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Skirting the Harding Ice Field
from the highway junction to Homer - July 2004


Click on the picture for a map of our route.

This is the log of a ten day trip down the Kenai Peninsula. We started at the highway junction where the highway to Seward branches off from the one to Homer. From there, we skirted the Harding Icefield, trying to stay close to the cool glaciers, and trying to stay out of as much of the deadfall spruce bushwhack as possible. Finally, in a 23 and a half hour ordeal, we rafted the Fox River to Kackemak Bay and walked the Homer beaches into town. The glaciers were awesome, but the weather was way too hot and sunny.

Journal - Page 1

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7/5/04 - day 1

Fever Climb

Day one of the next adventure. Or maybe it's only day 0.5 since we didn't start walking until 6:30. Yesterday I finished my non-wilderness journey. It was the long way from Ketchikan to Hope via a 5 hour ferry ride, a thousand miles of driving to Seattle, a plane to Anchorage, and another car to Hope.

We started at the delta-shaped junction where the road to Seward branches from the road to Homer, and we left all significant traces of humanity behind at a walk-in picnic shelter.

It's always hard to get used to hiking at the beginning. And at the beginning you have a full and heavy pack. At first I thought that was all it was. I was panting and straining, whining (to Hig's annoyance) about how weak and slow I was, and getting tired fast. I was hot. I had been hot when we started and hot as we climbed. My sweat glands didn't seem to be doing a damn thing about it, either. Hig poured some water on me, which gave me an unfortunately brief spurt of energy.

Finally I stopped to actually cool down. My skin was hot and it took about 15 minutes of sitting without my coat and several rubbings with cool water to be back to a normal temperature. It would be highly embarassing to die of heat stroke on the first day of a hike in Alaska. Once the fever was solved, the hike reverted to a normal difficult trudge for not-ideally-fit people with heavy packs. We're camping on the ridge top, reminiscent of our first campsite in the Brooks Range. Perhaps the oddest thing is just how normal this all feels. The trip, the plan, setting out on a new adventure - all familiar and almost becoming ordinary. I'm still expecting to greatly enjoy this, but the novelty of the adventure has been replaced by a level of familiar comfort.

7/6/04 - day 2

Unless something terrible happens

"Unless something terrible happens, we should make it down to the beach in about two hours," Hig said. But it took us almost five. Something terrible, in this case, consisted of a long bushwhacking traversing descent. Instead of straight alder, we got alder mixed with the densest thicket of false huckleberry I've ever seen. It was a mat of small woody branches up to head high. I couldn't weave around them, certainly couldn't step over them, and could barely propel myself forward by flinging my body into the thicket. But we left these behind at higher elevations, only to have them replaced by a slope covered in alder and devil's club. Devil's club could be more appropriately called "festering leaves of horror". The festering leaves of horror didn't stick to their usual gully-bottom haunts, but decorated the whole hillside in luxuriously thick and spiny patches. It was something terrible indeed.

Up is hard, down is complicated, and traversing sucks. As I told Hig today, this is the true motto of bushwhacking. All of our up today was plodding, trudging, and dragging our overheated bodies up the mountain. And our down was the bushwhack traverse.

The heat was a killer again today. I migrate ever further northward this summer, and the heat keeps following me. I don't know the temperature, but it was a day to climb in just fleece shorts until the bugs drove me mad. And it was a day to dump all available stream water over me. And it was a day where the heat sapped our energy, and waterbottles were empty in a flash.

Luckily, for all that it was a beautiful day. The flowers, meadows, mountains and lakes reminded us of why we were torturing ourselves this way in the first place. Overall, it's worth it.

Yesterday we left the road and today we returned to a trail and then left it for our climb. Tomorrow we return to the trammeled ground of the Russian River trail. We're moving back and forth across the fringes where humanity meets the wild.

7/7/04 - day 3

Push

Not only are we hiking to Seldovia, we're training for a race. The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic. 130-160 miles, and we plan to do it in four days. That time won't be fast enough to win even if we do manage it. And it sounds darn near impossible. Today on the trail portion of our hike we tried to rest as little as possible and to time every one of those rests we couldn't avoid. We timed food, water, shoe-tying, cooling off by filling my hat in the stream - everything that made us stop walking. Still, we estimated that a full quarter of our time on the trail was spent resting.

Today was a day planned for pushing. We planned to push ourselves hard, all day, with no long breaks, until at least midnight, to be rewarded with a rest day tomorrow.

So I'm writing this at one in the morning by the light of a red LED which will no longer turn off, under a tarp full of mosquitos, with a hand sore with devil's club spines. Hig's trying to kill all the mosquitos and I'm trying to shield my biteable skin and to ignore their droning long enough to finish writing and to fall asleep.

We did what we intended today. We started at 9AM and walked until 12:15. What we didn't do was make it to Skilak River or Skilak Lake. The dark woods made me nervous, remembering the time Hig and I nearly stumbled into a trio of brown bears in the almost-dark. So we crashed in the woods, on a soft spot under live hemlock and littered with dead spruce.

