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Friday, August 30, 2013

Hiking in Alaska: Harding Icefield Trail

Hiking in Alaska can be trying; mosquitoes, grizzly bear and our old foe, moose are always a possibility. Depending on the time of year you can run into rain, snow and ice on the trails as well. We never thought that heat and smoke would be a problem, but that's what we ran into on our way up to see a river of ice.

Kenai Fjords National Park encompasses a huge area in south central Alaska; it protects the area "where mountains, ice and ocean meet" along the Kenai peninsula. Most of it can only be viewed by boat along the water's edge but if you're up to the challenge you can hike to the origin of Exit Glacier, the Harding Icefield.
A massive river of ice: Exit Glacier

I've always been fascinated by glaciers; I find their polar blue color and deep crevasses hypnotizing. Exit Glacier is one of the more accessible ones and the park service has built a Nature Center at the base to show off it's magnificence.

The trail starts at the boardwalk at the rear of the Nature Center--turn to the left and you can view the glacier up close and personal on the Edge of the Glacier trail. Go to the right to start the Harding Icefield trail.
Apparently it was a toll road. This guy gave us a glassy stare as we walked by.

The hike starts out in lush meadows; it was late June and the snow had recently melted off leaving beautiful wildflowers in it's wake. The 24 hour light makes the foliage grow fast and huge, parts of the trail were almost overrun with plant life. Although we had started at 7:00am, it was already a warm 80 degrees and the damp ground combined with the dense foliage made for a humid start. We stripped off our outer layer and tried to move fast enough to out pace the mosquitoes. This was futile, of course, and just ended up making us sweaty and itchy.

Lupine, astilbe and fireweed are some of the wildflowers found along the trail.
There is a trail there. Really. (lower left corner)

The trail leads up a ridge beside the glacier, and it was nice to have such a great view while we stopped to rest now and then. It's pretty much all uphill; the trail gains 1,000 feet for every mile for a total of 4.1 miles to the top.
Looking back toward the valley (trail starts at the river level, just to the left of the picture)
Note the hazy sky from wildfires near Fairbanks.

About 2.5 miles up we hit our first snow patch. Depending on the year, the snow doesn't melt off until July or so--in fact there is avalanche danger if you go too early--so be prepared for anything if you decide to take this one on. We were wearing our light hiking shoes which turned out not to be the most optimal for the conditions. We really showed our mild-California-Mediterranean-winter colors as we slipped and slid all over the place (I have never, nor will I ever, live in a place that snows. I'm just a snow wimp I guess.) It was a bit surreal, because even as we climbed higher, and snow patches turned into solid snow trail, it was still about 80 degrees. Smoke from fires to the north around Fairbanks was making the otherwise clear day hazy. The overall effect made the whole hike seem dream-like.

The trail across the snow. Hot, tired but happy.

We crossed the last big snowfield, crested the trail The ice field was spread out below us, huge and an eery blue color. Huge crevices split into the ice looked big enough to swallow large vehicles.
View from the overlook: Harding Icefield

We had the privilege to be there all by ourselves, just a slight breeze to break up the silence. I kept expecting to hear the ice cracking.

The crevasses have a weird beauty.

We sat on a rock outcropping and took it all in. Glaciers are deceiving; you can clearly see the flow patterns in the crevasses and striations but you can't see it move. The piles of snow in the surrounding mountains all fed into this immense valley of ice, pushing it slowly downhill. Once again, Alaska served up an awesome sight.

After eating a few snacks, we poked around the small cabin at the top placed there as a shelter in case of bad weather. It was tethered down with some serious lengths of steel cable. I take it the wind (and possibly lightning) can get pretty nasty up there.
Emergency shelter, top of Harding Icefields

We loitered around until the first wave of hikers started showing up. It's always fun to be the only ones in such a wonderful place; once it started getting more crowded it was time to head back down. (Crowded on an Alaskan trail is a relative term: I think four more people showed up when we decided to leave.)

Two bear cubs decide to wrestle while Mom shakes her head.

On our way down we met a Park Ranger coming back up. This hideous woman*--who we began to refer to as the Trail Nazi--was setting little red flags down in the snow, far from the worn snow trail we had followed on the way up. Apparently others before us had blazed the trail in the wrong place, and the Trail Nazi was ordering all of us to follow this red flag trail, as that was the proper one.

And I thought the way up had been miserable.

