Friday, October 15, 2010

Backpacking Crow Pass

Backpacking is great. It's like a miniature expedition, exploring the wilderness. I honestly haven't been backpacking that many places. I've probably only really backpacked 4-5 different trails. Most of which I've done multiple times. Crow Pass is one of the most memorable hikes, because it's just epic. That's it. I've done it twice and here's why it's such a great trail.

Crow pass is part of the historic Iditarod trail that goes from Seward to Nome. The Crow Pass trail goes from Girdwood to Eagle River. Hint: Eagle River is my hometown. Eagle River is a great town. It's a suburb of Anchorage and is technically part of the Anchorage municipality, but none of us really want to be considered part of Anchorage. Girdwood is another cool town that's technically part of Anchorage too, but is about a 30min drive south of the city. Girdwood is the home of Alyeska Ski Resort, which is an amazing place. Amazing skiing and amazing scenery.

We woke up on Friday morning at 6am and had Mom drive us down to Girdwood. I don't think she minds doing that for us because it's a pretty drive down there. You hug the Turnagain Arm coast the entire way from Anchorage to Girdwood. It was raining of course. It seems like it's always raining in that area. It's almost always just a drizzle though, so it's not too big of a deal. I was secretively hoping that we would just cancel the trip because of the rain, but I didn't say anything. I'm not a big fan of the rain when I'm planning on being in it for a long time. I'll go on short hikes in the rain for a couple hours, but I knew our tent wasn't amazing for keeping us perfectly dry and my raincoat is from Walmart. We decided to go anyway because no one spoke up about the rain. Oh well, might as well just enjoy it.

We signed the log book in case we die. The forest service wants to know who the dead bodies are in case you don't have your wallet on you. And yes, it's a kind of dangerous trail. Not that bad, but some people have died on it before.

Back when I worked at the public lands information center in Anchorage someone had died on the trail. I think she was trying to cross the river (Eagle River) and got swept away and drowned. The river crossing is the only really dangerous part. Everything else isn't incredibly bad.

The hike starts out with a long long climb up to the pass. It's a really good thing the climb comes first because we usually hike about 13 miles on the first day and if the climb was last it would be torture. I had enough energy to get to the top. We took the "upper route" that seemed to have a more gradual climb and it definitely did have a more gradual climb. The lower route takes you close to a little water fall, but has some really steep parts that just aren't incredibly fun when you have a big backpack on. The upper route crosses over a couple streams. We were able to get across them pretty well. Dad accidentally slipped off his stepping stone and got his boots wet, but that was the worst of it.

We got to the top and ate our lunch outside of the public use cabin. Whoever was in there was still sleeping and we went by it to see if we could eat there, but decided against it when we saw their bags and heard loud snoring. Peanut butter and jelly was for lunch. We rested for about an hour and made our way up the last mile or so to the pass.

The last mile to the pass is really easy. It's barely even considered uphill. Once we got to the pass there is an amazing view of Raven Glacier. It's a really beautiful glacier and you can see all the way down the valley that you're about to go down. The glacier had notably receded since the last time we did the hike which was a few years earlier. From this point the hike is all downhill. Sounds great huh? Not especially. While it's all downhill, it's a really really long downhill. The pass is only a few miles into the hike. Not even half the distance of the first day's walk.

After taking some pictures at the pass we headed down the valley. This part of the hike is actually really cool because you often get to cross snow slides. Snow slides are a great way to fall and die. They're usually pretty hard and icy by the time we do the hike, so it's pretty difficult to cross them. There's usually some vague footprints that you can follow across them, but it's really hard to dig your boots into the snow. The first time we did the hike, there was more snow and there was one slide where it was just perfect to slide all the way down it to get to the trail. Even though snow slides are sometimes really dangerous, they can also be one of the funnest parts of hiking in Alaska. We got across all the snow slides safely and made it to the bottom of the valley, but it took a while.

For the most part, the hike from this point to the river is just one of those where you pop your legs into cruise control. There's a creek crossing, but that was pretty easy. We ran into some guys that passed us the first time without saying anything, then a minute later one of them came running back towards us and passed us going in the same direction as us. Again he didn't say anything. What is this guy doing? We saw him another minute later walking back towards us and we finally asked him what was going on. He lost his knife somewhere along the trail, so we told him we'd turn it into the nature center in Eagle River if we found it.

So much walking, but all along the way there are great views and most of the Raven Glacier valley is above the tree line so we could see a long ways. I don't think we saw any wildlife yet, unfortunately. I'm always hoping to see a bear. I think bears are awesome and they don't scare me too much. I know what to do if I encounter one and it's really rare that they do anything to you. In this very long section of the hike one of the things that kept my mind active was imagining what I would do if I saw a bear on the trail. We started to get to some really high bushes, so it would be easy for us to sneak up on a bear. I always tried to make noise by rustling the bushes and clapping sometimes, but I was just hoping I could see a bear up close.

