Monday, August 30, 2010

Cruise Ship Visitors

Last Thursday, one of Mr. X's childhood friends came to visit. J & J were on their honeymoon cruise and contacted us for a day of storytelling and touring.

Ever the optimists (yeah. right.), we tried to cram as much as we could in to their shore excursion:
  • driving tour of Alaska's capital city
  • McCauley fish hatchery
  • Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls
  • Auke Bay boat harbor
  • RotFather's Grill for lunch
  • Whale watching at the Shrine of St. Therese
  • hiking at Windfall Lake
  • Mt Robert's tram

Not bad for a single day in town. The weather was pretty awful out to Auke Bay, but we thoroughly enjoyed our sunny visit to the Shrine. And I was reminded of how friendly and charming midwesterners are - it was a real treat to meet J & J and we wish them all the best.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


  • Saturday evening, we walked out to the glacier. The tourists were all out hunting for a bear sighting. That mama and cubs gave them the slip, 'cause we found them in the beaver pond upstream - beyond the viewing area.

  • Sunday, we went walking along Montana Creek. We stopped and got laughed at by some ptarmigans and then I tripped over a Chum salmon. It was just laying there right on the edge of the path. I'm pretty sure we had interrupted some cub's supper, because while fish can jump, they don't usually jump twenty feet up a hillside.

  • When we got home one evening a few weeks ago, I found a plastic bag on our door knob. Inside was a slab of Coho from our neighbor. Not in the mood for fish, I tossed it in the freezer. Last night we fried the puppy up and enjoyed the incredible, rich flavor of wild Alaska Salmon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Last day: M/V Malaspina to Juneau

Sunday we hopped up at 4 am, took down the tent and packed the car for the last time. We were out of Dyea by 4:23. At 4:40 we rolled in the Ferry Terminal ready to check in - only they weren't open yet so we sped over to the small boat harbor for showers. Wahoo!

We had a delightful cruise back to Juneau. The sun broke through the clouds and we actually could see a little of the water. We were treated to views of dall porpoises and humpback and Orca whales. The FS naturalist on board offered a series of lectures about ship wrecks in the Juneau area, two with happy endings, one with a dog as the sole surviver.

Mr. X was such a good sport about this trip. All he really wanted to do with his vacation was "sit on the blue couch." But he sucked it up and came with me. I was concerned that he wasn't enjoying himself. In deed, our first evening in Skagway, I saw his shoulders slump and his lip begin to curl, and I was reminded of his scowl in San Antonio (if you'd like to see the pic, email me) thankfully, "Remember[ing] the Alamo" perked him right up. On the Klondike highway he started getting ideas about taking Mom X on a drive of the Golden Circle some he must have liked more than just the train ride!

Saturday: Whitehorse

Saturday morning we again packed up only this time we hit the road. It was the first time our car has seen a trip of more than 30 continuous miles so I was just a little nervous.

We followed the South Klondike highway up the mountain seeing some of the views from yesterday. At Fraser, we presented our passports to the Canandian border guard and noted that it was lightly raining. The guard asked where we were going, whether we had a ferry reservation back to Juneau and where we were staying in Whitehorse...staying? We're just going to Whitehorse for lunch!

From there we thoroughly enjoyed the scenic drive through White pass and on to the Yukon. The inland fjords were impressive and I loved seeing the different exposed rock.

At Carcross I pulled off so we could see the railroad, river boat and tiny library. We also made a quick stop at the Carcross desert where we learned that glacial flour on the shores of Lake Bennett are carried quite a distance in the wind creating some impressive sand dunes.
After Carcross we spotted Spirit lake with it's incredible coloring - seafoam and dark blue.

Pretty soon we neared Whitehorse. I missed the turn off to the city center but we quickly came upon the mammoth museum and I pulled into their parking lot. Mr. X rolled his eyes until he realized I was looking for a potty stop and was not going to drag him through the museum. We did enjoy seeing the prehistoric cat and four foot tall beaver and then quickly returned to the highway.

We entered Whitehorse on the Robert Service parkway and made our way through town looking for a pizza restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, we didn't have a map so we really didn't know where we were or where we were going; we stopped in at Walmart. After browsing for some nice looking local person, we asked a checker for a restaurant recomendation...she did her best at pretending to know something, and then admitted she'd only been in Whitehorse two weeks. She told us to get a visitor's guide, which we found while getting gas at the Shell station.

