Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Call Of The North: Wrangell St-Elias National Park

“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.”
 ~John Muir

I had a great opportunity to hike and camp in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve recently. This amazing hike came on the heels of a wedding at Delta Junction (see previous post). At the wedding we car camped but in Wrangell-St. Elias, camping took on a whole new meaning. The interesting thing about journeys into the wilderness is that often the true impact and amazement of such a pilgrimage is protracted; it seeps into your being and consciousness over the course of weeks or even years. At the time the experience is so acute, so immediate and tangible, with your safety and abilities being constantly challenged at every turn, that you cannot absorb it all. It is only later, directly, or sometimes a feeling caught on the edge of your mind that the sublime beauty of it all softly settles in your bones. 

I can already feel this sensation happening. It is quite surreal. I wonder if those living there continually marvel at the wonder of everything around them or if they see the mountains but don't really see them, after they have lived there for awhile? My instinct tells me that those who make Alaska and The Yukon their home do so because they love it, and there is simply no other place they would rather be. 

 I was quite excited to drive much of the 1,200 miles that we covered in 10 days!

My friend Michael and I headed out from Delta Junction and drove all day to reach the infamous road to the town of McCarthy. This 62 mile stretch of road is quite rough, but honestly it wasn't as bad as we anticipated it would be. McCarthy, as of 2000, according to census reports, had 42 people living there...42. Now that's quiet. The winding road to McCarthy is the only way to get to Kennicott, an old copper mining town that is the primary setting off point for intrepid souls venturing out into the park. Both towns have a rich history and are considered endangered national landmarks. We intended to tour the 27 story mine in Kennicott but instead used our remaining time in the area to go into McCarthy and look around. 

A bridge along the McCarthy Road. Acrophobes beware!

We camped at mile 54 near Swift Creek the night before our big adventure. The next morning we jumped on the bikes that Michael had cleverly thought to bring for us to cut down our time along the 6 miles of road between the truck and Kennicott. Our packs were pretty heavy, especially Michael's and the road had a slight uphill grade so we had a good peddle ahead of us before getting out into the park proper.

Thank goodness for this new bridge across the river

Two years ago this bridge was installed so that people trying to get to Kennicott and McCarthy didn't have to do a tyrolean traverse across the river on a wire. We sure appreciated the update! After making it into Kennicott we signed into the log book at the park service building, indicating our destination, probable length of stay in the park and, forebodingly, an emergency contact should we not return at our scheduled time. There were plastic moldings of bear prints to make identification easier within the park. We also grabbed a bear canister which we could place our food in at night and thus deter them (hopefully) from coming too close. In some camping areas there would be bear boxes too, sturdy metal boxes for storing food as well.I noted disconcertedly, the book that we were using clearly stated that the Donoho Lakes area of Wrangell-St. Elias has been heavily frequented by bears lately...the exact area we were heading! The park is 13.2 million acres, larger than the entire country of Switzerland....and we were heading into bear-central. Yikes. 

Here is our route that we followed 

Our goal for this trek was outlined in the great Falcon Guide "Hiking Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve" by Greg Fensterman. Ironically, we happened upon a group of boy scouts and an older gentleman who gave us some tips on our day up to the Donoho Lakes by Donoho Peak. Turns out I think it was the author himself!

Following a path that led down to the glacier. You can see Donoho Peak
 rising behind the glacier

We found a place to leave the bikes off of the trail and turned to see the expanse of the Root Glacier spread out before us. It was quite a sight. The summer previous I had climbed part of the way up the Gulkana Glacier with my friend Trevor which you can read about here. I also had a wilderness baptism-by-fire the week before Gulkana at Kanuti Hot Springs with my Ed and some other friends that you can read about here

I can see how glaciers really do have different personalities. The Root glacier is vast, but small in comparison to many other glaciers in Alaska. We strapped on our crampons and headed out onto the Root. Michael has been on many glaciers, is a mountaineer by passion and has summited Denali (Mt. McKinley). Therefore it was I who experienced a sharper learning curve as I oriented myself on my new "footwear" as we moved out across the ice. 

Michael climbed up a nearby rise so we could have a good look at our route across the glacier

The travel across the glacier was wonderful, the ice crackling and clinking beneath our feet and against the metal teeth of the crampons. We were making good time and managed to cross the glacier, with the odd stop for pictures and side trips in about 3 hours. Getting off of the ice was challenging as the moraine was very soft and a couple of times the going was a bit treacherous as we sunk into the mud that quickly set off a deluge of water from under the ice...we climbed back on to the glacier to climb further north and seek out a less precarious path onto the landmass where we would camp the first night. As we crossed the glacier we looked back near the other side of the glacier and saw a few small groups of day trippers out exploring the ice. We also spotted a small tent way up on the landmass. The area where we camped is a pretty popular spot for hikers to stop for a first night, and bear boxes were about 1/4 mile away for safer food storage. The best decision Michael made on this trip was to bring a second, very light tent for food preparation. It would keep any smells of food away from our sleeping tent and provided a nifty shelter against the cold gales that were a constant presence next to the glacier. 

