Alaska’s Independence Mine is located in what is now the Independence Mine State Historical Park, located in Hatcher Pass. The mine was built in 1934. The mine was closed in 1943, as US involvement in World War II deemed gold mining non-essential to the war effort. Following the war, the mine was re-opened. According to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources:
“The wartime ban was lifted in 1946, but gold mining was slow to recover. After the war, gold could be sold only to the U.S. government at a fixed rate of $35 per ounce. Postwar inflation raged, and gold mining became an unprofitable venture. Finally, in January of 1951, after mining nearly 6 million dollars’ worth of gold, Independence Mine was closed by APC, and a chapter of Alaska’s gold mining history came to an end.”
In this photo, you can see Bunkhouse #1 and other support structures. In the distance is Bodenburg Butte, near the city of Palmer, Alaska. Beyond that is the towering Talkeetna Mountain range, with Pioneer Peak visible on the right edge.
Following some rumors and vague leads on the internet, we set out to search a couple of potential candidate areas for what once was known as Kern Creek Station. From what I’ve learned thus far, at one point in the early 1900s Kern Creek Station was the northern terminus of the central Alaska railroad system. Pictures found in online archives show an established community at this place, with a bridge crossing Kern Creek and surrounded on both sides by various structures. We were sure remnants of this place must still exist, so we set out in search of them.
Along the way, we pulled into the rest area near the Hope turn-off. Parked there was the most awesome camper trailer I had ever seen.
The camper was hand-built by a man named Bill Guernsey, who resides in Anchorage. He was kind enough to let me take a look inside. I was too struck by the intricate details of his work to think to take a picture. You can read all about his project, and what inspired it in the first place, here.
The camper wasn’t the only beautiful piece of engineering in the parking lot that day. I took a moment to gawk at what I believe is a 70s-era Volkswagen Thing.
The side-stop out of the way, we got back on the road to fulfill our objective. The first, and most seemingly-obvious candidate location, was Kern Creek itself. We parked at a pull-out along the Seward Highway and walked north until we reached the outflow of the creek where it spills into the Cook Inlet at Turnagain Arm. Two large culverts carry the creek underneath the highway and railroad tracks. Because the creek runs completely under the highway, there are no markers to indicate that you’re driving over the creek. In fact, I’d suggest that very few people even know Kern Creek exists. At the culverts, we considered traveling through them but the water was flowing quite swiftly and was undoubtedly very cold. Instead, we climbed back up to the highway and crossed. From there, we climbed a small embankment up to the railroad bed, and crossed it as well. There, we dropped down to the creek. Immediately, we could see a number of metal beams standing up in the mud. I suspect this to be part of the old rail bridge that crossed the creek. We didn’t see any signs of additional structures.
Where the creek enters the culverts, we noticed a number of US flags affixed to a large rocky cliff that’s adjacent to the creek. In the center of the flags was a small cadastral survey marker, bearing the name of Paul Owen Johnson, with the dates “3.10.1945 – 8.12.2010”.
We took in the current view from this location: The rock with the memorial, the forest of metal beams protruding out of the muddy ground, the rushing creek flowing into two large culverts. One side of the creek met steep walls of rock and soil. The other featured dense alders and other impassable flora. Perhaps with tall waterproof boots, we would have waded up the creek. Instead, we opted to cut into the trees on the north side of the creek and head upstream. A few dozen yards in, we met the creek where it bends around a corner. From this point, the creek appears to flow through a gorge, with steep rock walls on both sides. We found a small trail that led up above the northern wall of the gorge. We followed it up into luscious rainforest. The ground was coated in mosses and ferns. Sunlight trickled in and transformed everything into gold. Birds sang all overhead. We followed the path up and down the ridge above the creek until we heard the water below moving very swiftly. Through the trees we could see white water that matched the rushing sounds below. We picked our way down the bank, grasping at roots and rock and trees, until we reached a small rock outcrop that protruded over the creek. Here, the water was a torrent. For millennia, the water beat itself against the rocks, both carving them away and polishing them simultaneously. What was left was the smoothest, shiny gray rock I have ever seen. It could have been confused for metal.
