Friday, January 3, 2014

The Best Fishing Day of My Life (as told by my husband, Scott)

With only two days left in our Bahamas vacation before Betsy and I head back to our home in Juneau, Alaska, my fishing guide and good friend Docky and I decide to get in one more day of bonefishing. The good news is there is little or no wind, though there are a few thunderheads looming on the horizon. The bad news is that we will have to fish through high tide, meaning there will be little opportunity for wading the flats. Docky will be poling his Hells Bay flats boat along the upper edges of the mangroves looking for groups of fish moving from one dense jungle of mangrove to another.

For the first couple of hours the sun peeks out of the clouds regularly and the water is flat calm, so visibility is good. Docky is very good at tracking the movements of bonefish. He can recognize where they have been recently and their direction of travel by deciphering the holes and scuff marks the fish have made poking their noses into the bottom looking for food. We soon find tracks, but they lead us into increasingly narrower slots of open water between the miles of flooded mangrove.

James "Docky" Smith - one of the premier bonefishing guides in the Bahamas
I have fished with Docky for fifteen years and learned that no matter what the conditions or tide he will locate fish as long as he can see the bottom. After a while we start to see a few singles and small groups of two or three bonefish. By the time we start seeing fish the sky is almost completely overcast, meaning the reflection of the white and grey clouds on the water gives the surface an almost impenetrable sheen. At the best of times, meaning sunny and calm weather, seeing bonefish is not easy because their coloring blends in so well with the bottom. I almost never see a bonefish before Docky has them spotted and starts giving me coordinates until I can get focused, giving me something to cast to.  

I get a couple of quick casts at the ever moving targets. As usual I drop the fly slightly behind them or right on top of them and they are gone never to be seen again. Eventually I get it right. I strip the line, set the fly and I’m hooked into a silver rocket, my reel making a zzzzinging sound that is music to my ears. After three long runs and a few circles of the boat a nice three pounder gets her picture taken and she’s back safe and sound, deep in the mangrove.

It’s almost noon and the visibility is getting ever worse with some big thunderheads building, although there is still not a breath of wind. Abruptly, Docky mumbles something that sounds like “permit”. When Docky sees fish it is announced as though he is continuing a conversation, never a shout or even a raised voice. Sometimes I wonder if he is addressing me or just talking to himself. However, I’ve learned to pay attention. I look about a hundred feet to my right and up against a bank of mangrove are three blurred shapes moving slowly.

“Scott, do you see them”?  “Yes.” “There are three at two o’clock” (if the bow of the boat is twelve o’clock these three fish are two clicks to the right). Yes!

 I always take two fly rods on the boat. One is a seven or eight weight for bonefish and the other is a ten weight always rigged with some kind of crab imitation fly for permit. This rod is almost never used because we are always fishing for bonefish. About once each year we catch a glimpse of the elusive permit and there is sometimes even an opportunity to get in a hurried cast. Invariably the permit takes one look at the fly and high tails it for Cuba. Of course, I’m holding the seven weight rod.

The permit are not moving fast. They don’t see us yet, just poking along looking for tasty morsels on the bottom, but they are moving slowly away. As Docky very quietly begins poling, not toward them but at an angle to intercept them in time, the conversation between us goes almost to a whisper and becomes completely one sided. “Don’t switch rods. I don’t think you have enough time”. As we begin to close the distance separating us from the fish I do have enough time to notice that these are pretty good size permit. The sweat is beginning to drip off the end of my nose.  

When we are within fifty feet of the fish the one sided whisper begins again. “Give me a cast and lead them by about ten feet”. It is a rule that you should let the fly drop after three false casts, no more. It takes me about four false casts before I get it out there and by then the nearest fish is under forty feet away. I let the fly drop, about twenty feet in front of them. They don’t see it. “Try again…. you can do this!” Three more false casts and some realignment and I let it drop… about fifteen feet in front of them. Docky continues to speak quietly but intensely. “It’s ok, let it drop. He’s coming. Strip very slowly. Set it! Set it! He’s on, he’s on!”

I lift my rod into the air as high as I can get it to allow the twenty feet of line lying on the deck of the boat to whip through the air. By a miracle, the line hisses through the rod eyes without tangling, and follows the permit on an unbelievably rapid dash to open water.

The reel is probably the most important piece of equipment when fishing for permit, and mine is a very good reel. The line is coming off it with alarming speed and I am well into my bright orange backing when the hooked permit sets a course and kicks into high gear. Docky poles hard for fifty feet to get the boat further out in the open water and then says “I better get the engine started”.

With growing concern we can plainly see that while the permit is headed for the main channel, there is a nasty island of partially submerged coral and mangrove ahead. The fish is aiming right for it. At this stage there is no way of controlling the direction the permit takes. In a mad dash he goes into a narrow slot right through the mangrove jungle, and of course the line goes with him. We see the fish emerge on the other side of the small island. He is now in open water, and amazingly the line is still scorching off my reel, despite the fact that the permit has neatly managed to weave it through the tangled mangrove roots.

The mangroves offer an additional challenge to tropical flyfishing

As we motor to the island, I’m thinking the line will break and go limp any second. We reach the mangrove, and Docky quickly jumps over the side of the boat into waist deep water and surges into the brush to see where the line is running. He hurriedly breaks off a few offending branches and weaves the line out of the brush and into the clear. We’re still not out of trouble! The line is running around a point of rock about a foot under the water. Docky guides his hand under the line easing it away from the rock, while I guide the rod down and try to get it pointed in a straight line toward the fish.

Amazingly, we are still in business. We are finally in a section of open water with a permit about 150 yards out who continues racing away in a steady surge of power. Slowly motoring behind and gradually increasing the drag on the reel, we start to gain some ground. Now with every inch of line we can put back onto the reel, we hopefully can slow this seemingly tireless advance.

