We didn’t see 20 lakes, but did a loop through the 20 Lakes Basin. It was an area of beautiful alpine lakes at 10,000 to 11,000 foot elevations surrounded by mountains, a variety of rocks and windswept trees.
The hike was 8 to 9 miles long on a variety of paths, from very good to snow covered, to scree slopes and the dreaded snow on skree.
So Cathie had another hard day of hiking on a trail that I picked. It wasn’t helped by the fact that she left her pack in the hotel room and didn’t figure it out until we were at the trailhead after a 2 hour drive. So she had no gloves (it was cold and windy) no pills and no chocolate covered expresso beans, her emergency fuel.
It was made worse by electing to take the harder, snowier, colder route home, which neither of us preferred based on a failure to communicate. But it was still a good day of hiking.
Tomorrow we head back to Chicago to our long suffering cat, Brillig, who has been upset by our absence, or at least being confined to the house.
We are staying in the Blue Butterfly, a very nice B&B right outside the gate of Yosemite. That’s great for going to Yosemite, but not for going anywhere else. Since the park is closed, everywhere else we might go is an hour or more away, so we are spending a lot of time driving.
Yesterday we went to the Nelder Grove of sequoias, which was a good hour and a half drive to do some hiking. The roads into the grove area were just dirt tracks through the forest; not bad in an SUV, but we have a little Yaris, so we crept along trying to avoid the largest rocks. We got in a nice 5 to 6 mile hike to some large trees. Here’s Cathie standing at the base of the Hawksworth Tree.
We are not supposed to stop in the park as we drive through, but everyone does. People have moved the barricades in the parking lot entrances. No one is staying and hiking, but stopping for a look and taking photos. We can’t go on roads that aren’t through routes, so the valley floor, etc. is blocked. For people who have come from Europe and Asia, to be blocked from the parks is a real shame.
Today we drove through the park to the east side and visited Mono Lake. It is a federal property, but not a park, so they have just put up signs saying it is closed, but don’t block anything. The lake is very salty, and lots of tufa towers around the edges where there were springs bringing minerals into the lake.
It’s pretty interesting to see the tufa surrounded by the rabbitbrush plants.
We also drove around the June Lake Loop, with some nice lakes and hillsides of bright aspens.
It’s all very nice, but not what we planned to see and do here. A lot less hiking and a lot more driving.
I’ve been delinquent in posting for the last couple of weeks. We are in California, near Yosemite now, but we have been doing some traveling before this.
We started in Berkeley, where we visited Cathie’s brother Cal Herrmann, his wife Lani, and two of their children: Conrad and his family, and Alix who had just returned from a three week trip to South Korea. Conrad treated us to dinner at Chez Panisse, and dinner at his lovely home in the Noe Valley area of San Francisco.
We also took a day to drive around Sonoma County for some wine tasting.
I met with Nancy Seeger, from Evanston, now living in Palo Alto, and we walked around the campus of Stanford, which is beautiful.
Our next stop was in Sutter Creek, for the Amador County “Big Crush” wine festival. Two more days of wine tasting, thankfully with more food this time. Each winery on the tour provided snacks, from cheese and crackers to corn chowder and chocolate truffles. Cathie discovered a new fondness for California Barbera wines.
Our friends from Lone Mountain Ranch, Steve and Carolyn Balling, invited us up to their Lake Tahoe timeshare, so we spent four days with them hiking and seeing the sights.
We took a trip out to Pyramid Lake. It’s a big lake, but the terrain is pretty barren. The tufa slopes in the distance created some strange images in the camera.
It snowed the day after we arrived, so there was some hiking on snow-covered trails.
In the meadows it was more like fall than winter and the aspens were beautiful.
Leaving Lake Tahoe we drove to El Portal, just outside the main gate of Yosemite National Park. Since the park is closed we took our time and stopped at the sprawling ghost town of Bodie, now a state historic park maintained in a state of “arrested decay”.
The drive through over the Tioga pass was beautiful. It’s inside Yosemite Park, but since it’s a through route it is open. You are not supposed to stop and “recreate”, but with the continuing government shutdown the authorities are tolerant of brief stops for viewing and picture-taking.
We awake to decent weather, which is good for the chopper coming in and start to pack up our gear, eat a light breakfast and then start unloading and breaking down the rafts. The chopper is coming from Juneau, about an hour away, and should be here at 9:30 we think. Since everything is being relayed to Mark over the satellite phone second or third hand, there is some confusion of which times are Alaska time and which are Yukon. As it turns out he is later than either of those times, so we stand around and wait, and take some group shots. Everyone looks pretty happy to be getting out.
The chopper can take 4 people and their personal gear or 1,800 pounds in the sling on each trip. So it means 3 loads of people and three of gear.
