Friday, September 5, 2014

A Real Juneau Hiker

Ancient corduroy along an old section of the Windfall Lake - Montana Creek trail
Most of the low lying trails around Juneau involve hiking out and back. We are surrounded by saltwater on one side and the Juneau Icefield on the other, with glacier carved valleys hemmed in by high mountain ridges stacked up and down the coast. I remember my first year in Juneau, when I learned the geography of the ridges and valleys along the road system: Hawthorne Peaks-Sheep Creek-Mt. Roberts-Perseverance-Mt. Juneau-Salmon Creek-Blackerby Ridge-Lemon Creek-Heintzleman Ridge/Thunder Mt.-Mendenhall Valley-McGinnis. Up, down, up, down, up, down, up. If a hiker is willing to climb steep ridges and go over mountain peaks to connect to other ridges, then a hiking loop or point to point route is possible, but involves thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss.

There is one trail in Juneau that clearly stands out as a point to point route of a significant length yet never climbs more than 900’ above sea level - the Windfall Lake to Montana Creek trail. This trail crosses so much territory that a hiker needs to leave vehicles parked at two trailheads separated by almost 19 road miles. This can be a mind boggling logistical detail to the typical Juneau hiker used to parking at a trail head, going for a hike and then returning to the same trail head at the end of the day.

The first few miles of the Windfall Lake trail are very well maintained.
Neither Scott nor I had hiked the full through-route from Windfall Lake to Montana Creek, although both of us have logged many miles on each end and in the high country surrounding it. Every time I talked to someone who hiked or ran the full length of the trail I heard the same comments repeated: wet, muddy, brushy, poorly marked, slick boards, huge windfalls blocking the trail, bear sign everywhere. But how could I call myself a Juneau hiker without having at least hiked it once?

And how hard could it be? It is only 13 miles from the Windfall Lake trailhead at 26.7 mile Glacier Highway to the Montana Creek trailhead located at the upper Montana Creek bridge, 3 mile Montana Creek road. We have hiked plenty of mountain ridge routes that are at least that long, but also include anywhere from 5,000’ to 8,000’ of total elevation gain. Our confidence level was high and we were excited about seeing a little bit of new territory. Pretty amazing that after over 42 years of hiking, skiing, and climbing in the area we can still find new places to explore.
Somewhere between Windfall Lake cabin and the Montana Creek side, we enjoyed seeing territory that was new to us.
We picked the one day the weather forecast predicted it would not rain, which happened to be the day after Labor Day. We left a vehicle at the Montana Creek trailhead, and then drove out the road to begin our hike from the Windfall Lake end. We easily walked as far as the Windfall Lake cabin, admiring the fairly recent improvements to the trail – the well-built bridges and boardwalks over streams and swampy muskeg, and the wide, firmly packed path through the woods. No problem. As we continued past the far end of Windfall Lake, it was immediately apparent that most of the regular trail work ended at the cabin. The path was narrow and footing became tricky enough so that we had to constantly watch our feet so we wouldn’t stumble over the roots choking the trail or step into the mud holes, which appeared with increasing frequency. Still no problem – we are veterans of rugged trails such as Blackerby Ridge and Grandchild Peaks.

The windfall part of Windfall Lake became more and more apparent. The usual definition of windfall is “something good that is received unexpectedly”. Another definition is “something blown down by wind”. Suffice it to say the second definition is more appropriate here. Huge trees lay across the trail at regular intervals, and would have made it extremely difficult to climb over and around. Fortunately, some trail angels (most likely coordinated efforts from the USFS and Trail Mix) had chain sawed through the biggest trees, cutting a rough path. Once again, no problem.

