The preparation for this trip was long and vigorous (hopefully). I was trying to train regularly – walking on hikes with the backpack and boots, exercising. I even tried to gain some weight in order to improve my strategic reserves, but I failed.
We had the final gear check the day before the trip. Since it was difficult to accommodate everyone the check was done at Dori’s workplace – Berkeley fire station. Cool, first time I was in a fire station. Nothing really happened during our time there. It was just interesting to see how this place looks like from the inside. It seems that they have a very good gym. Well, I suppose firemen (and firewomen) must be in very good shape.
Saturday, Aug 1st.
We landed in Anchorage a bit after midnight. During the flight I saw some scary looking ice fields in the mountains. That might be the Bagley Ice field we are going to. It looks about right location wise. It was rather late but it was still light – great, northern summer.
After some shuffling with the taxis we managed to get to the night’s sleeping place – Arctic Adventure Hostel. At the same time Viyasan and Marek went to retrieve the van. From what I have heard about this guy the procedure may be difficult to say the least (it was about 1AM already). But Viyasan managed to get a good discount from him with no limits on the driving conditions (regular rental company will not allow you to drive on a gravel road), so we shouldn’t complain.
Breakfast in the hostel started from the self-made pancakes. The hostel just provides the mix, water, and the stove. The labour was provided by Magda. Early start because we have to drive a long way to some unknown destination somewhere in the park and also do some back door dealings on the way.
We drove to the town of Glennallen on the edge of the park. The drive was beautiful. All those bullet holes literally in almost every road sign. Strange. It seems that Alaskans are bored or something. The nature had this northern feel to it. Birch trees, mountains, some glaciers. It wasn’t a California major highway – just two lanes total – so you can see all the beauty.
We had lunch of standard American food – fried burgers – in a place with sewage smelly water (Well, there was also espresso for the classy). Then continue on the quests to find someone’s place. The thing was that our fearless leader had convinced one of Wrangell park rangers to loan us bear spray cans and bear boxes for free. All we had to do it find this person’s place. Well, we found it – very pretty house in the forest with a small vegetable garden. I won’t say where it is to protect this man’ privacy.
That was all. All the pre-hurdles were done, including the visit to the Wrangell NP visitor’s centre. We are good to go to our main destination. There was one stop at the city of Chitina before turning to the park. Chitina really is just a couple of buildings – a post office, liquor store (important, we loaded up on some liquids there), NP office, and something else. That’s it. The highway actually stops in this town. After that there is only the gravel road that goes to McCarthy. In reality the beginning of this gravel road is a pass in solid rock barely wide to fit a car. I have no idea how they haul supplies to McCarthy.
The gravel road was nasty – dusty, noisy, and shaking. There were some small resorts on it, some kind of campgrounds. Eventually the road ends at the river. That’s it, you are in the middle of a very wild wilderness, it seems. There is a parking lot with a campground (ha, campground – a toilet and just empty space). It all continues with a pedestrian bridge across a very fast river. This bridge is actually new. It was just a cable before that. I’d like that better. Bridge is too civilized.
We parked our van and went to the downtown McCarty. The town is actually across the river and half a mile farther. The town actually has nice charm. For some reason it reminded me of that small resort towns in Thailand. There was just a couple of eating places, a hotel of some sort, a store, airline and tour places, and bunch of some other buildings. Everything seemed local and homy. Sort of like a family place. Perhaps this was due to the lack of cars and people walking. We had dinner in the place called “The New Golden Saloon” and went back to the aforementioned camp site. It was still light out, nice. I have had some over-fried cod fish and white vine. Should have taken that $29 salmon instead.
Sunday, Aug 2nd.
Get up early. We have to be in the airline checkout counter fed and with fuel by 9AM. They will not wait. These bush plane flights are rather difficult, as one could imagine. They are susceptible to the weather quite a bit. As a result, if the weather is good the guys would want to fly as soon as possible and we have to be ready on the spot. So, we picked up our seemed to be insanely heavy backpacks and went into the town. There was a quick breakfast in the cosy Roadside Potatoehead eatery. I had some burrito with eggs, potatoes, and other stuff. It was actually very good. Which shows that Alaskans know how to cook Mexican food properly for the local climate (lots of protein and carbs). They also have foods like Zen Chai and Espresso. What had happened to the frontier culture? Rugged outdoors stuff? Well, I guess people want comforts.
