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 in 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.
Bog laurel - Kalmia polifolia
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