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