Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Backpacking the Ptarmigan Trail

Thanks, Alisa Aist, for this beautiful photo of Ptarmigan Lake

This summer has been a series of last-minute trips since we're never quite sure when Aurora and Elisa have off from their internship with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. The Ptarmigan trip was the first, back in June. The girls had Friday and Saturday off; Thursday evening the girls begged for a backpacking trip--somewhere! Any of the shorter trails are also less scenic, but this trail had been on my to-do list for a few years since we did a day hike to the lake and back while camping along the Seward Highway in the Ptarmigan Campground. It is 3.5 miles to the lake over gradual terrain (e.g.:  not a mountain pass!). It has been a couple years since I'd backpacked and I'd been having back issues so I figured this was do-able. Off we went despite a weather forecast for rain!

Besides going across Kachemak Bay to Kachemak Bay State Park, the nearest good, long hikes are in Cooper Landing, 2 plus hours from Homer. I consider that the biggest downfall of living here. Normally if we make a trip of 3 hours we want to go for the whole weekend, but that is more restrictive in finding camping spots or expensive cabins/hotels. So I threw out that attitude and that has allowed us to do the hikes we've done this summer.

View of the hike, about mile 2.5 (picture by Alisa Aist)

Ptarmigan is just over 3 hours away, a few minutes past Moose Pass on the way to Seward. The trailhead parking lot is adjacent the campground. Our packs were all loaded and ready to go so we just got on our footwear of choice and off we went. The first half mile or so is a very well developed trail, smooth gravel. At a turnoff it continues to follow Ptarmigan River, a gorgeous rushing glacial stream. I have special affection for this trail. We camped at the campground 10 years ago when we visited Alaska, before we moved here. I recall going a little ways along this trail and it was quite rough and seemed immensely remote. Now it seemed positively tame.

Beautiful campsite, with loons calling from the lake
An hour and a half got us to our campsite, a level area jutting out into the lake with rocks and spruce trees creating an intimate and peaceful setting. Some folks were fishing and had a hammock strung between two trees, but they were only day use so we set up our tents, pulled together day packs, and took off for the head of the lake, another 3.5 miles. There are 4 campsites along the lake, three of the clustered at the end we were at and another at the far end. There was even a bear container for food and smellies, and an open air outhouse:  the toilet with no walls.

The trail along the lake traversed across mountain meadows

The 3.5 mile long Ptarmigan Lake is hemmed in by mountains

Glaciers on the mountains feed the lake

The river at the head of the lake, taken from near the campsite

A study was being conducted along the lake

The equipment was wired off, probably with electric wire to keep the bears away

The hike to the head of the lake was uneventful and while it was scenic, I barely saw it as I was trying to keep up with 3 very speedy teenagers whose natural walking pace is far faster than mine. Occasionally they would stop to tie their shoes and I would catch up to them and catch my breath for a moment before they were off again. I'd been smart to insist on leading when backpacking in otherwise they'd have left me far behind.

Once back to the campsite the kids wanted to go explore. We could hear a waterfall nearby where the lake turned into a river. Turns out it was a rough trek to get the few hundred yards to the spot, but the wild rapids were worth it.

The kids looking towards the end of the lake where the river begins

The calm, smooth lake instantly turns into a maelstrom the moment it becomes a river
 (photo by Alisa Aist) 

Bear scat along the first 3.5 miles of the trial was nonexistent; along the lake we saw 5 or 6 bear scats that were relatively fresh. I wasn't too worried about it. Later that evening after eating dinner in camp, I walked the few hundred yards through the brushy trail to the pit toilet. As I came up to the main trail from the side trail to our campsite, there was a movement about 15 feet from me, a rustle and I saw a black furry back melt off into the brush. I was like, "Helll-oooooo!" knowing it was a black bear and that if he/she was displeased with me being there I would already be toast. I opted to continue to the outhouse, making more noise than I had been before.  After returning to camp I was telling the kids I'd just seen a bear and the bear itself, a fairly large blackie, came into view along the lake trail, heading up-lake, away from us. Apparently he'd been strolling the main trail when I disturbed him; he took a detour and once I was gone he continued on his way up the trail. The next day when we returned to the trailhead there was fresh bear scat not far up the trail where there had been none the day before.

I know Alaskans who won't hike in the summer because they are nervous about encountering bear. I am aware of bear mauling people. My experience encountering bear in the wild has been that every time they have avoided me, oftentimes quite vigorously, running away at high speed. I also know that I have likely had more bear encounters than I've been aware of:  they are all over and most of the time they do not make their presence known; they just slip off before we become aware of them. If I hadn't been so close to this one and facing it, I would not have known it was even there.

The hike back was speedier than coming since we'd eaten our food and I'd offloaded much of my load onto the kids (why didn't I do that the first day?!). It had been raining so the extensive grass hanging over the trail was wet and we were soaked in short order, but it was warm and we were exercising so we were not cold. It was a fun trip, despite being less than 24 hours. It whetted my appetite for backpacking, though I recognize that I am limited more by time than anything else since there are so many awesome hikes I want to do and not enough time to do them all!

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