At midnight on Friday, June 9th I awoke from a fitful bout of rest to the distinct sound of my alarm ringing. Instinctively, I reached to snooze it, but when my blurry gaze fell upon the dial that read 12:00am my reality hit me. Snoozing my alarm didn't mean that I wouldn't have time to shower before work it meant that I would delay my attempt to summit the highest peak in the contiguous US: Mount Whitney. Suddenly sleep was the furthest thing from my mind.Read More
Date Visited: 5/13/16
Distance: 1.2 miles round-trip
Trailhead: Exit Glacier Parking Area
After our 3 day/2 night kayaking excursion to the Northwestern Fjord in Kenai Fjords National Park Alex and I decided to stop at Exit Glacier. Since it was so early in the season the Harding Icefield Trail was closed but we could still access the glacier via a short trail. The trail was well-marked and easy to follow. Along the way we saw signs that have a year on them. These signs mark where the glacier was during that year and it was astonishing to see just how far and how quickly the glacier has receded. Even the year 2010 was far from where the toe of the glacier lands now and in a few more years it will inevitably retreat even further. This area will, unfortunately, never look the same again so if you get the chance to visit Exit Glacier and see the affects of climate change I highly recommend taking it!
SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK HERE!
The highlight of Alex's and my trip to Kenai Fjords National Park in early May was the 3 day/2 night kayaking trip we went on with Miller's Landing. While there are a few trails to hike in the park the best way to see and experience Kenai Fjords is by boat and we didn't want to take just a short day cruise, we wanted to really immerse ourselves in the park. We chose the Miller's Landing Northwestern Fjord tour with an extra day added. Miller's, like other adventure outfitters in Seward, offer trips to Aialik Bay and Bear Glacier and while they both look like incredible places to explore (and I plan to some day!) they are also a bit more touristy and I wanted to avoid crowds if possible. Elijah at Miller's Landing assured me that the Northwestern Fjord tour would be much less touristy and that the fjord only sees a boat or two a day in the busy season. Since we went during the shoulder season there were actually zero boats a day so our group had the entire fjord to ourselves and it couldn't have been a more perfect experience.
Alex and I arrived in Anchorage at 8pm on the night before our kayak tour. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is 2.5 hours but thankfully the Alaskan sunsets were already quite late and we were able to complete most of the drive in the light. When we arrived to Miller's Landing around midnight we were supposed to set up camp at any of their open campsites but it was beginning to rain, we were having trouble even finding the campsites, and we were exhausted. We really didn't want to have to set up a tent in the rain so we decided to just sleep in the compact sedan we rented. Needless to say neither Alex nor I got even a wink of decent sleep that night. At 6am our alarms were going off and we had to begin getting ready for our trip. We walked over to the office, checked in, and met our guides Dakota and Chris. They gave us some dry bags and we began stuffing our gear into them.
The sky was overcast and there was a mist hanging in the air. While the weather was fortuitously forecast to be sunny and clear for the entire duration of our time in Kenai I was worried. Alaska is infamous for its weather that can turn on a dime and I was beginning to fear that the forecast would turn out to be wrong and we would be subjected to three miserable days but I tried to push those thoughts from my mind.
Once our gear was packed we headed to the beach and boarded a fishing boat that would take us on a two hour journey to the Northwestern Fjord.
As our boat cruised along Dakota pointed out landmarks like Aialik Bay, Caines Head, and Bear Glacier. We stopped by a large group of sea lions and took photos and listened as they barked, quite impressively I might add.
When we finally made it to our drop-off point the clouds were beginning to break and it looked like the weather forecast might be right after all. We unloaded our gear and packed it into the kayaks. After a brief demonstration on how to properly hold a paddle ("I want my group to look good in the water," Dakota explained to us), we were on the water and paddling. Alex and I were in a double kayak, I was in the front and had a great view of the sprawling fjord before me.
The water was like a mirror, perfectly smooth and reflecting the mountains and sky until we sliced through it. The Northwestern Fjord is absolutely breathtaking. I knew Kenai Fjords would be beautiful but I wasn't prepared for just how beautiful it would be. Completely surrounding us were massive 3000-5000' mountains that shoot straight up from the ocean and on these mountains were glaciers that shifted, cracked, and calved quite regularly. And then, in addition to the gorgeous landscape we encountered the most curious harbor seals! They would pop their heads above the water about 30 yards from us (the park requests that you say 500 yards from seals if possible, but the seals were never given this memo so they pop up wherever they please) and curiously watched us. After a few moments they would sink back beneath the water, seemingly bored with us. I always thought they were gone but then, every once in awhile, I would glance behind us and there would be three or four seals following us, watching us with that same curious look. It was quite a memorable experience!
The first day we spent paddling to our camp near Northeastern Glacier and then, after we set up camp, to the crown jewel at the head of the fjord: Northwestern Glacier. The glacier was beautiful, however it was sad to hear just how much this glacier has changed recently. Our guide told us that the last time he was in the fjord, just a few years ago, the glacier was still connected on the bottom, and now it has a huge split where rock is revealed.
We spent the afternoon near Northwestern Glacier, watching the seals that call the fjord home and listening to the calving of the glacier. A few times quite large pieces of ice broke off and fell into the water. The park recommends staying at least a mile from the glacier because sometimes when those large pieces break off they create waves that are extremely dangerous for kayaks.
Finally, we decided to pull ourselves away from the show of seals and glaciers and head back to camp to cook dinner. One of the great aspects of this guided trip was that Miller's Landing provided all of the food for us and Dakota and Chris cooked up some delicious meals! Our first night was jambalaya that we topped with crunched up Pringles, which was surprisingly delightful.
After dinner Alex and I decided to take a nap before attempting some night photography. Even though the sunsets were late and the sunrises were early there were still a few hours of darkness each night. So I woke up to the alarm at 1am and peeked out of the tent to see a sky full of stars twinkling before me. It was also a full moon so the landscape glowed in the bright moonlight. Alex was too tired to get out of the tent so I took a few photos by myself. Even armed with bear spray and on high-alert I was feeling a little uneasy in the dark by myself so I got a few shots that I had envisioned and then quickly retreated to the tent for the remainder of the night.
The next morning we got a later start than the previous day. We had pretty leisurely days planned mileage wise so there was no need to rush the mornings. We enjoyed some oatmeal, a "camp mocha" which is just black coffee mixed with a hot chocolate packet, and good conversation. Dakota went over the plans for the second day which were another visit to Northwestern Glacier as we paddled around the north side of Striation Island and then we would see Anchor and Ogive (pronounced "oh-jive") Glaciers as we made our way to our campsite under Sunlight Glacier.
The second day was just as perfect as the first. The weather was beautiful, the water was like glass, we still hadn't seen or heard anything man-made, and we saw sea otters!!!! Sea otters are my favorite animal so to say I was excited to see them is a massive understatement. I was so happy that Alex thought he was going to lose me to the otters, he thought that I had found where I belonged and would live the rest of my days as an otter. If I could I probably would, but I was happy to watch them from a distance. We saw a few mom otters with their pups on their bellies. I loved it!
The views were endless and stunning and while I didn't want the day to end eventually we headed to shore and set up camp. This campsite below Sunlight Glacier is my new favorite campsite. Even Cracker Lake doesn't compare to the Sunlight Glacier camp, not even close! Behind us was Sunlight Glacier and across the fjord we could see (and hear) Northwestern and Ogive glaciers.
On the second night we stayed up for the late sunset. The night before we had been too tired to stay awake but after seeing how pink the sky turned I wished we had!
As is typical for our nights in the backcountry Alex and I headed to bed with an alarm set for 1am to shoot the stars. This time Alex joined me!
We slept in again on the third day. I can't remember when Alex and I have ever had such a leisurely trip, and it was beautiful and remote to boot, how often does that happen?! We spent the day paddling back towards our pick-up point. Initially the plan had been to head out and explore another cove further out but when we were heading towards the cove the waves started to get much bigger. Not wanting to risk a capsize we just headed back to the pick-up spot and spent the rest of our time just relaxing on the shore and working on our tan!
Our pick-up arrived at around 5pm and we quickly loaded our gear and just like that we were leaving the paradise we called home for three short days and were heading back towards civilization. My exhaustion finally hit me on the boat ride home and I slept for part of it. While our pace was leisurely and our physical exertion had been quite minimal the sun had really zapped my energy. It was up for 16 hours each day and there was very little escape from its harsh rays while we were on the water. I actually developed an impressive hand tan line that hopefully evens out soon... But, I'm not really going to complain about the perfect weather because I know it just as easily could have been three straight days of rain!
SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK HERE!
Price: $3300 per person (includes 2 flights on Wrights Air from Fairbanks to Bettles, 2 flights on bush planes from Bettles to Circle Lake, 9 nights of guiding in the backcountry, all the gear required for packrafting, and 1 night stay at Bettles Lodge)
Duration: 9 nights in the backcountry
The summer backpacking season is just around the corner and I'm in the process of finalizing almost all of my trips. Since you may be as well I thought it would be a great time to finally put together a review for my guided backpacking trip to the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park last summer, in case you want to add it to your itinerary!
Last March I was browsing the internet, looking through adventure logs and photos trying to find "the big one". I wanted to go on a longer backpacking trip in the summer of 2016, one that would test me mentally and physically, one that wasn't already on every other hiker's radar but was still scenic and wild. I settled on Alaska and began to research guiding companies in the state since I wasn't about head out into the depths of the Alaskan backcountry alone, I've read "Into the Wild". In my research I saw a few photos of these tantalizing, beautiful peaks, rising like jagged teeth into the sky, they seemed to call to me. I discovered these mountains were called the Arrigetch Peaks and that they reside in Gates of the Arctic National Park and required quite an adventure if you wanted to see them with your own eyes. They were perfect. I found a few companies that offered guided trips to the region and eventually settled on Expeditions Alaska. Carl, the founder and guide, has been guiding in the state for 20+ years and he had great reviews so I booked my adventure and patiently waited for July 26 to arrive.
