tried to return his heart-rate to normal, I stepped around him to confront the beast:

This video is just a short snippet of our five or more minutes walking with Mr. Porcupine. Occasionally he’d stop, forcing us to do the same. I put my trekking pole forward to prompt him along and he would slap at it with its tail and pick back up his moseying stroll. He never shot quills out at us like you might see in cartoons. He was actually rather cute with an easily discernible personality (I try not to personify, I really do!).

With that excitement behind us, we made our way south and back into treeline. This section of the trail was quite easy to traverse. It seemed mostly flat, though our elevation was slowly dropping. There were still a few small climbs, but they seemed less significant than the ones from the previous day. We saw more people on our second day as well. There were two large family groups, about a half hour from each other, that we passed going the other way. The Sun was bright and hot, but we had the blessing of the shade for most of the day.


There were still a couple of substantial challenges we faced on our second half, however…

First, the maps are wrong, and this is seriously worrisome and needs to be fixed. Let me explain: Near the Moose Pass end of Johnson Pass, the trail forks creating Summer and Winter routes. The Winter route exists partially on ice, and therefore unusable in the non-frozen half of the year. We wanted to be very sure that we were taking the Summer route, as we were worried that accidently getting on the Winter route would take us hours and miles out of our way before we realized it. We figured the trail would be marked in some manner, but it was the first time either of us had hiked this trail so we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. At one point near where the trail was expected to fork, Terry checked his GPSr and noticed that it appeared to recognize our location as along the Winter route. It showed us being about half-a-mile past the fork. This was quite surprising to us, because we couldn’t think of any indication in the recent past miles of the trail branching whatsoever. I pulled out my GPSr and powered it up to get a read of our latitude and longitude to compare it with the figures provided on Terry’s, thinking maybe a reduced signal from the tree-cover was tricking his GPSr into thinking we were at a different location, or that since his GPSr had built-in map data it could have been trying to be “smart” and keep us on a prescribed path. My GPSr gave virtually the same reading as his, and it doesn’t contain any advanced path features like his. Now certain of our latitude and longitude, I pulled out my paper map and found our location.


Sure enough, it also showed us about a half mile into the Winter route. We decided to split up briefly to try and find a fork in the trail. I walked a quarter mile or so further south, while he did the same back north. Neither of us saw any indication of the trail forking. The trail seemed to continue south so obviously and it appeared so well-travelled that there was no way it was the Winter route, but the maps couldn’t be wrong, could they? Deciding that it would be embarrassing to lose many hours by continuing on and ignoring the two maps, we decided we would backtrack the full half mile (and a little extra) and try desperately to see a fork in the trail. We walked nearly a mile with our eyes peeled and checking and double-checking our maps; no fork. We decided we would take what the maps were calling the Winter route, taking our chances. A couple of miles later, something resembling a game trail branched off of the main trail. That’s also when we noticed this:062312_0074

Checking our position again proved it: the maps were wrong. This error might not have been a big deal to us — all said and done, it cost us an hour or so and some confusion – but it has the potential to cause great harm to others in different conditions. Alaskan backcountry is no place to become lost. The error clearly lies in the map data, as I was referencing the current edition of National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated map for this area and Terry’s GPSr had recently been updated. The GPSr showed an almost identical path to the paper map, so I suspect they share the same map data and fixing the data the maps derive from will correct the issue for many different users. One thing is certain: it needs to be fixed.

Shortly after the real fork in the trail, the views opened up to the south and east. In the foreground were boggy wetlands. Beyond that, we could see the drainages and northern portion of Upper Trail Lake. Looking skyward, the majestic Chugach Mountains framed the whole scene in. For the rest of our trek, we would follow the coastline of Upper Trail Lake, with the trail taking us away from the lake from time-to-time only to bring us back to it again. By this time, my feet were pretty tired; in fact, it wasn’t just my feet… I was pretty tired. I wanted to stop and rest but I also wanted to keep moving to get out of the trail within a reasonable hour; without communicating it, we opted for the latter.

It was on this section of the trail that we met our final challenge. Last Winter, the Kenai Peninsula experienced a massive wind-storm; in fact, so destructive, President Obama signed a federal disaster declaration due to it. On this hot and sunny June day, you’d expect Winter to be the furthest thing from our minds. But it was unavoidable; the storm had left its mark, and in its wake at least a dozen massive Spruce trees had fallen across the trail. In many backcountry areas, this isn’t too much of a hassle. If you can’t easily go over or under it, you have the option of walking around it. That wouldn’t work here. Each side of the trail was a steep and heavily-forested slope. Walking around the tree meant bushwacking and climbing – not something we were much inclined to do in our tired condition and with our heavy and somewhat awkward packs. This meant our only options were over or under.

062312_0077062312_0086 062312_0041

If you think this looks fun, you’re mistaken. The trees seemed like they were placed there by some medieval kingdom to keep raiders at bay. The busted branches left dangerously sharp spikes protruding out of the tree. Straining to pull your body and heavy pack over the top of these trees while avoiding a serious puncture wound took a lot of energy, as did getting down on our bellies and crawling, a la G.I. Joe-style. I was lucky to not tear any clothing or my pack. I did puncture my leg; not badly enough to warrant concern, but nonetheless a permanent scar to serve as a reminder.


We got an idea of just how large Upper Trail Lake is as the hours ticked by while we hiked along its coast. The trail is essentially carved out of a slope coming up out of the lake’s beach, and thus there were a number of ups and downs on the trail. We could hear vehicles traveling the highway on the other side of the lake. I think this added into making this part of the trail feel so much longer – we weren’t exactly how many miles we had yet to go and the sounds of the highways constantly made us feel as if the trailhead must be just around the corner. Finally, the trail dropped down to the waterline and we could see the hatchery just up ahead. A beautiful little island with a solitary spruce tree standing on a bed of wildflowers popped into my view:


After passing the edge of the lake and the hatchery, the trail continued for another 10 minutes or so following the highway. Even though we had only been away for a couple of days, the vehicles and their sounds seemed almost alien. My mind contrasted and compared the sounds and sights of the wilderness with those of the civilization we were rejoining. For the 36-or-so hours prior to the highway sounds, everything we heard could have been heard 10,000 years ago (save the two floatplanes on the lakes – one as we we approached Bench Lake and the other revving its engines for take-off as we awoke on our second day).

To me, that’s the whole point of these trips: Taking steps forward and stepping out. Finding the few places left on this planet that exist today as they have for millennia. Turning off the everyday, sharpening your instincts, and then returning… coming back out taller than the trees.

(Soundtrack guitar used with permission, from the track ‘Introspection’ by Fireproof_Babies)
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