Deer Mountain (Alaska), Grouse Mountain
By: Wayne Norman
"To the mountaineer a sea voyage is a grand, inspiring, restful change." John Muir
Food was not going to be a concern on this trip, with the possible exception of over consumption. The sleeping bag could be left behind also. In fact, all I needed was a pair of boots and a small daypack. Ah, the advantages of taking a cruise.
This was the first cruise sponsored by the Angeles Chapter. It was a resounding success and even made money for the chapter. The ship was the Sky Princess, a Princess Cruise ship. (Love Boat Music in the background.) Since this was a second honeymoon for Ruth and I, we've been married a year, we thought the choice of cruise line quite apropos.
Our journey began in Vancouver B.C. and took us north along the Inland Passage with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, plus two days of glacier watching.
We arrived in Vancouver early Monday morning and decided to get some hiking in. We drove to Grouse Mountain under very cloudy skies and took the tram to the mountain station where it was a -chilly 32 degrees. We hiked through snow around the back side of the mountain (to add some distance) and then up to the overcast summit (4100'). Visibility was limited on the snow-clad summit. We met one other intrepid hiker on the top who was kind enough to take our picture. The summit of Grouse Mountain can be reached during ski season and during better summer weather with a ski lift. Thankfully the lift was closed due to the weather. This left the summit, after the other hiker had left, to Ruth and I. As we headed down the slopes, breaks in the clouds allowed for viewing the city of Vancouver thousands of feet below.
We returned to the rental car company and dropped off our car. They offered us a ride to the ship, but we decided to walk. There is something about vacations and travel that help free me from the cursed automobile. I'm not sure if it is just being away from Southern California or the luxury of having extra time to walk. In any event the city of Vancouver is a nice place to stroll through.
Tuesday. our first full cruise day out took us along the West Coast of Canada. There were densely forested trees coming to shore line. Relaxing on deck, gazing at the scenery was a nice way to break into the vacation mind set. It also gave us a chance to explore the ship. A cruise ship (not boat, as I was reminded on several occasions) is a floating hotel with all the luxuries and amenities one could ask for, especially food. (If I appear to make frequent mention of food, it is lust that a look in the mirror reminds me of the addition of several pounds due to my complete lack of self control in this matter.)
The city of Ketchikan is built on the slopes of Deer Mountain. The summit is just over 3000 feet high, but you start from sea level, literally. I bounded off the Sky Princess just shy of 7 a.m. on Wednesday. Deer Mountain was in clear view under equally clear skies. Having done some homework before the cruise I knew the directions to the trailhead and walked briskly through the just waking town. One construction worker took one look at my pack and general direction and guessed my intent. He wished me luck and a good hike.
The trail up Deer Mountain is well marked. It climbs steeply and is heavily forested. The abundance of trees prevents good views on the lower mountain. The trail switchbacks up the west side of Deer Mountain and quickly gains altitude. About 8:45 came to a trail junction, right up the peak and straight to a nice look out. I went right and found snow. This was Alaska and it was May so snow was not unexpected. First there were just a few small patches, then there were places where I couldn't follow or find the trail. At one point I had to just go directly up a steep slope, kicking steps in some very firm, early morning snow. I was very thankful for my collapsible Leki ski poles that I had brought along. I soon past these difficulties and got on to the summit ridge and then the summit. It was just after 9 am, with clear blue skies, no wind, incredible views of Ketchikan, the surrounding peaks, the ocean, our cruise ship, and there were no other people. And I was in Alaska. Life doesn't get much better than this.
I hung around for about 45 minutes, taking pictures and soaking in the views. I wanted to get back to Ketchikan so I would have time to tour the city so down I went, losing the snow covered trail more than once. When I got back to the 'firm' snow from the previous hour I found I was breaking through, at one point to my crotch when I unexpectedly found a gap between the slope and a large boulder. On the way down I came across several hikers from our cruise ship and a few from another cruise ship docked at Ketchikan. I found out later that no one else made the summit from our cruise ship. When I arrived back in town I stopped by the Forest Service Visitor Center and asked about a map of the area (a souvenir). The ranger started to tell me about the conditions on the peak and offered to show me the conditions report. I told her I had just got back from the summit, but would like to see the report. The conditions report was accurate down to the description of the snow conditions and cautions about breaking through the snow. Now if only the Forest Service reports for the Sierra were as accurate. The rest of the time in port I spent walking through Ketchikan, avoiding the tourist traps and getting a feel for the town. Juneau offers more hiking opportunities than Ketchikan, but today Ruth and I planned other activities, shopping for native art, sea kayaking and touring the surrounding mountains in a helicopter. Our sea kayaking experience was a true adventure. The sunny morning had turned overcast and by the time we started kayaking around 2 p.m. we were being rained on, we had to paddle against the strong Alaskan Tides, and we had the wind against us. All this on the first time Ruth or I had ever kayaked. Plus there were the difficulties associated with me being unable to steer a kayak worth a darn and Ruth having a difficult time keeping a smooth paddling rhythm, but we ,till managed to have a good time. Our next adventure was a helicopter ride.
