Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer Hikes: Part II

Who can resist the Juneau ridge on a perfect summer day?
Summer Hikes, continued-
The next two adventures were actually the same hike done about three weeks apart – the Juneau ridge. The first time I went alone, and I was pumped with excitement to do one of my favorite hikes. I quickly organized my gear after breakfast and went in the garage to grab my water bladder for my pack when I stepped on something sharp with my bare foot. Dang! I must have gotten a splinter or maybe a little piece of glass in the ball of my foot. I ran in the house and tried to see if I could pull it out. I couldn't see anything, but there was undeniably something in there. I found that if I walked without putting too much pressure on that spot I could probably hike o.k., or so I told myself. Sometimes when I am highly motivated to do something I can go into deep denial about anything that might prevent me from accomplishing my goal. So out the door I went.

Keep in mind that I had a thirteen mile hike with over 5,000’ of elevation gain ahead of me, and you’ll get a sense of just how stupid I can be sometimes. I have to admit it was an incredibly beautiful day. The trail up Mt. Juneau and also the Granite Creek trail had both been recently brushed and were in beautiful shape. The weather was perfect – not too warm and only a light cooling breeze on the top of the ridge. I only saw one other hiker coming from the other direction, so I had the mountains all to myself most of the day. If I could just block out the piercing pain in my foot that stabbed so hard I would involuntarily cry out loud every once in a while, it would be a perfect hike.

One good thing about hiking in pain is it makes you want to finish quickly. I got up Mt. Juneau in good time, and then limped along the ridge as fast as I could, using my hiking poles for support and trying to keep the weight off of my hurt foot. Hiking uphill I was able to keep the weight off of the ball of my foot where the pain was located, but once I reached the ridge, I couldn't avoid it. I realized my foot was in very bad shape, but since I’d made it this far, I might as well finish out the hike as planned. I pulled out my hiking poles and used them for support, hopping along the ridge one-footed when the pain became too much. It was a miracle that I had the presence of mind to capture a beautiful photo of rare white lupine flowers which only seem to bloom about halfway along the ridge – I've never seen them anywhere else. One part of my mind was intensely enjoying this beautiful day in the mountains, while the other part was dealing with the pain in my foot. I've never pretended to be normal, but this was weird, even for me.
Rare white lupine in full bloom. I would have missed this shot if I'd stayed home with my sore foot.
I stopped at the end of the ridge to examine my foot and ice it in a small patch of snow for a few minutes while I ate my lunch, which numbed it enough to get me down to Granite Creek. By the time I hit Perseverance Trail I think I was in a little bit of shock, as I decided the best way to get it over with was to jog the rest of the way out. It was going to hurt either way, and I was getting pretty good at putting my weight on the side of my foot, much to my ankle’s dismay.

I must have been a weird sight – a slightly disheveled looking hiker trying to run down the trail with a weird limping gait. I did post a personal best hiking time of 6:20 that day (remember, I’m a hiker, not a runner – I know the runners in town can do the same route in just a few hours!) so I suppose pain can be a great motivator in the right situation.

I tried every home remedy I could think of  to get that splinter out of my foot, but all failed. One week later I was in the foot doctor’s office, lying on my back while he carefully worked a one inch wire out of my foot with great difficulty. He and his nurse looked at me a little strangely, and I managed a weak smile of thanks, hoping he wouldn't have me committed as I tried to leave the office.
It was only natural that three weeks later, when Scott wanted take advantage of a sudden break in the weather in the middle of a long stretch of rain, I suggested we revisit the Juneau ridge. My foot was completely healed, and I wanted to hike the ridge again to see what it was like to do it pain free.

