SUCKER HOLES UNITE!
I woke the next morning hoping for clear skies. Hey, it could happen! A reprise of the weather we’d enjoyed on day 2 would’ve been great. We had no such luck. The conditions were exactly the same as they’d been the previous day. We had fine views of the fjord, the glaciers, and the closest peaks, but the higher mountains beyond were lost in in the clouds.
This had been one of the most spectacular campsites we’d experienced, and it was hard to leave. It wasn’t just hard emotionally, either. Overnight the icebergs in the fjord had drifted up the inlet. From our vantage point, it looked like we the passage was completely choked with ice. Were we trapped? That could be a major problem. We would need 2 full days to return to Blue Mouse Cove for our pick up. We had to be there by noon on day 6, so taking a layover day wasn’t an option. If we missed our pick up, we would miss our ferry back to Juneau. They only run twice per week, so that would screw up the rest of our trip.
We took our time packing up. I got water from the stream below Thunder Falls, but it was glacial and I didn’t want to filter it. Glacier water is silty and can easily clog a filter. I filled up a bag with 2 quarts of emergency water, but it was not appetizing. The water was gray from all of the silt. Luckily we found a better water source later, and we didn’t need to use the glacial water.
We stalled around for a little while, hoping that the sky would clear. It didn’t look promising though, and we needed an earlier start to catch the outgoing tide. We decided to try to find our way through the icy channel that had closed us off from the rest of the world. Fortunately most of the ice was small pieces, and we were able to pick our way slowly through. It was a lot like bushwhacking – we would fight our way through obstructions into open pockets of water that would provide a brief respite. Then we’d resume pushing our way through the ice, using our paddles to fend off the surrounding bergs.
Most of the seven miles out to the mouth of the John Hopkins Inlet was like this. We zig-zagged all over the place in search of open water, but each time another blockage loomed ahead. Although this was slow and a little scary, it was also exhilarating. The scenery remained stellar, too, despite the marginal conditions. We passed numerous waterfalls cascading down the cliffs above us, including the informally named “Chocolate Falls”. It got its name because the stream is brown from glacial silt. Nearby was another waterfall with water that was white. We dubbed it “Vanilla Falls”, for obvious reasons.
We finally left most of the ice behind after passing Jaw Point. Still we passed stray icebergs for the rest of the day. We stopped at a small cove for lunch. It featured a rocky beach and a clear stream with a small waterfall framed by blooming fireweed. The stream provided fresh water, so I was able to dump out the emergency sludge water I’d gotten from Thunder Falls.
After lunch we continued down bay. Before long a small patch of blue sky appeared overhead. A sucker hole! We thought it was cute. Then, another appeared, followed by a third. Moments later they merged into a sizable chunk of blue sky. More pockets of blue began to appear. Suddenly, the day had gone from overcast to partly cloudy. The glaciers and higher peaks began to emerge from the murk! We even debated backtracking to the mouth of the John Hopkins Inlet, just to get a view up the fjord with some blue sky overhead. However, it was a fair distance back, and the clouds seemed to holding on stubbornly in that direction.
A bit later we had one of the most thrilling wildlife encounters of the whole trip. We were hugging the cliffs when Christy spotted a pair of bald eagles perched on a rock. We stopped to observe and photograph them. Before I could switch to my zoom lens, one of the eagles launched itself from the rock, swopped low, and snatched a fish out of the water!
Originally I planned to camp at either the Lamplaugh Glacier or return to the Reid Glacier. Either of those spots would offer possible afternoon hikes along the ridges above the glaciers. When we reached the Lamplaugh Glacier, the only plausible camping area was already adorned with tents. We didn’t see any people or kayaks, so I’m guessing that it was a group of climbers that had been dropped off by a boat. The ridge above their campsite rises above the glacier, and it looks like a promising place to hike.
We continued down bay, bound for the Reid Inlet. However, when we reached Ptarmigan Creek we were compelled to stop. It was now completely sunny, with blue skies in every direction. The view from here was a true jaw-dropper. All of the mountains were out, including the rarely seen Mount Fairweather (15,325’), the highest peak in the park. The expansive sandy beach even had a few stray icebergs. We stopped for our afternoon break, but the spot was so compelling that we couldn’t leave. It was only 3pm, and when I suggested camping there Christy was both delighted and bewildered. Stopping there meant a longer day 5, but this spot was far superior to the campsites near the Reid Glacier.
We unpacked the boat, set up camp, and relaxed on the beach. Christy waded out to an intriguing iceberg that was just offshore. The iceberg was shaped in an arch, and she climbed right up into the opening, sprawling across it. It was one hell of a photo opp – Christy riding an iceberg in Glacier Bay.
We had sunshine, warm sand, sparkling ice, a stunning view, and half a jug of whiskey. What more could we possibly want?
I turned my gaze away from the sprawling mass of peaks, cliffs, and glaciers across the water. Directly above us was a rocky ridgeline separating Ptarmigan Creek from the Reid Inlet. The ridge featured a series of open outcrops, each one higher than the previous one. Even the lowest of them promised a stunning view of a large chunk of Glacier Bay. The higher points would likely provide views of the Reid Glacier, the Lamplaugh Glacier, and the massive icefield above.
