Fr. Nathan from Ohio is the founder of the Eagle Eye Retreats which he puts on for young adults around the country each summer. This is his third year leading a backpacking retreat in Crow Pass.
Each year a couple of monks come up to Girdwood (one from Ohio and one from overseas) and lead the Eagle Eye Retreat for 18-40ish year olds. It begins with 4 days of backpacking Crow Pass, 26 miles from Girdwood to Eagle River. Then there is an additional 3 days of theology and education at the Our Lady of the Snows Chapel in Girdwood, interspersed with hiking and socialization. Last year my husband and I did the 3 days of theology; this year I wanted to do the Crow Pass hike with the group but my husband couldn't make it. We managed to swing it for me. It was the best retreat I've been on in many years.
Nearly everyone on this hike was from the Lower 48 and had never backpacked before in their life. This made me one of the more experienced people in the group. I was also one of the oldest people, and I was the only mother in the group of 19 people. The retreat organizers spent $600 on food for 19 people for 4 days. Everything was weighed (2 pounds of food per day per person) and was all add-water-only food. Each person carried their own supplies and food. There were 3 campstoves for the group plus fuel, which were dispersed among everyone. Nine tents housed 17 people, with the 2 guides sleeping under a tarp.We packed up and slept in a school Sunday night and headed to the trailhead in Girdwood Monday morning after mass.
The first day was a relatively easy hike for me: 3-4 miles, 2000-2500 foot climb up to the summit of Crow Pass. (I got different answers from various people on distances and elevations, thus the approximations.) When backpacking I am used to grueling 8-14 mile hikes, so 4 miles was a piece of cake even though I had a 45-50 pound pack on my back. I was just getting warmed up when they said we were camping at the top of the pass for the night. The only wildlife we saw that first day was 4 sheep far off on a mountainside.
We set up our tents, and then headed to the Raven Glacier about a mile further along the trail. Our guide, Beav, has experience ice and rock climbing among other adventures, so he took us out onto the glacier. Apparently last year the group could walk comfortably all over the glacier, but this year it was icy (I know, that sounds silly, but the surface of glaciers are not consistently the same) so we settled for a short expedition, cautiously choosing our footing and avoiding crevasses and black ice under the gravel.
The weather continued to deteriorate from cloudy to windy to windier, with the cloud cover lowering and misty rain covering us. I put on layer after layer, finally ending up with a thermal undershirt, long sleeve thermax shirt, short sleeve shirt, rain jacket and wool-lined rain/wind jacket. On the bottom half I had 3 layers on. On my head I had my bandana, winter hat and rain hood. At times I was still shivering.
At the top of Crow Pass near where we were camping there is an A-frame and doorless pit toilet, the only "facilities" the entire length of the trail. We women-folk took turns holding the door closed for each other (we were above treeline and there really was no out-of-sight spot in the area). Dinner warmed us, and then we had a group discussion about the use of technology in our lives. For bedtime, each person got their water bottle filled with hot water to put in their sleeping bag. I had the misfortune to have my water bottle leak, scalding the bottom my foot and soaking my pants, socks and sleeping bag. It was a slightly uncomfortable night with the wind howling and tents flapping.
Next morning we were up early, got breakfast, said morning prayers and headed out down the trail, retracing our steps towards the Raven Glacier. Past the glacier the trail began to descend, crossing several snowfields. We saw two bear foraging on a distant hillside and we began to see bear tracks on the muddy trail. We took frequent breaks (again, by my standards), taking our time. We had 8 miles to go that day, down to the Eagle River. We saw numerous marmots and tundra squirrels, and were blessed to see a moose with a huge rack napping in a field (In 3 years in Alaska I have only seen a moose with a rack that size once before). The trail had pushki, alders and other shrubs hanging over it, and there were some muddy spots, but overall it was a pretty good trail.
At the Eagle River we decided to stop for the night rather than cross the river and push on another mile to Thunder Gorge. A group was put in charge of building an altar of rocks, decorating the cross of branches we'd made the first day and had been carrying. Everyone else set up their tents, set up the group tarp, gathered water for dinner and otherwise helped out. We had evening prayer and mass and turned in. There were 4 bear scats in the vicinity of our camping area, so we put our food out of the way (no trees to speak of to hang the food from) at night.
The next morning we had morning prayer and mass and then got ready for the river crossing. Most of the group seemed nervous about it. Beav gave us instructions for how to cross (3 or 4 abreast, arms locked, with the upstream and downstream people with poles, and with packs unclipped in case we fell). We had to head slightly downstream to the white post, cross a gravel bar, then cross a couple more side streams to the white post on the far side. The water was up to mid-thigh on most of us, and the rocks underwater were large, making footing tricky. In addition, the water is fresh from the Eagle Glacier a few miles upstream, so it was extremely cold. When everyone had crossed there was a great deal of enthusiasm, and most everyone agreed it wasn't as bad as they thought it would be.
Day 3 was a long 8 miles following the Eagle River downstream. There were many streams to cross, and there were ladders to climb and ropes to hold onto. The trail went up and down as it followed the contours of the land. In one place there is an upper and lower trail, with either being acceptable routes. The lower route was washed right out--gone--and quite recently from what our guide said (he'd hiked the trail just a few weeks prior and it was still there then). Thus we followed the upper trail, picking our way across the base of talus slopes.
We ended up camping on a gravel bar at the confluence of 2 rivers that night, in sight of the Eagle Glacier. It was bittersweet, with many retreatants feeling sad that their Alaskan backpacking adventure was about to end. A group of girls, rebelling against the lack of showers, washed their hair in the glacial river, joking about "glacial facials." Sharing time that night was insightful and special, creating strong bonds of caring and friendship. The weather was relatively warm (only 2 layers instead of 4 or 5) and there was no wind or rain, making it an enjoyable evening at camp besides some bugs.
Thursday morning we took our time getting up, packing up and hitting the trail. More river crossings were on the docket for the day. It was a fairly easy 6 miles in to the Eagle River Nature Center, with the last 3 or 4 being on wider, hard-packed trails. The berries were ripe along this section, so I was grabbing raspberries, blueberries, high bush cranberries and watermelon berries as I walked. The final couple miles to the end it began to rain, though not hard enough to drench us. We were relieved to finally reach the nature center and civilization.
Busses and private vehicles transported everyone back to the school where they picked up extra gear, and then we headed to a chalet in Girdwood where we were staying. Showers were welcome, as was a hot dinner of grilled chicken and corn on the cob. Everyone felt a sense of accomplishment and was filled with the beauty of Alaska. It made me appreciate the beauty that surrounds me every day as everyone was ooooohing and aaaaaaahhhhing over things that are a regular part of my life now.
I had to admire our guide for being willing to take 19 mostly-green backpackers on a 4-day, 26-mile trip. Some of the people had never been out of a city before in their lives, never seen berries, never exercised. And yet no one complained. There were smiles and small kindnesses shared the whole way, with stories and laughter standard fare. It filled me up in a way that conventional retreats don't, and I found myself aching to be back with the group the past few days since the hike ended. It was a special time.