We climbed up the Mt. Juneau trail through the low, thick clouds of fog until blue skies opened over the ridge above us. Only Juneau hikers who have suffered through a particularly rainy summer – we've been breaking rainfall records all summer long – can fully appreciate the beauty of one good day of clear weather.
Hiking above the thick fog until we could see patches of blue sky
is the best feeling in the world after weeks of steady rain.
We will often meet out of town visitors on the Mt. Juneau trail, and this day we met a very interesting young man from France. Stephane was staying at the hostel in town, suffering through the extremely wet weather. This was his last day in Juneau, and he was trying to make the best of it with a good hike. We took turns passing each other on the trail as we would stop to take photos and then speed up ahead. At the summit we were all together, so of course we asked him if he wanted to continue with us along the ridge. He didn't hesitate, and was a welcome addition to our hike as we asked him about Bordeaux, where he lived and worked as a water engineer, and his extensive travels around the world.
Another new friendship formed in the mountains - Stephane was an interesting hiking partner.
Hiking the ridge seemed effortless without a wire stuck in my foot, so I was in a great mood. We spotted large groups of mountain goats on both sides of the ridge, probably over two dozen in all, which thrilled Stephane as he took photos with his long lens camera. I located the exact area where the white lupine bloomed three weeks earlier, but all the flowers had gone to seed. Although it was a nice summer day, you could see and feel the approach of fall, and we had to put on wind jackets against the not so gentle breeze along the ridge.
Hiking without a wire stuck in my foot turned out to be lots of fun.
As we wound our way down to Granite Creek, we were greeted with fields of bright pink dwarf fireweed stretching across the upper basin. Summer was still in full swing 1,000’ below the ridge! The salmonberries were fat and juicy and we gorged on them as we hiked out, slowing us down with every step.
Dwarf Fireweed, also known as River Beauty, abounds in the upper Granite Creek basin.
Stephane stayed with us to the end of the trail, and we gave him a ride into town so he could treat himself to ice cream before checking back into the hostel later in the day. His English was quite good (and our French was quite bad), but we could tell he was tired and wanted to get back to some friends he had met at the hostel who were also French. We said our good-byes and as we drove home, the first raindrops of the day started to fall. The wet weather was back and we had taken full advantage of a rare nice day. Time to start the easy recovery process before the next adventure. (And there were many more, despite the rain!)
Beginning the descent into Granite Creek basin with Mt. Olds in the background.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Summer Hikes: Part I

Looking from Mt. Roberts over to Sheep Mountain
Ah, what a summer it’s been so far. My goal this year as a newly retired person is to get outside and do something active every day, rain or shine. At first I had this crazy idea that I would be skiing, climbing mountains and hiking ridges for hours every day. I was hammering each day like it was my “day off”, trying to get in as much activity as I could. But since I’m not 20 years old anymore that didn’t last long. So I scaled back and now I’m happy to just be outside daily, not necessarily doing something “big”.  Sometimes I go for an easy walk or bike ride, bird watching, photographing, kayaking, fishing, or berry picking. And then every so often, I throw in an adventure.

Three hikes I've done this summer fit squarely in my adventure category and all of them are classic ridge hikes. The first was the Gastineau – Roberts – Sheep traverse, which I've written about previously. The idea to do that particular ridge came when our neighbor mentioned his visiting nephews wanted to hike that route before they left, but he did not want them to go by themselves. So he recruited his crazy neighbors.

That turned out to be one of the most fun days of the summer for us. We quickly warmed up to Riley (a 17 year old high school senior and varsity basketball player from Wisconsin), and Jimmy (an elementary school teacher from Kalispell, Montana). Jimmy is a veteran of long mountain hikes, and he kept us enthralled with tales of crazy mountain adventures for at least the first two hours climbing up to Mt. Gastineau.

When you go hiking with someone you've never hiked with before, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Sometimes I feel like a priest or a bartender, listening to someone else’s life story, with all of their attendant family/spouse/work problems. But with Jimmy, I was delightfully entertained and amazed by his stories of hiking hundreds of miles through remote mountain terrain, often with very little planning and minimal gear. Riley was quiet at first, as a 17 year old boy will be with strangers. I knew from experience that would change as the day went on.
17 year old Riley loved the view from high on the ridge
We enjoyed a pleasant hike up Mt. Gastineau, and then headed over to Mt. Roberts, picking up another hiker along the way. Peggy was visiting family in town and hiking alone this day. She had been contemplating continuing over to Roberts, but wasn't sure of the route beyond there, so we invited her to join our group and promised her a lift back to her car. She showed herself to be a strong hiker, had no problem keeping pace with our lively group, and was extremely friendly and talkative. She even got Riley talking. She knew the area where Riley went to school and they discovered they had mutual friends in the high school sports world. I love the random, small world of the mountains and how it brings people together!
Peggy joined our group as easily as if we had planned it ahead of time
Up Mt. Roberts we went and over to Sheep Mt. Our new friend Peggy kept up a steady flow of questions about the route and our surroundings, keeping us busy as we gave her details of the area. I was amazed at her intense curiosity about everything she could see from our high vantage point. At the summit of Sheep Mt., we took a little time to photograph and celebrate the three peaks we had just climbed.
Jumping for joy on Sheep Mountain
Then down the narrow ridge we trekked to the Sheep Creek power line, looking for the trail to the Sheep Creek valley. As we paused at the power line cabin, Peggy asked me, “What’s the plan from here?” I gazed at the brush below us as I took a bite from an apple and thoughtfully replied, “Not get lost.” Peggy looked at me doubtfully, and I’m sure she was wondering if I really knew what I was doing. Luckily I did not embarrass myself in front of our visitors. We hit the route down to the forest trail dead on, not losing it for a moment, which I think is a first for me (don’t tell Peggy).

