Friday, October 16, 2015

Secrets of Proenneke Cabin

"He gestured vaguely and mentioned a few landmarks along the way, being careful not to make it too easy."

I read a version of the legend of Parceval just before heading off to Alaska this summer. My trip was not legendary, except perhaps in my own mind. The words above however, taken from that story, were with me. The scene is a young Parceval, living in the woods, unaware of Camelot. Two Knights appear and see something in the boy, but only give him enough to awaken his sense adventure.

The attitude toward hiking in Alaska is different than most places I've been. Most parks and wilderness areas will have a variety of warnings and requirements. Where I went in Alaska, there were no permits required, I didn't need to check-in anywhere, if I hadn't initiated contact, they wouldn't have known I was there. There was no signage, no trailheads, no warnings posted.

Part of this is, I'm sure, due to the sheer enormity of the space and the barriers that have to be overcome to get there. Most of the filtering out of people is done by nature. If you manage to get by the mountains, the snow and the freezing water, there are the bears. Let's hope the Alaska Department of Natural Resources isn't thinking that they want to throw you the wolves, or bears, or whatever else might be out there, but they definitely expect you to figure out more for yourself than your average walk in a park.

In Minnesota, before entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you are required to get a permit and watch a video about hanging a bear pack and "leave no trace" camping. When I hiked the Grand Canyon, there were a lot of signs up about dehydration and how it is most common that fit young men are the ones who succumb to it, because they are most likely to think they won't. There was nothing like this for the Lake Clarke Wilderness. There also weren't trails.

There is a sketchy explanation of the a few hikes around the Proenneke cabin area on the NPS website. The hike I originally planned involved walking along the lake shore and, as their description says, "you should be able to discern which drainage will lead to Low Pass because it's the most significant one in the vicinity...". Now, without surveying the entire area, I don't know how you would determine "most significant", worse, as far as I can tell, the directions start off sending you east, when you should go west. After that, they say, "follow the tundra ridge to the pass."

I wanted to make this a loop route, and the Low Pass description says that at some point, that will lead you to the Hope Creek route. That description refers you to the Hope Creek route description, which says that at some point, it will lead to the Low Pass route. That's as good as it gets.

I have some experience with reading topographic maps, but if a pass has a name, I don't know how you find it without that name appearing on the map. I read a few other descriptions written on wilderness guide websites, but I would expect them to be vague, since they want you to pay them for what they know. I thought I had hit pay dirt when I found someone's homemade map, a satellite photo with a big arrow on it that said "Low Pass". I matched that up to my topos and found a wide area that was at 3,000 ft, surrounded by the 5,000 or more foot peaks. This seemed to be "significant".

In case I sound like someone who was proceeding foolishly, I was, but I wouldn't have tried this without someone who had some experience along with me. Luckily I have a brother who lives in Alaska and has worked in the brush. He reviewed my plan and said it was aggressive. Actually he said, "whoa, whoa, whoa". Anyway, we changed the plan to the Hope Creek route. This one proceeds due south from the cabin, following a creek. It even starts out with some trail, but that trail quickly starts to break up.

By the way, I looked for books on hiking in Alaska. I checked guide books, there was less in them than what I found on the NPS site. On the drive to Homer, we stopped at a map shop. Nothing. I found a copy of a National Geographic map of Lake Clarke park on sale on amazon. It was $350. Apparently paper maps are a collector's item. I was hoping maybe one of the float plane operators I talked to would give me a little free info, but most of them hadn't even been there.

Crossing the mountains on the way there gave me some appreciation of what I was getting into. It's a mere 20 miles or so on the map, but looking down on the cliffs and snow covered peaks, I knew I wouldn't be walking out of there if anything went wrong. It was a little bit of a relief when we were greeted on the radio as we flew up into the Twin Lakes valley. We landed right at the cabin, which is just a few feet from the water and were greeted by a rainbow that also came right down to the water. I realized that was something special when I saw how excited the park ranger and float plane pilot were. I would have thought that was something they see every week.

After spending some time in the historic cabin and getting the obligatory picture in the doorway, we tried again to get intel on the hike from our park ranger. We got a couple more details on the Hope Creek route, but it ended with the same "then you get up on the ridges and you can follow them over to Low Pass." She literally waved her hand over the map at this point. Once again, "whoa, whoa, whoa." But that was the best we were going to get.

The actual experience was, as my brother expected, much slower than I expected. If we had known better about where we were going, we might have made it over the ridge and back down the other way. After a day and a half of hiking, we made it to a ridge, and could see where it went over into the next valley. Ridge hiking is a much easier hiking experience than the side of mountain covered with low bush cranberries and blueberries and various lichens. But there were many unknowns beyond that and no reason to challenge them.

When we got back, we met one more park ranger, and that one finally pointed right to a spot on the map and said, "that's Low Pass". It was the next valley over, much more narrow than the one I had found and another 1,000 ft higher. I could also see by looking at where the streams started, that there had to be ridges between them, and by following those high spots, it would lead you right to the ridge we had stood on above Hope Creek.

I didn't actually go there, so don't take these directions as anything close to a suggestion that you go there and follow them. I can't know what was over the high point that I saw. Just before we got to the ridge, we had a choice between a 200 ft mound of boulders and a scree slope. I choose poorly and could have easily lost a lot of progress or been injured sliding down that. Some scree is listed on maps, but most of it isn't. If a description of an Alaskan hike says "This route crosses a couple steep scree slopes", as the Low Pass description does, you should take that very seriously.

There are many things to do around the Proenneke cabin. There is a small camp site right there with metal caches to keep the bears away from your food. You can hike the shore line. There is one rustic lodge on the opposite side of Upper Twin Lake. Port Alsworth is not far away on a large lake with many lodges. Many people fly from there and visit the area for a just a couple hours. I would recommend any or all of those. Whatever you do, don't miss enjoying the incredible scenery.

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