Docky starts to gradually steer the boat to the right, and I bring line in with the rod angled to the right in order to make the fish work harder to stay on course. I am able to reel in a hundred yards of line. Then as if the permit has just been loafing so far, he takes off, peeling out all our hard earned line in seconds. Starting over again, this time to the left, we grind on, slowly getting in line only to have it taken away by another surge.

To the right, to the left, the fight goes on and my arms are starting to get tired! But now each run is becoming a little bit shorter. Finally, while working to the right, the permit suddenly breaks back in a long arc and I’m reeling like mad to keep the slack out of the line. For the first time we actually get a pretty good look at the fish as he starts circling the boat about thirty yards out and with a side view we can see he is BIG!

“Keep him sideways to the boat if you can” Docky says. “If he is moving left apply steady pressure to the right”.  The fish is now turned around to the right. “OK, slowly swing your rod to the left and keep the pressure steady” and so on. The permit is starting to tire and he’s getting close to the boat. “This is often where they get off.” Docky cautions me. “They will lull you into thinking they are done but now they do desperate things and they are still very powerful.”

Now within twenty feet of the boat the permit very briefly turns on his side and it flashes silver. He is tired and showing signs of fatigue. “Slowly lift your rod and keep bringing in line”. This is where the seven weight rod shows its weak side: no lifting power. But he is alongside the boat and Docky takes the leader gently in hand and guides the fish closer. Reaching over and grasping the permit just in front of the tail he tries to lift it and that fish is outta here! ”Uh, oh, this is one powerful dude!”

Slowly I work him back. This time I’m able to get a little more lift, and Docky is able to get a little better grasp. Lift . . . and we get a bath as the tail slashes and once again he is gone. Docky straightens up, wide eyed. That has never happened before. Usually when he gets a hand around the narrow part in front of the tail that fish is in the boat.

Third time’s a charm? This time the fish is alongside and Docky slides his left hand under the head right behind the gills and grips the tail again. With a heave he straightens up and the permit is ours. He is BIG!  Docky carefully hands him to me. He’s a beautiful fish and he just looks at us with disdain as we take his picture.

A catch of a lifetime

One minute later we have the fly out of his mouth and he’s back in the water. I gently hold him just in front of the tail, letting him get a breather and pose for the Go Pro underwater photos. He gives his tail a strong twitch, signaling that he’s ready to part company. He slowly swims away and disappears. We wonder if his buddies will believe the story of his brief alien abduction and miraculous escape.

  Within minutes, the thunderheads that have been building all day come together to unleash a blinding torrent of rain, and we are running for the marina with heads down. However, not even the thorough dowsing we get can wash away the lunatic grins plastered on our faces.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Hawthorne Peak

The view a few hundred feet below the summit of Hawthorne Peak
I should have brought an ice axe.

A friend of mine cautioned me when I told him I was planning to hike up Hawthorne Peak. “The snowpack can be pretty icy up there this time of year. You should take an ice axe with you.” I agreed with him, and I did pack a set of ice grippers and a hiking pole. But no ice axe.

There are a few things I will do differently the next time I try to hike up Hawthorne Peak. First, I won’t do a vigorous 90 minute ashtanga yoga practice the night before. Less than fourteen hours before my hike I was lying in a sweaty puddle on the floor after stretching, balancing, jumping, and twisting in a hot room. Not a good idea. I will also get up earlier and be on the trail before 9:30 a.m. And I’ll bring an ice axe.

It’s been so long since I have hiked up Hawthorne Peak that I can’t even remember it. I have been gazing at it over the past few years as I've hiked over Mt. Roberts and Sheep Mt., and took a serious look at it last summer when I spent some time up on Powerline Ridge. I don’t keep a checklist of places I want to go, but if I did then Hawthorne would be near the top.

The weather and my work schedule provided me with yet another partly cloudy day for a long mountain hike. I felt a little intimidated by the thought of traveling so far up a mountain by myself when I could barely remember hiking it years ago. In order to handle these little solo adventures, I often break the day down into stages and try not to think about the whole until I see how things are going. So my day went something like this.

Stage 1 – Hike the Sheep Creek valley trail. This is a gem of a place and anyone who lives in Juneau who hasn't spent a little time on this trail is missing out. A short, steep half-mile walk through the woods on a well-maintained trail takes you to a quiet, beautiful mountain valley. Sheep Creek runs clear and cold along the valley floor and it’s a bird watcher’s paradise at certain times. My favorite bird is the dipper, who walks along the creek bed and ducks underwater to feed.  The trail along the valley floor ends after a pleasant couple of miles, when it starts to climb uphill again.
Hawthorne Peak from the Sheep Creek valley trail
Stage 2 – Climb up through the woods to tree line and up to the power line cabin. The trail turns steeply uphill from the valley floor. It features knotted tree roots and a slippery dirt trail that climbs steadily up. It’s a grunt no matter which way you look at it. I've covered this route many times, so I can turn my mind off and focus on breathing and moving and saving as much of my energy as I can for the unknown parts ahead of me. The trail pops out of the trees at the old power line, zigzags through the low brush to avoid a deep ravine on the hillside, and then reaches the tiny cabin, sitting along the power line in the open alpine. At last I could look around me and scout out my route over to Hawthorne Peak.
A faint path follows a natural bench on the mountainside heading towards Hawthorne Peak
Stage 3 – Hike from the power line cabin to the base of Hawthorne Peak. An old path led from the cabin in the direction of Hawthorne, so I followed it along a natural mountainside bench to a series of old power line towers. The path disappeared and I found my own way down the ridge to the saddle below Hawthorne, all the while scouting the mountain for the best route up.
A wild and lonely landscape wandering down and over to Hawthorne Peak from the Powerline Ridge
A few helicopters flew by on their way to glacier tours, but otherwise I was completely alone. Small alpine pools dotted the landscape. A waterfall poured off of a glacial snowfield. The mountain heather was still bright green, but starting to turn orange, red, and yellow in the late summer coolness.  I wanted to sit and enjoy the beauty, but first I needed to see how high I could get on the mountain in front of me.

