The grade of the gravel mining road was steepening and littered with cobble-sized rocks, creating some challenges for bicycling, particularly for this novice off-trail cycler.
My buddy Pete Panarese seemed to be doing a little better, riding a short distance ahead of me. But soon we were both walking our bikes. “This hill has got to let up pretty soon,” I said to Pete between huffs. “It doesn’t look this steep on the map.” (I’m quite positive these eight infamous words are eternally chorused by hikers and climbers the world over).
No sooner had I uttered those words when we came around a bend – revealing another undocumented stretch of steepness.
It was a bluebird day on August 23, 2015. The easy part of the trip started a few hours earlier when we drove south from Eagle River to the Kenai Peninsula. At Mile 71 of the Seward Highway we turned right onto the Hope Road; and after about 16 miles, turned left onto Bear Creek Road, just outside of Hope. After two miles on the bumpy gravel road, we came to a gate, where we parked the car. We were told earlier by a U.S. Forest Service park ranger that it was permissible to take our bikes beyond the gate into the valley, even though there were active mining claims in the area. Four-wheelers, on the other hand, are prohibited.
A road into the small valley was built to support mining operations that began as early as 1894, according to Marry Barry’s book, A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Early mining was by pick and shovel. Hydraulic mining was done in 1904 but proved difficult because of the presence of large boulders.
One of the largest hard rock or lode mines in the upper part of Bear Creek Valley was the Nearhouse mine, operated by Iver Nearhouse. Since mining operations still exist along Bear Creek, it is essential that hikers and other visitors respect their property and equipment.
After about half a mile the terrain became more gentle, and riding became a bit easier. We rode about another mile and when the trail deteriorated, stashed the bikes and began hiking. It was only another mile to reach the alpine meadows and a beautiful emerald-colored lake – set like a jewel in the surrounding Kenai Mountains.
“The Hills Are Alive…” – The iconic lyrics by Julie Andrews in the movie “The Sound of Music” are almost irrepressible when one enters such an alpine Shangri-La. A few other locales come to mind: Lost Lake and Carter Lake – both on the Kenai Peninsula; Kesugi Ridge in Denali State Park; and Reed Lakes in Hatcher Pass. (I’ll confess that neither of us sounded anything like Julie Andrews. I fear that if she heard us, she would probably be quite disturbed, maybe even confused.)
We had a snack and lingered in the sun by the lake, then decided to climb a nearby unnamed peak to our immediate southeast. Its elevation was about 3,500 feet, but we were already at roughly 2,800 feet. After a little more than an hour, we crested over the ridge and hiked up to the high point. Our two main views were south into Palmer Creek Valley, the location of the Coeur de’Alene and Swetmann mining ruins. To the north was mud-colored Cook Inlet—and to the east and west, rugged Kenai Mountains stretched as far as the eye could see. We lingered again with snacks and coffee. Suddenly the quiet was disturbed by high-pitched shrieking. Somewhere on that ridge was a nest, and it was being protected by what we believe were a pair of Sharp-shinned hawks. As they swooped over the ridge, we could see their bodies had a gray coloration, and they sported white tail feathers. They didn’t dive-bomb us, but it was obvious we were not welcome in their territory.
After awhile we descended back into the valley and hiked back to our bikes. We quickly realized I had a flat tire.
We couldn’t use my spare inner tube because it has a standard-sized (Schrader) type valve stem that didn’t fit through my tire rim, which was built for the slim (Presta) style stem. So the two-mile journey down the valley involved the rigorous pumping and re-inflating the tire many times. I am quite positive this inner tube stem problem has occurred with others. Competitive bikers claim the slim stems are sturdier, more aerodynamic and inflate easier. Competitive biker I am not. Even with the tire inflation problem, our downhill trip allowed us to stay on the bikes longer than we anticipated. We were back at the car in less than an hour.
Memories of some places stay with us, and ever since that trip two years ago, I’ve wanted to return. I’m certain that in his day, my dad would not expend the time or effort to get into this area unless he was hunting game or searching for gold. For me, I’m content just visiting such awesome places, wandering around, taking a few photos and contemplating what it was like for fortune seekers who tarried there more than a century ago.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank, email: firstname.lastname@example.org