Nature Walk audio log

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Goat Trail, Wrangell-St Elias NP, August 4-16, 2016

The Goat Trail, Wrangell-St Elias NP, August 4-16, 2016
Cast of characters: Sharman Haley, Mike Samoya, Janet Jensen, and Kathleen Williams.
Thurs Aug 4, 3pm. Four of us, with four big fat packs and miscellaneous extras, loaded into Sharman’s 2000 Subaru Legacy wagon, head out on the Glenn Highway from Palmer toward Glennallen. The Matanuska River is full, dirty grey and flowing fast, with huge standing waves where it hits the wall and turns the corner. An ice blue side stream crashes into the grey; the sky is also grey. The mountains are ragged and raw with scree. Dusty green alders and birch line the road, which is torn up for the perennial summer road construction.
The Matanuska Glacier appears, gleaming white like an ad for cosmetic dentistry. Contrast the field of rocky moraine which covers the lower ice like a choppy sea. The mountains are now more pyramidal with the alpine grasses turning gold. Up valley there are hanging glaciers.
In the summit region there are open vistas, with more wind, more sun, and shorter trees. A black spruce muskeg is pocked with lakes. Snow plow guide posts line the road like an honor corridor.  
We stopped in Glennallen for something to eat, and were delighted to find a Peruvian food truck
serving halibut ceviche. Yum! We rounded out the meal with tacos, enchiladas, chile rellenos and 12-pack of Full Sail beer we’d brought.
Past Chitna, as we crossed the Copper River we saw a good number of RVs parked on a river bar, apparently trapped by the rising water.
9pm. We crossed the Kuskulana bridge, and got out to walk it. Wow! It is a high trestle bridge originally built in 1911 for the Copper River and Northwest Rail Road across a very deep, narrow gorge, which was raging with very muddy water. It was raining.
11pm. We reach the end of the road at McCarthy. Mike pretends he is in a 4WD truck and drives over the racks and sand along the river bluff to find a place to camp near the river; Sharman hides her eyes and ears and plugs her nose from the burning clutch smell. Light rain, but once we set up the tents it is warm and dry in the sleeping bags.

Fri Aug 5. Still raining. Sharman discovered she failed to bring long johns! She wrote up several notices saying “HELP! I am leaving on a 10-day back pack trip and somehow failed to pack my long johns! Will you sell me yours? With gratitude for the kindness of strangers, Sharman” and posted them on the bridge and two bulletin boards in town. At the café a mountain guide overheard me asking the waitress for leads and offered to bring me his men’s medium that evening. A knot of people outside the saloon saw my posting and were discussing toilet tissue. Natalie and Jessica at Wrangell Mountain Air both offered to bring in theirs for me to try. So by 7pm I had a well-used pair of bright yellow, women’s small, Patagonia long johns for the trip. Natalie had gone home, so I left $20 and a note saying “Thank you! Here is $20 for the purchase, or rent, or cleaning deposit, or a tip for service above and beyond!”
We had coffee and burrito at the café, walked to the river, walked (SH & MS) and shuttled (JJ & KW)

to Kenicott mine to get our bear barrels and see the sights. We returned to town for beer and whiskey at the saloon and music and dancing at the café. It was a local Indy rock band; one punk rock guest singer was so loud and bad SH had to cover her ears.
Q: What was your favorite experience of the day? SH: My favorite sight was the forest of stone cairn sculptures at the river’s edge. KW: Eating smoked salmon, oranges, bagels and rice cakes on the floor in the breakfastnook of the miner’s cottage open for viewing at the mine. MS: the spot-welded sculpture gate next to the art studio; it included all manner of interesting found objects, such as industrial parts and a small bike. JJ: exploring the mine buildings and learning the history.