Since we were the first ones to use this "proper" trail, every step was up to the knee, and in some cases, our whole legs were swallowed. It was so warm the snow had begun to melt internally, leaving a stale crust on top with big voids underneath. It was a soggy, horrible, hard way to hike. Our boots were filling with water when they broke through to the little stream beds forming underneath and our pants were soaked. At one point I slid down on my rear end, just to distribute my weight more evenly. We cursed this woman for two miles, until we eventually got ourselves out of the snow and back onto the dirt and wildflower part of the trail. Mud never looked so good.

*she was not hideous, she was just doing her job. We were hot, tired and cranky and could not control the evil thoughts coming out of our brains.

Exit Glacier terminus in the smoky light.

On our way out, we checked out the base of the glacier. The massive blue ice was piled high and towered over our heads. Apparently large chunks fall off in at random, so it's not advised to stand in front of it. We waited around a bit hoping something would happen, but it was not to be; hot and thirsty we headed back to the truck.

A "can't believe I'm here" moment: top of Harding Icefield Trail.
A link to the trail map: Harding Icefield Trail Map

The Harding Icefield trail is located about 9 miles down Exit Glacier Road, just outside of Seward, Alaska. If you have time (and if you don't, make some), don't miss the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward: 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Blood, Sweat and Fears: Injuries on the Trail

I have heard it said that injuries are the most common within one mile of the home. It makes sense; I suppose we spend the majority of our time there. But it seems to fly in the face of Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. More specifically for Mark and I: the farther from home, the greater the chance of injury.

We've actually been pretty lucky injury-wise, but it's the near misses that are enough to make the hairs stand on end. One of the last trips we made to Death Valley (bad back flare up to the indispensable Mark) scared me enough to sign up for a Wilderness First Aid Training course just to brush up on my ancient first aid knowledge.
Hiking in Death Valley requires gobs of sunscreen and gallons of water.

When you think about injuries during a hike the big gory ones come to mind first: falling off cliffs, bear attacks, snake bites, avalanches--all threats that could end your life in an instant. In my experience it's more often the little things that start to snowball. I can't tell you how many times we've taken off on a trail "just to see where it goes" and come back hours later, dehydrated and hungry because we hadn't started out with the intention of doing a long hike. The trailhead was just there, and wouldn't it be cool to see where it goes? And whoa, this is pretty, let's just see what's around the corner... No water, no food, no extra clothing in case of a weather change. Stupid.

Go climb a rock, they said.
Half Dome, Yosemite National Park


Dehydration is no joke. And it seems unnecessary to mention, but if you do remember to pack it along, don't forget to drink it. I'm embarrassed to tell you this, but on my first big hike in Yosemite I made some poor decisions that ended with me collapsing at the end. I really wanted to hike to Half Dome--it's the one you have to finish if you want to call yourself a Yosemite hiker--and I had trained for months. We loaded up on snacks and water and set off on the trail early in the morning. We made it to the top around noon, stopping long enough to admire the view and take a few pictures after eating lunch from our perch on the dome. We made our way back down pretty quickly, and as we got more and more tired we got more and more impatient with the crowds of people on the trails near Vernal and Nevada falls. We stopped a few times and had a little water, but in the end we just wanted to get back to our campsite, so we rushed down the mountain. At the base of the trail there's a snack bar and I was obsessed with the thought of an icy cold drink after 18 miles of dusty trail. We finally got to the snack bar and of course there was a long line of people waiting for their icy cold cokes. Augh! On our way down we had been worried that it would be closing soon, so we had run the last mile or so to make sure we got there in time. I think the running, then the sudden stopping combined with not drinking enough water got me. One minute I was standing in line, the next thing I knew Mark and some guy I never saw before were propping me up on a bench, asking if I was ok. Fainted dead away. Drink your water folks.


The other little injury that's probably the most common is the lowly blister. It starts out just feeling a little uncomfortable--maybe a little burning area on a toe or the back of the heel. But if you don't stop to treat it/fix it/adjust the boots or socks it will bite you in the end. Here's a fine example of a post 16 mile hike injury:
Unhappy pinky toe leads to a miserable hike for Mark.