As I scouted the steep rocks and snow above me, a slight movement on the summit snow ridge caught my eye.  I watched it move quickly across the snow and realized it must be a wolf. I could just make out the dark gray shape of it as it ran, and noted the route it took across the snow and over to the rocks. Then it disappeared from sight.

I decided to give the rock ridge a try. The rock was steep, loose, and crumbling –a poor excuse of a mountain ridge, but typical of Southeast Alaska rock. I didn't like the way the rocks slipped and slid under my feet, so I moved over to the snow ravine next to it. The snow climbed steeply up, and I could just barely get a good purchase with my light hiking shoes. I stopped to put on my ice grippers and break out my trekking pole, and found it easier to climb, but I was starting to get nervous. I was hoping that as I climbed up to the summit ridge the snow would soften and the pitch of the slope would lessen. That is probably what would happen if I was trying to climb up in May or June, but in late August the snow was rock hard, and so much had melted that the angle of the slope only got steeper as I got higher.

I saw the wolf tracks in the snow as I neared my high point. I worked my way back over to the rock and found a spot to sit and survey the last bit to the summit. I knew I could safely manage the slope I had just climbed, but the final bit ahead of me was more exposed without a safe run-out below. Spots of ice showed on the snow. I should have brought an ice axe, and a partner to help kick steps and provide a little moral support.
The snow was steeper and harder the higher I climbed, and drops off a cliff to the right
I looked at my GPS. I had traveled five and a half miles and was at 4,009’. The summit is 4,210’ and I was less than 500 yards away. I sat on a flat rock, ate a little food, and took a good rest for the first time since I’d started four hours ago. I thought about it and decided I didn't have enough confidence in my ability to safely travel the very last part alone. I stood up and shouted as loud as I could “HAWTHORNE PEAK!” Then I laughed and sat back down and muttered “You kicked my butt today.”

Stage 4 – Go back the way I came. There was still plenty of adventure ahead as I carefully made my way down the steep snow ravine.  I practiced a few self-arrests with my trekking pole before I got to the trickiest sections, which didn't inspire me to try any high speed descending. I made it to the grassy saddle over a thousand feet below without any serious mishaps, and climbed back up to the Powerline Ridge path.
I had to carefully descend over 1,000' to reach the saddle below on my way out
Now I was completely relaxed, with an easy trail to follow the rest of the way out. I took another long break next to an old power line tower and soaked in the views of the mountain I had just come down, the valley spread out below me, and the high ridge between Mt. Roberts and Sheep Mt. to the northwest. I felt a little bit cheated that I had worked so hard only to turn around just short of my goal. I also decided I would most certainly be back next summer, when the snow was a little softer, the slopes a little less steep, and my ice axe securely in hand. Maybe I can even talk someone into joining me.

A last look back at Hawthorne Peak. In the words of The Terminator - "I'll be back!"

Hawthorne Peak, elevation 4,210’. Named by Lieutenant Commander Henry B. Mansfield in 1890 when he commanded the Coast Guard steamer Patterson in these waters. The source of the name is not known, but Mansfield sometimes honored members of his crew by placing their names on the map. (pg 24, R. N. DeArmond, 1957, “Some Names Around Juneau”)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Camping Alone on Grandchild Peaks Ridge

Every once in a while I like to go for a solo camping trip. My favorite camping spots are above tree line, somewhere with a great view in all directions. During the most recent stretch of good weather, I decided the time was right. I juggled my work schedule a bit and picked out a place I’d been thinking about for the past few years – Grandchild Peaks ridge.
Solo camping involves some special planning. Since I would be carrying all of my own gear, I’d be packing a one person tent weighing only 3 pounds, a small down sleeping bag, superlight high-tech air mattress, compact propane camp stove with pot, a careful selection of lightweight, high calorie food (no freeze dried meals, which I hate), small water filter, minimal clothing layers, a few personal essentials, and my camera. I managed to pack everything into a 26 liter pack that I often use for long day hikes. Total weight came to just under 27 lbs., but that included a full 70 oz. water bladder in my pack and a full one liter water bottle which held my water filter. I was ready!

In my eagerness to strike out on my own on a perfect sunny day, I gallantly declined Scott’s offer to drop me at the end of Montana Creek road to get started. I decided I would ride my mountain bike the 7 miles from home to the spot on the Montana Creek trail where I would lock my bike in the woods and begin my hike. That way I wouldn't have to worry about leaving my car overnight or depend on anyone to pick me up when I was ready to come out.

The night before I left I had a few moments of doubt. The hike up the Grandchild Peaks route is steep and rough, and I wasn't sure I was physically up to the task of hauling an overnight pack all the way up to the ridge. I worried about bears, which can be plentiful along Montana Creek in the middle of summer. And even though I've traveled and camped by myself many times, I’m always a little nervous before I start out, worrying that I may forget an essential item, or that it might all just be a little too much to do on my own.
The best way to deal with these doubts is to plan as best you can and then just get started. Biking to the trail was easy, and I purposely went slow, enjoying the sunny day and letting my legs loosen up for the big hike ahead of me. Pedaling a bike with an overnight pack on my back wasn't the most comfortable way to ride, but I was on the trail and ready to lock the bike up within 45 minutes.

The route begins a little less than a mile along the Montana Creek trail. The start of the trail isn't formally marked, but climbs abruptly up a steep, muddy cliff in the woods. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. After scrambling up a few hundred yards, a small sign announces that the Grandchild Peaks route is marked with materials provided by the U. S. Forest Service and gives credit to the Juneau Alpine Club (see note at the end).
Once you've reached this point, the route is relatively easy to follow, as small red and white trail markers flag the way for almost two thousand feet to tree line. It’s very similar to the Blackerby Ridge trail – steep woods, muddy and slippery in the lower sections and a relentless climb up through rocks, tree roots, and steep dirt. It’s best if you don’t try to look ahead to guess when you’re going to break out of the woods, but just take it one grunting footstep at time.