The good: This trip takes you into the depths of one of the least visited national parks and it guarantees nearly complete solitude. Gates of the Arctic is located entirely above the Arctic Circle and is not accessible by road. You can enter the park by floating down a river, hiking, or flying in on a float plane (this guided trip takes you in on a float plane from Bettles). Once you make the logistically challenging trip into the park there are no trails to follow except for the rare social or game trail. This inaccessibility deters many people from visiting and leaves the park feeling like an unspoiled wilderness for those who do make the trek. There were moments it felt like we were discovering the place for the first time and that was one of my favorite aspects of the trip.
Besides being remote and guaranteeing solitude the Arrigetch Peaks region is breathtakingly beautiful. We spent 3 full days exploring the area immediately surrounding the peaks, venturing into 3 unique valleys. On the second day we explored Aquarius Valley, a rocky valley dotted with brilliant alpine lakes that are so remote they don't even have proper names. We stopped at each one to take in the views as we caught our breaths.
In addition to the backpacking portion of the trip, Expeditions Alaska offers the option to tack on a multi-day packrafting adventure to the end of the trip, which I elected to do. I had never been packrafting before and the 2 day, 20 mile float on the easy class 1 Alatna River seemed like a great opportunity to try the sport. I'm so glad I did - it was the perfect introduction to packrafting and my legs, ankles, and feet were grateful for the break after 7 tough days of hiking.
We spent 2 days and 2 nights on the river, camping on the gravel river beds and falling asleep to the sound of the water gently lapping the shoreline. This portion of the trip offers to best chance to see wildlife and we were able to catch a glimpse of a moose and a wolf. The wolf sighting might have been one of the highest points of the trip as they are typically elusive animals.
The trip also proved to me just how little I need to survive and it was honestly quite eye-opening - all I needed to thrive was food, clean water, warm clothing, sturdy boots, and a shelter. That sounds like "well, duh", but then I returned home and looked around my apartment and realized how many of the things I own are unnecessary and excessive. I became more conscious of my own consumerism, the waste I created on a daily basis, and made a determined effort to consume less.
The bad: The worst part of this trip was entirely my fault. I didn't prepare enough physically. I researched backpacking in Alaska and knew this trip would require a lot of bushwhacking. What I didn't realize was how tough bushwhacking would be. It's hard to describe how difficult it was, but let's just say there were moments I wanted to just sit on the ground and cry. Had I worked on strengthening and conditioning before I headed out into the backcountry I know it would have been a more enjoyable trip.
The other downside of this trip is that we were being blind-guided. I was completely unaware that Expeditions Alaska offered any other guides besides Carl as this isn't mentioned anywhere on the website. I had always assumed he would be with us and from his extensive experience I felt 100% comfortable entering the wilderness with him. However, a week before the trip I was informed that a different guide would be leading our group. She ended up being nice and experienced but she had never completed our backpacking trip before. Carl had given her excellent beta and most of the trip went off without a hitch. However, had she completed the trip previously she never would have taken us a mile over a precarious and exhausting boulder field when 50 yards to the right of the boulder field was a social trail. This was a discovery we made on our way back from the peaks.
The final word: This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I learned so much about myself. I was pushed to my limits and challenged in ways I never anticipated. I was taught just how little I needed to survive and thrive. I am so grateful I was able to experience this and I learned from my mistakes. I am planning on taking a similar trip this summer and I am already training and conditioning so I am as fit as possible and hopefully won't be so affected by the the physical activity.
Last weekend Alex and I headed to northern California intending to complete a 3 day/2 night winter backpacking trip in Yosemite. Unfortunately, a huge winter storm swept through the area the very same days we were there so we were forced to make other plans. We spent 1 day exploring the California coastline and then spent a day hiking in Pinnacles National Park, which is located approximately 2 hours outside of San Francisco. I just uploaded the gallery for Pinnacles. If you want to see more photos from the 59th national park head over HERE!
On New Year's Eve Alex and I finally tackled a hike that we have wanted to do for over a year and a half, and we couldn't have done it without the help of Chelsea (who joined me on my trip to Blue Lakes in October!) Sky Pond has been eluding us since the summer of 2015. We had planned on hiking it on our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park over Labor Day weekend, but I severely underestimated how strenuous hiking in the park would be so we never even set foot on the trail. We returned to Rocky Mountain National Park in March 2016 to attempt the hike again. On the second attempt we made it to Loch Vale but were turned around by a winter storm. This spot is actually where we met Chelsea! We were on the shores of Loch Vale, debating on whether we should turn around when we saw someone heading from the direction of Sky Pond. It was Chelsea! She informed us she made it to Sky Pond and it was well worth the hike! She continued on and we stayed at The Loch. We eventually decided the weather was too poor to continue on and reluctantly, we turned back. When Alex and I settled on Colorado for a New Year's trip I knew we would have to attempt Sky Pond again and I kept my fingers crossed for fairer weather. As the trip neared I kept a close watch on the forecast. It looked like we were going to have a sunny day, and we did!
The round-trip hike to Sky Pond is 10 miles and it begins at the Glacier Gorge trailhead. We knew the parking lot was small from our last trip so we arrived early (at around 9:30am) and were able to snag one of the last remaining spots. We immediately noticed how windy it was. The wind was shaking our rental car and people in the parking lot were clearly struggling against strong gusts. We geared up, doing our best to keep the wind from blowing anything away and hit the trail by 10. The trail was well-traveled and easy to follow. Thankfully, the cover of the trees also protected us from most of the wind, and it didn't take long for all of us to need a break to shed a few layers.
At 2.8 miles we reached Loch Vale, which was our final stopping point during last year's attempt. This year's weather was a complete 180 from the dark skies and snowstorms we were presented with last year. It was just as windy though! Out of the protection of the forest we were once again buffeted by the wind. We decided to hurry across the lake to make it back into the forest.
It seemed that most people were ending their hike at Loch Vale so we continued on with no other company.
The trail past Loch Vale was not nearly as well-traveled as the trail leading to Loch Vale and it wasn't long before all three of us were post-holing so we decided to switch out our microspikes for snowshoes.
As we were making our way up the trail we ran into two hikers heading down. We asked them if they made it to Sky Pond and they told us they hadn't. They said after a "nearly vertical hike" and unbelievably strong winds at Lake of Glass they turned around. Their recount of the final portion of the hike didn't bode well for us but we carried on.
Up until the final quarter of a mile we made incredible time. It felt like we were cruising, especially considering the altitude, but then we got to the frozen waterfall, the "nearly vertical hike" our trail friends had just warned us about, we were at a standstill. I had read a few accounts online that had noted this waterfall was "sketchy", but none of the accounts made it sound too bad, but I beg to differ. The waterfall was more than just sketchy, it was dangerous. It wasn't that large but the ice made it near-impossible to climb up. It was lined with rocks that could act as footholds and handholds but in between those footholds and handholds were huge sheets of ice and a tumble would likely have meant serious injury or worse. There was another route we could have taken but it was also nearly vertical: a sheet of iced-over snow that we would have had to climb up and that option looked like it posed more of a risk so we decided to try to make our way up the waterfall. I went first, slowly and carefully clawing my way up. I held onto tree branches and willed them to hold the entirety of my weight, twice. I was shaking, the entire time I wished I was wearing a helmet, I wanted to turn back but I was now at a point that going back down seemed just as dismal so I climbed up and after a struggle I found myself at the top of the waterfall. Chelsea followed. Alex was third but he wasn't feeling confident that he could replicate Chelsea's and my moves. We both urged him to not do anything he wasn't comfortable doing. It is better to turn back than to risk injury. Alex agreed. He said he would wait at the bottom of the waterfall for us while we visited Sky Pond.
Chelsea and I quickly reached Lake of Glass and it is easy to see how the lake earned its name. The lake was completely frozen, flat, and void of any snow. It looked like a mirror, perfectly reflecting the mountains surrounding it. We made our way across and followed a faint trail that lead to Sky Pond. All of the sudden Chelsea said "there's Alex!" Sure enough, Alex was making his way across Lake of Glass! We waited for him to catch up and then continued hiking as a group once again.
Finally, finally, after a year and a half of dreaming, two hours of hiking, and a half an hour crawling up a waterfall, we made it to Sky Pond! The wind was whipping and my face was frozen but I was grinning from ear to ear! The scene was captivating: Sharkstooth glowing in the late afternoon light, the frozen lake shattered with cracks, and nary another human in sight. Despite the wind and the cold we stayed and stood in awe of the wintry mountain landscape.
Finally, we decided if we wanted to make it back to the trailhead before sunset we should head back. We began our descent.
On the way down we decided to skip the waterfall and instead descended down the steep snowy section we avoided on the way up. It turned out to be much easier going down this way than trying to climb down the waterfall and we made it to Loch Vale in what seemed like no time. After Loch Vale is another steep section of trail that so many people decide to slide down it isn't so much a trail anymore as it is a chute!
We made it back to the trailhead at 5pm, just as the sky was lighting up orange, yellow, and pink. I was so exhausted, physically and mentally, from the hike that I headed straight for the car to warm up and relax!
Happy 2017! I hope everyone had a happy, healthy, and safe introduction to the new year. To celebrate 2017, Alex and I headed to Colorado for a winter getaway. I just posted the adventure guide for our overnight trip to Lower Montgomery Pass Yurt. If you are interested in learning more about the adventure or completing it yourself, click HERE to head over to the guide and read more!
Date Visited: 11/24/16 to 11/26/16
Distance: 38 miles, point-to-point
Elevation Loss: 1,600 feet
Trailhead: White House Trailhead
The past two years Alex and I have taken the long Thanksgiving weekend to #optoutside and spend some quality time in the national parks. Finding places to go in November that aren't too cold or too snowy can be a challenge but we've found that Utah is a pretty good bet. Last year we hiked in Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, but this year I wanted something a little more remote. After some research I discovered the Paria Canyon. The hike through the canyon doesn't follow a trail, instead hikers follow the river for 38 miles. The BLM only allows 20 people to enter the canyon for an overnight hike each day to preserve the delicate ecosystem of the canyon and to preserve the true wilderness feeling. It sounded like exactly what I was looking for so I reserved a permit and we booked our flights to Las Vegas!