It must be stated that I was not thrilled with going up in a helicopter in "bad" weather. As luck would have it, we had a break in the weather that coincided perfectly with our trip. The cruise line had offered the choice of three helicopter trips. One trip was to the Mendenhall Glacier, another was a trip to another nearby glacier and a Pilot's Choice trip which would take us to some unknown destination. The Pilot's Choice was the most expensive of the tours, and it was not our first choice, but we were very fortunate to have made this flight.
Our route took us over the Mendenhall Glacier, then over another glacier, and another. Our ride took us over almost a dozen glaciers plus there were views of peak after peak. There was a lifetime of peaks to be climbed. I fired off photo after photo. There was a point though that I gave up taking pictures and just soaked in the views. A camera can get in the way of enjoying the scenery and film can't capture the range of colors and quality of light of this majestic landscape.
We made two landings. The first was on the Juneau Ice cap. The second was on a glacier next to a melt water pool. We spent about 15 minutes at each spot soaking in the views and learning about the glacier. I asked the pilot if he knew anything about the peaks which surrounded us or which ones if any had been climbed. He looked at me as if I was nuts. He had no interest in climbing these peaks. Though he did say that his company, Temsco. would make charter flights if any climbers were foolish enough to want to climb these peaks. He obviously didn't understand climbers.
Our pilot had been keeping an eye on the weather and our window was closing. It was time to head back to Juneau. By the time we returned to Juneau Airport it was again raining. Our tour was about $60 more than the other tours, but lasted over twice as long. While the Mendenhall Glacier is famous (mostly due to its accessibility to Juneau) it is not nearly as spectacular as some of the other glaciers we saw.
Skagway was a disappointment. The city is just a tourist trap and the weather was overcast and raining during our stay. We did make a short hike to Lower Dewey Lake, a nice spot for a short picnic.
Next stop on the grand voyage was the Hubbard Glacier. The fun part was getting to the glacier. We had to leave the protected waters of the Inland Passage and venture forth in to the open sea. If there was a place that you were going to get sea sick this was it. Ruth and I both were feeling the seas and we decided to take some motion sickness medicine. The pills made us drowsy, but given the choice of drowsy or sea sick we happily chose drowsy.
The ship pulled to within 2 miles of the Hubbard Glacier. A light rain kept many people off the viewing deck and the clouds restricted viewing. The Hubbard Glacier did grace our presence with some calving, which was quite exciting. The problem with describing events in Alaska, or even viewing the events firsthand, is the getting some sort of reference or perspective. We well over a mile from the glacier, unable to see over the top on to the glacier while standing on top of a 12 story ship. The ship was in the center of the channel and the glacier stretched for miles to each side. Large chunks of ice calved off, chunks that were large from over a mile away. These pieces of ice were larger than a two story house! The senses have trouble comprehending the magnitude of events.
Our last full day on the Sky Princess was also our best. The ship began the morning quietly moving up College Fjord. Even from dozens of miles away the glaciers were breathtaking. We passed hanging glaciers, tide water glaciers, seals resting on ice flows and still the Harvard and Yale glaciers were miles away.
The captain brought the ship to within 1300' of the Harvard Glacier. (The Harvard is the largest of the College Glaciers, the Yale Glacier is second in size.) The sun was shining brightly on the glacier promising us an incredible show of glacial calving. Beyond the glacier, snowcapped peaks rose above the lingering clouds. As predicted huge chunks of ice calved off the glacier into the fjord. So much ice broke off that the captain announced that the wake from the ice had pushed the ship back 200 feet!!! I stayed on deck watching the glacier recede in the background as we sailed towards Seward. Later I returned to the cabin and picked up my copy John Muir's "Travels in Alaska" finally able to begin to understand the sage's words.
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