BACK TO ALASKA
Christy and I spent three weeks in Alaska in July of 2009. That was one of our best trips ever. We started with a few days on the Kenai Peninsula, in and around Kenai Fjords National Park. Then we flew to Katmai National Park, where we watched grizzlies catch salmon at Brooks Falls before embarking on a four day backpacking trip in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. To this day, that valley is the most amazing place I’ve been. We finished the trip with a ferry ride to Cordova, a road trip to McCarthy, on the edge of Wrangell – St. Elias National Park, and a backpacking trip in Denali National Park.
Aside from the places themselves, that trip provided a lot of lasting memories. Walking out onto the Harding Icefield under a blistering sun. Waking one morning in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes to see that one of the surrounding volcanoes had started smoking. Seeing one of the largest calvings of the Childs Glacier in years – and nearly being swamped by the resulting tidal wave. Being stalked by a grizzly bear along the Teklanika River in Denali. I wouldn’t give any of those memories up – not even the grizzly bear.
You can read the trip reports and view the photos from the 2009 trip here: https://www.angelfire.com/trek/fungi/Alaska/Alaska.html
When we told people that we were going to Alaska this summer, a common reaction was, “haven’t you already been there?” Yes….but we missed a few things. Alaska is a rather large place. My goal for this trip was to visit a large chunk of the state that we hadn’t included in the first adventure. We would focus on the coastal rain forest of southeastern Alaska. We would fly into the Capital city of Juneau, which is the hub for the Alaska Marine Highway System (a fancy name for ferries). We would use Juneau as our home base, and take ferries to various destinations.
Although we had four weeks, that wasn’t nearly enough time to do it all. There were several places that I wanted to visit that we couldn’t squeeze in. Ketchikan and Misty Fjords National Monument was just too far from Juneau. A boat ride through Tracy Arm to see glaciers, wildlife, and waterfalls would’ve been awesome, too. Saint Petersburg features some intriguing hiking opportunities. Ultimately though, I planned out the trip in five parts:
1) Juneau – 4+ days of car camping at Mendenhall Lake, with dayhikes each day.
2) Glacier Bay National Park – There are almost no trails in Glacier Bay, and hiking isn’t really practical due to the horrific bushwhacking required. Instead, we would spend 6 days sea kayaking.
3) Sitka – A long weekend in this small city on the Pacific coast, with an attempt at Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano on Kruzoff Island.
4) Skagway – A short stint in town, followed by a 3 day backpacking trip on the historic Chilkoot Trail – one of the routes taken by prospectors during the gold rush of 1898.
5) The Yukon – A long road trip to Whitehorse and Dawson City, with hiking in Tombstone Provincial Park and Kluane National Park. I included this in the trip for several reasons, but the biggest was that we might be pretty weary of the rain after 3 weeks in the rain forest. So yes, you’re reading that correctly – we were planning to visit the Yukon in hopes of better weather.
We were really excited about this trip, as it promised a tremendous variety of scenery and experiences and a healthy dose of adventure.
This trip took more planning than normal. I analyzed countless hiking options. Christy made a dozen backpacking meals and dehydrated them. I spent hours planning out hotels, campgrounds, flights, ferries, and rental cars. Christy found us a house / dog sitter.
In May, Christy had an accident during a mountain bike race and suffered a concussion, a broken rib, and a fully separated shoulder. Initially we thought we might have to cancel the trip. However, her surgeon assured us that she should be able to handle the hiking and even the sea kayaking. Christy scheduled her shoulder surgery right after our return, and we finalized our plans for the trip. The trip was a go!
We would be spending quite a bit of time in Juneau. We were flying in and out of Alaska’s capital, and we would be spending a night or two there between each segment of our trip. Plus, we were spending 4+ days there at the beginning of the trip, car camping and dayhiking. This was designed as something of a warmup, but I was really looking forward to that portion of our trip.
There are some incredible hikes around Juneau. My top priorities for hikes included the West Glacier Trail above the Mendenhall Glacier; the Herbert River and Herbert Glacier; Mount Juneau, Boulder Creek, Gold Creek, and the Perseverance Trail; and Gastineau Peak and Mount Roberts. Point Bridget State Park was my top choice as a backup plan, in the event that we had bad weather and couldn’t do one of the high-elevation hikes.
I checked the weather forecast shortly before we departed. It did not look encouraging. After an unusually sunny, warm start to the summer, the weather in southeastern Alaska was returning to normal. We were flying in on Saturday July 11th. The forecast for Sunday was marginal, but it went downhill from there. Our best hope for good weather was on Wednesday. Since we were leaving for Glacier Bay National Park on Thursday, I decided to save one of the high elevation hikes – either Mount Juneau or Mount Roberts – for our last day.
Our flight from Charlotte wasn’t horribly early, and a friend of ours dropped us off at the airport. We flew from there to Seattle. I’ve made that flight several times, but somehow I forgot how long it is! After lunch at the airport we flew to Juneau. When we landed, we finally broke through the clouds shortly before reaching the ground. As expected, it was raining.
