MOUNTAIN ECHOES: Hiking Hunter Creek in March requires waders, micro-spikes
With this warm tail-end to winter, I should have expected the creek would have a lot of open water. Bordering each side were thick ice slabs, or ledges. Some of the ledges were nearly four feet above the creek and often slanted downward toward the water, making traction difficult. My Kahtoola micro-spikes wouldn’t fit over the feet of my Neos waders, so traction was sketchy as I slowly made my way upstream.
The ledges would often pinch off against the steep sides of the creek, forcing a crossing. The stream was fast but no more than knee high in most places—so that part wasn’t too difficult. Located at the end of Knik River Road (Mile 9.6), Hunter Creek is a haven for ice climbers. On normal winters with cold temperatures and snow, the stream freezes sufficiently to allow relatively easy access by skis or snowshoes to the frozen waterfalls – which begin about two miles upstream.
I had no real reason on March 5 to head into the area except that I love canyons and I wanted to venture somewhere different.
The last time I tromped in there was in January 1997, and it became a battle. The stream forks about two miles in and on that trip I took the east fork. With snow, open water and small frozen waterfalls of glare ice, I needed four types of equipment: snowshoes, waders, crampons and ice axe. Unfortunately, I had only snowshoes with cleats. I pushed about a quarter of a mile beyond the fork. Cold and soaking wet, and with a couple of expletive deletes, I turned around.
I was told later that had I gone about half a mile farther in the east fork’s narrow canyon, the terrain opens up and that it would have been easy going for a couple of miles on the approach to Hunter Glacier.
On my recent trip the Neos waders (that fit over hiking boots) were perfect, but again, had they been attached to micro-spikes, I would have been golden. It was not difficult to see why there was no one else in the area, as I painstakingly worked my way around each bend, crossing the stream no less than eight times. The stream bottom’s smooth, slippery rocks offered yet another challenge, but in such situations I become irrationally stubborn.
“I refuse to get wet!” I said out loud. Perhaps just saying the words helped, because I didn’t fall once.
Around one bend I spooked three ducks – they appeared to be American widgeons—but I don’t know duck species very well. “Either early arrivals, or with this recent mild winter, over-winterers,” I thought to myself.
A while later I saw a small dark bird perched on a black rock in the middle of the stream. Drawing nearer, I saw it was a Water Ouzel, or Dipper. They are quite amazing birds. I’ve read that they have some kind of suction cups on their feet that allow them to walk under water, even in a swift stream. It would be great if I could equip my waders with a facsimile of Dipper’s feet!
Another half mile upstream on an ice slab covered by a thin layer of frost were old, faded wolf tracks. They were too large to be coyote’s, and there were no human tracks anywhere. So I believe I’m correct in that identification.
I decided to call it a day about a quarter of a mile below the main fork. After a brief lunch I retraced my steps and repeated the stream crossings. Without any kind of traction devices, it was slow going as I carefully made my way across the slippery ice slabs.
Hunter Creek is definitely a winter destination and though I’m not an ice climber myself, it’s fun to go back in and watch their activities, at least, during a “normal” winter when they frequent the area.
Private property abuts Hunter Creek, which is east of the Chugach State Park boundary, so it is advisable to park in the large parking lot on the left just past the bridge. Upstream or downstream from the bridge, remain in the creek drainage area and do not enter private property on either side.
Postscript: I returned to Hunter Creek March 12, this time wearing Kahtoola micro-spikes (Size XXL) over the feet of my waders. This set-up worked well on the slippery ice, but as the canyon narrowed the stream became deeper and swifter. The ice ledges pinched off about every 50 yards, requiring multiple crossings. That, in addition to rock fall from above, convinced me that spring is not a good time to enter this area. If I did return at this time of year, I’d probably add a hard hat to my equipment list.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.