Adventures in the Mountains

What do you do when you’re presented with 72 hours of free time, only a 30% chance of rain, and you live in remote Alaska? You pack your bags and head for the mountains! A few different friends had recently done a ridge-top hike in the nearby mountain range and camped at a cabin along the way, and I really wanted to check it out. But all of my friends were either fishing, working, or otherwise unavailable…so I went by myself.

***

As I walked through town, backpack on my back and bear spray dangling from my hip, the Wells Fargo clock said 3pm. I noted the time as I left town and started winding my way up Ski Hill via Eyak Mountain Trail. My mind was on the fog up ahead, and I pondered my adventure which hadn’t really yet begun. I was a slightly worried about the visibility level – I was told the trail wasn’t well-marked and the piles of rocks which designated the route were tricky to find in the clouds were low. I had roughly estimated a 7pm arrival time at the Ridge Shelter – an hour up Ski Hill, an hour over and up to Crater Lake, and then two more hours across the ridge. Daylight wasn’t really a factor because the sun doesn’t set, so I wasn’t in a rush.

I rounded the last corner to the chairlift at the top of the hill, a slight breeze made me realize that my back was a little wet. Actually, it was quite wet. I took off of my backpack and discovered that my borrowed CamelBak bladder leaked if not kept upright…and I had it upside down. There was about a liter of water spilled inside of my backpack, about half of which was absorbed into the top edge of my sleeping bag. I contemplated turning around – I hadn’t really left yet. My desire for an adventure won. I stuffed the bottom two thirds my sleeping bag back in the stuff sack and draped the top end out of my pack, letting it flap in the breeze to dry out. Onward and upward. I munched on an apple and goldfish as I hopped across onto the Crater Lake connecting trail and looked at the fog looming ahead.

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I continued on to Crater Lake, one of my favorite spots around town. Far enough removed to feel remote, but close enough to walk to, it is a stunning, pristine paradise. I soaked in the beauty and refilled my now-upright CamelBak. To keep the bears away, I was talking and singing to myself – hoping that they’d hear a human voice and head the other way instead of hearing the crunch of my steps and coming closer to investigate. As I rounded the corner of Crater Lake talking about what song I should sing next, a startled hiker gave me a funny look as he hurried past me, eager to dodge a conversation with the crazy lady. I turned on my iPod.

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Crater Lake was the furthest I’d been before, and the trail sign marking the Alice Smith trail was new territory. I spotted my first pile of rocks and took off in that direction. The trail was faintly worn, and the rock piles were fairly easy to spot on the way up. As I took a break to enjoy the views from the top, I checked my phone and the map – it was 7pm, and my little GPS dot was still very close to the lake…nowhere near the spot where the shelter should be. Oh well, 8pm would be fine, too, I thought.

As it turned out, I made it to the shelter at 10pm. I ate my sausage and pasta even though I wasn’t hungry, warmed myself over my little camp stove, and emptied out the contents of my backpack to dry whatever wet items remained. The only other casualty of the spill was the paper cup holding my granola. The dried oats regressed to a mushy, oatmeal form and coated the inside of the backpack. I figured if this was my biggest issue, I was in good shape (and made a mental note to better waterproof my food next time) and went to sleep.

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This was the first view I had of the Ridge Shelter. The final cairn before the cabin is in the bottom right corner. Can you see the shelter?

The next morning brought less fog and better views. The camp stove earned its keep by providing hot coffee in the morning (which was the entire reason for bringing it). After some breakfast and a quick cleaning of mushy granola from basically everything I packed, I was back on the trail around 8am. There were a few remaining patches of snow covering the trail, and each one was stained with pink splatters. Some people have told me it is caused by a plant (though I didn’t see any) which dyes the melting snow. To me, though, it looked like old blood splatter from hungry carnivores prowling through the winter. It left me a little unnerved and I continued singing and talking to myself.

After a few more hours on top of the ridge in varying levels of fog, I came to the lake signaling it was time to begin my descent. There was some minor confusion regarding poorly named landmarks and a broken sign with questionable arrow directions, but I figured out where I needed to go and began my way down the side of the mountain. The trail was freshly weed-whacked and obvious – a delightful change from my recent times of searching for cairns every five minutes. It was heavily lined with salmon berry bushes, and I noted that if I were a bear, this is where I would hang out. I sang and sang. Favorites included: the Hamilton Soundtrack, Despacito, (neither of which should be a surprise) several Shania Twain hits, (a carryover from hiking in Nicaragua this winter with friends…though I’m not sure where we got it) Goodbye Earl (which I assume came into my head via Shania Twain) and the theme song to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Your guess is as good as mine as to where that last one came from…

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Before long, I was back in the forest heading for the Power Creek cabin. Last year some friends and I were supposed to spend my birthday at Power Creek, but a very heavy rainstorm coincided with a newly-built beaver dam to flood part of the trail and make it impassable. I was really excited to finally get to check it out. And it did not disappoint – the cabin was beautiful – complete with bunks, a table, a wood stove (and firewood!) and a loft. I settled in and started a fire and explored nearby. Sandbars and waterfalls were all around, and there was so much to see! After dinner, I curled up by the fire and did a little reading before heading up to the loft for bed. I noted that my throat was a little sore – apparently I overdid it just a tad on the singing and self-conversing throughout the day. It made me smile.

I slept until 8:30, and it was delightful. I enjoyed my coffee and breakfast on the porch before packing up and heading out just before 11. The singing continued. After being startled by a flock of geese on the trail and by a humming bird which dive-bombed my head just as I was stepping on a very precarious rock, I made it to the trailhead around 1. I walked another mile until I finally had cell service and sent a text to my friend Tim to come and pick me up. Unfortunately, Tim was grilling for the town 4th of July BBQ and didn’t expect me so early, so I had already walked six of the seven miles back to town before he apologetically showed up to get me just one mile out of town. What’s six more miles, right? It was the only part of my adventure where I saw a bear – the salmon have made it up into the lake and surrounding streams, meaning the bears are out and about. Wrapped up in my newly-found cell phone service, I startled a little black bear almost as much as he startled me as he tried to catch lunch. Luckily, in our mutual fear, we each went our separate ways without incident.

My first solo, mini-thru hike was officially deemed a success (aka I didn’t get lost or eaten). Doable but hovering just outside of my comfort zone, it checks all of the boxes for a good adventure. I can’t wait to plan the next one!

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