Our steady hiking speed slowed just a bit as we crawled around the windfalls and watched our footing on the rough trail, but we were making good time. Then we began to encounter the dismal swamp portion of the trail. We were both wearing waterproof hiking shoes, and up to this point our feet were still dry. But how do you stay dry when the trail you’re trying to follow is underwater, with boggy mud lurking on all sides so that no matter where you step, the odds of dropping into a deep mud hole are high. You can play the odds up to a certain point, and heaven knows I’ve had plenty of experience trying to read wet trails to my advantage. But sooner or later there comes that sickening moment when your foot disappears with a soul wrenching, sucking sound and you’re almost up to your knee in black, sticky goo. Words are spoken. Your hiking partner wisely keeps quiet and continues moving ahead. You flail at the brush around you, trying to get a purchase on something, and narrowly miss grabbing a giant devil’s club bush. More words are spoken. You’re wet, you’re muddy, and as far as you can see ahead, which isn’t far because the brush is so thick, the trail doesn’t look any better. Ah, southeast Alaska.
You call this a trail?

"If you want to stay dry, you should stay home." (You can quote me on that.)
When you’re smack in the middle of an inescapable and extremely uncomfortable situation, sometimes you have glimpses of sublime beauty. Maybe it’s the contrast of things you are trying desperately to escape or avoid with things that make you gasp with wonder. As we punched our way through the dismal swamp, we saw lovely bushes of dark blue currants hanging over the trail. They were so thick and dark they looked like bunches of grapes. I’d like to say I will go back and pick them soon to make blue currant jelly, but the memory of the swampy trail and the continued wet September weather are keeping me close to home for the moment.
High bush cranberries in the dismal swamp

Tiny red mushrooms on the side of the trail by Montana Creek
Eventually we found our way through the dismal swamp and started to climb back up into a wooded area. This section of the route was the most fascinating. It was obvious to us we were following a route that was probably established over a hundred years ago by miners. I made a note to research more about the area when we got home, as I’m sure there are mining ruins to be found off the trail.

Past the dismal swamp and getting closer to the Montana Creek side - we are far back in the woods at this point.
More berries awaited us as we gained elevation and started to enter increasingly open country. We found ourselves over our heads in huge blueberry bushes with fruit that still tasted sweet and juicy on this early September day. I probably ate at least two full cups of berries just plucking them without breaking stride as I hiked by.

The clouds hung over the surrounding mountains most of the day
The trail opened into a small muskeg meadow and we took our first real break to eat a snack and look around. Clouds hung low over the mountains, but we started to catch a few glimpses of blue sky here and there. We pushed on until we finally connected to the Montana Creek side of the trail. We hiked this part of the trail when we crossed over from Spaulding meadows a few years back, so it looked very familiar. We’d given up all hope of keeping our feet dry, and happily splashed along in the wet bogs and through the mud until we reached the final section of the trail we knew would be dry to the end.

Back on familiar ground
When we reached our truck, I took a few minutes to wade into Montana Creek up to my knees, vigorously washing off as much mud as I could. Then I put sandals on my tired feet and sat contentedly as Scott drove us back out to get our other car.
Taking a quick break just a few miles from the end
We didn’t climb any peaks or ridges, but I felt as if I’d traveled through some wild and remote backcountry. We never saw another person from beginning to end. No cars were parked at either trailhead. There were not even the usual dog walkers on the Montana Creek gravel road. Maybe it was the long stretch of wet weather, maybe everyone was back at work, or recovering from the Labor Day weekend. All I know is that despite the unrepeatable things I said back in the dismal swamp, I love this trail. And now I can proudly call myself a real Juneau hiker.

“This route was once part of a trail system from Montana Creek to Echo Cove, officially established in 1907-1909 by the Territory of Alaska, to service Juneau Gold Belt mining sites. The strip of land with gold-bearing rock known as ‘Juneau Gold Belt’ ran from north of Berners Bay to South of Point Bishop. One of the mines . . . was up McGinnis Creek that is to the east at the end of the old Montana Creek Road. Other mining activity was carried on in the headwaters of Montana and Windfall creeks.” Mary Lou King, 90 Short Walks Around Juneau, Taku Conservation Society and Trail Mix, Inc., 2007, pg. 58.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer Hikes: Part II

