Hikers get into conversations about their travels only to begin a cycle of stories that “one up” each other. Most of these conversations end with an outlandish story from Alaska that cannot be outdone.
Ten years into this experiment, the Cajun Journeymen take on the Alaskan wilderness with an audacious back country adventure. Follow us through the rugged landscape found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park along the goat trail from Wolverine to Skolai. This is not a trek for the faint of heart. We traversed vast tundra steppes, steep ledges, massive rock fall, high passes and deep canyons. This is our first trek with no established trail, requiring navigation in the back country via map, compass and GPS.
But that’s not all! The second half of the trip was spent in Denali National Park, exploring favorite camping spots, viewing wildlife and generally having a blast in the shadow of Mt McKinley.
This trip, as most others, was planned by Keith. The idea was to travel from Wolverine to Skolai along the goat trail in the Wrangell — St. Elias national park for the first 4 days. This is only a 21 mile trek which is not a long way by our standards. We have done this distance in one day. However, the terrain in Wrangell is torturous and the goat trail is not really a trail at all. It’s more of a suggested route. Most sections have no discernible trail, leaving us to navigation via GPS way points and line of sight. This is new for us in that we have not traveled over country without a trail in the past. The second part of the trip is to be spent in Denali National park. Here we would see the sites, travel throughout the park and find what it has to offer.
Participating in this trip would be Mike, Keith and Clint. Mike and Keith traveled from Louisiana, over 4000 miles from Anchorage. Only 2 weeks before the trip Clint decided to join. After several years of being overrun with offspring, it was finally time to return to the Journeymen. Clint had a relatively short trip of 2600 miles from Seattle to Anchorage.
The team arrived in Anchorage on a Friday Evening — minus 2 backpacks. As it turns out the plane that Keith and Mike arrived on was overweight and 100 bags were removed. Guess we were out of luck on that one. We scrambled to press Delta airlines for information and worked with Wrangell Mountain Air to postpone our bush plan flight. Delta put us up in a hotel for the night and promised that our bags would be delivered there in the morning. We were also able to get the bush plane to wait until the morning to ferry us out to McCarthy, AK.
Mike got a call around 1AM saying that his bags were delivered, only to later find out that Keith’s bag had arrived but not his. This started to feel like a very backwards way to enter the back country. We scrambled yet again. It turns out our savior lay with Natalie Bay at Wrangell Mountain Air. Folks, this lady is a saint. She offered to allow Mike to use her personal gear for the trip including a sleeping bag, rain coat and backpack. Without this help we would have had to cancel the trip for the first time in Journeymen history.
Had enough drama yet? So did we.
For the record, Mike was a good sport the whole time. It is a frightening prospect to enter the back country without your own carefully prepared gear. Mike accepted the challenge and we were all set.
Into the Wild
Don with Wrangell Mountain Air met us at 7AM for a plane ride to McCarthy, AK. This would be our staging point prior to entering the back country. We promptly took off for our 2 hour flight.
Viewing the landscape on the way out was incredible. Too many glaciers to count, intricate river basins, thousands of lakes, and the Alaskan pipeline! As we got closer to McCarthy the tundra began to take over. Vast expanses of highlands covered in green foliage in the height of summer. If you have a chance to get to Alaska, take a bush plane tour, you won’t regret it.
After a brief stop in McCarthy and a gear check, we took off for Wolverine and the hike. This was a shortly plane ride, only 20 minutes but the scenery began to take a radical turn — Steep canyons, gulches and ravines. The weight of this adventure began to sink in, we were about to get dropped off here!
The landing was a hair raiser. Take a look at the photo below. This was the landing strip, a grassy plateau with steep drops on all sides. It was particularly steep just past the landing spot. Don, don’t fail us now! To make things worse we were landing later in the day than is usually appropriate for this spot. Don informed us that he would need to take a low pass to judge the wind before the final approach. That gave us tons of confidence. Finally we landed. It wasn’t the smoothest, after a couple of bounces and some quick adjustments by Don, we came to a stop. Now that was exciting!
After a few quick last minute tips from Don and he was off. Then all of a sudden, there we were. No noise, no people, nothing. Just 300 miles of terrain in all directions. All we had was our supplies, a compass and a GPS. That’s it. This is what we were after, a new challenge. It felt a little lonely but the beauty of the surroundings tends to cheer you up.