We scrambled back up to the top of the gorge. We pushed forward a hundred or so more yards before writing off the chance of finding a historic civilization. We vowed to return someday to follow the path as far it would take us, up and into the mountains. We headed back to the road taking various detours to check out cool trees or interesting mushrooms. Once we made it back down to the culverts, we climbed back up onto the railbed. Instead of immediately dropping back down and across the highway, we chose to follow the railroad tracks south until we were directly across the highway from the car. We noticed various loose pieces of the railroad: spikes, bolts and nuts, various brackets. All were made of a very heavy and rusted metal. They were scattered everywhere. As we were walking alongside the tracks, a pick-up truck with some sort of rail attachment came down the rails in our direction. I thought to myself, ‘great, now we’re going to learn that walking this close to the tracks is some sort of federal offense and we’re going to be arrested.’ He looked down as he passed us, and nodded. Phew. We dipped back down to the highway and crossed it, and got into the car to head to our next presumed destination.
Just a few miles up the road, we pulled in to park for our next journey. There wasn’t a real parking area; only a few vehicles could fit there, but it worked for us. We got out of the car and started walking towards our destination.
From the parking lot, we almost immediately had to cross the railroad tracks; however, we had to wait for a few minutes. Some behemoth tree-trimming machine revealed itself on the tracks. On either side, it had long articulating arms with what appeared to be rapidly-rotating circular saw blades at the ends. The machine was slowly moving down the tracks, while reaching out and buzzing to oblivion any tree unfortunate to be within its reach.
It slowly made its way passed us. We paralleled the tracks for a few dozen yards before crossing, then continued onto what appeared to be an old road. Aside from a pile of dirt and the railroad tracks, the path we were on could have been driven in my little two-wheel-drive car. We thought for sure this road was going to take us somewhere, especially since this area looked promising in aerial photographs. We were excited to see the long-forgotten village of Kern. We were extremely let down. What we found, after traveling a hundred or so yards down the path, was a clearing filled with junk. This was apparently the place where, I’m assuming, the locals go to shoot their guns. All around were bullet cases and spent shotgun shells. There were fragments of clay pigeons all around, but there was just as much, if not more, discarded household items that had apparently made attractive targets. Destroyed appliances, toys, and other bits of metal and plastic were scattered everywhere. What looked like the home of a forgotten village from space was nothing more than a junkyard from down here.
We bushwhacked around in the surrounding brush and trees, hoping to find a clue leading to Kern but turned up nothing besides a bunch of scratches to the exposed skin on my arms and legs. We were deflated, yet hungry, so we headed into Girdwood for lunch.
Girdwood is a wonderful community. For those that aren’t aware, it’s the quintessential ski-resort town which brings with it a unique set of residents, visitors, businesses, and public displays. The highway into town is bordered by unique shops and businesses, offering everything from handmade clothing to adventure travel packages. It also has a fine selection of dining opportunities. For lunch, we chose the Chair 5 Restaurant. It’s a cozy, wooden building artfully decorated with various Alaskana. You have your typical animal mounts and antiques hanging from the walls, as well as some more unique items like this movie poster:
There are dozens of beers available, from local micro brews, to pub beers from around the country, to foreign imports. They also offer a brag-worthy selection of single-malt scotches. I chose the Pike’s Kilt Lifter ale, which tasted amazing after our day in the sun. For lunch, we each chose the Tundra Burger, which has a locally-produced patty that consists of bison and caribou. I kind of expected it to taste more gamey, but it tasted very similar to a quality beef. It was a wonderful meal that we enjoyed in an atrium section of the restaurant. After lunch, we headed back south–the direction of home–but still had one more stop to make.
Anyone that has lived in Alaska is very aware of the great Good Friday earthquake that occurred in 1964, and anyone that has spent much time in Southcentral Alaska has probably seen evidence of that massive quake that still remains to this day. Travelers passing through Portage, which is a few miles south of Girdwood on the Seward Highway, have surely noticed the dilapidated and half-submerged structures that are visible from the road.
I’ve been intrigued by those buildings for as long as I’ve been tall enough to look out a car window and see them. I have always known that they were the result of the Good Friday Earthquake, but I never really understood what exactly happened. As a kid, I imagined that the reason that they are slightly submerged was because the ground opened up and swallowed them. I believed that there was an entire city buried there, where the gaping maw of Earth consumed it and then closed back up forever. What I know today isn’t that dramatic, but it’s still amazing nonetheless. During the earthquake, the land that Portage (and other areas of the state) was built upon dropped significantly. Water from Cook Inlet rushed in to fill the area that was now below sea level. This flooding was ultimately what drove the town of Portage to extinction. Over the years, I’ve watched the buildings in that area decay away. They’re sagging and fading and becoming a part of the Earth again. Left alone, I can’t imagine it being more than a few more decades that they’ll even be visible. So, I wanted to explore them while I still had the chance. I wanted to satisfy the urge to explore them that I had ever since I was a young child. So why not now? We parked across the highway at the small tourist-trap rail depot. I’m not entirely sure what all goes on at that place, but it advertises various railroad excursions. There’s not a station or anything though, so I’m not really sure how it all works. I did see some portable staircases, so I’m assuming people actually board trains there. I’ve just never seen it happen.