Who can resist the Juneau ridge on a perfect summer day?
Summer Hikes, continued-
The next two adventures were actually the same hike done about three weeks apart – the Juneau ridge. The first time I went alone, and I was pumped with excitement to do one of my favorite hikes. I quickly organized my gear after breakfast and went in the garage to grab my water bladder for my pack when I stepped on something sharp with my bare foot. Dang! I must have gotten a splinter or maybe a little piece of glass in the ball of my foot. I ran in the house and tried to see if I could pull it out. I couldn't see anything, but there was undeniably something in there. I found that if I walked without putting too much pressure on that spot I could probably hike o.k., or so I told myself. Sometimes when I am highly motivated to do something I can go into deep denial about anything that might prevent me from accomplishing my goal. So out the door I went.

Keep in mind that I had a thirteen mile hike with over 5,000’ of elevation gain ahead of me, and you’ll get a sense of just how stupid I can be sometimes. I have to admit it was an incredibly beautiful day. The trail up Mt. Juneau and also the Granite Creek trail had both been recently brushed and were in beautiful shape. The weather was perfect – not too warm and only a light cooling breeze on the top of the ridge. I only saw one other hiker coming from the other direction, so I had the mountains all to myself most of the day. If I could just block out the piercing pain in my foot that stabbed so hard I would involuntarily cry out loud every once in a while, it would be a perfect hike.

One good thing about hiking in pain is it makes you want to finish quickly. I got up Mt. Juneau in good time, and then limped along the ridge as fast as I could, using my hiking poles for support and trying to keep the weight off of my hurt foot. Hiking uphill I was able to keep the weight off of the ball of my foot where the pain was located, but once I reached the ridge, I couldn't avoid it. I realized my foot was in very bad shape, but since I’d made it this far, I might as well finish out the hike as planned. I pulled out my hiking poles and used them for support, hopping along the ridge one-footed when the pain became too much. It was a miracle that I had the presence of mind to capture a beautiful photo of rare white lupine flowers which only seem to bloom about halfway along the ridge – I've never seen them anywhere else. One part of my mind was intensely enjoying this beautiful day in the mountains, while the other part was dealing with the pain in my foot. I've never pretended to be normal, but this was weird, even for me.
Rare white lupine in full bloom. I would have missed this shot if I'd stayed home with my sore foot.
I stopped at the end of the ridge to examine my foot and ice it in a small patch of snow for a few minutes while I ate my lunch, which numbed it enough to get me down to Granite Creek. By the time I hit Perseverance Trail I think I was in a little bit of shock, as I decided the best way to get it over with was to jog the rest of the way out. It was going to hurt either way, and I was getting pretty good at putting my weight on the side of my foot, much to my ankle’s dismay.

I must have been a weird sight – a slightly disheveled looking hiker trying to run down the trail with a weird limping gait. I did post a personal best hiking time of 6:20 that day (remember, I’m a hiker, not a runner – I know the runners in town can do the same route in just a few hours!) so I suppose pain can be a great motivator in the right situation.

I tried every home remedy I could think of  to get that splinter out of my foot, but all failed. One week later I was in the foot doctor’s office, lying on my back while he carefully worked a one inch wire out of my foot with great difficulty. He and his nurse looked at me a little strangely, and I managed a weak smile of thanks, hoping he wouldn't have me committed as I tried to leave the office.
It was only natural that three weeks later, when Scott wanted take advantage of a sudden break in the weather in the middle of a long stretch of rain, I suggested we revisit the Juneau ridge. My foot was completely healed, and I wanted to hike the ridge again to see what it was like to do it pain free.