So, after tasty breakfast we got fuel and were shuttled to the Airport. Since this is a small plane there would be two flights. The first group of 4 – Dori, Magda, Viyasan, and I. To tell the truth I was a bit nervous to fly on that bush plane. It was actually shaking and ground seemed very close. I was also afraid to throw up that tasty burrito. But all ended fine. The only sad part was that the forest fire in the park created a lot of smoke and obscured all the gorgeous vistas.
We landed on that little strip of flat gravel in the middle of a valley – Bremner Airstrip. There were some buildings around the airstrip – the remains of the old mining operations. There were actually lots of old rusting machinery scattered around. We set up camp next to some sort of shed with an old Austrian made snowmobile in it. In this wilderness there were used cans (with bullet holes), some metal tools, wires, all sorts of crup everywhere. Actually there are volunteers living (in Summer) in some of the buildings and cataloguing the stuff or historical artifacts – the remains of all the activities that people did in this place.
To get slowly acclimatized we just did a short hike to the local abandoned gold mine. That’s all. We just had dinner, finished the rest of the Jack and went to sleep at 10PM – early and still quite bright out. Tomorrow will be the first hiking day and my backpack is rather heavy. There was some thinking on the leadership part on whether we should start backpacking or do another day hike to acclimatize.
Monday, Aug 3rd.
We were walking all day, sort of. We just went from the first camp up to Iceberg Lake. Total maybe 3 miles. Beautiful lake with standing mountains and still some snow around. It was mostly above all vegetation even though the altitude wasn’t that big. It looked like 10k feet in Kings Canyon NP, but I guess north latitude changes a lot of things. The rocks were much different here. It seems that they were more sedimentary, rather that volcanic as in the Sierras. There were a lot of vegetation growing on the rocks. Perhaps there were more nutrients in the rocks, it is also possible that the greater level of rainfall causes thing to grow. The different rocks also cause the water sources to become muddy. All the glacier runoff and big rivers are actually the colour of gray from all the silt. The silt is that grounded rocks. Mostly the rain little streams are pristinely clear.
So, going back to the trek. The progress was rather slow. There was no trail, we had to scramble through some bushes, rocks, holes in the ground (rock field covered with vegetation with some holes leftover), etc. We stopped at the lake around 3PM, did some swimming in that freezing water and people went to sleep to warm up.
Then we had dinner till maybe 9PM. After that there was a small hike to a local peak of 5500ft. There were actually some other people too, camping on the second small lake. We also saw some birds – quail (or at least that was what the people said). A little different from California quail. These birds were just sitting there and not flying away. People in our group said that there was a nest there, but I didn’t see it. The funniest part of this exercise was, as always, the miscommunication – everyone was guessing what everyone else was thinking and it wasn’t right. Since there were birds with good though little meat in them, they could be eaten. Viyasan was thinking that he would get yelled at if he proposed to catch. Girish was thinking that he would get reprimanded by V for proposing such an idea. It would have made a good addition to the dinner, but maybe next time. We were still actually fine in that day. Still burning our previous supplies. It will become much more difficult later.
Tuesday, Aug 4th.
Morning routine went as usual – get up, stretch, wash, filter, cook, eat, pack, go to toilet.
At the beginning we met the group whose camp we saw the night before. They were doing the same trek as we did, just in the opposite direction. It was about 8 people in their group. They were on their last day and boy were they ready to get done. You can feel it.
We crossed the mountain pass, went down and after some bushwaking set the camp on a shore of a small stream. The water in the stream seemed cloudy. I guess it was the glacier run-off. Filtering it was a pain. I tried my brand-new silt-stopper, but it made the whole water pumping process painstakingly slow. Using the filter straight was a bit scary. That membrane filters are fussy and have to be taken care of very well. I’m still not sure how to do it correctly. There is also no good way to tell if the water comes out good or not. Pumping cloudy water through it would certainly clog up the filter.
Wednesday, Aug 5th.
