This is part 17 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
The instructors had spoken with Kirk (our pilot) the night before, about the re-ration in the morning, and he had said that he would meet us at first light. While that may be an ordinary statement in most places, it can be fairly surprising in Alaska when the sun rises around 3 am. We had no idea when he would come, so we made the decision to wake up around 6 to prepare for him to arrive shortly thereafter. Once again, that familiar buzzing sound soon filled the valley. Gathering up whatever gear we needed, we headed over to meet Kirk as his floats touched down on the still lake. I was so fortunate to receive the task of refilling the peanut jars, happily enjoying a few scoops to myself as I went through the process. Later that afternoon, we planned our routes for our independent student group expeditions (ISGE), which were set to begin the following day. I volunteered as expedition leader for my group, meaning that I would be in charge of the paperwork for each day as well as ensuring that we stick to our overall plan. For ISGE, we selected a spot to meet the instructors 4 days in advance. The rest of the route would be determined by each group. My group of 7, including myself, decided to split up the 15 mile route evenly, with each day’s travel being about 5 miles. Each group was hoping that this final stretch would be relatively simple, because the map showed that there were two trails that covered half the journey. By that point in our expedition, we were physically and mentally exhausted and would have loved to just find a trail from our current site to the road. But as you have probably figured out, Alaska doesn’t really work like that!
We arose, slowly moving about camp, preparing for our first day of independence. After hugging and bidding the instructors farewell, we made our way north through the valley towards Tanada Lake. Moving through the bushes, we continued to scan ahead in hope of finding the first pack trail. With no luck, we continued out into an open section of the valley where we were met with wet and boggy terrain. We quickly moved a few hundred yards east, towards Goat Creek, in order to find drier land. We stopped to grab a few more blueberries before crossing over to the east side of Goat Creek. Bushwhacking through a series of trees and bushes, we stumbled upon a long series of game travels which resulted in much more efficient travel. Route finding skills are something of great value in the backcountry. The difference between easy and exhausting travel may be only a hundred feet. The trails eventually ended and we found ourselves in thick brush once again. Our group then moved throughout all different types of terrain, across the creek multiple times, through more thick brush and up a hillside to open tundra, in order to find a good route. Eventually we came across our final destination, the confluence of Goat and Pass Creek. We had reached our intended X, 5 miles from our start, finding a gravel bar along the creek to camp for the night. The surrounding area was spectacular with more beautiful rock formations on the mountains that lined the edges of the valley. With no sense of time, we spent the rest of the day reading, eating, napping and just enjoying the wilderness.
The second day of independence followed a similar routine. Arising after a long and deep sleep, we set off north once again in hope of finding an ATV trail that the map had shown. Heading out of camp we moved northeast towards higher ground in search of the treasure. However, instead of treasure we were met with yet another boggy area and we slowly slogged our way through the knee deep water. It didn’t seem like we would find the trail, so we continued on our route through the pine forest, near the base of the mountainside. Travel turned out to be much easier than expected and we quickly moved along with minimal bushwhacking. A blueberry rule finally had to be enacted, as people started to hold up travel since the berries were becoming bigger and more plentiful. The rule stated that one could not hold up the group while picking berries, but anyone could call for a blueberry break and we would drop packs, drop onto the ground and gorge ourselves. At one point on our journey, we stumbled out of a section of the forest right onto the ATV trail! To say we were excited would be an understatement. With big smiles, we continued along the hard trail, north to our X. We stopped for one final blueberry break at the end of the trail, basking in the sun while savoring the view of Tanada Lake and the encompassing valley. During the last half mile, we moved down the hill into the drainage. Further up the drainage, we found yet another perfect campsite alongside a stream with the clearest water we had seen all trip. The days of independence had so far been nice but nothing special. Over the past 40 plus days we had formed a great bond with our instructors and our relationship had evolved from instructor-student to a group of peers and friends enjoying the journey.