Just about the time when you think you’re going to spend the rest of your life climbing uphill, the trail breaks out into an open meadow. The terrain levels out for a bit and the views of the surrounding mountains appear. Every time I take a new person up to this area, I savor this moment, because without exception everyone gasps when they see the ridge curving away high above, and the grand northwest exposures of Mt. Stroller White and McGinnis. Looking down into the valley to the left of the ridge it’s not uncommon to see a bear or two strolling along, while up in the alpine are often large groups of mountain goats, soaring eagles, and the occasional wolf. It feels wilder in this area than many of the other places where I hike, and I love it.
By the time I reached the ridge and began climbing again, I was drenched in sweat. Carrying the pack straight uphill in almost 80 degree weather was exhausting. I was tempted to stop at tree line and try to set up my camp there, but an onslaught of bugs discouraged me. Then I was afraid that if I even stopped for a short lunch break I might not want to move again, so I kept steadily hiking.

Soon I was high up on the ridge and still climbing, with the hot sun beating down and the flies following me up from the brushy area below. I forgot all my worries about being on my own in my single minded quest to find a good campsite and hoped my legs would hold out until I found it. I located a grassy bench to the side of the ridge with a flat spot for my little tent, gentle breeze, and a beautiful view of Lynn Canal and the surrounding mountains.  It was only 1:30 in the afternoon, but I needed a break. I set up camp, ate my lunch and rested until I felt like I could move again.
My little yellow tent is set up at the far edge of the snow field
It felt great to continue up the ridge with only water and my camera. As I neared the first high point about 400’ above my camp I ran into two hikers coming from the opposite direction. They turned out to be friends that I knew! They had started earlier and were just out for the day, having hiked to the end of the ridge already. I enjoyed visiting with them, until they continued on their way out. I walked a little further along this incredible ridge, soaking in the sights of the high country and looking for wildlife. It was the first time I had never spotted large groups of goats in the area, and wondered if the hot weather had driven them to other places. The heat had certainly taken a toll on me, and despite my earlier rest and plenty of water, I was surprisingly lightheaded. I decided to turn around and go back to camp instead of climbing the last few summits alone.
Dinner tasted wonderful as I sat alone on my mountainside perch. At first I was a bit restless and found myself wandering around camp, collecting snow to melt, photographing the alpine flowers, and inspecting the surrounding area. Then I slowly relaxed and sat down to simply watch the world go by from my high perch. My friends were long gone and I was completely alone in the mountains. I sat for a long time, listening to an eagle call, and watching the light slowly change in the early evening sky. I finally checked my watch and saw that several hours had passed while I sat and contemplated. This is one of the reasons I like to camp alone – to enjoy the simple tranquility of a summer evening in the mountains and let things flow. I climbed into the tent at last, comfortably tired and sleepy.
I woke a few times during the night, and was treated to a show each time I opened my eyes. I watched the moon set behind the Chilkat mountains, glowing red in the night sky that still had a light haze of smoke blowing through from wildfires in Canada.  I saw ships moving up and down Lynn Canal, glowing as they sailed fully lit on the black water. I could see the lights of Auke Bay in the distance, and watch the ferries and barges move in and out. There was always something to see, and if I hadn't been so sleepy I could have watched all night.

Around 5 a.m. I woke with a start. It was no longer dark out, and it took me a moment to realize that I was seeing the first of the morning light in the mountains. I grabbed my camera and leaped out of the tent, stuffing my feet in my trail shoes and running across the snow to the east side of the ridge behind my camp. I pumped my fist as I caught the first glimpse of the sun coming up behind the mountains. I started taking photo after photo, desperately hoping that I was capturing the moment on camera. I didn't have my contacts in and my glasses were back in the tent. But the sun was coming up so fast that I couldn't take the time to go back for them, so I just kept clicking away in every direction. I knew this was a lucky break, to capture a perfect sunrise on a rare clear morning in the mountains. Even the smoky haze had disappeared and the sky shown pale pink and blue as the yellow-orange sun glowed behind two distant ice field peaks. Then it was up in the sky and the moment was gone.
I walked back to the tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. I closed my eyes and slept for another three hours. This time when I woke it was a bright, sunny morning. Time to get up, fix breakfast and spend another day in the mountains. I hiked up the ridge once again, enjoying the morning light and clear skies.

Although I felt refreshed after a good night’s sleep, I was still a bit wobbly from the previous day’s exertion in the unaccustomed heat. I knew I needed the energy I had left to get out, and I felt satisfied from the time I’d spent alone, so I wasn't going to push much farther than I’d gone the day before. I took photos in all directions and spent some time enjoying the view, less than a kilometer from the final high point. I made a promise to return before the summer was over, with a light day pack and fresh legs, and hike the full length of the ridge.

I returned to camp and leisurely packed up. By mid-day I was ready to leave, but I took my time hiking out, pausing and looking back along the ridge every few minutes. I’m always sorry to leave the high country, but it was a bit easier this day, knowing that I had soaked up as much as I could in the time I spent alone up there.

The trail down through the steep woods seemed a little shorter, and the terrain was friendlier than the day before when I sweated my way uphill. I found my bike right where I left it on the Montana Creek trail. I pedaled home, and then cleaned my bike and my gear and finally myself. I stretched out on our back deck in the sun with a cold drink, completely satisfied, and started dreaming about my next adventure.