We hopped across the highway and started backtracking to the visible buildings. We noticed a number of signs that indicated the area behind them was a reservation and trespassing was prohibited. Fortunately, those signs ended before we reached the Portage buildings. We walked up to the first building and examined it. The wood was gray and the structure was clearly deteriorating. I don’t know what I expected to see, but I was surprised at how little what was left resembled a building. The earth had eaten the floor and vegetation was wrapping its way around the building’s exterior. We had to duck our heads to get underneath any part of the structure. Where paint remained, it was chipping and faded. Graffiti was ubiquitous, and it wasn’t even anything creative or interesting. The second and subsequent buildings were about the same. One of the buildings was more recognizable as such than the others, I could make out what must have been a hall area and various rooms. The buildings all seemed to be no more bigger than mobile trailer homes. We continued to explore the site, expecting to see more of the extinct town. I had seen pictures of Portage pre-quake, so I knew at one time there was more than what I was seeing today. Unfortunately, there’s surprisingly little left to show for it. We walked in the direction of Cook Inlet. Something shiny caught our eye so we walked towards it. There, growing out of the earth was a gleaming chrome bumper, reflecting the bright summer light. We poked around near it and realized that an entire vehicle was connected to that bumper, mostly buried and with few removable parts remaining. We left it to continue its slow and steady decomposition.
We scrambled back to the car and got back onto the highway for the last time that day. I spent the two-hour drive home reflecting on the events of the day. Were we disappointed that we didn’t find what we were looking for? Sure, at least slightly. We didn’t find our ghosts. But this disappointment was made up for with the satisfaction of finding what we weren’t even looking for. A gorgeous day under the Alaskan sun can never go wrong.
“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”. Also found in abundance in this environment is the arctic ground squirrel.
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-ropedmy 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.
With a -5.5-foot tide set for 10am, we left Towers de la Marquis at around 8:30am and set out on the 80-mile drive to Homer. Low tides, revealing hundreds of extra yards of gravel, sand, or mud (depending on the beach) aren’t exactly what most people have in mind when they think of prime beach-going times. When most lower-48 Americans think of a day at the beach, images of surfers, kids splashing in a gentle surf, sunbathing, and sand castles are conjured up. But in Alaska, think less sandals and more Xtratufs. A receding tide at Bishop’s Beach, in Homer, makes a seafloor world accessible to anyone not afraid to get a little bit muddy.
The drive between Kenai and Homer is generally enjoyable, with great views of Cook Inlet and the Aleutian Range visible for most of the drive. You’re all but guaranteed to see moose browsing alongside the highway, and a handful of immense eagle nests. This highway also takes you through Anchor Point, which marks the westernmost point on the US highway system. Another 20 minutes driving South brings you to the hill that descends to the City of Homer, but not before offering one of the most breathtaking Alaskan views.
It’s funny to think of local sign ordinances that prohibit signs that might be considered too distracting to drivers. I dare you to try and keep your eyes off of the road when confronted with the view above.
Once in Homer, we took the turn into “old town” and parked in the close-to-full parking lot for Bishop’s Beach. The especially low tide had brought out dozens of other tide-poolers as well. Almost immediately, we spotted a couple of small crabs, hardly bigger than a thumbnail, as well as various small shells. My 11-year-old, Jett, and I headed straight for the tideline, while my wife, Jan, daughter, Alexis, and niece walked north towards some larger rocks.
Jett and I quickly noticed small mounds in the sand that resembled small volcanoes. Looking towards the water, their frequency increased dramatically. Near the water’s edge, we were surrounded by a veritable minefield of these things. Not only that, but there were sounds accompanying them, a sort of sizzling, bubbling sound. A persistent white noise, clearly audible, yet hardly the focus. We noticed that many of them had small pink appendages poking out of them. At first, I believed they must be clams. Clams are prevalent–though populations appear to be declining–along the southern Kenai Peninsula; however, I’m familiar with razor clams which leave an indentation in the sand, not the opposite that these things created. Jett reached in to see if he could feel a shell surrounding this new specimen. He quickly took on the challenge of trying to get one of them out of the sand. In typical clam-digging fashion, he dug out the ground beside the mound and then cut in horizontally to get underneath it. The water table was so high and saturated that this become a lot more difficult than it sounds. As soon as he started digging, water began to rapidly fill up his holes. A number of times he was able to get his fingers on one of the animals, but it would quickly slip from his grip and disappear into the muddy puddle that remained of his digging efforts. After a number of failed attempts, he finally caught one and we realized we weren’t dealing with clams after all.