This hike requires the use of two cars or a shuttle service. Since we were flying into Vegas and then driving 4 hours to the trailhead it wasn't going to be realistic to rent two cars so we used Seeking Treasure Adventures and I could not have been more impressed with the shuttle service. Days before the owner, Yermo, met us at the trailhead, he picked up our permits from the ranger station and he picked up fuel for our camp stove since we couldn't fly with it. Those deeds alone would have been enough to warrant him a 10/10 but he brought us turkey for our Thanksgiving meal in the backcountry!
When the day of the hike finally arrived we drove our rental car to the Lee's Ferry Trailhead, the ending point of our hike and met Yermo there. He then drove us 1.5 hours to the White House Trailhead and dropped us off. Despite it being Thanksgiving day he let us stop at some overlooks on the way to the trailhead and spent extra time telling us all sorts of interesting facts about the region. I can't recommend using Yermo's shuttle service enough!
At the trailhead we rearranged our backpacks, used a real toilet one last time (if you consider a pit toilet a "real" toilet), and then headed for the Paria River, which would be our guide for the next 38 miles. We walked for about 20 minutes along the banks of the river before we were faced with our first river crossing. We anticipated the river crossings were going to be cold so we bought neoprene socks and wore trail running shoes that drained water, since the last thing you want on a cold hike is freezing water pooling in your boots! The first two days of the hike my feet were painfully cold, there were moments I wondered if this hike would be the end of a few of my toes, but thankfully all 10 of them survived just fine, albeit a little uncomfortable. The final day I decided to wear wool socks under my neoprene socks and my feet were significantly warmer. If you are thinking of doing this hike, I highly recommend adding wool socks to your layers!
We began our hike around noon but the short fall days meant that the sun traversed the sky at a low angle. We knew we would only have a limited amount of time in the sunlight, especially since the towering canyon walls allowed very little light to reach the ground, so we planned on stopping as few times as possible. This proved difficult since every time we rounded a bend in the river we were graced with more stunning scenery, but we tried to keep pace as best we could, crossing back and forth across the river.
Most of the first day was spent hiking through a portion of the canyon known as the Paria Narrows. This section is reminiscent of the Zion Narrows but with zero people; we often commented on how we couldn't believe we had the canyon to ourselves! This part of the hike was the coldest. Without the sun to warm us, I put on my fleece and down jackets, but I could still feel a slight chill in my bones. My toes were also painfully cold and I was longing to set up camp, but the nature of the Narrows meant that there were very few camping options until we reached the confluence of the Paria Narrows and Buckskin Gulch at mile 7. We doubled down on our efforts to make it to the confluence. As the sun sank even lower in the sky and shadows fell across the canyon walls we passed Sliding Rock Arch which indicated we only had 0.3 miles to go until we reached the confluence. This gave us a needed morale boost!
As we were setting up camp a solo hiker passed by, heading back to the trailhead. He ended up being the only person we would see for the duration of our time in the canyon.
By the time we set up camp and began to make dinner the sun had set and we were forced to eat by the light of our headlamps. After dinner we retired to the tent and, exhausted, passed out before 6:00pm.
The next morning we allowed ourselves to sleep in. After a couple of jam-packed, sleep-deprived days it felt like a luxury. We made oatmeal and enjoyed a warm breakfast. Our second day was scheduled to be 13 miles and with limited daylight we didn't want to linger much longer at camp. We packed up and changed back into our hiking gear. We had left our neoprene socks and shoes out overnight in hopes that they would dry but they just froze solid. We breathed warm air into them until they were malleable enough to put on. Our poor feet, that had grown so dry and cozy overnight, were shoved back into cold, stiff socks and then plunged into the river.
Our second day was spent hiking through more narrow sections of the canyon, the walls closing in on each other and towering hundreds of feet above us at points. The scale of the canyon was hard to grasp and even harder to capture in photographs, but that didn't stop us from trying!
We hiked all day, trying to minimize the miles we would have to hike on day 3 and 4, but then Alex and I hit an obstacle: quicksand. I got stuck in it. We had known that quicksand was present in the canyon and we had walked through a few "quickie" sections of sand where our feet felt suctioned in, but that was nothing compared to the sand I got stuck in. We encountered various types of sediment under the flowing water: rocks, gritty sand, and soft sand that eats your feet. I was crossing the river when suddenly my right leg sank up to my knee in that soft, feet-eating sand, I tried to take another step and immediately found myself waist-deep in water, and sinking. It happened so fast I only have memories of being above the water and then a split-second later being waist-deep in water. I tried to pull myself out but the struggling made me sink further. My camera was around my neck and dangling dangerously close to the water, I struggled to get my camera off and hand it to Alex who walked it to dry ground. Now that my camera was out of harm's way I had a few moments to collect my thoughts. It was then I remembered reading a sign at the trailhead that noted if you get stuck in quicksand you should immediately take off your pack and throw it to shore, since that extra 45 lbs. is a pulling you down and making it even more difficult to muscle your way out. I took off my pack and handed that to Alex as well and was then able to use trekking poles to pull myself out. However, getting out was only the first obstacle, now I was soaking wet, the sun was setting, and the temperature was dropping. That is a recipe for hypothermia so we made it a priority to make camp as soon as possible so I could get out of my wet clothes and into my sleeping bag. We stopped at the next established campsite, which happened to be at mile 20. Despite the quicksand we had made it to our goal! I quickly changed into warm clothes and we ate dinner, this time without using a headlamp!
Once again we turned in early and slept through the night. We set an alarm for the third day to get the earliest start possible. We also tried a new approach to thawing our frozen socks and shoes: we boiled water and poured it in our socks and shoes, this was (obviously) a much better solution than breathing into them!
One important thing to note about the canyon is that while there are no designated campsites there are established campsites that hikers are expected to use. These campsites are usually on elevated benches above the river and are pretty obvious because a social trail will lead up from the river bank into a green area.
The third day was planned to be about 10 miles, but we decided to throw the plan to the wind and make it out of the canyon a day early. We did this because we wanted to see Horseshoe Bend at night, which in retrospect was surely not worth the whopping 18 mile hike out. Once again we tried to minimize our stops in order to make as much ground as possible. Hiking faster was easier on the third day because the canyon finally opened up and we were able to complete long stretches without any river crossings. Our toes and feet rejoiced!
The landscape and views this day were significantly different than the previous two days. In the narrows we could only see a few hundred feet in front of us and every river bend was a surprise, but on the third day we were able to see much further. I thought I was going to enjoy the views in the narrows more but I actually enjoyed being able to see the wider landscapes!
This day also had the hardest river crossings. A huge portion of the river bed in this section is surrounded by boulders, which can be difficult to navigate around. The river was also the strongest in this section, which made river crossings more dangerous. Prior to this section the river barely went further than knee-deep, but here the river often was waist-deep and deeper!
As we were hiking along the shore of a particularly long stretch of the river bed movement caught my eye. I looked to my left and to my dismay, saw a huge chunk of rock falling from the canyon wall, I called out to Alex so he could see it as well. The rock hit the ground with a loud crack that reverberated through the canyon. Moments later another piece of rock broke off from the same area and hit the ground with another thunderous crack. A huge cloud of sediment and dust began to billow up from where it fell (the lower-right photo in the grid above shows the new, exposed rock at the top of the canyon). The dust was soon surrounding us! It was another eye-opening example of how Mother Nature is beautiful, but Mother Nature doesn't give a damn about us.
We continued onwards, past the last campsite, and the decision was final: we were going to make it out of the canyon on day 3, one full day ahead of schedule! Unfortunately, we weren't able to make it out of the canyon in daylight. We spent 2 full hours hiking in the pitch black, navigating river crossings and route-finding by the light of our headlamps. Our feet were in agony, both Alex and I bruised bones in our feet and by the time we made it to the trailhead we were limping. While I thoroughly enjoyed our time in the canyon I've never been so happy to reach the end of the hike. I do regret not taking the full 4 days/3 nights to complete this hike. It would have been so much more enjoyable had we had time to relax and not worry about muscling through miles. But, we did get to sleep in a comfortable hotel bed and take a steaming hot shower, and after a 38 mile hike that felt like heaven!
SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM THE PARIA CANYON HERE!
Night photography is my favorite type of photography. I find it the most challenging and therefore also the most rewarding. It requires me to brave the elements, forgo a proper night of sleep, and face my fears of scary unknown noises in the great outdoors past sundown. The first time I tried night photography was a frustrating experience. I hadn't properly researched it and I was utterly unprepared. Since then I have improved but there are still nights I go out and spend hours shooting only to return home with one mediocre shot. Night photography is not easy and it requires standing outside in the dark, usually uncomfortably cold, but it's worth it.
One of the most common photography-related questions I get is about the settings for my night photos so I decided to put together a quick tutorial of things I have learned in the past year and a half of taking night photos. This is by no means the be-all, end-all of night photography tutorials, but it is a great starting point for anyone interested in photographing the night skies.
Step 1: Research your destination.
Decide where you want to shoot well before sundown. You don't want to waste a night by aimlessly driving around hoping you find a place that suddenly speaks to you. Believe me, I've done it. Instead, decide what kind of shot you are hoping to capture and pull up a topographical map and begin planning your shot. If you want to capture star trails centered around Polaris you will have to face your camera due north. So if you have a specific landmark in mind for your foreground you will have to make sure you are south of it. Alternatively, if you are hoping to capture the Galactic Center of the Milky Way you will have to point your camera towards the south as the Milky Way rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest. To plan my night photos I use the app PhotoPills to help determine where in the sky the Milky Way will be at any given time. It is $9.99 but it is an extremely helpful app. I don't think I've shot the night sky once without using it.
Step 2: Get your preliminary camera settings dialed in before you head outside.
Before I even step foot outside I get my camera set up on my go-to night settings. This prevents wasting precious time fumbling around outside in the dark trying to get set up. Depending on if I am shooting a dark night sky or a night sky illuminated by a full moon, I have two go-to settings that I automatically use and then after a few test shots, will tweak. Before I begin telling you these settings I will address all the settings that affect how a photo turns out.
Aperture: Aperture refers to the diameter of the hole in your lens through which light travels into your camera. The size of this opening can be narrower or wider and this determines how much light enters your camera and hits the camera sensor. Think of aperture as your pupils. The wider your pupils are the more light will enter your eyes, the more narrow your pupils the less light enters. Similar to how your pupils will get very large in low-light conditions, your camera's aperture will also need to be very wide in order to allow as much light in as possible. This is why fast lenses are recommended for night photography. A fast lens is any lens that has a maximum aperture of 2.8 or wider. I use the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and so far I have no issues with it.