I consulted my guidebook, which was written in the 90’s. The ecology of Glacier Bay is changing so fast that our book was largely useless. Areas that used to be open are now choked with dense tangles of alder. Still, our book described an old mining road that connects Ptarmigan Creek and the Reid Inlet. It crosses the ridge that we were looking at. If it still existed, it would provide easy access to those viewpoints. If it still existed.
What to do? Should we give up our sunny afternoon on one of the world’s most spectacular beaches to go for glory? No normal, sane person would even consider it. But nobody has ever called us normal or sane.
It is times like these when I often ask myself what my friend Spencer would do. In this case, I knew exactly what he would do. He would climb that mountain.
I suggested this to Christy. She consulted the guidebook, and agreed that it looked reasonable, if the road still existed. If not, we would be embarking on the bushwhack to hell and back. The steep slopes of the ridge were covered in an impenetrable blanket of green.
We secured camp, loaded a daypack, and headed for Ptarmigan Creek. The book showed the old road on the far side of it. Ptarmigan Creek is a huge stream, but I somehow managed to rock hop it without dunking a boot. Christy forded the creek since she was wearing sandals. Her choice of footwear proved to be better than mine.
We hiked alongside the raging torrent of whitewater for a time. This was tedious, as the bank of the stream was steep and composed of sand and loose rocks. Mostly we rock hopped along the edge of the creek. The water was so loud that our ears were ringing. Conversation was impossible. There was no sign of the road, but I suspected that it was on the hillside a short distance above us. We scrambled up, and actually found a trace of it. We followed it briefly, before it disappeared in an alder thicket. We tried to stay on it, but the alders were miserable. The branches are too strong to force your way through, and too numerous to climb over or crawl under. Our pace slowed to a crawl, so we dropped back down to the creek.
We resumed rock hopping. After a short ways I went back up onto the ridge to scout for the road. I had no luck this time. I couldn’t see anything except jungle.
Any sort of reasonable person would’ve given up, but again, we aren’t reasonable. If anything, we’re stubborn. We would not be so easily defeated.
We reached a confluence with a tributary stream. I checked the map, and noted that it was coming down from the ridge in the exact place we wanted to reach. We decided to follow it. This creek was much smaller, but it was actually more challenging to hike. The channel was narrow and frequently choked by fallen trees. Although it was a small stream, it was knee deep and ice cold. I gave up on trying to keep my boots dry. We climbed over and crawled under the trees, occasionally crawling right up the streambed. At one point we climbed back up onto the ridge to see if it was any better. It wasn’t. It was drier, but the vegetation was even thicker. The only reward for that diversion was finding abundant blueberries scattered among the alders. Yes, we were in prime grizzly bear habitat. We had one can of bear spray, but no other way to defend ourselves.
We returned to the creek and continued slogging upstream. We reached another fork, and took the tributary coming in from the left. This stream was considerably smaller, so at least there was less water to deal with. The vegetation finally began to open up, but the streambed became steeper. Soon we were scrambling up the rocks, sure that we would reach a gap on the ridge at any moment. The climb took much longer than expected, mostly because we hadn’t really gained all that much elevation during the worst of the bushwhacking. Finally the grade eased and the pass loomed ahead. Comically, remnants of the old road appeared, and we even saw a few old mining relics.
We found a swampy area of small ponds in the gap on the ridge. The view from here was disappointing. It was getting late, but there was no way we were turning back without being rewarded with a decent view. I led the way up the ridge, aiming for a rocky knoll overlooking the pass. A few minutes later we reached a perch that left us speechless. We gazed out over Glacier Bay, across miles and miles of mountains, glaciers, and fjords. The landscape was vast, but that didn’t stop us from noticing tiny details. We spotted little white specks in the water far below. They were icebergs escaping from the John Hopkins Inlet just as we had earlier that day.
I was mildly amused when Christy pointed out that the old road was clearly visible heading down towards the Reid Inlet. It looks like it may be easier to reach this spot from the other side.
This would’ve been a spectacular spot to watch the sunset, but hiking down in the dark would’ve been even more dangerous. As it was, we were going to have a tough time returning before dark. That’s impressive considering that dark happens after 10pm in this part of Alaska in July. It had taken us four hours to make the climb, and we only had a little more than 2 hours before sunset. Still, we lingered for a while. The view was too spectacular to abandon so quickly, and we were still recovering from our ascent.
We eventually headed back down. We followed the same basic route, though we stuck to the streambeds the entire way, having learned our lesson about the ridges earlier. That final stretch of bushwhacking was brutal, thanks to dead legs, waterlogged boots, and dwindling daylight. We reached the main channel of Ptarmigan Creek just in time for a colorful sunset. This was a relief, as the worst of the bushwhacking was behind us. We staggered into camp at 11pm and I started working on dinner. And the whiskey.
We went to bed late, but I hadn’t been sleeping well anyway. Shortly after arriving in Glacier Bay my Thermarest pad had developed an air bubble that made sleeping on it awkward. As the trip went on, the air bubble grew. The bubble was at the upper left end, while the bottom end of the pad wasn’t inflating at all. By the fifth night, it was more comfortable sleeping on the bare ground. Luckily we camped on sandy beaches the last two nights.
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