Written summer, 2010…warning…this piece is long…but worth the read (or at least look at the photographs of true Alaska wilderness.)
We were eighteen steps down the trail when Anthony announced he had to go to the bathroom. And not the easy one. Blood pressure rising so early in the day, Dan unclipped the boys backpack and sent him back to the parking lot outhouse. With thirty-one miles left to go, it was not a good sign.
Resurrection Trail runs between Cooper Landing, Alaska and Hope, Alaska with a separate trail that intersects it via Devils Pass, a ten mile climb to the 2600 foot summit. We began our 2010 trek in Hope because the Cooper Landing side is mostly uphill for the first eight miles. In 2005, we nearly died…or at least wanted too…by the time we reached the first cabin on the south end. Hope seemed like the better option for that reason and besides, Hope sounds optimistic.
We planned for months. Spent thousands, literally, on new backpacking gear designed specifically for lessening the load. If there was a lighter, smaller—or just simply cooler option—we bought it. Intent on being outdoorsy, but not really having the strength, agility or youth to handle it, we figured the less weight we carried, the better our chances of survival. We’d planned meals for six and a the last minute Robin injured her leg and was unable to come so though we’d narrowed down our supplies, we lacked her brute strength in hefting along some of the load. Destini hadn’t come either, but she’d have been useless anyway…more of a hindrance since her idea of physical work is clicking the send button on her cell phone. 😉
While waiting for Anthony’s return we looked at the trail in front of us with awe, eager to prove to ourselves we could do it. Mentally going over the contents of my pack I shifted the weight on my shoulders, wondering about the necessity of everything inside. Yes, I decided, I needed every single thing I carried. Nothing could be eliminated.
“Did you bring the first aid kit?” asked Dan.
“Of course,” I rolled my eyes, perturbed at the question as if I hadn’t just spent half a year planning the outing. The nerve…
I tried not to be irritated with the questions. He was, after all, relying on me to keep us alive for four days in the wilderness.
“Yes, I brought a roll of toilet paper. It’s in my pack.”
“We’re staying at cabins…this is just trail paper. It’s plenty.”
He raised one eyebrow, no doubt considering the repercussions of being wrong on this one.
“Trust me,” I assured him. He did.
Once Anthony had done his business and we were back on our way, we followed the well groomed trail along the edge of the rushing Resurrection River for the first few miles. Wide enough for a four-wheeler, or perhaps a small car, we wondered why we hadn’t just driven this far, but eventually the trail narrowed and became a winding dirt path through the thick overgrowth of Alaska wild.
Four miles in I began to feel it: the gnawing, burning sensation on the balls of my feet, the tips of three toes and the left side of one heel. I tightened my shoelace, adjusted my walk to alleviate the pressure on the sore spots; played favorites with my feet. Some would call it limping.
Five months prior, in the depths of winter, I’d gone online to rent our cabins for the trip. I was smarter than most, planning so early in the year. I’d get the best cabins; have my choice of which week to go. Not so. They were booked. With no less than three hours of linear calculations and quadratic equations I was able to finagle three nights in a row of cabins, not necessarily in the right order or equidistance apart. Grand. The result was that the first day required nearly twelve miles on the trail. No problem. If only my feet worked I’d be fine.
By mile six I began to realize there was a serious problem. Not only were both my feet boiling inside my shoes in a flaming, puffy, blistering disaster, my left butt cheek had begun to cramp. Dan had slung Anthony’s pack over his shoulder a mile back and the boy was running free while the old man did above and beyond dad-duty. Billy trucked ahead as if he’d been working out every day all year-which he had- and Mya, never to be outdone, followed closely behind him. We looked like the model hiking family if you ignored my disheveled gait and the pained look on Dan’s face as he carried an extra thirteen pounds up the side of a cliff claiming to be a trail.
Three potty stops in Mya and I decided to re-think the amount of squares we were using. Drip-dry became more appealing than usual as the diameter of the roll decreased with each sip off our water bottles.
At mile seven we came across the first cabin at Caribou Creek. We traipsed by begrudgingly, wishing we’d booked earlier, like in 1997 perhaps, so we could have been at destination. But alas, our reserved spot was still another five miles away. Had there not been at least ten tents staked out around the cabin as if on sentry duty, we may have crashed the place. But hikers are a rigid group and likely we wouldn’t have been welcome in their wagon train so we continued on.
Our arrival at the sign for our cabin, mile twelve, was welcome to all. Until we realized we weren’t there yet. It’s a cruel joke, really, to put the cabin a quarter mile off the trail, uphill. Both ways. Three miles back I’d removed my boots to discover silver dollar sized blisters on the balls of both feet, just below the toes. I’d slipped on my water shoes for a more flexible fit, hoping to alleviate some of the torture, and hobbled the rest of the way. Twelve miles down, nineteen to go. My immediate future did not look bright.