The pilot says he will need to get more gas before the last couple of trips, so that means an extra hour or so. While we are waiting the wind picks up and a whole flotilla of new ice blows in from the direction of the glacier, completely blocking the shore.
As we leave in the last flight out, we have the pilot fly over the lake for a bird’s eye view of the ice.
After we are all at Dry Bay, our end point, the charter airplane comes in to fly us back to Whitehorse. So one more time handling all the equipment, up to the floor of the plane.
Then we are aloft and heading back to Whitehorse.
Of course we have all missed our flights home and last night’s hotel reservation. So once we are back in Whitehorse, these need to get straightened out.
The rafting company was supposed to notify the hotels and airlines so we would not be listed as no-shows. But for at least most of us, they had no record of it. Our hotel did honor our pre-paid reservation and gave us a room.
Then it was a call to United while we took turns taking a shower and getting into clean, dry clothes while on hold. Again, they had no record of notification, but when i explained to the lady on the Mileage Plus desk, that we had been rafting in the wilderness of the Yukon and were not able to get out because icebergs were blocking the river, she laughed, said, “No one could make that up,” and found us new flights for free. We ended up on a red eye arriving in Chicago at 5:00 AM Tuesday instead of Sunday afternoon.
So it was quite an adventure. The scenery was stunning. In fact the most troublesome scenery was the most beautiful. But I do thing it will be a while before I get Cathie on another northern adventure.
We awake to brighter skies and some mist on the lake, but no sign of any opening in the ice. Mark is on his satellite phone conferring about options.
Overnight we heard numerous loud “thunders” of icebergs calving. Whether they are distance bergs breaking or the glacier dropping more bergs into the lake we can’t tell. Sometimes they create waves several feet tall, threatening to throw the rafts up on shore. (Since they weigh well over a half ton each, they are hard to get back over the stone if they are too far ashore.)
After some discussion we head back out on the lake to look for a passage through the ice. We row along the wall of ice exploring a number of openings, but all of them close in long before getting through to the far side. Here’s our icebreaking crew heading into yet another breach.
Along the way we can still appreciate the beauty of the ice, but we are getting concerned, it’s abundantly clear that we are not making the takeout today, and we are having our doubts about tomorrow.
By mid-afternoon we are convinced that there is not a way through the ice, so we head back to the eastern shore, near last night’s camp, in a location where we are higher above the waves and there is room for a helicopter to land.
Mark has been on the satellite phone a lot during the day and has determined that we can get a helicopter in the morning to lift us and our gear out, if we want. The other option is to wait for a break in the ice. It could happen any day. Since it is not an emergency, the park service advises waiting. Since it is optional the rafting company agrees to pick up 25% of the $15,000 cost; the rest would be on us. Two of the people are surgeons and are already missing appointments. Others are tiring of the wet and cold. Our son and family are going to be at our house when we return, if we return soon, and Cathie has a operation on her nose scheduled. If we wait until morning to see if the ice clears, we will probably not be able to get the helicopter for another day, or more.
In the end we vote to call the chopper for first thing in the morning.
We wake to cloudy skies and a lot of ice on the lake. Mark says he has never seen this much ice. in order to look for a way through, the guides put on their dry suits and wade across the channel to a low island to look for a gap.
They return with the belief that there may be a gap to the far left. We will go down a channel with flow into the lake to get there. There will be no way to go back up the channel if there is not.
We plot a course through icebergs big and small, giving the big ones a wide berth: if one of them calves or rolls with a raft next to it, it would not be good.
We find a way through onto the lake beyond the wall and row along amazed at the sizes, shapes and colors of the floating ice.
As we pass a medium size berg, about 8 feet tall above the water, the whole side falls off, making a large splash and wave. We are all glad we were not close and eye the big ones with more concern.
As we row along we keep looking for a way back through the ice, because the outflow back to the river is there. We go the entire 5 mile length of the lake and see nothing, just a solid wall of ice.
We stop on the far shore for lunch, while Mark scouts along the shore toward the river, while we admire the view of the ice and water we’ve come through.
He announces that the ice is smaller near shore and we may be able to push our way through. By now it is after 3:00 PM. We head into the ice. We form a train of rafts with two of us, Jill and myself, at the front of the first raft pushing ice out of the way. Three hours later we reach an opening in the ice, but beyond that the ice is too large and too tightly packed to push through. There is no place in site to camp, and it is three hours until it is dark and it is raining. We decide that we need to push back to the lunch spot as the closest campsite. As we turn around we can see no sign of where we pushed through, the ice has all drifted back together.
By now our icebreaking team of Jill and I pushing the ice out of the way, Dana on the oars pushing us forward and the other two rafts also pushing has the routine down, so we make it back in two hours; pulling into the camp site at 9:00 PM.
