After about six miles, the trail seemed to end at the “Knob,” a prominent feature deep in the East Fork (Eklutna) Valley. Clamoring over rocks alongside the stream, bushwhacking through dense brush, and attracting bugs with our sweat, we worked our way south around the Knob for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of the valley’s end, which we knew was still several miles away. Coming upon Baleful Creek, we decided we had enough thrashing and bashing and turned around.
That was a warm summer day about 20 years ago when my friend, the late Dave Gahm, and I decided to see how far we could get into the East Fork of the Eklutna River drainage. After the 10-1/2 mile bike ride along the Eklutna Lakeside Trail, we ditched our bicycles in the woods and began the hike over a fairly decent trail. It was familiar ground because we were on the route to Bold Peak via Stiver’s Gully, which I had climbed in 1993. And 30 years earlier, I had even hiked the trail on a sheep hunt.
At about mile 2-1/2, we took a short side trip up a trail toward Tulchina Falls and snapped a few photos. Then we hiked the main trail a bit farther and stopped by a small lake to have some lunch. The only wildlife we’d spotted so far were Dall sheep high on the mountain slopes. Towering above us on our right, or west, was a jagged knife-edge peak known as the Mitre, at 6,551 feet.
About 4-1/2 miles into the hike, over a trail that was better than I expected, we came upon a huge scree slide on our left, and it brought back memories.
Memory jog: In early September of 1963, at age 18, I led an older friend on a sheep hunt, and we climbed that same slide to the ridge to set up camp – at about 4,500 feet. I’d never been sheep hunting before, but my father had always told me to go high and hunt from above. With constant rain, we were teeth-chattering cold for days, and we were poorly equipped. We spotted a full-curl ram on the second day, but weren’t able to get close.
As a diversion, we hiked north along the ridge toward 5,545-foot Baneful Peak, hoping to summit. In a foggy gloom (both me and the weather), I thought we had reached the top, which would put a significant first ascent on my climbing resume. (But years later, when I was looking at photos from Dave Hart, another climber, I realized we had not attained the summit). After a couple of days, we packed up and began the long trip home. Overall, the trip was more of a survival expedition than a sheep hunt. After six days, we returned battered and ravenously hungry. Back in those days, the journey was unaided by the use of bicycles, and for part of the journey up East Fork River, we hiked on the opposite side of the stream where there was no trail—and probably isn’t to this day—except for game trails.
Navigating the Knob: But now, thirty years later, this summer hike with Dave Gahm was rather pleasant. That is- until we reached the Knob. Going directly up and over it didn’t look appealing. Going around it didn’t either. At the time, we didn’t know what the climbers of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) already knew: you don’t hike around the Knob at stream level. Instead, from the base of the Knob, you ascend straight up the mountain (east) about 1,500 feet and connect with sheep trails. Those trails take you farther south and into beautiful alpine meadows at the base of Baleful Peak.
The route we took, the roughly one-mile circuit around the Knob, was one of the harder bushwhacks I’ve ever undertaken. Sweating profusely and under heavy attack by mosquitoes and flies, there were more than a few expletive deletes slicing the air. After our break at Baleful Creek, we had no other recourse than to turn around and come back the same way we came.
Since that hike, I’ve learned MCA’s intel about the area, and I’ve wanted to return and do it the right way. I’ve flown over the area in a bush plane, and the alpine meadows beneath 7,990 foot Baleful Peak look heavenly. Mountaineers have told me that the area around and above the Knob has a rather large concentration of bears, both grizzly and black.
But I’d still love to go there someday—if only to look down defiantly upon the Knob and bask in triumphant glee.