Get enough of those and you won't be walking too much farther. If you try to keep going while favoring your other foot, you just might end up with a sore hip or knee from throwing yourself off kilter. That leads to back pain in some people (me), which means you can't really carry your pack anymore, which means (when backpacking) no food, water, tent, sleeping's a slippery slope. Better to get a good pair of hiking boots properly fitted and broken in and a really good pair of hiking socks. There is no way your partner is going to want to carry his pack, your pack and your sorry self down the trail. It used to be moleskin was the only choice for blister care; it worked pretty well, but boy when you had to take it off you more than likely pulled off some skin with it. Ouch. There's a fairly new product out that is a toe saver. REI carries a BlisterMedic kit (BlisterMedic) that has a two layer system: first a layer of gel padding--it looks like gelatin--then a protective bandage. It really cools the burning and keeps the rubbing to a minimum.

Cuts and Scrapes

I once slipped on a rock and smashed my shin so hard I was convinced it was broken. I rolled up my pant leg slowly, not really wanting to see, and found an egg sized bump had already risen there, with a little blood just for show. Ice isn't plentiful out in the wilderness, so having a small towel or washcloth dipped in cool water really helps the swelling. And of course Advil.

The results of playing slip and slide down a gravel hill. Owl Canyon, Mojave Desert.

Mark is the king of cuts. Knives, saws, scissors, sharp places on the truck--they have all found him and made him bleed. We always carry a huge first aid kit in the truck with a wide assortment of bandages to cover most any occasion. We have a slightly smaller version that comes along on the trail with us, which we have used many many times.

Bugs and Mysterious Itchy Spots

It never fails; you've just gotten settled into your sleeping bag and have managed to almost drift off to sleep, when you hear "zzzzzzzzZZZzzzzzz" Mosquitoes are annoying, and if you're like me, cause big itchy bumps that hang around for days. Deet is the only thing we've ever found that actually keeps them away, but I hate putting it on. It smells like some sort of industrial product that should require personal protective gear to handle. On our Alaskan trip, it actually melted the paint off our camera case because we handled it so often with Deet on our hands. Once bitten though, there's not much you can do about the itching. Benadryl works ok, but only at night. I get really groggy when I take that stuff. There's a solution called Sting-Ease that works for about half an hour--enough time to forget it's itchy and hopefully be distracted enough to not start scratching again. It works on bee stings and other assorted itchy spots too, but the real cure is not to scratch them in the first place. Hard to do.

The Trip Stoppers

We have cut a few trips short due to injury over the years; twice because of bad backs flaring up. Nothing is as miserable as a pinched nerve in the back. Most everything on the human body is hung off the spine, and when it's acting up, every movement--from lifting to breathing--hurts. The best you can do is try to avoid it in the first place: core exercises and proper lifting. Seems like we all know how to lift properly, but the world just wasn't built with OSHA standards in mind. Try putting on a 60 pound backpack that's laying on the ground "properly" without help.

We are prepared for, but haven't yet had to deal with, broken bones, open wounds, heat stroke and eye injuries. Frankly, I don't ever want to deal with them and the fact that we have the kit to help makes me feel better about never needing it. It's that old Murphy's Law again: if you don't have it with you, you'll surely need it. Conversely I figure if we've got it, we'll never have to use it.  I know, irrational, but it works for me.

A fall from here would be fatal (but at least we wouldn't have to worry about our medical coverage.)

As we get older, I get more worried about something more catastrophic than blisters or cuts happening on the trail. We've taken the 8 hour class that covered the basics of first aid (from Sweet Otter), but I'm now thinking of taking the full certification class to drill in more techniques. There's a certain Catch-22 to aging; we finally have the money, knowledge and equipment to get farther out into the wilderness just as our bodies are starting to whine about going farther out into the wilderness.

Youth really is wasted on the young isn't it?

Happy (and Maturing) Hikers: the Running From Moose Team

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Awesome: Denali National Park

In late June of 2006 we arrived on a cloudy day and checked into the campground at Denali National Park. We had anticipated our visit for weeks, and were thrilled to finally be there. First thing on the agenda was signing up for the bus tour. As we stood in line, we heard some groups complaining that they had gone out the day before and Mt. McKinley* was completely hidden behind the clouds. They were not happy about paying $25.00 each to see something that, as far as they knew, wasn't even there. It was going to be a tough day for the rangers at the desk. (Note: since 2006 the prices have gone up. The shuttle tour we took would be $33.50 this year.)