After this, Jett ran off to catch up with his mother and the girls. I continued skirting the water’s edge, looking for life, and snapping photos of the scenery.
I found another kind of worm and spent a few minutes watching it undulate in the shallow water.
The tide moved in quickly. While I’m used to big tides living next to Alaska’s Cook Inlet, which boast some of the largest on our planet, what was remarkable about the tides in Bishop’s Beach on this day were how quickly, yet calmly, they moved in. I’m used to the tide rising in waves; literally. Each wave comes in, breaks, and recedes. On the average, the breaking water comes further and further on shore, and recedes less and less, until the tide turns and the water goes back out. However, at this time and location, it acted in a way I hadn’t experienced before. First of all, the water was glass calm, both near the shore and across the whole of Kachemak Bay. Secondly, it appears the beach in this area is very flat. Both the calmness of the water and the vast flat plain for it to come in on, made for an incoming tide that was truly unique.
I picked up my pace to catch up with my family to see what all they had discovered, stopping a few times to snap some more photos.
I came across a large rock that was partially submerged. The water surrounding it and the depression it made in the sand created a well around it that became a prime habitat for tidepool organisms. A small hermit crab swim-crawled its way around the rock, eventually working its way under it and out of my view.
The rocks themselves were teeming with life. Barnacles, mussels, vegetation and other organisms lived in and on the rocks.
Finally, I caught up with the family and heard their stories about the crabs and sea stars they had seen; and no, they hadn’t seen any octopuses yet. As a group, we explored dozens of tidepools. They were more suited to the terrain in their waterboots; I, however, had to choose my steps deliberately, having only equipped myself with my hiking boots (Gore-Tex is great, but it can’t stop the water from coming in from the top). I too saw sea stars and crabs, as well as small shrimps, sea anemones, and urchins. By this time, we were more than a mile from our car. I noticed the tide was starting to come in with purpose (I wasn’t sure just how high it would end up and was cautious about becoming stranded), and we were all fairly famished, so we started back towards Carl (that’s the name of my reliable car). As we picked our route on our trek back, we crossed another tidepool that had a solitary silver fish swimming about in it.
After getting around the large rocks, streams, and pools, a stable rocky path skirted the bluff at the top of the beach and brought us back to the parking lot.
We left Bishop’s Beach and headed for the Homer Spit, a natural 4.5-mile-long strip of land extending into the ocean, for a much-needed lunch at Starvin’ Marvin’s pizza place, which very well might serve the best pizza and breadsticks on the Kenai Peninsula. After lunch, we cruised the Spit to the end of the road, which is the southernmost point in Alaska connected to the contiguous highway system. During the Summer months, the Spit transforms into a tourist mecca, with dozens of shops peddling their wares, foods, and other forms of Alaskana. The Homer Boat Harbor, along the Spit, is host to hundreds of personal and commercial fishing boats–including the Time Bandit, made famous on the Discovery Channel show, Deadliest Catch–and cruise ships.
If you happen to find yourself in Southcentral Alaska, a trip down the Kenai Peninsula should be a part of anyone’s itinerary.
And if you happen to be there on a beautiful day with a low tide, you may never want to go back home.
I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin. – Leonard Cohen
July 4-6, 2012, My brother-in-law and I, along with our families, set out to spend a long Independence Day weekend in Caines Head State Recreation Area, south of Seward, Alaska. We reserved the Derby Cove cabin for two nights, planning on that serving as our home base as we explored the surrounding area. Since we were staying two nights, and we were bringing all of our kids, we weren’t exactly packing light. To accommodate this more conveniently, we decided to hire a water taxi to take one of us and all of our gear over to the cabin while the rest took the coastal hike to the cabin. While the trail isn’t particularly arduous (save some challenging spots on the beach if you grow impatient waiting for low tide), lightening the load allowed the kids (and adults) a more comfortable hike over and allowed us to carry more gear. We decided that I would take the water taxi and all of the gear, secure it in the cabin, and then hike back towards Seward after the tide had lowered to meet the rest of the group somewhere in the middle.
