Hummocks, Tussocks and Tundra! Oh my!

Our group was only 6 miles away from our starting point at the remote lodge, but it had already seemed as if we stepped back in time.  We would venture even deeper into part of Alaska’s wilderness. Each hiking day we would split into small groups of about 4-5 people including 1 instructor.  Every hiking group had a Leader of the Day (LOTD) and the leaders were responsible for determining our plan for the day, which included selecting our final destination, which we marked on the map with an “X”.  The LOTDs picked their own route for the group based on their individual preferences or leadership style.  For example…    After breaking into our groups for the day, we scrambled up a small muddy slope, adjacent to the gravel bar, into the thick brush.  The first steps in this new terrain brought about much confusion among the other students in my group and me as we attempted to navigate through the spruce trees and dense vegetation that provided limited visibility.

A light rain came down as we made our way out of the forest and onto the tundra, where we had our first encounter with hummocks and tussocks.   On the Alaskan tundra there are these evil little land features in certain areas called tussocks/hummocks.  Basically, they are square-ish pieces of earth that protrude out of the ground, are roughly a few inches across in size and they are NOT stable.  Most of the time you are trying to maintain your balance moving across them as they wobble and try to get you off.  Walking in the gaps between them can be somewhat easier, but the bottom-line is, either way makes for very physically challenging travel and it is very slow going.

After struggling off and on through this rough terrain for a few miles, we arrived at a lake.  Joining the other groups, we made our final steps of the day.  We moved together towards our determined camp on the opposite boggy shores, thankful for the opportunity to finally relax.  My legs were tired and the wetlands provided a perfect habitat for the nagging mosquitoes to enjoy an evening feast.  Before moving to my tent, I watched a beaver silently float through the calm waters, slapping his tail on the surface, prior to diving below the clear lake.

The following day, I was a LOTD leading a hiking group of all girls.  There were basically two options for our route that day to our selected destination: climb up the hillside to our right and tackle the high road, or stay low and follow along the shores of a long lake to open tundra.  I chose the lower route because I thought climbing up high would be unnecessary.  Also, I had heard that the lake was beautiful from people who had seen it from a hill next to camp.

Our hike began with a mile-long trek over the hill near our camp, gaining a quick 100 feet in elevation, to the beginning of the lake.  Unknown at the time, this was by far the easiest part of the day and we made it to the lake in good time.  The surrounding area of the lake was wooded or rocky in some parts, so it became much more difficult to travel on this hot day wore on.  As we bushwhacked and followed game trails through the woods, we decided that we should take a break and swim.  I took off everything except my boxers and jumped in the freezing water.  It was invigorating and definitely refreshing after our struggles climbing the hills through the woods, in the sweltering heat.

Feeling fresh, we began walking again.  Not long after, we came across a peculiar situation.  On the ground we began to see weird yellow sponge-like material.  Was it natural? Had someone else been here? After another couple hundred yards or so, we stumbled upon a small cabin along the lake.  It seemed to have been abandoned for quite some time and also subjected to the bears, as the door was wide open and the yellow sponge like material (most likely foam bedding) was all over the place, as well as a few other things, such as a fishing net, boat and various cans of food. What a great place to live! On this beautiful lake, in the woods, miles from civilization.   I don’t know how you could ever abandon that.  Unfortunately, the girls became somewhat scared when it seemed that bears had messed with the place so we were on our way again.

After the lake, we only had about 2 miles left to our X (based on our analysis of the map and surrounding area) across seemingly open tundra.  Easy right? Be there in a couple of hours? WRONG! It turns out that the rest of the 2 miles was ALL tussocks.  We trudged our way across taking multiple extended breaks, which is uncommon.  Everyone was exhausted from both the heat and the physical exertion that was required. We took one of our final breaks at a spot that was about  500 yards to half a mile from our final X (our X was by a hill so it was somewhat easy to tell where we were stopping.)  Why the huge range in distance?  It is almost IMPOSSIBLE to tell how far things are away in Alaska.  I don’t know why, most likely due to the grand scale of everything, but everybody constantly underestimated this throughout the expedition.  During our break, we were laughing about/bemoaning our final death march to the hill over the remaining hummocks/tussocks. We would have been pretty content with just setting up camp right at that spot!  Some people thought it was a few hundred yards, some thought a quarter mile or more.  I’ll never know, it sure felt like forever though.

