Monday, October 29, 2012

A Fall Classic: Spaulding Meadows to Montana Creek

Scott and I had just returned from our annual fall vacation a few days early (see my previous blog for that story). So we found ourselves with a free weekend and the tail end of a rare October cycle of clear, cold weather.
Fall can provide great hiking opportunities. Thick brush loses its summer energy and obediently lies down, the bugs are gone, and the bears go into hibernation. If we’re lucky, we get a cold snap and the ground freezes. These conditions made a perfect opportunity to traverse the normally boggy Spaulding Meadows all the way over to Montana Creek.

We’d heard there was snow up in the meadows, but we’d been hiking in snow all summer, so the prospect of a little fluff didn’t bother us. And we knew we could pack clothes for whatever the weather threw at us. We aren’t exactly runners, but we do keep a steady hiking pace and like to travel quickly, so we wear our trail running shoes and pack light, while still carrying enough essentials to stay comfortable.
We left a vehicle at the Montana Creek road, and then drove over to the Spaulding trail head. Scott set a blistering pace up the trail which left me gasping. I would try to shoot off a few photos and then run to catch up with him as he barreled along. The usually boggy or muddy sections of the trail were frozen and firm, with secure footing practically every step of the way. Before I knew it, we reached the top of the trail where it opens up into the meadows and it was perfect – firm muskeg with just a light layer of snow on top.

We made quick work across the main meadows and over towards the northeast side leading to the Montana Creek drainage. The weather was fantastic – clear and cold, but not too cold. The weather forecast for the day was for high winds downtown, but up in the meadows we enjoyed just a light breeze.

The view of the surrounding mountains was breathtaking. Spaulding Meadows is famous for capturing hikers and skiers in thick fog where you can get turned around and lost, but it was obvious that was not going to be a problem for us today. And to make it even easier, it appeared that a group of hikers or runners had traversed the exact route that we wanted to follow before us so that we could follow their prints in the snow as we went. We found out later that the UAS Outdoor Studies class may have been up there so perhaps they were the ones who made finding the route so easy.

We saw other footprints in the snow as we worked our way across the meadows, including wolf prints, which were exciting to see. There were many other tracks, but while it was often difficult to determine what they might be, it was obvious that the area was popular with more than just humans.

After close to forty years of hiking and travelling the backcountry around Juneau, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never done this particular trip before now. That’s one of the great things about Spaulding Meadows – there are so many possibilities for different loops and trips. You can go up the Lake Creek trail and over to either Spaulding or the John Muir trail. Or maybe travel up onto Auke Mountain and enjoy the meadows on that side. Or go all the way out to Peterson Lake. And you can do most of these trips either summer or winter, on foot or on skis. I’d done all those combinations in one form or another, but never the Montana Creek loop.

Following our maps, the footprints, as well as some occasional flagging along the way, we soon found ourselves looking at Windfall Lake in the distance and dropping rapidly through the meadows. Right as we thought we should be hitting the Montana Creek trail, we spotted a blue diamond trail marker and not just some random flagging. Within a few hundred yards we were on the main trail and headed out Montana Creek.

The adventurous route finding was over and we were no longer in the open meadows and bright sunshine, but down in the shadowy Montana Creek drainage with a good four or five miles ahead of us to get out. We tried jogging along the trail in places, but often had to stop to crawl over downed trees or inch our way over steep sections of trail that slid straight down into the creek. A trio of runners came by who had also been up in the meadows and we had a quick visit. We all marveled at our good luck with the weather and the route.

 At last we reached the Montana Creek road and the final mile or two out to where our truck was parked. It’s been a long time since I had to walk out that section – I’m usually on my mountain bike or cross country skis! – so it seemed to take forever.
Five and a half hours and 12.25 miles after we started, we were home, settled in front of the fireplace with hot drinks and a warm feeling of accomplishment. I was thrilled to have finally completed a route I’d longed to do for years, and we were both amazed at our good fortune with the weather and conditions. Now we will have to go back and try it again on cross country skis – maybe in a few months, when the weather and conditions are just right again.

*Spaulding Trail and Spaulding Meadows are named for Victor C. Spaulding, 1867-1937, who lived for many years in the area. Born in Massachusetts, he came to Alaska in 1897. He lived at Dawson and Atlin before going to Juneau to mine in 1906 (DeArmond, Some Names Around Juneau, 1957, p. 40) (Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald Orth, 1967, p. 906)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Backcountry Bahamas

