Wrangell - St. Elias 1995
Down the Chitistone
Friday, August 25 The rain starts even earlier this morning, around 5:00 am. We stay in the tent until 8:00 am hoping that it will go away but hear voices of the others moving about and finally decide to get up in the rain. They have set up only one of the tarps, and it is crowded, so we decide to cook breakfast inside the tent, but then the rain stops temporarily, and we cook outside the tent. A wet morning, everything seems wet, wet, wet. We start walking down the gravel bar below camp around 10:00 am. On the other side of the gravel bar there is a trail that leads along a bluff, since the river comes right up against the bluff, leaving no room for travel on the gravel bars. I call it a trail, but it really is more of a route. Very rugged and difficult with lots of blow- downs, up and down, slick. Everything about the Wrangell-St. Elias seems harder than anticipated. About an hour to go maybe 1/3 mile. But then the traveling gets easier on gravel bars and along a more level bench through a conifer forest to Toby Creek.
Toby Creek is our last known adventure. The park ranger had said that at one time the water was up to her waist. But today, it's no worse than Falls Creek. Like all the glacier creeks, there's a 300 hundred yard wide gravel bar with the creek snaking its way down one side. We find a good crossing and gradually cross very easily. Barbara and I and Tom and Barbara A cross together and have no problem. We have lunch at Toby Creek. After lunch, we walk down the gravel bars beside the river aways before we cut inland. From then on its a great trail down a wide forested valley, winding among the spruce trees. Good bear habitat. Roger yells "Hey Bear! Hey Bear!" every now and then, plus we have our bells. Last night when we took our baths, Roger walked nearby and Barbara thought he was yelling "Hey Baby! Hey Baby!"
The literature describes portions of the hike as "Yosemite- like" and for the first time we see the resemblance. Huge rock walls with trees marching up, turning yellow with fall in many places. Also a series of seven 100 plus foot waterfalls cascading down the sides on top of each other. Such a different environment from where we've been, particularly with trees. And we talk about how really different it is from back home where the temperatures are in the 90's and equal humidity. Today the high temperatures are in the 50's and, with periodic rain, we're all bundled up. The fact that we're wearing toboggans indicates that it's not warm.
We come upon some ripe red raspberries in the forest, absolutely delicious, and we pretty much pick them clean. Roger apologizes to the bears since he says he promised them, as a condition of safe passage, that we would not eat any berries. And Regina adds as we walk down the trail: "and we really don't have raspberry breath."
Finally, around 3:15 pm we reach the broad gravel outflow from Glacier Creek at the end of a particularly long valley that has numerous glaciers. Everyone without any coordination fans out looking for the airstrip. But it turns out we're too close to the River. So we turn up Glacier Creek and pretty soon come upon a 300 yard or so gravel airstrip. Not much but it's obviously sufficient. The miners got this far for on the opposite ridge is a mine mouth, square and dark, and an obvious old road or trail leads up to it. At the upper end of the airstrip is a shack that is dubbed the "air control tower." Actually it is rather dumpy, and provides only a little protection from the weather since one side is open. A crude sign on the front reads "Glacier Creek Airport, AK."
Everyone is obviously glad to be here. This has been one of the more difficult backpacks for all of us and we've done an incredible amount in five days of hiking. Everything was harder than expected but everyone came through. In fact, everyone repeatedly comments on what a great group it is.
Near the shack is a low-bed trailer with wheels. No telling how they got it in here, probably in the winter when the river is frozen. Off toward the River also are the remains of an old car. The others plop their tents down near the shack and runway. Not a good idea since there's some garbage in that area and bears love garbage. Barbara and I set up our tent farther away, down the runway. I then set up the tarp with Tom and Regina. Several people are upriver looking for water. Ray comes back quoting the expression "Water, water everywhere." Turns out there are NO side streams anywhere around and we have to get water from Glacier Creek which is laden with glacial silt and is grey colored. But probably quite clean. Dinner is pasta primeriva and coincidentally everyone else except Tom and Barbara A are also having pasta primeriva. Before dinner Dolph, Barbara A and Anne walked up the valley almost to the first glacier and saw two tents. While we were eating dinner the three men from those tents arrived at the airstrip with their packs. They're also being picked up tomorrow by Wrangell Mountain Air.
During dinner an interesting series of events occur. First, a really ratty looking airplane flies up Glacier Creek Valley aways, and then back down and lands. Ray, Tom and myself go over to talk to the pilot who turns out to be none other than John, the Bed and Breakfast fellow. He says he was flying up to check on us; we're not totally sure why except that he likes to fly and it must be a slow night in McCarthy. We talk with him awhile, asking some of the usual questions like when does it first snow in the fall. His response is "when it snows." Then he answers around the last half of October. He confirms that a lot of mining exploration has taken place here, up Glacier Creek Valley. Not 15 minutes before he arrived Ray was talking about how he was looking forward to John's pancakes Sunday morning when we get out. We tell John and it obviously pleases him.
While we're talking another airplane arrives and it turns out to be Kelly of Wrangell Mountain Air. He's come up to check on another missing backpacker and to make sure we're here for the pickup tomorrow; obviously it's a possibility that we would not have made it and would have returned to the starting point. He says about 30% or more backpackers turn back(he's not entirely clear as to the percentage but seems to indicate that a lot turn back). Both he and John seem so relaxed, certainly not the rat race type. They head back to McCarthy around 8 pm and it seems like they're using their airplanes as cars. Indeed, John made his airplane and on the side is the word "Experiment." I thought the word was probably "experimental" and I simply couldn't see the final letters. But when asked John says it really is "experiment" since he built it. It really does look primitive and is only the bare minimum for flying, partially open and only a few instruments and lots of exposed wires, duct tape, etc.
After the pilots leave we take group photographs in front of the shack. There's a small table beside the door on which someone has written: "Do not burn this; it is a table." Everyone is obviously relaxed now that the trip and most of the dangers are over. To bed around 10pm with the only sound being the roaring Glacier Creek in the distance.
© William H. Skelton, 1995