Snowy Crow Pass crossing elicits thoughts of early pioneers

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 - 19:18

On the morning of June 2, the Crow Pass trail was a world of snow as Pete Panarese and I trudged and slogged our way uphill from the Girdwood side. It was a brilliant sunny day with no wind and temperatures in the 40s.

The hike had been my idea. We immediately began to sink in the snow. “I thought the snow would be more firm than this,” I said apologetically. “At least there are some old footprints we can follow.”

I should have known. One of the lessons I’ve learned (but apparently not too well) over the years is that you can never assume conditions will be the same from year to year. In this case, I thought that this early in the year, with evening temperatures as cool as they have been, the snow would be firm to walk upon. It was that way 12 years ago when I ambled over the top of Crow Pass like I was on an Anchorage city sidewalk and, taking my time, reached the Eagle River Nature Center in about nine hours.

I know, some racers can do it in less than three hours, but they’re a heck of a lot younger!

We continued sinking into the snow, but it could have been worse. The footprints made by someone coming from the opposite direction were generally holding us up. We reached the 3,400-foot summit in about three hours and were surprised to see a new U.S. Forest Service cabin and outhouse. They had been located away from the trail to a position overlooking Crystal Lake, which was now only a smooth expanse of snow.

Flashing back: Hiking through the pass in near-winter conditions made me think about the early pioneers — freight teams, miners, mail carriers — who 100 years ago routinely drove their dog teams through this area in perilous conditions that included extreme cold, wind and avalanches. The 24-mile Girdwood to Eagle River leg is part of the historic Iditarod Trail to Nome. In elevation, it was the highest point mushers would reach on the 1,150 mile journey.

After leaving Turnagain Arm they made a steep ascent from Girdwood, which was established in 1906 as a place to rest and re-provision before crossing over the Chugach Mountains.

Reaching the summit, they probably breathed a sigh of relief to see Eagle River Valley far below. I’m not sure what maps were available to these early travellers, but when they emerged from the Pass and saw Eagle River Valley, with the glacier about a mile closer than it is today, they must have known that turning left, or north, was their only option.

Travelling through the then-uninhabited Eagle River Valley, they then journeyed around Knik Arm and northward to the trading post of Knik, the largest town on Upper Cook Inlet until the railroad town of Anchorage was founded in 1915.

We had lunch just over the summit on a bare patch of mossy ground with a grand view of Raven Glacier, almost completely covered with snow except for some exposed crevasses at its face. Through binoculars I could barely make out a pair of footprints headed up the middle of the deceivingly smooth expanse. Concealed beneath that snow were huge crevasses that could swallow a hiker or an object the size of a school bus.

Looking at our route ahead, there were a lot of big snow patches. We knew the snow would be softening as the day wore on. Fully rested, we began the long afternoon descent into Eagle River Valley. Before the first big stream, Clear Creek, we were treated to a 500-foot glissade. With a full view of the bottom and a flat run-out, I didn’t try to brake and just let it fly. “Why walk when you can ride!” I yelled.

About a quarter of a mile behind us were three women hikers, and as we moved down the trail we could hear them whoop and holler as they followed our butt-sledding grooves.

Back to summer: As we emerged from the Pass into Eagle River Valley the first thing we noticed was green in the bushes and trees. In a matter of hours we had travelled from summer to winter and back again.

We had planned to take a shortcut and cut into the Eagle River drainage toward Raven Creek, but weren’t sure of the trail so continued to the right — up valley — following the main trail. We made an easy river crossing, however, about ½-mile below the regular location. The bone-numbing water wasn’t much above our knees.

From about Turbid Creek (about 18 miles from the Nature Center) to Icicle Creek at Mile 6, there was a lot of deadfall across the trail — some really big stuff — and patches of overgrowth.

“This is a national historic trail and one of the state’s premier hiking locations,” commented Panarese, a retired State Parks official and member of the Chugach State Park Advisory Board. “It’s a shame it doesn’t receive more attention in the form of regular maintenance.”

Maintenance is surely needed, I thought, if the Crow Pass Crossing racers in July intend to set good times.

Trail’s end: There were no bear sightings, but we did observe five moose, a dozen sheep and 22 other folks along the route. A growing population of beavers is evident throughout the valley. Without blisters or bruises, but bone weary, we finished the hike at 11:30 p.m., with two cold ones on ice waiting in Pete’s car at the Eagle River Nature Center (Mile 12 on the Eagle River Road). Fourteen hours — not exactly a record, but considering the trail conditions and the fact neither of us are spring chickens, perhaps not so bad.

On the drive home I thought again about those intrepid pioneers from a century ago. With a good freight dog team, which back in those days generally averaged about 20 dogs, (less for mail runs) and decent trail conditions, they could have made the journey in one-third our time. But in extreme winter conditions, particularly with avalanches, I’m sure there were probably some who didn’t make it all.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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