Miles of white sand beach are deserted at this time of year
Every October for the past 14 years, Scott and I travel to a quiet island in the southern Bahamas for a little sun and relaxation. Scott is an avid fly fisherman, I am a certified scuba diver, and we both enjoy a short period of sun and relaxation in between our busy summer work season and the long, cold, snowy winter season. Our primary recreational pursuits in Juneau involve getting out in the backcountry and away from town, so it should be no surprise that we seek the same experience on our vacation.
We rent a little house in a tiny settlement that one resident described as virtually unchanged since he was born there, forty years ago. Small houses are scattered along the one road that runs the length of the island and you’re more likely to see goats in the front yard than people. When you do see the locals, you have to be prepared for a visit – no one passes by without catching up on the news. The first question they ask is “How are you? Are you well?” and then they are anxious to let you know how happy they are to see you again and how glad they are that you’ve come back to visit.
Relaxing in the gazebo at our rental house - perfect for a cup of coffee in the morning, or a beer at the end of the day
The days start early and end early. By nightfall the settlement is quiet and dark. No sparkling casinos and not much in the way of night life on this island, with only the occasional thunder and lightning storm to liven up the evening.
Our house is located up on a hill where we can survey the ocean and bonefish flats a short distance away. Rusty but serviceable beach bikes are at our disposal, as well as a rental car. We know our way around the island fairly well after all these years, yet we still manage to find new places to explore, new people to meet, and usually leave with a list of things that we promise we’re going to do “next year”.
We do our best to relax, but often find ourselves falling into bed at the end of the day, exhausted from all our “relaxing” activities.
After making arrangements for a few days of guided bonefishing for Scott and finding out when the local resort’s dive boat will be going out, we like to visit our favorite spots on the island. A 10 minute bike  along a dirt road takes us to a brilliant white sand beach that stretches for almost two miles and is deserted at this time of year. We can run barefoot on the firm sand, jump in the ocean if we get too warm, and snorkel on the reef at the far end. Despite the fact that we’ve snorkeled on the same reef for years, we always see something new. Sometimes it’s a clownish looking puffer fish peering out of his hiding place on the reef, or a large green turtle caught napping on a rock, or a school of brilliant squid swimming by so close that we can reach out and touch them. This year we were surprised by two spotted eagle rays that swam straight towards us and then slowly circled around us several times, even allowing me to dive down and swim right next to them.
A Hawksbill turtle swims below an abandoned bridge
On the other side of the long narrow island, where the Atlantic surf pounds against rocky shores, snorkeling is a bit riskier, but the bike ride and short hike out to a hidden beach is always worth it. We often spot hawksbill turtles swimming under an abandoned stone bridge, or great blue herons feeding in the mangrove bushes. The local Green Heron is a bold island resident, and usually allows us to approach and take photographs whenever we see one. A number of other birds keep us occupied, from the white egret to the Smooth Billed Ani and the Bahamian Mockingbird. If we are not eagerly looking for fish in the water, our eyes are in the trees and mangroves.
Smooth Billed Ani

White Egret

Green Heron
Our most exciting encounter with the local wildlife occurred on the last full day we spent on the island. We were riding our bikes to the beach when Scott, who always pauses at every small bridge and dock along the water to scan for fish, spied something unusual in the shallow water right next to a dock. On closer inspection, we were delighted to find one of the resident manatees napping peacefully. We spent a good 45 minutes photographing and even petting this gentle creature, who reminded us of an ancient prehistoric animal.
Manatee hanging out by the dock

Petting the manatee - his hide felt firm and rough, like an elephant, which is it's closest living relative
One of our favorite neighbors is 90 year old Mrs. Ophelia, or Aunt Ophie as everyone on the island calls her. She lives alone (although she is rarely alone with all of the family and friends who visit her) in a tiny stone house built by her husband and where they raised ten children. Up until very recently, she would regularly take her small fishing boat out to catch fish and to visit her farm, where she grew a variety of local fruits and vegetables and harvested coconuts from trees she planted. She still maintains a large garden around her house. You can call her anytime to order home baked bread at $3 a loaf. The last time we picked up bread from her we came home with a fresh papaya and a Bahamian sugar apple from her garden. Her mind is sharp and although she doesn’t move quite as briskly as she did a few years ago, I think some people would have a hard time keeping up with her.
Hiking to a hidden beach on the eastern Atlantic side of the island

Too rough for snorkeling, but still beautiful to visit
Visiting Aunt Ophie is like stepping back in time, but our best friends on the island live very much in the present. We met Jill and Docky Smith on our first visit to the Bahamas, when their oldest son was a baby and their daughter was not yet born. Now both children are smart, talented teenagers, Docky’s bonefishing guide service is one of the best in all of the Bahamas, and Jill has transitioned from working at her family’s resort business to managing it full-time as a part owner. Our annual visits are now happy reunions with good friends, and we get together to share stories about what’s been happening in our lives and marveling over how fast our children have grown.
Flamingo Tongue climbing along coral

Shy Puffer (aka Balloon Fish)

Nassau Grouper

Even the spiders look different in the Bahamas

Spotted Eagle Ray
We meant to stay on the island for nineteen days, but five days before our scheduled departure, on a morning that Scott had tentatively planned to go fishing with Docky, we received an urgent phone call. Not only was fishing cancelled due to approaching bad weather, but we needed to leave the island as quickly as we could. Tropical Storm Sandy was approaching Jamaica and Cuba and headed straight for us! Our departure 24 hours later was abrupt, and we almost didn’t make it off the island (Bahamian air services are not the most dependable). As I called around to the larger airlines to change our reservations to get back home, I told them how we needed to get out because of the approaching storm. None of them knew about Sandy, so I guess I can say that I was the first to tell them about it.
As odd as it may seem, our two weeks in the Bahamas has us primed and ready for ski season! We got a good dose of Vitamin D. Scott was able to extend his fishing season and catch his share of the elusive bonefish. I had some memorable dives, ocean swims, beach runs, and yoga sessions by the ocean which left me feeling strong and fresh for the upcoming winter season. Where do you go and what do you do to recharge your batteries and get ready for winter?
Bonefishing on the flats is an incredible experience
For more information on Long Island and bonefishing in the Bahamas: