Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pick A Ridge

Grandchild Peaks ridge - photo credit: Scott Fischer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 20, 2014

Rainy Day Hike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Thinking of Sharon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Erasing Bad Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old bad memories are now replaced with good new memories

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

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

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

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, shining brightly 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.