Low and behold - Whitehorse has a Pizza Hut! We celebrated by getting the pizza buffet. After Mr. X had eaten an entire pizza and I emptied their salad bar (just where did they get those tomatoes? They were incredible), we wandered around downtown. Eventually we found the public library, and we went in to check them out. The Whitehorse library has a fabulous "North" section with fiction, non-fiction, science, photography books. They also have a fireplace in the main section with comfy chairs around it. Yureka!

Next we wandered down to the Klondike river boat. This boat was in operation in the '30s and only required 4 feet of water to get through. Parks Canada has restored the boat and offers tours right on the Yukon river bank. Mr. X enjoyed taking dozens of pictures of this old workhorse. We also went for a walk along the river silently reflecting the length and significance of this small water way.

We had plans to stay a few more hours in town, but we were pretty wiped out so we decided to grab a sandwich and be on our way. But first we stopped at the Yukon visitor's center where Mr. X picked up visitors guides for every hamlet known to man. ...I think the Dempster Highway is next.

We were back on the road at 5 pm (Alaska time). By now the weather had deteriorated some so the views weren't perfect but still impressive. Before entering the pass area we stopped at Log Cabin to stretch our legs and read the interpretive signs. The bugs were bad here so we were soon back in the car.

As we wound our way up the mountain, we entered the clouds. Soon, I couldn't see more than 25 feet in front of us. Since I was not familiar with the road - not knowing whether it goes up, down, left, right - I pulled off to let others pass us, hoping I could follow them through the fog. They flew by, leaving us in their dust, and I was reduced to driving 25 mph.

Finally we dropped out of the mist and arrived at the border crossing. We were interrogated about what we purchased, whose car we were driving, and what else did we buy. What else. What else. What else. {Sigh}

We returned to the Dyea campground for the night. It poured and poured - the first time all week - but Mr. X...he sure knows how to pitch a tent. We were dry in the morning.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Friday: Bare Loon - Bennett - Skagway

Miles hiked: 4
Elevation: who knows

I rose at 4 am, early enough to see just the hint of pink on wispy morning clouds and the full moon. I sat by the water listening to the loons' soulful call.

After breakfast Mr. X and I headed out for the final miles of our trip. Two or three miles of the walk today was packed dirt with just a little up and down. The trees were thicker here. As we approached Bennett lake we found a grave yard and a prospectors cabin, and the trail became glacial flour. Everything seemed very dry and like a desert. We came around a corner and could see down to the lake and the very top of the church in Bennett.

We ran down the hill for the final 1/4 mile. I read the plaques about native uses of the lakes in the area and then headed to the train station...'cause they had flush toilets. We opted NOT to spend $30 for a bowl of beef stew and instead walked over to the Bennett campground to prepare our own Mountain House beef stew.

While there, we watched a helicopter land and drop off Warden Adam. Then we heard quite a ruckus as he moved the outhouse - and a woman ran out - to prepare for removal of the waste. Part of our trail passes cover the cost of helicoptering out the outhouse barrels since the alpine environment cannot breakdown the amount of deposits made.
Bennett lake is significant because it is the convergence of the Chilkoot trail and the White pass trail. In the winter of 1898, 30,000 prospectors on 7000 boats left Bennett on the same day, headed for Dawson City more than 600 miles away. They were just waiting for break-up so they could get through (some prospectors built boats in Lindeman only to have them broken up in the rapids).

At 1:00 the train arrived bringing the typical mature traveler that we often see in Juneau. At 1:30 we claimed our spot on the train in the "hikers only" car and at 2 we set off on the 40 mile trip back to Skagway.

The Yukon & White Pass Railroad is a historic railroad completed in 1899 and used for stampeders, overland transport (until the highway was built in 1981) and now tourists. To fit through the narrow canyons, the tracks are narrow gauge. This made for a bit of a jerky ride, but everyone seemed to stay on board. This was Mr. X's favorite part of the entire trip. We went through two tunnels and hugged the sides of mountain cliffs. We learned about the original White Pass trail, the vast numbers of horses that died there, the man from Detroit who helped children from his area make the trip to Alaska in the 1920s.

Our trip was narrated by a jolly old chap who told us that the Bennett area gets as much precipitation as Phoenix, Arizona - 2.5 inches. No wonder it felt like a desert. Just a few miles from there, however, there's 30 - 50 feet of snow every year. We also saw the Skagway river rapids which are class 7 - meaning they have never been successfully navigated.

We were back in Skagway by 4:30 and waited our turn to be inspected by US Customs. Then we grabbed our packs from the luggage car and snagged spots in the shuttle out to Dyea. While in the shuttle we got the lowdown from a couple of old codgers - stay out in the primitive campground, shower at the small boat harbor - save $20.