Shutter Speed: The shutter speed determines how long the shutter will be open, and thus determines how much time the camera will spend gathering light. Generally in night photography you want the sensor to gather as much light as possible, however when shooting stars there is one limitation: the stars move. Or more accurately the earth moves, but when the shutter is open for longer than 20-30" (depending on your lens' focal length, wider lenses will be able to stay open longer) you will begin to get star trails. Star trails can be great if that is the effect you are going for, but if you want a static night scene it's best to leave the shutter open for 20-25".
ISO: ISO measures the camera's sensitivity to light and it has the most impact on image quality. A camera will produce its highest quality images at its lowest ISO (for my camera that is 100, it may be more or less depending on your camera make), but night photography requires you to raise the ISO substantially in order to have enough sensitivity to gather the light in the scene. This is why it is beneficial to have a camera with a large sensor, such as a full frame version from Canon, Sony, or Nikon. Their large sensors allow you to use higher ISOs without the image quality suffering too much.
White balance: Ideally the white balance will be set so that things that are a true white in real life will appear a true white in your photo. To do this you must take into account the color cast of the light source illuminating your scene (is it cool like an overcast day or warm like a candlelight?) and adjust accordingly. This one adjustment can completely change the mood of your photo. Without getting into the nitty gritty technical explanation of Kelvin (If you are interested in learning the nitty gritty, Fstoppers has a really informative write-up here), a lower Kelvin temperature than is ideal for your scene will make your photos bluer, while a higher Kelvin temperature than is ideal for your scene will give your photo an orange glow. This setting can be more subjective for night photos. I typically set my white balance for night photos to the tungsten setting which is around 3,200K because I prefer my night photos to be bluer. Night scenes tend to look blue to my eyes and I want my photos to represent what my eyes see. I've heard some people argue that they use the daylight white balance (5,500K) because the stars and moon are giving off the same light as the sun but I generally haven't been able to use the daylight white balance without having a completely orange sky. However I have found one exception, and that is when there is a bright, full moon.
Below is an example of how temperature can drastically affect the mood of the photo. The image on the below left (or top if you're viewing on mobile) has a temperature of 3545K, while the image on the right (or bottom) has a temperature of 4000K. The left photo feels cold and wintry, which is the reality of the scene (it was 8°F!!) and thus it is the version of the photo I prefer.
MY STARTING SETTINGS
Dark night sky: f/2.8, ISO 3200, 25", WB: Tungsten.
Sky illuminated by a bright moon: f/2.8, ISO 800, 10", WB: Daylight.
Step 3: Set up your tripod and take a few test shots.
Once you are at your desired destination and you have your camera settings dialed in, set up your tripod and take a few test shots. You will be able to then see any adjustments you need to make. Perhaps you change your composition, maybe lower the shutter speed, or raise the ISO. You will also be able to set your focus at this point. I manually focus when taking night photos. I have found that my focus should be set to infinity and then the tiniest hair back. It is also possible to check the focus by using the back display and zooming in on a bright star or silhouette and adjusting the focus based on that.
Step 4: Shoot away!
Have fun! Move around, change your composition, try shooting photos with a person in the scene, or a tent! I try not to take myself too seriously so experimenting and trying new things is my one of my favorite parts of photography.
One more tip I have for shooting at night is to use a shutter release or the 2 or 10-second timer built into your camera. Getting sharp images at night is already a challenge, you don't want to make it even harder for yourself by introducing camera shake into the mix! Using the shutter release means your camera will be completely still when the shutter opens and closes, removing any possibility of camera shake.
Step 5: Import the photos to your computer and edit them.
All photos need to be edited, especially if they are taken in RAW (they always should be!), and especially if they are night photos. Everyone has their own editing style; I prefer my photos to look as close as possible to the scene that I remember in my mind's eye. I don't like overly processed photos because they don't look authentic to me and I want to portray places as they actually are. Night photos are a little different because our eyes aren't nearly as sensitive as our camera sensors, however, I still try to edit my photos tastefully. You can see the unedited and edited versions of the scene at Diamond Lake above. Here are the adjustments I made for the edited version in Lightroom and Photoshop:
- Cropped photo so Mt. Thielsen was centered horizontally and filled lower third of frame
- Enabled lens correction because the 14mm Rokinon has noticeable distortion, especially when a horizon is the main focus of the image
- Changed temperature to 3475 and increase purple tint to 26
- Overall adjustments: Increased whites, shadows, highlights
- Applied noise reduction
- Painted on sky: Increased contrast, highlights
- Opened photo in Photoshop and removed a small tree branch in upper right corner (in retrospect I should have taken care of this as I was taking the photo but I didn't notice it)
If you read this far I hope you found this post helpful! If you have any questions or suggestions of your own for night photography feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me via the contact form in the upper navigation.
I've had my Deuter ACT Lite 60+10 for an entire summer backpacking season now. Last spring I went into REI hoping to exchange my one-size-fits-all cheap generic pack for a pack more suited to my body. I had gone into the store assuming I would walk out with an Osprey, having only heard stellar things about their packs. However, as I began trying different Osprey packs on it became very apparent that they did not fit me the way I had hoped. The sales associate quickly offered an alternative: a Deuter pack. He fit it for my body, loaded it up with 30lbs of weight, and cinched me in and let me to roam around the store. With the other packs I had put on I did one lap and came back, knowing that they didn't work. But, when I put the Deuter pack on I wandered the store aimlessly, tried on a few shoes (and found a pair I liked!) before finally returning to the sales associate. I told him I found a winner! This pack fit me perfectly, and I suddenly felt bad for putting my past self through the agony of hiking with an ill-fitting pack but was relieved my future self would be saved from the aches and pains I had grown so accustomed to on backpacking trips!
The good: This pack is comfortable. From the moment the sales associate fit the pack for me and I hoisted it on I knew it was a pack I could carry for extended periods of time. Despite the fact this is also a one-size-fits-all pack it is designed specifically for women and the fit is customizable so it is much more comfortable than my previous pack. The weight of the pack is also evenly distributed. I've had issues with fully loaded packs pulling me back but I felt very balanced while wearing this Deuter. I took this pack, loaded down with 50lbs of gear on my 10-day trip through Alaska and not once did it chafe or rub on my collarbones or waist, even the days it was on my back for 9+ hours while bushwhacking! Another plus for this pack is that it has zippered pockets on the lid and plenty of storage on the outside, which is great for keeping all your important gear readily accessible!
The bad: This bag is not a front loading backpack, so every morning I need to make sure I strategically pack my bag, because it is a real pain when I realize I forgot something important at the bottom of my bag and I need to take everything out to get to it and then repack it. Another downside of the Deuter 60 is that the water bladder pouch is only accessible from the inside, which means if I refill it during the day I will also need to unpack everything to get it to properly fit in its pouch and then repack the contests of the pack around it.
The final word: This pack is amazing. I love it so much I am planning on buying the smaller versions for short trips since the 60+10 is a little superfluous for an overnight trip.
Date Visited: 10/15/16 - 10/16/16
Distance: 8.6 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 2,370 feet (Highest Elevation: 11,720 feet)
Trailhead: Blue Lakes Trailhead (#201)
A few weekends ago I took a quick trip to Colorado. I had been craving one more mountain getaway before winter set in so I decided to head to Colorado and complete an overnight hike I had been wanting to do for over a year. Since Alex's work schedule in October has been so busy he wasn't able to join me. Not wanting to go alone I invited my friend, Chelsea, and her boyfriend along. Despite the fact that Chelsea and Kyle have completed many hikes in Colorado they hadn't backpacked in the Blue Lakes Basin yet, so they were happy to join!
Blue Lakes is located in the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness of the Uncompaghre National Forest between Ridgeway and Telluride. I flew into Denver on Friday night and Chelsea picked me up at the airport. The drive from Denver to the trailhead was 6 hours and we wanted to get a relatively early start on the trail so we set an alarm for 2:30am Saturday morning. What seemed like moments after I laid my head on my pillow my alarm was going off and just like that our adventure was underway!
The drive was long, and most of it was done in the dark. We stopped often to stretch our legs and restock our energy drink supply but were still able to make it to the trailhead by 10. The trail started at an elevation of 9,350'. Judging by my walk from the car to the pit toilet and back I could tell that the elevation was affecting me. My lungs felt as if they weren't pulling in enough oxygen and my heart was beginning to beat faster. This is going to be a tough hike, I thought, already nervous that I would fall well behind my seasoned Coloradan companions.
We did one final pack check and hit the trail, which almost immediately began gaining elevation. I fell behind Chelsea and Kyle and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, slowly making my way up the trail. I didn't have as much trouble keeping up with Chelsea and Kyle as I had anticipated, but we took plenty of water breaks and I'm sure had I not been there they would have made ground more efficiently.
At 1.5 miles we crossed into the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness. Most of the trail was under the cover of spruce forests with a few open sections that offered sprawling views of the Sneffels Range. We stopped intermittently for water and snacks and then continued our hike upwards. At 3.5 miles we saw pieces of a brilliant blue through the breaks in the trees and, with our sights set on our destination, we excitedly picked up our pace until we were at the shores of Lower Blue Lake. It was a relief to finally arrive to our destination with my lungs and heart fully intact, but we weren't quite to our campsite yet. I saw a photo on Jack Brauer's website of a campsite overlooking the lower lake and we were determined to find that site so we continued up the trail that heads towards the Middle and Upper Blue Lakes. We gained about another 400' when we found ourselves at a beautiful overlook of the lower lake. We still hadn't reached the elusive campsite, but we were all getting quite hungry so we decided to stop at this overlook for lunch. It was just the morale boost we needed: satisfying food and a panoramic view of the basin.
After lunch we once again focused on finding Jack Brauer's campsite. The very first corner we rounded on our resumed efforts brought us to a large, relatively flat expanse of exposed ground well off the trail. There was a social trail leading to it and evidence that it was an established campsite. It was blocked by trees from the back and had a beautiful view of the 14,150 foot Mt. Sneffels and Lower Blue Lake in front of it. We decided it was perfect so we set up camp.