I loved the monochromatic quality of the glacier on this day. This is a view just looking back after our rather sketchy exit off of the ice.

This picture is small but you can see a larger version if you click on it. This is the view from our camp the first night near Donoho Peak....beautiful!

We arrived and took awhile deciding where best to set up camp as it was far from ideal with rocks and not much level ground. We managed to squeeze our extra food in one of the bear boxes and met up with some men who introduced themselves as Ben and Gary. They were out hiking in the same area as we were. It was lovely to chat with them and get some tips on navigating the trail we were planning on taking the next day. They had two way radios and used them when two of them went out onto the Root glacier the next day to explore. You can see them in the shot below...they are the two small dark dots in the lower right hand corner of the shot. This helps provide some scale for the landscape. It amazed me then and it amazes me now even more to see the sheer size of that place in these photographs. 

There is Gary and one more from their group in the lower right-hand side of the shot.

Once settled in to camp and having procured potable water from a stream and filter Michael and I were happy to flake out after some dinner. It had been a full day and we were anxious to get hiking the next day up to the Donoho Lakes area. I was a little nervous knowing that there would be some bushwhacking involved, bears everywhere, and I am claustrophobic by nature, especially when the brush closes in above my head while I battle through branches. However, it is all a part of the experience and what I may lament at the time become the cornerstones of happy memories when recalling the journey at a later time. For that evening though we marveled at the Root Glacier out before us and its spectacular icefall, the starkness of that landscape and our unbelievably small place within such natural grandeur. 

Here's our little food tent, a good distance from our other one..just in case! The landform was pretty sparse there, like one giant moraine! 

A great view to wake up to. Does it get any better than this?

We began the hike up to the second campsite near Donoho Lakes and the Kennicott Glacier the next morning. The book said that there would be a path that essentially marked the way for us but that some route-finding would be expected too. Well, that was an understatement! We had to back-track many times but Michael was good about forging ahead carefully and planning various routes to try. At least we knew our general direction and with time and patience, some falling down on my part and pacing ourselves, we made great time and found ourselves next to Kennicott Glacier in one piece. 

Here you can see the view of the first lake we passed, complete with lots of brush on all sides.

Route-finding towards the second lake

A large part of me wished that I could keep walking  forever...

This time in Alaska I was overwhelmed periodically; overwhelmed at how totally powerful and fiercely unrelenting  that wilderness was. And its limitlessness! Its sheer size made my head spin with a giddy elation. The thread of life is tenacious yet fragile, and one slip can bring an entirely different reality crashing in pretty quickly. It was a crazy sensation to deal with...yet I knew that that bit of fear would be like a slow-release vitamin to help me through the weeks following as I sat down at the easel in my small, dark studio in Southwestern Ontario and remembered where I had been and what a special experience it had been exploring out there. 

The weather was beautifully tumultuous that day. It threatened but did not rain on us.

I think Ansel Adams would have enjoyed the quality of light against the mountains
and wonderful value variations. 

As we neared the area where we were going to camp in on the second night I looked back to see the sun hitting some mountains near where we had begun our hike earlier in the day. Alaska is a land of paradoxes...there is lots to be said for the patience of glaciers and the timid openings of cold flowers. Yet much is to be said for the sublime hyperactivity found there: fervent weather, tempestuous skies, fleeting rainbows and mile after mile of untouched beauty. I was happy to share a small part in that wild ballet for awhile. 

"Contemplating the lace-like fabric of streams outspread over the mountains, we are reminded that everything is flowing - going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks both in solution and in the form of mud particles, sand, pebbles, and boulders. Rocks flow from volcanoes like water from springs, and animals flock together and flow in currents modified by stepping, leaping, gliding, flying, swimming, etc. While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood globules in Nature's warm heart." ~John Muir

Don't forget to attend my exhibition in November if you are able! I would love to meet you and share my work with you. Have a beautiful evening..

Portraits Of Newfoundland
November 5-22nd, 2009
Abbozzo Gallery, Oakville, Ontario
Opening Reception November 6th, 7-10pm


Julie said...

Heather, your "badge of courage" picture made me smile! Any woman who shows her battle wounds is cool in my book. :) Amazing photos and writing!

Carol said...

My husband and I have been in Alaska twice to visit my brother. Your pictures are exactly what I remember of Alaska. So beautiful, it takes your breath away. It IS God's Country! Had we not had family back here in Iron Mountain, we would of never come back. Although where we live in the U.P., it is beautiful too. But it cannot compare with Alaska. Nothing can.I feel that people who live there do not realize it's beauty. We are very interested in these pictures, especially because my husband is related to Chris's mother.Keep up the beautiful work!
Carol Christesen

Heather Horton said...

Hello Carol,

Thanks for your feedback! What a small world! Walt and Billie just left after visiting for the weekend as I had an art show opening in Oakville, Ontario Friday!

Feel free to email me at my contact email in my profile if you wish. Yes, Alaska is truly magical and a place where you alternately find and forget about yourself at the same time. Glad to know that my photos and blog struck a note with you...Did you see my blog entries about Chris and hiking to Bus 142? Keep in touch and have a beautiful day!