The water taxi took me from Millers’ Landing, at Lowell Point, to Derby Cove in about 15 minutes. The captain of the small skiff pulled the boat right up onto the beach, I threw all of our gear onto the beach, and hopped out. The taxi pulled away and headed south to some other patron. It was now just me, a hundred or two pounds of gear, and everything that this Alaskan wilderness rainforest had in store for me.
From the beach, I couldn’t see the cabin and wasn’t quite sure where it was; however, an orange buoy hanging from a tree seemed to be propitious. I walked towards it and noticed a trail heading back into the rainforest. I pulled our gear up to a point that I felt was out of the reach of the tide and waves, strapped on my pack, and headed up the trail. A raven flew overhead just as I entered the trees. It made a call and plopped down on makeshift bench fabricated from driftwood.
Just a few steps into the trees, I became slightly overwhelmed as the rainforest instantly consumed me. To my right, a steep slope was decorated abundantly with ancient spruce trees adorned with large clumps of soft moss on nearly every branch. To my left, a low-lying wetland with small meandering streams drained the mountains into the ocean. The path was narrow, but the footing was fine. I felt small amongst these ancient, behemoth trees. About 50 yards in, the trail widened. I could see a gray outhouse ahead. A few more steps in, the cabin became visible. To the right of the cabin, a small, yet powerful, waterfall came cascading down through the trees. Near the front of the cabin its flow slowed and pooled up, from there becoming a more casual stream that, after a few twists and turns, relinquished itself to Resurrection Bay. This all made for one of the most wondrous camping locales I’ve ever experienced. A small foot bridge took me over this stream and to the steps of the cabin. Inside, two sets of bunk beds, a wood stove, a picnic table, and some shelves. Enough light came through the windows to allow me to observe the cabin’s interior, but the light came filtered through the thick forest which created a surreal and subdued atmosphere. The quality craftsmanship of the cabin softened the sounds of the rushing water just outside. To sit in this cabin and to do nothing else would have been a relaxing retreat all on its own.
But there was some work to do; no time to get comfortable yet. I made a few trips to the water and back, dragging most of the gear up to the cabin. I left a larger, heavy tote to cart up with the help of my party once they arrived.
Excited to be able to show off our new home for the next couple of days, I decided I’d skirt the coast and head north towards everyone else, albeit at a pace dictated by the shrinking tide. A light rain combined with the ocean to create a comfortably humid environment. The coast in this area consists of steep cliffs to the west and Resurrection Bay to the east. Sections of these cliffs jut out further towards the ocean, while in other areas they recede for a few yards, exposing a larger beach area. My trip north had me waiting for the tide at some of the rocky outcroppings. The rock was slicked with slimy green algae, and sloped directly into the water. I, admittedly ill-conceived, risked climbing over some of the segments; one simple slip on this frictionless foundation would immediately crash my bones down on the rock and then summarily deposit me into the frigid ocean.
I got lucky: I only slipped in once.
So I trekked north, crawling into pockets of exposed beach and waiting for a few minutes for the tide to recede so I could make it through another segment. A tour boat slowly motored up the Bay. I could feel the passengers training their binoculars on me.
“Is that guy trapped? Should we call for help?” The vessel’s Park Ranger would assure them, “Nah, he’s just stupid”, and then resume his lecture on how evolution has spent millions of years naturally selecting only the best-adapted wildlife to find this environment habitable.
After making my way just over half a mile, I passed the other public use cabin in the area: Callisto. Unlike the Derby Cove cabin, Callisto is fairly visible from the beach and the water. It’s not immediately on the beach, but the area in front of it is cleared out making it easy to spot. Damp wood was burning in Callisto’s stove, exhaling soft white smoke through its rooftop chimney. A family of four were on the beach in front of me, presumably Callisto’s residents for the day, exploring the rocky beach. I passed them by, continuing towards my approaching family.
