Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend

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.

Archangel Road 004

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.

Archangel Road 023

The trail started to climb after that, and the snow cover became continuous:

Archangel Road 028

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?


  1. So, what did you do with your time?

    Would you like me to copy and paste my blog post about it here?

    It's kinda long.

    ::runs from the room in his ratty (but cool) black Chucks::

  2. Yes, yes, I'll go read your blog in a minute or two or three.

    But I'm a bit busy this morning, so I've cut grass, washed the dog, and cleaned the shop. And I've got a dozen other things to do. It's an incredibly beautiful day and I seriously doubt I'll be spending much of it inside.

  3. Ah wuz jest joshin' witcha!

    BTW, What's that the dog is wearing? Do you make him pack your supplies in?

  4. No worries, Nathan.

    We pack our own supplies - I'm a big believer in self containment in the field for each individual, especially in the Alaskan wilderness. If my son were to become separated from us (you know, like you read about all the time in Montana and Utah and etc), he has enough emergency equipment to spend a couple of nights in sub-freezing temps. We all pack radios, compasses and fire starters. And emergency foil blankets that can be used as clothing, shelter, and signal mirrors for search aircraft. We all carry first add kits - including the dog.

    The dog wears a pannier pack. Her dog food, collapsible bowl, and water bottle go in there. Along with a dog specific first aid kit and her dog boots. There's a harness that connects under her chin, chest and stomach to hold it place and the leash attaches to clip on the back. And it's buoyant - like a doggy life preserver - should she end up in the river or something. I have a FRS beacon that attaches to the panniers, should she get separated from us, it gives off a ELS beacon signal in the GMS/FRS emergency band so that she can be geolocated if necessary.

    I'm a big, big believer in being prepared - just in case somebody forgets their hiking boots or something. :)

  5. Wow, you should plan our family vacations for us. My brother would love that, as he's a big fan of "figure out everything in advance, in detail, before the trip starts." This doesn't go terribly well with my mother's "ooo, shiny! let's go there!" trip method. I'm more in-between - "here's a list of things I already know I want to see/do, we can figure out what order to do them after we're there and see what else there is/what's on the lists of people who are joining us."

    We also discovered just how very useful a GPS can be, when it comes to navigating unfamiliar cities. We rented one with the rental car - a Garmin Streetpilot. It cut way down on the amount of time spent driving in pointless circles while we were doing the LA-Las Vegas segment of our Hawaii trip. (What Las Vegas portion of the trip, you ask? We sort of went there because my mother said "ooo! shiny!" :p)

    Other valuable lessons... I learned that it is indeed possible for me to be so sleep-deprived that I start hallucinating. That happened while I was driving home from the airport yesterday. I pulled over and napped. ;)

  6. Welcome back MWT. We've missed ya.

  7. MWT, yeah, what Nathan said, welcome back. Hope you had fun.

    Actually, though, I don't plan everything out - at all. I'm very much more of the just wing it kind of guy. But, I am also very much of the "Be Prepared" kind've guy, those habits are very deeply ingrained into my psyche. Especially in the Alaskan bush, you can get into trouble very, very quickly. The weather, the terrain, the animals can turn deadly without warning, and unless you're prepared (especially with children) you might not survive it. I believe in the proper equipment, and good equipment, and knowing how to use it.

    Yesterday, for example, we were well outside of cell phone coverage, miles up into the Great Alaskan range - drove twenty miles first, before setting out on foot. The weather is very unpredictable (that's an understatement of several orders of magnitude BTW), there are grizzlies, avalanche danger, and flash floods. You could easily become separated, or turn an ankle, and there are open shafts - most flooded - around the old mine sites, you could get in trouble any number of ways even if you're careful. If you're properly prepared and equipped, it's not much of a concern, but if you're not you could die well before somebody notices that you're missing. Alaska is a big place, seriously.

  8. Oh, and yes, I agree - you can get so sleep deprived that it alters your perception - you should try that on a long range patrol in hostile territory sometime :)

    But then again, maybe doing it on the highway is worse...

  9. See, this is why Jurassic Park is such an unrealistic movie: cloning dinosaurs from a 'skeeter's stomach contents and frog ova--sure, why not? But those damn kids would've been swallowed in about fifteen minutes flat because they would have still been wearing the wrong damn shoes even after the umpteenth time Sam Neill asked them if they remembered to pack their fleeing shoes.

  10. It's a good thing my family doesn't wander out into real wilderness much. I don't think we'd survive long at all. ;)

    I imagine being shot at would do wonders for restoring alertness in hallucination-level sleep dep situations. (Hmm. Not that I'd want to find out for sure...)

