Backpacking the Lucky Chance Circuit was lucky for us in so many ways – we were blessed with sunny Sitka weather, and helped by skippers and their boats transporting us over water to the trailhead.
A great group of friends was keen to go exploring, and fortunate to be successful in route finding through the wild SE Alaskan landscape (with the help of technology)!
At times making our way through the leafy forest felt more like gymnastics (with a backpack) than hiking, as we twisted and turned over and under stumps, and dodged fiesty devils club thorns.
We emerged out of the spruce/hemlock/cedar forest, onto an open muskeg populated with artfully sculpted trees with views of our dynamic destination ahead.
After pausing at Pinto Lake, a tantalizing ridge urged us to continue up.
Nearing the high point, we clambered over rocky outcrops.
Our reward was the perfect ridge-top campsite. Looking east over Silver Bay we saw twinkling Sitka lights in the distance.
Views to the east encompassed epic mountain masses, bearing reminders of glacial times passed.
Awed by ever changing light, our cameras were barely put away, before again being pulled out. A paradox of Lucky Chance is its troubled gold-mining history. Yet we experienced great richness, awed by brilliant sunset light, and later the yellow-green glow of a northern aurora.
In the morning we awoke to be floating above a white puffy blanket, with protruding peaks like baby birds’ beaks.
A curious early mountain goat peered at us from above, we’d also sighted bear and deer.
Gently the mist lifted. The mountain lakes were bathed in morning light.
The highest peak on Baranof Island is 5390, named for its elevation in feet.
Dipping and rising summits extended as far as we could see. At our feet, tiny alpine plants formed delicate tapestries of similar intricacy.
Our adventuresome group glowed in this alpine setting, a lucky chance to be in this place at this time, together.
Colors of the water-land-scape were astounding: brilliant blues and verdant greens.
Continuing our cirque, we wished to prolong our time up high, transcending present and past.
The sun rose strongly in the sky as we gazed towards our descent, including remnants from the mining era of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
Next day back home, I woke to a misty morning. The veiled mountains held many more mysteries to be unfurled.
There could be interesting names for this trek, perhaps “The Other Four Pass Loop”, or “The Williams Mountains Circuit”. But truly, this trip evolved from my desire to touch those remote parts of the Hunter Frying Pan Wilderness nestled in distant basins between the two drainages.
I traversed four passes, though only half of those are named. Trails existed at the beginning and the end of the route, but in the middle, boulder hopping, elk tracks and trickles of streams shaped the way. There were people only within the first and last half-hours of travel, the other 47 and a half hours were solo, except for all the extraordinary life.
I started high, and climbed higher. Mountains extended in all directions with only nature visible in the foreground and beyond. The Williams Range formed the backbone of my journey, and while I would encircle the long ridge with its craggy peaks, I would also descend and ascend a diversity of deep valleys.
Where water sprang from the ground or seeped from melting snow, slopes were alive with seductive fresh flowers, as though summer was just starting.
Exposed higher meadows still held their fading glory, tinged with early fall golds and reds.
After cresting the second pass, I dropped into a fork of upper Hunter Creek. Water flowed, fell and frolicked among pink flecked granite boulders, graced with verdant flowers and foliage. Almost dancing my way downvalley, I paused at a broad meadow edged by spruce trees, through which a calm creek meandered.
The sky was growing darker and as moisture started to fall, I sheltered in the embrace of the nearby forest while snowflakes fluttered. It was as though I had stepped into a magical kingdom. As I resumed my wandering, I sensed vibrations, and on turning, watched a magnificent herd of deep brown elk with young, bound almost silently through the woodland. A path upslope beckoned and I followed keenly. It released me on a perfect knoll, at the head of the second river fork and upper basin.
Here I would become immersed in the changing colors of evening playing on the mountain spine, highlighting its pinnacles and spires.
Then later turning to a moonlit night sky.
Crisp morning light articulated the third pass and its family of peaks that drew me on.
From over 13,000 feet I soaked in views of mountain ranges from new perspectives.
And met new friends who seemed a little shy.
Too soon, I was as far away as I could be in this wilderness landscape. That signaled time to turn, to drop two thousand feet, then turn again and climb, through a stately Colorado mountain valley.
