A while back, GW and I lined up for a bit of time off and what looked to be a great weather window. Summer 2017 has largely been characterized by cool, cloudy and rainy weather, so the prospect of 3 sunny days had our heads spinning with adventure ideas. Plan A was a trip that, by all accounts, was a bushwhacky sufferfest leading to an extended float down a remote river with several mandatory portages around unrunnable canyons. The views would make it all worth it. Unfortunately, the weather was slow to cooperate, so with growing concerns about navigating mountain passes with zero viz, we developed a Plan B.
As it turned out, Plan B had plenty of healthy bushwhacking, and we ended up navigating several steep miles with zero viz. But we saw some super wild country and even snuck in a few views. In an effort to keep this place as raw and remote-feeling for others as it was for us, I'll abstain from naming rivers, peaks, valleys. This is 3 days of exploring Kenai Fjords National Park.
Our trip began with a leisurely breakfast in Seward, drinking too much coffee while gazing at the mountains and debating whether the clouds were coming or going. With no definitive answer, we headed to our trailhead and organized our gear. Our intended route was encouragingly only partly cloudy, and with leaded packs we set off.
Right away we had a bit of route-finding to do - a deep, fast-flowing glacial river stood between us and our valley. Remembering that we were carrying packrafts, the problem was easily solved, and soon enough we were on the far side of the river and heading up valley. As we zig-zagged our way up the braided river, crossing knee-to-thigh deep currents, the sun peeked out and our stoke level rose.
Climbing up out of the valley, we had a few miles and 1,500 vertical feet of unknown bushwhacking before we'd enter the alpine realm. So, we were pretty happy to find a well-defined bear trail snaking through the hemlock forest for our first mile. We began to lose the trail when the brush intensified, and soon we were sidehilling our way through 8 foot tall devil's club and salmonberry. Progress was slow but steady, until we reasoned that maybe it would be best to just climb straight up and seek the open alpine. I led us through a dense alder field and into a super steep dwarf hemlock forests where the boles swung out over the slope like some kind of playground jungle gym. GW had the good sense to suggest that this was ridiculous and we should just sidehill back over to our original route. Twenty minutes later we were at last climbing through an alpine boulder field to the soundtrack of marmot whistles.
We strolled through the alpine, past glaciers pouring down from unknown peaks, effortlessly covering a few miles. A gentle ridge sloped down to the valley below, and soon enough we were walking along the river amid lupines and dwarf fireweed. We followed this valley to its headwaters, linking gravel bars and crossing frigid glacial streams. As we walked, we flushed dozens of semi-palmated plovers. Black bears grazed the herbaceous mountainsides. We were geographically close to places we've previously explored around Seward, but this valley felt like it was 500 miles from a town.
Stopping for a snack and some water at the head of our long valley, we noticed a small black bear running along the river, about a mile away. Heading in our direction, GW first pointed it out in a very unconcerned, matter-of-fact way. A couple of minutes passed and the bear was still running our way at a full sprint. Now it was time to be a bit concerned. We had bear spray and a favorable wind, so we elected to shout like madmen and stand our ground. Eventually the bear got close enough that it disappeared behind the knoll we were atop, leaving us unaware of its location or desire. Finally, after what felt like 10 minutes, GW pointed to a small stream 100 feet away and we watched in awe as the bear sprinted across the stream, scampered up a 10 foot bluff, and proceeded to sprint up the mountainside. Every minute or two we'd look up and see him still going, 1,500 vertical feet above.
Satisfied with our wildlife encounter, we shouldered our packs and pressed on through a small canyon to reach a broad pass. The light was shining on alpine lakes in such a way as to make the whole area look like it was blanketed in gold.
We selected a broad knoll to set up camp, overlooking several blue lakes and rolling ridges where a huge group of goats were grazing (we counted 19). A massive glacier spread out far below, one tongue terminating in an ice-choked lake 1,000 feet directly below us. Fog came and went, intermittently revealing the epic landscape in dramatic evening light.
After dinner we explored our area a bit more, finding a couple of goats grazing on a ridge close by. We were able to get some great photos of these rugged animals, scraggly in appearance during their transition from winter to summer coat. One of the goats appeared to have only one ear, so we named him Vincent.
We woke to clear skies above and some valley fog below. The sun blazed and we casually enjoyed some coffee while discussing our route for the day. Up and over another pass, then a long descent to a glacial lake 10 miles distant to where we'd post up for the night.
Climbing to the pass went super quick and the alpine vegetation turned out to be drier than we were expecting, which was real nice. Reaching the pass, we saw that the valley on the other side was still socked in with the morning fog, so GW busted out his Farkle set and we threw some dice for an hour. The game ended with an impressive run by GW, and we looked up to see that the fog had set in even thicker, now enveloping us and limiting our visibility to a few hundred feet. Realizing we didn't have much of a choice, we took another look at the map and then started heading blindly downhill.
