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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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.


Johnson Pass – Part 1: Logistics and Otherwise

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. – John Muir

This is the first 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 covers day one of the trip. Part 3 covers the second and final day.

With a few short day-hikes under my belt, it was time to go after something a bit more ambitious; something that would push back a little bit. I was thinking about this, one night at my brother-in-law’s house, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek asked him when our schedules would coincide with a few days off together, so we could go backpacking. Moments later, we both had a weekend, set for two weeks later, blocked off in our calendars to backpack Johnson Pass – a 23-mile mountain pass through the Chugach National Forest in the Kenai Mountains.

20120622_090135I had never been on a real backpacking trip before, and thus had minimal supplies. I ordered a large, internal-frame backpack and a small, backpacking stove (both of which I became quite pleased with), and Terry had a nice, but small, 2-man tent. I began reading up what I could find about the trail and making lists of the things I thought I might need. I compared my lists with those you can readily find online, doing what I could to not realize my fear of forgetting something essential. My lists grew daily and I began amassing supplies; ignoring the common advice that less is more, when it comes to lugging things on your back for tens of miles. I ignored that advice, to my detriment, which I’ll discuss in part two.

I purchased important items, including: sunscreen, a mosquito head-net, 100% DEET insect repellant, a map, an emergency rain poncho, snacks, and the obligatory Mountain House dehydrated meals. I checked to make sure my water filter was in working condition. I purchased an amazing Kelty compression sack, which took my large sleeping bag and smooshed it down to something that fit in the sleeping bag compartment of my backpack with plenty of room to spare.

The night before the hike, I was up until about 1:00am packing my bag, making sure my camera battery was charged, and just existing in a state of anxiousness. Our plan was for Terry to pick me up sometime around 9am, pick up a few more odds and ends on our way out of town, and head for the mountains. Our wives and children would pick up the car we’d be leaving at the north trailhead, dropping it off at the south trailhead in Moose Pass, and then they would set out for some cabins we rented at Miller’s Landing, just south of Seward, to await our emergence from the wilderness.

Somehow, I managed to fall asleep around 2-o’clock in the morning, drifting into dreams of mountains and adventure…

Read more in Part 2.


First Family Hike of the Season – Bear Mountain Trail

May 19, 2012

– For our first family hike of the season, The Wife®, kids, and I were joined by my brother-in-law and his family, for the quick trek up the Bear Mountain Trail. Bear Mountain Trail has been the first family hiking trail of the season for the past couple of years, namely because it is short and not too steep; we figure it’s best for everyone to start out with something relatively easy for the kids (and us too!), than to get half-way into something more challenging and having a kid “hit their wall”. Plodding along the Bear Mountain Trail.(The kids are getting bigger, and beyond the point that I would want to carry them for any significant distance.)  After a precautionary brushing of any non-native plant material off our shoes at the trailhead (you’ll see these shoe-brushes installed at many trailheads), we began our quick trek east and up.

From the trailhead to the top of the trail is a scant .8 miles. It’s worth noting that you’re not actually climbing Bear Mountain. The trail takes its name due to the view at the top of Bear Mountain to the east. Moderate inclines are always followed by a level section, allowing you to slog through and catch your breath while still moving. The forest trail is abundant with different species of trees and other flora, including some remarkably large Birch. Following a long winter of particularly-heavy snowfall, I was surprised with the lack of snow on the trail. I suppose this owes to it’s many wide-open sections outside of the tree canopy coupled with the trail climbing on a completely south-facing slope.

We took our time as we climbed, allowing the kids to explore and climb on some of many rocky outcrops. We reached the top of the trail in about 35 minutes. We spent a few minutes up top, taking in the view and allowing the chill breeze to cool us off. I pointed out some of the geological features you can see from such a vantage point, 400 feet above the trailhead and 1,300 feet above sea-level. The expansive view contains everything:the braided streams of the Skilak River as it crawls through a gravel delta before dumping into Skilak Lake, the meandering path of the Kenai River before it joins Skilak Lake, and the tell-tale signs of a landscape carved out by glaciers. Skilak Lake itself is a beautiful sight, with its turquoise waters owing to its abundance of glacial sediments. Mountains peak all around to the south, east, and north, with the western view showing the lowlands of the western Kenai Peninsula and the Cook Inlet.

Ryan pointing out the gravel delta of Skilak River to nephew Corvin.
Ryan pointing out the gravel delta of Skilak River to nephew Corvin.

After taking some photos and taking it all in at the top, we began our descent. 25 minutes later, we were back at the trailhead.

A typical early-Spring view of Bear Mountain Trail.
A typical early-Spring view showing a section of moderate incline on Bear Mountain Trail.
Ryan, Jan, and Alexis.
Ryan, Jan, and Alexis at the top of Bear Mountain Trail.

Bear Mountain Trail is great for families or for when you don’t have the time for a longer hike. Depending on what pace you use to tackle it, it can be a heart-pumping workout or a leisurely stroll. It can be used as a good trainer for more ambitious hikes or coupled with other nearby trails for a day filled with multiple short adventures. Enjoy!

For more information about this trail, you can read this infosheet from the Fish and Wildlife Service (note that the map is incorrect, the top of the trail doesn’t circle around the top of the hill like that).


Skyline Trail – A Love Story

Looking east over the Kenai Peninsula, from the top of Skyline.

Skyline is one of those trails that instills a subtle intimidation in your soul when you first hear people talk about it; an intimidation that screams of irresistible challenge. A few years ago when I got into hiking, I had that feeling. Being out-of-shape and just getting my hiking legs, I knew Skyline would be too physically-demanding for my rookie-self. I hike other trails. Smaller ones. Less-strenuous ones. Those without as much intimidation factor. All the while, though, I was going on progressively difficult treks — consciously and subconsciously preparing for Skyline.

If at first you don’t succeed…

The first time I went after Skyline, it was just me and my dog, Diesel. It was early on a Friday morning and the parking lot was empty when I arrived at the trailhead. At that point, my concern drew away from the physical nature of the trail and towards the recognition of a few important facts: I was in bear country, at a time of day when they are most active and moving about, and no one else was already on the trail making noise, persuading the bears to disperse. I decided to make a go at it anyway.

At the beginning of the trail, I immediately noticed the sign of bear activity: tracks at the trailhead, and just a little bit further, a tree with deep scratches (bears commonly exhibit a behavior in which they essentially use a tree as a scratching post, possibly as a way of marking their territory in warning to other bears). Still, I wanted to push forward. About a half-mile in, my normally-complacent Diesel seemed a bit on edge. He was acting much more aware of his surroundings and exhibited a certain alertness. I was a little concerned as to how he would react in a situation with a bear. Would he go on the offense and try and chase the bruin away? Would he stand by my side, possibly antagonizing an attack? Or maybe he would just take off and leave me to fend for myself (there’s a common joke for those that travel into bear country, you don’t need to be able to run fast to escape a bear attack… just faster than the slowest person you’re with). I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to find out, and when I heard some thrashing in the alders just ahead of me on the trail, I was quite sure I did not. Somewhat disappointed with myself, I turned back and called it a day.