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”)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Thinking of Sharon

I must have met Sharon soon after she moved to Juneau. She showed up for some weekly evening bike rides I organized through the Juneau Freewheelers Bike Club to encourage women to bicycle and train together. She was a strong rider, not particularly fast, but she could ride forever. I didn’t realize she was training for a long distance solo bike tour until she was almost ready to leave on her trip. She kept pretty quiet about her plans, and I remember I had to pry details out of her. I could tell she was a little bit nervous about the trip, but at the same time very determined and sure about what she wanted to do.

We lost touch until we bumped into each other after she returned from the trip. Apparently everything went well and it sounded like she had a great time. I was impressed. I always admire strong, adventurous women and love to see them plan and do things that take courage, strength, and brains. Because that was another quality of Sharon’s that was very apparent – she was a smart, resourceful person who did not, as far as I could tell, act impulsively.
Sharon (left) with her hiking partner and Scott descending into Granite Creek Basin
Over the years, I would run into Sharon on the trails. Once I was cross country skiing at Eaglecrest and trying to work my muscles back into shape after a particularly bad biking accident earlier that year. She saw me on the trail, bent over with pain from the muscle spasms in my arm that had been severely broken. She took time to make sure I was o.k. and asked me how I was recovering from my injuries. I told her that I was just trying to work through the pain of getting my arm and shoulder back into shape and so had to stop skiing every so often to let the spasms pass. I was worried that maybe I was rushing it and shouldn’t try so hard. She calmly explained that the damaged muscles form scar tissue that needed to break loose, and that is what was probably causing some of the pain. Of course! I’d forgotten that Sharon was a physical therapist. Her explanation made perfect sense and with that one simple, quiet conversation, she helped me get through the rest of the winter and work my arm back into shape.

Another time Scott and I were hiking along the Mt. Juneau ridge on a particularly nice day. We stopped near the end of the ridge at a soft heather meadow to lounge in the sun when two hikers approached from the other direction. Sharon and her hiking partner had hiked to the end of the ridge, but were unsure how to drop down into Granite Creek safely. Rather than risk going down the wrong way, they had decided to turn around and retrace their steps back to Mt. Juneau. We invited them to hike out with us, as we were very familiar with the way out. Scott and Sharon’s friend boldly glissaded down the steep snow off the ridge, but Sharon was not as comfortable doing that, so she and I took the slower, more conservative hiking route down while they waited for us.  Once again, I was impressed with her ability to assess her skills and choose the best way down the mountain. She was not a person who did things without first carefully thinking, and was not afraid to acknowledge and accept her limitations in any given situation.
Sharon descending the lower slopes into Granite Creek Basin, after skirting around the steeper sections
Her skills and her strength continued to grow, and I kept running into her sometimes in the most unlikely places. A few summers ago we were by the Boy Scout Camp trail head when she came bursting out of the woods on what appeared to be a long, solo trail run. Her face was red and she was drenched in sweat, but she just smiled, waved hello and disappeared right back into the woods, with only a water bottle and probably some energy bars in a waist pack. Scott and I laughed. “Sharon is getting to be quite the wilderness runner,” I remarked. “She certainly looks super fit.” I only had a small idea of some the adventures she was having, but I know she continued to get outdoors and into the mountains as much as she could, and she looked very happy whenever I saw her.

That’s why I was so shocked when I learned she was missing, apparently while hiking in the Mt. Roberts trail area or possibly further beyond. She was strong, she was smart, and she was experienced. How in the world could something like this have happened? We were hiking the Mt. Roberts trail the day after she was reported missing, and talked to the first searcher we saw on the lower trail, who asked us if we knew a hiker named “Shannon B—“. He couldn’t think of her last name and was unsure of her first name. My eyes widened and I immediately said, “Sharon Buis?” Yes, that was her name.

We continued on our hike and went up onto Gold Ridge and then over to Mt. Gastineau, sweeping the area all around us. We had a pair of binoculars and often stopped to use them. But the area is so big and there are so many different places a hiker can go. Helicopters swept up and down the slopes all around us, buzzing along the valley floors and then scanning the cliffs and ridges up high. Members of the Juneau Mountain Rescue Group worked their way from the ridges down along the slopes, covering much of the area in a coordinated search pattern. They talked to other hikers and asked them to look for signs of anything that looked suspicious.