However, once I hobbled up the path and finally reached the cabin itself I was thrilled with the look of the newly remodeled Fox Creek Cabin. Twenty-five years ago when I was last there it was little more than a shack, now it rivals a Tahoe ski chalet…and for only thirty-five bucks a night!
Upon arrival the kids claimed their bunks and scattered there stuff. Billy brought me a container of water for feet soaking and I took back half of the bad things I’ve said about him.
The outhouse revealed our worst fear. Our cabin package was not all inclusive after all and our single roll instantly became my most guarded possession.
Day two was three miles. Three miles. Ahhhhh….only three miles. I can walk three miles on my hands. Or at least I wished I could have after the first mile on the gnarled, swollen stumps that used to be my feet. Moss was our new friend trailside and the roll stayed closely guarded in the front of my pack for those emergency situations when a clump of moss just wouldn’t do the trick.
The second cabin we rented, East Creek Cabin, still in it’s original form, was not as fancy as the new and improved version but lent much to the ambiance of the rugged outdoors. As I practically crawled up the trail head to the cabin door and collapsed on the porch in a heap of antiquity and anguish, we were surprised to find a couple of forest service workers doing cleanup inside. An empty wine bottle, a ziplock of rice, numerous smash cans were pulled from the cabin where previous campers had overestimated their pack weight and decided to leave things behind. I wondered how these litterers believed their garbage would disappear and had they not noticed the cleanliness of the cabin on their arrival? Or did they simply not care.
I found it difficult to digest the idea that someone could spend two days getting to this cabin and not have appreciated the serenity of the spotless forest around them. These are the same people who don’t care where the water comes from in their faucet, only that it is there.
The forestry workers, two women and a man, stopped to chat, shared their equal disgust with the garbage and let the kids feel the extra weight of the garbage bag they would be hauling back to the highway. At the pained look on my face, one of the women dug through her pack and pulled out a full roll of athletic tape, prodded at the bottom of my bare feet, winced at the fact that I’d brought no tape myself, and left me with the roll. I would have kissed her had I been able to move and had she not just been touching my sweaty feet.
The outhouse, once again, offered no amenities.
That night we concentrated on emptying some weight from our packs. We hogged down the s’more fixings I’d toted along and chose the heaviest of the dehydrated foods for our meals. I taped my feet and the kids played cards. We swapped horror stories of our three mile day and regarded our water filter system with awe as we had three gallons of clean cold water in just minutes. Ah the high priced gadgets were beginning to pay off. With our Jet Boil cooking system we were able to boil our water in just over two minutes and our Mountain House meal pouches were hot and ready to eat in ten. The shocker was, they tasted good! Now granted, when tired and hungry, most anything becomes edible, but I’d have eaten these things at home.
|Sometimes even the mile markers get tired.|
Day three of the saga left us with less than half a roll of our now golden t.p. My feet had discovered the miracle of athletic tape and were joyously jaunting at a normal pace. Hallelujah. On this day we knew we were going to be in for some work because we were to travel about 900 feet in elevation in seven miles. Not too bad, but we also knew that a good portion of that would be above tree line and we may encounter snow. What we didn’t count were remnants of avalanche and treacherous creek crossings.
The first mile or two after leaving East Creek Cabin were similar to a rock climbing expedition up Mt. Everest but once we’d reached the top and could breathe again, we were glad we’d made the trek. The trees began to thin and everything opened up into a span of mountainous horizon so wide we could practically see into tomorrow. As we rose into the valley the temperature dropped without the protection of the trees and the wind picked up. Sprinkles fell, ears got cold,and it was totally worth it.
Walking along a steep embankment, traversing melting avalanches, one right after the other, one could imagine the danger of winter travel through these mountain passes and see just how treacherous snow machining can be in these deep valleys surrounded by wet, heavy snow that pummels down the mountain side like a freight train, taking out everything in it’s path.
But the expanse of beauty made it easy to see the draw, the appeal to adventurers who disregarded the danger and plunged forward into the depths of the Alaskan wild.
We topped Resurrection Pass Summit at 2600 feet and posed for a photo where the Less the Moose was totally a poser in front of the elevation sign. He spent the whole trip on my backpack and then gloated when he reached the summit as if he’d packed us all up there himself. But we humored him with a shot…I mean photo…and stuffed him back in his place.
Shortly after the sign we were alerted by the kids to an animal across the valley. We squinted, stared and wondered until I broke out the camera and zeroed in on the varmint. What we discovered were a large family of ROUS’s (Rodent’s of Unusual Size) living in giant holes all over the place. What we later discovered were Marmots, and not the famous giant Fire Swamp creatures from the Princess Bride, were everywhere.