We were the first group to arrive at the X and we had established before we left that the first group would scout for camping.  There are basically two criteria we consider when looking for a campsite: 1) access to water, and 2) relatively flat and dry spots for sleeping.  At this point it was very late, around 6 p.m., and, after travelling since 10 am that morning, we were exhausted and scouting was the last thing we wanted to do – but off we went.  About 200 yards from where we stopped the tundra steeply dropped off about 200 ft into a canyon.  As LOTD, I decided to head in this direction (towards the canyon) because I thought our X might have been a little further ahead.  There seemed to be great camping below with a huge gravel bar alongside a river, but the terrain became way too steep for us in our current physical/mental states.  We headed back up, scouted an area by a nearby lake without much success and then headed back to our packs to wait for the other groups.  Hungry and tired, we waited for a little while until the second group came up and met us.  Now we had 2 groups at the “X” but no campsite….and where’s group 3?  The second group decided they would head off in the opposite direction from where we had previously scouted and search for camping as well as the third group , who took a different route (higher above the tree line)than our two groups that were together.

They came back about 45 minutes later with both a camping site and the other group.  One of our the other students from the third group was in terrible condition and was sweating salt as well as having back problems and had given up all the weight in his pack.   He had been sick during our brief layover in town, which resulted in a large imbalance between water and salt within his body.  Due to the late time of day and the physical state of some group members we moved to quickly set up camp, right at the edge of the cliff.  It wasn’t the safest thing we had done but it had to do.  We were not practicing proper bear protocol either, camping at the edge of a fairly vegetated area and our kitchen was less than 10 yards from our tents (to follow proper bear protocol, it’s supposed to be at least 100 yards away).  This decision hinged on the fact that there wasn’t much area that was suitable for camping and we could not afford the time to spend a significant time searching for a better location.

Finally, after setting up our tents at about 9:30 or 10:00, I enjoyed a delicious meal of rice and beans and got to relax 12 hours after we had started this day of travel.   At that point in the expedition, that was the most physically exhausting day that I had ever had in my life.  We had travelled through a beautiful area though and, like the rest of the trip, I would do it over in a heartbeat.

(Note: there was somewhat of a dispute between the 2 groups who took the low road and the group who took the high road as to where the “X” was.  We found out later that we were using maps with completely different scales.  A little distance on a large scaled map makes a big difference.)

The next day, we woke up somewhat late (around 9) and had discovered that during the night a sheep had eaten some of our equipment, located less than 20 yards from our tents.   Among the victims were a couple water bottles (including one of my own), some oil and some dried beans.  We figured after that that we should not only be bear proof but sheep proof as well!

This day would be a layover day and we would move down into the canyon below, where we would set up a new camp.  I led a group again, moving down a steep drainage through a wooded area to the canyon below.  This was one of the many fun mini-adventures on this trip as I was given full authority to scout and strategize a route down the steep, sparsely vegetated slope with minimal coaching from Kevin.  We made it down fairly quickly and set up camp before noon on yet another beautiful day.  Settling in, we were unprepared and completely unaware for what would transpire later that day.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View from camp

View from camp

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

2 miles of hell

2 miles of hell

Looking down at Monte Cristo Creek below our camp on the cliff's edge

Looking down at Monte Cristo Creek below our camp on the cliff’s edge

 

Advertisements

Gold!

Gear laid strewn out in every direction as we attempted to pack for the coming 48 days in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  We moved as a group from one task to the next, from making sure our boots fit into our ski bindings to bagging one of the many pounds of food we would consume over the coming weeks.  Andrew along with our two new instructors for this section, Jesse (JQ) and Kevin, assisted us in determining what equipment was essential so that we could travel as light as possible. Following the hectic day, we all piled into the bus once again, eager to make the 7 hour journey east towards our starting point.  We chatted excitedly, passing the numerous mountains, glaciers and valleys that bordered the single lane highway, eager for the unknown challenges that lay ahead.

Awaking on the grassy airstrip at Devil’s Mountain Lodge we were anxious to begin our first day of hiking and shake off our sea legs.  The night before we had been swarmed with mosquitoes but they did not seem to want any breakfast this morning.  Our hike today would be fairly straightforward, hiking along an ATV trail until we reached a trail breaking off which we would follow to our camp next to the Jacksina River.  Supposedly, there was an abandoned gold mine along the ATV trail and that was the talk of camp that morning as myself and others were really hoping to see it.  After breaking off into hiking groups, we were off into the wild.

As we had expected, going was pretty easy along the ATV trail as I became accustomed to my 55 lb. pack that would be my “home” the next 50 days.  Kevin, one of our new instructors for the mega section, pointed out the plant, Spanish Blue Bell, which is wild spinach and it was delicious.  It was an excellent fresh snack to grab on the go, one that I would come to greatly enjoy.  We continued on, finding the possible entrance to the trail but scouted ahead to make sure it was the right spot.  On our scout further up the ATV trail we stumbled upon the gold mine.  Kevin was probably the most adventurous of our instructors and we decided as a group we would go explore.

