March 21, 2014
The group decision today was to take part of our day off to hike the Alsek Valley Trail. It’s always a toss up how to spend my one day of rest each week. Part of me wants to sleep in late and lay next to the fire all day with a good book. But more often than not I find myself up as early or earlier than most days on the job trying to fit in a hike and still have time to go into town to shower, do laundry, and check e-mail. Somehow days off always end up being more tiring than all the other days of the week.
Today’s plan was a good one in that it allowed all of us to hike together without having to climb a mountain, which would have been fun but I wasn’t sure I was up for after a week of running around after squirrels for six or more hours each day. Unfortunately the day dawned mostly cloudy, which was not going to be conducive to the beautiful vistas that you get in the Alsek Valley.
The path into the valley follows an old mining road and had been snowmobiled over the course of the winter so we didn’t bother carrying our snowshoes. But as it turned out, the walking was not so easy in many parts. Long stretches of the trail were fields of ice, so smooth and glossy that they looked like polished sea glass. Some of the crew took turns running and sliding across the ice in their snow pants… but I was a bit more conservative. I haven’t had a great track record with injuries since I’ve been at camp. A couple of weeks ago I sliced my finger open on a can and thought I might have to drive two hours to Whitehorse to get stitches. Luckily it has healed up well with a couple of butterfly bandages. Regardless, I wasn’t going to risk breaking a wrist or spraining an ankle when such an injury could be extremely problematic given that my everyday job requires full use of all my limbs. So I walked quite gingerly across the ice and was usually the last to cross. I was envious of Lisa who was wearing Mukluks with soft rubber soles that easily gripped the ice and allowed her to practically run across without fear of slipping.
The trail passed through open grassland, crossed several alluvial fans, and wove through stands of stunted poplar. The very low density of trees typically offers beautiful views of the Kluane Range that unfortunately were mostly obscured by the low-hanging clouds today. Where the trail wasn’t ice it was comprised of a fine-grain silty powder that made it exceedingly difficult for my boots to get any purchase. This type of loose, delicate snow is what the Inuit call pukak, a snow with sugar-like consistency that made every step forward feel like I was taking two back. For the first time I lamented how heavy my boots were. They are the very best I’ve ever had for keeping my feet warm in the field but a terrible weight for hiking. After tromping around in them all week my legs were feeling every ounce of extra weight. Despite my own struggles with the snow, pukak is actually a very important insulating snow for many small mammals and birds (The Secret Language of Snow, Williams & Major). Due to the amount of air trapped between the crystals in this type of loose, granular snow the temperature can remain close to 0° C even when the temperatures outside drop to -40° C or below. Shrews, voles, and mice tunnel and make nests in the pukak and when ptarmigan roost at night they will cover themselves with the loose crystals for warmth. Unfortunately this granular snow is also very unstable and often causes avalanches. Given the conditions this is perhaps the reason behind the unusual number of avalanches in western Canada this year.
The full Alsek Trail is a 2-3 day round trip hike, covering about 58 km or 36 miles. We went as far as Thunderegg Creek for the day, which is about 5 km from the trailhead, beginning just off the Alaska Highway near Bear Creek Lodge. The creek gets its name from concretions called “thundereggs”, also known as “nature’s bowling balls”. According to the Kluane National Park Hiking Guide, thundereggs are sandstone balls formed in glacial lake deltas. Leaves twigs and small animal pieces are deposited in a bed of sediment where the negative charges of the matter attract positive charges of minerals and are bonded together and tumbled by the glacier, forming perfectly, or almost perfectly, round balls. We walked up the riverbed, which was in turns bone dry and frozen, in search of these thundereggs. Last summer I found one on my first hike in this valley and I made it my goal to bring back a thunderegg from every year that I spend in the Yukon. So I was on high alert and anxious to find one.
The problem is, when you stare at stones long enough they all start to look the same- like a blur of grayish colored blobs. I was fairly certain I didn’t have the luck to find one regardless since Shannon and Hannes had technically found the one I took home last year. You have to understand that thundereggs aren’t just lying around everywhere for easy picking. Finding one takes patience and more than a little luck since the entire riverbed is mass of rocks of various shapes and sizes, and this time of year half the rocks are frozen en masse. Plus with eight of us searching hard all at once our individual chances were a bit diminished. So when I did come across one just lying on the surface my body recognized it and made a grab for it before my brain caught up to what was going on. So it was with an odd delayed elatedness that I waved the rock at Sabrina to show her what I found.
By the time we took a rest at one of the various ice fields well upstream from the trail Sabrina and Shannon had both found thundereggs as well. We didn’t linger long, without any sunshine we quickly became chilled just from sitting on the ice. We hiked back down the creek and a bit further down the trail to a rocky outcropping that offered an imposing view of Mt. Archibald and the Alsek Valley in the distance. The clouds still hung low but further in the valley the sun was starting to break through, making me sad that the weather might clear and we might miss some of the more beautiful views that the valley has to offer. But in truth the clouds were lovely in their own right. Perhaps not idyllic picture-taking weather, but the clouds offered an ambiance that had been missing from our constant sunny and almost over-bright days.
In Tlingit, one of the languages of the Champagne & Aishihik First Nations, the word for the Alsek River is Àu sèxh hînî, which means place-where-people-rest. But the history of this valley is not so restful. Prior to 1850 the Champagne-Aishihik People lived and travelled along the Alsek River, from Dry Bay on the Alaskan Coast to the headwaters of the Alsek in the Yukon. During the past 12,000 years the Lowell glacier has surged across the valley four different times, damming the Alsek River and creating glacial lakes. In the mid-19th century the glacial dam on Neo-Glacial Lake Alsek gave way, causing a catastrophic flood that, according to the Elders’ accounts, came halfway up the mountain, took hundreds of lives and erased entire settlements. Today much of the Alsek Trail still floods due to glacial melt and by mid to late summer is often impassable. But at that moment the name that the Champagne-Aishihik had given this place felt appropriate as we lay back against the cool rock under overcast skies and watched the shimmer of sunlight on the valley in the distance, just out of reach.