I usually avoid military related events on memorial day weekend.
I tend to stay away from the parades and the flag waving crowds and solemn services and the cemeteries. If you want to call me unpatriotic, well, go right ahead. I don't care. It's a rare day indeed where I don't remember my own military service, and that of my comrades in arms - so when it comes to Veteran's Day and Memorial Day and the 4th of July - well, I usually use those days to go off and have fun with my family. And yesterday was no different.
We love the out of doors, which is of course one of the reasons we live in Alaska, and we love to camp - but we hate crowds and idiots. So we usually avoid camping on Memorial Day and 4th of July weekend when the campsites are full of drunken rednecks hopped up on patriotism and boxed wine. Instead we tend to go off down less traveled roads, and that's exactly what we did yesterday.
We loaded up our day packs and headed up to Hatcher's Pass. There's still at lot of snow above 2000 feet and we weren't sure what the trails would look like. We wanted to try and reach the end of the old Archangel Mine road, but that's well above 4500 feet and at the base of a glacier. If you have the equipment and the nerve, you can cross the glacier, about a mile over unmarked rugged ice, and reach the far side where you'll find the wreckage of an B-26 that crashed during WWII. We figured that was a little much for one day, but we were hoping to reach the old Independence Mine dam at the base of the glacier and do some poking around the Talkeetna and Fern Mine sites which are near the end of the trail. There are a couple of difficult Geocaches in the area and we thought we'd try our luck.
Like I said, we weren't sure what the conditions on Archangel road where, so I loaded backup GPS grids for Gold Mint trail, which is much lower down in the valley and closer to the Little Susitna River and therefore should have been clear, if a little muddy, this time of year.
However, when we arrived at the Archangel trailhead the path looked clear and dry. There were a few cars in the lot and a middle-aged couple saddling up horses, but other than that the place was mostly deserted. Just the way we like it. The weather was pretty good, a little cloudy and a little cool, perfect for hiking - so we locked up the truck and headed out.
Now, at this point I should mention a minor issue - see, as usual I was wearing very good waterproof hiking boots and good wool socks. My wife was wearing very good waterproof hiking shoes and good synthetic hiking socks. The dog was wearing what she usually wears, which is to say she is naturally equipped for the environment. My son, however, had somehow managed to forget his hiking boots, and was wearing a pair of ratty old sneakers. Why didn't he put the hiking boots on before leaving home? Why wear the sneakers at all? What, Jim, is the point of putting on sneakers, then changing into hiking boots at the trailhead, then changing back into the damned sneakers after the hike - especially since the trailhead is only a twenty minute drive from home? Why, Jim, why? I hear you ask. Well, see, you have to understand the logic of the eleven year old mind: e.g. the boots are not cool. The ratty, dirty black sneakers, those are cool. Somebody might see him (in the truck on the way to the trailhead), what if he didn't have the cool shoes on? So, somehow despite being reminded at least three times by both his mother and myself to bring his hiking shoes (I know, Dad! You don't have to keep reminding me!), he managed to forget them.
So, we were faced with a 40 minute round trip to get the shoes.
Well, crap. He did have two pair of socks on and we all carry first aid kits and moleskin in our packs in case of blisters. And the trail looked reasonably dry - the wife and I looked at each other and said, "Just this once." We'd have to write off any thought of crossing the glacier or climbing up to one of the geocaches, which is located in a cave about 500 feet above the valley floor. But we figured as long as we stuck to the trail, he'd be OK without the hiking boots.
You see where this is going, right?
For the first mile or so, the trail was reasonable dry. We had to cross a few streams swollen from the spring melt, but it wasn't too bad and there were plenty of stepping stones so the kid could make it across without getting his feet wet. The horse people from the parking lot passed us at the first mile marker, two saddle horses leading a pack horse. The pack horse was equipped with a custom carrier bag, from which glared a small pug dog who watched us with beady eyes as they went past. He looked exactly like the alien disguised as a dog from Men in Black, riding on a horse. Damnedest thing you ever saw.