We climbed up the Mt. Juneau trail through the low, thick clouds of fog until blue skies opened over the ridge above us. Only Juneau hikers who have suffered through a particularly rainy summer – we've been breaking rainfall records all summer long – can fully appreciate the beauty of one good day of clear weather.
Hiking above the thick fog until we could see patches of blue sky
is the best feeling in the world after weeks of steady rain.
We will often meet out of town visitors on the Mt. Juneau trail, and this day we met a very interesting young man from France. Stephane was staying at the hostel in town, suffering through the extremely wet weather. This was his last day in Juneau, and he was trying to make the best of it with a good hike. We took turns passing each other on the trail as we would stop to take photos and then speed up ahead. At the summit we were all together, so of course we asked him if he wanted to continue with us along the ridge. He didn't hesitate, and was a welcome addition to our hike as we asked him about Bordeaux, where he lived and worked as a water engineer, and his extensive travels around the world.
Another new friendship formed in the mountains - Stephane was an interesting hiking partner.
Hiking the ridge seemed effortless without a wire stuck in my foot, so I was in a great mood. We spotted large groups of mountain goats on both sides of the ridge, probably over two dozen in all, which thrilled Stephane as he took photos with his long lens camera. I located the exact area where the white lupine bloomed three weeks earlier, but all the flowers had gone to seed. Although it was a nice summer day, you could see and feel the approach of fall, and we had to put on wind jackets against the not so gentle breeze along the ridge.
Hiking without a wire stuck in my foot turned out to be lots of fun.
As we wound our way down to Granite Creek, we were greeted with fields of bright pink dwarf fireweed stretching across the upper basin. Summer was still in full swing 1,000’ below the ridge! The salmonberries were fat and juicy and we gorged on them as we hiked out, slowing us down with every step.
Dwarf Fireweed, also known as River Beauty, abounds in the upper Granite Creek basin.
Stephane stayed with us to the end of the trail, and we gave him a ride into town so he could treat himself to ice cream before checking back into the hostel later in the day. His English was quite good (and our French was quite bad), but we could tell he was tired and wanted to get back to some friends he had met at the hostel who were also French. We said our good-byes and as we drove home, the first raindrops of the day started to fall. The wet weather was back and we had taken full advantage of a rare nice day. Time to start the easy recovery process before the next adventure. (And there were many more, despite the rain!)
Beginning the descent into Granite Creek basin with Mt. Olds in the background.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Summer Hikes: Part I

Looking from Mt. Roberts over to Sheep Mountain
Ah, what a summer it’s been so far. My goal this year as a newly retired person is to get outside and do something active every day, rain or shine. At first I had this crazy idea that I would be skiing, climbing mountains and hiking ridges for hours every day. I was hammering each day like it was my “day off”, trying to get in as much activity as I could. But since I’m not 20 years old anymore that didn’t last long. So I scaled back and now I’m happy to just be outside daily, not necessarily doing something “big”.  Sometimes I go for an easy walk or bike ride, bird watching, photographing, kayaking, fishing, or berry picking. And then every so often, I throw in an adventure.

Three hikes I've done this summer fit squarely in my adventure category and all of them are classic ridge hikes. The first was the Gastineau – Roberts – Sheep traverse, which I've written about previously. The idea to do that particular ridge came when our neighbor mentioned his visiting nephews wanted to hike that route before they left, but he did not want them to go by themselves. So he recruited his crazy neighbors.

That turned out to be one of the most fun days of the summer for us. We quickly warmed up to Riley (a 17 year old high school senior and varsity basketball player from Wisconsin), and Jimmy (an elementary school teacher from Kalispell, Montana). Jimmy is a veteran of long mountain hikes, and he kept us enthralled with tales of crazy mountain adventures for at least the first two hours climbing up to Mt. Gastineau.