We crossed the small stream right in the morning, in boots. So the boots were rather wet the rest of the day. Well, the general idea was to remove the socks, liners, and insoles. Then cross, getting the boots wet, of course. Then put the stuff back and continue. However, for some reason the inside of my boots soaked water. After putting the socks back the socks soaked water. So everything was wet. But it was just part of the problem. For some reason wet wool socks smell, terribly. I haven’t smelled such bad stuff for a long time. Due to the day being rather foggy it was very difficult to dry them.
The day was foggy with light drizzle. We went up the ridge on big boulder field and set camp at a late on the top of the ridge.
Thursday, Aug 6th.
Going down from the lake was very difficult. The big boulders were slippery from the fog – one wrong move may bring a lot of pain. After that it was pretty much sailing. The valley was green, the weather started to clear up. It was gorgeous view of the glacier.
The valley was full of vegetation. Some good – blueberries, some not so good – thick bushes. It was still difficult navigation. Going through the bushes on a slope with a backpack is no fun. But the view was spectacular. Mr Viyasan wanted to go down to the glacier and perhaps camp next to it. However, that have proven difficult. So we camped on a relatively flat patch of green carpet. I was very happy because the blueberries were everywhere.
This areas seem so much more alive, at least in comparison to the Sierras. Plants grow here, it is green. You can actually smell the vegetation. Very often Sierra-Nevada mountains are bone dry in summer months. Some stuff grows here and there around the water, but the general feeling is still not the same. I guess this is the case due to rains and other precipitation that occurs all year round.
Friday, Aug 7th.
Morning started with fog. The distant mountain were going in and out and the glacier was nowhere to be seen. There was no question about going anywhere. We had to stay put and wait for the fog to clear. Good thing 🙂 – Dori, myself, and later Prakash were foraging for blueberries. We gathered full pot.
People were surprised to see so many berries. Well, I guess they have never seen full buckets of then on a market. For some reason I was expecting them to be sweeter. Still adding those fresh organic blueberries to the breakfast oatmeal and then to coffee was great. They made the meal a whole lot better.
We set out at around noon. The fog seem to be lifting, at least it lifted well enough to see where to go on the glacier. Glacier! Finally, we can do some serious fun on this trip (and to use all that fancy brand-new equipment we acquired). But before that there was a lot of bushwaking. The closer we were getting to the glacier the thicker the bushes were. The leaders tried to find some easier path, but without much success.
Down at the edge of the glacier we crossed a small stream (no wet boots, yes!) and set out to eat lunch. The weather was cloudy. The presence of the glacier can be felt really well. It was like sitting in a freezer. Cold was almost radiating from it.
The approach to the glacier was like a car ramp – coming up slowly. However, aside from many boulders it was fine. Much easier than dealing with bushes. There were no major technical difficulties on the glacier itself. It was sad because we had to carry all that heavy crampons for no use. But instead the glacier presented quite a bit of very interesting views. There were many little cracks, streams, and puddles. Rocks, rather than polished boulders were everywhere, sometimes quite large. It was just a pleasure to walk – mostly flat ice with good traction. The real fun started later.
We needed some water because it wasn’t clear if there was anything after the glacier. Pumping silted glacier runoff was a very slow going process. The filter would clog very fast and had to be cleaned.
Walking on a glacier is nice, assuming you can get on it and get off it. The getting on part was fine, but we run into some major pains going off this glacier. When glacier slide down from their place of origin they plow the mountains and create these long triangular mountain lines called moraines. Sometimes a glacier glows or shrinks, so there may be more than one moraine. Crossing those moraines is a major pain – they are slippery mixtures of ice and rocks set at different angles. And they are not flat – go up and down, one moraine after another. One slip on those can introduce some painful damage. However, after all that pain we were rewarded with the loveliest camping site. There was some old water body that evaporated leaving nice flat sandy area shielded from wind by old moraine barricades. There was even water there. Not a lot, just tiny trickles going down the mountains. Probably fog condensation. But much better quality than that glacier runoff. Technically there is no poison in the glacier water. But I suspect drinking water with silt wasn’t be good for health.
Saturday, Aug 8th.
