Gate to Gate

The Needles Highway, one of the famous scenic routes in the Black Hills, takes on a new character in its winter isolation. The gates close late in the fall, not to open again until spring, but a handful of hikers, skiers, and snowshoers take to the highway to enjoy the beauty of the spires and sprawling landscape. Sarah and I decided to add ourselves to that number and hike the Needles Highway, gate to gate. IMG_3378eWe set off after church. Our mom dropped us off at Sylvan Lake, and we would then hike to our truck, which our loving family left for us at the other end of the highway on their way home.IMG_3381eWe were set. We had plenty of water, food, an extra layer, and a whole bunch of enthusiasm. I was only too excited to get to try out my brand new Osprey Sirrus 24 backpack, which I had bought with Christmas money from my Uncle Jim. An 8 mile hike in springlike weather would be heavenly. And it sure was, to start with. The blue sky was overwhelming, the sunlight was almost too warm and the trail was a gradual uphill climb to the Needles Eye lookout and tunnel. Stunning. Pristine. We chatted and laughed and walked quickly, making pretty good time, stopping occasionally for pictures and enjoying the views.IMG_3421eIMG_3433eThen we got past the Needles Eye. For about another mile, things went swimmingly. But we had made a handful of miscalculations and we were starting to realize it.IMG_3448eFirst (Call us ignorant. Or naive. Either works.), since we hadn’t had any snow in two weeks, we made the mistake of assuming that there wouldn’t be “that much” snow on the highway. I mean, look at this pictures of the spires! It sure doesn’t look like there’d be “that much.” Well, there was. However much we imagined “that much” to be, there was that, and more.  Starting about a mile past the Needles Eye, the real snow began. At times, we hiked in just a few inches, but other times we stumbled into almost knee-high drifts that continued on for way too long. Eight miles had seemed easy. But 8 miles in heavy and sometimes deep snow? Talk about a workout. By mile 2 or so, our tracks were the only tracks on the highway (all the smart people had turned around), except for a very faint, lonely set of ski tracks. Another fresher set of ski tracks showed up around mile 5.5 and we accompanied those the rest of the way out.
IMG_3454eSecond, we had assumed a hiking time based on little snow. Let’s just say it is a good thing we headed out on the trail when we did, and didn’t dawdle at church any longer.

Third, we assumed weather based on Custer’s weather. But the problem is, when your hike takes you over a mountain range to the other side of said mountains, even modest mountains like the Black Hills, even a relatively short hike, weather patterns change. Not because the weather actually changed, but because you leave one hemisphere and enter another hemisphere. At about mile 5.5, we left all the beautiful sun and blue sky behind us on the other side of the Hills and entered into a damp, dark, cheerless fog bank. It was great fun.

By mile 6, our boots had soaked through, the sun was gone behind the hills, the fog was eerily clinging to the trees, our protein bars were frozen, my hip was aching, we were constantly in snow up over the top of our hiking boots, and our hiking time was suffering. Sunset and our exit time were starting to overlap in our minds to an uncomfortable degree. We had lights, but still…Then we started to see very large mountain lion tracks. Our hiking time magically improved. Amazing. Although I’m by no means a mountain lion expert, I’ve seen mountain lion tracks on a number of occasions, and these absolutely dwarfed the others I’ve seen. The spread of that cat’s toes was impressive. Since we were getting a little jumpy in the fog and the failing sunlight, we failed to get a comparison shot, with our hand or something next to the paw print for reference. So for all you know, our brains blew up the size of the print in our minds and what you’re looking at is really a little old bobcat print, or even a wandering house cat. Meow.  IMG_3456eIn summary – A lot of things could have gone wrong in those 8 miles, but they didn’t. In spite of some lack of planning, the hike was fantastic, the views were beautiful, and the memory is a fun one. The Sirrus backpack was fantastic – I never even felt it on my shoulders. Snowshoes would have been nice. Winterized hiking boots would have been nice as well. Wool socks are amazing. My socks were damp probably by mile 2.5 (to the point of leaving wet prints on the occasional patches of dry asphalt when I stopped to shake snow out of my boots), but my feet felt dry until about mile 5 or 6. But even then my feet never actually felt cold. Sloshy, yes. Cold, no. The sight of our truck at the end of the highway was a welcome sight, I have to say.IMG_3458eWhat a hike. A great start to the hiking season!




