Palmer Creek Valley: Ridge hiking, peering into the past


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Frank E. Baker took this self portrait standing on a mountain ridge above Palmer Creek Valley on the Kenai Peninsula on Oct. 4.

FRANK BAKER

There was little wind and the sun was warm on my face Oct. 4 atop a Kenai Mountain ridge that bisected two valleys — Bear Creek on my left and Palmer Creek on my right — the latter one of the richest gold mining areas on the Kenai Peninsula from about 1895 through the 1930s.

Uncapping a thermos of coffee, I sat down on a grassy knoll at about 3,500 feet, wondering what I might have seen from this location about 100 years earlier, when gold mining was in its heyday. Gazing south toward the headwaters of both creeks, the only evidence of human activity was the scar of an old road along Bear Creek, and on the other side, an 11-mile gravel road that ends at the Swetmann Mining Camp ruins.

The narrow Palmer Creek Road begins about ½ mile up the Resurrection Creek Road that starts just outside the small community of Hope, at Mile 16.2 on the Hope Road. It’s about six miles to Couer D’ Alene Creek, where there is a U.S. Forest Service campground. The road is passable in a regular passenger vehicle. But the next five miles to the end of the road are rather rugged and four-wheel drive is recommended.

About three miles on the road, I stopped and got out of my truck to take a few photos when a fairly large grizzly bear stepped out onto the road about 50 yards away. I said aloud with an unsteady voice, “Oops,” and made a retreat to my truck. I looked back over my shoulder and the bear was already gone. I was grateful that he’d acted wary of my presence, which in my experience, is the way bears are supposed to act.

I found a good, brush-free slope ramping up to the ridge that looked like a 2,000-foot climb. It felt warmer than I expected, and some insidious small brown flies constantly molested me until I got higher and into a breeze.

After a brief lunch and rest on top, I wandered about half-mile out on the ridge, not quite reaching the snowline at about 4,000 feet.

Time stands still: After descending, I saved a little time to go into the old community of Hope — probably my favorite place in all of Alaska. I asked the lady who runs the town’s small grocery store what the permanent population was, and she said it was about 175.

For me, two words always come to mind when I enter Hope and see the weathered, gray log houses: old and quiet. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. The tumult of history has passed it by.

If you drive the length of Palmer Creek Road to the old mining ruins, you’ll experience another kind of quiet. And if you listen hard, you might think you hear whispers of those fortune seekers from yesteryear.

Poet Robert Service said it wasn’t so much having the gold as it was finding it. And for many of those early miners, I tend to think it wasn’t always the gold that mattered; but instead, what they learned about themselves and each other through their toil.

 

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: frankedwardbaker@gmail.com.

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