Hardy Hikers

Juneau group hits the trail weekly despite fog, snow, rain

Posted: Sunday, December 08, 2002

You've probably heard of "The Road Not Taken," Robert Frost's poem about finding a fork in a forest road and changing his life by taking "the one less traveled."

Last week, on the Parks and Rec Wednesday Hike, the fork came in a forest trail. And there was no doubt those who took the route less traveled would face a change, although it was more likely to involve a hot, sweaty shirt than a direction in life.

The fork - more of a branch, really - was in the East Glacier Trail, a 3 1/2-mile loop from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center to Nugget Creek and back. And there was no question it was less traveled.

Cutting off of a well-trampled Forest Service pathway, the little-more-than-a-game-trail branch shot steeply up the lower side of Thunder Mountain, following a long-abandoned pipeline before opening into a frosty subalpine meadow.

The climb, however, was little challenge for most of the longtime outdoorsmen and women in the city-sponsored hiking group. Every Wednesday morning for more than two decades, the hardy hikers have headed out on foot, skis and crampons to explore local trails - and a few places where there are barely any trails.

On this Wednesday, a dozen and a half retirees and people with flexible work schedules, plus one recently unemployed state official, gathered at the visitor center's lower parking lot. With fog filling the sky, frost underfoot and eagles above angling for late-season salmon, the group headed up the Trail of Time, which provides access to the East Glacier Trail.

"It's a good way to stay in shape," said Ed Mills, a wildlife artist who shares Wednesday hike-leading duties with his wife Linda part of the year. "I'd rather do this than be on an exercise machine."

The Wednesday group, and a similar Parks and Recreation Department-sponsored one that hikes Saturdays, chooses routes a day or two in advance based on weather and trail conditions. During the snowless season, hikes most often follow familiar pathways such the Boy Scout Camp, Dan Moller or Perseverance trails, averaging 6 to 8 miles round-trip.

"Nearly all of them are on designated trails," Mills said.

If the opportunity presents itself and the group is willing, side trips are taken, such as Wednesday's climb to what the hikers decided to call Thunder Mountain Meadow.

"This is a wonderful group. There isn't anything that stops them," said Mills.

The hikes attract an average of eight to 12 people and numbers can swell to 20 to 30 in the summer, including tourists, said longtime hiker Al Shaw. Group members often include experts in plants, birds, history and geology.

"We get lots of inside information on places where we hike," Mills said.

When the snow falls, the hikers don cross-country skis and head to the high country, often Spaulding Meadows, the Moller Trail or the Eaglecrest ski area. Because Eaglecrest doesn't run lifts on Wednesdays, the hiking group doesn't have to worry about dodging downhill skiers and bombing snowborders.

"When conditions are right you can literally hike up to 2,000 or 3,000 feet and ski all the way down to the parking lot," Mills said. "In the spring when the snow is stable, we go up to the ridge where you can see Admiralty Island."

As usual, Wednesday's group came equipped with food, water, cameras, binoculars, walking sticks and extra layers of clothing. Mills carried a first-aid kit and several hikers brought cell phones for safety. Dogs and firearms aren't allowed and bear encounters are few due to the noise of the group. Despite members in their 70s and 80s, no one remembered an injury worse than a twisted ankle.

"I never hike solo," said Dick Renninger, a retired state worker and longtime hiker. "I think it's safer, with accidents and bears."

At times, the group splits up because some members can't handle a harder hike. For Wednesday's climb to the meadow, co-leader Linda Mills took a few of the older hikers around the East Glacier loop, which still involved some steep stairs and switchbacks.

Wednesday's jaunt up to the meadows was inspired, in part, by a desire to get above the thick fog covering the Mendenhall Valley.

"It may be in the sunshine," suggested Shaw.

"Or in the shadow of the sunshine," added Bruce Botelho, who until Monday was Alaska's attorney general.

Longtime hiker Bob Garrison said he and Shaw came across the route to the meadows about 15 years ago. Used by deer and an occasional hunter, the path worked its way up through the woods by following the remains of a ragged, rust-red and brown pipeline that was once part of a power plant providing electricity for the Treadwell and Alaska-Juneau gold mines.

While steep, it wasn't hard to follow.

"I guess you could get lost, but you'd have to work at it," said Shaw, heading up the path with a wooden walking stick.

Climbing the trail, the hikers escaped the fog to be rewarded with views of snow-topped Bullard Mountain shining through spruce draped with moss and splotched with lichen. Reaching level ground, they found a crystal-covered meadow with frozen fog on almost every leaf, twig and spruce needle in sight. Hiking boots crunched frosted blades of grass and sticks poking through a wandering stream's ice sported feather-like branching crystals.

Dressed in red plaid, blue nylon and green pile, the hikers left a dead-grass-brown line through the white-crusted field as they headed to a sunny hillside. There, they sat on the extra layers they shedded (Garrison, as predicted, stripped off his sweaty shirt), munched on sandwiches, poured hot drinks from small thermoses and traded tales of past hikes and other adventures.

Some of the regulars have explored Africa, Europe, South America and other distant destinations.

"It's wonderful to hear about it," said Eva Bornstein. "When they're not out there traveling the world they're traveling here."

Checking a wristwatch-like altimeter, Garrison announced the meadow sat at 1,420 feet before the group packed up and split up again.

A few returned the way they came while the rest headed down a different forested slope to connect with the Nugget Creek Trail, which brought the group back to the East Glacier Trail.

An overlook above Nugget Falls allowed a view of the glacier, the mountains on either side and the fog covering most of the Valley. In short time, the hikers were back at their cars, finishing lunch leftovers and putting away their gear.

Botelho, a Boy Scout leader in addition to his government duties, said he enjoyed the opportunity to be out of the office.

"If you don't get outdoors, Juneau can be a very enclosed place," he said.

Hiking details

• Volunteer-led hikes sponsored by the Juneau Parks and Recreation Department are offered Wednesdays and Saturdays, most starting at 9:30 a.m.

• Leaders chose the hike a day or two before based on weather and trail conditions. For time and location, call 586-0428 or check www.juneau.lib.ak.us/parksrec/hike/schedule.php.

• Bring waterproof hiking or rubber boots, warm layers of clothing, food and water. Dogs and firearms are not allowed.

Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at eschoenfeld@juneauempire.com.

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