Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My PFD Came One Day Early On Blackerby Ridge


Every time I looked at the weather forecast, I had to rub my eyes. The rain followed by showers followed by more rain was easy to believe. But what was this sunny weather predicted in the middle of the week? At one point the forecaster was bold enough to call for “abundant sunshine”, which remains one of my favorite weather descriptions. Plans needed to be made.

Scott already committed to a nordic ski trail project for the day, so I had to go through my list of potential hiking partners. Some could not take time off work; others were out of town or had conflicting plans. I was on my own.
When I was working full-time I used to love to take every possible chance to go up in the mountains alone. I savored the peace and solitude away from the downtown crowds I dealt with on a daily basis in our retail shop. Since I’ve retired I’m not so anxious to be alone, but rather enjoy the opportunity to talk and socialize on the trail with friends. Still, if I was going to hike alone, at least I knew how to handle myself after many years of solo travel.

Wednesday, October 1 – we measure our sunny days in Juneau one by one this year, now officially the rainiest year on record. A thick early morning fog promised clear skies in just a few hours as I drove to the Blackerby Ridge trail head. I had no illusions about the condition of the trail before me, which is a steep, nasty climb through the woods under the best of circumstances. But with all the rain this summer and fall I knew it would be a muddy scramble most of the way to tree line. After that, I would probably be up to my ankles in fresh snow. The clear skies and unlimited views from the ridge would be my reward.

I am not as familiar with the Blackerby Ridge trail as I am with the Spaulding trail, which I’ve memorized turn by turn. But to help the time go by as I climbed up alone, I pretended that I really did know each section of the trail and could visualize what was ahead. I surprised myself that I actually was very familiar with many parts of the trail – the climb up next to the huge fallen tree, the steep dirt cliff with a fixed line, the fallen tree trunk with the step cut into it, where the trail went left and then right and then straight up again. Looks like I need to add this route to my bedtime visualization exercises.

Soon enough I was up to the first meadow that offers a breathtaking view of Mt. Juneau. This is the moment when all doubts about being alone are instantly erased. I wanted to pull my camera out and start taking photos, but I was too anxious to keep moving until I was right on the ridge. Up until now I had kept my good camera with the telephoto lens protected from the wet, muddy trail and didn’t want to take the time to dig it out quite yet. I would soon regret that decision.

As I climbed through the scattered brush and trees to the open ridge, a slight movement above caught my eye. I was astounded to see a large mountain goat lightly tripping down the hiking trail without a care in the world. He had no idea he was headed straight for me. I held my breath and slowly sank to my knees, silently cursing to myself for not having my camera out. I fumbled at my pack’s side pockets, never taking my eyes off of the goat who was now less than 50 feet away from me. I managed to grab my smartphone and slowly raised it to snap some photos. The goat spotted me and stopped still. Because I was kneeling, I don’t think he could figure out what I was. I kept very quiet and took as many pictures as I could, praying that one of them would turn out. Finally I put the phone down and just stared back at him. He was only 30 feet away and still checking me out, moving his head a little from side to side. I quietly said, “It’s o.k. I’m not going to do anything. I just want to go hiking on the ridge.” He started a little, and then seemed to catch my scent as he whirled and disappeared up the trail so fast I could barely keep my eyes on him.
My original goal was to hike on the ridge and take photos, maybe look for mountain goats and try to capture them with my telephoto lens. But within the first 90 minutes of my hike I’d already come closer to a goat than I ever had in my life and I wasn't even on the ridge yet. Lesson learned: always keep my camera at hand when I go outdoors, no matter what.

I probably wasn't going to see goats or any other wildlife on the ridge as I'd originally hoped, because it was covered in new snow and my footprints were the only prints evident for a long distance. Instead, I soaked in the views of the newly snow covered peaks. A falcon circled overhead and a group of ravens played in the wind thermals, shooting up and floating in random, playful patterns against the blue sky.

I knew right away that I would not try to go up Cairn Peak at the end of the ridge, although there was plenty of time. Since I was alone and not sure of the footing in the fresh snow on the steeper sections, I decided not to risk it. I later learned a small group of runners came over Observation and Cairn Peak from Granite Creek after I left the ridge and they said the footing was good, but I tend to be more cautious when hiking in the mountains without a partner.

I traveled to the last high point on the ridge before it drops over to Cairn Peak, stopping and looking around and trying to take it all in. The clear, brilliant sky was difficult to comprehend, my mind was so fogged by the endless succession of rainy days, but I did my best to enjoy it. Summer was most certainly over, and the chilly breeze along the ridge kept me bundled in layers I hadn’t had to wear since early last spring.

As I wandered the length of the ridge, I gazed at all the delights the unusually brilliant weather had to offer. The sky was so clear I could Mt. Fairweather in Glacier Bay National Monument, rising over 15,000 feet high and about 100 miles distant. The peaks of the Juneau Icefield looked close enough to touch, and the new snow on the previously bare rock had a lacy, decorative look. Douglas Island and Admiralty Island were lush with green, red, and gold fall colors.
Mt. Fairweather - 15,325'
The ravens continued to fight for my attention, swirling so close overhead that I heard the rush of their wings as they approached me from behind. They perched boldly on the ridge in front of me, waiting until the last second to take off again and begin their acrobatics. I studied the falcons that occasionally appeared more closely. One was small and swift – perhaps a sharp shinned hawk? The larger one I positively identified as a peregrine falcon, although my camera was not quick enough to capture it.

I looked for a wind protected spot to eat some lunch, and settled behind a rock where hundreds of ground blueberries glistened in the midst of the cold, crunchy heather. They tasted slightly past their prime, a little sour, but not bad. When I first raised my hand to my mouth I started with fright – it was dripping with red and I thought maybe I’d cut myself on a sharp rock further down the ridge. Closer inspection revealed it was only blueberry juice, and I laughed out loud.

I leisurely picked my way back, stopping to take more photos and admiring the 360 degree view of mountains, blue sky, glaciers, and fresh snow; basically trying to put off the inevitable stumble down through the woods as long as possible. I kept hoping to see my friend the goat once more, but he stayed well hidden. One of the runners reported seeing him later that day when they descended, so he must not have wandered too far. I wondered what the odds were of having another close encounter like that again in my life.

Stumble, trip, half-fall, catch myself, keep moving down and try my best not to twist an ankle – that’s how I descend the lower part of the Blackerby Ridge trail. Going uphill taxes the lungs and leg strength, and going downhill challenges balance and coordination, so it’s a full mind/body workout. I played the trail memory game backwards, and once again was pleasantly surprised at how many little details I recalled, which helps the time go by so much faster on a rough descent.

Back at sea level, one could almost pretend it was a cool, late summer day as the sun continued to shine and runners jogged along Twin Lakes in shorts and t-shirts. Tomorrow would bring a sure sign of fall – the annual PFD (Permanent Fund Dividend) issued to all Alaska residents on October 2. I sighed with a happy tiredness, and smiled as I considered that I’d received my own PFD one day early this year: the priceless gift of a Perfect Fall Day in the mountains.

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.

To my readers - THANK YOU for reading my blog. I just reached 10,000 views! A small number in the huge world of blogging, but a big number for me.

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.
Ouch
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.