Exploring a Beautiful Creek in the Alaskan Wilds
05/25/2010 55 °F
In survival situations, a common technique used to find your way home is to find a watercourse and follow it down stream until it meets a larger body of water, and civilization. Alternatively, one of the best ways of getting yourself out of civilization and into the wilderness is to find a watercourse and follow it up into the mountains. Prospectors, mountain men, adventurers, and wanderers have been using this technique for eons, with terrific success (Check out the bio on John Colter for a great example).
Earlier this month, I followed the Sitka cross trail to its end at Cascade Creek. I followed a small streamside trail a little ways up to where it ended at an old concrete dam. No more trail, just a creek, and I could see a waterfall just around the next corner about 200 yards upstream. To get there, I knew the easiest way would be just to walk through the water. I needed my Xtratuffs, the Alaskan’s choice for footwear. I could use these rubber boots to easily hike up the stream in the water. To make the same journey on the shore, a jungle of slippery, moss covered logs and deadfalls would block my way. I vowed to return, properly prepared.
Since that first peek at the distant waterfall, I couldn’t seem to get the idea of hiking up the creek out of my head. I looked at topo maps, recreation maps, and made a plan: I would hike upstream as far as I could into the valley, following the water until it ended. Then I hike up the steep, valley wall until I found the Harbor Mt. to Gavan Hill trail which I would follow back to town. It was a hike of about 6 miles, climbing from sea level to over 2000 feet before dropping back down to sea level. It was a solid plan, and I meant to follow through on it the first chance I had.
Today, I walked outside to a beautiful blue sky. Bright sunshine lit up the green foliage, and I knew I wasn’t going to be working much today. It was a day to play outside if I’d ever seen one, and it wasn’t hard to convince my boss that I ought to have the day off. I quickly packed up my day pack, it’s always ready to go, but I had to pack in my hiking boots for when I reached the higher elevations. I made a quick lunch, filled up on water, grabbed “ol’ hickory” (my trusty hiking stick) and set off.
When I stepped into the cold, clear water of the creek, I knew I had made the right choice in footwear. My feet were dry, and the flat rubber soles gripped the rocks and boulders easily. I began following the creek up to the first waterfall that I saw all those weeks ago. When I reached the waterfall, I saw that the river was impassable. The terrain was too steep and slippery to climb up the falls. I looked around, and saw the faint markings of a trail heading around and climbing up into the forest. I hoped others had found a way around the falls, I didn’t want my adventure to end so quickly. The trail, if you could call it that, snaked its way through the green mossy forest roughly following the creek, but some distance away. The woods were thick, full of rotten logs, dead falls, brush, thorny brambles, and completely covered in spongy moss. It was kind of like a vertical swamp, very wet and slippery, black muck holes sucked at each step, but it was set on a steeply angled pitch. It wasn’t easy to walk, but I was glad to have the “trail.” It was far better than trying to navigate the river, which through this section was quite narrow with 3 sets of impassable falls.
After about a quarter of a mile, the foot path returned to the creek, and I once again began slogging through the water. It wasn’t easy going. I had to climb over, scramble under, around and through dozens of logs that had fallen across the creek. When the water was too deep, I had to fight my way through the thickets on the bank, sinking in muck, slipping on rocks and boulders, and impaling myself on the ever present spiny plants. It was a grueling workout; one that I relished, however.
Cascade creek is aptly named. Dozens of small waterfalls make up this beautiful creek, and I was enjoying most of them. Some of them I named, some I simply admired before moving on. All of them were bordered with green moss making for a fetching portrait. Indeed, the white aerated water of the rapids and falls was a perfect compliment to the green world in which it tumbled through. Gorgeous.
Eventually, the creek split into two main tributaries that fed the main water course. It was a beautiful location, that for some reason I called Shangri La. On the right, a twenty foot high waterfall fell down from a mossy wall, spilling over the ledge rock before meeting its partner. On the left, a long tumbling waterfall, dribbled down through myriad boulders before joining the other branch to form the larger creek. It was an appropriate beginning to “Cascade” creek.
I had a decision to make: Left or right. I chose the right branch of the creek. I liked the look of the waterfall, and I figured it didn’t really matter which course I followed. I climbed up a near vertical moss wall next to the waterfall, and took a rest at the top. The high ridges of the valley walls were all around me now. Harbor Mountain towered over me to the north, and I could see almost all of the horseshoe shaped valley behind me to the west. I knew somewhere ahead of me to the east, high up on the ridge, was the trail I wanted to find.
It wasn’t long before the creek began to shrink. I climbed up small waterfalls like steps, as the water playfully splashed me, welcoming me to it‘s home. The chutes the water ran through were narrow and slippery, so it was just easiest to scramble up the boulders and ledge rock in the water. Soon, I topped out onto a relatively flat open meadow. There were trees dotted through it, but I was clearly nearing the end of my water walking and the beginning of the stream.
The crick had really shrunk now; barely 2 feet wide. The water gurgled along through every shade of green I could imagine. Brilliant green slime, moss and plants made up the micro world of the passing crick. It was truly amazing, and I was enthralled with it. This was icing on the cake, and I took my time walking the last one hundred yards of the crick before it disappeared under the snow. I was satisfied. I had followed the creek up to its snowy beginnings.
From there, I hiked southerly towards Gavan Hill where I would pick up the trail. I had to climb up a steep hill through a thick forest. There was no trail, and I was navigating by dead reckoning alone. I paused once in awhile enjoying the quiet forest. The creek was noisy in comparison, and I liked tuning into the birdsongs of the forest.
Finally, I reached the top of the ridge and found the trail. I love it when a plan comes together. To the south, Mt. Arrowhead was still snow covered, but it wouldn’t be long before I climbed to its peak. I took a brief rest, guzzling some water before starting the long walk back down the hill, completing my trek.