Hitting the trail together

"Are you two doing okay back there?" my friend, Cindy, and I were being asked by one of our hiking group. "Yes, fine," we replied as we brought up the rear on a hike back in July 2004. We were on the Caribou Creek Trail off the Nabesna Road, near the Tok Cut-Off Highway. Cindy and I were in our 40s, while the ages of the other women hikers from Anchorage ranged from 55 to 74.

Betty, the organizer of this outing, had been a friend of my mother's when they were young singles living in Seward in the early 1950s. She had contacted me in February to begin planning the overnights at my Nabesna House Bed and Breakfast, so they could hike in Wrangell St. Elias Park – the largest national park in the United States.

We had agreed that rain wouldn't spoil the hike, but too much smoke could. The day before had dawned beautifully clear, but between 11 a.m. and noon, wind had blown smoke into our valley from the Tok area. A campfire smell permeated the air first, followed by a shroud of smoke that obscured the hills and mountains. I was unable to connect with Betty by cell phone to tell her of this new development, but the smoke filled air had cleared a little by the time the six ladies arrived around 5:30 p.m. and even more by the time we set off from the Slana Ranger Station about 9:15 the next morning.

By previous arrangement, our local National Park Service interpreter, Vicki Penwell, had agreed to hike with us and give us a guided tour. I say us, because back in February, I decided to join the group, knowing I would have to be very organized in order to prepare breakfast for eight (as well as sack lunches), in time to meet Vicki at 9:15 a.m. My husband Gary cleaned up the kitchen once we ladies left the house.

Bed and breakfast guests would ask Gary and me about the various local trails and it was embarrassing to say that we were too busy with life in general to take the time to hike. Since Betty gave me a special invite, I wanted to take the opportunity. Vicki brought along Becca Quinton, a Youth Conservation Corps summer employee of the NPS, as well as Becca's mother, Cindy, so there were 10 total in our group.

After driving about 19 miles out the Nabesna Road, we parked our two vehicles in the parking area along with the three others already there. As we prepared to hike (everyone putting on a backpack and several gathering telescoping walking sticks and Teva footgear for the creek crossings), an elderly gentleman got out of his parked Volkswagen van. He walked over to our group and inquired about our intentions. Then he commented that he wanted to view wildlife and he better get ahead of this "gaggle of geese" if he wanted to be successful. The ladies later admitted they rarely see wildlife, probably from all the chitter-chatter, laughter and tinkling of bells hanging from their backpacks.

We had to walk about a quarter mile on the Nabesna Road to reach the trailhead. Even in that short distance, it was easy to see each individual seeking out the pace best for herself. From the beginning, Cindy and I found our place bringing up the rear. This was the fourth time Vicki had done this particular trail that summer, each time with groups of different ability levels.

Since it was a very warm day, in the mid-70s, we stopped to rest periodically and to soak our feet at the creek crossings. At one rest spot, Vicki spoke about the plant "community" found in the boreal forest, including black spruce, dwarf birch, and abundant blueberries.

Another time she educated us on problems the NPS was having with trail up-keep and various possible solutions. By 1 p.m. we had gained about 2,000 feet in altitude in a distance of 3.5 miles. While enjoying lunch near an old ramshackle shack built in the late 1960s by gold prospectors, our view looking down the valley would have been of Mt. Sanford (16,237 feet), had it not been for the smoke.

After lunch, Betty, a professional storyteller recently returned from the National Storytelling Conference in Bellingham, Washington, entertained us with a thought provoking hiking story.

Vicki spoke about the native Athabaskan culture surrounding the area and then we headed down. It didn't take long even though we stopped to listen to two NPS trail "doctors" explain what they were doing with their GPS equipment. Becca, rather quietly leading the way, was the only one to see wildlife-a moose calf crossed the trail in front of her. One more foot-cooling stop at a creek and we were soon back to the trailhead.

Vicki, Cindy, and I all agreed these Anchorage ladies were inspiring. From spring through fall, they hiked every Tuesday and biked every Friday. In the winter they used cross country skis or snowshoes. They considered the Caribou Creek Trail only average in difficulty, as many of them had hiked the Crow Creek Pass Trail as well as the Chilkoot Pass Trail. In 2000, Betty successfully completed her goal of hiking the Chilkoot Pass Trail for her 70th birthday. She and Donna (another hiker that day) planned to hike the Northern Appalachian Trail that September, and Betty is still currently going strong, hiking and biking weekly at age 94.

Although Cindy and I each had sore muscles from our vigorously physical day, we agreed it was a fun hike and something we hoped to do more often. Once back home, we enjoyed visiting over a delicious dinner of grilled salmon (Gary's specialty) and halibut Olympia. After dinner, Betty entertained us with more of her exceptional story telling-a fitting way to end a memorable day.

Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at maraleymcmichael@gmail.com.

Author Bio

Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan now residing in Palmer.

  • Email: maraleymcmichael@gmail.com.

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