And off we went. The first day out was fairly uneventful minus the path-finding. We constantly wanted to go lower on the side hill than the terrain would allow. This practice always ended in a box canyon or a steep cliff. Finally we learned our lesson a stayed high up on the face, where the trail was meant to be. We only saw the trail rarely when traversing rock fields where there were visible rock piles, or the occasional worn dirt path. Otherwise we followed the GPS and headed cross country.
We made only about 3 miles in about 5 hours of hiking that first day. This is not our usual faire, we generally would do 8 to 10 miles in 5 hours but this is a different place. The cross country travel was taking its toll and we would need to adjust. Finally we found our camp site is a high pass with a stream. We setup camp and ate. Everyone knew that tomorrow would be a long day.
Overnight our three man tee-pee tent was rockin’. It turns out that this little pass is actually a very efficient wind tunnel. Many times it seemed the tent would blow over, but it held and we slept well. Morning came, we broke camp and we were off.
Now it’s getting hairy
About and hour into the day, it started to get really cold and snow started to fall. Uh oh. Pretty soon visibility was down to only 100 yards. Now we were experiencing the real Alaska. Beautiful and wild but also forbidding. The real problem was that our written directions on the trail assumed that we would see landmarks on the horizon. On this day, no landmarks for us.
We mostly didn’t panic. There were a few semi-heated discussions. At one point we very nearly took a major wrong turn and there were a few times that we needed to turn back and plot a new course. To say the least, all of this was exhilarating. When do you get to experience this stuff in your daily life? Here we are, in the middle nowhere, effectively blind. Not to mention Mike doesn’t even have a pair of pants. Just pants, I’m not talking waterproof pants, just plain pants.
Finally we weave our way through to a known point on the map. A creek bed with a dirt spine jutting up from a fork. Whew, we made it this far. Our general mentality is to take trek as far as it will go. We know our way back and we have a tent to hunker down if need be. We press on. Climbing the dirt ridge and following the tundra upward, we finally see the twin waterfalls we had been looking for all morning through the snow. Ah more affirmation, we are on the right track.
Now the terrain has turned into something totally different. Instead of rock fall or low tundra, we were towering high above in a soupy mix of tundra and small swampy bogs. This is not what we expected but it sure was interesting. The snow was still falling and there were about 2 inches on the ground. Luckily there was no wind. This was critical. Even with a small wind, 30 degrees starts to feel like 10 degrees really quick and at 10 degrees we would not have been moving with the gear on hand.
Eventually we came to a high saddle pass where the terrain started to shade downhill. We could just peek a large rock face off in the distance and to the left. We see this on the map and we make for the river at it’s base.
As we stopped for a rest, we spot some fellow hikers breaking camp about 300 yards way. Mike goes over and talks to them. First they almost jumped out of the their skin. They are the first humans that we have seen out here and apparently they weren’t expecting us either! After some discussion Mike finds that the strangers had stayed to our right of the creek, then cross to find the trail ascending over heavy rock fall. This would be a fateful point in the journey.
After freezing in one spot for a break, we decided to made headway and follow the surprise guidance we had found. Following the right side of the raging river we looked for a spot to cross. The map said to look for a vertical moraine and aim to meet it at it’s base. Well, we could see a lot of clouds and snow but that’s it. No Moraine. As we traversed the steep edge leading down to the river, we decided to take our changes and head down to the river. We tried this 3 different times, to no avail. Each passing attempt seemed to be less productive than the last. By the last attempt, we were just flailing. Time to stop and talk about our options.
It seemed that continuing in a white-out through unknown country was a bad idea. We were lucky we weren’t lost yet, given the conditions. But then again, we could see the river and the GPS said that we were 300 feet from our way point. Damn that was close! So close yet we could not see it. Unbelievable, came all this way and we are stuck.
The hard decision was made to turn back. It was really the only thing we could do. Daylight was fading and even if we were able to navigate across the river, the next camp site was two more miles across unfamiliar terrain. We might make it across the river and get lost immediately afterward. It was time to the make the tough call to turn back.
We made for the camp site where we saw the other hiking group. We would later find out that these guys lead us astray. Back at home Keith figured out that we needed to be on the left side of the river, not the right. The other group had cross the river in clear weather and they didn’t need to be careful with full vision.
