A damp late-summer hike on the Yankee Basin trail

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2007

One damp day in August, a small group of hikers set off on the Yankee Basin trail.

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We started at the Eagle Glacier parking lot, initially heading toward the glacier but then turning left, crossing a surprisingly dry Saturday Creek. (We could have arrived at the same spot by starting on the boardwalk across from Eagle Beach State Park.) From this loop behind the Methodist Camp, the Yankee Basin trail begins its gradual and steady ascent to a nice muskeg that marks the divide between Boulder Creek, a tributary of Eagle River, and the South Fork of Cowee Creek.

Yankee Basin itself is the headwaters for the South Fork and has several old - and presumably not very profitable - mining sites. The route we followed frequently lay over an old corduroy trail that may have led to these old workings. An old access to the current Yankee Basin trail led up from the Eagle Glacier trail. This old access, and the Yankee Basin trail beyond its junction, were part of an early route from the Mendenhall Valley to Echo Cove. Known as the Wilds Richardson trail, it was the only land route to Echo Cove before the road existed.

The Yankee Basin trail is an 'unmaintained' U.S. Forest Service trail. The adjective is certainly well-chosen! A wise hiker spends a lot of time watching the placement of feet. The old corduroy sections are slippery and often tilted off to the side. Bridges are rotten or missing altogether. Numerous wind-throws have heaved large trees across the trail. As one approaches the divide, there are some unexpectedly deep mud holes. And there was lots of wet brush overhanging the trail.

So we grumbled and groused and muttered our way along. A gentlemanly hiker I call 'Cowboy' cudgeled some of the intrusive devil's club into submission with his long, sturdy hiking staff - and pulled some of it off the trail with his bare hands. There were some bear scats and tracks on the trail, so we amused ourselves at lunch by telling bear stories. I also think we were postponing the return trip over that slippery, muddy, bridgeless, brushy, timber-blocked trail.

At this time of year, only a few flowers were still around. We occasionally saw some intensely purple monkshood. The muskeg at the divide was dotted with pale lavender asters and tiny white gentians. Abundant blueberry bushes offered spectacularly poor crops. Even salmonberries were few and far between, and devil's club fruits were rare. Tiny trailing raspberry (a.k.a. five-leaf bramble) displayed its red fruits in a few places, and clusters of gaudy red baneberries (do not eat them!) decorated the trailside here and there.

Late summer is a great time for fungi, and we wished we knew more about them. Brilliant orange chicken-of-the-woods made bright spots in the otherwise dim forest. A purple coral fungus stuck its fleshy fingers up into the trail. But there were lots of others of various forms and hues about which we knew nothing.

A special treat was seeing some really lovely big hemlocks near the upper part of the trail. Somehow these giants must have escaped the saws and axes of the early trail users.

For some reason, the return trip down the trail was far easier than expected - just a few falls on the slimy corduroy, despite careful stepping. And by the time we were back at Saturday Creek, we were saying 'Hey, nice hike!'

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology and a Trail Mix board member.

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