Do you ever make an offhand comment to someone, only to immediately wonder, “Now why in the world did I say that?” That’s the way I felt last week, when I casually suggested to my coworker Courtney that we hike Blackerby Ridge to Cairn Peak. Ideally, I like to spread my ridge hikes out to once every seven or eight days at most. I still hadn’t fully recovered from the 13 mile, +5,700’ traverse I had just done two days earlier with another friend over Mt. Gastineau, Mt. Roberts, and Sheep Mountain. I don’t have the boundless energy of a twenty-something anymore, and my poor old legs need a break now and then. But I guess the sun was making me crazy. Since we work together, Courtney and I rarely get the same day off when we don’t already have something planned with our significant others. We realized we were both free on Friday and the weather forecast was for sunshine, so we decided to go for it.
If ever there was a classic mountain ridge hike in Juneau, Blackerby Ridge would have to be at the top of the list. So many things are just right about this hike. The unobtrusive trail head on a side street that gives no indication as to what lies ahead. The steep climb straight uphill through the woods, crawling over windfalls and struggling to grab at gnarled tree roots as you pull your sweaty body up the crude trail. This trail is so steep that hikers have placed a fixed line in one spot so you can climb hand over hand up the hardest section. Then the reward as you step out of the trees and into the first open meadow, usually filled with wildflowers and a glimpse of the surrounding peaks and ridges. From there it is a short scramble up to the alpine, leaving the trees and brush and muddy trail behind, and miles of winding mountain ridge ahead.
Courtney and I have worked closely together for almost four years, and we know each other well enough that we didn’t have to spend much time getting started and settling in to a good hiking pace together. The last time she went up Blackerby, she had a heavy overnight pack, so it was a relief to climb lightly up in shorts, trail shoes, and a small hydration pack. I hadn’t been up the trail since last summer, when Scott and I did a traverse across Blackerby to Cairn Peak, Observation Peak and over to the Juneau ridge, so the prospect of simply climbing Cairn and coming back down was strangely relaxing.
As we hit the alpine ridge, we were greeted with a firm snowpack that gave us good footing and allowed for easy shortcuts along the route. Where the snow had melted, fields of wildflowers waved in the breeze, and we were pleasantly sidetracked several times while we took photos and enjoyed the views. Neither one of us was in a rush. Our biggest concern was trying not to get sunburned and staying hydrated, as the temperatures were supposed to climb into the 80’s by the afternoon. A veritable heat wave by Juneau standards!
Blackerby climbs pleasantly up and down, with a fairly clear path beaten in by hikers, climbers, and trail runners most of the way. We seemed to be the only people on the ridge this day, and enjoyed having it all to ourselves. We spotted mountain goats several times, and hoped to possibly see wolf, but had to be satisfied with finding wolf scat and prints in the snow.
After a few hours of steady hiking, we climbed up the final steep rocky slope below the summit. Still in shorts and light shirts, we soaked in the views of the icefield and surrounding peaks. Observation Peak looked huge and distant – did I really go all the way over there last year? We settled in comfortably on Cairn Peak and waited for the clouds to clear off of Split Thumb so we could get a better view. I was relieved to feel like I had paced myself well enough that I wasn’t trashed by the time I reached the summit and could enjoy the day to the fullest. Maybe I was smarter than I thought for planning another ridge hike so soon after the last one, because the forecast for the next day was for rain. The sunny stretch of weather wouldn’t last forever.
The clouds were not clearing off Split Thumb fast enough, and we eventually decided it was time to head back. It’s always hard to start moving down. I like to recall the John Svenson cartoon of two climbers sitting on the summit of a peak, legs dangling over a rock ledge, packs and ropes next to them. One of them says, “Ready to head down?” and the other replies, “No”. The next frame shows two skeletons sitting in the same spot, with packs and ropes still there. That’s the way I feel sometimes when it’s time to start back. Maybe someday I’ll just say no.
Down the ridge we dropped, still spotting mountain goats, more wolf prints, and endless meadows of wildflowers. If only the hike could end before we had to crawl down through the trees and dirt! That has to be the hardest part of the whole adventure, dropping almost 2,000’ in a little over one mile of steep woods. The best way to deal with that is to turn your mind off, keep moving down one step at a time, and try not to fall headfirst through the forest.
Cold drinks and flip flops never felt so good when we reached our cars. It’s a welcome ritual to strip off muddy shoes and socks and bring out the cooler for a tailgate celebration before going home. It wasn’t until I was unpacking my gear later that evening that I realized - we’d hiked up Cairn Peak on the Summer Solstice! I’d like to say that I planned the whole thing with that in mind, but this truly was a last minute adventure. Sometimes those turn out to be the very best kind.
Blackerby Ridge, named by USFS in 1960 for Alva W. Blackerby, who served 16 years with USFS in the Juneau area. He was killed in an airplane accident in Idaho in 1960 while fighting a forest fire. (Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald Orth, 1967, p. 140).
Cairn Peak, 4,500 ft, named "Cairn Hill" by George R. Putnam, USC&GS, in 1899. The name Cairn Peak was published in 1902 by USC&GS and has been used since. (Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald Orth, 1967, p. 174).