A Long Day Out
Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa Sunday, October 11, 2009
When I was growing up in Iowa my father was quite good at keeping me close to nature with endless opportunities to explore the backwoods of Dubuque County. Curiously enough, the things from my child hood have spilled over into my adulthood. Now, living in Alaska, one of the things I enjoy the most is having the opportunity to explore mountain ranges and backcountry that few people ever experience. Alaska is so vast that anywhere you go it is easy to get off the beaten path and feel like you are setting foot in a wilderness paradise for the first time.
Even though I have had amazing opportunities to explore some of the most remote corners of the planet, one of my favorite activities is to hike right out my back door where I live in Eagle River. In my current life of gear intensive extreme expeditions, being able to walk out the door with a day pack and a few provisions is a treat that I savor. For several summers I have been eyeing a long mountain ridge that goes deep into the Chugach Mountain Range. I haven’t been able to find anyone that could tell me much about the ridge line, peaks, and mountain valleys that reside within the Peters Creek drainage. As a result, this entire area held several unknowns which increased its appeal for me.
After pouring over topographical maps, I mapped out the ridge line I wanted to hike and which valleys I would explore and figured the mileage would be somewhere between 20 and 30 miles. By any standard that is a long day out in the mountains. And considering the unknowns in terrain, river crossings, and mountain passes I didn’t really know how long it would take or how difficult this hike would be. For one of the first times in recent memory I wondered and doubted if I had the stamina and fortitude to complete this grueling hike in a day’s time. Having turned 40 several years ago, I know that my muscles and body certainly can’t do what they did when I was 20. And judging from what the topo maps told me, even if I were still 20, this would be an extremely grueling hike.
So, one overcast Saturday I loaded my daypack and hit the trail early. The weather looked tenuous at best and the cool temperatures seemed to indicate a storm brewing. The initial climb up Bear Mountain to access the ridge took about an hour on good trail. Once on top of the mountain I started to connect a long ridge line that went from peak to peak to peak running deep into the mountains. For hours I hiked up one peak and then down the backside of the same peak before having to start up the next peak. This entire ridge was riddled with a series of smaller peaks that drove me towards larger peaks further into the mountain range. The views from this ridgeline were stunning in all directions with a perspective on these mountains that I had not seen before.
After four hours on this ridge, I finally reached the high peaks, just as a storm front was working its way down the glacier at the head of the valley. I had hoped to climb for another hour and hit three more of the high peaks before descending into the valley below. Finally, as rain started to pelt my Gore Tex jacket, and clouds obscured the final two peaks, I had to descend into Peters Creek valley via a sharp ridge line that dropped all the way to the valley floor.
Halfway down the ridge I noticed two black dots directly in my path far below. This was obviously wildlife of some sort and a good chance that it was black bears, which are abundant in this area. Being to far away to really tell what it was, and just getting into alders over my head, I decided to hike straight at whatever it was. I reasoned that if it were two bears they would smell me and take off. If they didn’t, well I’d worry about that situation when the time came. If it were moose, no problem, they pose little threat in the wilderness. By the time I bushwhacked the last quarter mile to reach the valley floor, I missed the wildlife by a hundred yards and as it turned out it was two big moose, that didn’t seem to mind my meanderings one bit.
Wading through a meadow of dense five foot wildflowers, I felt something underfoot and realized I had come across an old hunting trail that was totally overgrown. I decided to use this “trail” to lead me further up the valley towards even more remote territory. This would allow me to climb out of the valley into an alpine bowl that I had hoped to reach had I stayed up on the ridge. By now it was pouring rain as I hiked through dense undergrowth constantly on alert for bears. It was amazing to me that I could not visually see the trail I was hiking on because it was so overgrown, but I found myself hiking by feel. In the end I made it nearly to the head of the valley and the Peters Glacier (Wall Street Glacier) before I started climbing out of the valley and up into the mountains opposite the ridgeline I had descended several hours earlier. But before doing this I had to fjord Peters Creek which was running fast and furious due to a torrent of rain the week before. After a quick break I traversed the thigh deep, frigid water without incident and started climbing into one of the most beautiful mountain bowls I have ever been in.
The peaks on this side of the valley were much more severe than on the other. They offered vertical rocky cliffs that soared nearly 5000’ above me. I kept climbing higher as this valley curved deeper into the mountains. The terrain ranged from alpine tundra to rocks the size of houses that had avalanched off the mountain faces and swept across the entire width of the valley. Finally I stood atop the mountain pass and looked into the next valley that I had to cross. I was perplexed and daunted as I looked nearly vertically down a cliff face that I had to descend and could see no easy way down, particularly on wet rock. But, like most things in life, I figured I would find a way if I just tried. So down I went and sure enough, before long I came across a somewhat precarious sheep trail that skirted diagonally across the cliff all the way to the valley floor. I slowly descended and was finally grateful to be down safe and in another beautiful alpine valley. I quickly noticed I was not alone. There were herds of sheep all over the cliffs and valley floor. I counted as many as 50 sheep in this one valley alone.
Back to task, I slowly trudged up the next steep mountain pass that would eventually lead me out of the mountains. Higher I went and was relieved to hit the top and look down into Ram Valley and Eagle River valley, which would take me back to civilization. This descent proved to be steep, but fortunately, not so much a vertical cliff like the last one. Once into Ram Valley I hiked on glacier scree curving out of this valley, which led me back down to tree line and into the alders of Eagle River valley. On sore legs and racing darkness, I made it back to civilization safely.
Despite my earlier apprehensions I had pulled it off. I had been on the go for 14 hours and covered nearly 25 miles of some pretty severe mountain wilderness. I was tired, my muscles ached, and I was wet to the bone. But in the end I was very relieved and happy that, for now, my body is still able to do what I ask it to do in the Alaska wilderness.
Copyright 2009 Troy Henkels