We were up earlier on Wednesday, as we had to break camp and eat breakfast before the 8am bus departed. We woke to cloudy, smoky skies, and The Mountain was nowhere to be seen. Our granola cereal breakfast was less enjoyable this morning, as the wind that had been our constant companion in Denali was suddenly absent. The mosquitoes took advantage of this opportunity to feed, and we had to resort to chemical warfare to combat them. The highlight of breakfast was probably sharing the cooking area with Miles from the T.V. show “Lost”. It was the third or fourth “Lost” character we’d seen on the trip, and we were beginning to get a little creeped out. I told Christy if we saw Hurly at our gate at the Anchorage airport, we’d be switching to another flight.
We made it to the bus in plenty of time, and we were glad to see that Scott was our driver again this morning. We showed him where we needed to be dropped off on the topo map, and he knew the exact spot. We had decided to start our backpacking trip at Sable Pass, which is just southwest of Cathedral Mountain. By starting there, we would only need to make a brief climb to the ridge above the Teklanika River Valley. We’d then hike and bushwhack down to the river, where we’d look for a place to camp. We’d then have a day and a half to explore the valley before coming out on Friday.
A topo map of the area that we backpacked can be viewed here:
Scott only had four passengers for the ride to Kantishna, which was the least crowded bus we encountered on the trip. We made good time, since there wasn’t much to see along the way this morning. The Mountain remained hidden in the clouds, so there was no need to stop at Wonder Lake. We reached the end of the road well ahead of schedule, and we had some time to kill. At Scott’s suggestion, we all took a short hike down to Moose Creek.
The hike was muddy and buggy as we followed an old roadbed through thick brush. We were almost to the creek when I realized that all five of us had left our bear spray back on the bus. Apparently we all assumed that there would be no bears because it was a short hike. At least we made plenty of noise as we slopped our way down the trail. Luckily there were no bruin encounters, and Moose Creek was a beauty. It’s a wide but gentle mountain stream running through a dense spruce canopy. I’m no fisherman, but if I was, Moose Creek is the kind of place I’d want to hang out for a day or so. We stayed there for a few minutes before heading back. It wasn’t much of a hike, but it sure beat sitting on the bus for 20 minutes.
We picked up a huge group of German tourists at one of the lodges and started back towards Wonder Lake. Then we picked up 3 backpackers who had missed the 8am bus. They had just started cooking breakfast when we left to catch the bus earlier that morning. They had missed the departure, but had walked a mile or so from the campground out to the main road to catch the bus on the return.
The wildlife was superlative that morning. Early on we saw several muskrats in a pond, followed by a small herd of caribou. A bit later we spotted a sow and cub in the distance, and an arctic fox crossed the road in front of us. Then we stopped to watch another sow, this time with two cubs. This last grizzly family was in one of the wildlife closure areas that bordered our backpacking zone. After watching the bears for a few minutes, Scott started the bus and drove about 30 seconds down the road. Then he stopped again, looked at us, and said, “Here’s your stop”.
My mind spun. After all, there was a mama grizzly and two cubs about 200 yards back up the road! Unfortunately, we didn’t have any other real options. We got off, and Christy helped me with my pack. I wasn’t about to take any chances with my back. The last thing we needed was for me to throw it out somewhere in the middle of the Denali wilderness! I was pretty confident it would be ok, as long as I didn’t try to pick it up by myself.
From Sable Pass, we followed a good, if unofficial, trail down to Igloo Creek. We hiked through an area of small trees and light shrubs just below the tundra line. We rock hopped the creek, and continued to follow good trail up to a small pond just below a saddle on the ridge. We were now due south of Cathedral Mountain. A cold wind was whipping across here, but we stopped for lunch anyway, since it was well past noon.
We ate quickly and then hiked past the pond up to the saddle on the ridge. From there, we had our first view of the upper Teklanika River Valley. It was a dramatic vista, despite heavy, dark clouds shrouding the peaks and glaciers at the head of the valley. A broad, braided river wound its way along a vast gravel bar, below rugged, intimidating peaks.