The day began easily enough with a paddle across Kenai Lake. At least my kayaking practice helped me there. And then it was up a dusty road to the Russian River trailhead, getting odd looks from maintenance crews along the way. I know we look odd, but I just get so used to it.

The trail was foot-pounding and hot, but it was made tolerable by numerous stream crossings that let me dump hats full of water over my baking scalp. The sun at least allowed pretty views of the surrounding mountains and lakes. The pushki and fireweed towered over the narrow trail, threatening to overgrow it once we passed the limit of ATV maintenance.

As before, the bushwhack was worse than I expected, and I fear a trend. There were tall grassy meadows spiked with brittle dead spruce, which hid underneath and threatened to trip and shred intruders. There was some alder, quite tolerable until it became laced with devil's club. Hig says alder is like rice - the staple of bushwhacking. Then devil's club is a mash of habanero peppers mixed in. Finally we hit a nice realm of living hemlock forest, but by then we were almost too tired to appreciate it.

I am greatly looking forward to the reward at the end of all this, which is Skilak lake and glacier. Tomorrow we walk there and there we let our pounded and abraded feet rest.

7/8/04 - day 4

Rest and reward

Today we reaped the rewards of yesterday's toil and bashing and spent much of the day lounging in an absolutely beautiful spot.

Luckily we did only have one more ridge before the river flats, but it was appropriately decked with wicked deadfall spruce and devil's club. My legs are decorated with the particular blunt bruised scratches characteristic of their sharp branches. I bruise easily, and I can tell the sort of terrain I've been through by the pattern of damage it leaves on my legs.

The map shows the Skilak River wide and braided, coming out of the front of the glacier. But the river has abandoned its old braid terraces to the cottony puffs of grass, and cut a deep channel through the plains. The glacier has retreated behind its newly-formed lake, which we don't even have a name for. Floating icebergs pile up at the river outlet, cracking and shifting with booming crashes, and sending chunks of ice floating downstream. The glacier itself is beautiful and impressive in the way that glaciers stereotypically are, with a rumpled and jagged face of blue-white ice meeting the water. We paddled to a river mouth right near the face and there we took the rest of our day as a rest day.

We never saw the glacier calve, though we heard several distant boomings. It was as scenic a place to rest as we might have found. Our hot sunny weather was tempered by an intermittent glacial mind, and served better for beach lounging than it had for hiking.

We scrambled up our little valley to see the roiling brown water of a glacial river shoot down a gorge in an excess of thunderous and violent crashing. Hig says he thinks some people do kayak down waterfalls like that, but I can't see how anyone would survive.

We saw our first bear today, a small black bear traversing around the cliffy shores of the lake, looking distinctly less happy about the terrain than the Dall sheep scampering about above.

And then we sat and ate and napped, pampering our battered feet and wishing the day was longer. It's lucky we have a better memory for places like this than we have of the pain of getting there.

7/9/04 - day 5

Skirting Skilak

We've picked up a habit of camping on high windswept ridges and in high lonely passes. Its almost as if our warmer sleeping setup drives us to try camping in colder places. But the views from this high pass are incredible, and the animal traffic should be very limited. Probably limited to mountain goats or sheep.

Today was our day in sheep country. We woke up to watch a big chunk calve off our glacier, then paddled across in front of the nose to start our climb on the other side. Where the glacier has retreated from its Little Ice Age height, rocky ledges remain. The greenery was limited to intermittent patches of alder, and as we walked mostly on bare rock and old moraines, looking out over the vast expanse of Skilak Glacier stretching in the distance into the Harding ice field.

It was a sheep's heaven, and almost everywhere we saw a patch of sand to hold a track we saw a sheep print. And we watched a whole family of goats running away down from us. Sometimes I wish I had the head for heights that a sheep has. Their trails skirt perilously close to cliff edges, and several times I took the harder way around rather than walk the easy and height-exposed path.

Other than sheep, we saw a couple of small bears, far away, and a courageously stupid mother ptarmigan. Typically, when you startle a ptarmigan family, the babies fly off, and mother clucks around pretending to be a wounded bird, to get the predator to chase her instead. This one seemed quite indignant that we weren't chasing her. She stayed right by my feet, going back and forth, back and forth, clucking at us in agitation as we stood stock still and Hig took her picture. She wasn't even two feet from my shoes. I could have poked her with my ice axe. And when we finally moved, she moved with us, continually deviating to be in front of wherever we were going so we would be "chasing" her.

Today was gorgeous and sunny like all our days so far, but the blistering heat was tempered by a cool glacial breeze, and walking was infinitely more pleasant. After our bushwhacking I needed a day that was open and pleasant. We scrambled up and down on our little rock ledges, and we could look down on the glacier. Mountains slowly peeked out into view around it, as we climbed up the valley, and the top of the glacier appeared less rumpled than the front. There is very little that manages to be as impressive as a glacier, and I was as awed by the field of ice at midnight as I had been when I awoke this morning. Our high route may not have been efficient, but it has been worth it.

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Last modified: 10/08/2004