During the second mile we began to see patches of snow and ice. And by the time we reached the beaver ponds at Reed Valley the trail was getting muddy and the snow patches were getting bigger and starting to run together.
We crossed the bridge at Gold Bullion Stream and headed into mile three. We passed the horse people coming back the other way. I asked them about the trail, and they said it was okay, but they'd only gone a little further up. So they didn't know the conditions beyond another half mile or so. Well, only one way to find out, and we kept going - dodging piles of fresh horse manure as we went. There is an old miner's cabin at about the three and half mile point and we bushwacked off the road a quarter mile through scrub and muskeg to reach it, during which I managed to step in a hole and dump freezing ice water down the inside of my boot. We stopped at the cabin and had our lunch - trail mix for the people, dried kibble for the dog.
The trail started to climb after that, and the snow cover became continuous:
We should have turned back there, but we were within spitting distance of the dam and the mines and the going didn't seem too bad. I asked my son repeatedly, "How are your feet?" "It's OK, Dad, sheesh, stop asking already, will you?"
I should have known better. I did know better, but we kept going anyway.
The snow kept getting deeper and wetter. And finally at the four mile mark we realized we just weren't going to make it any further without snow shoes or cross country skies. Going uphill in the snow was beginning to affect me, badly, my knees and hips were stiffening up and it was getting on in the day. Dark clouds where gathering behind us near the peak of Skyscraper Mountain.
Yeah, time to go.
At which point, my son suddenly decided that his feet were indeed wet and cold. Very wet and cold, as a matter of fact. Numb, even. And as usual for an eleven year old, he didn't bother to mention it until it was a crisis.
Argh! My fault. We should have turned back at the three mile mark. I should have checked his feet instead of taking him at his word. Fuck, I should have made sure his boots were in the truck in the first place, then we wouldn't be in this situation.
Too late now. We had a mile downhill through the snow and slush before we'd reach dry ground. Nothing for it but to hurry. About halfway down, we found a patch of dry earth surrounding a nice warm rock. We got his shoes and socks off and wrung out the soaking wet socks as best we could. Then my wife swapped shoes with him. Not the best idea, because now we have two people in the party with wet feet, but hey, what you gonna do right? The kid comes first, and my boots sure as hell wouldn't fit him.
There's a camp site for backpackers near the bridge, I figured we'd reach that and I'd build a fire. Everybody could warm up and we'd dry the socks and shoes out. But, by the time we got there, the kid's feet had warmed up sufficiently in his mom's boots though they were still wet. My wife's feet were wet from being in the kid's sneakers but she said she was warm enough - so we pushed onto to dry ground and kept going. In fact at this point, the only member of the party dragging behind was the dog, who I think was sick of tramping through the mud and snow.
Another hour and we were back at the truck, exactly eight miles from from start to finish.
My son learned a valuable lesson - at least I hope he did. We were never in any real danger, I could have always stopped and built a fire. We each carry emergency blankets, first aid kits, jackets, rain gear and emergency radios. Each of our packs is equipped with map, compass, fire starters, plenty of water, and a power bar or two. I carry climbing line in my pack, and various other survival tools. I could have built a camp, taken a GPS fix, and then gone to get a ranger and an ATV if necessary. We could have easily spent the night in the mountains without hardship, even if the weather turned bad. But still, there's always that moment when you've done something stupid as a parent...
Anyway, it turned out to be a good day, a great day in fact. Though this morning I'm so damned stiff I can hardly move. I took a couple of Aleve and it ought to get better soon.
Also this weekend, we saw the new Indiana Jones movie - I won't spoil it for you, but I will say that I liked it. A lot. Screw the critics, it's a blast. Not as good as the original, but a damned sight better than Temple of Doom (but, you know, what isn't? Anything without Kate Capshaw is an improvement, if you ask me).
Anyway, that was my Memorial Day Weekend - sorry for going off-line for three days, but hey, that's just the way the cookie crumbled this weekend. So, what did you do with your time? Learn any valuable lessons?