The path we’d followed faded away here. Hiking up the ridge separating units 6 & 7 might’ve been an appealing option, but our goal was to reach the river. We started down, following the path of least resistance through tundra, wildflowers, and low shrubs. The hiking was easy at first, but it didn’t last. Soon we were descending steeply, and as we dropped, the brush got thicker. Before long we were bushwhacking through a miserable tangle of willows and alders. We hacked around a bit and found a tiny stream, which we followed briefly. After a few minutes, we emerged at the shore of a small pond. This was a huge relief, as it meant the end of the willows, if only for a few minutes.
As soon as we reached shore, we heard a loud, wet SMACK! I looked around, and spotted a beaver swimming in circles. He looked agitated, as he smacked his tail on the surface of the pond. Three others also surfaced, but they kept their distance at the far end of the pond. We were ready for a break, so we dropped our packs there on the shore. At first the agitated beaver kept his distance, but after a few minutes he grew curious. Before long, he was swimming right up to shore, literally only a few feet away.
I had seen beavers before, but never like this! I had also never managed a decent photo of one. Today, Christy and I took turns with the new camera taking an assortment of beaver shots. We took dozens of photos of the now-friendly beaver swimming around. Later, I got a couple good ones of him gnawing on a willow branch.
After an hour or so, we decided to leave the beavers be. We walked past the beaver dam, and followed the outlet stream down towards the river. This provided the path of least resistance briefly, but more bushwhacking was unavoidable. The closer we got to the river, the thicker the shrubs became. Soon alders joined the willows in grabbing at our packs, our clothes, and our flesh.
Reaching the gravel river bar was a huge relief. We enjoyed some easy walking upstream, but a strong headwind made conversation nearly impossible. Originally I had planned on hiking well upstream before camping. However, there were a couple of side streams running down from the ridge here. They promised fresh water, which was more appealing than the silty glacial runoff in the river itself. Also, in this part of the valley, there were some small alders along the river bar. They offered some protection from the wind. I was afraid if we hiked too far up the valley we’d have trouble finding a sheltered spot to camp. We wandered around along the edge of the river bar, and soon found a good place to camp. The tent site was sheltered behind alders, and there was a convenient place to cook and eat closer to the river. We set up camp quickly, and then discussed our options for the afternoon.
I pondered the map for a bit. Our options from here basically consisted of hiking upstream or down. Crossing the river wasn’t a viable alternative. The rangers had advised against it, and I could see why. Although braided, the river was deep, fast, and glacial cold. Attempting to ford would be dangerous and unnecessary.
It was mid-afternoon, so I had a few hours to explore. We were planning on a full dayhike upstream the next day, with the goal of seeing the glaciers at the valley’s headwaters. After a bit of debate, I decided to simply scout out our route. Christy elected to stay behind and relax. The descent to the river had been hard on her knee, and she wanted to let it recover before our big hike the next day.
I enjoyed some easy walking upstream along the gravel bar. The river raged off to my left, and the wind howled in my face, but I faced no significant obstacles. That all changed after 20 minutes or so. Suddenly, I reached a point where the river swung over against the near bank. Walking up the gravel bar had been easy to this point; unfortunately, the entire gravel bar was now on the other side of a grey, foaming torrent of glacial runoff. The riverbank was a gnarly tangle of alders and willows. Now what?
I’d come to scout out the route, and clearly the route involved a lot more than an easy stroll along the river. It was still early and I felt fresh, so I decided to have a go at it. If I’d known then what I’d learn later, I might’ve reconsidered.
I climbed up the bank and plunged into a horror of trees, branches, and shrubs. Tangles of limbs grabbed at my clothes and pack as I wriggled and crawled my way upstream. Oddly, there was something of a beaten path on the ground here, although there was no clear passage through the alders. Clearly lots of people, or other mammals, had been through here. This shouldn’t have been a surprise – with the river being impassable, anybody, or anything, would be forced to pass through this exact spot.
I was contorting myself through a particularly nasty thicket when a flash of movement caught my eye. I snapped my head around, and spotted a ptarmigan strutting among some shrubs. Chicks went running in every direction, while mama started whining like a lost dog and flopping around like she was wounded. Meanwhile, papa began prancing around me in circles. It was quite the performance, and I would’ve been more than happy to leave them alone if I could just find my way out of the miserable little thicket they lived in.