Grateful for the expansiveness of this terrain that held me till the sun was low above the ridgelines, I stretched out on my sleeping pad and again observed the changing light.
I marveled how this sweet blush of color turned each day, yet how seldom we pause to recognize such luminescence. At that moment, I was thankful to be so alive outside where rare shooting stars burst brightly across an inky sky.
In the Rocky Mountains, June is an exceptional month that holds the longest day and heralds summer’s start.
I’ve seen my second full moon rise over the snowcapped peaks of Sitka. Etched in the clouds, a streak of golden light swelled to a shimmering globe.
Through the dense tall tree trunks, I’ve glimpsed the silhouette of a small Sitka deer, as he startled and disappeared. In my ridgetop tent, I’ve been woken by a clucking ptarmigan, with snowy white plumage, a handsome black head and red beak. Through the night, the landscape glowed in shades of silvery gray.
As the red blush moon sinks into the sea, fresh light brings focus to the day.
In May, my second month, the forest understory shows off its green plumage like a peacock’s emerald tail. I walk among carpets of starry mosses, colorful lichens and sun sparkling leaf sprays. In soft moist bogs, tentative stalks burst into bold skunk cabbage soldiers. Like the spring forest, I sense a deeper layer, a growing connection to this landscape.
A magical place is the promontory of Totem Park, where forest meets ocean. Tentacles of water ebb and flow rustling pebbled beaches, discarding ribbons of red-brown seaweed, broken white clamshells and white-washed wood.
Where the Indian River estuary joins the sea, there is a wealth of sound and activity. A merganzer duck family paddles around a floating log, watched by bald eagles perched on tree tops high above. I hear multitudes of birds’ sound – calling, screeching, wings flapping, and sometimes just a whir as they pass by.
The aliveness of this place enraptures me. I pause mid-stride while running, watching as an eagle swoops or a sunray lights the water gold. From stillness in sketching, I step out to tidal pools where orange-tentacled seastars stretch and scrawny crabs scurry.
It only happens once, the time I first discover a place. When I feel naively open, like soft pink petals of blossoming salmonberry and all is fresh like the new leaf green of its foliage. My senses are alert as I deeply inhale salt smelling air and catch shrill seagull sounds in the sky. The differences from my home in Colorado are stark.
South East Alaska is a land by sea, islands among sea, lakes on land. Colored in shades of grays, greens, and sometimes blues; ancient, ever-changing.
There is no clear order, no neatly layered bottom rooted in deep soil, nor tree trunks pointing up straight to a clean top line of sky. Instead, massive spruce and hemlock rest across the forest floor, their upturned shallow-wide roots a living green wall supporting brilliant green lichens, mosses and ferns.
Base twisted roots entwine, pairing massive trunks as families of trees. I wonder where does one begin, another end? There is not death, instead rebirth, regeneration, the fallen becoming grounds for fresh new growth. The forest is verdant, deep, alluring. Spirits of ancestors whisper.
The sea feels expansive with mysterious edges where land and water meet, punctuated with coves, rippling waves, big black boulders, coastal curves and crevices.
Water pools and laps among small dark pebbles, falls cascade straight down towering dark cliffs, white froth bounces playfully over gray smooth worn rock. Creeks so clear that pebbles shine below, the surface glimmers in cyan blues.
This landscape doesn’t hold still to be captured (on paper), it paints itself, in watercolor, always fluid.
The sky is not a flat blue backdrop. It is part of land and sea, alive with flocks of calling seagulls, with white-headed black-bodied eagles that spiral and soar the thermals, with multitudes of wings that shimmer in the light. The sky holds water in many forms – fat puffy clouds, mysterious sweeping mists, fogs draping snow-capped peaks and silhouetting forests. Water vapor always moving evoking ever changing panoramas, bonding to earth with falling rain. A spiral of life like the ancient petroglyphs inscribed on rock.
Sitka is my moody muse. She dulls me with her endless greys then pierces me with unexpected searing shards of light. The sun emerges as a magical gift. It transforms earth and sky. Energy abounds, changes to evening’s pink and orange frolic, and lingers long in night’s deep blue twilight.
A place evocative, where hundred year old trees hold knowledge of times past, sculpted totems tell stories and voices of ancestors are still heard. In town, the round Russian church, rectangular bishops house and elegant once-college campus speak of the more refined.