After we set up camp we returned to the trail and made our way towards the upper lakes. On our way we passed the campsite that I had seen on Brauer's website, but it was much too small to accommodate two tents.
The Middle Lake is 500' and a half mile hike above Lower Blue Lake and sits at an elevation of 11,500 feet. From there it is an easy quarter mile hike to the Upper Blue Lake at 11,720 feet. On this portion of the trail you will have commanding views of Mt. Sneffels. From the Upper Lake hikers have the option to continue up to Blue Lakes Pass and drop into Yankee Boy Basin. This section of the hike will give you a stunning view of all three lakes, Mt. Sneffels and the entire basin but we were already pretty tired and the hike would have taken us over an additional 1,000 feet to 13,000 feet so we decided to head back to camp for the night.
Back at camp we cooked up some Mountain House Lasagna and hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps and watched the sun set behind the mountains. With the sun gone and darkness setting in the temperature quickly dropped and I decided to turn in and try to get some sleep before attempting some full moon night photography in the early morning hours!
I hadn't even gotten to sleep yet when I heard Chelsea and Kyle outside, clearly in awe of something they were seeing. I poked my head out of the tent to see what they were so captivated by and my jaw dropped when I looked over at Mt. Sneffels and the lake. The rising Supermoon was so bright that it was creating an alpenglow-like effect, at night! I quickly scrambled out of the tent and grabbed my camera and set up a time lapse. Chelsea, Kyle, and I all brought our sleeping bags out and laid them on the ground and quietly watched as the moon slowly illuminated the entire basin.
After the Lower Lake was fully illuminated I returned to my tent and tossed and turned until 2am when my alarm went off, alerting me it was time to take more night photos. I woke Chelsea up and we walked up the trail to a place we had scouted earlier and took a few photos. The wind was whipping through the valley and the exposed spot we were at was getting pummeled. We didn't linger long.
Getting absolutely blasted by the wind we returned to our tents. For the remainder of the night the winds howled and my tent once again felt as if it was being tested to its breaking point. There were moments a strong gale came through and bent the poles so much they were nearly touching me. Thankfully, the tent held strong, as it had at Cracker Lake.
Finally, the sun began to creep over the horizon and light up the mountain range in a beautiful orange glow.
We decided it was too windy to eat breakfast where we were camped so we packed up and headed down to the shores of the lower lake for a quick bite before we hiked back out to the trailhead. All in all we were in the wilderness for 24 hours. We saw very few other people on our hike but the scenery was on par with some of the prettiest sights I've seen in our national parks (Glacier immediately came to mind when I saw Mt. Sneffels towering over the brilliant blue Lower Lake). It's safe to say that our national forests hold some true hidden gems and I'm very excited to see what other treasures I can find in these public lands!
SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM UNCOMPAHGRE HERE!
Date Hiked: 9/5
Distance: 8.2 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet
Trailhead: Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls Trailhead
Permits Required: Northwest Forest Pass or Interagency Pass
We wanted to get one last hike in on our final day in Washington before we had to head to the airport for our redeye flights. Lake Serene, located in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, seemed like what we were looking for. It was just over an hour from the airport and, at 8.2 miles round-trip, would make for a perfect day hike.
We started out early from the hotel and arrived to the trailhead at around 11am to find the parking lot nearly full! Luckily we found one of the last spots, parked, I made a few sandwiches for lunch, and we headed towards the trailhead.
The first portion of the trail is on an old forest road and it is wide and easy hiking. The road ended and we began a moderate climb through the dense forest. At 1.7 miles we reached a fork in the trail, a right would have taken us to Bridal Veil Falls and a left was going to lead us to Lake Serene, we headed left and began descending until we crossed a creek and then our real climb began. 23 steep switchbacks and numerous stairs were going to take us to the base of Lake Serene, still 1.5 miles away and 1,500' above us.
This hike was another uphill slog for us. We slowly counted down the switchbacks each time we rounded a corner and by the time we reached 10, not even half way, both Alex and I were sweating profusely and wondering why we even bothered showering that morning.
Finally, after a grueling mile we rounded our last switchback, which would take us the last half mile to the lake. By this time we were surrounded by clouds, yet again. When we arrived to the lake it was so covered in clouds we couldn't see the other side, but it was still a beautiful sight and we could immediately see how the lake earned its name.
It was also incredibly crowded; the lakeshore was dotted with groups of hikers enjoying their lunch. So many hikers enjoy a lunch here that a large rock on the shore was named Lunch Rock!
So we sat and ate, and once again watched clouds clear before our very eyes and reveal a stunning alpine landscape before us. As we were eating a couple sat down near us on the lakeshore with their two dogs who jumped into the lake without hesitation and swam around as their owners threw them a tennis ball. I had planned on floating around and brought my bathing suit but by the time we sat down to eat and the chill from walking through the clouds permeated me and even though the hike was strenuous I was feeling chilled and I opted to just watch the dogs enjoy their swim instead.
After we finished eating and took some last pictures we packed up and began the long descent back to our car and then drove to Sea-Tac. A word of advice if you are planning on doing this hike: go earlier, the lot fills up, and rush hour traffic through Gold Bar is a nightmare. Our "just over an hour" drive to the airport took us two hours. Thankfully we had extra time budgeted but had we lingered just a little longer at the lake we may have missed our flights!
Date Hiked: 9/4/16
Distance: 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
Trailhead: Switchback Trailhead
Permits: Olympic National Park entrance fee, $20 (good for 7 days)
After Alex and I returned from our hike to Toleak Point we drove back to Port Angeles. We weren't sure how we were going to spend the afternoon. We had originally planned on doing another overnight backpacking trip (this one outside the park) but by the time it came to drive to the next trailhead we both gave each other a look that said it all. We just physically could not complete a hike that had a 3,000'+ elevation gain with our overnight packs on after everything we had just done. So we made a new plan: we would stay in Olympic National Park and hike to Klahhane Ridge. This wasn't an easy hike but we didn't need to take our overnight bags and we had a hotel bed to look forward to at the end of it.
There are a few ways to reach Klahhane Ridge but the most direct is via the Switchback Trail. As the name implies, the Switchback Trail is steep and full of switchbacks. The trail begins gaining elevation immediately and rises 1,500' in the first 1.5 miles. While our hike on the coast was sunny the Hurricane Ridge region of the park was overcast. As we ascended clouds began to form above and below us, which made for some stunning sights.
At 0.6 miles and 700 feet we reached a junction: to left was the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center and to right was our destination, Klahhane Ridge! After ascending another 1,000' we finally found ourselves on the ridge, but we couldn't see much. We arrived at the ridge only to be completely surrounded by clouds moving quickly through the valleys beneath us.
We waited on the ridge, watching as the clouds rolled by and intermittently gave us brief glimpses of a panoramic view of the Olympic Peninsula.
Finally, we began the hike back down. The sun was beginning to set and we still had to hike down and drive 2 hours to our hotel in Seattle, and we were exhausted from the previous days' hikes.
The Klahhane Ridge continues towards Angeles Lake and next time we visit I would love to continue the hike and see the lake from the ridge!
Duration: 2 days/1 night, 9/3 - 9/4
Distance: 12.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,028 feet
Trailhead: Third Beach Trailhead
After our hike to Mount Storm King Alex and I drove to the Third Beach Trailhead to begin our 6.4 mile hike to Toleak Point. High tide was scheduled for 2pm so we set out from the trailhead at 4pm. This would ensure the tide would be low by the time we reached a few stretches of beach and the headlands that require a low tide for crossing.
The first 1.35 miles of the hike were spent descending 275' through a lush forest before the trees broke and we found ourselves on Third Beach and were treated to our first views of the stunning Olympic Coast. We walked along the beach until we came to the first headland, which was designated by a target sign on a tree. To pass over the headland we had to climb up nearly vertical bluffs using ropes and ladders provided by the park service. After making our way past the obstacles we were back in the forest again and would spend the next mile there. At 2.8 miles the trail descended quickly to a beach just south of Taylor Point. After the first headland we were grateful to be walking on the level and easily navigable beach again.
This is the portion of the hike that can only be done at low tide. We walked along the beach until we reached the second headland trail at Scotts Bluff. Once again we hauled ourselves up the headland using ropes. This headland was much steeper than the first, but luckily the bluff was at least dry, I can't imagine attempting to scale that bluff when it's muddy, which is probably a majority of the time!
For the third time on this hike we found ourselves under the cover of a lush forest. This time we only walked through the woods for 0.3 miles before we descended via numerous, slick, stairs to another beach: Scott Creek Camp. Finally, at mile 3.7 we were out of the woods and it was a smooth walk to Toleak Point at mile 6.4.
We arrived to Toleak Point with just enough time to set up our tent before the sun started to set and the sky transitioned into golden hour. Watching the sky illuminate the sea stacks just beyond the beach was a beautiful sight. The tide was slowly ebbing out, revealing more rocks as it retreated further and further into the ocean.
After sunset we ate a quick dinner and then went to the tent for a short nap before we would attempt night photography. Too soon our alarm was going off and we were back on the beach, this time the sky dotted with millions of twinkling stars. We walked along the beach to a sea stack we saw earlier that we had our eye on for the perfect foreground for Milky Way photos. As we walked along the beach we were accompanied by a gaze (a very fitting term) of raccoons that were watching us from the edge of the forest, only betrayed by their glowing eyes in the otherwise dark landscape. We spent an hour or so capturing the stars and Milky Way moving across the horizon, Alex taking a timelapse and I capturing star trails.
Finally, we began the walk back to our tent, once again being watched by curious raccoons. The raccoons are one of the reasons it is so important to store your food in a bear canister on the Olympic Coast. While bears can also get into your food, it's the ingenious raccoons that so often cause problems. Thankfully we kept all our food and scented items in a bear canister so no raccoons could get their greedy paws on it.
We woke in the morning to fog rolling over the ocean and sea stacks. It was eerie and perfectly moody PNW scene. We took a few sunrise photos and began packing up. Low tide was scheduled for 9:00am so we wanted to get an early start so we could complete most of the hike at low tide. By the time we began the trek back to the trailhead the sun had risen and most of the fog and clouds had cleared, we were once again going to have a sunny hike!