I decided that I would just lay out my meanest trash talk if I saw a bear. If you see a bear, you just need to make yourself look big and talk very loudly at it. I figured I would just lift up my arms really high and make the bear feel like a puny little worm with my cruel speech. I also made sure I knew where my camera was so I could take a picture. Part of my plan was to intimidate the bear slowly enough to get a good picture of him.

No bears yet, but we started heading down from the hanging valley to the Eagle River valley. At the start of this descent you get a really really nice view of Eagle Glacier up in the valley. It's pretty far away from the main trail, so I've never been up to it, but it's big and it's connected to a huge ice field. That's why Eagle River is such a big river. The descent is in the trees the whole time, so you never really know when you're going to get to the bottom unless you remember the trail really well.

At the bottom of the descent you just walk about a mile maybe and you're at the river crossing. This is always one of those times that you start to get nervous. There are two main reasons to be nervous. Remember how I said Eagle River comes from Eagle Glacier, well it turns out that glacier fed rivers are ridiculously cold even in the middle of the summer. Secondly, it's a big river with a lot of current so it wouldn't be very difficult to fall over and get swept away. The river crossing is at the only shallow part of the River in the area. By shallow I mean up to the thighs.

The three of us changed into our shorts, took off our boots and wool socks, and put on our sandals or our "lawn mowing shoes." "Lawn mowing shoes" are most commonly used for mowing the lawn, but are often used for river crossings and tubing in Clear Creek. They are often worn out, have holes in them, and are stained green. When you cross a river you need to take off your waste clip in case you fall in. That way you can easily take off your backpack just by undoing your chest clip. If you leave the backpack on then you'll more easily be swept down the river. When you cross, you want to cross in a line. The strongest person upstream and the person with poor balance in the middle. In our case, Josh was upstream (he's a strong guy), Dad was in the middle, and I was downstream.

We got in, froze our butts off, stumbled once and got a bit wet, froze our butts off again and made it to the sand bar. After the sand bar there's just a small section of the river to cross before you get to the other shore. The other shore always has stinky socks and spare shoes in case you lost yours or happen to collect stinky socks and shoes. Sometimes there's even a towel caked in dirt that you can use to dry off with. Thankfully our boots and socks didn't get wet and we had our own towels.

From here, it's just a numb mile before our camping spot. I think the river crossing is at mile 13 and the camping spot we use is at mile 14. Our toes finally got feeling back by the time we got to the campsite and it was time to set up our tents and our campfire. We found some wood in the forest and brought it back to the site. We found some Black Butte Porter beer bottles in the fire pit. It was starting to get chilly, so we quickly started the fire and made our food on my Dad's stove. Josh brought MREs for the three of us because the Guard always gives him more than he needs. Let me tell you, those things are ridiculous! I was absolutely stuffed after eating it and had trouble getting to the end.

It was starting to get dark around 10, so we decided to go to bed. I have always heard about sleeping under the stars, but never really comprehended it because I am always paranoid that it's going to rain on me. I don't think I would ever sleep outside in Alaska unless I had a tent nearby that I could run to in case it started raining. We slept like babies and woke up at 8:00 for a delicious breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. Food is always so much better tasting when you're camping.

We took down camp and headed out. The rest of the trail just follows Eagle River all the way to the ER Nature Center. It's a really beautiful walk. You're in the trees the whole time and there are often many berries if you're there at the right season. The views are amazing when you get out of the trees and it's just a pretty flat, easy walk for the last 12 miles to the nature center.

Because of all the vegetation, it's hard to see very far in front of you. This got me thinking about bears again. Again, I was hoping to see a bear and constantly thinking about what I would say if I saw one. We were walking along a steep hill and I heard a rustle. There it was. 15 feet in front of me and Josh was a black bear. It jumped down to the trail and started looking at us, wondering what we were doing there. I immediately lifted my arms and started saying, Hey Bear! Go away, Bear! We're bigger than you and will eat you up if you don't go away! I've heard bear meat is really nice and fatty and Josh and I are looking to gain a few extra pounds for winter! (I didn't really say all that, but I did say some of it)

I was so happy. I was shaking, but ridiculously happy to have seen a bear that close. that was by far the highlight of the trip. We finally got back to the nature center, called my mom and she gave us a ride home. We also gave a ride to a man and his son from Florida who were hiking around Alaska for a week. I would keep writing about the trail, because I skipped a lot of details, but it's been a long enough post already. You now know how great that trail is. You should all go up to Alaska with me and hike it with me some day.

Song of the Day: In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Uke Hotel

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