A place where people-time pauses – small shops that still sell everything from milkshakes and toys, to hard candy, kettles and tea cloths.
There are many stories to unfold.
“The Winds are calling…” read the text message from Montana mountain man, Dave. Dave has spent many seasons exploring solo in the remote Yellowstone backcountry; he is at one in nature with only a backpack, as I like to be. Two days later we met at the Elkhart Trailhead near Pinedale, Wyoming. With loaded packs, we were ready to begin our backpacking trip along the Sky Pilot Loop in the Wind River Range.
The Winds rise abruptly from the wide Wyoming plains – an exquisite island of warped rock, glacial pools and high craggy peaks. Their skyline evokes a fairy tale world of castles, spires, goblins and dragons in the clouds. Facts about the Wind River Mountains are impressive: Aligned from northwest to southeast, between roads there are 80 linear miles of mountains that encompass the Continental Divide. A 30-mile width across the range is hardly representative of the real distance created by huge changes of elevation to be traversed among the 13,000-foot peaks in the center, nor the two-day long hike to reach their bases.
No ranger cabins, designated campsites or advance booking required. Trails are generally narrow, rocky and of all different grades. And there are thousands of acres of remote terrain with no trails at all. Signs or even cairns are scarce. The signs we saw had faded letters notched in weathered wood, tilting on rough poles, like our Pine Creek trailhead sign.
We followed Long Creek to the intersection of Pine Creek, almost sharing our bridge crossing with an enormous moose. Next we ascended over 2,000 steep feet through aspen trees gloriously ablaze in vibrant yellow and reds. We reached the ridge top with wide dusk tinged views, and were enticed to camp by Glimpse Lake peeking through the pines.
Our second day’s walk paralleled Pine Creek valley, high on the western ridge. We hiked north, passing many pools of water collected in glacial basins. These included Trapper and Borum Lakes nestled among evergreens and showy boulders. At last we reached the high plateau around Summit Lake, just in time to make camp before gathering dark clouds rumbled, releasing a soaking, cleansing rain.
We woke up slowly, soaking in the scenery and the warming sun. Our trail continued along the head of Pine Creek valley, crossing the creek near sparkling cascades shooting in diverse directions. We ascended further, well above 10,000 feet. A series of looping switchbacks were taking us deep into the heart of the Winds, past Sky Pilot Peak. As we crested a high rise, we gained our first view of Elbow Lake surrounded by dramatic peaks that extended in all directions. We stopped and looked, amazed..
Upper Elbow Lake and numerous smaller pools occupied the next high basin, where water formed rocks and rocks defined water. At this elevation, even the last small stunted spruce and pine trees were absent from the landscape of swirled stone, water and reflected light.
Curved hollows in the skyline embraced the fading auburn of the evening sky. The last flare of gold on a high rock face darkened, but night came slowly as a soft alpenglow recharged pink highlights. Deep shades of sky blue dimmed, first stars twinkled, and only then the mountains gave up their light to stand still as black guardians.
Invigorated, I leapt up at first light to watch the frosty morning shadows recede and light illuminate the details of this intricate tapestry of rock and water, light and reflections, movement and stillness.
On our fourth day out, I felt more closely connected to the intensity of this wild landscape with a power that’s tangible. Energies merge, impressions linger. An angular boulder was a black and white art piece. Streaks of crystalline lines ran across its granite face at crazy tilted angles. I jumped into an icy lake, where ions exploded in sprays. I shook the droplets from my skin, feeling recharged. We wanted to linger in this high-altitude other-world.
We were further surrounded by scintillating turrets of stone. To get closer to these fantasy forms, we clambered up a ridge east of the lake. It was higher and further than it appeared, but at last we summited the ridge and peeked into the next basin over, that was followed by another, and another. We felt our mere human scale, dots in this mighty landscape formed through major forces over geologic time.
We descended into Fremont Creek valley, awakened to the way water dances with gravity. It bounced over steep angular rocks, flowed in wide willow lined creeks, was at rest and tranquil in large pools. The sub-alpine environment ignited all senses – sounds of water cascading, smells of wet earth and decaying leaves, the feel of rocky ground underfoot.