By this time I have figured out that those yellow and black jackets are water resistant, but not waterproof, an important distinction after several hours of rain. While pushing ice I really didn’t notice, but now as we unload and set up camp in the rain, it’s clear that the rain has soaked through all my layers. As the days pass along the river clothes get wet but don’t dry much, so the remaining dry clothes become valuable. We are all looking back at the clothes in the “dirty, but dry” bag for thing to wear.
The guides throw together a light dinner, the icebreaking team celebrates with some tequila and we turn in hoping for a break in the ice tomorrow. We are supposed to be on the far side of the ice by now and heading for the takeout tomorrow morning. It seems doubtful that we will make the takeout tomorrow.
Another overcast day as we head down river, but the clouds are high enough that we can see most of the mountains and glaciers..
We stop for water at a small stream. The guides look for clear side streams as a source of drinking and cooking water. All our water is micro-filtered before drinking, but the amount of suspended fines from the glaciers in the river and most streams would quickly clog the filter.
Along the west side we pick up another range of mountains, the Brabazon, and their glaciers.
The main channel is wide but there is still lots of braiding in the river and some swift current when it narrows.
As we approach Alsek Lake a decision is needed. Most of the water flows into the lake, to the east of a large island, Gateway Knob, and back into the river channel. A smaller amount goes to the west of the Knob. The water level has been steadily dropping the whole trip, we can see the difference from the night before each morning. So Mark judges that there isn’t enough water in the channel to bypass Alsek Lake and we will go through it. That decision needed to be made before we camp for the night, as we need to be on the right side of the river.
We go to the left and pull onto the peninsula between the lake and the river. As we look into the river we see a sea of icebergs, that we will need to get through to get into the lake. The river goes under the ice, not a good choice for rafts. (This photo shows only a portion of the wall of ice. The tallest piece is at least 40 feet tall. You can click on it to zoom in, it’s so wide.)
There is all this ice because two huge glaciers, the Alsek and the Grand Plateau, feed into the lake and calve icebergs into it. We stand on the shore and can see no way through the ice.
We wake to overcast skies and low clouds obscuring the mountains. So I’m glad that we took a walk for photos yesterday. The clouds lift a bit, but it is still a very grey day.
Today is a layover day, so we can hike over to and on the Walker Glacier. The trail there is through alder scrub forest and over scree slopes of large angular rocks, a lot of it with glacial ice under it. It’s not easy hiking, and it takes a lot longer to get to the glacier than it used to as it is visibly retreating according to our guides.
It is hard to visualize how large a glacier is until you are one it. The whole scale of the landscape here is so large that we constantly underestimate how far away things are.
The surface of the glacier is varied, from just ice to scattered dirt, rocks, and patches of moss to thick layers of dirt and rock with a lot of vegetation.
You can look down into the cracks and see the compressed ice deep in the glacier which can be a deep blue. We even find a small stream running along the surface of the glacier and down into a blue hole.
We wake to a spectacular sunrise, and spend the next hour taking lots of photos of the sky, clouds and mountains in the changing light. Thank goodness for digital.
The Fairweather Range that had been so obscured the day before is now open for viewing: more photos as the light shines across the face of the range.
Big changes today: we move onto the Alsek River, a huge river in a wide valley, and we leave Canada and cross into Alaska.
Shortly after setting out Stephanie spots a bear on the shore, so we land downstream, get out the big lenses, and take lots more photos. We have seen a lot of evidence of bears, but this is the first one we’ve actually seen. The water in the river is too cloudy from the glacier outflows for good fishing, and there are not many berries near the shore, so it’s not a good place for a hungry bear.
We navigate through a maze of shallow channels between gravel bars trying to find the one that will get us to the camp site. Sometimes they get too shallow for the rafts and some pushing is required.
We land near Walker Glacier to camp for the night. Although tomorrow’s plan is to hike to the glacier, the light is still good, so several of us hike over near it for photos.
We keep up the chatter both between ourselves and calling out “Hey bear” so we don’t surprise any. Lots of old bear signs, including this bear bed, but no bears.
We do come across a family of ptarmigan, just starting to change into their winter white plumage.
All, in all, it was a great day.
A short day of rafting down to Melt Creek, but some big changes in the scenery. The Fairweather Range now forms the whole eastern horizon, with glaciers between each of the peaks.
The Noisy Range is on the west. Melt Creek is fed by the Melburn Glacier and several smaller ones and increases the flow in the Tat by a third. We want to camp just downstream of Melt, so the guides need to ride through the incoming flow of Melt without getting shoved out from shore. They do a great job on the “ferry” to land us right at the junction.
At Melt Creek we are just upstream from the confluence with the Alsek, which will triple the flow in the river. The valley floor here is now 10 miles across, and is all gravel beds.