Denali National Park is huge--six million acres--and very little of it is accessible by car. The land and it's resident wildlife are fiercely protected from human interference by the park so they have set up a system of buses to carry people down it's lone road. There are a few campgrounds and some backcountry permits for backpackers, but most visitors are limited to seeing it by the shuttle buses. (There is a lottery system that allows a few drivers into the park for four days in early September. It's very popular and you have to be flexible enough to be available; in turn Mother Nature has to allow you access. If you win and if snow doesn't close the road you are allowed to drive the 92 miles to Wonder Lake in your own vehicle for one whole day for a $25.00 fee.)

The campgrounds in Denali NP are pretty nice. Plenty of trees and foliage to shield you from your neighbors. (Our truck was coated with mud and dust from our drive on the Dalton Highway in the days preceding--the campground isn't really that muddy. Interested in that story? Click here)
As tall as it is, Mt. McKinley is not visible from the park entrance, or from the campground. The only way to see it is to get into a bus (or hike) and get beyond the set of foothills at the base of the Alaska Range. The gravel road through the park is 92 miles long and terminates at Wonder Lake at the base of the mountain. There are several choices for shuttle bus tours depending on how long you can take riding with a bunch of strangers in a converted school bus. We chose the halfway point (OK, two-thirds point): Eielson Visitor Center is located at mile 66 and takes about four hours to reach. It's located on bluffs at the base of the mountain, and on a clear day there's a terrific view from the back deck of the center. With stops for pictures and a half hour at the Visitor Center, the tour would last nine hours or so round trip.

We decided to make reservations for the next day starting early in the morning, figuring it might increase our odds of seeing the mountain. We spent the rest of that day washing ourselves and our clothes so we wouldn't be kicked off the bus by an angry hoard of tourists--we had been on the road at that point for over two weeks and were getting kind of ripe (most of the other visitors seemed to be staying in hotels so they probably appreciated our efforts.) The park campground has showers and a small laundromat available which couldn't have come at a better time. The sun finally came out that afternoon and we took a little hike and checked out the park a bit.

Moose having lunch in a beaver pond, Denali National Park

The Denali Star makes a stop in the park. This looks like a fun trip--from Anchorage to Fairbanks, with stops in between. Maybe when we retire and are too old for road trips.

At 6:30 the next morning, we crawled out of our sleeping bags, packed some snacks and water bottles and ran over to the Visitor Center to catch the bus. The driver not only drove the bus, but was our tour guide for the day. He told us about the park and the animals we might be seeing. He kept emphasizing that there was so much more to the park than just the mountain, which was only visible in the summer months about 20-30% of the time. True, it's home to grizzly bear, migrating caribou, wolves, fox, bighorn sheep, yada yada yada... Is the mountain out  today or not? we all wanted to yell. He was being very cagey.

Run, Forest, run! Dall sheep on the road in Denali NP

2006 was an unusually hot dry year in Alaska. We had seen huge wildfires up north of Fairbanks, and smoke was hanging over most of the state interfering with visibility. We were worried that if the clouds actually parted for us, the smoke might obscure our view anyway. So we tried to be patient, looking out the windows and listening to the talk. It was late June and we were still enjoying 24 hour light; by 9:00am it was already 80 degrees. We saw some caribou hanging out in the shade under a bridge, panting and not looking like they were having any fun. In fact, the guide said a lot of the animals were not as active as usual because of the heat. Other than the caribou, we did see a fox, a mountain goat, bighorn sheep and one grizzly bear way way up on a hillside. It was pretty amazing out there--once we passed the point in the road where cars were turned back, there were no fences, buildings or people for as far as the eye could see.

Arctic Fox, hanging out on the road

Caribou trying to escape the heat

The tiny blond dot in the middle is a very large grizzly bear, probably two miles away. 
(Picture taken with a telephoto lens--that's how far away it was.)

Bighorn sheep.

As we rounded a corner, the driver told us where to look, that this would be our first chance to see Mt. McKinley.

And there it was.

Pictures just can't do it justice: Mount McKinley 20,320ft.
For scale, look to the bottom right--that's a full size bus on the road. (Picture taken from Eielson Visitor Center)

"Awesome" got a lot of use back in the 1990s--it was used to describe everything from a rock concert to a good cup of coffee. I was irritated by that and remember thinking "what word are you going to use when you see something that's truly, well, awesome?" I think the moment we rounded that corner was the first time I actually saw the genuine article. Awesome. So awesome that the only thing any of the 50 people on the bus could say was "oohhhh."

We took about 100 pictures, but none of them can do justice to the sight. You have to go see it for yourself. Seriously, you have to.