I thrashed my way upstream for about 20 minutes and covered perhaps 100 yards. I left the ptarmigans behind, but spotted several jackrabbits and ground squirrels. This was such a pleasant little forest, full of friendly, furry creatures! Then again, some of my woodland friends had mighty big feet. I saw tracks that looked like caribou, moose, wolf, and bear.
Suddenly the river swung away from the bank, and the gravel bar was once again accessible. Relieved, I scrambled down to it and continued hiking upstream. The easy walking continued for awhile, before the river once again got cozy with the near bank. Again, the riverbank looked like a nightmare. Sigh. At this point it was 6pm, and I was pretty sure I heard the dinner bell ringing in the distance.
I headed back, enduring one more lovely bushwhack on my return. This time I tried angling farther away from the river, but found the vegetation equally unfriendly. By the time I returned to the tent, I was ready for dinner. Unfortunately, Christy was waiting for a full scouting report. I didn’t try to hide the truth – our easy walk up the valley wasn’t going to be so easy, after all.
We had chili for dinner, which really hit the spot out on the windy, chilly river bar. Christy went to bed shortly thereafter, which was unfortunate. She missed quite a show. First, there was exquisite alpenglow on the peaks on the far side of the river. Then light rain intruded, but that minor nuisance segued into a spectacular rainbow arcing down into the head of the valley. The alpenglow persisted, and I enjoyed it and the rainbow at the same time. What are the odds of seeing those two things simultaneously? Only in Alaska. Ironically, the end of the rainbow was exactly where we were planning to go the next morning. What would we find there the next day?
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
We got up at 7:45 the next morning. My alarm went off at 7:30, but my back was aching, so I laid there for 15 minutes. 15 minutes may not sound significant, but it was. Oh boy, was it ever. A lot can happen, or not happen, in 15 minutes. My little back ache may have saved our lives.
We rolled out of the tent to cloudy skies and fierce winds. Does the wind ever let up here? I retrieved the food canister from the alder thicket where I’d stashed it and we wandered out to the river for breakfast. We ate our cereal leisurely, which was probably also fortunate. Have you ever heard that eating fast is bad for you? Based on our experience in Denali, I’d have to say that it very well could be.
After eating, we loaded a pack for our dayhike to the glaciers at the head of the valley. I then repacked the food barrel and stashed it well away from the tent. We were ready to start our hike, when I realized I’d left my wading shoes in the tent. I went back for them, which took another couple of minutes. In hindsight, that two minute delay was also fortunate. Yet, little did I know that today was the day that I was destined to lose my water shoes.
It’s worth noting that the Park Service strongly recommends making noise when hiking in bear country to avoid surprising a bear. Talking, singing, and clapping are all approved methods of making noise. Some hikers even hang cute little bells on their packs. I’ve never been a big fan of making noise, as it tends to scare off all of the other wildlife, too. I have to admit though that we both did our share of babbling while bushwhacking through the willows the previous afternoon.
Christy and I hiked up the gravel bar, heading into a vicious headwind. The wind was so strong, we had to shout to hear each other. Even if we’d been beating bass drums we wouldn’t have been audible. Did I mention that we were heading INTO the wind?
20 minutes of easy walking brought us close to the point where we’d have to abandon the gravel bar for some nasty bushwhacking. I approached it with some apprehension. I’d warned Christy, but I knew she wouldn’t be amused. I scanned the river ahead, reconsidering whether we could wade the nearest channel and continue upstream. In fact, we had switched from our boots to our water shoes just before starting, in hopes that we might be able to avoid the bushwhacking. I gazed out at the violent torrent of water and realized the folly of that dream. Then, despite the wind, I heard Christy speak. Her voice was calm, yet urgent:
“Oh, there’s a bear”.
I snapped my head around, and saw a large male grizzly emerge from the alders exactly at the point where the river met the bank. It was exactly the same point where I’d started bushwhacking the previous afternoon, and it was precisely where we were headed.