Sat Aug 6. Mostly dry overnight, but it started to rain again as we were getting up and packing up. Janet and I hauled the packs across the footbridge on an old hand cart while Mike parked the car at St Elias guides and Kathleen fetched tea and coffee.  At 9:30 the shuttle picked us up from the shelter and ferried us to the office for our 10am flight. We were told they were waiting for an opening in the clouds, so we unloaded our packs and passed the time at the Potato Café. SH went to the museum. About noon we got an optimistic weather report, so we loaded onto the Beaver airplane and proceeded to fly in circles and up and down looking for an opening, but no luck. So we landed again. But it was a nice flight-seeing tour of the valley! We were shocked to see the number of private cabins, roads and airstrips, and one very large house and outbuildings. We were told this was the weekend retreat for a large Fairbanks family. We also saw three sections of bridge span in the middle of the Tazlina River, with nothing connecting them to shore and no visible road.
We left our gear in the plane and shuttled up to Kennicott where we ate at the food truck and checked
Kennicott Mine and Glacier
in by phone for a possible 3:30 flight. No opening so we hiked up the hill. We had a spell of nice weather and glimpses of Kenicott Glacier and spikey, colorful summits up in the mining district. We were heading out for a glacier walk when our instruction from the office was to take the 6pm shuttle back for a possible flight at 6:30. The shuttle was full so they sent a special van to pick us up. Before we got to the airstrip they reported no go, so we unloaded our packs from the plane and went back to town. We brainstormed with Natalie where we might sleep without setting up our tents or unpacking, and opted to sleep on the seats in their van. We will be ready to go again at 7:30am!
Back at the Potato Café we drank beer, ate smoked potatoes and admired the sunny blue holes in the sky. We are enjoying the growing familiarity and camraderie with the people here, especially Liz, the waitress at the café. We wrapped up the evening drinking whiskey at the Golden Saloon and listening to a live singer songwriter from Austin. 

Sun Aug 7. The alarm went off at 7am. We were just finishing stuffing our bags when the driver stuck his head in to see that we were ready to go. Just enough time to get a coffee at the Potato where the
van fetched us and took us straight for the airport. (KW: Pilot Lars looked outrageous in his Carhart jeans.) We flew low over the trees and past the Mile High Cliffs for about 30 minutes. It was sunny when we landed at Skolai. We cooked oatmeal, then went for a hike up the ridge and down the valley to scope out possible camp sites. We were feeling too lazy to lug our heavy packs very far, plus the airstrip is centrally located for day hiking, so we set up camp nearby. After lunch JJ and KW took a nap while SH and MS hiked up valley to see the sights and check out the
Russell Glacier. We followed an intermittent trail traversing the slope above the river. After two hours we lost the trial and dead-ended at a steep gorge. The views were excellent, though not the glacier overlook we’d hoped for. On the way back we saw a slight trial down by the river, so we know where to go next time.
It was windy and cloudy all afternoon, but never rained. Back at camp Janet mixed up stiff drinks: raspberry crème and 151 proof rum.

Mon Aug 8. The plan was to be out between 9 and 10. The reality was we didn’t get up until after 9, waiting for the rain to stop. We tried to cook the freeze-dried biscuits and gravy for breakfast, but it was a complete mess. The jet boil didn’t simmer, so Mike stirred the biscuit dumplings into the gravy and took it off before it was fully cooked. It was so dreadful we only managed one taste each and opted to bury it up the hill under a rock. We ate oatmeal.
We headed down valley toward Hole in the Wall with improvised day packs around noon. We
Hole In the Wall
climbed the moraine to survey the vistas then down to a glacial stream. We scouted where to ford, and ended up at the braided end where it flows into Skolai Creek. Mike and I took off our boots and proceeded across the channels and islands barefoot. It was cold!!! No more than 33 degrees! After the first streamlet my feet warmed up right away on the rocks, but by the 4th crossing my feet weren’t warming up at all. The last channel was too swift and deep—over my knees—so we gave up and worked our way back across the all the channels to our waiting companions. My poor feet were numb! K dried my feet, I put on my boots and we took refuge from the wind in a green gully in the moraine. My toes were still frozen an hurt, so K put them in her armpits. That and lunch restored me.
We followed the stream up valley through and over the moraine. The hanging glaciers and the valley glacier and the composite boulders were gorgeous! We hiked up to the bench to survey the landscape and reconnoiter. We thought we should see Chittistone Pass, but all we saw was glacier. We eventually determined that this WAS Hole in the Wall! The landing strip where we started is not where we thought, so Chittistone Pass is in the other direction toward Russell Glacier where Mike and I hiked yesterday.
We had seen a couple planes land and take off; when we came down the last hill we saw a village of tents near our camp. Two guided groups are in the area. We were back by 6:30. Cooked J’s special spaghetti, drank hot toddies, and when it started to drizzle retreated to J & K’s tent to listen to an audio book of Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography.

