I originally titled this “Defeat on Indian Valley Trail” when I threw together a draft months ago. It’s often fun to go back and read old writing. This day (and the following one, where I had another excellent hike) unexpectedly turned out to be my favorite travel days of the year. So, finally, I wrapped up the story. Hope you enjoy.
I awake before my alarm, the light in the room enough to read without turning on the light. This might not seem odd, but it is just before 5:00 AM. Welcome to Alaska! An eye mask is a must in when there aren’t blackout shades, and the room has none. You get what you pay for, and I only paid $60 for a night over the Brown Bear Saloon in Indian, Alaska.
I do my best to relax and nod off again, but it is little use. I throw in the towel. A 5:30 AM shower it is.
There is little to do in Indian, Alaska this early in the morning. This isn’t your normal hotel. Instead of breakfast, there are simply instructions in the hall: check out at 10:00 and leave your key on the bed.
I consider starting my hike, but I worry that the food I bought won’t be enough. In the event I complete the approximately 14 miles, I’ll certainly need all the calories I can consume. A decent breakfast is a must. I pass the time reading until I can drive south to Girdwood for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. I’m immediately taken by the eclectic ambiance of The Grind coffeeshop. I’ll certainly be back again before the trip is over.
The Adventure Begins
Stomach satisfied, I drive back to Indian Valley, even more determined to take on the day than I was at 5:30 AM. My hikes yesterday were a warm-up. Hiking the Indian Valley and crossing over the pass to the Powerline Trail is the real deal. At least that’s what I tell myself.
Things don’t start so well. I get turned around trying to find the trailhead. Luckily, someone left a nice little sign for those intent on getting lost in Alaska. Glad for their kindness, I dodge potholes and eventually come to a small gravel lot that is clearly the beginning of Indian Valley Trail.
My comfort level is higher today as I set out on my adventure. I spent the previous day without bear spray, a reasonable precaution in the wild state of Alaska. The downside is that you have to shell out about $50 for the canister. They must make a killing selling the stuff to visitors like me.
A .45 would be better. Advice from dad is always appreciated, but I don’t have one of those, let alone the ability to bring it to Alaska. Spray will have to do. I’m as locked and loaded as I can be.
The Indian Valley Trail begins a short distance from Indian Creek, it’s gentle babble the background soundtrack to this beautiful morning. I come to the crossroads barely out of sight of my rental car: head left on Powerline Trail or take Indian Valley Trail on the right. I plan to hike the loop, so either is fine. I decide to take on the valley first, as it will be a gentler ascent.
It’ll be a long day no matter which I choose. With 18 hours of daylight, my legs are more liable to give out before the sun.
Indian Valley Trail begins like any creek valley trail. It meanders along the stream, gently climbing and winding its way through the trees and bushes. Everything is so green! My spirits are high. It’s going to be a fantastic day.
There’s Trickery Afoot
How little I know. The trail quickly degrades shortly after the first bridge crossing. I find myself passing through tall grass, which is wet with dew on this Alaska summer morning. I’m soon wet. No matter. The sun will do its part as soon as it rises over the ridge.
As I press forward, the grass continues to become both taller and thicker. Soon I go from slightly wet to completely soaked jeans. Even my shirt is damp. Before long the squishing sound of my shoes dominates the quiet forest. No, I have not stepped in a puddle, nor the creek I’ve now crossed more than once. It doesn’t matter how careful I am, getting wet is inevitable given how overgrown the trail is.
At barely a mile in, I’m at a crossroads. Not a literal one, mind you. Do I press on? Or do I turn back? Completely soaked now, I will likely be wet for most of the day.
The answer is as clear as the morning sun now peeking above the Alaskan mountains: I am not giving up so easily. I must go on. I remind myself that I truly do have all day. The sun won’t go down until well after 10:00 PM. There is no way I was going to let a little water dampen my spirits.
The horribly overgrown becomes less defined the further up the valley I get. Occasionally, I find that I’ve been tricked into taking some new path rather than the “real” trail. At one stream crossing, I notice a bridge above me. I clamber up the cascade and hoist myself over the railing. It may look nice, but this trail proves a little better than the one I’d been on.
I do my best to forget about how soaked I am. I pause, enjoying the first of the jerky I’ve brought along. From the scent of one of woods to the overwhelming sense of aloneness and adventure, Alaska is imprinting itself in my memory. Like one of the many fresh moose tracks I’ve seen in the wet earth. Maybe I’ll meet one of the giant creatures. On second thought, I’d rather not. At least not up close.
At about 3 miles into the valley, I take another break. The main creek how now diverged into multiple tributaries. I dip my hand into the cold, clear water.
From here the trail takes rises out of the forest, breaking out into a meadow of chest-high grass and ferns. I enjoy breathtaking views of the mountains encircling me and the brown-blue water of the Turnagain Arm far in the distance behind me. The best part is the delightfully warm sunshine.
