BACKPACKING THROUGH RIVERS OF HISTORY IN THE WRANGELLS
by Sharman Haley
A couple of summers ago, I backpacked with friends Mike, Janet, and Kathleen down the Goat Trail in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, from Skolai Pass over Chitistone Pass and down the Chitistone River to the bush landing strip at Glacier Creek. It took us seven days of walking, not counting layovers. The stampeders of 1913 were tougher: Eager to stake claims in the Chisana district where gold had been discovered that May, they lugged 50- to 100-pound packs up the same route in just three days.
Granted, some of them had horses, but not all, like the three madcap youths who forded the lower Chitistone with all their gear, got swept downriver, and made it out alive. They were damned lucky. Several others drowned that summer, even with horses.
Several thousand stampeders raced to Chisana through treacherous terrain by seven different routes. The Goat Trail from McCarthy, up the Chitistone to Skolai Pass, then over the Russell Glacier, was the shortest and fastest but also deadly, and impassible in the winter. Only a few prospectors found strikes worth working, and the stampede was short-lived. Of the 250 claims staked that year, just 21 were active by the next summer.
Notoriously short on supplies, the stampeders and miners paid good money to entrepreneurs who brought in supplies by pack train in summer and dog sled in winter. Today, it is the bush pilots and backcountry tour guides who make good money and visitors like us who eagerly pay for the adventure.
The earliest use of the Goat Trail was Ahtna traders carrying goods between the White River—a tributary of the Yukon—and the Copper River. Chief Nicolai had a camp at Dan Creek and told early explorers and prospectors about the route. Nowadays, guided groups sometimes use the upper trail to the airstrip at Wolverine, and hikers sometimes explore the river valley from the airstrip at Glacier Creek, but few people transit the whole Goat Trail—for good reason.
Our pilot dropped the DeHaviland Beaver gently on the tundra at Skolai Pass; it looked just the same as it did in gold rush days. Since we weren’t in a hurry to find gold and our packs were heavy—40 to 50 pounds— we took a layover day to hike, sightsee, and eat a couple pounds of grub. The next morning, we packed up and climbed the ridge overlooking Russell Glacier, which has changed dramatically. In July 1913, it took the Hazlet party four hours to cross, working with picks and shovels to prepare the ice for the horses. Today, that section is just a remnant. Glaciers in the Wrangells have been losing mass since the mid-1800s, and the rate of loss has been accelerating, says Wrangell-St. Elias National Park geologist Michael Loso. The terminus of the Russell has retreated nearly two miles and the surface area has shrunk by 11 square miles since the 1950s.
On the second day, after crossing the pass, we followed the right bank of the stream and snippets of trail, admiring every new vista of glaciers, rugged peaks, cascades, moraines, and churning brown rivers. The buttes resembled the mesas of the southwestern United States but with rivers of ice flowing from them. We reveled in the multicolored terrain, the variations in the rock layers and slides, the contrast between the barrenness of the moraines and the lushness of the alpine marshes. Distant glaciers traced sinuous curves and hung like ruffled aprons. We camped in a pocket meadow surrounded by a fairy land of peaked moraine piles covered with tundra and sculptured boulders.
On the third day, we crossed the most formidable section of the Goat Trail. In 1913, Hazlet described this section as “an extremely dangerous place for horses, the trail simply being a sheep trail widened to about two feet. The drop to the bottom is as much as 2,000 feet…and should a horse or man lose his footing he could not stop till he reached the bottom.” The section today is no different: only a faint sheep track in the fine scree, and very bad footing. A steady rain worsened the conditions. Tense already, we tried not to look down the precipitous slope. Crossing it at all was a sheer act of faith, hubris, or desperation, take your pick. Kathleen did, in fact, slip one foot down; helping her back up proved precarious.
Safely across, we took a layover day to explore a side valley. The geology of the region is of interest not only to prospectors, but also to rockhounds and visual thrill-seekers. There are basaltic massifs, craggy limestones, cliffy sandstones, gnarly marbles, sharded shales, motley conglomerates, intrusive andesites, 250 million-year-old fossils from Permian seabeds, yellow and red iron oxides, blue and green copper oxides, nuggets and nodules and crystal geodes from deep-cooling magmas, all twisted and sliced and diced by faults and rivers and glaciers. We poked around looking at rocks and admiring the three river gorges, the distant mountains and glaciers, and the multi-colored skirts of scree in the changing light.
The following day, the hike down to the floor of the river valley was not difficult. We stopped at overlooks to admire the gorge and Chitistone Falls, and wandered on a large, grassy bench watching a fox eat blueberries. The final slope to the river was steep and miserably thick with nearly impenetrable brush. One hundred years ago, the hill had still been raw, and the face of the Chitistone Glacier was right at the river.
We camped at the confluence of the north branch flowing from the gorge and the east branch coming from the glacier, waiting till morning to tackle the next challenge: crossing both forks of the frigid Chitistone River. Glacial rivers are lowest in the early morning and flood with meltwater as the day warms. When it really gets flowing, you can hear melon-sized cobbles tumbling down the riverbed. Not a good time to ford.
Crossing the rivers is just as hazardous now as it was for the stampeders. In 2002, three hikers linked arms and tried to cross the Chitistone but lost their footing when one of them slipped. The two who had unclipped their backpacks made it across, but the third was swept away with his pack still on and drowned. In 2018, two experienced hikers who knew enough to unclip their waist belts still got swept away and died fording the Sanford River.
Mike, the tallest and heaviest in our group, crossed the first channel, but the water flowed too deep and swift for me. Kathleen prospected a lower crossing that looked a little better. With a “do or die” attitude, I removed my pants, put on my boots with no socks, and forged across. It was thigh deep and muddy with a strong current, but I made it. Mike shed his pack and crossed back to assist Kathleen and Janet crossing in tandem.
We still had to cross the glacial branch of the river, even colder, with chunks of ice in the water and stranded on the beach. We prospected upstream for the most braided section. We decided to cross the first channel with all four of us in a linked group, Mike upstream to break the current. We then dashed across several small bars and streams to reassemble the team on the margin of the last big channel. Our feet were frozen and our legs numb, but the river was rising fast so we didn’t tarry. It was deep but not so swift that we lost our footing. We embraced the shore and whooped—Hooray! We made it! We holed up in a small ravine out of the wind and fired up some soup, just as the rain began.
Farther on, we reached an unnamed glacial stream right at peak flow, and again decided to wait and cross in the morning. As soon as camp was set up, hard rain pelted us, and we dove into our tents until first light. After the morning crossing, we encountered a vast outwash of rubble from a 1985 landslide. Clambering over that was easy compared to the bushwhacking that followed, another reminder of how the landscape has changed: The river bars and channels are more consolidated and thickly vegetated now; dense alder is characteristic of early plant succession.
We reached Toby Creek mid-afternoon and, once again, decided to wait for lower water in the morning. I woke up in the pre-dawn to the sound of more rain and worried: Would the creek flood and be too high? What if we couldn’t get out in time for our pick-up? I finally fell back asleep. When I woke, the clouds were lifting. We packed up and forded the creek without much difficulty. The route along the wide gravel bar was easy from there. The sun emerged just in time for lunch at the Glacier Creek landing strip. Ahh, deliverance!
My advice to future adventurers? Stick to the high country and don’t go in rainy August.
Sharman Haley is a retired professor of public policy and a freelance writer. Janet Jensen is a freelance photographer and adventurer. For sharing their expertise, they thank Michael Loso, geologist for the National Park Service; Georey Bleakley, historian retired from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park; and Jennifer Getsinger, geologist.