    The trip was pretty fun. And I have blog post fodder for weeks now. ;)

  11. Eric, if it was me - I'd have fed both of those annoyingly irritatingly obnoxious children to the velociraptors straight away.

    I was seriously disappointed at that movie, I mean they fed the lawyer to the T-Rex and my hopes went up, but then they let the kids live? Arrgh!

  12. As I kept reading your post my feet got colder and colder... cold wet feet, ugh! I'm glad the kid didn't get frostbite.

    MWT, glad you napped as well! Driving while hallucinating can't be horribly safe.

    We're not nearly the 'be prepared' family we should be - and I have the knowledge to make sure I pack properly for emergencies, just not the follow-through. Like Michelle, I fall somewhere in the middle between uber-prepared and "ooh, shiny".

  13. Wow that opening description reads like something out of an old Westerner. I can almost imagine fur traders and miners wandering about.

  14. Like Michelle, I fall somewhere...

    How awesome is this? Y'all are imagining responses for me when I don't get around to commenting!

    I can just sit back and slack for the rest of the week!

    Oh. Wait. That's what I'm doing when I comment on blogs. Nevermind.

    Anyway, sounds like a fun hike Jim. Though I'm surprised that you didn't see verification of the boots. When we leave for a show, one of us asks, "do you have the tickets?" and the other pulls out the tickets, waves them around, and says, "yup!"

    Save a lot of grief in the long run.

  15. I did visually verify the equipage in question. However, I did so in the house. My son carried the hiking boots to the shop, and placed them on the floor next to the truck, instead of actually inside the cab.

    In the future, all personnel involved in the patrol will be required to pass visual inspection by the senior officer at gear issue and muster prior to dispatch of the away team. No unauthorized personal clothing items or equipment will be allowed in the boat.

    SOP properly amended and so noted in the official log.

  16. Oops, Michelle, sorry! It was the recently returned expeditioneer MWT who commented on being in the middle.

    So where DO you fall? Are you a hyperplanner/organizer or a spontaneous type?

    Jim, my sons always forget to pack something significant, now that they're old enough to pack for themselves. Underwear, toothbrush, coat, you name it, they've forgotten it.

    Inspection is a good thing.

  17. I tend to do things on the fly. The problem with planning is I tend to over plan and plan all the fun right out.

  18. We only plan the parts of trips that we have to - otherwise we just make it up as we go along.

    Last time we drove to Alaska, from Florida, we just sort of pointed the truck northwest and drove until we hit water. Seriously, we did 10,695 miles, almost all of it on secondary roads without a plan. It took 29 days, we got up each morning, looked at the map over pancakes and coffee and said, "Let's go that away!" And we did. Had a blast. Great trip.

  19. Hmmm... my brother would absolutely hate that. ;)

  20. Yeah, I've got friends and relatives who have to plan everything down to the inch. That's fine, but it's not for us.

    We actually started that last trip in Southern California, drove to Michigan, down to Florida, and then went north to Alaska - zig zagging across the continent.

    That's the second time we've done that - the first time we drove from Maine to Alaska, via Florida, Texas, and S. California. Basically driving completely around North America. That one was just over 10,000 miles - and we did it with a one month old baby, well he started at 1 month, he was almost 3 months when we finished. :)

    We like driving on back roads or secondary highways. See a sign for "the world's biggest ball of string" and we're there. Old Route 66 is perfect for us. We've found all kind of strange and cool places along the road.

  21. Have you ever set your auto GPS to "avoid highways" for a trip? It's a pretty fun way to travel... although in the Seattle area you can get stuck in strip mall suburbia if you're not careful.

  22. Jeri, actually I use the GPS to record where we've been, not to plan where we're going.

    Mostly we look at the map, then follow the compass vaguely in the direction we want to go.

    When we moved from Maryland to California we just sort of pointed the jeep west and went until we hit the Pacific somewhere in between San Fransisco and LA, then we turned south and drove until we hit San Diego. Then we started looking for a house to rent.

    We once spent three weeks in the badlands of South Dakota, in the area around Wall and the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation, staying in a different place each night and exploring the badlands and the reservation. The Lakoto seemed bemused by a wachicho family with a canoe on the roof of their jeep, but they treated us with warmth and generosity - even at Wounded Knee.

    We once spent a day and a night at a tiny restaurant/motel way, way off the beaten path in Redwoods, northern California. There was no heat in the cabin, but the owner brought us a pile of huge handmade down comforters to sleep under. I got up in the middle of the night to take a leak and found an enormous bull elk had pushed open the bathroom window and stuck its head in to drink out of the sink.


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