The bear was about 50 yards away, and staring at us. Clearly he wasn’t expecting to see us there, either. We were downwind, so he couldn’t have smelled us, and he certainly couldn’t have heard us. We stopped and began waving our arms overhead and yelling at it. He was so impressed by this display, he began walking purposefully towards us.
At this point, our options were extremely limited. We had bear spray, but in this situation, it would be totally useless. The bear was directly upwind. If we tried to spray him, we’d end up spraying ourselves. I’m sure he’d appreciate a little spice on his meal.
Going forward was obviously out of the question. Heading west, away from the river and into the alders, wasn’t appealing, either. If he gave chase, we’d be totally defenseless in there. Retreating the way we came wasn’t a viable option either, since he was heading our way. Instead, we began to back-pedal. We backed away, following the edge of the river. I instantly knew how dire our circumstances were. If he charged, we’d have two options – play dead, or jump in the river.
He stared us down for a bit. At first I thought he was agitated, but then I began to suspect that he was just curious. He was looking at us like he’d never seen human beings before. In hindsight, I think that is entirely possible.
Finally, after several painful minutes, he continued on down the gravel bar, towards our camp. I breathed a sigh of relief, and took a moment to reflect. What would’ve happened if we had started that bushwhack a few minutes earlier? We would’ve met that bear deep in that tangle of alders and willows. We would’ve been bugs caught in a spiderweb, with no hope of escape. If we had gotten up a few minutes earlier, or had been just a little quicker leaving camp, that is exactly what would’ve happened.
We watched the bear for awhile, until he finally disappeared into the alders near our camp. Hopefully the tent would still be there when we returned! We walked over to the point where the river met the riverbank. Subsequently we named this spot “bear corner”. Then we sat down to compose ourselves and change shoes. I’d already ruled out the possibility of trying to wade even part of the river. Bushwhacking was going to be rough, and we needed boots on to do it. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any more bears following along behind that first one!
I took off my wading shoes and asked Christy to attach them to my pack straps. We had both just gotten our boots on when the bear reappeared. He emerged from the alders, and started back up the gravel bar towards us.
My first thought was to go for it. We were well ahead of him, and heading in the opposite direction. Then rational thought intruded. It had taken me 20 minutes to hack my way 100 yards upstream the previous day. I was pretty sure that bear could make much better time. If he was heading back that way, we didn’t want him breathing on our heels!
As he approached, we retreated back out along the edge of the river. I didn’t like this strategy the first time, and I liked it even less now. What was this bear up to?
He strolled on back by us like he owned the place, and I guess maybe he did. He went right to the spot where we’d sat to change shoes and paced around in circles for 15 minutes. This seemed like pretty irrational behavior, even for a bear. Christy seemed to be on the verge of panic, and I found myself wondering if I’d packed the toilet paper. I was pretty sure I was going to need it.
We spent the next few minutes reviewing the procedure for using the bear spray. My only thought was that if we could get him to charge from downstream, the spray might actually be useful. By now, the bear was actually sprinting up and down the river bar. He’d only bound a few paces in each direction, but the significance of his display couldn’t be ignored. If he chose to, he could be on us in only a few seconds. Then, he dashed across the nearest river channel. For him, it was effortless, but for us it would’ve likely been fatal. I was really impressed.
We took advantage of the opportunity to work our way back downstream. We followed the edge of the river, heading roughly back towards camp. This was a great strategy, as we gradually increased the distance between us. 100 yards, 150, now 200. As we walked, we discussed our options. I’m not sure there is such a thing as “normal” bear behavior, but if there is, this clearly wasn’t it. Should we pack up and leave?
Suddenly Christy stopped short. “Oh my God, what is that?!” she exclaimed. I looked up to see something large and dark emerge from the alders downstream. This new creature was walking towards us, up the gravel bar. Christy was on the verge of panic. “I think it’s a wolf”, she said.
My head spun. Was I dreaming? This wasn’t the real world. This sort of thing only happens on the National Geographic Channel.
Christy fumbled with the binoculars briefly before fixing them on the animal downstream. Then, she relaxed a bit. With a bit of an embarrassed laugh, she identified this new creature. It was a caribou.