Mercury Zero

Nothing like a cold snap to inspire appreciation of warmer temperatures. But I still love the cold. I love the clearness of the air, the clouds of steam from mouth of man and beast, the ringing silences and the frosty pictures on the windowpanes. I love the chill, and even the burn of cold on face and fingers and toes. The searing cold in the lungs. And then I love shivering into our warm cabin and feeling the life coming back to cold self.  After what felt like a very long fall and an unseasonably warm December, we are paying for it. And I love it. It snowed gently all day yesterday, making for a lovely, cozy white Christmas, and today the sun came out in the bluest of winter skies. But even the hours of sunlight couldn’t warm the air, and the cold almost seemed to snap and crackle like shattering icicles. The thermometer read about 1 degree Fahrenheit all day long, and plunged into negative temps as the sun disappeared. Our cabin’s cove heating is struggling to keep up with the chill and the indoor temperature has hovered around 60 degrees today, in spite of being turned up much warmer than that. We have a wood burning stove, but it probably hasn’t been used in a decade – Sarah and I are ready to have the chimney inspected so we can supplement (or replace) the cove heating! In the meantime, we use lots of layers, blankets, and hot tea. We had the brilliant idea today to do a some Jeeping and buzz over to Little Falls for a short hike. Because that is the normal thing to do when it is 1 glorious Fahrenheit degree outside. The Jeep tried communicating its unwillingness due to the cold, but Sarah coaxed it along, and we made a mad dash to Little Falls, took a look, and immediately turned around. The frozen swimming hole and frozen creek looked as frozen as we felt, but the icy chuckling of the water beneath the frozen falls was friendly sounding. I don’t think we’d ever hiked to and from Little Falls quite that quickly, our feet and fingers and faces cold and aching within a couple of minutes of hiking! But here in the Hills, we often enjoy dry cold, so even the frigid temps aren’t as bitter as if we had more humidity. It was a lovely, brisk (i.e. frigid) hike, and we even got a few good photos! Tonight, the temps have sunk even lower, and all the critters will be inside for the night. The cats were all in last night, but even the dogs will be inside tonight. We’ll batten down the hatches, boil some water for tea, and snuggle under blankets and watch a movie. Not a bad way to end a cold winter day.



Cheap Renters

A recent Sunday-afternoon hike to Bill Falls (a.k.a. Hippie Hole) reminded me once again of how much ownership people think they have over these places that don’t belong to anyone, yet belong to everyone. As the sounds of loud music and profanity-laced conversation reverberated through the canyon near the Falls, I moved downstream, away from the chaos. It is truly amazing how many bikinis, beer bottles, and profanities hang out at Big Falls when the weather is nice enough for swimming. One reason my favorite time to go is winter. No one else is there.
IMG_4055eWhen I go deeper into God’s country, I want to see God’s order, not man’s chaos. I want to hear the silences and sounds of solitude. I want to smell the freshness of the wilderness, not beer and chlorine (yes, Big Falls actually smelled like chlorine…). I want to hear the music of the creek, not rock music. I don’t want to see garbage clogging up the creek. I don’t want to see broken glass, bottle caps, misplaced sandals, and abandoned pool toys. Essentially, I want to see less of people. More particularly, less of the profanity-spewing, intoxicated, pot-smoking variety. I like going there and seeing people having good, honest fun. But why does “fun” now have to include drugs and alcohol? Honestly, it is no wonder so many of the events for the local search and rescue involve Big Falls. When you combine beer and boulders and deep water, the results are likely to be devastating. As they too often are. We have these beautiful places to enjoy, places that are relatively untouched, and it is a shame that they are overrun during the summer with drugs and alcohol. When I see people with their piles of beer bottles (yes, literally piles), I find myself wondering whether they even care to remember the hike or not.

It is irritating to hike down to arguably one of the most beautiful corners of the Black Hills, with the graceful Falls, the pools of water, the towering granite crags, the mountain goats, the lush foliage in beautiful fall colors…and be greeted with a profane atmosphere that would merge well with a college campus, piles of beer bottles, and exceptionally skimpy swimming suits.

And this dynamic I think we have to blame on locals. Tourists don’t know enough about the area to go there with coolers of beer (the mental image of someone trying to navigate the trail to Big Falls carrying a cooler of beer is hilarious, by the way). So all you local kids who think it is cool to go down there to drink underage and smoke pot, get a life. Leave the Falls alone, so those not into drinking and pot smoking actually feel welcome there. And, just a thought, it might save you a fine or jail time. Sarah and I went to Big Falls much earlier this year, probably in May, and pretty much decided never to go there by ourselves again, at least not without taking a gun with us. The feeling of vulnerability is intimidating, when as females by ourselves we realized that the guys up on the rocks were smoking pot and watching us. At least I had my hefty lens with me. I knew I could do at least a little damage with that.

So please excuse my rant. But these Hills, these scenic spots, do not belong to us. They are on loan to us for a little while. I wish people would quit acting like cheap renters.

Canada/Alaska Adventure | Entry #10

America from the earliest days was built upon tenacity and determination. Each place has its stories of the men and women who were the first-comers, the settlers, the pioneers, those at the front lines of the frontier. Driven by myriad reasons, but driven nonetheless, men and women trekked through the harshest conditions to pursue and fulfill those dreams. It is amazing to what lengths mankind is willing to go, to expand, to explore, to pursue freedoms and wealth and opportunity and stability and adventure. And the further west and north in the United States, the more recent those stories are.