When you go hiking with someone you've never hiked with before, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Sometimes I feel like a priest or a bartender, listening to someone else’s life story, with all of their attendant family/spouse/work problems. But with Jimmy, I was delightfully entertained and amazed by his stories of hiking hundreds of miles through remote mountain terrain, often with very little planning and minimal gear. Riley was quiet at first, as a 17 year old boy will be with strangers. I knew from experience that would change as the day went on.
17 year old Riley loved the view from high on the ridge
We enjoyed a pleasant hike up Mt. Gastineau, and then headed over to Mt. Roberts, picking up another hiker along the way. Peggy was visiting family in town and hiking alone this day. She had been contemplating continuing over to Roberts, but wasn't sure of the route beyond there, so we invited her to join our group and promised her a lift back to her car. She showed herself to be a strong hiker, had no problem keeping pace with our lively group, and was extremely friendly and talkative. She even got Riley talking. She knew the area where Riley went to school and they discovered they had mutual friends in the high school sports world. I love the random, small world of the mountains and how it brings people together!
Peggy joined our group as easily as if we had planned it ahead of time
Up Mt. Roberts we went and over to Sheep Mt. Our new friend Peggy kept up a steady flow of questions about the route and our surroundings, keeping us busy as we gave her details of the area. I was amazed at her intense curiosity about everything she could see from our high vantage point. At the summit of Sheep Mt., we took a little time to photograph and celebrate the three peaks we had just climbed.
Jumping for joy on Sheep Mountain
Then down the narrow ridge we trekked to the Sheep Creek power line, looking for the trail to the Sheep Creek valley. As we paused at the power line cabin, Peggy asked me, “What’s the plan from here?” I gazed at the brush below us as I took a bite from an apple and thoughtfully replied, “Not get lost.” Peggy looked at me doubtfully, and I’m sure she was wondering if I really knew what I was doing. Luckily I did not embarrass myself in front of our visitors. We hit the route down to the forest trail dead on, not losing it for a moment, which I think is a first for me (don’t tell Peggy).

Once we were on the main trail in the woods leading to the valley floor, Riley opened up and started talking. All I had to do was ask him a question now and then, and the previously quiet teenager was chattering a mile a minute. I've experienced this before with young hikers – once they understand the hike is winding down and they have accomplished the hardest part, they seem to be flooded with energy and release it by saying just about anything that pops into their head.

Before we knew it the hike was over, everyone was shuttled to their cars, and we were hugging, exchanging email addresses, and promising to send pictures to each other. (To be continued.) 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Winning the Weather Lottery - Kayaking in Berner's Bay

The weather towards the end of June was cloudy and rainy, with not much hope for improvement any time soon. We squeezed in some good bike rides and hikes when we got the chance, but for the most part we put on rain gear and made the best of it. One rainy, foggy day we loaded up the kayaks and went to Echo Cove. 

We hadn’t been kayaking yet this year. Truth be told, we had not done any good, long kayak trips in a number of years, although both of us have spent many summers kayaking in Glacier Bay, the Chichagof outer coast, Admiralty Island, and the many island passages and waterways along the Juneau coast line.

We enjoyed a quiet day paddling the shore towards Sawmill Creek. I’d forgotten how peaceful and relaxing it is to silently glide through the water, sneaking up on ducks, shorebirds, and seals. We are out on the water quite a bit on our 25’ aluminum boat, but kayaking is a different experience – like bicycling through a park instead of driving by in a car. All of your senses are engaged. Sight, smell, touch, sound, and even the taste of the salt air are more intense when you’re moving slowly in a kayak.

Sea kayaking is enjoyable even on a foggy, rainy day
We had so much fun that as soon as we got home, I decided it would be a great idea to rent the Berner’s Bay cabin and plan a kayak trip there. Turns out it was fully booked for most of the summer, with only two open nights at the end of July. I snapped up the reservation without a second thought.

The gray, wet weather continued for the next month. Mostly rainy, drizzly, and cloudy with a few breaks here and there. We told ourselves we’d still have a good time on our kayak camping trip despite the rain. We took the boats out on a wet day and double checked our gear and our attitude, getting ready for our little trip.

As our departure date approached, the rain continued. But - what was this? I don’t like to put much faith in weather forecasts, but I actually saw the word “sunny” appear for the days we planned to be gone. Nah, that couldn’t be right. No one has good luck like that.