The next morning we moved, on our final day of ISGE, up towards the Sugarloaf (highlands above the valley). Our initial route had us gaining over 1000 feet in elevation over three quarters of a mile. By this point on the expedition, this type of climbing/travel was not exhausting but rather somewhat delightful, due to the ability to look back at the area where we had traveled, as well as Tanada Lake and the pointy mountain peaks in the distance. At the top, we saw the other group of students a few hundred yards away, packing up camp from the previous night. A brief argument soon arose within our group about the pace of travel resulting in the split of our group of 7 into two smaller groups of 3 boys and 4 girls. The situation probably could have been handled differently, but we moved on, walking quickly up and down over the rolling hills of the highlands. 4 miles and a couple hours later, we arrived at our X, at the base of a ‘lump,” on a hill above a dried up lake. In the area below, we spotted some type of animal. It was difficult to determine what it was from that distance and we first guessed it was a wolf, moose or even a bear. It slowly continued to move closer to us, as we made crazy sounds while holding our bear sprays at the ready. Galloping up the hillside, we finally determined that it was only a caribou. It came up the hill to about 25 yards from us and proceeded to prance and dance back and forth. It was a peculiar fellow and as quickly as it came, it bounded back to the drainage area below. After enjoying some more vegetation and listening to pleas from us to return, it galloped over the far hill and out of sight.
We shared our adventures and what we had seen, with the other group and the instructors as we reunited with both by the following day. This was another day that most people decided they would spend in their tents, but as I stated before that was not my intention in coming here. The last thing I wanted to do was sleep and stare at the neon yellow wall on the inside of the tent, especially considering it was one of the final days of the trip. Instead, I lazed around the kitchen area, delighting in views of the surrounding area and the parting of clouds for brief glimpses of Mt. Jarvis and Mt. Sanford. As a group, we decided that we should do one last big group activity together, so we chose to climb the nearby “lump.” The lump was simply a very large hill on the Sugarloaf that rose about 1500 feet over 2 miles. Shortly before sunset, we departed as a group for the final climb of our trip. On the way up, half of us had a blast playing tag and running up the mountain. Stumbling upon the rocks at the top, we sat as a group and reflected on our trip, as we watched the sun dip behind the mountains in the distance, with the light reflecting off the hundreds of lakes below. It started to drizzle and we reluctantly left, making our way down to our tents in the darkness. A memorable closing to a great trip.
Our initial plan for the final two days was to move 2 miles down into the valley and camp at Jack Lake. However, we would have to endure more difficulty, like the rest of our trip, travelling 12-14 miles back to the lodge (our starting point), in order to facilitate an easier pick-up. We moved as a whole group, travelling 6 miles over multiple game trails off the highlands, into the valley below, eventually coming across our camp at Jack Creek. The blueberries had become huge by this point, the biggest, ripest and tastiest we had seen the whole trip and were found everywhere you looked. The campsite at Jack Creek may have been the best one we had had yet. It was a great spot at the gravel bar along the slow moving creek, with mountains towering behind us in the distance. Later that day, a group of us embarked on a scouting mission in order to find the gravel road for tomorrow. After crossing the creek, we immediately found an old game trail and followed it, stepping over fallen trees and pushing back branches. Less than five minutes later, we came out from the bushes onto the road. That may have been the quickest and easiest scouting mission there ever was. We moved back to camp, enjoying one last campfire as a group before we departed in the morning.
The 6 miles along the road was the easiest travel we had to date and it only took us a little over two hours to get to the lodge. It was extremely disappointing moving along the road as we realized the end was in sight. Upon arriving at the lodge, we organized our gear and enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by Kirk’s family, while we waited for the bus to arrive. I had multiple helpings of a scrumptious fruit salad. along with at least six pieces of chocolate cake. A feast for the ages. The bus eventually arrived and I was able to read letters that my mom had sent me, but that had to be the only positive aspect of our departure. Moving along the gravel road, we moved further and further out of the park, away from the wilderness towards civilization. There wasn’t much I was excited for besides seeing my family and maybe having a nice meal. I had found peace, calmness, quiet and beauty in the wilderness. Much of which is rare and more difficult to find in civilization today.
Travelling on the bus towards the airport two days later, I became somewhat depressed as I fully began to realize what was happen. Cars, stores and buildings filled the area. I felt very out of place, yearning to return to nature and the wild. I will never forget the lessons that I learned and the true beauty I witnessed during the expedition. While I had to leave Alaska and its stunning wilderness, I knew that one thing was for certain. I’d be back.