I came upon a large rock that rose abruptly out of the water and connected with the cliff bluff. As I examined it for a potential way to get over or around it, I heard voices over the other side. I was able to climb up enough to peer over the top, and there was the rest of the gang. Terry was just on the other side of the rock, facing the direction of the rest of the family that were huddled up a dozen or so yards further north. I made some sort of loud silly remark, activating Terry’s hyper-startle syndrome. The noise he made attracted the rest of the family and we began talking to each other over the rock. For awhile, I was just a few feet away from my family, but I may as well have been separated by miles. Through very careful and deliberate acrobatics, I was able get up and over the rock and reunited with everyone else. Our team was complete, but we were still over a mile away from the cabin. Between Terry, a dog leash, some grippy barnacles, and myself, we got the entire family–and dog–over the rock and safely onto the beach from whence I had just came (honestly, by the time we were all over the rock I do believe the tide had receded enough that we could have just walked around it). No more obstacles to maneuver, we had an enjoyable walk to Derby Cove; whales splashed just off-shore and the kid investigated the nooks and crannies of the cliffs bordering the beach.
We arrived at the cabin and got settled in. Terry popped open a 10-serving can of Chili Mac Mountain House and we had ourselves a splendid little feast. It had been a long day for all of us, getting up and driving to Seward, the hike and water taxi, and hauling the gear to the cabin. The rain picked up and we snoozed under the sound of rain beating down on the cabin’s tin roof.
The next day we got up, had breakfast, and set out for Caines Head proper and on up to Fort McGilvray. The rain continued through the night and showed no signs of stopping any time soon. From our cabin, we had a short hike that climbed us over the hill that dropped down to what’s officially considered Caines Head State Recreation Area. There you’ll find a ranger’s cabin, a rocky beach, and–most likely–tents, kayaks, and fellow adventurers. From the beach, an old military road, though now a trail, was our path to Fort McGilvray. You could tell that the trail was well-cared-for and normally pleasant to travel upon. On this day, however, the trail seemed less footpath and more streambed. The trail had a few moderately steep sections that, when covered in running mud and water, were tricky to get us and the kids through. There was no getting through the trek without getting soaked, and the sooner we realized it the easier the hike became. We were all thoroughly soaked, but we all handled it well. The trail alternates between dense forest and jaw-dropping views of Resurrection Bay. Along the way we found and explored a couple of bunkers or caches of some sort, concrete and steel that a World War would inspire. We continued on and finally arrived at the fort.
Fort McGilvray is a subterranean military fortification built into the rock cliffs 650 above Resurrection Bay. It existed as one of a number of facilities built by the Army during World War II in an effort to thwart any attempted Japanese invasions. Short-lived, construction began on the various facilities in 1941 and by 1944 the installations were ordered to be dismantled. Many of the buildings were simply abandoned and are–though empty–well-preserved to this day.
We all put on our headlamps that we brought specifically for the fort, and began exploring. Numerous pitch-black rooms are connected to the main corridors. Every emitted sound echoed throughout the entire building, making it nearly impossible to gauge where it originated. I had my fun sneaking around and spooking the kids. Around the outside of the fort, we explored other buildings, assumably lookout positions, and massive pads for gun mounts. I located and signed a surprise geocache that contained the most-delicious Coors Light I can remember drinking.
After an hour or so playing around the fort, we headed back down the even wetter trail back to the cabin. When we arrived back to the beach by the ranger’s cabin, the tide had risen and met the swollen drainages from the mountains. A rushing creek now blocked our path. Our kids graciously accepted the challenge and foraged for a number of large pieces of driftwood and created an improvised bridge; it worked perfectly. Once back at the cabin: We ate. We dried out. We slept.
The next morning we got up and packed our things up for the hike back to Seward. This time I took the hike with the kids, while Terry took the gear in the water taxi. I was glad to get to experience this half of the trip that I had missed previously. Our timing was perfect and there was no waiting for the tide or any challenging obstacles to cross, just an enjoyable walk along the beach to Tonsina Point, where the forest trail connects you to Seward, via Lowell Point. Some of the forest we went through near Tonsina Point was even more amazing than the forest outside our cabin. This was straight out of the Star Wars world of Endor. The rain even stopped for a few moments here and there, as sunlight filtered through these ancient behemoth trees. The smells, the sounds, the sights: it created a beautiful piece of zen.
After crossing some creeks, the trail climbs up a few switchbacks and then descends down an old road and into the parking area at Lowell Point.
Even though the rain was unrelenting and prohibited some of the side excursions I had hoped to undertake, our time at Caines Head was an Independence Day I’ll never forget. The area is one of my favorite places and I anxiously look forward to the next time.
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:
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.
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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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.
The information kiosk at the trailhead stated the following information:
Public Use: Moderate
Length (one way): 23 miles
Trip Time (one way): 2 – 3 days
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.
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.
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.
I 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…
– 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”. (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.
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.
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 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.