Blog .:. July 2013 1 Entries

Where have I been this time? Oh, just a short trip up to Alaska

29 July 2013 Comments

In late June, one of work’s Anchorage-based project managers emailed me and asked if I would like to go to Alaska for a few weeks.

Let’s see: July in Texas vs July in Alaska?

It took me longer to type that last sentence out than it did to read her email and reply “Yes!!!”

I already had plans for the 4th of July weekend (I went camping in central Texas, where, I am proud to say, I only got lost while hiking one time, and that time didn’t count because there was no water in the river and I could have just walked down it back to the campsite, without hardly getting my feet wet.).

Anyway… where was I? After I got unlost and returned home, I packed and hopped on a plane for Alaska.

Since I have been missing the mountains like you would not believe, I wanted to spend as much time out hiking in them as I could.

The first weekend, a coworker and I headed to Exit Glacier and the Harding Ice Field trail. The Harding Ice Field is the largest ice field contained entirely within the US, and it is reached by hiking four miles back and climbing about 2,500 feet. Most of the elevation gain is in the first mile and a half.

I am… not fit.

I’m also not very good at reading things like “8 miles round trip” and “2,500 feet up” and drawing reasonable conclusions from them.

Aside from a too-close near run in with a black bear, the first mile or so went just fine. The next leg nearly killed me, but liberal pledges of “let’s just get to that next ridge” got me up to the 2.2 mile mark.

This is where you get the first glimpse of the ice field. As I sat on a rock and contemplated death, a steady stream of happy people passed by us, heading downhill. The view at the end was totally worth it, they said. You’re almost there, they said. That was a lie. It was the sort of lie you tell someone who looks like they are dead on their feet, because maybe it will encourage them to get to the end. Plus, by the time they find out you lied, you’ll be in your car and halfway to home.

Eventually we stopped a ranger and asked about the rest of the hike, and he gave some directions that I do not remember any more, but there was a “downhill” in there somewhere. My friend and I pulled our packs on and started off again. Downhill sounded promising.

We scrambled up a slope of loose rock, trudged along a trail pretending to be level, slipped across a few small snow banks, and then we found a large rock. I announced that I was done, kaput, finis. My coworker said she wanted to go to the next ridge, and I wished her well. I was going to hold down this rock. Just in case.

While she was gone, a happy looking hiker passed by headed the other way. I wondered what it was about the view that was making everyone look so damn chipper, and reluctantly asked her how much further it was. She pointed and headed off. I eyed the ridge and reluctantly concluded it would be a shame to be so close and not make it all the way, so I headed off after my friend.

She hadn’t gone that much further ahead, so I pointed out our destination and off we went. I had my second wind by then, and that last mile or so went by pretty easily.

We hung out at the edge of the ice field for a while, enjoying the view. It was worth that last push to get there, even if I don’t remember much about the push. It’s probably better that way.

Then we realized that we had to walk back four miles and descend those 2,500 feet we had climbed.

All I am going to say about the hike back down is that 1) I made it, 2) by the end, we were both so tired and brain dead that our warn-the-bears conversation consisted of things like “To the left, you will see trees. And plants. And some purple flowers. On the right, there are yellow flowers. And a rock.”

For three days after that hike, I walked around like a lame duck. But after three days, I realized that I really needed to get out and do an easy but mid-distance walk and get things stretching again.

My mom agreed to go with me, and we headed off to a trail I was told was easy and went past a canyon.

As it turned out, the canyon wasn’t a canyon so much as a deep valley, but that’s ok. It was cool. Less cool: the trail soon went up a mountain. The trail was supposed to loop back to itself, but after three miles I cried uncle. It was still going uphill, and this was not the easy, stretchy walk I had been planning on. When we finally got back to a trail map, we found out we weren’t on the trail we thought we were (surprised? You shouldn’t be), and it was a good thing we turned around, because it would have been 10-15 miles before we got back otherwise.

So that was fun.

