Listening to Nature

By Annie Chien, Occidental College

I always thought I was a strong hiker, but maybe that was because I’d never hiked up a glacier.

During my undergraduate study abroad experience, I trekked around fifty miles through the Himalayas in Nepal, sometimes ascending ten to twelve kilometers a day. I thought I was prepared to handle any hike.

During Juneau Week, we completed long day hikes to the Herbert and Mendenhall glaciers to test our gear and practice hiking with a pack. The terrain was challenging, but I felt strong, confident and jazzed for the legendary hike to Camp 17, a 10 to 12 hour ascent to the ridge between the Lemon Creek and Ptarmigan glaciers. Little did I know that this hike was going to be as physically challenging as it was mentally.

 The terminus of the Herbert Glacier, on a hike during Juneau Week. Photo Credit: Annie Chen.

The terminus of the Herbert Glacier, on a hike during Juneau Week. Photo Credit: Annie Chen.

Our seven-person trail party started our hike behind the Juneau Home Depot at 7 am. My feet were blister-less and ready for action. Juneau sits in the largest national forest, the Tongass National Forest, in a temperate zone. This means that temperatures only vary from around 46 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and precipitation is above 28 feet annually. We hiked through gargantuan skunk cabbage, hemlock and spruce trees. As the wetness increased, so did our falling and slipping.

 Faculty Andrew Morries, and staffers Andrew Hollyday and Kate Bartell, observe the vegetation in the "vertical swamp" of the Lemon Creek Trail. Photo Credit: Annie Chen.

Faculty Andrew Morries, and staffers Andrew Hollyday and Kate Bartell, observe the vegetation in the "vertical swamp" of the Lemon Creek Trail. Photo Credit: Annie Chen.

We finally hit the first steep incline, also described to us as the “vertical swamp”: a steep, 300-meter ascent full of boot-ruining bog mud, and shrubby eye-level trees that were perfect for face slapping.

We slowly climbed into the low alpine ecosystem (LAE). A LAE is defined by low-lying shrubs, a cooler and dryer climate, and more protruding bedrock. Less soil tends to form at higher elevations, giving the land a pointy and bare look. 

 A trail party idles in the low alpine ecosystem. Photo credit: Annie Chen.

A trail party idles in the low alpine ecosystem. Photo credit: Annie Chen.

By this time, I was sure that my heavy backpack was on wrong as every movement caused sharp pain in my shoulders and the feeling of fire in my legs. I had the balance of a newly born giraffe. I was so tired and delirious, and trying so hard not get in my head about the various pains and discomforts in my body, that I wasn't paying attention when our leaders described deepness of the mud in this section of the hike. I was desperate to get to camp 17, still many hours and steps away.

I assumed the vegetation around a boggy pond was on solid ground and went to go step on it. I plunged thigh-deep into cold, anoxic bog water that probably has not been disturbed for years and that smelled like farts. Instinctively, I stuck my other foot into the bog to stabilize myself.

I came out with two boots full of water and dead plant material. For hours I felt the water slosh around and around as I climbed higher and higher, the water slowly freezing as my feet pruned. Needless to say, I was miserable. Each step grew harder than the last, which began to affect my mental fortitude.

The last fifty feet up to Camp 17 was both a mental and physical challenge. I almost didn’t think I could complete the trek up the Ptarmigan glacier. Were it not for my trail party hyping me up, and the promise of warm and dry feet just fifty feet above us at camp, I would have simply sat down in the snow.

 Camp 17 in a cloud a bank. Photo Credit: Annie Chen.

Camp 17 in a cloud a bank. Photo Credit: Annie Chen.

Maynard Miller, founder and director of JIRP for many years, used to say “Nature is screaming at you!” When I stepped into that bog without paying attention, when I stopped to look at the landscape before tripping on a root, and when I crossed a roaring river with a weighty pack, I felt and heard nature screaming at me. Finally, I'm learning to listen, and despite the tough hike, I feel ready for a summer full of traverses and adventures.