Caribou can be dangerous, but we liked our chances with it more than the bear. We kept walking that way. A few minutes later, the caribou stopped there on the river bar, curled up, and had a nap! I couldn’t believe it. We were walking towards it, a grizzly bear was a few hundred yards away, and it was feeling sleepy!
Normally we wouldn’t have approached a napping caribou, but these weren’t normal circumstances. We got close enough to agitate him, and then stopped again. It was funny – he was more concerned about us than he was about the bear! At this point, we checked on the bear, who was still amusing himself back at bear corner. At this point, I was pretty sure that grizzly was just effing with us. Under the circumstances, I decided that if I was going down, I might as well get some good photos. I took off my pack, and switched to my telephoto lens.
I took a few photos, and realized something was amiss. My pack didn’t seem right. Then it occurred to me. My water shoes weren’t attached to my pack.
“Christy”, I hollered into the wind, “where are my water shoes”?
She pointed in the direction of the bear.
“The bear came back before I could clip them onto the pack”.
At this point, my mouth spewed the most absurd statement I’ve ever made (and that is saying something!). I looked towards the bear, then back to Christy and said, “Well, I guess I’m just going to have walk back over there and get them”.
And I did it, too.
But not right away. We watched the bear run around in circles for a few more minutes. Then, he dashed back across the river. This time though, he continued all the way across, to the far side of the river bar. The river bar is probably a ¼ mile across, and there were now several river braids between us and the bear. Then, he started downstream, towards us, but on the opposite side of the river. Clearly this was our opportunity. All thoughts of packing up and leaving had left my mind. This was our chance to go for it!
At this point, it was 10:15. We’d been “hiking” for 90 minutes, but we were only 100 yards from the tent! We hustled upstream, passing the bear heading in the opposite direction on the far side of the river. At bear corner, I found my water shoes, completely surrounded by bear prints. I was relieved to see that they hadn’t been touched. For some reason I was expecting to find them half eaten when we arrived.
We left the relative safety of the river bar with one last look back. The bear was a long ways downstream, and still heading in the opposite direction. We plunged into the thicket, with hardly a thought for the hike back to camp.
We hacked our way upstream, and then enjoyed another stroll along the river bar. It ended all too soon though, at the point where I’d halted my scouting mission. This time, we hiked farther inland, following a small side stream before starting to bushwhack. This helped us avoid the alders, but the willows were nearly as miserable. Eventually we fought our way back to the river bar. Some well-deserved easy hiking followed. Then, a cloud of dust from downstream caught our eye. A minute later, a small herd of caribou galloped by, heading up the valley. This was exceptionally cool, but after our experience that morning, it wasn’t particularly surprising.
Our easy stroll was interrupted one last time by another intrusion of the river. One final gnarly bushwhack brought us to a prominent side stream. Shortly beyond, we were able to access the river once again. From there, we enjoyed an easy walk upstream to Three Forks.
At the headwaters of the Teklanika River are three streams fed by glaciers. We enjoyed limited views of each of them as we approached, despite low, heavy clouds. Unfortunately, just as we reached the point where the three streams came together, a cold rain began to fall. The rain, coupled with the incessant wind, was most inhospitable. Christy and I looked at each other, and I knew our visit to Three Forks was going to be brief.
At this point, I felt an overwhelming urge to visit the shrubs. Perhaps it was a lingering effect from the morning’s bear encounter? At any rate, I grabbed the shovel and toilet paper and ran for the willows.
I was just about prepared to do my business when an arctic fox strolled by. By strolled by, I mean he was 10 yards away. I was startled, but he was going into the wind, and had no idea that either of us were there. He was walking right towards Christy, who was looking in the other direction. I was afraid of another surprise encounter, so I stood up (with my pants around my ankles) and hollered, “Christy!! Fox!!). The fox snapped its head around at me, nearly jumping right out of his skin. He bolted into the shrubs, but Christy managed a photo of him as he fled.
It was cold, windy, and raw there, so we decided to head back. We started back downstream, but neither of us wanted to return by the same route. The bushwhacking had been miserable, and what would happen if the bear came back this way? I consulted the map for a few minutes, and hesitantly suggested an alternate route. If we took the high road back, we could avoid most of the bushwhacking. Plus, up on the tundra we wouldn’t run the risk of stumbling into a bear without warning.