The Independence Mine was a hardrock gold mine, formed by the joining of two mining companies in 1938, and was worked until its closure in 1951. It was the second most productive Alaskan gold mine, producing nearly $18 million by today’s standards. This is an informative article, briefly outlining the history of the mine. IMG_0035eIMG_0026eIMG_0045eIMG_0053eJenny and I, along with a friend of Jenny’s, visited the mine on Friday, after we hiked Hatcher’s Pass. If we hadn’t been starving and a little pressed for time, we could easily have spent more time walking the trails around the park, taking pictures, and taking in the scenery. Run-down and tumble-down buildings, in various stages of dilapidation, hugged the mountainside, giving quiet testimony to a time when the area was alive with industry. It is amazing to think of the men who first came into this area, in spite of – and maybe because of – how remote and rugged it is. The camp buildings in particular were fascinating to me, as someone who loves old buildings, but also because of how out of place they seemed compared with the rest of the mine buildings. The bunkhouses, cookhouse, and other camp buildings, according to the informational signs, were painted with aluminum paint and red trim, “giving the camp a clean, cheerful appearance.” The manager of the mine wanted to keep his miners happy, and the accommodations were known as the best in the area. IMG_0081eIMG_0127eIMG_0118eIMG_0114eIMG_0002eIMG_0014eIMG_0097eSo much history, and so recent. A step back in time.




Canada/Alaska Adventure | Entry #9

What had begun as a beautiful Sunday morning and early afternoon turned to clouds and drizzle by the late afternoon and evening. The closer we got to the Lion’s Head trailhead, the greyer and rainier it became, but we had coats with us and set out hiking in the drizzle.
IMG_9724eAn online hiking article states that the trail is 1 1/2 miles long, and it definitely is a good scramble, steep, narrow, and slick in the rain. Jenny and my Uncle Dan both are skeptical of the 1 1/2 miles and think it has to be shorter – I’m not. Though, it didn’t feel nearly as long coming back down!

IMG_9698eIMG_9577eMost of the trail does indeed go straight up, with a few too-short switchbacks and some rocky climbs. The rain had made the trail a muddy mess and the footing somewhat treacherous in places. Lots of easy handholds are to be had, however. About half of the distance is in forest growth, though there are open areas boasting beautiful views of the Matanuska Valley. The rain and clouds and mist gave the landscape a moody, surreal atmosphere at times, with the river and the Glen Highway gleaming dully in the distance, beneath towering clouds and strange sunlight. The scramble includes a stretch of boulder field, which was easy to navigate and was actually a nice break from the raw, muddy scramble. The trail begins to level out towards the top, with a pretty gentle grade over the ridge to the actual peak. IMG_9604eIMG_9573eOnce again, I couldn’t help but exclaim over the strange terrain, with the soft and spongy moss covering pretty much everything in thick, tangled mats. Large lichens added weird pattern and texture. Tiny flowers poked up among the fronds of moss, delicate and seemingly vulnerable, and little ferns grew impossibly in the boulder field. How amazing, that God has equipped these plants with fortitude and tenacity to be able to grow and flourish in such harsh climates. IMG_9574e IMG_9611eIMG_9595eIMG_9582eIMG_9596eIMG_9701eThere were glorious views once we reached the top, and the sun began to show itself. There must have been some electrical activity in the storm, since our hair was standing up on end at the peak, in spite of being wet from the rain. Hoards of mosquitoes were also waiting for us, as well as a number of swallows dipping and diving over the cliffs, and beautiful clusters of wildflowers springing up seemingly from the rock itself. The Matanuska Glacier snaked back out of sight, hidden by mountains and mist. A swampy area dotted with little lakes sprawled between us and the glacier. The mountains along the Matanuska Valley were blue with rain, losing themselves in the distance. Breathtaking, truly.IMG_9669e We hiked back down the trail, bug-bitten, rain-wet, sweaty, and muddy. What a joy, to be able to spend God’s Day in His glorious Creation, marveling at His handiwork, His Creative powers in having shaped and formed this world we live in!



Canada/Alaska Adventure | Entry #6

Happy first day of summer! Here in Glacierview, AK, we are enjoying the last bit of daylight at midnight – We’ll have 19 hours and 21 minutes of daylight today! Honestly, it is the light that is the biggest adjustment for me up here. Sleeping really isn’t an issue, since I can hang a blanket over the window, but energy is the issue! At home, I’d be tired by 11:00pm, particularly if I had just gone on a hike and had a busy day (both of which I did today!), but when it is daylight outside, the energy just doesn’t turn off. The daylight really has wreaked havoc on my sleep, since I’ve been staying up a lot later, and then a few mornings ago I was wide awake at 4:30am! I love it.IMG_9421eIMG_9476eIMG_9452eIMG_9444eAfter dinner this evening, probably around 8:00 or a little later, Jenny and I climbed up to Big Rock, which overlooks the whole valley, with the Matanuska River snaking its way along way below, and the houses and Victory Bible Camp scattered like little models here and there in the trees. We left home in a slight rain, and enjoyed a rainbow on the way to the top, but once we were at Big Rock, it cleared up a bit, and the sun even came out briefly. The clouds were wisping over the mountaintops, and the Matanuska Glacier could be seen further east. IMG_9493eWhat a day. So much to marvel at.