After the sparseness of high altitude, the greens of tree needles and reds of shrub foliage were lush and bright. The trail meandered through varied small ecosystems, deer scattered, a creek rushed by, and dividing ridges provided glimpses back to the high places where we’d been.
Late on day five, our trail connected to the main Island Lake trail, bringing us out of the place where we’d been alone for five days. Continuing to a little below Seneca Lake, we found a circular grove of spruce trees around a fire ring, in a round meadow. We felt centered here, especially with the glow of flames and warmth from our fire.
Again, it was a night of saturating rain. Morning was enveloped in a soft mist that soon also became rain – perhaps a trip-end signal that urged us back on the trail. The forested lower slopes still carried gifts. We passed colorful Hobbs Lake and beautiful Barbara Lake.
On our final stretch on the Pole Creek trail, dripping from a day’s rain, we met new trail friends from all over the country. They were also walking in the rain with broad grins, grateful to be in the Wind River Mountains where a person might feel the solace of immense wild places.
Our hike complete, we camped at Pine Creek trailhead, where we watched orange tinted morning clouds fade, and sunlight slowly cast its luminous glow. Vistas extended north, encompassing peaks now familiar from our loop. Dave soon had camp working – the green tent spread wide on a washing line, a range of wet gear set out to dry. I sat comfortably in a camp chair sketching and reminiscing on our route.
The backcountry often lures me to spend a night or more living by the contents of my backpack, while nature supplies the rest. This time, I was curious about spending multiple nights on the trail and experiencing “through-hiking”. Would this provide another longed-for opportunity to immerse myself in wilderness or would it be different? I had a two-week window that coincided with a segment of a friend’s itinerary on her through-hike of Colorado. People backpack long distance trails through the United States from Mexico to Canada, for two weeks, five months, two years, or more!
While hiking together, Susy and I were known as S-squared. We are of similar size and build and hike at close to the same pace. Although I have years of hiking and camping experience, Susy has hers refined to a science, including things like sewing her own bags, dehydrating vegetables for home-packaged dinners and measuring all her food portions! We don’t care to use electronics and apps on the trail, preferring to decipher text and pore over maps.
Our start together was near Twin Lakes, at Willis Gulch trailhead on Highway 82, and our destination was Spring Creek Pass, between Creede and Lake City. Over thirteen days, approximately 175 miles and 27,000 feet elevation gain: the routine was simple, while the experience was rich.
We moved through many alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems. In the La Garita Wilderness, most of the spruce trees were dead from spruce budworm, but looking closely we could see regeneration below.
I thought it would be all about the mountains, after all, we were going to be walking along the geographic spine that directs the flow of water to either the Atlantic Ocean on the east or the Pacific Ocean to the west. Overall, our direction was from north to south, however the Continental Divide wound its way in a zig-zag pattern. This provided us with extensive views of where we had been and where we were going. In one section, it seemed that Taylor Reservoir served as a center point from which the Continental Divide radiated in a three-quarter circle.
Looking at our route from a high point on the Continental Divide, just south of Cottonwood Pass
This was about more than the mountains. People, of whom we saw relatively few, became events in the day, each with their own style. There was Robbie from D.C. who retreated two miles in a lightning and rain storm and shared our shelter under a circle of spruce trees. John, retired and from Arizona, was a strong hiker whose pack was heavy with food for nine days. He joined us for an extra six miles of hiking one evening in the extensive Cochetopa Hills. A threesome on their mountain bikes crossed paths with us for two days, always with big grins and friendly greetings. There were fewer women, but we met a quiet middle-aged pair who, after several years of meeting up to hike sections, had almost completed the 470-mile Colorado trail.
Sunrise at Baldy Lake, the only lake in many miles of trail through the Cochetopa Hills, and the place where we met the most other travelers – four groups of one to three hikers or bikers.
We saw signs of people and relics from the past. The Utes lived in these mountains, creating trade routes and leaving remnants of stone walls constructed to trap elk during hunts. Miners and Mineral Basins were aptly named for the wealth of their geology, and trails and mines from the silver mining era of the late 1800’s were still evident. During that time, the Alpine Tunnel was constructed through the Continental Divide near Hancock. We traversed the Divide above the tunnel and saw both the west and east entrances, then followed the old railroad grade to Hancock.