Tues Aug 9. It stopped raining about 8 so we got up and packed up. We broke camp about 11:30 and hiked up valley the way Mike and I had gone the first day. The stream crossing was easier—the water was lower—but as we sat and ate our lunch in the sun we saw the water rising like a tide.
The route traversed up the ridge, and where Mike and I had stopped at the gorge, our route now went straight up and across the high end of the ravine, and continued up to the bench on top of the ridge. It
was very windy up there. We discovered some tents, and over the next few hours another group of tents appeared. The weather was deteriorating so we headed up the bench to a copse of willow to set camp with a little wind protection. We displaced a large family of ptarmigan. The ground was not quite level or smooth, but very grassy and comfortable. We set our kitchen in the lee of a huge boulder. It rained steadily as we prepared dinner. With great persistence Mike and Janet managed to start a small fire against the rock; our eyes were smoked out from blowing on the fire. We had hot chocolate with rum, then miso, then lentil, rice and coconut stew, then lemon cheesecake for dessert.
The rain stopped. The view across the valley and the Russell Glacier to the snowy peaks beyond was stunning. There was fresh snow atop Castle Mountain across from us. Janet wandered up the ridge. We retreated to the tents to plan our transit of the Goat Trial, then listened to another chapter of E. Roosevelt. Night night at 10pm.

Weds Aug 10. Sunny morning. Got up about 8. Pack up and broke camp about 10:45 (!). Hiked ESE up the ridge—not the old trail shown on the 1957 map—to the upper section of the stream. We dropped our packs in a meadow, removed all the snacks to minimize temptation for varmits, and hiked up the moraine on the other side to see what we could see. Saw a caribou and lots of tracks.
Saw a spectacular expanse of glacial deposit and moraine topography, and a gorgeous unnamed glacier. Glimpses of peaks to the NE and NW that we hadn’t seen before due to clouds. Fresh snow dusting the top of Castle Peak and the cliffs beside the glacier to the W. SH is tripping on the electric blue light reflected off each stream she crosses—an artifact of polarized sun lenses.
Returned to the packs for a hearty snack and about 1:00 proceeded up to the pass. Near the lake we saw a garbage dump of rusty gas and food cans and a number of bottles, two filled in and capped latrines, and a hillock that probably once supported a large cook tent. Proceeded around the lake. Saw a herd of 14 goats up on the hillside, and wreckage from an airplane. Followed the right bank of the stream and snippets of Goat Trial, admiring every new vista of glaciers, rugged peaks, cascades, moraines, and churning brown rivers.
4pm. About two miles down we came to a fairy land of peaked moraine piles covered with tundra and sculptured boulders. We nestled into a pocket meadow to camp. Our evening meal was tasty! It had been quite windy in the pass; here the air was cold but the wind abated. And no rain all day! How lucky is that!
Q: What did you like best today? KW: Hiking the moraine moon-scape and coming over the crest to see a living caribou. MS: the mountains, in particular the little stone castle behind our campsite, and the roiling clouds. JJ: the buttes, like the Southwest but with a glacier coming out of it. And the colors of the terrain, the variations in the rock layers and slides, and the contrast between the barrenness of the moraines and the lushness of the alpine marshes and pocket meadows. SH: The sinuous lines in the glaciers, in particular the curved ruffles in a hanging glacier, like an apron. 

