At 7:30 a.m. in early June, as hiking buddy Pete Panarese and I slogged our way up the snow-covered Crow Pass National Historic Trail under clear blue skies, I kept looking for the large footprints of a hiker who had come from the other direction. They were solid, at least a day old, and the only thing keeping us from sinking deep into the snow.
I knew there was going to be a lot of snow this early in the year, but didn't expect it to be as soft. I'd hiked this 21-mile trail 12 years ago at this time of year from Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center. At the time, the snow was firm as a sidewalk and not as deep. I completed that trip in roughly nine hours.
Due to snow blocking the road, we'd begun our journey about a half-mile from the trailhead at the end of 3.5-mile Crow Pass Road, which begins in Girdwood. It was early summer, with the bushes just popping out in green.
Trudging through unrelenting snow, it took us about three hours to reach the 3,100-foot summit, and we were surprised to see a new U.S. Forest Service cabin and outhouse. They were at a new location -- to the north and overlooking Crystal Lake. We wanted to check out the new cabin, which apparently was occupied by a lone skier, but in the interest of time, forged ahead.
I became so attached to the large footprints holding me up on the snow that I gave them a name: Bigfoot.
"Where's Bigfoot?" I asked Pete.
"Over to the right," he said matter of factly.
We had lunch at the summit on a bare patch of mossy ground with a grand view of Raven Glacier, almost completely covered with snow except for some exposed crevasses. Through binoculars, I could barely make out a pair of footprints headed up the middle of the deceivingly smooth expanse. Beneath that snow were huge crevasses that could swallow a school bus.
Reflecting on yesteryear
Relaxing in the warm mid-day sun, with not a breath of wind, I thought about the early pioneers who drove dog teams over this pass more than 100 years ago. This was part of the Iditarod Trail to Nome and in elevation, the highest point they would reach on the 1,150-mile trip. After a steep ascent from Girdwood, when they reached this point they probably breathed a sigh of relief to see Eagle River Valley below. I'm not sure what maps were available to the mushers, but when they emerged from Crow Pass, with the glacier about a mile closer than it is today, they must have known that turning left, or north, was their only option.
A couple of young hikers with a dog were ahead of us, but their footprints were not nearly as firm as "Bigfoot's," which I followed religiously as we descended toward the first big stream, Clear Creek.
Before the creek on a big hill, we were rejuvenated by a 500-foot glissade. About a quarter mile behind us were three women and we could hear them whoop and holler as they followed our butt-sledding grooves.
Ahead were a lot of big snow patches we knew would soften as the day wore on. "Bigfoot," however, remained reliable as it tracked perfectly on this old Iditarod trail.
Back to summer
As we emerged from Crow Pass into Eagle River Valley, the first thing we noticed was green bushes and trees. In a matter of hours, we had traveled from summer to winter and back again.
We had planned to take a shortcut and cut into the Eagle River drainage toward Raven Creek, but we weren't sure of the trail so we continued to the right -- up valley-- following the main trail. We made an easy river crossing, however, about half-mile below the regular location. The bone-numbing water wasn't much above our knees.
From about Turbid Creek (about 18 miles from the Eagle River Nature Center) to Icicle Creek at Mile 6, there was lots of deadfall across the trail -- some really big stuff – and patches of overgrowth.
"This is a national historic trail and one of the state’s premier hiking locations," said Pete. "It's a shame it doesn't receive more attention in the form of regular maintenance."
Maintenance is needed if the Crow Pass Crossing racers in July intend to set good times. Every time I hike this trail, it staggers my mind that the race record is under three hours.
There were no bear sightings, but we did see five moose, a dozen sheep, and 22 other folks along the route. Without blisters or bruises, but bone weary, we finished at 11:30 p.m., with two cold ones on ice waiting in Pete's car at the Eagle River Nature Center (Mile 12 on the Eagle River Road). Elapsed time 14 hours -- not exactly a record, but considering the trail conditions and the fact neither of us are spring chickens, perhaps not so bad.
Before setting out I should have read the log on the Girdwood side to see who might have been on the trail June 1 or shortly thereafter. Whoever the person is with big feet and a long stride, I want to thank them. Sans snowshoes, our already-difficult hike would have been nearly impossible without those nice, big, firm footprints.
On the drive home I thought again about those intrepid pioneers from a century ago. With a good freight dog team, which back in those days averaged about 20 dogs, (fewer for mail runs) and decent trail conditions, they could have made the journey in a third of our time. But with deep snow, extreme cold, wind, avalanches and other hazards, there were probably some who didn’t make it all.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. Pete Panarese is a retired state park official and a member of the Chugach State Park Board who also lives in Eagle River.