*Kim and Barb Turley pioneered this route in the 1990’s. The Turleys were known for exploring the backcountry around Juneau and helped form the still very active Juneau Alpine Club. Grandchild Peaks ridge is an informal name, and the summits along the ridge are named for each of the Turley grandchildren. Maybe one day the USGS will formally adopt these names, but for now the ridge and the peaks along it officially remain unnamed. Thanks to local outdoor adventurer Bill Forrest for providing information on the development of the Grandchild Peaks route.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Blackerby Ridge and Cairn Peak

Taking in the view from the summit of Cairn Peak. Observation Peak in the background.
Do you ever make an offhand comment to someone, only to immediately wonder, “Now why in the world did I say that?” That’s the way I felt last week, when I casually suggested to my coworker Courtney that we hike Blackerby Ridge to Cairn Peak. Ideally, I like to spread my ridge hikes out to once every seven or eight days at most. I still hadn't fully recovered from the 13 mile, +5,700’ traverse I had just done two days earlier with another friend over Mt. Gastineau, Mt. Roberts, and Sheep Mountain. I don’t have the boundless energy of a twenty-something anymore, and my poor old legs need a break now and then. But I guess the sun was making me crazy. Since we work together, Courtney and I rarely get the same day off when we don’t already have something planned with our significant others. We realized we were both free on Friday and the weather forecast was for sunshine, so we decided to go for it.

If ever there was a classic mountain ridge hike in Juneau, Blackerby Ridge would have to be at the top of the list. So many things are just right about this hike. The unobtrusive trail head on a side street that gives no indication as to what lies ahead. The steep climb straight uphill through the woods, crawling over windfalls and struggling to grab at gnarled tree roots as you pull your sweaty body up the crude trail. This trail is so steep that hikers have placed a fixed line in one spot so you can climb hand over hand up the hardest section. Then the reward as you step out of the trees and into the first open meadow, usually filled with wildflowers and a glimpse of the surrounding peaks and ridges. From there it is a short scramble up to the alpine, leaving the trees and brush and muddy trail behind, and miles of winding mountain ridge ahead.
Fields of alpine lupine and other wildflowers dotted the ridge. Cairn Peak is in the distance to the left and Observation Peak is to the right.
Courtney and I have worked closely together for almost four years, and we know each other well enough that we didn't have to spend much time getting started and settling in to a good hiking pace together. The last time she went up Blackerby, she had a heavy overnight pack, so it was a relief to climb lightly up in shorts, trail shoes, and a small hydration pack. I hadn’t been up the trail since last summer, when Scott and I did a traverse across Blackerby to Cairn Peak, Observation Peak and over to the Juneau ridge, so the prospect of simply climbing Cairn and coming back down was strangely relaxing.
Hiking the mountains in shorts and with light packs is sweet!
As we hit the alpine ridge, we were greeted with a firm snowpack that gave us good footing and allowed for easy shortcuts along the route. Where the snow had melted, fields of wildflowers waved in the breeze, and we were pleasantly sidetracked several times while we took photos and enjoyed the views. Neither one of us was in a rush. Our biggest concern was trying not to get sunburned and staying hydrated, as the temperatures were supposed to climb into the 80’s by the afternoon. A veritable heat wave by Juneau standards!
Mountain goats were easy to spot as we hiked along the ridge.

Blackerby climbs pleasantly up and down, with a fairly clear path beaten in by hikers, climbers, and trail runners most of the way. We seemed to be the only people on the ridge this day, and enjoyed having it all to ourselves. We spotted mountain goats several times, and hoped to possibly see wolf, but had to be satisfied with finding wolf scat and prints in the snow.
We had to content ourselves with wolf tracks, although we looked all day for wolves.
After a few hours of steady hiking, we climbed up the final steep rocky slope below the summit. Still in shorts and light shirts, we soaked in the views of the icefield and surrounding peaks. Observation Peak looked huge and distant – did I really go all the way over there last year? We settled in comfortably on Cairn Peak and waited for the clouds to clear off of Split Thumb so we could get a better view. I was relieved to feel like I had paced myself well enough that I wasn't trashed by the time I reached the summit and could enjoy the day to the fullest. Maybe I was smarter than I thought for planning another ridge hike so soon after the last one, because the forecast for the next day was for rain. The sunny stretch of weather wouldn’t last forever.
The final rocky slopes to the summit of Cairn Peak
The clouds were not clearing off Split Thumb fast enough, and we eventually decided it was time to head back. It’s always hard to start moving down. I like to recall the John Svenson cartoon of two climbers sitting on the summit of a peak, legs dangling over a rock ledge, packs and ropes next to them. One of them says, “Ready to head down?” and the other replies, “No”. The next frame shows two skeletons sitting in the same spot, with packs and ropes still there. That’s the way I feel sometimes when it’s time to start back. Maybe someday I’ll just say no.
Waiting for the clouds to clear off of Split Thumb. Camp 17 is below.
Down the ridge we dropped, still spotting mountain goats, more wolf prints, and endless meadows of wildflowers. If only the hike could end before we had to crawl down through the trees and dirt! That has to be the hardest part of the whole adventure, dropping almost 2,000’ in a little over one mile of steep woods. The best way to deal with that is to turn your mind off, keep moving down one step at a time, and try not to fall headfirst through the forest.
Savoring the last moments on the ridge before plunging down into the woods.
Cold drinks and flip flops never felt so good when we reached our cars. It’s a welcome ritual to strip off muddy shoes and socks and bring out the cooler for a tailgate celebration before going home. It wasn't until I was unpacking my gear later that evening that I realized - we’d hiked up Cairn Peak on the Summer Solstice! I’d like to say that I planned the whole thing with that in mind, but this truly was a last minute adventure. Sometimes those turn out to be the very best kind.
This hike was a great idea!
Blackerby Ridge, named by USFS in 1960 for Alva W. Blackerby, who served 16 years with USFS in the Juneau area. He was killed in an airplane accident in Idaho in 1960 while fighting a forest fire. (Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald Orth, 1967, p. 140).
Cairn Peak, 4,500 ft, named "Cairn Hill" by George R. Putnam, USC&GS, in 1899. The name Cairn Peak was published in 1902 by USC&GS and has been used since.  (Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald Orth, 1967, p. 174).
12.1 miles and 5.365 ft of total elevation gain

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Juneau Ridge Hike

The Juneau Ridge, covered with snow in early June
This year’s hiking season has had a slow start. First I was distracted by all the skiing that I could do well into May, and then family obligations took precedence over recreation. When I was finally ready to get out on the trails and just hike, I couldn’t believe it was still snowing up in the mountains and raining hard below. On Saturday, the first of June, I decided enough was enough. I put on all of my rain gear and waterproof boots and headed up the Lake Creek trail. I had a great hike to Spaulding Meadows, stayed relatively dry, and was reassured that my hiking muscles were in working order. Sunday was much dryer, and Scott and I did an easy stroll up the Sheep Creek trail for some bird-watching while we made plans for a bigger adventure the next day.