Even the driver was amazed, not one cloud anywhere in sight. Often clouds settle at mid-level, with the top half of the mountain visible but the bottom obscured. There was a slight haze from the wildfires, but not enough to make it any less amazing. The bus pulled over and for the next ten minutes the only sound was the clicking of camera shutters. It was hard to get back onboard, but we had to in order to make the rest of the trip and keep the bus on schedule.

From there, we traveled up to the Eielson Visitor Center. A small center, it's only open from June to early September. There's a large picture window looking out toward the mountain with an outline in white etched on the surface to show what the mountain would look like if you were unlucky enough to be there on a cloudy day.  What a letdown that would have been.

Mark tries out the caribou antlers.

Mew Gull at Eielson Visitor Center deck, looking for a handout.

The bus ride back was hot and sweaty, but you couldn't wipe the smiles off our faces. We beat the odds and knew it--clouds were starting to form in front of the mountain as we made our way back to the campground.

I can't wait to go back and try our odds again.

Oh, just one more. Awesome.

*or Denali as it should rightfully be called. Sadly, the official change to the Koyukon Athabaskan's name "Dinale" or Denali is still in legislation. Ohio won't let it go, being the proud state of it's native son, President William McKinley. You can read about the controversy here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ghosts and Gold: Bodie State Historic Park

I'm a sucker for ghost towns and Bodie is one of my favorites. Whenever we're within fifty miles of the place we always stop in. Nothing has really changed over the years, but I always seem to see something I missed during a previous visit.

Everything is as they left it in Bodie

Bodie started life during the gold rush, attracting all the get-rich-quick types and the usual cast of characters that follow; bartenders, prostitutes, storekeepers, bankers, and a few pastors trying to stem the tide of sins. Yeah, good luck with that.

Interior of Bodie church, the pews looking curiously unworn...

It's located on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada off CA highway 395, seven miles south of Bridgeport. There are actually a couple ways to get there, the most direct of which is the main entrance off the highway. Be prepared: even though (or possibly because) it's a state park, the last three miles is a gravel road that can have some pretty dental crunching washboard ridges. A regular passenger car can make it easily but you might want to check your lug nuts once you get there.

There's a nice dirt back road that leads from the northern side of Mono Lake up and over the hills into Bodie. It travels through open range land with some beautiful scenery. We stopped and watched a rancher round up a herd of sheep with his dog last time we went through and were amazed. I've seen it done in controlled settings before but seeing it out on the range was spectacular. I can only dream of someday having a dog that obeys that well.

Sneaking in the back way: Cottonwood Canyon Road

When you get there be sure to sign up for the tour of the old stamp mill. Some of the original equipment is still inside, and it's fun to imagine what it was like to work there back in the day. It will really make you appreciate your day job.

Stamp assembly, interior of Bodie stamp mill

Bodie was no picnic; the town was known for it's weather extremes and it's murder rate. Summer there is the typical eastern Sierra blaze of heat and in the winter (with windchill) it's been known to get down to -60F with twenty foot drifts of snow. Living there in those leaky old wooden cabins with just a wood stove for heat must have been an exercise in stamina. You couldn't just run down to REI and grab the latest 0 degree sleeping bag--they had scratchy wool blankets (if they were lucky.); firewood was hard to come by on that relatively tree-less side of the mountains. And if you survived the winter, you might just be shot down in the street by a drunken miner on his day off or stabbed and robbed by a guy too lazy to dig out his own gold.  Every other year, it seemed, the town would burn to the ground and have to be rebuilt.

Burial plot gate, Bodie Cemetery
Hearse, Bodie Visitor's Center

As it stands now, Bodie is being preserved in it's "arrested state of decay" by the state. They do just enough to keep the surviving buildings from falling over. There's still furniture in some of the cabins, and there's a nice visitor's center filled with old pictures and relics from the mining days, including a horse drawn hearse that apparently got a lot of use.

Clouds reflected in shop window
Shops on Main Street Bodie

Storm brewing over downtown Bodie
Only the finest for the working girls in Bodie

Blacksmith shop yard

Assay Equipment

Last time we were there a thunderstorm was brewing overhead. Just as we were leaving, thunder started rolling overhead and stabs of lightning were striking the surrounding hills; it really added to the haunted feel of the place. It was awfully nice of the park to put out such an effort for us but they needn't have gone to all that work; we'll be back to visit soon.

Here's a link to the park website if you're interested in visiting: Bodie State Historic Park