The descent went pretty well, really. We followed scree ridges down, staying high above mini canyons that formed every 1/4 mile as snowmelt streams cut their way through the fine rock. The landscape was crazy - very monochromatic and otherworldly. It would have been amazing to see this valley on a clear day, but our weather definitely added a certain beauty to the scene. Eventually small shrubs and herbaceous plants began to pop up, then form carpets, and finally some small hemlocks joined the party. And then salmonberry. And then we schwacked. Hard.
We had to descend 1,500 feet to the rocky bank of a river far below, where we hoped to inflate our packrafts and float out the last few miles to the lake. Things went pretty well for a while, following a steep creek down with manageable salmonberry, alder, and devil's club. At least in the creek we could see our feet most of the time, which was nice. This led us to a broad ridge covered in tall grasses, alder, salmonberry, and massive thickets of elderberry. The next mile or so was memorable in that "good lord, where are my feet and what is our route?" kind of way.
Following the ridge to a dramatic bluff at its southern terminus, we searched for a route through the cliffs. A steep scree field dropped off to the north, so we followed goat trails down to where the alder and salmonberry picked up again. Lots of falling, grabbing salmonberry, stumbling over hidden boulders. And then our slope ended abruptly in cliffs, a tantalizing 20 feet above the river. We traversed across the shrubby slope to a small stream and followed that down to the river. Finally, the river.
We followed the river downstream for a couple of easy miles, delighted to leave the bushwhacking behind but frustrated that none of the braids had enough water to allow us to float. Just as we were reaching the encroaching alder and forest, the braids came together and we decided to give the river a go. It was bony, for sure, but there was enough water that we were able to avoid the 'schwack and float the easy class I/II stream out to the lake for the final mile or so.
Rounding the final corner through alder-blanketed banks, we could see the tops of huge icebergs poking up. Leaving the river behind, we paddled through 20 foot tall chunks of stranded ice. Low clouds enveloped the mountains and a cold breeze stung our faces and hands. We circumnavigated a long peninsula and paddled head-on to the hundred-foot tall face of the glacier. A nice gravel beach called to us as a perfect camp spot, so we unloaded and got a fire going. We were pretty soaked, but had thought ahead to bring extra clothes just in case the weather forecast turned out to be wrong (it was SO wrong...). The chilly wind blowing down from the icefield helped get the fire going fast and strong, and soon we were warm and dry, sipping whiskey and drying our clothes.
The next morning, our last, the weather was much the same: socked in down to the water, a cold rain falling. The forecast for a sunny weekend couldn't have been more inaccurate. We loaded the boats and paddled the 3 miles across the lake to our pickup beach. The low fog and giant icebergs made a surreal landscape and kept the paddle interesting. One of our weight-saving decisions was to leave gloves in the truck, also figuring we'd be paddling shirtless in the sun by the time our last day rolled around. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and we were inspired to use our spare damp wool socks for paddling gloves. That worked super well, and I'll be using that method on future trips for sure.
The paddle went super quick, and we found ourselves on the beach where we'd be picked up with several hours to spare. Unfortunately, the cold rain had kicked up again and, with nowhere to hunker and everything already soaked, we had no choice but to endure it. We hiked the beach, studying the breaking surf, trying to conceptualize exactly how we'd launch our boats and get past the crashing waves without capsizing. Because of the tides, our water taxi wouldn't be able to get into the more protected area to pick us up so we told him we'd just paddle out to him in the bay. Jillian and I had practiced this a bit in Baja last winter. But it turns out that Baja is a bit different from Alaska, and we had big packs this time.
Between studying the waves and mooning small cruise boats, we passed the time well. The weather even improved enough that we could start to see some of the nearby mountains and the distant cliffy islands. A couple of eagles hung out close by, and we made a small project out of trying to get some great photos.
Soon we saw the distinctive profile of a landing craft heading our way and the launching time was upon us. I got excited and ran into the surf maybe a bit early, taking a good crashing wave over my bow but with no harm done. GW waited a minute and scored the style points. All that was left was a short ride back into Seward, where beers and cheeseburgers awaited us
.As we got back to GW's truck, a large group of hiking tourists emerged from the woods, their guide carrying a tray of plastic cups. The sun had come out and it was a pretty nice summer day in Seward, and the group informed us that they were enjoying gin and tonics to beat the heat and rehydrate after their hike. They asked where we had come from and we told them a bit about our trip and the guide, stoked to meet some people getting after it in the area, excitedly offered us a gin a tonic. We began the trip with an IPA and ended with a gin and tonic. A most excellent adventure!