At 11:00am we were back in the car, kicking off our shoes. It was another successful hike! One of the things Alex and I continuously wondered on the hike was how the towering sea stacks were formed. According to the park service sea stacks are erosion-resistant rocks that have stood the test of relentless waves. While weaker rock broke away and fell into the ocean, the resilient rocks stood strong. Over time, as weaker rock continued to fall the rock that remained became isolated from the mainland and thus: sea stacks!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Special notes: Bear canisters are required for this backpacking trip. They keep bears away but also prevent smaller mammals such as raccoons and mice from becoming nuisances and getting into your food. If you don't have your own canister you can rent one from the Olympic National Park Wilderness Information Center. Also, carry a tide map and know how to use it. Portions of this hike are only doable at low tide!
Required permits: You do need a backcountry permit for this hike and you can pick one up the day of your trip from the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles. You cannot reserve a backcountry permit in advance, but there is no limit to permits granted so you don't have to worry about being turned away.
Gear to pack:
- The 10 essentials
- Sleeping bag, pad, tent
- Rain gear
- Gloves to protect your hands when ascending and descending the ropes on the headland trails
- Bear canister
- Water filter
Trailhead: Third Beach Trailhead
Date Hiked: 9/3/16
Distance: 3.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
Trailhead: Storm King Ranger Station
The hike to Mount Storm King was thrown onto our Olympic itinerary at the very last minute. The main attraction of our weekend trip was going to be Toleak Point but we were only going to be able to complete that trail at low tide, so we were limited to hiking it early in the morning or later in the afternoon. We opted to hike it later in the afternoon which gave us a free morning and enough time to attempt another hike. After a little research we settled on the epically named Mount Storm King.
The hike to Mount Storm King doesn't look too intimidating on paper. Its short mileage can easily trick you into thinking the hike is going to be easy but the elevation gain offsets any ease the distance may offer. This hike was an uphill slog.
The hike begins at the Storm Ranger Station. The first half mile of the trail is shared with the trail to Marymere Falls so this section can get quite busy but we began our hike early so we didn't share the trail with many other hikers.
Once we reached the Marymere/Storm King split and followed the sign that indicated Storm King was to the left it became quite apparent that we were going to have to work for the views. The trail abruptly began a steep ascent through the forest but thankfully the canopy of trees kept us cool as we slowly made our way up the switchbacks.
There were a few breaks in the trees that gave us our first glimpse of Lake Crescent and those brief views were enough to encourage us to keep climbing. Finally, we emerged from the forest and found ourselves on a ridge with beautiful views of the Barnes Creek valley sprawling out before us. We continued onto the last few portions of trail which were the most intimidating. There are ropes put into place which offer guidance and support past a few exposed sections of trail and then a final scramble to the top of Mount Storm King. The summit sits below Pyramid Mountain but high above Lake Crescent below. When we arrived the entire lake was covered in clouds and there was just one other hiker at the summit, waiting for the clouds to clear. We set our packs down, took out a few snacks, and waited as well.
The other hiker ended up leaving and Alex and I were alone on Storm King, patiently waiting for the clouds to move across the water below us. Eventually they did and they revealed a jaw-dropping eagle's eye view.
No other hikers joined us at the summit while we sat, ate, snapped photos, and simply relished in the views. Eventually, it was time to head back down and we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the stunning landscape. As we were leaving we passed the first group of hikers we saw since our arrival at the summit, and then we passed another group, and another. Suddenly we were very appreciative the solitude we experienced at the top!
Packing for a ten day backpacking trip was a logistical challenge (read: nightmare). I needed to pack enough food, gear, and clothing to last me ten days in the wilderness without any sort of resupply. The longest I had spent in the backcountry without heading back to civilization was two days so this trip was about to smash that record.
Thankfully, Expeditions Alaska sent me a very thorough pre-departure packet that detailed all the gear the founder carries with him in the backcountry and I planned to follow that list to a T. So with my list in hand I headed to REI to stock up.
It's really hard to believe that everything in the below picture fit either on my body or in my backpack, but it did. It took a few tries to figure out how to most efficiently and effectively pack everything but after I found a solution it was easy to re-pack every morning. Here is a recap of everything I brought and how it held up!
Deuter ACT Lite 60+10L Backpack: I love Deuter packs. Before I bought a Deuter I was using some generic backpacking pack that was a one-size-fits-all-humans sort of deal and it did not fit this human properly, yet I used it for nine months. Since buying the Deuter my only wish is that I had bought one earlier so I didn't have to walk all those painful miles with a heavy, ill-fitting pack on! The 60+10 size was able to (barely) hold all my gear, but even coming in at a hefty 47 lbs. this pack felt comfortable on my body.
Black Diamond Trekking Poles: Unless you are an expert backpacker trekking poles are a must in the Alaskan backcountry. I brought my trusty Black Diamond poles and they aided me through some of the roughest terrain I have ever encountered in my life.
REI Quarter Dome 1 Tent: I bought this tent specifically for this trip. Alex and I always go backpacking together so we only have two person tents. In order to cut down on as much weight as possible I wanted to buy a one person tent. I was looking for something light and affordable and the REI Quarter Dome 1 fit the bill. Its trail weight comes in at a light 2 lbs. 2 oz. It was also incredibly easy to set up, by the end of the trip I was setting it up in just a couple minutes!
BV500 Bear Vault: You can't go hiking in Alaska without taking proper precautions against bears and this includes storing all scented items in a bear canister. I brought the BV500 and was able to cram, and I mean cram (those poor tortillas), my ten days worth of food in this canister. It adds an unfortunate amount of bulk and weight but is a necessity in bear country.
REI Insulated Sleeping Pad: I upgraded my Therm-A-Rest Z Lite sleeping pad to an insulated pad for this trip to save space. It definitely saved space but blowing it up every night and trying to cram it back in its bag every morning for ten days was not enjoyable. I'm glad I had it because it was comfortable but after nearly passing out a few times I'm on the market for another insulated pad that doesn't take so much wind power to blow up. Or perhaps my boyfriend with swimmer lungs will be able to help me in the future!
REI Habanera Sleeping Bag: This exact model is no longer available but the Marmot Trestles has a similar degree rating. I love my Habanera. It is rated at 13 degrees Fahrenheit and I have taken it on trips where the temperature dipped well into that range and have been comfortable. The sleeping bag is down-filled and lofty and I am able to be completely engulfed by it, like a caterpillar cocooning up before it turns into a butterfly.
Lowa Renegade GTX Hiking Boots: I am sad to say this trip was the end of these hiking boots. They are amazingly comfortable boots and left my feet completely dry even on the full day we spent hiking through rain. Everyone else on the trip was commenting about their feet being soaked but mine were still toasty and bone-dry. Then came the moment I put my foot down in swamp-grass and felt water seep into my boot. I investigated the situation and found that the seams were busting out near the big toe on both boots. I spent the remainder of the hike futilely trying to evade any standing water. These boots were returned to REI.
Keen Newport H2 Sandals: These were my camp shoes and river-crossing shoes. They did their job. They are a little heavy and stay wet longer than I would like but they are comfortable, secure, and solid so they are winners in my book.
Jetboil: I actually didn't bring this because it takes isobutane fuel and I was told we couldn't fly to Bettles with isobutane. It turns out the Bettles Lodge sells isobutane and privately operated planes can fly with the fuel so I could have brought it. Instead my guide kindly boiled me water every night for my dehydrated meals.
Trowel: Yep, this did its job.
Knife: I always bring a knife into the backcountry. You never know what you'll need to cut!
Flashlight: I might as well have just brought a paperweight instead of the flashlight because it would have been just as useful. The sun didn't set, I don't know what I was thinking!
Clothes: I brought 3 pairs of hiking socks and 2 liners. For my "camp clothes" I brought wool long underwear. For hiking I brought my REI Sahara Pants and a Columbia hiking shirt, the polyester blend is perfect for hiking in Alaska. It wicks moisture and is impenetrable to mosquitos. I actually enjoyed watching mosquitos land on me and try to find a place to stick their poker. They couldn't! For layering I brought my Patagonia fleece, Patagonia puffer (which is admittedly a girl's size L), and North Face rain jacket. I also reluctantly bought a pair of rain pants per the guide's insistence and am so glad I did because they saved me when we were bushwhacking in the pouring rain.
What isn't shown: my water filtration system. I picked up a Sawyer Mini before heading out on this trip and I was impressed with how well it worked. I opted to cut my camelback tube and thread the filter through the tube so the water was filtered as I sucked it up. The filtering didn't seem to impede the water flow noticeably and I didn't have to futz with filtering water into bottles. This also allowed me to drink as I pleased instead of stopping and drinking out of a bottle. I love this system.
Figuring out how much food to bring was actually pretty easy. I figured out what I wanted to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks each day. Then I added up all the calories of the food and divided by the number of days I would be out in the wilderness to make sure I was going to get enough calories each day. I was aiming for 1,700 calories a day and came in at 1,650. For breakfast each day I had a tortilla slathered in peanut butter and a Clif Energy Blok or Gel. For lunch I would have a Clif Bar and a handful of trail mix. Dinner was one of my Mountain House dehydrated meals (beef stroganoff for the win!) or after I ran out of those my least favorite meal of tuna on a tortilla. Dessert was a block or two of chocolate. As far as having enough food goes I ran out on the last day. Thankfully one of my group members packed extra and kindly gave me two of her bars.
This is one place I was not willing to skimp on. Photography is one of my biggest passions and despite the fact that all my gear was going to come with a hefty weight penalty I was willing to shoulder that cost, literally.
Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens: This is my night photography lens. Unfortunately, the sun never set so I didn't use this lens once on the trip!
10 lithium batteries: My Canon takes lithium batteries and the only way these can be charged is if they are plugged into a power source. No solar chargers work on these guys! So I stocked up on them just in case I went through batteries like a madwoman. I didn't, I only used four batteries, but now I have a reference point for how many batteries I go through on an extended trip.
