Friday, September 4, 2020

Taking the Path Revealed off the Nabesna Road

Decisions, decisions. Take the main path? Take the path less traveled? Or maybe take the path where there is no path. 

Ned Rozell had a few free days and invited me to do a trip. We hadn’t done one together since I joined him for 10 days on his 2017 Trans-Alaska Pipeline hike. Like that trip, he would be bringing his dog Cora. We all traveled well together then, so I was up for it. 

After discussing possibilities, we settled on a backpack trip in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. We chose the trip to Soda Lake off the Nabesna Road. It looked interesting and might provide fodder for the Alaska Science Forum column Ned writes.

We headed down Saturday morning, taking my 4WD truck because of two sometimes vigorous stream crossings required to get to the start. However, when we stopped at the Slana Visitor Center for trail updates, we were told the road was considered “impassable” due to high water: large trucks getting stuck, three feet deep in places, more rain in the forecast. We decided to change plans. 

Ned can do intense things. Besides his pipeline hikes, he has done several Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classics. But at times Ned can be kind of Zen, letting his path reveal itself rather than setting a goal and beelining toward it. Ned was in a Zen frame of mind and I was amenable. We discussed other possibilities, maybe hiking off-trail east or west. We finally just decided to hike up Caribou Creek Trail a couple of miles and camp. We’d figure out something in the morning.

Ned and Cora follow an NPS trail crew up the Caribou Creek Trail. 

On the trail we ran into a National Park Service trail crew and talked to crew leader Tim George. We told him we might hike to the east. Tim said there might be a flag-line in the hills, the route of a possible trail to connect Caribou Creek Trail to Trail Creek Trail, several miles to the east. The possibility of finding the flag-line intrigued me. We hiked on and made camp at the first creek crossing.

Our first night's camp.

Sunday morning, we decided to head east for some off-trail adventure. Maybe we’d shoot for Trail Creek. Maybe we’d follow its trail back to the Nabesna Road and walk/hitchhike back. Maybe we’d explore upper Trail Creek and hike back the way we came. Maybe we’d just let a path reveal itself. 

We followed the trail to where it ends at Caribou Creek Cabin. Sheep hunters had left a note saying they had reserved it as a bail-out option. We filled up on water and continued.

Ned purifies water at the Caribou Creek Cabin.

We hiked up, up, up a ridge to the east, a stiff climb for a dayhike, even tougher with a full backpack. But we finally crested it, taking in the tremendous vistas. To the south the higher Wrangell Mountains were in clouds, but the lake-filled plains were in full view. The rocky ridges of the Mentasta Mountains, which we had just entered, shot up behind us to the north. 

Ned hikes up the ridge from the Caribou Creek Cabin.

From our perch we could easily see to the east. The path that revealed itself required a hike down into the next drainage – Rock Creek -- losing all that elevation gain. But we saw a clear way down, so we shouldered our packs and descended. 

We planned to hike up Rock Creek and then over a low ridge into the Little Jack Creek, only one drainage over from Trail Creek. While ascending Rock Creek, Ned started to check his maps and GPS device more carefully and discovered that Caribou Creek Trail and Cabin are not in the Caribou Creek drainage. Say what? Silly us for making that assumption! We studied the maps and device, trying to make sense of things. I even disagreed with Ned, trying to force the surrounding landscape into the topo map. But Ned was right. Caribou Creek Trail actually goes up the Natal Creek drainage, just to the west of Caribou Creek. 

Fortunately, when you let the path reveal itself, little things like that are not a big deal. We hiked up the drainage we were in – Caribou Creek – toward the low ridge – which actually led to Rock Creek, two drainages from Trail Creek. 

Our path led us to the low ridge in the middle of the photo. 

On the way we crossed paths with one of the sheep hunters who had reserved the cabin. He planned to spend the night in the cabin but then would be heading out. He had it reserved for two more days and offered it to us. We thanked him and said we’d consider it. After all, maybe our path lay back to the cabin.

We headed over the ridge and into Rock Creek. Ned suggested we camp in the alpine tundra rather than descending into the brush. I agreed. We had covered more than six steep, off-trail miles. I was ready to eat and rest. Besides, it was a gorgeous place to camp. I was liking this path. 

Our camp site in the Rock Creek drainage.

At dinner we discussed our next day. We were still a ways from Trail Creek. Plus, its trail crosses the creek several times. How deep would those crossings be? And then it was 11 miles back on the road. One of my other ideas had been to head back west, staying in alpine country but a little lower than the route we had just taken. Maybe we could find the mysterious flag-line. Ned liked that idea. He saw a small plateau on the topo map in that direction. We both thought that was worth exploring.

