- Associated Press - Saturday, August 16, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Some Juneauites swear by their love of the rain. I’ve come to love it in many ways, too, as loving the rain is part of loving the rainforest.

For the first seven days of “Operation Convince Chip and Carrie to Move to Alaska,” (Chip is my brother, here for a visit; Carrie is his girlfriend, who, sadly, couldn’t make it) my boyfriend Bjorn and I had taken Chip kayaking in Tracy Arm and at Admiralty Island in the pouring rain.

But I was quite happy when Day Eight of Operation Move to Alaska dawned bright and sunny. I’ve been raving to my family about Juneau’s ridge hikes for years, and they’re much better (not to mention safer) when you can see the line of mountains you’re following.

Since the second predicted day of sunshine - the last of Chip’s trip - would be spent fishing, we decided to make our one hike as epic as we could.

Observation Loop is pretty epic.

Though it’s not quite a loop - more of a semi-circle - the route goes up Blackerby Trail, along Blackerby Ridge to the edge of the Juneau Icefield, past Lemon Glacier, up Cairn Peak and up Observation Peak. It then turns across Salmon Ridge (which is perpendicular to and connects Blackerby Ridge and the Juneau Ridge, and is behind Salmon Creek Reservoir) and over the Juneau Ridge, then down Granite Creek Basin and Perseverance Trail. We estimated that including elevation gain and loss it was around 20 miles, though that’s a rough guess.

We woke up at 5:30 a.m., packed water, snacks, sunglasses, hats, fleeces and sunscreen, dropped a bike at the Mount Juneau trailhead, and we were off.

I’d hiked Blackerby Trail before, but never the whole ridge. The trailhead, located at Greenwood Avenue at Twin Lakes, gives little hint of what’s ahead. As one of the less popular trails in Juneau, Blackerby, which is on U.S. Forest Service land, is not maintained. The brush - salmonberry and blueberry bushes, cow parsnip, devil’s club and other usual suspects - was overgrown and holding onto the rain of the last week, leaving all three of us thankful for our fast-drying pants and long-sleeved shirts.

We clambered over a few fallen trees and followed the hot pink and orange trail markers on what seemed, much of the time, to be straight up - another thing Blackerby doesn’t have is switchbacks. Some of its forks are also a bit confusing, as both potential paths are sometimes flagged, so I recommend you either go with someone familiar with the trail or prepare yourself for a bit of backtracking.

After a while, we left the early morning fog clinging low to Gastineau Channel. The brush thinned, and we entered a small meadow filled with lupine, edged with the shorter, smaller spruce and hemlock of higher altitudes.

Chip turned to take in the lupine, the fog a few thousand feet below and the mountains ringing us.

“Wow,” he said. “This is what Alaska’s like when it’s sunny?”

“We’re not even to the real view yet,” Bjorn said, edging uphill as I got out my camera. “Let’s keep hiking, huh guys?”

I snapped a few pictures of Chip looking suitably dazed and happy and we continued up the ridge. From the meadow, it’s about 20 or 30 minutes to the top of the ridge; we got to the top of Blackerby in a little less than two hours, at around 9:30 in the morning.

I love ridge hikes. I imagine heaven as an alpine ridge on a sunny day: when your foot accidentally knocks into a patch of alpine heather, little white flowers shaped like bells go flying skywards. Mother rock ptarmigan and their chicks cling close to the ground, hoping you won’t see them. Goats rest on patches of snow in the distance. You can see for dozens of miles; everything looks light-filled and transcendent.

All this beauty leads to a bit slower of a pace, however.

We hiked leisurely on, keeping an eye out for the first of what would be many goats.

Around noon, we summited Cairn Peak, an exposed scramble at the end of the most traveled route along Blackerby Ridge.

Toward Cairn Peak, the blissful green of the ridge begins to turn rocky. Small bits of rock and dry dirt (even with all the rain) slide beneath your feet. We all became grateful for the poles we’d brought; I clambered up some rocky places on all fours.

As we descended the peak, Bjorn began to look at his watch and requested I not take quite as many pictures of butterflies.

Observation Peak has a few more solid slabs of rock than Cairn Peak, most of which are pretty grippy if you’re wearing good shoes. It was still a bit of a scramble to get to the top; we stopped halfway up at the sight of more than a dozen mountain goats resting in a patch of snow.

After a bit more scrambling and roughly 45 minutes, we were at the top of Observation Peak.

Topping out at about 5,000 feet tall, this peak is one of those mountains you see from other mountains and wonder, sometimes, about hiking. I unequivocally recommend it; it was the best view I’ve seen anywhere in Juneau besides the window seat of a plane. You can see the icefield stretch on for miles and Split Thumb, a well-known rock climbing location, looks closer than it is. Devil’s Paw, one of the icefield’s most recognizable mountains, was a blue outline in the distance. On the other side of Devil’s Paw is Canada.

After a few pictures, as much lingering as our timetable (goal: finish before midnight) could handle and an unexpectedly delicious meal of cold hot dogs, we began the descent to Salmon Ridge.

“Well, that looks like a pretty straight shot,” Chip said, looking toward the Juneau Ridge.

“Mm,” Bjorn said. “It’s trickier than it looks.”

And it was. Salmon Ridge is pretty rocky; it’s also pretty up and down, without a clear trail.

On the descent from Observation Peak we accidentally got a bit off route and ended up lowering ourselves down a few cliff-ridden, overexposed places; even on the route, however, it can be a bit dicey.

A few hours later our feet were getting sore. I was collecting snow from the few remaining snow patches and shoving it greedily in my mouth. In spite of the sunscreen we’d used, we were all starting to turn red.

Chip gingerly touched the back of his neck. “Sunburn in Alaska,” he said. “If you told me I’d get sunburn here two days ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Then we - slowly - ascended the last mountain, part of the Juneau Ridge, and stared down into the green of Granite Creek Basin.

It was getting late in the day. I was beginning to greatly regret my decision to wear X-tra Tuffs on the (sometimes very muddy) hike. Chip was wearing hiking boots and even he got a blister, though, so maybe there is no perfect solution but a heavily calloused, impervious foot.

As we descended the basin, Bjorn ran ahead so he could bike back to the Blackerby trailhead and get our car.

Granite Creek Basin was almost completely free of snow; we slid down a few areas, walked through low patches of fireweed along the creek banks, and got more than a little distracted by salmonberries. On the Perseverance Trail - which always seems like such a wide open relief after a hard hike - I pulled on my sandals, wrung out my sweaty socks, and we dodged the bikers, runners and dogs who passed us. By the time we reached the trailhead (at exactly the same moment Bjorn was driving up) it was more than 12 hours after we’d started.

I haven’t been hiking as much as I’d like this summer and found Observation Loop pretty difficult. According to a blog post from local hiker Betsy Fischer, the route has about 8,020 feet of elevation gain; I don’t recommend it except for those who are quite fit and pretty good at finding their way around the outdoors.

But the view at the top of Observation is unparalleled, and there’s something satisfying about an entire day spent thousands of feet up in the air. As a contributor to Operation Move to Alaska, Observation Loop wasn’t too shabby. To use one of Bjorn’s favorite phrases, Chip’s soul may not yet be “haunted by Alaska,” but now we have lots of pictures of him in endless vistas; maybe soul-haunting is a long-term thing.

Either way, I can’t wait to hike Observation Loop again.


The original story can be found on the Juneau Empire’s website: https://bit.ly/1nAf53H


Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com



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