We followed their advice and were lucky enough to find and take a tour of the Skagway Public Library to boot. If you're ever in Skagway, I would recommend taking a look at the painting above the check-out counter. It's of a sourdough in his longjohns asleep in front of the fire - with a stack of overdue library books on the table. The librarians were pleased to tell us that they have a large expansion planned. Mr. X was enthralled by the child sized gliders in the children's room.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thursday: Happy Camp - Bare Loon Lake

Bare Loon
Miles: 8.5
Elevation: generally decending
Wildlife: bear scat, gray jays, ground squirrel, common loon, sea gull

Thursday morning I woke early and did sun salutations and warrior poses down by the river. It only seemed appropriate for such a gorgeous place. Serenity now... Well, that and I was feeling pretty stiff from hiking 20 miles and sleeping on half a ridgerest* for the past two nights.

After I got limbered up, I grabbed my book and settled down on the warming shelter porch. Because we didn't have snow fields or summits to cross I wasn't in any hurry to get moving. Mr. X showed up about 30 minutes later ready for breakfast. Some of our fellow hikers teased us about hiking in crocs and asked if we worked for the Croc company. No definitely not, we told them and I muttered under my breath, "don't you think they'd choose fit people to advertize for them?"

Deep Lake area

The trail out of Happy camp is strewn with broken rock. We winded up a hill and quickly saw the ecology change to thicker forest with what looked like doug fir and blue spruce. We spotted the dark blue waters of Deep lake and followed them for some time.

At Deep Lake campground we crossed the bridge and stopped for a "rest" and discovered that that camp outhouse has the most beautiful view. Unfortunately, the mosquitos were biting so it's also where we used our headnets.

From here the lake turns into a river. We saw the Deep Lake canyon and rapids and eventually met up with Warden Adam. He was doing his daily hiking (rangers and wardens hike 15km a day checking on campers and trail conditions), and stopped to warn us that we were entering a heavy bear use area, that bears had been in Lindeman camp so be cautious about our food storage.

We started working our way down hill and the forest started to look more like Montana/Idaho/Utah, lots of Lodgepole pine everywhere. The scent of dry soil and pine needles reminded me of the family cabin at Mack's.

Lake Lindeman

We knew we had to be getting close to Lindeman and then we rounded a corner and were treated to a view of the lake. I thought the color was Forest Service green - you know the color of their trucks. Mr. X called it toxic waste green. We followed the trail into the camp where we sat down to lunch of PB and crackers, (really old but surprisingly appealing) baby carrots, and beef Ramen. After lunch we visited the interpretive display inside a wall tent. They had a bunch of photographs from the gold rush days and quotes from stampeders.

Bare Loon lake

From there we got back on the trail and treked up and down on bus sized boulders. We passed what I thought were trees scarred by bears, but Mr. X suggested they were bearing trees, as in orienteering. We also had views of Lindman and Johnson lakes. We were very happy to arrive in at the Bare Loon Lake camp. We found a spot to pitch our direct view of the swimmers. Mr. X took a quick swim and then we cooked our dinner, walked around the camp enjoying the sunshine and then went to bed to escape the bugs.

Bearing tree

Bare Loon camp from helipad

*one of Mr. X's load saving measures. We had one of those cheap blue mats and Mr. X cut it in half - one for each of us.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wednesday: Summit - Happy Camp

Miles: 8
Elevation gain: 2800 feet
Animals: bear scat, ptarmigan

Pete had advised us all to get an early start over the pass on Wednesday. Mr. X and I were up by 5 and ready to roll. We quickly ate our oatmeal, hot chocolate and whey powder and then set off.

Pete had also advised us that the streams were running ankle deep so we again hiked in crocs. The trail continued to be rocky intersperced with muddy spots. At one point a motherly woman gasped, "Just where are your hiking boots!"

route up to the Scales

We scrambled over rocks, crossed a few streams and then arrived at the Scales. Rather that sit with everyone in the wind, we hunkered down behind a hill that supported an old tram tower. We ate a snack, filled our water bottles and finally pulled out our boots.

We quickly crossed the first snow field and started our ascent up the golden stairs. The stairs are actually boulders piled on to each other that seem to go straight up. We four wheeled it up and just when I was getting scared we hit fog, so I couldn't see the bottom - perfect, it didn't seem so far up then. After about 45 minutes of scrambling/climbing we came to the first false summit. This was a good place for us to catch our breath and look at some of the destroyed shoe leather, tramway hooks and other assorted "artifacts".