Climbing to the top of the ridge didn’t look practical – at this end of the valley, the ridge was more than 2000’ above the river. However, it looked like we might be able to follow benches between the ridgecrest and the valley bottom all the way back. We were pretty sure it couldn’t be worse than the route we’d taken, so we decided to give it a shot.
We returned to the side stream we’d passed, where we took a break to filter water. From there, we climbed upstream until we got above the vegetation line. Once up on the tundra, we had easier walking. That was true to a point. At times, we were side-hilling across extremely steep slopes. In several places we really had to watch our step, as a tumble would’ve been extremely ugly.
An hour after leaving Three Forks the rain ended, and we paused for lunch on a grassy hillside. Several golden eagles soared overhead as we relaxed in the grass. A large herd of Dall Sheep was grazing high above us, and soon the sun made an appearance. All three glaciers at the head of the valley emerged from the muck. I could only laugh – apparently we’d been too early after all. I briefly considered going back, but it was well into the afternoon, and we were already exhausted. Fortunately, the view was fantastic from where we were.
We were packing up when I noticed that one of my water shoes was missing. I had strapped both of them to my pack earlier, but only one was still attached. I couldn’t believe it. After all we’d been through, I’d lost one of them? I was pretty attached to them. They were light weight, and were ideal for camp shoes and creek crossings. Most of all, I was embarrassed about leaving one of them out somewhere in the Denali wilderness. We’d seen exactly zero garbage during the trip, and leaving a shoe behind was a little bit too much like littering. I doubled-back to the stream where we’d filtered water, thinking it may have fallen off my pack there. I searched the creek bed for 30 minutes, but it failed to materialize.
I gave up and returned. From there, Christy and I continued down the valley, but well above the river. The hiking was easy initially, but before long we reached the first of many side canyons. Hiking down into and back out of them was arduous. After a couple of them, we considered hiking higher, up onto the ridge. The ridge was still high above us though, and a tangle of willows and alders waited below. We continued ahead, hoping the terrain would be kind to us on our return to camp.
It wasn’t. One particularly nasty canyon required some tricky maneuvering just to reach the bottom. At the next one, we gave up and headed downstream. As we walked towards the river, we could see Bear Corner below. At this point, my only goal was to avoid that spot. If we could come out downstream from there, the rest of the hike back to camp would be relatively painless.
We descended an ugly gully, and soon we found ourselves back in the willows. We tried to press our way down the valley, but the vegetation seemed to force us down towards the river. Despite our best efforts, we were being drawn back towards Bear Corner.
We paused to catch our breath and I assessed our route. I knew where we wanted to go, but getting there was going to be brutal. Then movement caught my eye. I looked down into the thicket to see what new horror awaited us. Something large and brown was wandering around in the brush directly below. I was nearly overwhelmed with relief when I realized it was a moose!
In a moment of spontaneity, we decided to follow it. We descended into the thicket, and found an animal path through the worst of the vegetation. We followed it for a bit, but eventually it faded. Soon, we were enduring another wicked bushwhack.
Before long, I realized we were in the exact place we’d wanted to avoid – Bear Corner. At this point, although the wind persisted, I began making speeches. I talked loudly at great length, suggesting that all bears in the area consider relocating to unit 7, at least for the next day or so. All I could think of was the bear we’d seen earlier, and the fact that he’d passed through this exact spot. From the looks of things, it was part of his regular route. There was bear scat everywhere.
Luckily, we found our way to the river without any additional bear encounters. We thrashed our way downstream, and finally regained the gravel bar. From there, it was an easy walk back to camp – or so we thought. We headed back towards the tent, but we couldn’t find it. We wandered around for another 30 minutes, dazed and exhausted, desperate to find a place to sleep. I’d hidden camp so well, we couldn’t locate it. I was beginning to think that the bear had eaten it after all! Finally I stumbled upon it, intact and unmolested.
It was 9pm, and we were both whipped. Christy threatened to go to bed without dinner, but I made her stay up to eat. We had a quick meal of tuna mac, and then we both headed to bed. Christy claimed that she wouldn’t be able to sleep, with thoughts of marauding bears in her head, but exhaustion eventually took over.