We quickly setup camp, ate and slept like babies. It had been a long, mentally challenging day. When we woke the next morning at dawn, it seemed God was shining down on us. Just 8 hours before we fell asleep in a zero visibility snow storm and now we woke up to a glorious panorama.
See the closest ridge, ending in a moraine? There it is, the magically spot we could not reach the day before. It was too late to try now because the plane was scheduled to pick us up the next day and we would not be able to make it to Skolai in that time.
We started on our 9 mile trek back to the starting point at Wolverine. What a magnificent day it was. We missed much of this scenery the day before and it was quite a treat to get a second chance to take it all in.
The hike was a tough side hill with rock fall and the occasional creek crossing. We knew the path so it was refreshing to disengage the mind while traipsing through this land that time forgot. If you love hiking and outdoor adventures, you must go to Alaska and see the wilderness, you will not be disappointed. This day was pure glory …
After returning to wolverine, tired and blistered, we camped out and enjoyed the view from the landing strip. The hikers we had crossed before where there as well, waiting for their flight out the next morning. We exchanged stories and generally enjoyed each other’s company. We pitched the tent and settled in for some grub and a well-earned nights rest. The view from wolverine is sweeping, from this high tundra steppe it seems you can see for hundreds of miles. The prerequisite Alaskan scenery was all represented a massive valley with a steep icy ridge for a backdrop. We could vaguely feel the glacier that carved this vast landscape thousands of years ago. Amazing.
The next morning we woke up to a plane landing. Quickly the other group loaded up, we said our goodbyes, and then they were off. Roughly an hour later, our plane arrived. It was time to say goodbye to Wolverine. We didn’t conquer but we survived.
The take-off was just as exciting as the landing. Kelly, our pilot, said: “You just kind of fly off the edge”. He wasn’t kidding. After a 20 minute flight we landed back at McCarthy and headed for some food. “The Potato” is the only restaurant in McCarthy. It’s a bus, extended and converted into a restaurant. We had a great time there eating our lunch and taking in McCarthy.
On to Denali
After a few hours, it was time to head back to the airstrip and head on to Denali. The flight over was about 2.5 hours across some very interesting terrain. We moved from high mountain passes down into lowlands. This is mouse country and we certain saw our share. Flying over the Alaska pipeline was a special treat.
After our arrival in Denali, we quickly made our plan, take a bus out to the farthest edge of the park camp for the night, then spend out next 2 day trekking back to the visitor center. This would give was the best chance to see all of the part in the 3 days that we had available.
The ride from the visitor center to the edge of Denali part takes about 8 hours, on a school bus. This doesn’t sound like fun until you realize that you are in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The countryside is mostly bare. No Tree, just tundra, wildlife and the ocassional backpacker. During the ride we came across a lonely Fox, a very curious set of bears and quite a few moose.
Our first camp site was wonder lake. What a great place to start our journey in Denali. This camp ground is completely isolated and stands in the farthest possible corner of the park. Its reputation says that no place in the park has worse mosquitoes. We came prepared with deet. Later in the evening we were treated to a show by the local ranger, teaching us all about our little mosquito insect friends.
We also had a chance to meet the little old lady that runs the wonder lake campground. She has been here for over 25+ years and lives in a camper on the edge of the campground. Now this is the adventurous spirit we were looking for. She spend 20 seasons at the campground with her husband who past way 2 years ago.
After wonder lake, we traveled about one third of the way back to the visitor center and camped at Teklanika campground. We pitched the tent and built a raging fire. After exploring the area bit, we settled in for some need rest.
The next morning we caught the bus and headed back to the main Denali visitor center. The last leg of our journey would an 8 hour train ride from Denali to Anchorage. This is no mere train ride but a trip through the gorgeous Alaskan wilderness aboard a “bubble train”. What a great ride it was. All the majestic beauty one can ask for. And we only ate in the dinning car 3 times!
After a night’s stay in Anchorage it was time for the Journeymen to disband for another year. What a fantastic time we had! There was a lot that went wrong, but with the Journeyman spirit we endure and enjoyed a tremendous adventure in the Alaska wilderness.
Originally published at cajunjourneymen.com.