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Wrangell - St. Elias 1995

Across the raging river

Thursday, August 24   We agreed last night around dinner to try to get started at 8:00 am so that we could cross the Chitistone River, before the glaciers begin to melt and fill it with more volume, So we get up around 6:00 am.

The first surprise of the day is soon after we get up, when the rain starts. It alternates between pretty hard and a slight rain but wets everything. We cook breakfast under the tarp and hope for the rain to stop, but it doesn't. We have no choice, since we need to get going, so we take the tent down during a short lull and pack it away quite wet. As agreed, we head down the long meadow below the campsite toward the river around 8:00 am, actually, Barbara and I are first for the first time ever, but the others come shortly thereafter.

After leaving the bench on which we camped and the grassy area, the trail descends through an evergreen forest on a pretty good trail. Switchbacks and even some signs of trail maintenance from quite some time ago, chopped bushes here and there. A very wet hike both with some rain and the wet bushes. Also great bear habitat. Ray leads and constantly rings his bear bell, which sounds like the Salvation Army. Numerous jokes about what to do if we see a bear, like all of us taking our toboggans off and showing him our really bad hair, or offering him our PowerBars, or, and Barbara says this would be too cruel, lifting our arms and exposing smelly armpits toward him.

We finally get to the bottom of a steep descent, and everyone who doesn't have one scurries around for a river fording stick. We also have to wait while Roger goes to the bathroom and takes his time in spite of everyone yelling for him to come on. Also, some humorous yells like, "Come on, Roger, we don't have time for that shit!"

We finally get going and cross to the river. I'd been nervous about the river crossing, particularly after our experience on The Goat Trail. I sure don't want to see Barbara floating down the river with me not being able to help like when she slid past me on the rocks. So I probably approach the river with more caution than the others and certainly more than Roger. We looked at two places, and decided the place I'd spotted from the campsite last night was the best. Just above a small island where the river splits in two. Roger actually tested it and walked across with much difficulty. He was struggling and leaning into his walking stick the whole way. I checked another lower crossing where there is also an island and walked out to the island and then started on across, but it was simply too powerful and too big. So, we all gathered at the upper island. I walked halfway without too much trouble, although it was up to my thighs and also very powerful. I left my pack on the island and checked the other part. It was simply powerful and strong. I wanted to do it, because it was so tempting to be on the other side and have an easy day's walking on down to camp. On the other hand, I knew that there were a lot of others in the group not as heavy or strong as I, and it was clear from my crossing that one slight misstep, and you'd be swept down the stream. And the results would be catastrophic, since there was a long series of rapids, and rescue would be dubious. So from the middle, I yelled that if anyone wanted to go on up to the alternate crossing we read about, I would be willing to go. Not much response, and even Barbara pointed to crossing where we were. I then crossed over and talked to them in the same vein. Everyone was ambivalent except Roger, and he finally said, "Let's go," and he and Ray, with Susie in the middle, struggled across. Susie was absolutely exhausted on the other side. I yell at Ray about whether we should cross at this point or not, and he simply waves up stream, but then Roger yells for us to come on, and Ray, to my second inquiry of him, throws up his hands. Barbara A said later that Ray signaled for her to go upstream which convinced her not to even attempt to cross at that point. The risk seems just too great to us to try it, when there's supposed to be a relatively safe crossing on up stream. So the rest of us generally decide to go on up. Except for Regina, who obviously wants to cross and gets Dolph to cross with her. They walk side by side, and we start up stream as they are crossing. Barbara doesn't want to watch, and I am concerned for them. But, with a lot of struggling, they make it. On the other side, Regina is, we're told later, extremely chilled and shakes for one half hour and is almost in tears. Dolph says he did not feel in danger at any point, which surprises me, for on my forays, I felt in danger several times. Anne also wants to give it a try and waits. After we're gone, Ray and Roger start across to help her, but then turn immediately back. Their feet are so numb, they cannot feel anything. So Anne tags along with Barbara A and Tom and Barbara and I.

We walk up a wide, rocky valley floor toward the Chitistone Glacier. Actually, Falls Creek comes over the Chitistone Falls and runs into the Chitestone River, which flows out of the Chitistone Glacier. All of this just below where we camped last night. We reach Falls Creek, and Barbara A and I scout a good location. She finds a good one, and we do it the right way. Barbara A and me upstream with sticks, Barbara behind with Tom and Anne on both sides, all of us holding together. We gradually work our way across a stream that is just below our knees, exciting but not life threatening like the other crossing. We make it fine.

Then we head on up toward the Chitistone Glacier a short ways up. We had seen the dark mouth from which creek exits the Glacier from last night. There is supposed to be a route across it, and we simply headed toward the mouth. Then we saw Dolph, good old Dolph, coming up on the other side walking faster than us with his packs. He found the route and crossed over the glacier and met us and then guided us across. Easy walking up what appears to be a rocky slope but is actually rock-covered ice. We had no idea we were crossing the river except that we saw the river below. Simply rock and dirt but below is ice and below that is the river. On the other side, there is a large area of glacial deposits and a couple of, for some reason, very clear pools. The river itself is very chocolate brown.

We walk on downstream and find the others, at the point they crossed, huddled around a fire. They were all extremely cold, chilled and built the fire to warm up. We warm and eat lunch. Then we head on down the broad, glacial Chitistone Valley. We saw a huge badger, which I spotted lumbering across a gravel bar and into some trees. I first thought it was a small bear, but it was pretty clearly a badger, and they're bigger than I thought. We also saw grizzly bear footprints as well as sheep and caribou.

A little rain on and off all day and clouds. But the clouds do produce some incredibly good views with clouds swirling around the peaks above us. And below, the aspen are turning yellow in most places, which provide a beautiful contrast to the green slopes. It's nice to be back in tree country. I took no pictures from camp, until after we had crossed Falls Creek, having both Barbara's and my cameras in a waterproof bag inside the pack. And then after lunch with the rain I packed it up again for a while. So fewer pictures today.

I waded Falls Creek in my boots, while Barbara put on tennis shoes, and everyone else did one or the other. We have another crossing that requires her putting the tennis shoes on at a side canyon on down valley. Then it's dry walking to the camp, which is about a mile above Toby Creek. The campsite is on a low bench that is covered with small alders and, behind that, some evergreens, with a clear creek running nearby before it hits the Chitestone River. The roar of the river is always in the background. Barbara and I put our tent near the lip of the bank, while the others camp back a ways. Only Dolph has his tent nearby, which is great, since he's quiet.

The campsite is not the best in terms of views but is the most pleasant. Even though it is cloudy overhead, there's no wind, and there's wood for a fire. So we cook on the gravel bar, and Ray builds a fire from driftwood. We fix my favorite backpacking dinner, which again Anne and Dolph heartily endorse as to the leftovers, Potatoes, Peas, and Sage Stew. We sit around the fire for a while with everyone gradually going off to bed. The first time everyone has sat around a fire since the first night. We tell stories of trips past, and Barbara confirms that The Goat Trail was not her "Day from Hell No. 3." Which surprised me somewhat, but a "Day from Hell" requires an all day long ordeal, like the Upper Paria and Nahanni River trips. It's dark by about 10:00 pm, when Barbara and I get to bed. Daylight is around 5:00 am.

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William H. Skelton, 1995