Have you ever hiked a trail that left you so traumatized you never wanted to return there again?
In early May of 1973, barely five months after I moved from the gentle shores of the Chesapeake Bay to the wild mountain rainforest of Juneau, I hiked the Lemon Creek trail to try out my brand new frame pack (Kelty BB5). I had very little outdoor experience, although I’d been working overtime trying to learn as many new activities as I could fit in. Since that day in late December 1972 when I first arrived in Alaska, I had learned to ice climb, cross country ski, snowshoe and how to properly travel and camp in the snow. But I was not prepared for the horrors of getting lost in a dark, endless mud bog surrounded by old growth deadfall and impenetrable devil’s club. It didn’t help that my partner and I planned our hike on a day that was pouring rain, which added to the misery of the wet, muddy trail – that is, when we could stay on the poorly marked route. As I mentioned before, the purpose of the trip was try out my new pack, so to add insult to injury I hiked with at least a 30 pound load. Soon after that trip, I discovered the myriad of other trails in the area, and the awful memory of that dark, wet day kept me from ever returning.
But I’m retired now, which, by the way, is one reason I haven’t written a blog since last fall. It’s been a crazy, busy winter, what with my husband and I selling our business of forty years, becoming grandparents, teaching cross country skiing full-time and various other lame excuses. I’ve continued to hike and ski, but just haven’t bothered to take the time to write about it. For those of you who enjoy my outdoor blogs, I offer a sincere apology and hope to start writing regularly again.
Anyway, as a retiree, I now have the luxury of going back to a trail that I swore I would never hike again and not worry about “wasting” a day off. On Sunday, while the weather remained warm and dry, Scott and I decided to venture on the Lemon Creek trail and see what’s changed since 1973. Scott had never hiked it, probably due to my extreme reluctance to go back there, so he was interested to see if it was as bad as he’d heard. I was hopeful to find some improvements both in the trail and my attitude. We considered it to be a scouting expedition with no clear goal other than hiking for an undetermined time and distance on a nice day.
We parked behind Home Depot and started up the gravel road at the trailhead. A decent mountain biker could negotiate the first quarter to half mile, and an expert biker could have fun for about the next mile, but as soon as it descends into the boggy forest it probably wouldn’t be worth the ride. We were able to stay on our bikes for only the first quarter mile and then left them behind (lesson #1 – don’t bother with the bikes). The trail was fairly well marked and easy to follow, even when we dropped down into the swampy lowlands. There we ran into one other hiker, and we ended up traveling together the rest of the day.
To our pleasant surprise, the trail was not too bad. Forest deadfalls covered the trail in places, but we were always able to find ways around them. Where the trail wandered too close to the creek, the steep bank sometimes fell away, taking large sections of the trail with it, but every time we found an alternate way to get back on track. Each time we lost the trail, we thanked the randomly placed orange flagging that helped us locate it again (lesson #2 – bring a little flagging tape of our own). The trail follows the creek as it twists and folds back along the valley, quickly moving into a remote area that feels far removed from the road system just a few miles behind. We found signs of porcupine, deer, wolf, and mountain goat the further back we went.
Several interesting creek crossings feature logs with wire mesh tacked on them to help with footing. Occasional hand lines of questionable strength also aid in negotiating the log bridges, although good balance and a little luck are still required in spots. I patted myself on the back for keeping my feet dry most of the way, until I gently tumbled off a slippery log and into the boiling waters of Canyon Creek. Thanks to the safety rope which miraculously did not break, my only injuries were wet feet and a few scrapes, and I hastened to reassure our new friend that this was a common occurrence for me and nothing to be too concerned about. Scott just rolled his eyes and sighed (lesson #3 – bring new rope to replace some of the worn lines on the log crossings and let Scott go first).
We stopped for a snack in a small open meadow on a little hill about a quarter of a mile from the end of the valley trail. We were only five miles away from the road, but it felt like we were twenty miles in. Beautiful waterfalls fell from high cliffs above us, and dark green ridges topped with snow and rock walls surrounded us.
Just before the end of the trail we spotted the spur trail leading to the Juneau Icefield Research Camp 17A near the Ptarmigan Glacier. We explored the route up a steep hillside (think Blackerby Ridge trail with less traffic and fewer switchbacks) for about a quarter of a mile until we felt that we had a good idea of where it went. Scott and I decided we would most certainly return soon and hike a loop from Lemon Creek around to Cairn Peak and out the Blackerby Ridge route.
We dropped back down to the main trail and located the water gauging station a short distance up the creek and where the Lemon Creek trail seems to officially end. According to an older trail book, “in late July and early August a natural garden exhibits a riot of color on the far side of a stream” just past the gauging station, providing us with yet another reason to return to this trail.
The hike back seemed shorter and quicker now that we were more familiar with the terrain, and all my old prejudices about the evils of the Lemon Creek trail were erased. We stopped in several places to explore more of the animal signs we’d noticed on the way in, identified Varied Thrushes calling to each other in the trees and an American Dipper feeding in a side stream. We lingered along a section of the main creek with a wide rocky shore bank that we thought would make a quiet summer camping site.
I’m pretty sure this is the only Juneau trail I’ve actively avoided for over forty years. I’ll search my memory to make sure I hold no prejudices against any other trails, because I was certainly proved wrong in this case (lesson #4 – don’t let one bad experience sour your attitude). Our little exploratory trip up the Lemon Creek trail was a huge success and gave much more than we’d hoped for in the way of outdoor recreational fun. Nice to know I can still be pleased and surprised by a local trail, and I’ll be sure to return soon.
 “. . . said to have been named for John Lemon, who was reported to have prospected and done some placer mining on this creek with James Hollywood in 1879, a year before Harris and Juneau made their discovery on Gold Creek.
John Lemon was in the Cassiar and went to Sitka early in 1880. There he joined the Edmund Bean party of prospectors which blazed a trail over Chilkoot Pass to the headwater of the Yukon in the summer of 1880. Nothing has been learned of Lemon following the return of that expedition.” (R. N. DeArmond, Some Names Around Juneau, 1957, p. 29-30)
 Margaret Piggott, Discover Southeast Alaska with Pack and Paddle, The Mountaineers, 1974, pp. 102-103.