Wednesday morning we drove out to Echo Cove, ready to start the eight mile paddle to the Berner’s Bay cabin. The farther out the road we drove, the nicer the weather became. By the time we reached the boat ramp, we had blue sky and calm waters. The normally busy Echo Cove recreation area was unusually quiet. It was the middle of the work week, and the weather in town was still cloudy and damp, so we figured most people weren’t going to bother with driving to the “end of the road” for boating and camping.
The next three days and two nights proved to be so amazingly beautiful that words almost fail me, so I’ll let the pictures speak instead. We were completely spoiled from start to finish, with glassy, calm waters, blue skies, and not another soul around except for the occasional crabber checking pots. The cabin was in excellent condition despite the continual flow of visitors all summer long. We explored the east and west shores of the bay until our arms were ready to fall off. Over a dozen loons accompanied us when we crossed the bay to explore, and seals followed us everywhere we paddled. Dall porpoise jumped gracefully across the water as we sat on the beach in the evening. In true northern fashion, the sunsets lasted for hours. The Big Dipper, surrounded by thousands of stars, appeared bright and large in front of the cabin in the middle of the night. We may never be so lucky again, but this time we truly won the lottery.
Morning view of Lion's Head peak from Berner's Bay cabin. A boat pulling crab pots was our only company all day.
Looking forward to a full day of exploring Berner's Bay. We paddled until our arms were ready to drop off.
We tried to get up the Berner's River, but the tide and current would not cooperate.

Seals followed us wherever we went.
Slate Creek cove on the west side of Berner's Bay. Kensington mine loading dock is at the mouth of this cove.
The sunsets were ridiculously beautiful every night, and lasted for hours.
Early morning fog looking across to the west side of the bay from the cabin.

We decided to rename Berner's Bay: Berner's Lake
A rest stop at Sawmill Creek on the trip home.
Great Blue Heron feeding in Sawmill Creek

Saying good-bye to Berner's Bay on the paddle home.
Berner's Bay: Discovered by Joseph Whidbey in 1794 and named by Capt. Vancouver. Name is probably from "Berners," his mother's family name. Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 126.

Lions Head Mountain: Kakuhan Range, Coast Mts. Descriptive name given in 1867 by George Davidson, USC&GS, because its "serrated profile is said to show, when seen from Chatham strait, a resemblance to a couchant lion". Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 578.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pick A Ridge

Grandchild Peaks ridge - photo credit: Scott Fischer

“We need to do a ridge hike,” I told Scott. “We haven’t done a good ridge hike yet this summer.”

He looked surprised as he replied, “Sure we have. We hiked Gold Ridge and up Mt. Gastineau in May.”

“Doesn’t count. That’s not a real ridge hike.”

“O.k., then, we hiked part way along the Juneau ridge a few weeks ago.”

“Doesn’t count. We should have done the whole ridge.”

He looked mildly exasperated with me. “We hiked to the top of Powerline Ridge.”

“That really doesn’t count. That’s more like hiking up a peak and not along a ridge.”

He gave up. “So where do you want to hike?”

We live in Juneau, so it was time to play Pick-A-Ridge. I thought for a few moments. We plan to do the Gastineau-Roberts-Sheep ridge soon with a neighbor’s visiting nephew. The Juneau ridge is a good one to save for going alone on a sunny day. Blackerby ridge might be busy with Juneau Icefield Research Group activity around Cairn Peak and Camp 17 this time of year. “How about Grandchild Peaks ridge? You haven’t been up there for a while.” I was up on the ridge just last year for a solo summer camping trip, but Scott hadn’t been up there for at least two years.

The next day was the first real sunny day after what seemed like a long week of steady rain. We loaded the mountain bikes in the truck and headed over to the Montana Creek road. The first mile and a half is a gravel and dirt road along Montana Creek, just right for easy biking. Fifteen minutes later we locked our bikes to the first bridge on the trail and hiked another half mile or so along the creek.