The next morning, we headed west. Along the way we explored a couple of ridges that were good overlooks. As a science writer, Ned has spent time with archeologists on overlook points. Ancient hunters camped in such places, working on stone tools while looking for game in the valleys and flats below. We poked around but found nothing archeological. 

We continued on following game trails and breaks in the brush. I got all philosophical, declaring that our form of travel was like life: You moved forward and a path usually revealed itself. Occasionally, one didn’t, so you thrashed through the bushes for a bit. But if you put your head down and soldiered on, a new path would always reveal itself. Other traveling companions might have rolled their eyes, but Ned just nodded. 

Ned doing a bit of thrashing.

We hiked up a drainage to the plateau we had seen on the map. It had some pools of water, so we filled up and had lunch. While Ned took a nap, I explored the plateau with Cora. When we returned, Cora woke Ned with a nuzzle to the face. Ned didn’t seem to be in a hurry, so I asked if he wanted to spend the night. He did. We had only gone a couple of miles, but it was a great place to camp. Still, I wasn’t ready to stop moving. A steep hill rose above the plateau. Ned agreed we should climb it before dinner. The views from there were even more incredible. 

The plateau from the hill behind it. Our tents are just visible down there.

From the hill above the plateau.
Despite rain around us often, we got rain only on the first night while in our tents.

At dinner we discussed the next day. We knew we would descend into the Caribou Creek drainage. But then what? I thought it might be interesting to climb through a pass that had a lake and would then lead us to the Caribou Creek Trail. Maybe the flag-line would be there. Ned thought it might be interesting to follow Caribou Creek Trail to the road. From the plateau we could see where the creek had, eons earlier, broken through some geological barrier. I said once we passed that we might go into the spruce woods on the right. They looked drier than the left, which appeared swampy. Ned thought if we did that, we could meet up with the Caribou Creek Trail. The conversation ended without any specific plan, which seemed appropriate for the trip. The one thing we knew is that we would drive back to Fairbanks the next day.

The next morning, we rose and breakfasted at a leisurely pace. We packed up and headed down to Caribou Creek, where Ned pulled out his stove and treated me to a cup of Starbucks Via. A kind of goodbye to the mountains. 

On our way down to Caribou Creek we found this antler.

We started down Caribou Creek, trying to keep our feet dry for a bit, which was ridiculous in retrospect. We eventually waded that creek over a dozen times. We poked around and explored as we went. If you’re willing to slow down, nature has a lot to show you – patterned rocks, colorful hillsides and flowers, skulls and track of animals. But you have to slow enough to see it. 

We finally reached the geologic barrier: a massive wall of sedimentary rock, uplifted and bent. Somehow, over the eons, Caribou Creek had cut through it, revealing an impressive tapestry of patterned rock. Despite its monochrome color we just stood there for a while, taking in its beauty. 

After passing the barrier, I thought we would climb onto the right bank and head toward Caribou Creek Trail. But Ned continued to follow the creek. He saw a different path. I let Ned become my path and followed him following the creek. We crossed it multiple times. 

We came to a spot where debris had raised the creek bed enough so that the creek spilled out into the low forest to the east, pouring over moss and around trees. In another place, wide areas of dry gravel covered the forest floor, left behind by the overflowing creek. We guessed aufeis from winter blocked and diverted the creek in spring.

We found this old moose skull along the way.

The surprises continued. Most of the creek water that had spilled into the low forest seemed to disappear. Even the water in main channel seemed to lessen rather than increase. Had it all gone underground? We agreed that hydrology would have been an interesting field to study. 

A little later, we started to see tree stumps, cut straight. We looked for signs of a cabin. Instead we found several old engine blocks, ceramic spark plugs still intact, and several old boards, nails protruding. We pondered what we had stumbled across. An old mine or lumber mill? 

A short while later we stepped onto the Nabesna Road, our trip almost complete. The path ahead was now obvious. The path of our trip had not been the one we had planned, but it was interesting, enjoyable, and relaxing. Soon we would be back in town, pursuing definded goals and meeting deadlines. But for a while, we had enjoyed a different kind of life, letting the path reveal itself. 

Ned celebrates reaching the Nabesna Road.


  1. Just wandering aimlessly with a backpack and food, exploring Alaska, sounds pretty wonderful. Nice trip.

  2. Thanks! Have you ever gone wandering aimlessly in the Colorado backcountry?

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks! And thanks for sharing Ned with me for a bit!