Monday’s forecast was for partly cloudy in the morning, with rain developing by late afternoon. Partly cloudy in Juneau means a pretty nice day, so we started out early to hike the Juneau ridge, hoping to beat the clouds and the rain.

The first mile up Perseverance Trail is lovely – a wide well-maintained trail with beautiful views. But turn left on to the Mt. Juneau trail and suddenly you are picking your way up a narrow, rocky trail that climbs and climbs and then climbs some more. Trail crews have recently improved this route immensely, but no one can alter the fact that it still climbs about 3,000’ up a rocky mountainside in just 2 miles. It’s never easy, but I know I’ll feel better as soon as I reach the top. I find a pace I can maintain, and try not think about the fact that I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or that my muscles ache, and my stomach is unsettled. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, look around to enjoy the views as we quickly gain elevation, and wait patiently until the steep climb is finished.

We saw only one other hiker on the Mt. Juneau trail, and very few footprints in the snow going to the top. And there was plenty of snow, starting about half way up the mountain. We picked our way across several steep snow gullies that are usually small streams in the summer, then found and lost the snow covered trail to the summit several times higher up.
The Mt. Juneau trail was easy to lose under the heavy snow pack

When we finally popped out on the top of the ridge, we realized we had hiked past what is considered the top of Mt. Juneau and were already started along the ridge leading to Granite Creek Basin. We didn’t bother backtracking, especially since we knew that the ridge climbs higher in several places, making the summit of Mt. Juneau look smaller the further you go.

The pain of climbing straight uphill was over, and as far as I was concerned the real fun started. There is nothing I would rather do than stroll along a high mountain ridge. The partly cloudy skies were quickly turning to mostly cloudy, and looking over at Mt. Roberts we saw the ridge disappear into grayness. Even with clouds threatening in the distance and a few snow slopes ahead that looked steeper in places than I thought I might be able to handle in my light trail shoes, I felt I was exactly where I wanted to be.
No matter how many times I travel this route, I am always amazed at it's beauty

The Juneau ridge never disappoints, no matter what the conditions. The snow was just right for a steady hiking pace, with short photo breaks for ptarmigan and mountain goats. The mountains in the distance looked wintry, still waiting to melt into their summer colors, and the view was stunning, as usual. The steeper snow turned out to be perfect for kicking steps, using our hiking poles for extra purchase. We moved as quickly as we could without actually running. We could see the faint footprints of two runners who had been on the ridge the day before. But we were moving plenty fast and we knew that once we started dropping down into Granite Creek we would move even faster.
Rock Ptarmigan
Semipalmated Plower

Mountain Goat

A brisk wind along with the deep snow pack and gathering clouds prevented us from taking the usual mountainside nap on the highest part of the ridge. We would have to return on a sunny, summer day to enjoy that, but then we would probably have to share the ridge with many other hikers and runners. Today the ridge belonged to us alone.

The Juneau ridge is perfect for a first season hike. I know the route well, and even the snow and threatening clouds couldn't hide the familiar contours. I've hiked the ridge in bright sunshine and in the rain, under clear skies and in misty fog, on warm fragrant heather and cold snow. The one constant any hiker has to keep in mind is to stay on top of the ridge for as long as possible, and to fight the urge to drop down too early, or you risk getting caught on impossibly steep grassy slopes that eventually turn into rock cliffs. Be patient, and you will find the cairn that leads to a faint route across the highest, rockiest section of the ridge, which then winds down into Granite Creek Basin.
Parts of the ridge were only recently uncovered by snow
We took one last look around at the high peaks in the distance, then with a whoop started running and glissading quickly down the snow to Granite Creek. As I mentioned earlier, we are not true mountain runners, but who can resist the urge to run and slide down a 2,000’ snow slope? Later in the summer, the route down will be all rock and dirt, with a few short sections of hard snow. But at this time of year it’s a big playground with an irresistibly fast descent. The best part is when you get down into Granite Creek Basin you don’t have to pick your way across the rocks, brush, and marshy meadows, but head straight across the snow and out. Even the trail lower down was covered in snow sufficiently deep to cover most of the alder brush, but firm enough to walk on without breaking through.
Who can resist over 2,000 feet of running and sliding down the snow?
The snow in Granite Creek Basin was impressive
Before we knew it, we were down on the Perseverance Trail and back in “real world”. The gray clouds still covered most of the sky, but we were so warm we stripped off our layers down to our short sleeve shirts. We encountered a steady stream of afternoon hikers, runners, and mountain bikers. I gazed back up at the ridge now far above us and was seized with an urge to suddenly be finished with our hike. Much to Scott’s surprise, I broke into a light jog. “Are you running?” he asked with a grin. “Not really” I replied, “I just want to move a little faster than a walk.” He laughed at me as he took longer walking strides to match my speed. In less than a minute I was slightly ahead of him and he was eventually forced to run to catch up. We continued in this manner for the remaining two miles, with him leapfrogging me as he alternately walked and then ran to keep up. He finally agreed my easy jogging pace felt easier on the legs than hiking or running downhill, and we made quick progress to the end of the trail.

We were back at the car in a little over six hours, a good time for us “senior hikers”. Ripping off our wet shoes and socks and slipping on our sandals, then enjoying a cold drink while we ate the rest of our snacks felt like heaven. As we drove away, the first rain drops hit the windshield, and we started laughing. The first ridge hike of the season was a success and the hiking season officially off to a good start.