We were both sore the next morning. We woke early though, to another cloudy, windy, cold day. Oatmeal and hot cocoa warmed us, and we considered our options while breaking camp. We knew going back the way we’d come would be miserable. We’d have to bushwhack up a big hill, and both of us were a little worn out on bashing our way through the shrubbery.
I came up with a brilliant suggestion. Instead of climbing out, we could follow the river downstream and then contour around the northeast side of Cathedral Mountain. Unfortunately, following the river all the way to the road wasn’t an option, because that would take us through a wildlife closure area. However, if we followed the base of Cathedral Mountain, we’d come out right at the Igloo Creek Campground. Judging from the map, the hike would be virtually flat. Of course, we had no idea how bad the bushwhacking would be. From our vantage point, we could see that the lower slopes of the mountain were heavily forested. Hiking through there would be challenging, but it couldn’t possibly be as bad as the alders and willows, right?
We packed up and hiked downstream along the river bar. We made good progress, rock hopping some of the smaller channels to avoid leaving the river bar. At one point we did have to abandon the river bar, but we found a game trail along shore that provided easy walking. More gravel bar walking ensued, and we stopped for an early lunch when we reached the northeast base of Cathedral Mountain. We had to leave the comfort of the river here, and I wanted to study the map before we plunged into the woods. Getting to the Igloo Creek Campground from here was going to take some navigation.
My plan was to stay on an even contour. Doing so would lead us to the campground, and keep us from wandering down into the wildlife closure area. All we had to do was hug the base of the mountain. This strategy worked well initially. Early on we were able to follow bear trails through the brush. Bear scat was everywhere, but at least we were out of the wind here. Without the wind, we were able to effectively make noise. We maintained a lively conversation about nothing for most of the rest of the hike.
Eventually the bear trails started running perpendicular to our goal. This was inconvenient, and we were forced to bushwhack. After a bit of this, I decided on another approach. I would lead us downhill a bit on a bear trail, heading north. Then we’d switch to another path heading back up and to the east. We zigzagged thru the woods in this fashion for quite awhile. It was highly inefficient, but at least we were following the path of least resistance. Eventually we crossed a small stream, where we got water, and then climbed a bit to a pretty, marshy pond. This looked like a good spot for wildlife, but apparently we’d left all of the animals back at the river.
Three hours after leaving the river, we emerged from heavy forest and spotted the road ahead. Just downhill was a flagpole, marking the entrance to the campground. I was feeling pretty smug about getting the navigation right when I realized that there was one more willow thicket between us and freedom.
We followed another network of game trails, which kept us out of the worst of the willows. They led us to Igloo Creek right at the road. This was convenient, as it is also the entrance to the campground and an official bus stop. We strolled out to the road to wait for the next bus. Unfortunately, it was full, as was the next. Finally, after 45 minutes, a bus with a few empty seats stopped for us.
The ride back to park headquarters was uneventful. We returned to the wilderness information center to report our bear encounter and heard a more harrowing tale while we were there. Another couple was reporting their own bear incident when we arrived. Apparently the woman was waiting at camp while her husband was dayhiking. From her campsite, she could see his route, and spotted him as he was heading back. To her horror, there was a grizzly bear following him! He had no idea that the bear was stalking him. The woman tried yelling, but he never heard her, thanks to the ever-present wind. Luckily, the bear lost interest when her husband started up the hill towards their camp.
I retrieved the rental car and we drove over to the Riley Creek Campground to get showers. Showers were $4, including a towel, and we only had to endure a brief wait. We considered camping there, but everything except the walk-in sites was taken. We were no longer interested in “walking-in”, so we decided to head on down the road. A bit before Cantwell, we stopped at a pizza place for dinner. It was a lively spot, featuring live bluegrass music. The menu included mediocre nachos, good pizza, and fantastic beer. You can’t beat Dead Guy Ale on draft! I had a buzz after my first one, and passed the car keys over to Christy.
We drove to the Byers Lake Campground in Denali State Park. The campground was mostly empty, so we took a site there. It was a nice campground, but the mosquitoes were vicious, and we were done with DEET. We went straight to bed and slept well, despite rain throughout the night.