We take a short walk up Melt Creek, which reinforces the size of the valley, as the mountains don’t get any closer. Fireweed seems to love these gravel bars and there are some large groups of them along the creek.
The clouds hang low on the mountains throughout the day, but clear some in the evening, and we get a nice light show at sunset.
After dinner Dana, the crew’s baker, did a great lemon birthday cake for me in the dutch oven.
As we head down river the weather sky gets cloudier, and the weather gets wetter. The river is getting much wider, with many gravel bars and the river braiding between them. The real challenge now is picking the right channel. What looks like a main channel can later disperse into multiple shallow channels without enough water to float the rafts. It’s pretty common to bump along the bottom in shallow areas, and Mark, the lead guide, spends a lot of time standing up, looking far ahead trying to see which channel will get us through.
The whole width of the river valley is gravel. So every time there is a major flow event, the channels can move and rearrange, dropping gravel here, cutting it away there. So it’s always a new river to navigate. If you’ve read Mark Twain’s writing on navigating the Mississippi in his day, it sounds very familiar.
Mark pulls in at Towag Creek to camp. But there is only a small eddy of still water at the shoreline and the other two rafts miss it, and try to land along swift current. When Dana jumps out to secure his raft, the water is deeper than he expected and he’s swimming, with him and the raft heading downstream. After some excitement, he gets back in and we all move to a new camp site further down.
While setting up camp we notice fresh bear tracks in the sand and a huge pile of fresh bear scat, along with older moose and wolf tracks. It looks like a busy place. But we have seen no large animals along the river.
After setting up camp, we hike back up to where we planned to camp and then further up towards the creek. While hiking we come across the bones of a whole moose leg. It looks like something made a moose kill and took a leg to go. It makes the rule about keeping food and such out of the tents more real.
We head on down the river, as the valley gets wider and the mountains higher. We stop at one outwash from a side stream. It consists of several feet of and and stove over an immense area. It looks like it might have been put down in one massive event. It’s not uncommon, as most of these streams are fed by glaciers, and occasionally there will be a lake above the glacier which will break through releasing huge amounts of water.
The entire area is covered with the seed heads of yellow dryas flowers. The silvery heads are beautiful, but the yellow flowers in the spring must be stunning.
We camp near the O’Connor River near a fantastic beaver dam. Most beaver dams have filled in with soil and are overgrown, but this one looked new and we could see the structure. What great engineering, all the buttressing logs cut to length and placed to hold the smaller lateral sticks and mud for the face.
We left the Yukon behind yesterday and are now in British Columbia. The joke is that we can tell because the locals are so much nicer. (There aren’t any other people here at all.)
Today is a layover day. Most of us are hiking up the slope to higher on the hills. The vegetation varies with some nice aspen, open meadow and a lot of alder brush to push through.
There is a good view of the river valley from our lunch stop. The valleys are extremely wide, especially in comparison to the ones in the Alps.
There is a lot of daylight yet in August. It is light before 6 AM and after 10 PM.
A quiet trip down the river today. Passed through Stillwater Canyon.
The weather is warm, I enjoyed wearing shorts and T-shirt, but I understand it will get colder, and wetter, as we approach the coast. There are people wearing yellow and black coats on the rafts. Those are our personal flotation devices, life jackets. They were a little too warm today, so many of us have them part way off, still fastened though.
We traveled as far a Sediments Creek about 22 miles.
Our rafting group heads out in the morning for the Tatshenshini River. It’s a several hour drive to the put-in. But up here that’s not far. There is a lot of space in northern Canada. The trip down the Tatshenshini, the “Tat”, goes through British Columbia and ends in Alaska. That means we need to go through US immigration. But they don’t have an immigration office on the river, so we need to go to Haines, through US immigration, back through Canadian immigration and then back to the put-in, that adds a couple more hours of driving. (It also means the whole thing is pretty much on the honor system for going through immigration with the same people you take down river.)
After all that, it is mid-afternoon before we get to the river. Two of the guides and the gear were dropped off there the day before by the lead guide. They’ve been inflating the rafts and loading all the gear, so all we need to do is load our waterproof bags, go through the safety briefing, eat lunch and shove off.
There are 3 guides and 9 guests, a total of 12 people on three rafts. We are divided up in 4 in one raft, 3 in another and 2 in the last, with gear distributed in the opposite proportions.
Today we have some Class 3 rapids. Not terribly exciting in large rafts like these. But this is pretty much all the whitewater we’ll see on this trip. Whitewater is not the big attraction, it’s really all about the scenery, which will just get better and better as we head down stream.
It’s a short day on the water, with the late start and our first day of unloading the rafts and setting up camp. We camp just below the rapids at Silver Creek.
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