We changed our original hiking plan to go over to Mt. Roberts and instead returned and walked the length of Gold Ridge, looking at spots where someone could drop down towards Perseverance and get lost or in trouble. If indeed that is where she went. The Mt. Roberts trail connects to so many peaks, ridges and drainages. And sometimes people park at the trailhead and then continue up Basin Road to the Perseverance Trail, Mt. Juneau, Granite Creek Basin, Mt. Olds – well, you get the idea. The problem is that she didn’t tell anyone her plans the day she parked her car at the trailhead, and she left no note behind indicating where she was going or how long she expected to be gone.

It’s been over two weeks, and there is still no sign of what happened to Sharon. We may never know.  That happens sometimes in Alaska, but you don’t expect it to happen to someone you know. I can’t imagine what her family and close friends must be going through as they continue to search and to pray for her.
Sharon could be silly and fun, despite a quiet, strong and sometimes stubborn personality
The other day Scott and I decided to hike the Sheep Creek trail and continue up to the Powerline Ridge. This time I did something that I have never before done in my forty two years of going into the mountains. I’ve done more solo hikes than I can recall, and I’ve always let someone know where I was going and when I’d be back. And when I have a partner with me, I almost never leave a trip plan with anyone. But as I left the house, I grabbed a scrap piece of paper and put it on the seat of our car parked at the Sheep Creek trailhead. On it I wrote “Wed 6/4 - Day hike on Sheep Creek trail to Powerline Ridge, possibly over to the base of Hawthorne Peak – Betsy and Scott.” Just in case.

Part of the Hiker Safety Code states: TELL SOMEONE WHERE YOU ARE GOING, THE TRAILS YOU ARE HIKING, WHEN YOU WILL RETURN AND YOUR EMERGENCY PLANS. For more hiking safety information, go to hikesafe.com

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Erasing Bad Memories

Have you ever hiked a trail that left you so traumatized that you never wanted to return again?
Boggy bottom trail
In early May of 1973, barely five months after I moved from the gentle shores of the Chesapeake Bay to the wild mountain rainforest of Juneau, I hiked the Lemon Creek[1] trail to try out my brand new frame pack (Kelty BB5). I had very little outdoor experience, although I’d been working overtime trying to learn as many new activities as I could fit in. Since that day in late December 1972 when I first arrived in Alaska, I had learned to ice climb, cross country ski, snowshoe and how to properly travel and camp in the snow. But I was not prepared for the horrors of getting lost in a dark, endless mud bog surrounded by old growth deadfall and impenetrable devil’s club. It didn’t help that my partner and I planned our hike on a day that was pouring rain, which added to the misery of the wet, muddy trail – that is, when we could stay on the poorly marked route. As I mentioned before, the purpose of the trip was try out my new pack, so to add insult to injury I hiked with at least a 30 pound load. Soon after that trip, I discovered the myriad of other trails in the area, and the awful memory of that dark, wet day kept me from ever returning.
Beware the Devil's Club bushes!
But I’m retired now, which, by the way, is one reason I haven’t written a blog since last fall. It’s been a crazy, busy winter, what with my husband and I selling our business of forty years, becoming grandparents, teaching cross country skiing full-time and various other lame excuses. I’ve continued to hike and ski, but just haven’t bothered to take the time to write about it. For those of you who enjoy my outdoor blogs, I offer a sincere apology and hope to start writing regularly again.

Anyway, as a retiree, I now have the luxury of going back to a trail that I swore I would never hike again and not worry about “wasting” a day off. On Sunday, while the weather remained warm and dry, Scott and I decided to venture on the Lemon Creek trail and see what’s changed since 1973. Scott had never hiked it, probably due to my extreme reluctance to go back there, so he was interested to see if it was as bad as he’d heard. I was hopeful to find some improvements both in the trail and my attitude. We considered it to be a scouting expedition with no clear goal other than hiking for an undetermined time and distance on a nice day.

We parked behind Home Depot and started up the gravel road at the trailhead. A decent mountain biker could negotiate the first quarter to half mile, and an expert biker could have fun for about the next mile, but as soon as it descends into the boggy forest it probably wouldn’t be worth the ride. We were able to stay on our bikes for only the first quarter mile and then left them behind (lesson #1 – don’t bother with the bikes). The trail was fairly well marked and easy to follow, even when we dropped down into the swampy lowlands. There we ran into one other hiker, and we ended up traveling together the rest of the day.

