Summer in Alaska is gloriously hectic. People are trying to make the most of every minute of daylight, and there are a lot of those minutes. Mike and I had a different kind of summer: for most of July, he was in the field for work and I was touring around Spain & Portugal. So while our days were full (mine more fun than Mike’s I think), we weren’t able to do all the wilderness-y things – rafting, biking, fishing, backpacking – that define an Alaskan summer for so many of its residents.
When folks hear that we missed this most sacred time, they shake their heads and make us promise not to be so foolish next summer. And they’re right to judge. Alaska’s heart is in the wilderness; it is one of the reasons we are so happy to live here. But you have to find and then commit the time to get out there. Two consecutive days (three are better, more are a dream) are required to really get into it. We just didn’t set aside the time or we were out of town or we used rain and chill as an excuse to day hike and do projects around the house instead. Next summer we’ll do better.
But I did get out for two overnighters. The first was with Mike in the Chugach Range front country; not technically wilderness, I guess, but really close! We hiked six or so miles up a wide valley to Williwaw Lakes, a chain of crystal blue lakes in a stair-step basin under Mt. Williwaw and O’Malley Peak. While there were several other campers at the lower lakes and one tent at Walrus (the upper lake), we found a secluded spot on the edge of the second-to-the-last lake and had the place to ourselves.
We arrived early enough for a day hike up to Williwaw Pass, a cloudy, but worthwhile pursuit. Someday we’d like to come up to the pass the other way, from Long Lake. That’s for next summer, right??
We wanted to do the hike as a loop so the next day we hiked up to Black Lake and then tackled the scree slope to get up to the ball field. Of course, we learned later that the scree slope was avoidable via a steep, but real trail on the other side of an outcropping, but you know…we wanted a challenge! A scary challenge. My first scree slope!
The ball field (Ballpark?) was completely enshrouded, but it was lovely to have to focus on the views just in front of you and under your feet. Apparently there’s a lake behind me.
It was a perfect first backpacking trip – views, solitude, a little bit of challenge, a running moose, dall sheep, no bears, and my favorite companion.
My second backpacking trip was totally different, but equally lovely. This time I hiked farther and flatter, in the rain, and with two women, naturalists by trade and hobby who have plenty of experience in the Alaskan wilderness. Our journey took us to the Kenai Peninsula (my first time there!) for an 11 mile-hike through a forest then along Crescent Lake to the Crescent Saddle Cabin. Not sure if you read that…we hiked to a CABIN. No tent taking up pack space, no bug spray necessary, no cooking outside in the rain. Move over, glamping, ’cause you haven’t seen a posh wilderness set up until you’ve stayed at an Alaska State Park cabin. I didn’t take pics of the inside, but here are some that I found on the internet.
Nice, right? There was a three-sided wood shed stocked with semi-decent wood and an outhouse equipped with toilet paper. The lake was a short walk from the cabin and they even had a row boat! We didn’t use it, but it was nice to know that we could have.
The first seven-ish miles took us through a pretty forest on a trail covered in spruce needle duff, the perfect surface for a long hike. It reminded me of Washington forests and I was happy to recognize species and colors and smells of home. About halfway through the hike, the clouds rolled in. Silly me, I left my rainpants safely tucked away in my pack. I think I was still remembering Washington and the kind of misty rain where a raincoat and pack cover are sufficient. Nope! Within a couple of miles my pants, legs, and socks were SOAKED! When rain started trickling into my boots I decided it was time to find evergreen umbrella and change.
Warmer and drier in shorts and rainpants, we continued on. Our last four miles skirted Lake Crescent on a trail primarily covered in tall, tall, tall grass. I mean most of the time it was over-our-heads tall. Add to that the fact that the grass was dense, wet, and pretty well obstructing the rocks and roots and turns of our primitive trail and you can imagine our pace. Our spirits, however, were high. With three tough ladies, an even tougher Skipper Key dog, and plenty of silly calls and hearty songs, we walked (almost) fearless through the “carwash” (as Mike’s colleague calls the wet, tall grass). We arrived at the cabin soaking wet, but happy to have a roof and walls to keep us out of the rain and a wood stove to dry out our sopping clothing and gear.
I’m grateful to my new friends for introducing me to cabin camping, for leading the way through the grass field, and for packing the greatest food – gourmet olives, cheese, curry, maple whisky – that I’ve ever enjoyed in the wilderness.
I feel like I’m better prepared to head into the wild next summer. You can be sure there will be more of this in wilder places!
Yours in wonder,