We picked up our luggage and the rental car and ran some errands. We bought stove fuel, bear spray, and groceries, and headed over to the Mendenhall Glacier Campground. I’d reserved a site months in advance, which was probably not necessary. The place certainly wasn’t very busy. I had made one good decision though. I’d booked a walk-in site. The walk-in sites have one major advantage over the regular sites. They have a communal cooking shelter. Instead of cooking and eating under a tarp or in the rain, we would at least have a roof over our heads. The campground also has hot showers, and the sites are reasonably priced. Surprisingly, we had the walk-in section of the campground mostly to ourselves that first night.
The rain had eased to a light drizzle by this point, which made setting up camp easier. Originally I’d thought about doing a short hike that evening, but the marginal weather was discouraging, and we were tired from a long day of travel. We decided to save our energy for the next day. The weather forecast was mediocre, but it looked a lot better than Monday or Tuesday. We decided to go ahead and tackle the West Glacier Trail above the Mendenhall Glacier.
THE LAND OF ICE AND SNOW
After a lazy breakfast, we made the short drive over to the West Glacier Trailhead. Along the way we stopped at a picnic area to take in the view of Mendenhall Lake, Mendenhall Glacier, Nugget Falls, and the surrounding mountains. It was an overcast morning, and most of the mountains were hidden in the clouds. That compromised the view, but at least it wasn’t raining.
There was a group of backpackers in the parking lot at the trailhead. I was intrigued by this, as the West Glacier Trail dead ends after 4 miles or so. Apparently they were planning to continue up the glacier, or up a ridge into the alpine country.
Our hike started with a pleasant stroll through the rain forest. We passed under mossy spruce, with abundant ferns and shrubs in the understory. We crossed numerous streams, too. All of them were lovely, but one cascading creek was compelling. We took a break there so I could get some photos.
Eventually the easy stroll ended and we began to climb above the lake. Before long we reached the first of two side trails leading down to the foot of the glacier and the Mendenhall Ice Caves. Unfortunately, the most accessible ice cave collapsed in the summer of 2014. My understanding is that there are still some ice caves farther up the glacier, but that they are unstable and dangerous. Getting to them requires an ice axe, crampons, and experience hiking on glaciers riddled with crevasses. We have very little of that experience and none of the gear, so we continued ahead on the main trail.
The hike featured plenty of easy hiking but also had several steep stretches. A few of them required scrambling up wet, bare rock. I’m really not sure how Christy did it with a fully separated shoulder. She was determined though, and it was worth the effort. Each overlook surpassed the previous one. Early on we were treated to views of the lower glacier, the ice a haunting blue. Later we gazed out over the lake, which was dotted with icebergs, to the ocean in the distance.
We finally reached an overlook that took in the immensity of the whole glacier. It tumbled down the mountainsides above us, before narrowing to make the final plunge down to the lake. From our perch, it was hard to grasp the scale of it. I was finally able to put it in perspective when Christy noticed that there were several helicopters dropping off tourists on the far side. From our vantage point, those helicopters were the size of small birds. Christy even spotted a campsite on a flat section of the glacier. Although they weren’t very far away, the tents were just barely visible to the naked eye. It was an incredible view, even though the clouds were obscuring the higher peaks.
We had lunch there and took some photos. I contemplated continuing higher, as a faint trail tunnels through the bushes to ascend the ridge above. That’s when it started to rain. It was already chilly on the edge of all of that ice, and getting back down was going to be a challenge. We started down, taking it slow on the steep, slippery sections. The descent was pleasantly uneventful. Christy did great! I’m really not sure how she did that hike in the condition she was in.
We then drove over to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. This is tourist central, as busloads of people are transported here each day from the cruise ships docked in Juneau. There is an admission charge to enter the Visitor Center, so we decided to skip that. I did want to do the short hike to Nugget Creek Falls, but Christy decided to call it a day. She relaxed in the car while I made a quick dash to check out the waterfall.
The walk was easy and shorter than advertised. It was crowded with tourists, but somehow I managed to have Nugget Creek Falls to myself for a few minutes. It is an impressive waterfall. Officially it is 377’ high, and the creek is a raging torrent. It spills directly into Mendenhall Lake, with Mendenhall Glacier and towering mountains forming a spectacular backdrop.
Shortly before I left a small patch of blue sky parked itself directly above Mendenhall Lake. I was thrilled at the change after a completely overcast day. In Alaska and Canada these features are called Sucker Holes, because they sucker you into thinking that the weather is going to improve. We saw lots of sucker holes during our trip, and I fell for them every time.
On the way back to the campground I spotted an incredible waterfall tumbling down the mountain high above the road. It was probably 1,000’ directly above us. A horrific bushwhack straight up through prime Alaskan jungle could get us to the base of it. Even better, there were signs all along this stretch of road warning of recent bear activity. Clearly this was a job for Team Waterfall. Two members of Team Waterfall were in the rental car, but one of them – the sensible one – was not amused. We settled for the view from the road.
We returned to the campground for dinner and met a few of our new neighbors. One woman was traveling through southeastern Alaska by ferry and bicycle. She had just ridden to the campground from Wal-Mart, where she had nearly collided with a bear in the parking lot. Only in Alaska! We ended up bumping into her several more times during the first two weeks of our trip.
It rained all that night, but we stayed dry in our tent.
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!