This is part 7 in a 17 part series that discusses my experiences during my NOLS Semester during my first summer in Alaska in 2013. We spent 75 days in the backcountry, 25 days sea kayaking in Prince William Sound (discussed in parts 1-5) and 50 continuous days hiking and glacier mountaineering in Wrangell Saint-Elias National Park (Parts 6-17). Part 1 of the series can be found here
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.