Once we were on the main trail in the woods leading to the valley floor, Riley opened up and started talking. All I had to do was ask him a question now and then, and the previously quiet teenager was chattering a mile a minute. I've experienced this before with young hikers – once they understand the hike is winding down and they have accomplished the hardest part, they seem to be flooded with energy and release it by saying just about anything that pops into their head.

Before we knew it the hike was over, everyone was shuttled to their cars, and we were hugging, exchanging email addresses, and promising to send pictures to each other. (To be continued.) 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Winning the Weather Lottery - Kayaking in Berner's Bay

The weather towards the end of June was cloudy and rainy, with not much hope for improvement any time soon. We squeezed in some good bike rides and hikes when we got the chance, but for the most part we put on rain gear and made the best of it. One rainy, foggy day we loaded up the kayaks and went to Echo Cove. 

We hadn’t been kayaking yet this year. Truth be told, we had not done any good, long kayak trips in a number of years, although both of us have spent many summers kayaking in Glacier Bay, the Chichagof outer coast, Admiralty Island, and the many island passages and waterways along the Juneau coast line.

We enjoyed a quiet day paddling the shore towards Sawmill Creek. I’d forgotten how peaceful and relaxing it is to silently glide through the water, sneaking up on ducks, shorebirds, and seals. We are out on the water quite a bit on our 25’ aluminum boat, but kayaking is a different experience – like bicycling through a park instead of driving by in a car. All of your senses are engaged. Sight, smell, touch, sound, and even the taste of the salt air are more intense when you’re moving slowly in a kayak.

Sea kayaking is enjoyable even on a foggy, rainy day
We had so much fun that as soon as we got home, I decided it would be a great idea to rent the Berner’s Bay cabin and plan a kayak trip there. Turns out it was fully booked for most of the summer, with only two open nights at the end of July. I snapped up the reservation without a second thought.

The gray, wet weather continued for the next month. Mostly rainy, drizzly, and cloudy with a few breaks here and there. We told ourselves we’d still have a good time on our kayak camping trip despite the rain. We took the boats out on a wet day and double checked our gear and our attitude, getting ready for our little trip.

As our departure date approached, the rain continued. But - what was this? I don’t like to put much faith in weather forecasts, but I actually saw the word “sunny” appear for the days we planned to be gone. Nah, that couldn’t be right. No one has good luck like that.

Wednesday morning we drove out to Echo Cove, ready to start the eight mile paddle to the Berner’s Bay cabin. The farther out the road we drove, the nicer the weather became. By the time we reached the boat ramp, we had blue sky and calm waters. The normally busy Echo Cove recreation area was unusually quiet. It was the middle of the work week, and the weather in town was still cloudy and damp, so we figured most people weren’t going to bother with driving to the “end of the road” for boating and camping.
The next three days and two nights proved to be so amazingly beautiful that words almost fail me, so I’ll let the pictures speak instead. We were completely spoiled from start to finish, with glassy, calm waters, blue skies, and not another soul around except for the occasional crabber checking pots. The cabin was in excellent condition despite the continual flow of visitors all summer long. We explored the east and west shores of the bay until our arms were ready to fall off. Over a dozen loons accompanied us when we crossed the bay to explore, and seals followed us everywhere we paddled. Dall porpoise jumped gracefully across the water as we sat on the beach in the evening. In true northern fashion, the sunsets lasted for hours. The Big Dipper, surrounded by thousands of stars, appeared bright and large in front of the cabin in the middle of the night. We may never be so lucky again, but this time we truly won the lottery.
Morning view of Lion's Head peak from Berner's Bay cabin. A boat pulling crab pots was our only company all day.
Looking forward to a full day of exploring Berner's Bay. We paddled until our arms were ready to drop off.
We tried to get up the Berner's River, but the tide and current would not cooperate.

Seals followed us wherever we went.
Slate Creek cove on the west side of Berner's Bay. Kensington mine loading dock is at the mouth of this cove.
The sunsets were ridiculously beautiful every night, and lasted for hours.
Early morning fog looking across to the west side of the bay from the cabin.

We decided to rename Berner's Bay: Berner's Lake
A rest stop at Sawmill Creek on the trip home.
Great Blue Heron feeding in Sawmill Creek

Saying good-bye to Berner's Bay on the paddle home.
Berner's Bay: Discovered by Joseph Whidbey in 1794 and named by Capt. Vancouver. Name is probably from "Berners," his mother's family name. Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 126.

Lions Head Mountain: Kakuhan Range, Coast Mts. Descriptive name given in 1867 by George Davidson, USC&GS, because its "serrated profile is said to show, when seen from Chatham strait, a resemblance to a couchant lion". Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 578.