Thurs Aug 11. It drizzled overnight but stopped by 8am, so we got up. Low clouds swirling around,
lifting and getting brighter, with a couple glimpses of blue. According to my week-old weather forecast for McCarthy, this was supposed to be the first dry, partly sunny day. But it didn’t continue. The wind picked up and the clouds closed in again, and by late afternoon the drizzle began, turning to steady rain by 8pm when we were cooking dinner.
Morning: we packed up and broke camp about 11:15. We immediately took our first and only side trip of the day up to the ridge above the trail to see the sights: cliffs and glaciers above, with fresh snow on the upper reaches, and a vista across the river valley to the dramatically sculptured buttes and sweeping scree slopes. As we hiked the slopes, benches, and river edge trying to follow the scanty trail, Janet lagged behind to admire everything and take pictures. We finally reined her in half way through the most harrowing of the scree crossings as it was late, conditions were deteriorating, and we needed to stick together and keep moving. Progress was slow. It took us 7 hours to go 5 miles today.
Q: What was best about today? JJ: We are all dry and alive! KW: “Sharman is the bomb!” What they are referring to is there were some challenging rock-hopping stream crossings and death-defying

crossings of fine scree slopes where SH coached and assisted them, gave Janet my second pole (she only brought one), helped K secure her footing and recover after she slipped and fell down, and generally demonstrated confidence and skill in very insecure conditions. It WAS bad, and getting worse as the dirt became rain-saturated. Fortunately, after the third scree, the top of the ridge was flat, windless and good camping. Welcome refuge when we were wet, exhausted and hungry. Mike and I are getting pretty good at setting up our difficult, asymmetric but well-designed tent, so nothing much got wet. Janet cooked a Thai noodle soup.

Fri Aug 12. Rain rain rain. At least it’s not windy. Three of us got up for morning coffee/tea, but SH stayed in the tent; Mike brought me tea. The filtered sun is strong enough to make the tent a little bake oven. The wet clothes hung up in the tent are drying. The rain gear is still drenched and muddy,
but we all have good (muddy) boots and dry feet. I am a colorful sight with my hot pink socks, bright yellow long johns, purple top, red fleece, and Mike’s multi-color wool hat. Mike is a frightful sight: his hair is wild and scruffy, matted in the back and sticking out in several other directions.
The rain stopped about noon but continued to threaten. We resolved to go for a short hike up the W fork Chittistone valley toward Wolverine. The three rock hounds poked along looking for crystals, geodes and other interesting rocks while SH proceeded up stream until the canyon got too narrow and sheer to go further. When she rejoined the
group the sun had come out (!). Sitting in the rocks drowsiness overcame SH until Janet called out “bath time!” JJ discovered her castile soap in her daypack. She took a full shower in the waterfall and washed her hair. K and I just splashed our crotches and pits. MS did the same but rinsed his hair also. The sun was intermittent with a cold breeze.
From there we walked up to the ridge, and wowie zowie! The revealed view of glaciers and cliffs and moraines was mind blowing, and the waterfalls and the high plateau in the direction of Wolverine and a couple tiny hikers setting up camp in the green oasis far below. We walked back to
camp about 7:00 and continued to be awestruck by the three river gorges and the distant mountains and glaciers and the multi-colored skirts of scree in the changing light. The best evening weather of the whole trip allowed us to enjoy the best viewing of the whole trip. 

Sat Aug 13. Only one sprinkle before 7am—otherwise dry all night, and intermittent sun. got up about 7:30 and packed, anxious to cross the W fork river while still low and get the last scree behind us. Crossing was easy enough, though SH lost her left Croc downstream. The traverse across the hillside and down to the “golf
course” was easy enough. We stopped at a couple overlooks to admire the gorge and Chittistone Falls. We spent and ahour wandering the margins of the bench, and watched a fox eating blueberries. It started to rain just as we pulled out lunch, but it didn’t last long.
The trail down the bench was scant, but we managed to follow it down through the thick brush to the river. We went upstream to the confluence between the main stem Chittistone river and the stream off the Chittistone Glacier and established camp. Had a nice dinner and built a fire; burned garbage. Janet informed us she had lost her camera with all the pictures. We made a plan to delay our river crossing in the morning a couple hours: JJ and Mike  will get up early to bush-whack back up to the “golf course” to look for the lost camera while KW and SH pack up. 

