Side hike off Crescent Lake becomes a ‘thrash and bash’
Encumbered by my 48-inch long snowshoes that I’ve bragged about so often in this space, movement was painfully slow amidst the tangle of willows and hemlock trees. It felt like I was trying to steer two battleships through a jungle.
Not content on Saturday, April 14th to ski 6-1/2 miles to the Kenai Peninsula’s Crescent Lake Saddle Cabin, I told my friends it would be fun to hike up through the low pass south of the cabin to reach a divide that surely would offer a great view of Kenai Lake.
On this side hike I was joined by three others: Harold Faust, of Seward; Kneeland “Kneely” Taylor and Christine Ahlstrom, both of Anchorage. Kenton Curtis, also of Anchorage, remained back at the cabin.
Snow was softening in the afternoon sun and we had a choice: short snowshoes that would certainly sink deep into the snow with every step, but would work going through trees, deadfall and other obstacles; or long snowshoes that wouldn’t sink, but were designed for open country. I chose the latter, and it was a major mistake.
Having visited the cabin several times over the years – accessed from Mile 34 on the Seward Highway via the steep Carter Lake trail, and then skiing four miles about half-way across Crescent Lake– I thought about this side trip often. Had I pulled up a Google Earth image, I would have noted that the area to the south of the Crescent Saddle Cabin is heavily forested. Instead, I relied on a topographic map that denotes vegetation in green, which should not be discounted!
Green denotes brush and trees, and the route we chose contained both. There was also plenty of deadfall and a small stream that required crossing so that we could reach open terrain. And in this dense maze, we considered 20-30 feet of open ground without obstacles “good traveling.”
On the fun meter, with 10 being the best, such as a blissful ski down a powder slope in the Chugach Mountains, this situation rated somewhere about 2. “It’s got to get better,” one of us would say about every 15 minutes. “It has to open up.”
I told Kneely: “I bet explorers Merriweather Lewis and William Clark said those exact words often on their epic expedition west to find the Pacific Ocean.”
Top of the pass: Finally, after a couple hours of bashing and thrashing, we approached the divide at about 1,700 feet. There was now a wide, treeless stretch and for a brief time my GIGANTIC snowshoes had a purpose, as I broke trail for my fellow travelers. Now on level ground, we crossed over a small lake and could at last see where the terrain turned downhill. But because of the tall hemlock trees, there was no view of Kenai Lake.
There wasn’t much sign of wildlife, although we came across what looked like lynx tracks, and Harold spotted a trail in the snow on the mountain above that was probably made by a goat. At the lake there was evidence of an old beaver dam, but we couldn’t find remnants of a beaver house.
We took a short break before hiking back down to the cabin. Although I dreaded trying to force my unwieldy snowshoes through the thickets, going downhill seemed somewhat easier. We were back at the cabin about 8 p.m., weary and quite hungry.
Avoiding the thaw: We packed up and left the cabin early the next day before the sun came up and began melting the lake ice. In the afternoon, sunlight reflected off the mountain sides and lake would create something akin to a radiant oven, with temperatures reaching about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
We angled toward the lake’s more shaded, southern shore to avoid much of the ice that had formed on Crescent Lake’s main body.
There was considerably more overflow on the lake April 14th than on April 7th during a trip with a friend, Carl Portman. In a conversation with a ranger, he mentioned that the third week of April might be the last time this year that it would be safe to cross the lake on skis or snow machine.
After crossing Crescent Lake, with two of us pulling sleds, we removed our skis and hiked down the steep Carter Lake trail. With hard-packed snow, ice and tight corners, this trail would challenge even the best skier.
The 12’ x 14’ public use Crescent Lake Saddle Cabin sleeps six and can be rented from the U.S. Forest Service for $60 per night. For reservations go to Recreation.gov. The dwelling is equipped with a wood stove, a rowboat with oars and a saw to cut wood and even an awl to split it.
In summer, a primitive 6-1/2-mile trail to the cabin skirts around the south side of Carter and Crescent Lakes, but in winter is not safe due to avalanches. In winter, skiing across the middle of the lakes is the safest route.
A longer trail, called the Crescent Creek Trail, comes in from Sterling Highway and Quartz Creek Road. Hiking about 6-1/2 miles on this trail puts you at another U.S. Forest Service cabin at the west end of Crescent Lake. Winter travel in this area is not advised because of avalanches.
Despite the flummox with snowshoe gear and the unexpected thrash into the pass, it was good to make new friends and share stories in the comfort of the cabin.
Capping off the night was a recitation of Robert Service’s poem, “The Spell of the Yukon,” by yours truly. I think it reminded us of how lucky we are to live in the north country; or as Service wrote:
“It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that fills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.