We entered the large clearing and were awed by the building that sat up on a hill.  We could see mine shafts further up on the mountain with chutes leading down towards the building.  After taking some pictures at the base of the building, we climbed up to begin exploring.  We were able to look inside the old wooden building, seeing various machinery and operation equipment, yet couldn’t go in the first floor because the flooring didn’t look very stable.  With that, we climbed an old broken ladder and went in on the second floor.  There were tools and equipment everywhere, if it wasn’t so dusty you would have thought the mine was still in operation.  It was fascinating to see the old electrical system that they used for electricity as well as the various pulleys and giant machinery they used to mine the gold.

We went back outside, around the rear of the building to see what more we could find.  We found where the chutes came in from the mountainside above. There was also an intricate weighted system that they used as a pulley system, involving large rocks in wooden crates.  Walking over to the other side of the building we sat down and enjoyed the beautiful view of the valley around us. One of my peers began playing with the rocks and found one that was yellowish and sparkling. Gold! We were filthy rich! Not quite, it was fool’s gold, almost completely worthless but making men crazy and broke since the gold rush.

For some historical context, we later learned that the mine was in operation from the 1920s before shutting down before World War II in the 1940s.  The miners were able to mine gold, silver as well as other minerals.  They had been able to mine over $8 million dollars in gold at this location, which is close to $100 million today. The owners and the employees had abandoned everything when it shut down and the mine has sat unused ever since.  Someone was able to purchase the mine for himself some years ago and it is private property.

After spending over an hour at the gold mine, we decided it was best if we continued our travel to the Jacksina River.  On our way out of the clearing, we passed one of the other hiking groups who were on their way in to inspect the mine for themselves.  We later learned that this group had a run in with a grizzly bear at the mine.  They were in the clearing below the building when they had heard some rustling in the bushes.  All of a sudden, a grizzly came bumbling out walking curiously towards my peers.  At this point, the group had pulled their bear sprays out (safeties off) and were prepared for any possible problem.   The bear continued to move closer to the group until it was about 30 yards away.  After telling the bear, “You don’t want to do this bear”, “Go home bear you’re drunk!” and other various things the bear turned back around and stumbled back into the woods, just as he came.  I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home.  It is highly unadvisable to tell a bear it is drunk or to speak to them in a threating tone.  They are not very understanding.

Eventually, after travelling through boggy area and doing a little bushwhacking we arrived at the gravel bed along the Jacksina River.  After debriefing, we learned and practiced techniques for crossing rivers, as we were hoping to cross the Jacksina the following morning.  In order to cross, we would have to scout this large flowing river.  Eight of us split up into two groups of four to scout locations both up and downriver.  There are various techniques that a group can use to cross a river, such as an eddy line or the New Zealand method. These methods involve forming a connected line of people, facing upriver and perpendicular respectively, in order to gain more stability and control in fast moving water. Using the eddy line method, we were able to strategize and move across the river, moving from one strip of rocky sandbar to another.  Some parts of the river were much more challenging than others but our scout team, as well as the others, had found a way across. We were all set to continue our journey tomorrow at 5 am.

At 5 am we awoke to the news from Kevin that the river had not fallen as we would have hoped and we were going to try again later that morning.  Glacial river (such as the Jacksina) flows are largely dependent on temperature.  A higher temperature means the glacier’s rate of melting will increase, resulting in a higher water levels and faster river.  Usually, the flow of these glacial rivers decrease during the night due to cooler temperatures.  We happily laid back down on our sleeping pads and dozed off until we prepared to cross around 10. We would be following the route of the upriver scout team as we and they thought that their route was much less challenging than ours.

We began moving across, with some surprise at certain points as the rest of us were informed by the scout team that certain parts were much easier or harder the day before.  Reaching a sandbar in the middle of the river we realized that the rest of this route would not work as we had planned.  The river was too deep and was moving way too fast to cross at this point.  We would have to continue scouting.  Groups moved about both up and down river, trying to find a spot where we could cross in a safe and efficient manner.  After much time had passed, we were able to find a way across and make it onto dry land.  What we had thought would be a quick 30-45 minute crossing turned out to be a three-hour ordeal.  One of our instructors said it had been the most challenging river crossing he had ever done with students.

We spent some time relaxing on dry land and drying out our boots and socks in the strong sun before moving on in our hiking groups an additional 2 miles, to our camp for the night.  With gold mine, a grizzly encounter and a large challenging river crossing under our belts we were already well on our way to an epic Alaskan adventure.

 

 

The gold mine

The gold mine

Old Electrical System

Old Electrical System

Tools

Tools

UFO? Large piece of unknown machinery

UFO? Large piece of unknown machinery

Pulleys and various machinery

Pulleys and various machinery

The second story of the gold mine

The second story of the gold mine

The weighted rock system

The weighted rock system

On a gravel bar of the Jacksina River

On a gravel bar of the Jacksina River

View from camp

View from camp