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)

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