Sun Aug 14. Plan successfully executed: the camera was found, on the ground where the first bush had plucked it off JJ’s pack. Hooray! They returned shortly after 10, and by 11 we had assembled on the river bank with our fully loaded packs. We tried the first channel; Mike crossed, but it was too deep and swift for me. KW prospected a lower crossing that looked a little better. With a “do or die”
attitude, SH removed her pants, put on her boots with no socks, and forged across. It was thigh deep, and muddy with strong current, but she made it. Mike shed his pack and crossed back to assist KW and JJ, crossing in tandem. Whew! Next we had to cross the glacial branch of the river. It was colder: chunks of ice were in the water and on the beach. We prospected upstream for the most braided section. The first channel we all four crossed in tandem, then dashed across several small bars and streams to reassemble the team on the margin of the next big channel. Our feet were frozen but the river was rising so we didn’t tarry long. It was deep but not bad. We dashed to shore: Hooray! We made it! We holed up in a small ravine out of the wind and fired up some soup, just as it started to rain. Mike had worn his pants, so they were soaked. Janet had zipped off her legs after the first crossing, so she was only a little wet. K had tights and changed to dry pants. They all had their stream crossing shoes so their boots were dry. Not SH.
The rain stopped. We managed to dry a few things before packing up again to head down river about 3pm. Between the brush, route finding, low energy and continuing admiration for the rocks and other scenery, it was slow going. We went 1.5 miles in two hours, reaching an unnamed glacial stream right at peak flow. We ate a late lunch and scouted for a crossing; didn’t see anything good. We decided to camp and cross in the morning. Good decision: as soon as camp was set up, it started to rain hard. Everyone has a cold now, but as of today SH is the worst. The princess took her supper in the tent.

Mon Aug 15. Got up at 7:30. Packed up and crossed the creek without breakfast. Water was icy! Mike’s crossing was only knee deep, but I was not smart enough to follow his lead and mine was
over my knees. No pants so nothing got wet. Found a place for breakfast only to realize we had not planned ahead for water, so had to keep going until we go to the main river. I was hungry and cranky and as usual walking twice as fast as the others. Everyone was more cheerful after breakfast. It was starting to rain, so we packed up and moved down river.
Pretty soon the river pushed up against the hill, so the route bushwhacked up and through the woods. Slow going and slow route finding. We next encountered a large outwash plain followed by bushwhacking through forest again with only the occasional animal trail to aid us. Steady rain the whole time and we were soaked. Reached Toby Creek about 3:00. Scouted and decided not to cross, but to camp and wait for lower water in the morning. It stopped raining and we were able to dry most of our gear on the trees around camp. Even got a little filtered sun. We cooked mushroom risotto over a fire as we are almost out of fuel: save it for breakfast. But it rained again, so our rain gear got wet again L. In bed by 9:30.

Tues Aug 16. I woke up about 5:30 and it was raining. I stayed awake worrying about the creek being too high to cross until it stopped raining, and I fell back asleep until 7:20. We got up, packed up, and
crossed Toby Creek without too much difficulty, though again it was icy cold. We used the last bit of fuel for hot drinks and warm oats on the river bank. Set out hiking about 10:30. It was dry and pretty easy walking compared to yesterday. Arrived at Glacier Creek about 1:00. Some lunching, exploring and bathing. A plane landed about 3:00 so we hustled back to the landing strip, but it turned out to be a picnic outing by a pilot, his wife and visiting parents. Our plane landed just before 4:00. It was a Cessna this not, not the Beaver, so the pilot had to make two trips to ferry us out. The views from the plane were absolutely breathtaking! Accompanied by a mini geology lesson. Beers at the Golden Saloon closed out the trip.
We left McCarthy about 7:00, stopped in Glennallen for take-out Thai food, and booked a cabin at Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway. Hot showers and clean sheets were a novel delight!

1 comment:

  1. Beers at the Golden Saloon closed out the trip.
    We left McCarthy about 7:00, stopped in Glennallen for take-out Thai food, and booked a cabin at Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway. Hot showers and clean sheets were a novel delight!

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