To our pleasant surprise, the trail was not too bad. Forest deadfalls covered the trail in places, but we were always able to find ways around them. Where the trail wandered too close to the creek, the steep bank sometimes fell away, taking large sections of the trail with it, but every time we found an alternate way to get back on track. Each time we lost the trail, we thanked the randomly placed orange flagging that helped us locate it again (lesson #2 – bring a little flagging tape of our own). The trail follows the creek as it twists and folds back along the valley, quickly moving into a remote area that feels far removed from the road system just a few miles behind. We found signs of porcupine, deer, wolf, and mountain goat the further back we went.
The case of the disappearing trail

Several interesting creek crossings feature logs with wire mesh tacked on them to help with footing. Occasional hand lines of questionable strength also aid in negotiating the log bridges, although good balance and a little luck are still required in spots. I patted myself on the back for keeping my feet dry most of the way, until I gently tumbled off a slippery log and into the boiling waters of Canyon Creek. Thanks to the safety rope which miraculously did not break, my only injuries were wet feet and a few scrapes, and I hastened to reassure our new friend that this was a common occurrence for me and nothing to be too concerned about. Scott just rolled his eyes and sighed (lesson #3 – bring new rope to replace some of the worn lines on the log crossings and let Scott go first).
One of the easier creek crossings
Whoops! Don't want to fall in this creek (but I did)
We stopped for a snack in a small open meadow on a little hill about a quarter of a mile from the end of the valley trail. We were only five miles away from the road, but it felt like we
were twenty miles in. Beautiful waterfalls fell from high cliffs above us, and dark green ridges topped with snow and rock walls surrounded us.
Drying out my shoes and socks with a million dollar view (photo credit - Jarvis Schultz)
Just before the end of the trail we spotted the spur trail leading to the Juneau Icefield Research Camp 17A near the Ptarmigan Glacier. We explored the route up a steep hillside (think Blackerby Ridge trail with less traffic and fewer switchbacks) for about a quarter of a mile until we felt that we had a good idea of where it went. Scott and I decided we would most certainly return soon and hike a loop from Lemon Creek around to Cairn Peak and out the Blackerby Ridge route.
Dropping back down the spur trail that leads to the Juneau Icefield camps
(photo credit - Jarvis Schultz)
We dropped back down to the main trail and located the water gauging station a short distance up the creek and where the Lemon Creek trail seems to officially end. According to an older trail book, “in late July and early August a natural garden exhibits a riot of color on the far side of a stream”[2] just past the gauging station, providing us with yet another reason to return to this trail.
Lemon Creek gauging station

Lemon Creek
The hike back seemed shorter and quicker now that we were more familiar with the terrain, and all my old prejudices about the evils of the Lemon Creek trail were erased. We stopped in several places to explore more of the animal signs we’d noticed on the way in, identified Varied Thrushes calling to each other in the trees and an American Dipper feeding in a side stream. We lingered along a section of the main creek with a wide rocky shore bank that we thought would make a quiet summer camping site.
Porcupine quills in some poor animal's fur (photo credit - Jarvis Schultz)
I’m pretty sure this is the only Juneau trail I’ve actively avoided for over forty years. I’ll search my memory to make sure I hold no prejudices against any other trails, because I was certainly proved wrong in this case (lesson #4 – don’t let one bad experience sour your attitude). Our little exploratory trip up the Lemon Creek trail was a huge success and gave much more than we’d hoped for in the way of outdoor recreational fun. Nice to know I can still be pleased and surprised by a local trail, and I’ll be sure to return soon.

Old bad memories are now replaced with good new memories

[1] “. . . said to have been named for John Lemon, who was reported to have prospected and done some placer mining on this creek with James Hollywood in 1879, a year before Harris and Juneau made their discovery on Gold Creek.

John Lemon was in the Cassiar and went to Sitka early in 1880. There he joined the Edmund Bean party of prospectors which blazed a trail over Chilkoot Pass to the headwater of the Yukon in the summer of 1880. Nothing has been learned of Lemon following the return of that expedition.” (R. N. DeArmond,  Some Names Around Juneau, 1957, p. 29-30)

[2] Margaret Piggott, Discover Southeast Alaska with Pack and Paddle, The Mountaineers, 1974, pp. 102-103.