Intervalometer: This is what I used to take time-lapses and also all the photos of myself on this trip. I love this little tool so much. I can set the number of photos I want to take, the interval at which I want them taken, plug it into my camera and the camera will continue to take pictures until its hit the limit I entered or I manually stop it. This was perfect way to get photos of myself without using the 10-second timer and running back and forth between the camera and wherever I was sitting or standing. Instead, I would simply set the intervalometer to take a photo every few seconds so it would capture me as I relaxed on a river bed or rock. I prefer taking pictures this way because they are authentic. I really am sitting on the rock just enjoying the scene, it's not posed and I didn't get up and leave right after the photo was taken.
4 x 64G SD cards: Due to all the time-lapses I took on this trip I filled up 2 of these SD cards.
Filters: I brought my 10-stop ND filter, graduated ND filter, and circular polarizer.
ProMaster Carbon Fiber Tripod: This is actually Alex's tripod that he let me borrow for the trip. I also have a ProMaster but his carbon fiber version is under 3 lbs. and when every ounce counts I'm going to do everything I can to get the weight down.
While it sounds like, and certainly felt like, I brought a lot of gear I found nearly every single piece of it useful. Had I done a little more research I would have realized there was no need for a flashlight or night lens but alas I thought that I might just need it. Maybe we would find a cave! Maybe the sun would fall out of the sky! Next time I will know better.
On my trip through Gates of the Arctic I had the opportunity to try packrafting for the first time. In fact, one of the reasons I went with this Gates of the Arctic guided trip over others was because of the two day packrafting extension. I thought it would be a great introduction to the sport as it is relatively expensive and I wanted to make sure I liked it before investing any money into it. Turns out I love it!
Our guide provided us with Alpacka Rafts and gave us a tutorial on how to set them up and before long we were all catching and siphoning air into our own rafts! It was another beautiful, calm day and I took the opportunity (multiple times) to capture the mountain that has no name perfectly reflected in Circle Lake.
Once we were all ready the guide showed us how to enter the water and paddle and just like that we were on our way! To get to the Alatna River, our rafting destination, we would need to paddle to the end of Circle Lake and then follow small streams to a beaver pond and then portage about a half a mile due to a beaver damming the pond. However, that is when the water level is high, the water level happened to be low during my visit so we were in for a rude awakening at the end of Circle Lake. While the previous year it was possible to paddle through the swamp-like grassy section to get to the pond this year the water level was not high enough to allow for that. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean the grass was dry. It was submerged in a few inches of standing water and we were going to have to haul our Alpacka rafts and backpacks through the swampy terrain. Every step I took my foot sank into the water and then made a horrible suctioning sound. The smell was also rancid and the stinky mud was now covering us up to our knees.
It was at this point one of my group members pointed out a large moose and her calf at the shores of Circle Lake not more than 50 yards from us. Our guide had a few nasty run-ins with moose so the second she saw the mama moose she urged us to pick up the pace, something that was tricky when my feet were sinking fast in the mud. Finally, after much struggling and cursing, we made it to the beaver pond. We boarded our rafts again and paddled to the end of the pond where we once again got out and portaged our boats. This portage was much easier. There was a social trail leading from the pond to the river and it was completely dry. By the time we were actually paddling on the river it was late afternoon and we were all incredibly thankful we didn’t choose to do this after hiking down from The Terraces. We shuddered at the thought of that potential day.
We paddled just three miles and decided to call it a day. We found a beautiful stretch of gravel bar that was large enough to accommodate our tents and a kitchen and food storage area.
It was during dinner on this night that the group member who pointed out the moose earlier in the day stood up and pointed at the gravel bar across the river and downstream from us and said “that looks like a huge coyote or a wolf!”. We all looked. It was quite a distance away and I could only make our a large black form, it was looking at us. It appeared as if it might have been a bear but then it turned and trotted in a way only canines do. Just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. Another group member got a photo of it and we had to zoom in quite a ways but we could see the creature resembled, quite unmistakably, a wolf. Still, we doubted ourselves because wolves are such elusive creatures, so we showed the picture to the park rangers when we returned to Bettles and they confirmed it was a wolf. It was another reminder of how we aren’t alone at all in the wilderness. We may have gone days without seeing even a ground squirrel but the wildlife is there. You won’t see them but they will definitely see you.
The next day we lazily paddled 17 miles down the Alatna as it slowly passed the no-named mountain and new mountains came into view. The shore was lined with trees and thick foliage and after the previous night’s encounter I tried to will the animals to show their faces, if only for another brief moment. They didn’t. We didn’t see another group of people either. We had the Alatna and the mountainous landscape that surrounded it entirely to ourselves, only sharing it with the shy animals that probably emerged from the woods only after we rounded the river bend. This was the most peaceful day. There were many times I stopped paddling and just let the current slowly carry me so I could stare off into the distance.
Our final campsite was once again on a gravel bar. We chose to camp a quarter of a mile walk away from Takahula Lake, our take-out point. Takahula Lake is a popular lake for people to get dropped off and picked up at so there was already another group on the gravel bar, they made room for us and we set up camp, made dinner, and then retired to the tent for the last time.
I suddenly woke up around 3am. Initially I thought I woke up because my shoulder had grown sore and I needed to change positions again but then I heard what sounded like an animal moaning in the distance. Then another chimed in, followed by more low moans and then a higher pitched howl. Wolves. They howled for about a minute and then went silent. It was eerie and I wasn’t sure what I was hearing was real. Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me after spending so many days in the wilderness. The next morning I asked the group if they heard the animals the night before and only two others had. Even though I never saw the wolves it is one of my favorite wildlife experiences to date. Hearing a pack of wolves howl in the wilderness of Alaska is bone-chilling and magical at the same time.
Our final day was spent cleaning and airing out the packrafts and packing everything back up. Our take-out time was scheduled for 2pm so we had an easy morning. At 1:30pm we made the quarter mile walk to the shores of Takahula Lake and eagerly waited for our plane to pick us up. 2 o'clock passed, and then it was 2:30, then 3:00. Our guide assured us that this was typical for bush flights. But then 3:30 arrived and she used her sat phone to call the lodge and ask if our pilot had left for us yet. The lodge told us that our pilot was on a flightsee tour until 5 and then he would head over to get us. Somehow there was a miscommunication along the line so our 2pm take-out time suddenly turned to 7pm. It’s funny how you can spend over a week in the backcountry and have the time of your life but if you extend the trip an extra five hours everyone is agitated and anxious. We were mentally prepared to already be back at the Bettles Lodge by this point. We should have been showered, used a real toilet, eaten a hearty meal, and emailed our loved ones but instead we were sitting on the shore of a lake being attacked by bugs and we were just ready to be picked up.
Finally we heard a plane in the distance, we tried not to get our hopes up because a few planes had already passed and turned out to not be our ride, but this one passed low overhead, landed on the lake and then began puttering towards us. It was our ride!!
We loaded our packs into the plane and piled in. I sat in the back, alone, and stared out at the same landscape I had just days earlier. The landscape remained exactly the same, as it has for hundreds of years, but I felt like a new person. I had successfully spent ten days and nine nights in the Alaskan wilderness, I bushwhacked, I saw views few others have and I conquered my fear of the unknown.
The third day of our trip we ventured up into the valley directly below The Maidens. East and West Maiden are massive granite slabs that shoot up from the valley floor and tower over the creek below. They are so massive that from base camp they looked as if they were a short leisurely hike away but it took us half an hour just to reach their base.
Since we had all day to explore the area one of my fellow group members and I decided that we would scramble up a large rock pile near the end of the valley. From below, this rock pile looked like it flattened out under a cirque and had a waterfall streaming down from it. It looked like the perfect place for a lake to form and if such a lake existed we were determined to see it. So we climbed and climbed and climbed and each time we made it over a crest of rocks we were just presented with yet another pile of rocks. There was no lake in sight. Feeling defeated, we turned around and headed back down and sat at the shores of the creek just watching the clouds pass over the mountaintops, a perfectly fine alternative to the non-existent alpine lake.
The fourth day was the day I was looking forward to most, it was the day we were going to explore Aquarius Valley. In my research of Gates of the Arctic, Aquarius Valley popped up multiple times. And this valley most definitely had lakes, three of them in fact, in differing shades of glacial blue. Going to bed the night before I was anxious the weather would turn. Besides the first night of rain we had clear, blue skies and not a drop of rain, a streak of luck, our guide told us, that would soon run out in typical Alaska-fashion. But we awoke on the fourth day to more sunny weather. My disposition matched the sky and I was eager to get going!
We left basecamp early, crossed the stream, and immediately began climbing a steep valley wall. Eventually it leveled out and we were presented with a large boulder field. This day would turn out to be almost entirely boulder walking. The three tarns in Aquarius Valley are completely surrounded by boulders that tumbled down from the mountain faces surrounding them. In fact while we were hiking we heard a few rocks fall, a disconcerting event to witness as you are hiking among nothing but rocks for miles.
By late morning we found ourselves on the shore of a beautiful aquamarine tarn. The water was so calm it looked like a mirror perfectly reflecting the mountains surrounding it. We decided it was a prime spot to stop for lunch. We sat on the rocky shore of the tarn and admired the scene. So far we had only seen a handful of other groups on our journey so we had all these idyllic locations to ourselves, which was a treat. If this park were located in the lower 48 we would likely be sharing the shoreline with countless others. I was grateful we were in the heart of Alaska.
After we ate we continued on. The first tarn was the largest and most difficult to circumvent. The other side wasn't far away distance-wise but the going was tricky. We had to carefully consider where to put our feet down with each step and be ready to catch ourselves if the rock we decided to step on was loose. It was not only physically exhausting it was mentally taxing as well. Finally, we reached the second tarn. It was another brilliant shade of glacial blue. We paused to take a few photos and then pushed on. The third tarn was my favorite. It sat beneath jagged mountain peaks and sparkled like a diamond in the bright sun.
The rest of the group took another break here but I decided to scramble to the other side of the tarn to get a less obstructed view of the Arrigetch Peaks and see the tarns lined up in a row. I was able to scramble high enough to see two of the tarns but the second remained hidden. I know I could have gotten higher but I didn’t want to hold up the group so I retraced my steps back to the lakeshore and we all headed back to camp. Later we met a group who told us if I had continued up the rock pile I would have seen a glacier and all three tarns lined up in a row. The fact that I was so close and missed out on that view is still gnawing at me.