The 1,900’ climb up through the woods was more relaxing than I remembered, probably because I only had a light day pack instead of an overnight pack, but also because I’ve become very familiar with this route. Familiarity does not breed contempt in this instance, but instead gives a comfortable feeling of relaxing with an old friend. Much like my yoga practice, so much energy is saved when your mind is calm and the muscles you are not actively using are relaxed.

We climbed above the tree line and on to the ridge. I was so happy to be up in the mountains that I didn’t even mind while Scott lagged behind to take photos. I found a comfortable spot with a view in all directions and away from the biting insects below, and I soaked in the view.

We continued up and over the several small peaks along the ridge. I pointed out my campsite from last summer and the highest point I reached when I was alone on that trip. I had not been relaxed enough hiking alone to continue on the steeper terrain then, but with Scott along I confidently moved up the narrow rock sections until we were at the edge of the icefield.

At the edge of the Juneau Icefield - photo credit: Scott Fischer

A brisk wind was blowing, but if we ducked behind a rock outcropping we could sit in the sun and stay warm. We agreed this would be our high point for the day, although we could have continued across the snow to another peak we’ve climbed before. But we’d completed as much of the ridge as we needed for our first “real” ridge hike of the summer.

100% satisfied with our "real" ridge hike - photo credit: Scott Fischer

Climbing back down the steep parts of the ridges I once again used the breathing and relaxing techniques I’ve learned in yoga. When you’re about to step down a tricky rock section that falls away on both sides, it helps to remember to breathe evenly, and to calmly think about where you want to place your feet and hands. In yoga, we call it being “mindful”. Did I first learn these techniques in yoga, or did I develop them from years of hiking in the mountains? Probably a little of both, and I’m sure they reinforce each other.

High on the ridge a hiker can encounter a few steep cliff sections - photo credit: Scott Fischer

Running back down the easier ridge sections, we mentally braced ourselves for the narrow, muddy, twisty trail in the woods below, which is so much easier to climb up than to stumble down. Even my relaxation skills were not sufficient to help me avoid the dreaded butt slide in the mud. Let’s just black out that 45 minutes of the hike, and jump ahead to happily mountain biking down Montana Creek to the parking lot and our truck. I felt as satisfied as I could possibly feel. This was a real ridge hike. The muscles were working just fine, the endurance was good, and our attitudes were fully primed for the rest of the summer and many more ridges. Go ahead: pick a ridge, any ridge.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Rainy Day Hike

One of the methods I use to fall asleep is to hike up the Spaulding Trail and over to Muir Cabin in my mind. I try to be as detailed as possible. If I find that I’ve skipped ahead or missed a section, I backtrack and start over again. I usually get a good distance across the meadows to the cabin before I nod off.

Earlier this week I was ready for a hike. I didn’t want to go up a big ridge or mountain because I needed to save a little energy for my weekly ashtanga yoga class that night. Also, the clouds hung low in the sky and the forecast was for intermittent rain, so any altitude gained would not likely give me any spectacular views. But I needed to get outside. I’d already taken the previous day off from hiking or biking, and my legs were restless.

I was not concerned about the weather. I learned a long time ago that if you live in Juneau, you’re always going to be a little bit wet if you spend much time outside, so you can’t let it bother you. Since I’m not made out of sugar and don’t melt in the rain, I not only tolerate it, but even have fun. As I drank my coffee that morning, I decided on one of my favorite rainy day hikes, one that I can literally do in my sleep – the Spaulding to Muir loop.

Scott was also eager for some exercise, so with a few quick preparations we were out the door and on the trail. Almost immediately, a steady rain began falling. We each took a different approach to dressing for the rain. I wore rubber boots, a light rain jacket with just a wool t-shirt underneath and quick-dry pants. Scott decided on trail running shoes and several lightweight soft shell layers, but no rain gear. He reasoned he could move fast enough to stay warm, even if he did get wet. I knew that trail shoes would give me better support and grip, but while I can comfortably travel in the rain, I just didn’t want to deal with wet feet on this trip.
Coming out of the woods and into the top meadows
Once the snow melts, Spaulding trail and the meadows above will get your feet wet in no time. You can stay dry up to the first meadow, and if you’re careful you can even manage to continue stay dry up to the second meadow. After you leave the second meadow, you’re doomed to soak your feet in ankle deep mud puddles.

