Monday, September 14, 2009

Packing with Horses--The Resurrection Trail

What with the death of our nephew a couple weeks ago, moose hunting, classes beginning, starting homeschooling my kids and homeowner challenges, we had every reason to cancel our trip up the Resurrection Pass that we'd had planned for 6 months, but opportunities like this don't fall in our laps every day, so once again we carved the time out of our crazy lives to take a 37 mile hike up the Resurrection Pass over Labor Day weekend. And once again the blessing of the weekend was of being surrounded by family and the wild remoteness of Alaska.

When I speak of opportunities "falling in our laps," I mean that literally. My cousin Angela and her husband Klaus have been trying to make this trip for years, and each year something happened to upset their plans. Our next challenge was trying to find time that would work for all of us: Angela and her family, my aunt and uncle, and our family. Labor Day weekend ended up being a viable option, especially since we would have the horses along packing most of our equipment and food so the hiking wouldn't be quite as grueling. All we really had to do was show up with our food, clothes and gear; Angela made the reservations 6 months in advance (to the day, since the cabins along the trail are filled nearly every night of the summer months), and Delores and John brought 2 of their horses and picked up 2 more on the way (one of Angela's and one of Ronna's).

The first day of hiking, about 9 miles up to the Juneau Lake cabin, was, well, pretty boring. It was well treed with few views and didn't inspire me. We'd started in mid-afternoon, so we had to move right along with only one break for a waterfall. In the Lower 48, this waterfall would probably be a huge attraction, but a 4-5 mile hike precedes reaching this plunging, roaring mass of water, and it got only a quick 10 minute break from us.

All the cabins along the Resurrection Trail are new within the past couple years, so they were clean and nice, but also lacking character. Juneau Lake's housing used to be an old trapper's cabin that was very dark and had few, small windows. All of the new cabins are large with lots of windows, all with stoves (the cabin in Devil's Pass had an oil heater since there was no wood for fuel, and it used to be an A-frame with a loft). Still, we had 9 people in our party, so a couple got to sleep on the floor each night.

Each cabin had it's special highlight: Juneau Lake was a treat for the kids since there was a canoe available that came with the cabin so they had a blast paddling around, and we even snuck up close to a couple of loons. The highlight of the cabin in Devil's Pass was crowberries: the ground was covered with a carpet of berries. Although we'd rather have been picking blueberries since crowberries are a bit seedier and less sweet than the blues, we were happy to be picking anything. The final night we stayed near a river and there was a huge patch of currants with a spattering of highbush cranberries to fill our free time with picking.

Day 2 brought another 9 miles of hiking, but we had all day to get there so we took a few more breaks. We had some elevation gain this day as we entered Devil's Pass. Passing up berries was the agony of the day. We passed bushes loaded with watermelon berries, crowberries, blueberries, highbush cranberries and more. With the horses we couldn't just stop and pick at our leisure. It was delightful to get above treeline and see the vistas of mountains. We saw about 25 Dall sheep on a mountainside above us, tiny pinpoints of white. The binoculars just made them slightly bigger pinpoints of white, but it was still neat to know they were up there.

Day 3 was a bit grueling. We had 13 miles to hike, and didn't get started till nearly 11:00 by time we ate and packed and then watered, fed and loaded the horses. We were above treeline much of the day, and were thankful that it was a beautiful, sunny, warm day. The picture at the top is of all of us at Resurrection Pass (2500 feet) where we met a couple mountain bikers taking a break. Soon after we stopped for that photo break we met a group with about 10 horses packing out a moose they'd shot. We took numerous breaks this day as there were a number of beautiful mountain streams along it, but it was with great relief that we finally got to the cabin after 8 hours of hiking. Of course, the work begins in earnest then, as the horses have to be tended, everything unloaded, dinner made, and sleeping arrangements laid out. We were all happy to be in bed by 9:30 that night.

Day 4 was back into trees, but much of it was scenic and if I didn't know better I would have thought I was in the Midwest. Popal trees were shedding their yellow leaves onto the trail, with the yellow canopy over our heads making a cozy tunnel at times. We encountered more bear scat that day in the last 4 miles than we'd seen on the entire trail. The trails were lined with ripe rosehips--more rosehips than I've seen in my entire life. And since it was Labor Day, the mountain bikers and hikers were out en force, so it seemed we were constantly moving over for or scootching around others on the trail. The northern end of the Resurrection Pass is within 2 hours of Anchorage, so makes for a viable day trip for city folk.