Our fifth day and our final day at basecamp we followed the Arrigetch Creek up through a lush valley. We again scored with a beautiful day and again we spent a majority of the day traversing precarious boulders. We continued to follow the river until we reached a stopping place with a sweeping view of Ariel Peak, Caliban, and Xanadu. We ate lunch and spent the afternoon at that spot talking about life and beautiful moments. Finally, we made our way back to base camp.
Our time in the Arrigetch region went so fast. The fact that we were there for three whole days seemed preposterous, surely the trip couldn't be going by that fast! I was also not looking forward to the hike back down. Our guide gave us the option to hike back down in one or two days, but warned us that no matter what our decision was we were going to have one extremely long day ahead of us. If we chose to hike down in two days we would once again camp at the Terraces and then head back down to Circle Lake. Then we would set up the packrafting gear and paddle for the remainder of the second day. Our group was leaning towards hiking all the way from the Arrigetch Peaks back to Circle Lake in one day. I also wanted to finish the hike that way but was nervous how my body would hold up. The boulders were really doing a number on my ankles and I was worried what another full day of bushwhacking would do to them. I popped a few ibuprofen and hoped I would hold up.
The sixth day turned out to be the end of our fair-weather streak. We knew we were destined for a rainy day sooner or later and here it was to accompany us all the way back down to Circle Lake. We packed up, put on our rain gear and began the hike down in silence. Our guide kept a breakneck pace. I hiked behind her and trying to keep up with her was exhausting. She looked so agile and swift muscling her way through the brush and I felt like I was more falling down the mountain than hiking down it. I lost track at about 10 tumbles, but this day was full of falls for me. The water made the trail slick and that coupled with the uneven terrain made for a difficult hike.
Our guide’s quick pace allowed us to reach The Terraces in just five hours. We ate lunch in silence as cold rain fell on our hoods and trickled down our jacket sleeves. The guide asked us if we would like to continue on or camp there. It was a unanimous “continue on”. We all felt as if we had already endured so much pain we might as well get it over with. I regretted this decision about a half an hour later when we were back in the tussocks and I kept misjudging what was solid ground and what was grass. The unfortunate thing about this region is that there are very few suitable places to camp for one tent, let alone, four. Now we had no choice but to continue on to what we dubbed the “Spruce Camp”, which was an open flat expanse of boreal forest floor under some spruce trees we passed on our first hike. It was the perfect spot and we were determined to make it there. As we hiked the skies cleared up and we were graced with a view of the sun for the first time all day. We took another break and just let the sun wash over us.
Finally we made it to Spruce Camp and set up our tents. We then ventured over to a creek about one hundred yards away and set up a kitchen and prepared dinner. At this point I was running out of food options. I had one dehydrated dinner left (mac ’n cheese) but I was saving that for the last night so I was left eating a tuna tortilla, a meal that sounded much more appealing when I was shoving it into my bear canister in the comfort of my home and congratulating myself for thinking of such a compact but “delicious” meal. I shoveled the tortilla into my mouth and picked a handful of M&M’s out of my trail mix for dessert and retired to my tent. This was the first night I slept the entirety without waking up. I was exhausted.
The next morning we set out for Circle Lake. By this point my ankles were screaming with every step I took. Falling off the tussocks the previous day caused my ankles to turn at uncomfortable angles, often. Thankfully the hike to Circle Lake only took fifteen minutes. The hiking portion of the trip was over. My legs had done their job, it was now my upper body’s turn!
The tiny float plane suddenly lurched from side to side, I instinctively grabbed the seat rails and sucked in air. The plane steadied itself again, just a bit of turbulence. It was my first time in a small aircraft and I was still getting used to the exaggerated bumps. I looked out the window at my surroundings: a braided green river carved through the valley floor below and sun rays pierced the clouds and illuminated the mountain slopes. Our plane probably looked like a fly in the endless Alaskan landscape, soaring over Gates of the Arctic National Park. Finally the reality of my situation was sinking in: I was on a float plane bound for Circle Lake, where I was to deplane with the four other occupants who were still strangers to me. Our group would spend the next ten days backpacking and packrafting through Gates of the Arctic National Park. I grinned at the thought of the adventurous days that lay ahead of me and also questioned my sanity.
Gates of the Arctic National Park is located in the Brooks Range in Alaska and is entirely north of the Arctic Circle. Covering a staggering 8.4 million acres it is the second largest national park, only Wrangell-St. Elias is larger. It is also the second least visited national park, in 2013 Gates saw 11,000 visitors. This remoteness and unparalleled beauty are the main reasons I was drawn to a trip in Gates of the Arctic. The idea of being flown into an untouched wilderness and forging my own path (there are also no signs or maintained trails in the park) allows for a person to feel as if they are discovering a place for the first time, which is quite a novel experience in this day and age where untouched pieces of land are nearly impossible to come by. So I researched guiding companies that toured through Gates and found Expeditions Alaska. The company had great reviews so I decided to book my trip!
The famed wilderness advocate Robert Marshall named the park. He was exploring the Brooks Range and found himself at the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River where two towering mountains appeared to usher him into the arctic and thus he called them the Gates of the Arctic. As you can probably guess judging by its name that includes the word "arctic", the park is not easy to reach. First, I had to get myself to Fairbanks, AK where I met my group. Together we took an hour and a half flight on Wrights Air to Bettles where we then boarded a float plane and flew another 45 minutes to Circle Lake. The landing was smooth and before we knew it we were standing on the shores of Circle Lake, surrounded by our gear, waving to our pilot as he disappeared into the sky. As soon as the faint hum of the plane propeller faded I was struck by a silence that held in the air. Everything was perfectly still.
After a brief safety talk we shouldered our packs and walked along the shore until we found a nice camping spot. We had a hefty weather delay that caused us to leave about four hours late from Bettles so we weren’t going to make much ground the first night, which is something I was okay with since my pack weighed a hefty 47 pounds. I wanted to start eating some of the food and lighten the load!
It rained off and on for most of the first night. We awoke to a wet ground and a sky full of heavy clouds that looked as if they could burst at any moment. We ate a leisurely breakfast and kept an eye on the sky. The clouds were moving through and it appeared we might luck out and begin our hike dry. We packed up and set out. I was disappointed to discover that despite eating two full meals my pack did not feel any lighter.
We made our way to the end of Circle Lake and began bushwhacking our way through tussocks. I knew this trip would consist of a great deal of bushwhacking and I had read up on what bushwhacking entailed but nothing prepared me for how difficult the task was. Our first hurdle was the tussocks, which are giant knee-high balls of soil with gaps between them and grass on their top. Some of the grass folds over and creates the illusion of solid ground between the tussocks, but then you put your foot down only to find that solid ground is nearly 12 inches below and you slowly tumble into the grass. You get up only to repeat the process again within a few steps later. After about an hour we took a break and our guide informed us we had gone a third of a mile. A third of a mile! In my research on bushwhacking I read that a mile an hour is considered a decent pace in the bush so I was prepared for some slow-going, but not this slow!
After an extended break we muscled on through the tussocks and then willow and alder forests. When we reached the edge of a dense alder patch I thought our guide was definitely going to try to find a way around it, it looked completely impassable! But just as soon as we arrived she threw herself, headfirst, into it and just like that was gone! I surveyed the gnarly, intertwined branches and tried to discern the least dense section of foliage and then I stuck my hands out, closed my eyes, and forced my way through the branches. The foliage was so thick that if you weren’t within five feet of the person in front of you, you would lose them. I fought my way through the alder and the alder fought back. Finally, we emerged on the other side, a few scrapes, and tousled hair, but standing, and that was the important part.
By afternoon we had finally reached a social trail that follows Arrigetch Creek from the Arrigetch Peaks to the Alatna River. Walking along a trail, albeit an almost imperceivable one, was easy going compared to the morning’s trek. We were finally making some headway! By late afternoon we made it to our camping spot for the evening: The Terraces. Our guide had talked about this camping spot all the day, informing us that it was what she called “an REI site”, meaning it was picturesque and #tentview worthy and she was not kidding. The Terraces are two large outcrops from the trail, about 100 yards apart, that sit high above the Arrigetch Creek rushing by below, and offer the first glimpses of the Arrigetch Peaks in the distance. One makes a perfect tent site and the other makes a perfect kitchen. We set up camp and headed to the other terrace for dinner. I quickly picked the heaviest looking meal from my bear canister and began heating up some water. As I sat on The Terrace and ate my dehydrated dinner out of a bag I admired the mountains on the horizon. They were sharp, angular, rock faces jutting up into the sky, they resembled glass shards. Our first day was tough, much tougher than I anticipated. On more than one occasion I cursed myself for choosing such an arduous trip over a lazy beach vacation, but when I looked at the peaks I was instantly reminded of why I made my choice: solitude, adventure, and awesome mountains!
Our second day was another strenuous day of bushwhacking, although we had more game and social trails to follow, which was a relief. Throughout the day we were graced with views of the Arrigetch Peaks ever so slowly growing larger. While this day consisted mostly of bushwhacking the most challenging task proved to be crossing the Arrigetch Creek. While the term "creek" doesn't bring to mind images of rushing water this "creek" was strong. We exchanged our hiking boots for water shoes, unbuckled our packs, and one by one forged on across the rushing water. Not only was the current fast, but the water was cold. So cold that it was painful. I grimaced with each step I took, trying to ignore the pain and focus all my energy on staying upright. It took less than a minute to cross the stream but it felt longer.
After another long day of hiking we arrived to basecamp at 7pm. We set up our tents in the shadows of the Maidens. We were spent. Luckily, this spot was going to act as our base camp for the next four days. There were three valleys that lay under the peaks and we had three days scheduled at basecamp, so we planned to spend a full day exploring each valley. The fun was just beginning!
In Alaska I made an effort to capture the passage of time through time-lapse photography. This short clip includes 3000 photos and covers over 5 hours of time. I often set my camera up while our group was taking a break from hiking or when we were eating a meal. It's really difficult to capture the size and beauty of a place like Gates of the Arctic National Park but I hope this gives you a little glimpse into what I witnessed during my 10 days backpacking in the park!