When we arrived at the top of the trail we were a bit damp, but warm, and at least my feet were dry. Off we went across Spaulding meadows, looking for the route over to the Auke Mountain meadows and the Muir cabin. It is not very well marked and is truly a route more than a trail.
Wet and beautiful
Here is where my insomnia cure comes in handy. I know the route so well by now that I am very certain where to go. We picked our way across, piecing the puzzle together sometimes by memory and sometimes by flagging or trail markers hidden in the trees. I don’t recommend trying this loop from Spaulding to Muir unless you are either with someone who is familiar with it, or you are skilled with a map and compass or GPS, because it is very easy to get turned around, especially when the weather moves in.
Hard to believe there are big mountains hidden in the fog
The clouds and fog were so thick we could not see any of the surrounding mountains. When you can’t look up, you might as well look down. And that is one of the many reasons I love this hike. The rain and clouds made the green meadows absolutely glow with soft, deep color. Shooting stars and Labrador tea bloomed in big pink patches throughout, and we found evidence of blue wild geranium, alpine lupine and other flowers still to bloom.
Labrador Tea
While the flowers and meadow grasses are quite beautiful, the real magic lies in the muskeg ponds. Standing on the edge of one of many ponds scattered along the way, I gazed down into another world. I could imagine fairies and elves playing on the lily pads, ducking under the water or hiding in the grass as we passed by. The yellow water lily flowers had not yet made their appearance. Instead, large drops of rain graced the dark red lily pad leaves. The mountains on the horizon remained hidden in the rain clouds, but I had all the beauty of the wilderness that I needed at my feet.

Several nesting Greater Yellowlegs loudly scolded us when we passed by. I’m used to these shorebirds nesting in the muskeg meadows at 1600’, and always get a chuckle as they squawk at us. The buzzing whistle of the Varied Thrush sounded repeatedly in the woods and the meadows, and on the way down in the woods we were fortunate to see a Red Breasted Sapsucker and clearly hear his call instead of the usual the rat-a-tat drumming sound he makes while searching for food in the trees.
Greater Yellowlegs
The Muir cabin came into view almost too quickly. The warm, dry shelter welcomed us as we shed our wet clothes for a few minutes and enjoyed a snack. Obviously an overnight group had recently left, and we could detect the smell what must have been a delicious breakfast lingering in the air.

For the past couple of hours we’d had miles of trail and high meadows all to ourselves. One lone hiker came up from the Muir trail and visited with us at the cabin for a bit. He was interested in the route over to Spaulding, but since he was a foreign tourist without a map or GPS, and generally unfamiliar with the area, we discouraged him from trying it on such a cool, rainy and cloudy day.
Almost across to the Muir cabin
As we started down from the cabin, the sky cleared for a few moments, giving us a glimpse of sunshine and blue sky. Our wet clothes dried in the warm sun, and we made our way down the mostly boardwalk trail in no time at all. When we arrived at the car, we replaced rubber boots and wet trail shoes with flip flops. Ten minutes later we were warm and dry and happily eating pastries at Paradise CafĂ©, chatting about all that we’d seen that morning. The magic of the meadows was behind us, but I will revisit them again and again in my dreams.
The Spaulding to Muir loop is about 8 miles round trip

Victor Clar Spaulding made his home in the vicinity for many years. Spaulding came north in 1897. In 1906 he was mining at Yankee Basin, north of Juneau. In June, 1908, Spaudling and Charles Wylie located several lode claims on what they called Treasury Hill, some four miles north of Auke Bay. They built a trail, now known as the Spaulding Trail, to the claims and did development work there. (pg 40, R. N. DeArmond, 1957, “Some Names Around Juneau”)