Packing horses made this trip more interesting and a new experience for us. I led the lead horse, Freedom, nearly the entire 37 miles save a couple miles Aurora rode him. It made for a quiet, lonely time in a way since with my hearing impairment I couldn't join in the conversations yelled across horses. My uncle followed with Eclipse, a young horse that bucked Aurora off Day 3 when she tried to ride him. Dazzle (Aurora's love) and Lightening followed, led by Angela and Delores. Klaus and Douglas are not horse people and were happy to bring up the rear with the kids, snatching berries and enjoying the scenery.

This is a multi-use trail, with backpackers, mountain bikers and horseback riders sharing it in the summer, and cross-country skiiers, dog mushers and snowmobiliers sharing it in the winter. I felt a little tension when different groups met, partly because horses can be unpredictable. I am no expert horse handler, I had the largest horse by far of the group, and I was leading so I was always on the lookout for oncoming traffic that might spook the horses. Luckily Freedom was not skittish on this trip (he's been known to be skittish when I've ridden him) so it was mostly an uneventful trip despite meeting dozens of others on the trail--mostly the last day as we neared the northern trailhead and people out for the day. The weather was gorgeous--couldn't have been better--so it wasn't like I would get soaked stepping off the trail into the grass or like we were miserable and just wanted to get there (wherever we were going that day).

I felt deeply like I was part of Alaska during this weekend of packing. It was an extension of our weekend of moosehunting, with the land making its way inside my psyche and hooking me. Over and over I read about people falling in love with Alaska and not being able to leave--not wanting to leave. It so often catches people by surprise; they don't necessarily go there looking for an experience. Over and over I have thought to myself since we've moved here: "I'm never going to be able to leave, even if I want to." I feel like a romantic, mushy ninny when I say that. I feel like I'm repeating all the dozens of people I've read who have said that same thing in different ways. I'm embarrassed to admit it has happened to me too. I am hungry for more: I want to experience all this more fully, more deeply, more often. For now, I will sneak away when I can and dream often of the wilds of Alaska.

An Alaskan Tradition: Moose Hunting

Just as we talk about apple pie being American, when one talks about what Alaskans do, moose hunting tops the list. Thus, when my uncle offered to take us moose hunting the other week, although I was up to my eyeballs in work, I jumped at the chance and rearranged my schedule to make it happen.

I was hoping for a gloriously sunny weekend--the type that just fills you up and makes the joy of being outdoors just well up and overflow. That was not to be. As we loaded up the 4-wheelers it began to drizzle and the evening got darker and more depressing. Although the weather was a downer, we were in good spirits, eager to see what the hunt would bring. Part of the challenge of loading was deciding where to put and how to carry all the guns. We had 2 pistols for bear protection and 3 rifles to maximize our chance of getting a moose (or encountering a bear and protecting the moose meat).

The first hour of 4-wheeling got us 8 miles down the trail. While it started out as this nice graveled road you see it pictured, it eventually deteriorated into a mucky, bumpy (!!) track. The final mile to our camp we got stuck 4 times. That is, my uncle in the lead got stuck 4 times. It took us 45 minutes to go the final mile. It was a relief to get there and get out of the rain, peel off the wet stuff and unpack our stuff. First we had to un-booby trap the cabin we were staying it. The outhouse was boarded up, barbed wired wrapped around the cabin, windows boarded up and sheet of nails in front of the door removed. You would think we were in New York City for all the protection, but bears wreak havoc on cabins. On this cabin a bear once ripped the boards off the windows to get inside to the food; thus the barbed wire addition.

Next morning dawned wet. Douglas and my uncle John were up at 5:30 and out the door by 6:00. They hiked up the trail a ways to a spot John knew the moose hung out. That morning they saw a few moose, but no legal ones. Legal has changed. In the past, any bull moose was fair game to kill, but now the bulls have to either have antlers smaller than a certain size, or over 50 inches. As anyone who has hunted knows, it is pretty hard to tell rack size when it's raining, just getting light, and the moose is a ways from you. It makes this game a lot harder since you have to get closer and be at the right angle to see the antlers. My uncle, a 40+ year veteran of Alaskan moose hunts, says it's not as fun this way, but that something needed to be done because there simply are not as many moose as there used to be, no matter what the officials say.