Get up the usual and do the chores. The task of today was to cross the last pass and camp. Initially there was a climb up some boulder field. A bit tricky with a heavy pack, but doable. But the spectacular views were coming up from the pass. The weather also was good – no rain and even some sun. Beautiful Alaskan weather. We had a regular lunch on the side of the grassy hill. Then after a bit of walking we settled down to a flat patch of land between two lakes.
That was all the walking for this day. I was a bit sad that I didn’t bring a book. I wasn’t in the mood to hike one of those mountains around. Some people even swam in the larger lake. I wanted to do it, but waited too long and the weather changed so it was a bit difficult to dry out. But there was enough time to relax and admire the view of the Chugach Mountains.
Sunday, Aug 9th.
Hiking-wise this day wasn’t that exciting. Well, I suppose the terrain is getting stale, shoot. We climbed a small saddle from the lake and then went down to the valley. The descent wasn’t too difficult because it was mostly vegetation-covered hills. Then we walked along a river in the valley on some bog. The bog was not too deep and flat. However, it really added effort. It wasn’t like walk in a park. We were actually booking good mileage on that bog getting people exhausted before lunch. Actually, I can see that people were becoming exhausted. Perhaps the constant walk and food deficiency were taking their toll.
But then we saw bears! Two grizzlies. A mother and a cub. Kind of a teenage cub. Keeping the bear sprays prepared we carefully sidestepped at a bit higher ground and went around them. The bears cross the river and walked away. We just continued walking around the glacier and the moraines that surround it. It was coming to 3PM. According to the map and some scouting that we did there wasn’t any good flat spot to set a camp anywhere reasonably around. People were also getting really exhausted and didn’t want to go anywhere. Marek actually totally passed out. So we found a close decent flat sandy spot between boulders and set the camp there.
The weather was a bit funny and changing all the time – it was a little sunny, then drizzling rain, then wind blowing that fine sand everywhere. Sucks. So we had some dinner at 5PM and went to sleep. Seriously, maybe this was too much sleep for me. No wonder I feel tired all the time. Again I was regretting for not bringing a book with me. Also not having a rain fly for my backpack proved to be not so good. The pack’s cover is water resistant, but not water proof. Thus I had to put in under the tent fly in that sand instead of on some clean rock. Oh, well.
Monday, Aug 10th.
Last day of trek. Crossed braids of a stream in boots, no moraines. Since the end was coming close the decision was not to stress too much about wet socks. So I had to endure a couple of miles of wet socks. Damn it, I just barely dried them out. The scary moraine didn’t materialize, which was uplifting. We finally stepped on the airstrip and could see the remains of the Glacier Lake. The airstrip was just a flat plot of sand. I suppose some body of a standing water, perhaps even the Glacier Lake in its past glory, left this flat sand.
Funny thing was that we were a bit concerned about the location of the airstrip. So we came there, we see some glaciers and lots of sad, but where is the airstrip? There were no indications that this is a place where something can land and take off. Seriously, there wasn’t much there. There some questions to the leadership about this.
Well, eventually I saw the bushwheel marks and windsock (unlike the picture in Wikipedia, the windsock in our case was just a pole with a couple of plastic stripes on it).
There was another group of people next to our camp. We saw two great mountaineering tents sitting there. It turned out that one of the guides from St. Elias Alpine Guides was teaching a European couple mountaineering skills.
Tuesday, Aug 11th.
Day hike to the iceberg lake (or what is left of it) and to the Bagley ice field. It was a nice hike for 9 miles of so. The terrain was mostly flat. But the lack of trails made the whole experience quite exhausting. We did reach the lake. Had lunch there and continued to the ice filed.
The approach to the ice field was just hard dark dirty ice incline. No moraine this time. Actually, it would have been more fun without heavy backpacks. There were some cracks and streams in the ice – the usual stuff. At one of the holes, almost at the top, we were looking down wondering how deep it is. I threw a rather big rock in it – you can’t even hear the rock splashing. Damn, that’s a lot of ice. Standing on it you can really feel all that cold in your bones. Weird. So we took some funny pictures and went back.