The next day, I emailed my coworker and asked if she’d like to do something easier than the Harding trail over the weekend—like a kayak/hike trip. In a weird coincidence, she knew another group planning on exactly that, and we tacked on.

The trip was to kayak a couple miles from Seward to Caines Head, hike up to Fort McGilvray, eat lunch, and do it all in reverse.

We ended up delayed a few hours due to wind, and then the guide announced we were good to go. We looked out at the bay and couldn’t see that it was any better than it had been two hours before, but what’s the worst that could happen?

For one thing, the guides began explaining safety protocols. Their presentation was a little awkward, because they kept breaking their “IF this happens, do X” script to say, “seriously, based on conditions, this is likely to happen. WHEN it does…”

Fortunately, the wind died down shortly after we headed out and no one rolled their kayak. One of the guides did get swamped heading into the beach and had to bail out his boat, but that was the worst of it.

The hike up to the fort was great, and some of the other participants taught us an important lesson. My coworker and I had packed our bags like we were hiking. The other group had a much better handle on what it meant that we were kayaking out, so they busted out a full-fledged picnic, complete with a fresh salmon spread, home-grown lettuce, and beer. If I ever do a trip like this again, I am totally packing a deluxe lunch in a cooler and bringing it along.

We hiked back down to the beach and about half the group opted to take a water taxi back to Seward rather than paddle back. This left my friend and I with the guide and a family of four who are all unbelievably fit. Most of the trip seemed to consist of them waiting for us to catch up, then shooting off again, while we paddled doggedly along with half the breaks.

But since the group was smaller and none of us were in a hurry, the guide threw in an extra stop on the way back so we could hike in a short way and see a waterfall. This gave my coworker and I a chance to rest a bit, and it turned out to be a perfect opportunity for me to lose my sunglasses.

The last mile or so back to Seward was pure torture, but we made it somehow. Probably the same way we made it through the worst of the Harding hike—you just keep going, because not going isn’t really an option.

We then headed back to Anchorage. My arms and hands were screaming bloody murder at me, and I was driving a stick shift, so the drive promised to be miserable. It only got worse—an accident early in the day backed up traffic, and it was compounded by the fact that all the people who went out salmon fishing/dipnetting were also heading back at the same time. For about 60 miles, I never made it out of second gear.

But much to my surprise, by the next morning I was feeling almost normal again. My arms were sore, but it was a good soreness.

I decided the last thing I really wanted to do was hike Flattop, which is a mountain located just outside Anchorage. It’s one of the most-climbed mountains in the state, but you get a good view of Anchorage once you’re up there. Plus, it was my last chance to do any sort of mountain/hill climbing before I left.

Unfortunately, Flattop kicked my ass. We think we made it about 2.5 of the 2.8 miles, and we were about 3/4 of the way up the last steep climb. At that point, you are more or less scrambling over rocks and following faint criss-crossing trails. Or not—sometimes they just disappear. For whatever reason, I had been having trouble catching my breath the entire time, and I was exhausted when we took our last break.

I still haven’t figured out why Flattop was so rough on me compared to the Harding trail, but for all its popularity, Flattop is not a jaunt in the park. People have died and been seriously injured on it, and I was not keen on risking a fall just so I could say I made it to the top.

Next time.

I flew back to Houston on Saturday, and spent all day Sunday being yelled at by my cats if I so much as got off the couch. Even the Demon Child missed me.

I have pictures from the hikes that will be posted in the gallery once I get them all transferred to my home computer. One of the awesome things about Alaska is that you don’t have to be a good photographer to take good pictures—it’s beautiful everywhere you look.

If only it didn’t have those 8-month long winters. I’d never have left it in the first place.

Tagged: 2013 - Alaska, Bears, Hiking, Kayaking, United States - Alaska, United States - Alaska - Anchorage, United States - Alaska - Caines Head, United States - Alaska - Exit Glacier, United States - Alaska - Flattop Mountain, United States - Alaska - Fort McGilvray, United States - Alaska - Harding Ice Fields, United States - Alaska - Resurrection Bay, United States - Alaska - Seward

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