It is time for a real break. Chowing down a couple bagels and some beef jerky, I notice I am finally starting to dry out. The uphill hike has warmed me enough that I barely notice how wet I am.
I continue my climb through the meadow, plunging through the occasional thicket, playing hide and seek with the trail. It is fainter than ever. At times, I think I’ve lost it entirely. It’s abundantly clear Indian Valley is not a popular hike. Everyone else’s loss.
Looking west, I see the transmission line towers visible high on the mountain above. Powerline trail is aptly named. Should I I finish the hike as planned, that is where I’ll end up hours later.
Moment of Truth
I’ve yet to be overtaken by “bearanoia”, an effect the Alaska wilderness tends to have on hikers. The thickets concern me at times, and the tall grass as well. I might see a moose coming. But I hope that I’ll see a bear with enough time to react. I’ve yet to be truly anxious, but I do stay alert and keep my wits about me. The aloneness is part of the thrill.
I generally frown upon making noise while hiking. Music playing on speaker phone is a nuisance at an airport. While hiking, it’s a downright crime. Yet I find myself doing exactly this, adding a couple podcast episodes into the mix. As much as I hope to see a bear or moose, I hope that they’ll hear or smell me long before I see them.
I’m half a mile at most from the valley bottleneck ahead of me. This is the high point where I’ll enter a new watershed. A little further along, I’ll turn west and head up to a small lake before climbing the pass over to Powerline Trail. It’s still morning. If I’m lucky, I’ll be back to town, if you can call Indian that, by about 8:00 PM. I better pick up the pace. It’s been slow going at times, given how overgrown the trail is.
I plunge into yet another dense thicket. Suddenly, I freeze. Ahead of me, right in the middle of the trail, the ferns are moving. It’s unnatural. There has been a bit of wind, but this is clearly not a breeze at play. I spot brown fur through the leaves. There is nowhere to turn. Back I move.
Heart pounding, I asses my options. Whatever mammal is there, it isn’t large. Which makes me even less inclined to remain near it. Given the plentiful tracks, my best guess it that it is a baby moose. Whether moose or bear, it is not something I want to encounter, especially from only a few yards away. Either is a mistake. Mom could be close by. My thirst for adventure is strong, but it is rightly tempered by a keen sense of self-preservation.
Stuck in a valley, my options are few. I head uphill, looking for a way around the thicket. I might be able to navigate around, skirting the area widely enough to give myself some comfort. I lose my footing and fall as the hill gets steeper. There is still no clear way through. Looking across the valley, I trace a potential path. It will be tough to navigate, but I might be able to do it. Plus, there is the very real difficulty of working my way back down and crossing the creek. I waste most of an hour in my attempt. It’s no use.
Go Up or Go Home
Backtracking down the valley, I find the main stream once again. It is now high noon. My moment of decision is accompanied by another snack.
There are three clear options: press on and find a way around the original thicket, bushwhack straight up the hillside to the powerline trail, or give up and head back.
Any bushwhacking is daunting. It would be maybe a mile. But the ascent is steep. I’d also have to cross at least one creek, and who knows how bad the vegetation would get. My guess is that it’d take me 2-3 hours to cover the distance. The climb would probably actually get better near the top, as the vegetation gives way to simply a steep slope.
There is also the increased chance of surprising an animal. As overgrown as the Indian Valley Trail is, and with as many moose tracks and droppings as I’ve seen, I’m certainly not alone out here. I may be the only human soul on the trail today, but the Alaskan wildlife are close.
I feel defeated, but I ultimately decided that the best course of action is to head back. The whole day has gone sideways. The first bridge I come to as I retrace my steps reflects my situation well.
Not All Is Lost
My return includes a few mishaps, such as stepping into thick mud and completely soaking my shoe for the second time. Just when I thought my feet weren’t all that bad anymore.
The return is quicker, now that I’ve traversed the trail once. I only lose it a couple times, including one same creek crossing where there is no bridge and more than three paths to choose from. They all eventually lead to the same place.
I make it back to the car by around 2:00 PM. I hiked approximately 8 miles in 5 hours. Definitely not a record, but not bad, considering the circumstances and state of the trail. A solid hour was fruitlessly spent trying to find a way to continue. My first order of business is to change into a fresh pair of socks.
With plenty of daylight left, I content myself to explore the shore of the Turnagain Arm by car, venturing over to Girdwood again for an afternoon coffee at The Grind.
The Black Bear Saloon is lively that evening when I return. I nurse a glass of bourbon and enjoy reading and reflecting on my day. Although things did not go as expected, today’s hike is one that I will always remember.
Alaska on the whole has been wondrous. I know I will be back. It’s wildness and natural beauty combined with where I am at in life personally make this trip one of the best I’ve ever taken. I eagerly await the next time I visit this great state. Maybe then I’ll conquer Indian Valley Trail.