The lyrics to the following song seem to sum up our trip nicely. How many times in 3 weeks was our survival in question? I’m not sure though if I should dedicate this to my wife, or the big guy upstairs:
“Mountains looked like fun.
Climbed up to the sun.
And from the peak, I got such a view, I forgot to hang on.
The wind came rushing in
And broke my safety-pin.
But as I flew by, you threw me a line. Saved again!
I didn't see you were right next to
But I'm so glad you could make it.
With you by my side, I might get back alive
From my next vacation.”
From “Vacation”, by Widespread Panic.
I had a bit of a head cold when we woke the next morning. The rain had largely stopped, but we still had to pack up a wet tent. This was inconvenient, since we were flying out that night. We left the campground and drove to the community of Trapper Creek. We found a roadhouse there, where we got gas and a decent breakfast. While we ate, we discussed our options for our final day in Alaska. Our only constraint was that we had to be at the Anchorage airport in time for our flight that evening.
We headed towards Wasilla, but took the scenic route over Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains . This wasn’t the fast way, but it was a chance to take in a little more scenery before we went home. It was a pretty nice drive, with perhaps 20 miles of dirt road. A few places were a little precarious, and early on we encountered a lot of ATVs. There were some nice views, though we didn’t really stop or do any of the area hikes. We also passed several historic mines. This area might be worth returning to sometime to really see what it has to offer.
Once across the pass, we followed paved roads to the town of Palmer. From there, it was a quick drive into Wasilla. There I was disappointed that we’d just missed Sara Palin’s annual picnic. This was a shame, as I was looking forward to sharing a hot dog with her.
We stopped at Quiznos for lunch, and then headed over to Iditarod Trail Headquarters. The headquarters feature a small museum with displays and a gift shop. The highlight though was getting to see some of the actual sled dogs, including some puppies! Christy was in a severe case of withdrawal, since we hadn’t seen our dog in 3 weeks. She enjoyed playing with the dogs, while I was surprised to see how small they were. Most of the sled dogs are only 40-50 pounds. I would’ve expected much larger dogs, but apparently big dogs are less efficient, because they require much more food.
Before we left, Christy took a “dogsled” ride. They hooked 8 dogs up to a cart and hauled Christy around a gravel track. The ride cost $10 for less than 2 minutes, but Christy had a blast. Christy really enjoyed our visit there.
From Wasilla we drove towards Anchorage. On the way, I made a spontaneous diversion to see if we could drive to a good viewpoint of the Knik Glacier. We went out of our way for 30 minutes, but only managed a brief glimpse of the glacier. Eventually we gave up and headed back to the highway. In Eagle River we made another stop. There we took a few minutes to check out the Eagle River Nature Center in Denali State Park. While we were there, we donated our leftover fuel and unused bear spray, along with what remained of our coupon book. Our donation really seemed to make their day, and it was nice to give those things to people who could use them. Otherwise we didn’t spend much time there. We completely missed out on the scenery, as it was raining hard the entire time we were there.
Our next stop was in downtown Anchorage. Christy did some shopping there while I repacked all of our gear for the flight home. Christy’s only major purchase was a large stuffed salmon, which we plan to take with us on all of our future travels. We named the salmon, Pikatti, which is Eskimo for “companion”.
Our flight was a little late, but otherwise uneventful. Happily, no characters from “Lost” were on our flight.
Our trip to Alaska was fantastic, and I’m already thinking about returning. Next time we’ll probably visit Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park. The Chilkoot Trail is nearby, and offers one of Alaska’s most famous backpacking trips. Of course we’ll want to return to Denali. Our experience there was magical, and we could backpack there every summer without retracing our steps. The Valley of 10,000 Smokes is probably the most amazing place I’ve been, and it too beckons. The Crater Lake at the top of Mount Katmai is something I need to see before I die.
The scary thing is that I haven’t even mentioned Wrangell St. Elias NP, which we barely touched on this trip, or Lake Clark NP, which we merely flew over, or the Gates of the Arctic NP. Now, how many of these places can we get to on a 4-week vacation?
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!