Towns play a part in the through-hiking experience as well. After numerous days of wearing the same shirt, sweater, shorts and socks, it’s great to wash everything at a laundry, take a hot shower and eat a huge carb-heavy hot meal. Susy’s generous friends, Iris and Curtis, hosted us in Salida and acquainted us with the local art community. We stayed in an original house embellished with low, tin ceilings and decorative metalwork.
Back on the trail, hiking and landscape were our focus. Our route included two Wilderness Areas that were highlights: Collegiate Peaks in the beginning and La Garita at the end. Each day we started out early in the morning hoping to arrive at camp by mid-afternoon(to avoid storms), though raindrops often kept us cool as we set up our tents!
Sunrise on camp in Mineral Basin, beneath Mount Kreutzer
Blue sky days were infrequent. Instead, the sky was another dimension of the landscape: clouds built, swirled and dissipated.
Early morning mists on the slopes of San Luis Peak
The route varied from small mountain paths, to wider trails constructed by dedicated crews and volunteers, to double tracks and even gravel roads. We walked and walked. Daily mileages were diverse, from a 19-mile longest day (due to limited water), to 14-mile average days and shorter end-of-segment days. Most days had ups and downs (elevation wise). The “flattest” day included 1,800 feet of elevation gain in the Cochetopa Hills and on “steeper” days we climbed over 4,000 feet and walked at 12,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level. Some of my favorite moments were at sunrise or sunset, simply wandering near camp. At times, I had to change gears to a more destination-oriented approach, but it was always important to me just “to be there”.
Sunrise over Hunt Lake on Day 6
The following are a few more of my favorite views:
Looking east at sunrise above San Luis Pass
A limber pine in the foreground, Mount Antora at sunset
Hiking high, we felt as connected to the ever-changing sky as to the earth
The understory beneath the sculpted dead spruce trees was vibrant with new life
Gear and food were two other important considerations for us. Both had to be light, minimal and sufficient, and were more successful with advance preparation. I found rhythm and satisfaction in the frugal trail lifestyle, for example, oats tasted delicious every morning! In addition, the forest provided puffballs to add to dinner, and juicy currants and strawberries along the way. Life on the trail was not always comfortable, but it was fully engaging and often astounding. I may be hooked as I’m already looking forward to my next trek!
View north along the Continental Divide on the Monarch Crest Trail
Like a veil, a moist gray haze inhabits the voids between craggy mountain slopes. Distant ridgelines fade, while nearby sunflowers and sneezeweed glow like bright suns against glistening black soil. Long dry days of blue canvas painted skies have passed. Now the atmosphere is vibrant as air and water dance in cycles from creek to cloud, seamlessly connecting earth to sky. A droplet of dew on a lupine leaf, frothy white bubbles in a rushing creek, floating billowy clouds, gathering, darkening then releasing multitudes of droplets returning to earth, dampness dripping from layers of leaves.
No need to leap in a lake when walking in a steady shower fragrant with pine or mint. Gentle raindrops become more insistent. In a momentarily wet world, rain claims its place nurturing all that grows below. Grasses respond in brilliant greens – moss, emerald, jade, turquoise and lime. Swaths of flowers glimmer with intense purples, rose pinks, and vivid magentas, punctuated by stars of yellow and puffballs of white. Together they resemble a washed watercolor painting with streaks, mounds and surprising exclamation points.
The sky around is ever changing as light rays play and tease amongst dark puffball clouds that form, disperse, regather, encompass and sometimes explode. It is within this time that I am hiking in clouds, in the wilderness of the Elk Mountain range that is my greater home.
To better know our natural world, I walk and sleep through life-giving water cycles of mountains near Marble. I follow valleys and summit saddles of Carbonate Creek, Avalanche Pass and Silver Creek. Water jewels sparkle on rainbow meadow flowers, contrasting against magnificent far vistas.
High hidden meadows and bowls are the territory of wild creatures. At dusk, a deer wanders by my tent, nose and ears quivering. In the morning, a curious elk peers over a nearby saddle. When I creep up to look, I realize a large herd of elk were my neighbors overnighting in a basin above.
I feel a mere human(about 60 percent water), both humbled and enlightened.