In July of 2008 I visited relatives in Eagle River, Alaska — a north-suburb of Anchorage. It was my first trip to Alaska, and I was looking forward to it! The closest I’d ever been to Alaska had been to Watson Lake in the south of Yukon Territory, and just west of Dease Lake, and the Stikine River areas near Mount Edziza Provincial Park, all in British Columbia, and all back in 2004.
As we dropped below the clouds on the approach to Anchorage, I looked out the plane’s window to see a vast array of mountains that looked strange. It took me about ten seconds to realize the mountain ranges I was looking at were all separated by frozen rivers — actual glaciers. Glaciers everywhere below me as far as I could see.
I remembered year’s earlier, reading John Muir’s, Travels in Alaska, which documented his 1879 trip sailing from Portland, Oregon up to Alaska. He noted the prominent glacial influences along the islands and coastline as he headed north along the Alexander Archipelago. Muir also mentioned seeing glaciers where today, large inland rivers enter Glacier Bay. In 1794, when Captain George Vancouver sailed through Icy Strait (just SE of the entrance to Glacier Bay), he found a wall of ice 4,000 feet thick and 20 miles wide. Less than 100 years later, Muir found the glaciers had retreated nearly 50 miles, creating a new land and a giant bay splitting into two deep fjords on the upper end, aka Glacier Bay. Source for George Vancouver material: ‘Alaska~Yukon,‘ by Don Pitcher. The town of Dease Lake, BC which I visited in ’04, is about 200 mi west of Icy Strait.
My trip to Eagle River included a lot of overcast days and a fair amount of rain from start to finish. I do remember spending a couple of rainy day sitting at the kitchen table reading ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ by Ayn Rand. When the rains let up we visited storefronts in Anchorage and a portion of town that had previously been totally destroyed by an earthquake. We visited some coastal areas, and I got out for two days of fantastic day hiking.
Early on, we visited Whittier just east of Anchorage, driving through a long tunnel, then past Portage Glacier where we stopped for pictures. We enjoyed lunch outdoors along Passage Canal. Although the day was cloudy, I don’t remember any rain.
I had planned to back-pack solo for 2-3 days, but decided against it given the wet weather. The back-packing trip looked like a good hike either departing or ending, or both –a loop maybe, from the Eagle River Nature Center, but I’m not positive about trail details after all these years. The terrain was unfamiliar, and the trails challenging, thus the day-hiking options seemed a better bet!
I was dropped at a couple of trailheads over a couple of days, to day-hike in Chugach State Park (495,000 acres), and then call for a pickup upon my return. My own private shuttle service –my thanks to Pat and Libby!
On July 12th I was dropped at the Eagle Lake/Symphony Lake Trailhead. It was crowded with lots of young folks carrying nothing but their music and headphones, all wearing shorts and tennis shoes. It was weird! Granted, I only carried a day-pack. But it was well supplied with rain gear, water filter, a couple liters of water, a first-aid kit, bear spray, my pocket knife, and a .44 magnum revolver strapped to my chest, under my jacket –this was grizzly-country after all! I also wore a wide-brim hat that would shed water and a good pair of hiking boots. Perhaps I was over-dressed/over-outfitted, I thought as I headed out with the kids sporting their headphones.
After about an hour, I crossed the Eagle River bridge and there was almost no one on the trail, and of the few remaining nearly all carried shotguns — they were definitely the weapon of choice on the trail! I was reassured as to my gear choice, and chatted with several guys as to what loads they were using in their shotgun.
After crossing the Eagle River, and just off the main trail going to Symphony and Eagle Lakes, there was a unmarked trail climbing up to Hanging Valley, named for it’s geologic origins. A ‘hanging valley’ is created when a glacier retreats up a large valley, leaving smaller side valleys still filled with glacial tongues. As the smaller glaciers retreat, they leave U-shaped valleys with floors higher than that of the main valley. The smaller valleys thus seem to ‘hang’ halfway up the sides of the larger valley. Chugach State Park is known for these hanging valleys, but most are not as accessible as this one. Source: ’50 Hikes in Alaska’s Chugach State Park,’ by Shane Shepherd and Owen Wozniak.
I hiked back up into Hanging Valley (about 2-3 miles one way, off the main Eagle River Trail) looking for sheep. Seeing no sheep, I returned back to the main valley and again headed for Symphony Lake. When you’re actually in these glacial valleys, they are much larger than they look in the pictures; but then, everything’s bigger in Alaska!
Hiking the main valley trail again, I was constantly talking to the bears and letting them know I was there. I didn’t want to surprise a mama grizzly with her cubs, or a big solo male for that matter, so I tried to let them know I was there. And for the record, I’ve never encountered a grizzly while talking to them along the trail! 🙂 Don’t waste your time with bear bells, as most folks already know that the distinguishing characteristic between black bear scat and grizzly scat, is the absence of bear bells in black bear’s scat! Talk to them!
The valley was full of rocks –large and small, plus shoulder-high brush and thick 15′ alders. The berries were not ripe, but I recognized that the river valley was a prime source of food for the bears, so I was on constant ‘high-alert.’ I also saw a couple of small deer along the trail, and I’m sure they –plus other small game in the valley, were of interest to the brown bears (grizzlies) as well. Not to confuse, it should be noted that some black bears can also be brown and even blondish. The grizzlies are larger, have a concave facial profile, a large muscular hump between their shoulders, and of course much longer front claws (which differentiates their footprints).