When we gotten to the campground the wind was picking up. There were some clouds, no rain, but the blow from the ice was strong. We changed the eating area a bit to stay away from the wind. Our neighbours took the best spot behind the dune. I guess the guide knew about the wind. So we were sitting there around the stove eating and talking when one of a sudden a bear appears on the sand across the river. What a f..k? And we didn’t have any bear sprays with us. It was a nosy cub with his mother ear by. The mother was kind of staying away from us. Personally, I think this was the same couple we saw the day before. There is a very small chance that there are two mother and cub pairs in the same area. But people say they were different. So what to do? Slowly, with calm, a couple of people went to the camp for the bear sprays. Then we slowly went up the dune on our side of the river, watching where the bears were going. Then they disappeared. No sign at all, like they vanished into thin air. Maybe they had a dan somewhere in the bushes, maybe there was a path down and we just didn’t see them. But they were gone. Strange. Well, no more fun for today, time to sleep.
Wednesday, Aug 12th.
Get up, eat, wash, pack. The weather looks good so we have to be ready for the planes. The “airfield”, which was just a flat piece of sand dune, was just above our campsite. We were ready. Our neighbours from St. Elias Alpine Guides brought us a couple of bags of trash to carry back. Strange trash – some food, cans, etc. I understand that it will be a hassle with the bears, but this is poor use of resources.
Anyway, the plane came. It brought some three girls and took 4 of our people, 5 stayed behind – “V”, Magda, Yoko, Dory, and me. The girls it brought looked rather unprepared for the conditions. They slowly went up a hill carrying what seemed like car camping equipment in their hands. Everyone was wondering where they were going. The pilot on our plane later said that these girls were working in McCarthy during summer and just went out for a weekend. They should be fine.
So we waited, on the airstrip. What else can we do? We have to be ready at a moment’s notice to get up and go as soon as the next plane comes. I was trying to hide behind my small backpack against the wind and sand blowing from the South – the ice field. It was sunny but blowing cold. It would be interesting if a storm picked up and we had to stay one more day here. But it didn’t happen – the second aeroplane came back on time.
The flight back was great. There was no smoke like on the initial flight. Plus the flight was longer. We flew over the area that drained Iceberg Lake, some forest, big and muddy rivers, little lakes in the forest. Beautiful. I was actually sad that it was over. That was the best in-flight movie I have ever seen.
After we landed and were driven into town we went straight to the Roadside Potatoehead eatery. I had to steal some money from people again because I left my valet in the van. After meat I went to the general store to get some blueberry ice-cream. Honestly, this food was the best. People were talking about this and that food they will be eating after the trip. But in reality, the good tasty warm food right after we landed was the best. All the restaurant stuff afterwards was just usual trip food.
The main part of the trip is done, all the packs are loaded into the van, we are set to drive back, somewhere. There is actually still a discussion on what to do for the next couple of days. Man, I hate this. Do this, do that – no one really knows what to do. No plan equals waste of time.
The drive on the gravel road back was actually very pleasant. All that rail set the dust. The nature was beautiful and smelled fresh. We stopped for a moment in Chitina to return the bear boxes, I skipped the $16 t-shirts in McCarthy, and we set to go to the town of Valdez. I still don’t know why. I suppose “V” decided this. People were sleeping during the drive and I, as usual, didn’t. But the drive was fun, much more pleasant than the last time.
Valdez greeted us with thick fog and some sort of rain. I think that the town is very pretty when there is no fog. There are gorgeous mountains, some waterfalls, and glaciers around it. But I have a feeling that the days without fog rather numbered. In this place the cold current from San Francisco ends. It brings a lot of nutrients and moisture. All this brings a lot of beauty that I like. The town itself seems like an RV paradise – they were everywhere. That campground that we found was actually RV campground. It just had a tiny backpacking area away from the main campground. Also, Valdez is actually itself tiny. Just a couple of streets. The campground we booked had showers. This made everyone happy. Mr “V” actually shaved. How not nice. He was supposed to show wilderness leadership. But instead he just went back to civilization at the first opportunity. He is getting soft.
The backpacking site had wooden platforms for the tents. Nice if you don’t want to put your tent into mud. But it gets a little tricky to put the stocks in.