Mount Juneau, named “Gold Mountain” by the miners in 1881. It was also called Bald Mountain as late as 1896. The name “Juneau Mountain” was first used in the mining records by Pierre (“French Pete”) Erussard when he located mining claims on the mountain in 1888. (R. N. DeArmond, Some Names Around Juneau, 1957, p. 28; Donald J. Orth, Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 480).

Juneau Ridge, local name reported by D. A. Brew and A. B. Ford, USGS, in 1965. (Donald J. Orth, Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 481).
Over 12 miles and 5,000 feet of total elevation gain - a good start to the hiking season

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Spring Cross Country Skiing

Eighty minutes. That’s all the time it took Scott and me to go from our ordinary, everyday routine of work and home projects to a cross country skiing paradise.  One hour and twenty minutes of easy hiking on packed snow through the woods up the Spaulding Trail gave us full access to rolling, open meadows just begging to be skied and enjoyed. Sometimes the trip is faster, but we had all day so we were in no rush.

Easy hiking up the trail with light skis
When I first moved to Juneau in the early seventies, there was no Eaglecrest, and no trail grooming at the Mendenhall Campground or Eagle Beach. Cross country skiers had to find their own way, and that often meant hiking to reach good skiing. I learned to delay skiing gratification, patiently trudging uphill to the Dan Moller bowl or Spaulding Meadows and then packing in my own trail once I reached the snow. I didn’t mind it, because that was what I did for fun. I didn’t have much money to spend on entertainment, but I did scrape together enough to buy cross country ski equipment. It turned out to be a good investment. It gave me more than a full day’s worth of fun every weekend from November to at least the end of May. Best of all, it gave me a lifetime of enjoyment, as I’m still hard at it forty years later.
Cross country skiing in Spaulding Meadows - what's not to like?
Just a few days ago, Scott and I made the hike that I’ve done ever since the first winter I lived in Juneau. The trail is better traveled these days, and improvements have made it wider and smoother in spots, but it is essentially the same as I remember it from the first time I traveled on it. Years of experience have taught me it’s often easier to hike up the trail rather than try to ski it, unless the snow is very deep. But the skis go on my feet as quickly as possible once I reach the top of the trail as it breaks out of the woods and into the main meadows. Then I’m free to travel in any direction I choose, keeping an eye on the clouds, the weather, and my map and compass, combined these days with my GPS. The open meadows are not a good place to lose your way in a white out or storm, and I’ve done both. It makes for a good story to tell, but can be a bit stressful when you’re actually stumbling about in a blizzard with no visibility and no sign of a trail.

The weather was not a serious factor today. Sunlight filtered through light clouds and a cool breeze gave just enough chill to the air to make us keep an extra layer of clothing on, even after our vigorous hike uphill. We skied quickly up into Spaulding Meadows on our lightweight, waxless touring skis, following old ski and snowshoe tracks in the deep snow and occasionally making our own way when we wanted to strike out on our own.
Ski in the trail or out of the trail - either way it's fun
After taking in the views across the meadows and checking our watches, we decided we had plenty of time to travel over to Auke Mountain.  A clearly marked route left by other winter travelers made the traverse to the Muir Cabin easy, and we enjoyed kicking and gliding on the trail, gazing at the beauty of the surrounding mountains and Lynn Canal in the distance. The downhill runs in the untracked snow put big grins on our faces, and the uphill climbs on the packed trail seemed effortless.
Visibility and navigation was not a problem this day
The Muir Cabin was warm and welcoming as we took a short lunch break inside, and then continued to ski to Auke Mountain to explore the hillside and get in some turns in the soft snow. We watched the weather go from partly cloudy and breezy to clear and warm, then back to cloudy and cool. The sun kept teasing us to stay out longer than we’d originally planned, and then it would hide behind the clouds while the sky threatened, convincing us to head down before we were caught in a storm.
But wait, there's more! Heading over to Auke Mountain to do a little exploring
As our legs started to tire out from miles of skiing, we turned towards home, traveling back past the Muir Cabin and down the Muir Trail, joining the Spaulding Trail and out to the car. We took our skis off just below tree line, finding it easier and faster to hike down with our skis on our backs rather than trying to pick our way down the steep trail on our skinny skis.
Hiking down the Muir Trail keeps equipment and knees from breaking
We were home by mid-afternoon. A quick trip up, a few hours of easy skiing, a little bit of exploring, and a pleasant walk down made for a relaxing day off. I learned to cross country ski up in Spaulding Meadows forty years ago, and it always gives me a great deal of pleasure to go up there every chance I get. If you’ve never been up there, or if it’s been a while since you have, now is the time to do it. The days are longer and the snow should last at least until the end of April, if not longer. Maybe I’ll see you up there when you go!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Tour of Anchorage

Things were not looking good for me in the weeks leading up to the Tour of Anchorage.

I gave an informal skate ski lesson to a friend one night after work and had to loan her my headlamp so she could see the trail in the dark at the Mendenhall Campground. We started out slow, doing little drills and practicing technique, but soon we were able to go faster and faster as she loosened up and got the hang of it. I was doing great skiing behind her, able to see just enough from the headlamp she was wearing, but I did not have a clear view of the track right in front of me. Suddenly my ski base grabbed at a spruce cone lying on the snow and stopped me dead. I slammed face first on the ground and jammed my arm up into the shoulder so hard it took my breath away.

A moment of panic seized me. I’d been training all winter for the 25 km Classic race at the Tour, just a mere three weeks away, and now I worried that my arm was – what? broken? dislocated? Turns out it was none of the above. It was just very, very sore, and certain movements made it hurt.

I was scheduled to do a long training ski the next day at Eaglecrest. I was hoping to get in about 25-30 km of classic skiing, which meant I’d be out there for two to three hours. My arm hurt before I started, but by some miracle the back and forth motion of classic skiing did not bother it. I tried double poling and that didn't hurt either. I couldn't swing my arm out sideways without wincing, but that motion wasn't required to ski. I was safe.

