Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Infamous Alaskan Backpacking Trip

I'm sure hearing that there are glaciers in Alaska does not surprise you, but did you know that there is also a rain forest? With a week's supplies strapped to my back, I saw a rain forest, a glacier, and much more in Tongass National Forest near Sitka, Alaska. First I saw it on foot, and then from the inside of a Coast Guard rescue helicopter.

This was a trip made with half a dozen adults,and about twice as many teenagers. After landing in Juneau, we traveled via the Alaska Marine Highway System to a small village named Hoonah. While there we worked with a local church to make repairs on their buildings and offer a vacation Bible School for the children.

Then our group separated into two smaller groups; one to go backpacking and the other to go sightseeing. My oldest son, then 3, went sightseeing with Mamaw. Papaw, my brother Jake, my husband Tim, and I (four months pregnant with Lydia, who is now five) went with several of the adults and the majority of the teenagers to begin our backpacking adventure on the Medvejie Lake Trail. Our group was a relatively large, and included many inexperienced backpackers. Two facts, we now know, to be big mistakes for this particular trail.

The journey began in a forest, somewhat similar to what we might see here in West Virgina. The trail was not well worn, there were lots of insects, but it was relatively level. We worked our way to Medvejie (pronounced Med- i- vee- chee) Lake. If you have never seen a glacier fed lake, it is a sight to behold. It was crystal clear blue all the way to the bottom.

From there the way went up, through more forest, weeds over my head and huge boulders. Finally emerging into a pleasant valley with grass and a small pond. A perfect spot to camp for the night.

About half of the next day was spent climbing out of that valley by going straight up a muddy hill. It was not long before we were in snow fields, and soon we were strapping on our crampons. Crampons are spikes to help you gain traction on snow and ice.

It was here that I was perhaps the most scared I've ever been in all our outdoor adventures. Crossing this snow field involved facing the hill, practically hugging it, while moving sideways kicking your feet into the snow with every step, for about a hundred yards. If you chose to look down between your feet, you could see where the hill ended suddenly with a large drop off. I remember thinking how completely nuts I was to be there, especially pregnant. I kept singing a worship song, "Every step I take I take in you Jesus," refused to look down and kept my feet moving.

After that snow field, the terrain was somewhat barren and rocky. With all the Alaskan daylight in July, we hiked long days, and slept sound, but short night. Then came the fog, at the most inopportune time.

We were exhausted after a long day of hiking, but we also were very close to the last leg of the hike; a relatively easy hike down the glacier to natural hot springs where we could soak away our aches and pains. When the fog rolled in, we were on a ridge, a less than ideal place to camp. We tried to find our way off of it unto the glacier, but the fog was just too thick. We had to make camp.

We wanted to wait out the fog. Our supplies were not plentiful, but sufficient. We needed to wait until the fog lifted to move. We were tired, we were cold, and some were slightly dehydrated from not drinking enough water during the hike. Those issues were all tended to.

The next morning the fog was again so thick we could barely our tents. That is when panic set in. It began with three adults whose conversation was easily overheard by the teenagers in a tent next to them. The morale deteriorated quickly, It was clear that the group was not in the mental condition to continue the trip, and the coast guard was radioed.

The original plan, made with the Coast Guard, was to bring in a helicopter for the few that felt that they could no longer go on. I was to go with them, not because I didn't want to finish the trip, but because a female adult needed to accompany the girls who were going. I was not pleased, but did not really have a choice. Other Coast Guard members would lead the rest of the group out. Of course, the Coast Guard can not land their helicopters in thick fog conditions either. We were stuck waiting it out either way. The atmosphere was tense at camp that day.

The following day the fog lifted and we could see that we were only several hundred yards from the beautiful blue ice and snow that would be the last leg of the hike. Morale was instantly better, but it was too late. The Coast Guard was on the way. I got into that helicopter with tears of anger welling in my eyes. It was a ride with beautiful scenery that I did not even see.

They took us to the hospital where the girls were "treated" by the staff. They took their vitals and gave them a meal. The other members of the group followed the Coast Guard down a path that Papaw and Jake said that they would not have chosen. A group member took a good fall, and though they were not hurt, the hike was called off. More helicopters were sent to "rescue" the remaining members of the group.

This a story that you will hear referred to often in our family, but hardly ever completely told. It has been six years exactly, and it still leaves a bitter, disappointed spot. There is such frustration at working so hard for something, being able to see the end, imagine the reward and then have it snatched from you.

When the Alaskan Backpacking trip comes up in conversation, it usually turns to the future; the trip we will take to complete the adventure. The trip where we go with a small group, including only family or those who are seasoned backpackers. The trip where we walk down that blue ice, and sit in those hot springs, savoring the accomplishment and the experience.

From the perspective of others on the trip: My husband Tim. My brother Jake with several pictures.


  1. Not that I was there, but I remember the trip well. It was on the news and, of course, we got updates through the family. It's nice to hear the full story. Too bad it was such a sad ending. I hope the next one comes soon adn goes much better.

  2. Yeah, I am going back. I don't care with who else, It will be me and at least my two sons.Check out my post for corrections and additions.

  3. What corrections? I didn't get it all right? Some of the details blur... I wonder where the journal is that I kept during that trip.

  4. My perspective maybe. Look at the book shelf beside you in the office. my post is up now.

  5. Love the "corrections" debate. :)

    So whose story is right? Well if you do come back up you'd better swing by Anchorage!

  6. Wow! I LOVE your posts. Keep them coming.

  7. How disappointing! I would have cried, too.

    Do you still backpack? DH and I did so avidly till we had kids. Now he goes at least once a year, taking the older kids with him. Someday my babies will all be big enough I can go too. No glaciers, though. I'm not as brave as you are!

  8. Nettie,
    We are sporadic backpackers. Love it but time and money were/are always and issue. That was our last trip. Since we have done more caving and rappelling type activities.

    Ours kids are also to little to take on a real backpacking trip, but we are talking about doing a base camp/ day hike kind of thing with them.

  9. What a bummer, but at least you have the memory of that beautiful glacier-fed lake. I would love to go back to Alaska and hike through that rainforest.