After scaring ourselves half to death sneaking up on a couple of these “little” guys and discovering they have a nasty streak, we decided it best to leave the wildlife in tact, as well as our throats. But that didn’t stop Anthony who veered from the trail often, tracking them down like the Crocodile Hunter, fearless and crazed for the hunt.
We arrived at the cabin at Devils Pass eager to check the outhouse and were again disappointed to find no essentials, as our measly roll was depleted to nearly nothing and the tribe was beginning to hoard each square with a viscousness the Donner Pass party must have felt somewhere near the end. The Devils Pass was well above tree line and there was no wood to be found, which worked out, since there was no wood stove. Some bring in fuel in the winter months on snow machine so we were fortunate some fuel had been left behind. Though we never fully got the stove to burn efficiently, we were able to keep some flame going long enough to dry our shoes and pant legs that had become soaked in some of the snow crossings.
I want to live right there, in that cabin, with that setting. Alone.
Our last night sleeping along the trail was nice. We ate as much food as we could stomach, hoping to lighten the load to almost nothing. With the heater going until we slept we were cozy and happy. Two days prior we’d lost cell phone service, therefore, our clocks didn’t work. I’ve never in my life gone without time for more than a few hours. Sensing the daylight, the feel of the air and the heaviness of my eyelids was new territory, but I liked the sense of freedom in moving according to our bodies clock and not what the digital numbers of civilization tell us we must.
In the wee unknown hour of the morning, as the sun cast it’s brilliance barely across the tops of the mountains on the far side of the valley, I woke to the sound of drip, drip, drip. I’ll not go further…for the sake of confidentiality. But suffice it to say, in the future all possible bed wetters sleep on the bottom bunks and not above Dan and I. Especially not Dan. Thank God it was our last night. Let’s move on…
With such an early and abrupt awakening we decided to get right on the trail. We had ten miles ahead of us and would need all day to do it in as we knew the trail was called Devil’s Pass for a reason. Right away I found a paw shaped rock formation on the trail and it was not a good precedent for what was to come. Anxious to get back to the truck, to a foot bath, to a fresh roll of Ultra Soft Charmain, we moved along quite quickly that morning.
|Interesting rock formation…|
An hour into the day it began to resemble the arctic and suddenly we were trudging through deep snow, across avalanche remnants so steep we had to press our feet in sideways to keep from sliding down. Looking forward seemed eternal, impossible that we would reach the end of the valley before us and yet knowing that once we got there, we’d turn and find another valley just like it in our path.
Some of the steeper snow crossings were worrisome because if we’d slipped we’d have quite a rid to the bottom, one that would likely not end well…in the bottom of a partially thawed waterway or drop off into a gully. We locked hands, carried kids packs, and once walked far out of our way, up the hill, to go around a snow drift too steep to cross.
Finally the snow thinned and green became thicker as we re-entered tree line. With the warmer temperatures came a new challenge. Creeks had formed down from the tips of the mountains where snow melt off had formed gully’s of gushing water. There were no bridges, only well placed rocks some kind previous hiker had taken the time to lay out. Again, we faced the danger of not only falling in, but the fact that we were on such steep terrain that had we fallen to the right, more often than not we would have been plummeting off a veritable cliff of rock and snow.
The above photos who the worst crossings. Notice how the water carves the snow out, forming a waterfall behind the wall of snow on which we walked, then opening up again right below us. We had no idea how thick the snow was we were walking upon, and no idea if it would open up and swallow us. So we sent Billy first. 😉
Thankful to be done with the icy waterfall crossings and into thick brush we kept on the lookout for bears. Anthony restarted the “count the giant trees” game he’d begun three days before, when we’d last seen any sizable trees. He got to number twenty three but we’re pretty sure he missed about four hundred others.
With the end of the trail within range we were elated at the idea of any food besides things dehydrated to 1/56th it’s original size and weight; fresh clothes; and a hot shower. Six squares were left, faintly wrapped around the coveted cardboard cylinder. I devised a plan to keep it all to myself, all maternal instincts nil and void as crisis mode set in. It was every man for himself and I was the one holding the golden egg. With so little time left on the trail the younger people would survive…an old woman has certain requirements.
With a last spurt of energy and my feet on their last leg, literally, we thrilled like a kid on Christmas morning to finally see the parking lot in Cooper Landing. The sound of cars flying by on the highway, the scent of an oil leak, the feel of solid pavement under our feet, all reminders of a world we’d left behind, had missed, and yet were almost sad to come back to.
|What’s in the hatch????|
We walked, single file, limping towards the truck where Dan would open the door with the Slim Jim he’d strapped under the bumper since where we live, no key is required. (I know, SO backwoods…)
There, on the ground in the parking lot, was a full roll of unused toilet paper, drenched and uselessly smashed against harsh black pavement. I was too tired to take a picture. We all stared longingly as we slowly passed…vowing from here on out to be forever thankful for the simpler necessities of the civilized world.