I thought for sure we would make the summit this time.
After last year's experience, I knew where to go and where not to go to start the climb. Greg Bledsoe, Don Larsen, Christine Schmid and I loaded our kayaks at False Outer Point on North Douglas on the night of May 16 for the short paddle across Stephens Passage to Admiralty Island. It was a beautiful, sunny evening with a light breeze out of the west. It took us an hour and 20 minutes to paddle to Bear Creek, and we arrived just as the sun was setting slowly behind the Chilkat Mountains.
The beach was inviting, and after we set up camp Greg started a roaring fire. We stayed up until midnight watching the glow on the Coast Range as the lights along Highway 7 (Egan Drive and Glacier Highway) brightened in the fading light.
We woke the next day to the sun shining brightly on our beach camp. It was low tide and three deer were walking along the tide flats. The warm sun was making us lazy so we weren't moving too fast as we ate breakfast, broke camp and prepared for the climb. By 9 a.m. we were off. All of us hike fairly fast and with the longer days and a full moon expected, we had plenty of light to go as late as we wanted, or so we thought at the time.
It was a pleasant hike along Bear Creek. The trail was in good shape and I was planning to hike farther than I did last year, when we didn't make the summit, so as not to start up the wrong ridge again. We hiked for less than an hour and after taking a GPS reading I decided that we were close to where we needed to cross the creek to find the southerly trail depicted on the map. Dan spotted a large tree that spanned the creek so we were able to cross without getting our feet wet.
We hiked for a short while and found the trail - this was going to be easy. We were making good time and going in the right direction - we even had a trail to follow - at least for a little while. The trail petered out to game trails and we found ourselves in a thick, brushy creek drainage. We stopped to take a break in a stand of cottonwood trees - it was time to find a better way.
Don climbed up to find remnants of a trail on the west side of the creek but only found game trails. It was time to cross the creek and find the ridge we needed to climb. After a short climb through thick brush we broke out into a large muskeg meadow complete with a very large, well-used bear trail. Deer sign were everywhere. We had been hiking for a few hours and climbed only 700 feet.
The pleasant hike along the meadow ended and we started the climb in the trees. After a bit of sweat, we finally reached soft snow and it was time to don the snowshoes we so diligently carried on our kayaks and our backs. The afternoon was getting on but we were getting higher on the mountain. After lunch we talked about a turnaround time. I still thought we could make the summit and would have plenty of light to get back so we were going to make the push. We had provisions to stay another night if needed but other obligations ruled out that idea.
As we continued the climb, the scenery continued to get better - by far the best panorama I've ever seen. To the south we could see down Stephens Passage past Taku Inlet. The Coast Range above Juneau was incredible, dotted by Split Thumb, Mendenhall Glacier directly in front of us, and the medial moraine on Eagle Glacier peeking out between steep mountains. To the north, Lone Mountain descended into Barlow Cove, and Shelter Island pointed all the way up Lynn Canal, which faded in the distance.
We cleared the trees and found there was no direct route along the ridge. Steep rocky cliffs blocked our way and we had to traverse a couple of times to find an easier route. Time was ticking away and by 3 p.m. we had to make a decision - continue and hike down through the thick brush at dusk in bear country, then spend another night at Bear Creek, or paddle across Stephens Pass at night.
We decided to play it safe, enjoy the view we had and turn around to get back before dark. According to the GPS we were at 2,900 feet and only half a mile to the 3,475-foot summit - so close but it sure looked a lot farther.
A cool west wind started to blow as we started down, glissading where we could. We were making good time on the descent and we soon found ourselves crossing the creek near a boundary line for a mine claim. A small plastic vial with a map was nailed to a marked tree. We didn't see any signs of a mine and continued along a game trail before finding what was at one time a maintained trail. I wanted to know where this elusive trail crossed Bear Creek so I was surprised to find a tree bridge crossing a slow-moving, tannin-colored creek just above the junction of the milky snow-melt creek we had been following. We were just a few hundred yards above the place we crossed in the morning.
We got back to the beach by 7:30, loaded the boats and started paddling by 8. We looked back to our mountain and decided we made a good choice. At best it would have been two more hours of hiking to reach the summit.
We paddled on and by 9:30 we reached False Outer Point. Next year I'll try again - with an earlier start and another night at Bear Creek.
Larry Musarra is active in the Juneau Alpine Club.
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