By 9:30 the guys were back to camp. The moose head upland at night and down to the lowlands in the morning and then hunker down all day. You could put in time during the day looking for tracks and signs of them, but it wouldn't be efficiently used time. So the guys ate breakfast and went back to bed, while the kids, my aunt Delores and I headed out berrypicking. The area we were in was ravanged by fire a few years ago, and last year there were no berry plants or berries, so we were tentatively hopeful. The area was splotchy, with some areas so burned there was no vegetation, and then we discovered a grand bed of blueberries. We picked for 2 hours, but with the wet bushes and wind our fingers were frigid so we finally gave it up.

The day was spent making food, taking naps, playing games, reading and talking. A little before 7:00 that evening Doug, John, Aurora and I headed out for the evening hunt. We were watching the lowlands, looking for moose heading up. We found a moose wallow, a bare patch of ground where a moose had rubbed the ground clear to the dirt, and set up watch nearby. At 9:15, after 2 hours of not seeing a single moose, we headed back to camp.

Next day dawned wet again. This time the guys came back at 9:30 in high spirits, talking and laughing about the moose they'd seen. A moose with a 30-ish inch rack had stood in the trail just 20 yards away from Doug--a perfect shot--but wasn't legal size so he had to pass it up. They saw 9 moose between them that morning; some they couldn't tell if they were legal while others were clearly cows.

Once again we headed up the hills to go berry picking, this time going right to the rich patch loaded with big, ripe blueberries we'd left behind yesterday. It wasn't raining, but the plants were wet and there was a strong wind blowing. The clouds were so low they obscured the top of the hills above us at times, and as we were heading out of the patch that day they got so low we couldn't see much around us. It was a good time to get back to the 4-wheelers and find the trail.

That evening we all took the 4-wheelers down the trail a ways at 5:00, hoping to get set up and catch the moose as they came up. The weather had cleared and it was now gloriously sunny and we had an incredible view of the the Alaska Range on one side, with Mt. Redoubt's small plume poofing up into the sky, and the Kenai Range on the other, with its snow-capped peaks. We split up into 2 groups, checking out different areas for trails and tracks and finally settling down by a water hole that had a well-worn animal track along it. Again, we saw no moose and the berries weren't plentiful in that area so it was a time of conversation and quietness.

The final morning the guys took the 4-wheelers out to get to their spot earlier. They saw 9 moose again, but they were on the move and too far away to tell size. It was too close to dawn, the the animals needed to be hunkered down somewhere before the sun rose. When the guys got back to camp we started packing up, cleaning out, re-booby trapping the cabin, a process that took several hours. Less than a half mile from camp, as we were 4-wheeling down the section of trail we'd gotten stuck in coming up, we saw this delightfully beautiful bear print. Aurora got back on the 4-wheeler and grabbed me tighter than she's grabbed me in a long time. We knew it was a fresh track because we'd just met some 4-wheelers coming in minutes before. Wow!

I wanted so badly to get a moose so that we could experience the whole process of moose hunting. My aunt and uncle actually process the moose themselves, cutting it up into steaks, grinding it into burger, etc. Moose hunting without a moose to take back was very disappointing, and even now, 2 weeks later, I am so disappointed I want to cry when I think about it.

What I loved about moose hunting was being out there. I can't say we were in the woods, because most of the trees were burned, and then much was above treeline anyways. Shall I say, "out in the wilderness?" It doesn't seem so wild now that I've been there. When we first got there on Thursday evening, I said to myself, "What's so special about this place?" But the beauty is like much of Alaska: a cold, ethereal hugeness that is hard to take in. It's so big, and so, so beautiful. And the beauty got inside me like a sliver and now I find myself wanting to go back. Moose or no moose, I want to tramp those hills and explore, pick berries, gaze at the mountains and hills, and reach and touch the sky. Yes, I gaze at the mountains and Kachemak Bay every day from my window, but there is something special about being out there in it, feeling the rhythms of the land and animals. Being there for the hunt made me look at the land differently--needing to be in tune with it rather than oblivious to it. I am so glad I carved the time out of my schedule to be there and experience this. It was a special time.

The end--an unusually warm day marked our departure, so our ride out was
much more comfortable than our ride in!