Finally we summitted in the fog, with the wind howling. I spotted the US memorial to the Stampeders and we continued on to the Warming Shelter. Mr. X thought it was hilarious that the Canadian flag was flapping in the gusting air, especially because the fog was so thick we couldn't see what it was until we were right next to the building.

I was feeling pretty cold so we went into the shelter to eat lunch - chili mac. Mr. X grabbed our pot, stove, fuel and then we discovered that the warden had provided us with hot water! What a treat. She gave us a trail update too, explaining that the snow fields were fragile so be cautious on them and that the one going straight down to Crater lake was particularly troublesome. A fellow hiker who'd been on the trail before said that he'd helped a lone hiker get airlifted out last time at that particular spot...

As soon as we hit snow on the trail, Mr. X and I strapped on our Yak Traks/Get a Grips. The wind was still howling and visibility was about 40 feet. It was a steep trail and the group of teenaged girls were marching half steps to stay upright. We sauntered by; they were not particularly pleased. Near the bottom of the hill, POOF, the fog blew away and we were greeted by the incredible alpine scene. Crater lake was brilliant blue. The rocks were silver in the sun, the vegetation red and yellow and green. Simply breathtaking.

We trucked along, amazed at the colors, the warmth of the sun. This, I decided, was what I came for: the dramatic change in ecology that one experiences on the Chilkoot trail. Where just a few hours before we were in a temperate rainforest, now were seeing the tops of the mountains, and soon would see a rain shadow. We had crossed the Continental divide and were now hiking beside one of the headwaters of the Yukon river. I was elated.

After two hours of traveling in this incredible landscape, I started to feel sick. My stomach hurt and I was having trouble regulating my temperature. We found a beautiful spot to sit down and I rested while Mr. X took pictures. After another hour of hiking we came into sight of Happy Camp and I agree with other hikers that Happy is an apt name. Mr. X spotted a ptarmagin on the trail, pausing to avoid startling the animal we soon saw seven of the birds. After snapping few pictures, we stashed our food in the Food Cache and found a spot to pitch the tent.

It was while helping Mr. X with the tent that I felt my foot begin to cramp and I immediately knew why I'd felt weird earlier; electrolytes. I had bought a bunch of bananas before the trip to make sure my potassium stores were stocked, but the bananas had never ripened - I mean really not, they snapped like twigs, Alaska produce eye roll - and I had had to toss them in Skagway on Monday. Fortunately this had been a concern of mine early on in the trip planning and I had packed some Pedialyte (powdered Gatorade would have worked too, but Pedialyte is more potent). I started to feel less strange pretty quickly after dosing myself and following a dinner of stroganoff and Ramen, I was ready to start hiking again. We didn't, but I felt I could have.

crystal clear river water

Mr. X took some pictures of the camp while I enjoyed the view of the mountains around us. Bugs were not a problem at Happy Camp since a steady gusty wind blew all night. The wind also blew moist clouds past us dampening things up a bit. The vegetation was more abundant here than at the pass. There was heather and moss on the riverbank and seven foot trees in the camp.

By 8 pm, camp was quiet and Mr. X and I had settled down to read in the tent.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tuesday: Skagway - Dyea - Sheep Camp

Miles: 12.7
Elevation: 1000 Feet
Wildlife: winter wren, bear scat, beaver dam, eagle nest

Mr. X hopped out of the tent at six and we raced to get everything sorted and packed in our packs. By 7:45 we had picked up our train tickets and located the trail center. At 8 the center opened and the ranger there gave us the run down:
  • "There is mud. It is just one notch below beastly."
  • "There are bears out there and they are hungry. Don't leave candy wrappers in your tent or the bears will eat you." *
  • "Make sure you pack your passport, headlamp and a credit card - the medivac helicopter tour is $1600 to the Skagway clinic and $25,000 to the Juneau hospital."

From there we drove the nine miles from downtown Skagway to the trailhead in Dyea. The weather looked great so we dressed in swim trunks and running shirts. Mr. X also had convinced me to wear imitation crocs to deal with the mud formerly known as beastly - anything to keep my boots dry.

The first five miles were flat because they were part of the old road. Oh, except the very first part which is called "Saintly Hill". I was expecting Thunder Mtn. It was much more like The East Glacier trail - rooty, mossy and quite lovely. We saw a few artifacts, such as rusty tin cans, along the route. We crossed standing water on planks similar to the ones in Juneau. We also crossed planks over very dry ground. Eventually we found the mud and were unimpressed - I wore crocs for this? (I really am suspicious 'cause I didn't see a single skunk cabbage on the whole trip)

At Finnigan's point we spotted the Irene Glacier but the bugs were so bad we kept hiking. At Canyon City Campground we stopped for a lunch of crackers and cheese, meeting a couple guys from Alberta one of which had driven 25 hours to get to Skagway.