People were hungry for some good food, and a lot of it. Some dead animals were expected. We tried to find a place that may sell moose or caribou steaks. But it turned out that Alaska doesn’t sell this type of meat commercially any more. You can go and get it from hunters, but not in a restaurant. So, we had to settle for some standard food. We actually barely found a place sine everything was closing. After that the group went to some bar for rounds of drinking and sort of dancing. What a waste of time.
Thursday, Aug 13th till Saturday, Aug 15th – Recovery
The morning was slow due to the previous night’s drinking. Megan spotted a very unique coffee shop where we had breakfast – Magpies Bakery. It is actually set in someone’s house. The two women who own it (apparently) cook all the food. They also have many photos around the shot of them in nice vintage turn of 20th century outfits.
From Valdez we went to the Copper River visitor center for the Wrangell St. Elias NP. Spend what seemed like an obscene amount of money there. Mr Viyasan managed to leave the lights on in the van. Thus, after all going around and shopping in the center we spend considerable amount of time trying to get it started. The cell phone coverage in this area wasn’t very good; AAA didn’t even know where to go; there are only a couple of people on the parking lot and on top of this most of them had rental cars. Those cars don’t usually come with jump cables. But eventually we found some local Alaskan with the cables. It turned out that this guy actually works (or volunteers) in Wrangell NP (maybe that’s why he was there around the visitor center). He actually takes part in the documenting of all the garbage, sorry – artifacts, around that Bremner airfield.
After that the decision was made to go back to Anchorage. It was rather clear to me that the rest of the days will be wasted. In the absence of the clear leadership and the goal people tend to behave like a herd of cats or molecules displaying Brownian motion – lots of activity, but no real result. We found lots of brochures about touristy stuff in Alaska, but nothing really can be planned at this point. Thus the drive was going to rainy Anchorage. We stopped by on the way to eat lunch+dinner at Eureka Roadhouse. It is a small diner+hotel+dancing room. The food was heavy American style (but with clean water), but their home made pies were exceptional. They also had that dancing room fully loaded with all sorts of dead animals. They had that whale tooth, bear skins, including polar bear, deer, caribou, moose, etc. Violent people. Well, I suppose that was the culture here in Alaska before. In reality, hunters actually value nature more than lay city people who never seen it.
Then we set off to Anchorage. The nature was actually turning to the beautiful fall colors, especially when we were coming closer to Anchorage. Someone found a weird campground right next to a highway. It is just a standard drive in campground. It was raining and the campground was empty. We went to a grocery store to load on food (especially fruits and vegetables). Then set up camp in the rain. Shit, I hate wet camping. That campground had obscene number of mushrooms growing all around. It was wet forest after all. I did some cooking, tea. People didn’t really want to eat anything any more. There was way too much food.
Friday was late start. Marek kept pestering me for getting up so early. C‘mon, dude, time is precious to spend on sleep, especially on a trip. We can be going places. Somehow I nagged to get people up, pack and load into the wan. At about 11AM we rolled into a local diner called Pancake something. I wasn’t going to sleep in a wet campground with a questionable shower the next day. So I found a hostel in Anchorage. Very nice place called 26th Street Hostel. This place is run by some Indian couple (South-Asian Indian, not American-Indian), who barely spoke any English. The hostel looked really small from the outside, but it actually had a ton of rooms inside. As usual in hostels there were all sorts of people hanging around. We met a French couple who went down the Yukon river from Canada (or even farther East) to Bering Sea on kayaks (don’t remember if there two of them or one). Our dudes were just standing with open mouths listening to that. I think that main part they were jealous about was that long vacation. Damn Europeans.
On the last day – Saturday – we split into two groups. One group went to a local park in Anchorage, the other group went to a air museum. I joined the park group. I figured that I can see airplanes somewhere else, but the Alaskan nature is rather unique. It was really nice green park located between the airport and the bay. The planes were flying like crazy every minute or so. On top of that most of the planes were cargo. People said that there may be some wild animals in the park. Well, it is Alaska after all. We didn’t anything special except two gorgeous male moose munching on the abundant greens right next to a trail.
- Nice description of the trip with the map can be found here: Wrangell St.Elias NP Backpacking tip at EveryTrail.
- Full photos are in this Flickr album.