Training for the Tour of Anchorage involves long hours on the groomed trails
Then the Juneau crud wormed its way into my system. I’d been feeling great all winter. I got my flu shot, took my vitamin C, drank plenty of lemon tea, and made sure to get my rest. So where did the sore throat and tired feeling come from? The timing was awful. Not only was the Tour getting ever closer, but I had an action packed weekend of Nordic skiing planned with visiting PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors Association of America) demo team member Megan Spurkland that I absolutely could not miss. I sucked down even more hot tea and vitamins, but I was starting to worry again. I skied for two full days straight during the clinic, absorbing as much about skate and classic skiing as I could from Megan and the other instructors who participated. Then I celebrated a fresh snowfall by skiing powder with my friends on Sunday, probably not the smartest tactic to recover from a cold. By Sunday night I was ready to collapse.

I gained a wealth of knowledge about skiing from Megan Spurkland
But the uphill drills didn't give me much time to rest the weekend before the race!
We were scheduled to leave for Anchorage on Thursday, so I had a few days to rest and try to kick the cold out of my system. I felt a little better as the days went by, but my throat and chest still hurt and I was just so tired most of the time. One thing that helped was talking to a friend who was a former cross country state champion runner. She told me some of her best races were right after she’d been sick. She might have just been making that up to help me feel better, but I don’t care because she did cheer me up and gave me hope.

When we got to Anchorage we had a few days to ski before the race on Sunday. Each year when we go up for the Tour we enjoy exploring the miles of groomed ski trails all around the city in the days before the race. This year I skied so slowly and gently I’m sure Scott was worried if I’d be able to race.

The worst part of it was that I was moving up into a new age group this year and had a good chance to finally win a gold medal instead of the silver I’d won three times previously. I’d trained hard for four months, doing longer and longer skis, interval training, hill training, and refining my technique. I tried to be philosophical about the whole thing, but it would be a bit of a disappointment to not be able to see it through.

Enjoying the trails around Anchorage, but trying not to push it too hard
Sunday morning I woke up and . . . my throat felt fine and my chest didn't hurt! It was too good to be true. I felt rested and strong, and at the same time nervous and excited about the race, which was an excellent sign. I ate a good breakfast, storing away energy for the hours ahead. We geared up and headed over to the race start.
Getting the wax right is critical to having a good race
The 25 km classic race starts at 9:30 a.m. at Alaska Pacific University, followed by the 25 km skate race. Over at Service High School, the 40 km and 50 km skate races had already started beginning in waves at 8:30 a.m. The trail for all the racers merges just outside of APU, and within a short time over 1,100 skiers would all be working their way across town towards the huge finish arena across town at Kincaid Park. It’s quite a feeling to be skiing along beautifully groomed trails with so many people.  As I pushed off with the rest of the skiers in my start wave, I thought “Well, ready or not, here I go”.

My hours of training kicked into gear as soon as I hit the trail. I tell my ski students – focus on your technique and the speed will come, so I tried to do the same. I thought about extending my glide when I was striding up hills, keeping my weight fully balanced on one ski at a time, driving my foot through and then kicking down in a powerful flexed position, hips forward, leg extended back, and arms poling strongly. And I double poled, doubled poled, double poled on the flats until I thought I couldn't double pole anymore. Luckily a good two hours of the ski clinic the previous weekend focused on proper double poling and I had a dozen tips running through my head as I tried to find the fastest way to move along the trail.

The time flew by quicker than it ever had before in the Tour. I felt fast and for the first time I realized the 25k skate skiers had not yet started to catch me. All the skiers who were able to catch and pass me were very good classic skiers – mostly men and a few younger women who looked like junior racers. This was encouraging because in past years I’d been caught and passed by skiers who had sloppy technique but were just super fit and could probably take off their skis and run past me if they wanted to. I wasn't looking at my watch, but I began to hope that I’d hit my goal time of 2:15, three minutes faster than last years’ time of 2:18.

I started the final climb up to the finish area. The Tour of Anchorage is famous for the brutal 5k climb up into Kincaid Park. It must be torture for the 50k racers, but we all struggle to make it up those hills that come at us one after another at the end.

I saw the last hill in front of me. It’s a challenge to stay in the classic track that climbs steeply up to the finish arena after 25k of racing, but it’s a sign of your technique and fitness, not to mention your wax job, if you can maintain your kick and glide to the top and not step out or herringbone up the hill. A friend who had already finished cheered me on from the side and Scott was at the top of the hill yelling encouragement. I was going to make it!

Everyone is a hero when they finish their race!
They do it right at the Tour, and as you go around the large outdoor arena, whether you are a top hotshot 50k skate ski racer or an old lady classic skier like me, they call out your name and where you are from as you approach the finish line. You can’t help but feel happy. Then your timing chip comes off from around your ankle, you’re handed a commemorative zipper pull for finishing, and you’re done. Warm clothes are found and plenty of energy food is provided by the race officials. People mill around the finish area, watching everyone come in and comparing notes on the race. There’s hours of socializing with old and new friends, other racers, spectators, and volunteers. I love this race.
This is just a fraction of the hundreds of skis piled around the finish area
Juneau skiers did well at the Tour and competed in all the events – 25k skate and classic, and the 40k and 50k skate races. Several racers either won medals in their age group or placed in the top 5.  Scott won a silver medal in his age group and broke the two hour mark for 25k. I won my gold and set a new personal best of 2:12, well under my 2:15 goal. Should I shoot for 2:10 next year? Or should I just go for broke and try to get under that two hour barrier? Maybe if I don’t get sick and avoid crashes at night I could do it.
We did it!
Whatever happens, I will have fun trying. And now I’m going to go play in the snow – Spaulding Meadows is calling my name, and there are some ridges around Eaglecrest I need to visit on my fat skis.