From Canyon City the trail becomes more rocky and winds up and down boulders and canyons. We spotted another glacier which was pretty dramatic, but the sun on the rocks was starting to heat up like an oven - keep hiking, I said.

Eventually we reached Pleasant Camp where we had planned to stop for dinner. It was too early though so we pressed on. Soon we crossed the river on a suspension bridge and slowly made our way to our destination for the night: Sheep Camp.

Sheep camp is on a hillside right next to the roaring Taiya River, in a forest of alders and cottonwood. After depositing our food in the bear lockers and putting on some long pants because the horseflies were everywhere, Mr. X made a beeline for the campground, ignoring the obviously excited, beaming man standing on the bridge. By the time I got up the man, he had gathered his thoughts; in heavily accented English he said, "You have not much luggage. It is gut, very gut."

After setting up camp we headed to the shelters to heat water for our mountain house spaghetti. The same man found us again and asked, "You are minimalist so did you bring with you fire?" Yes, we brought a small stove we told him. He quickly left; I think he was disappointed that we weren't actually minimalists.

Shortly after dinner Mr. X laid down for a nap and I went to the ranger talk. Pete hikes the pass every day, and he promised us a great summit day on Wednesday. While the ranger in town was supposed to freak us out about the bears, I could tell that Pete's job was to make us feel confident. After giving us a trail report he gave us a little history lesson and provided pictures of the camp one hundred years ago without trees.

Sheep Camp warming shelters and bear boxes

After the meeting, Mr. X and I had a quick snack of trail mix, discussed plant succession and then headed for bed.

At 11:15 I had to use the outhouse, but I didn't want to get all dressed. So yes, that was me streaking my long johns.

Speaking of outhouses...the facilities on the US side are composting toilets so after doing your business you add a scoop of wood chips/dirt. The ranger in Skagway intimated that these toilets were better than the Canadian toilets but I definitely disagree; I had to really focus on not retching. The US did provide tp and hand sanitizer though (as if that makes up for it).

*There has never been a bear mauling on the Chilkoot trail, at least not as long as it's been a National park. There have been bluff charges and bears in camp but no one's ever gotten hurt. They'd just really like to keep it that way.

Monday: Juneau to Skagway

On Monday morning we loaded up the car and hit the road...all four miles to the Ferry Terminal. Our boat was the Columbia which is the Alaska Marine Highway System's flag ship, sailing between Bellingham, WA and Skagway, AK every week.

The boat had lots space to roam around. A deck to pitch tents, a solarium to lay out on, a recliner lounge and 100 cabins. Amenities include a restaurant, snack bar and laundry room. The Columbia holds 500 passengers and over 100 vehicles.
We settled in the forward lounge where we met a family from Spokane and a 72 year old long haul truck driver from South Carolina. The truck driver was headed for a river raft tour and photography expedition. He was a talker and regaled us with tales. He explained that he preferred driving over the road rather than locally because he has three days free time to hit Yosemite, Arches, Canyonlands, etc. to take photos.

Eldred Rock Lighthouse
After passing four glaciers, three lighthouses, dozens of dall porpoises, a short stop in Haines, we arrived in Skagway. 120 miles - 7 hours. The weather was perfect, the sun was hot, the air was salty and the mountains surrounding the town were all out.

We found a campsite in the Pullen RV Park (which we DON'T recommend). And then wandered around town, watching the required Chilkoot trail video at the visitor's center, reading historial plaques and playing on the train cars. We walked out past the tourist area and enjoyed running into the missionaries.

At 10 pm we hit the sack under a light pole and next to Skagway's busiest street corner. I got up early and was amazed at the full moon hanging in the clear sky. At 5 am the train came grinding by.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Summer weather

We're back from the Chilkoot and yes, my wildest dreams did come true. It was an awesome adventure. One thing bothered me though. Everyone we talked to before and during the trip asked what our biggest concern was for the trail. "Weather", we said. "Why? Are you from a rainy place?!" they queried.

Just so you know, here's a portion of Juneau's weather summary:

"July had 19 days with measurable rainfall. There were a few dry stretches with the longest lasting five days between the 25th and the 30th."

Coincidence? I think not.