Monday, June 17, 2013

Final (for now) Homer Adventure

Our first experience living in Alaska, ten years ago now, was in Kodiak, where hiking trails into the mountains start right on the road system.  We could walk to the end of our neighborhood for an afternoon jaunt up Pillar Mountain, or drive an hour to the "end of the road" to explore the cliffs and beaches of Pasagshak alongside roaming bison.  After settling into Homer we realized that we would need a boat or spendy water taxi to reach the trails across Kachemak Bay.  At the time our kids were just 3 and 5.  Too young to chance spending nearly $300 to get to the trails and gamble on how far we could make it before losing steam and needing a nap.  We made do with the trails near town, but they just don't have the same Jurrasic Park feel that you get hiking in and around the Alaskan mountains, with devil's club leaves bigger than your head, towering spruce and cottonwoods, and a carpet of ferns, dogwood, currants, raspberry, blueberry, and watermelonberry (yes, really!).  Now that the kids are two years older, and the ship schedule finally coincided with a sunny summer weekend, we knew it was now or never.

Grewingk Glacier in the background

Alaska is having a record-setting warm spell right now.  I had forgotten what summer was supposed to feel like.  We are so used to the rainy days with occasional sun, that over two weeks of sun and heat with no end in sight has left us a bit out of sorts.  It is a good way to break our bodies in for California!  Sunday morning was clear, calm, and very warm...perfect for our trip across to Glacier Spit with Bay Excursions.  Our mission: to hike the loop from Glacier Spit along the Glacier Lake Trail to Grewingk Glacier Lake, and then to the Saddle Trail and the beach for pick-up.  The total distance was 4.7 miles. We arranged for the maximum amount of time that the water taxi could give us so we wouldn't feel rushed (which turned out to be key for this trip).

On the beach at Glacier Spit

We started along the beach at Glacier Spit, and found several tiny bleached sea urchins to add to our collection of beach treasures.  We entered the trail at an old tree with a huge trail marker on it, signed in at the logbook, and read the "bear aware" reminders.  Bears are the main thing that kept me from attempting this trail on my own with the kids.  But we have done enough Alaskan hiking by now to know what to do.  We carry bear spray, keep the dog leashed, walk with the kids sandwiched between the adults, and make constant noise.  The need for chatter led to some fun conversations on the way to the lake, including discussions on geology, history, plant life, our upcoming adventure to California, and just how lucky we all are to see places that so few humans have been to.  We encountered monster mosquitoes that bit through our insect repellant and clothing, saw more piles of scat than we could keep track of, and even a few tracks that were not easily identifiable, but no bears.  Not even the scent of a bear.  And some of the scat was very fresh.

The terrain was very interesting, starting in a forest of spruce and cottonwood, and then emerging at times into the glacial moraine, the area that the glacier once covered and has since retreated from. The moraine had considerably shorter trees and brush, along with lots of gravel and boulders.  It was also very hot; we were surrounded by mountains with no breeze, and the Alaskan sun can really beat down on a clear day.  It took us about 2 hours to hike the 3.2 miles to the lake.  We were so happy for some cool relief that all but one of us peeled off our shoes and socks to dunk our feet in the lake.  Which was COLD.  Of course it was cold; it was full of ice burgs.  The shock when wading in was surprising nonetheless.  And the rocky bottom and beach weren't conducive to wandering around barefoot on our tender Alaskan feet that haven't seen the light of day since they were last out of state.  But we did it anyway, for as long as we could stand, because we don't often get barefoot weather.

Postcard-perfect day at the lake

The lake was even more awe-inspiring than I had expected from all of the photos of it I have seen.  It was just full of floating ice chunks, ranging in size from a baseball to a tractor trailer.  Floating along with the breeze, they look deceptively light.  I waded in to pull one out for the kids and dog to munch on, and a chunk the size of a soccer ball felt like it weighed about 50 pounds.  The shapes and colors in the ice were fascinating.  It was no wonder that another twenty or so hikers appeared out of the forest behind us to take it all in.  We spent about two hours picnicking and wandering the shore, and even found a huge rock face to climb.

Human feet were not meant for water this cold!


Rock climbing

The hike from the lake along the Saddle Trail was both the quickest and most difficult part of the hike.  It travels through dense forest, along a ravine, and then has a descent full of switchbacks down to the beach.  The trail was much more narrow than Glacier Lake Trail, and this is where we saw the very fresh bear scat.  We also came upon several groups of hikers heading in the opposite direction, so we hoped they had scared away any wildlife hanging around.  After following the steep stairs down to the beach at the end of the trail, we relaxed in the hot sun while waiting on our water taxi pick up.

The beach at the Saddle Trail, right around the corner from Halibut Cove

Upon returning home, where it felt impossible that just an hour before we had been in the wild with just each other and our hiking packs, we all realized that it was probably the best family day we have ever had.  Everyone truly enjoyed and appreciated the experience.  The kids walked almost 5 miles, in the forest, in bear country, followed all of the rules, and had fun doing it.  The parents were able to enjoy finally doing the kind of hiking we have missed for so long.  The dog swam so much in the lake that his feet were pink from the cold.  And the 5-year-old said, all on his own, "I can't thank you enough for taking us on that adventure today."  If you know said 5-year-old, you know that is quite an accomplished day.  Worth far more than the water taxi fare to get there.

We will be back!

No comments: