Friday, September 5, 2014

A Real Juneau Hiker

Ancient corduroy along an old section of the Windfall Lake - Montana Creek trail
Most of the low lying trails around Juneau involve hiking out and back. We are surrounded by saltwater on one side and the Juneau Icefield on the other, with glacier carved valleys hemmed in by high mountain ridges stacked up and down the coast. I remember my first year in Juneau, when I learned the geography of the ridges and valleys along the road system: Hawthorne Peaks-Sheep Creek-Mt. Roberts-Perseverance-Mt. Juneau-Salmon Creek-Blackerby Ridge-Lemon Creek-Heintzleman Ridge/Thunder Mt.-Mendenhall Valley-McGinnis. Up, down, up, down, up, down, up. If a hiker is willing to climb steep ridges and go over mountain peaks to connect to other ridges, then a hiking loop or point to point route is possible, but involves thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss.

There is one trail in Juneau that clearly stands out as a point to point route of a significant length yet never climbs more than 900’ above sea level - the Windfall Lake to Montana Creek trail. This trail crosses so much territory that a hiker needs to leave vehicles parked at two trailheads separated by almost 19 road miles. This can be a mind boggling logistical detail to the typical Juneau hiker used to parking at a trail head, going for a hike and then returning to the same trail head at the end of the day.

The first few miles of the Windfall Lake trail are very well maintained.
Neither Scott nor I had hiked the full through-route from Windfall Lake to Montana Creek, although both of us have logged many miles on each end and in the high country surrounding it. Every time I talked to someone who hiked or ran the full length of the trail I heard the same comments repeated: wet, muddy, brushy, poorly marked, slick boards, huge windfalls blocking the trail, bear sign everywhere. But how could I call myself a Juneau hiker without having at least hiked it once?

And how hard could it be? It is only 13 miles from the Windfall Lake trailhead at 26.7 mile Glacier Highway to the Montana Creek trailhead located at the upper Montana Creek bridge, 3 mile Montana Creek road. We have hiked plenty of mountain ridge routes that are at least that long, but also include anywhere from 5,000’ to 8,000’ of total elevation gain. Our confidence level was high and we were excited about seeing a little bit of new territory. Pretty amazing that after over 42 years of hiking, skiing, and climbing in the area we can still find new places to explore.
Somewhere between Windfall Lake cabin and the Montana Creek side, we enjoyed seeing territory that was new to us.
We picked the one day the weather forecast predicted it would not rain, which happened to be the day after Labor Day. We left a vehicle at the Montana Creek trailhead, and then drove out the road to begin our hike from the Windfall Lake end. We easily walked as far as the Windfall Lake cabin, admiring the fairly recent improvements to the trail – the well-built bridges and boardwalks over streams and swampy muskeg, and the wide, firmly packed path through the woods. No problem. As we continued past the far end of Windfall Lake, it was immediately apparent that most of the regular trail work ended at the cabin. The path was narrow and footing became tricky enough so that we had to constantly watch our feet so we wouldn’t stumble over the roots choking the trail or step into the mud holes, which appeared with increasing frequency. Still no problem – we are veterans of rugged trails such as Blackerby Ridge and Grandchild Peaks.

The windfall part of Windfall Lake became more and more apparent. The usual definition of windfall is “something good that is received unexpectedly”. Another definition is “something blown down by wind”. Suffice it to say the second definition is more appropriate here. Huge trees lay across the trail at regular intervals, and would have made it extremely difficult to climb over and around. Fortunately, some trail angels (most likely coordinated efforts from the USFS and Trail Mix) had chain sawed through the biggest trees, cutting a rough path. Once again, no problem.

Our steady hiking speed slowed just a bit as we crawled around the windfalls and watched our footing on the rough trail, but we were making good time. Then we began to encounter the dismal swamp portion of the trail. We were both wearing waterproof hiking shoes, and up to this point our feet were still dry. But how do you stay dry when the trail you’re trying to follow is underwater, with boggy mud lurking on all sides so that no matter where you step, the odds of dropping into a deep mud hole are high. You can play the odds up to a certain point, and heaven knows I’ve had plenty of experience trying to read wet trails to my advantage. But sooner or later there comes that sickening moment when your foot disappears with a soul wrenching, sucking sound and you’re almost up to your knee in black, sticky goo. Words are spoken. Your hiking partner wisely keeps quiet and continues moving ahead. You flail at the brush around you, trying to get a purchase on something, and narrowly miss grabbing a giant devil’s club bush. More words are spoken. You’re wet, you’re muddy, and as far as you can see ahead, which isn’t far because the brush is so thick, the trail doesn’t look any better. Ah, southeast Alaska.
You call this a trail?