It wasn’t long until I came upon large scree and boulder fields with Symphony Lake to the right (east), below the rocks/boulders. Actually the scree and boulders enveloped the north end of the Lake on both the east and west sides. I got caught up in the eastern boulder field and ended up climbing up and out of it as I turned to return to the main trail, and head back toward the trailhead. It was not until I had climbed up the hill and out of the boulders, that I saw Eagle Lake on the other side of the hill. This had to be the worst boulder field I’ve ever encountered, and was actually very dangerous, especially since I was traveling solo. It’s just too easy to twist/break an ankle hiking in this kind of terrain. That’s one reason it’s highly recommended to not hike alone- there’s safety in numbers… as they say! Anyway, once I’d climbed up and out of the boulder field, I decided to call it a day — but I still had about a 5 mi. hike back to the trailhead –which would have been a difficult task with a broken ankle!
As can be seen, Symphony Lake is fed by glacial runoff, which carries a fine powdered till, also known as ‘glacial flour,’ which gives it the milky-greenish color. The larger portion of the lake seemed to lose the ‘glacial tint,’ probably due to other runoff and small stream inlets.
The hike into Symphony Lake was about 5 mi. and the round-trip jaunt up into Hanging Valley probably added another 5 mi to the overall hike, for a total of 15 mi. The scree and boulders added to the adventure, but I was happy returning to the trailhead and making the call for my pick-up. A great day and a great hike!
After the Symphony Lake/Hanging Valley hike I took a rain day to stay inside where it was dry and read a few hundred pages of Atlas Shrugged. I also remember playing with the cat, perhaps for a couple of hours. We became best friends!
On July 15th Libby drove me to another trailhead just north of Eagle River. The climb up to Baldy was short, but steep (less than a mile, with just over 1,000′ elevation gain). After reaching Baldy, a short hike brought me to a long ridgeline, although I couldn’t be sure just how long, given the fog! In general, I love hiking ridgelines, with their great views. It’s just climbing up to them and descending from them that sometimes present problems… it’s always those small details that get overlooked, but they can stop you in your tracks on occasion.
I once hiked a similar ridgeline, but much rockier, where you couldn’t appreciate the views due to fog. It was in Glacier National Park, while hiking with my wife Judy, along the Continental Divide, between Dawson Pass and Pitamakin Pass in ’02. We hit an August sleet/hail storm at about 6,000′ with darkness only a couple of hours away, and our tent on the other side of Rising Wolf Mountain. And for the record, it was because of a map and compass, that we reached our tent before dark in the heavy fog. But I digress!
The ridgeline soon turned to large rolling hills and the fog was increasing. The trail dropped a bit as I approached Blacktail Rocks, then it climbed again.
The trail was getting very light, hard to follow — rocky ground with very light vegetation. At about this point on the way up, using my map and compass, I began marking my position with small (about 4″x4″) pieces of white paper towel placed under a rock (I always throw a few in my pack). I placed the next marker as far ahead as I could see, hoping I was still on the trail – adjusting as necessary. I wrote each bearing in a small notebook with any other details –then if visibility didn’t improve and I ran out of markers, I’d use the backbearings to find my way, marker-to-marker, back down past Blacktail Rocks.
Using the oriented map, I set bearings past/through the Blacktail Rocks area, and headed toward Roundtop using the map and compass while trying to follow the trail. I’d gone about quarter to half a mile looking for a junction to the left on the difficult to follow trail, that would take me to Roundtop. I found the junction (hopefully, I thought) and turned left to the NW toward Roundtop. After marking the junction, I only had a few markers left. I had to be close to Roundtop, but I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for, so when I used the last marker I decided to abort and head back the way I’d come. I’d used about 12-15 markers before running out.
This was definitely a situation where a GPS would have come in handy, and I just could have followed my (almost unlimited) way-points back to the trailhead if necessary. (I’ve since purchased a simple GPS system to avoid such problems in the future.) I just didn’t like to rely on batteries for direction-finding, and I usually hiked only well-marked trails. And, I tend to not (not ‘never’) do any bushwacking. This trail however got pretty close to bushwacking — more than once I found myself searching around to be sure I was still following the trail, any trail I sometimes thought!
Here is a brief youtube video showing the limited visibility near Rountop, where I ran out of trail markers and turned around to head back down. It was slow going, using back bearings and trying to be consistent; then watching for the markers. Most markers were 100-125 yds apart. Lucky for me the days are so long in Alaska –in July anyway!
Map/compass/GPS are essentails, but celestial navigation, like using the Big Dipper and North Star, can also be useful. The sun and shadow movement, measured over time, can be very useful on bright days. Sometimes it’s those ‘little things’ that can make the difference!
What a great week in Alaska!
Next time, I’ll bring along some Ham radio gear and maybe meet some new radio-folks who would enjoy talking to someone in Minnesota. I know I’d enjoy making contact with folks up in Alaska maybe from the North Shore of Lake Superior! I’m also looking for a new HT that ‘can’ include my GPS location when transmitting! Now that will be a nice piece of kit when out on the trail. 73!