"If you want to stay dry, you should stay home." (You can quote me on that.)
When you’re smack in the middle of an inescapable and extremely uncomfortable situation, sometimes you have glimpses of sublime beauty. Maybe it’s the contrast of things you are trying desperately to escape or avoid with things that make you gasp with wonder. As we punched our way through the dismal swamp, we saw lovely bushes of dark blue currants hanging over the trail. They were so thick and dark they looked like bunches of grapes. I’d like to say I will go back and pick them soon to make blue currant jelly, but the memory of the swampy trail and the continued wet September weather are keeping me close to home for the moment.
High bush cranberries in the dismal swamp

Tiny red mushrooms on the side of the trail by Montana Creek
Eventually we found our way through the dismal swamp and started to climb back up into a wooded area. This section of the route was the most fascinating. It was obvious to us we were following a route that was probably established over a hundred years ago by miners. I made a note to research more about the area when we got home, as I’m sure there are mining ruins to be found off the trail.

Past the dismal swamp and getting closer to the Montana Creek side - we are far back in the woods at this point.
More berries awaited us as we gained elevation and started to enter increasingly open country. We found ourselves over our heads in huge blueberry bushes with fruit that still tasted sweet and juicy on this early September day. I probably ate at least two full cups of berries just plucking them without breaking stride as I hiked by.

The clouds hung over the surrounding mountains most of the day
The trail opened into a small muskeg meadow and we took our first real break to eat a snack and look around. Clouds hung low over the mountains, but we started to catch a few glimpses of blue sky here and there. We pushed on until we finally connected to the Montana Creek side of the trail. We hiked this part of the trail when we crossed over from Spaulding meadows a few years back, so it looked very familiar. We’d given up all hope of keeping our feet dry, and happily splashed along in the wet bogs and through the mud until we reached the final section of the trail we knew would be dry to the end.

Back on familiar ground
When we reached our truck, I took a few minutes to wade into Montana Creek up to my knees, vigorously washing off as much mud as I could. Then I put sandals on my tired feet and sat contentedly as Scott drove us back out to get our other car.
Taking a quick break just a few miles from the end
We didn’t climb any peaks or ridges, but I felt as if I’d traveled through some wild and remote backcountry. We never saw another person from beginning to end. No cars were parked at either trailhead. There were not even the usual dog walkers on the Montana Creek gravel road. Maybe it was the long stretch of wet weather, maybe everyone was back at work, or recovering from the Labor Day weekend. All I know is that despite the unrepeatable things I said back in the dismal swamp, I love this trail. And now I can proudly call myself a real Juneau hiker.

“This route was once part of a trail system from Montana Creek to Echo Cove, officially established in 1907-1909 by the Territory of Alaska, to service Juneau Gold Belt mining sites. The strip of land with gold-bearing rock known as ‘Juneau Gold Belt’ ran from north of Berners Bay to South of Point Bishop. One of the mines . . . was up McGinnis Creek that is to the east at the end of the old Montana Creek Road. Other mining activity was carried on in the headwaters of Montana and Windfall creeks.” Mary Lou King, 90 Short Walks Around Juneau, Taku Conservation Society and Trail Mix, Inc., 2007, pg. 58.

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  1. Whew! Dismal Fun Hike!

  2. Ahh. Brings back memories from four years ago...when I was crazy enough to hike out and back cause we only had one vehicle available.

  3. That is crazy, SarahJane! One of our younger friends stashed a bike at the Windfall Lake trailhead the night before, then ran from his house in the Mendenhall Valley to the Montana Creek trail (5 mile run), hiked/ran to Windfall Lake (13 mile hike), then biked home (18 mile bike ride). Lots of crazy out there.