THE BENCH TRAIL
When I hit the single-track Bench Trail the elevation gain
over the next half mile was only 200 feet, a fairly gradual ascent, but the footing was slick.
Snow, mud, and water defined the path -- where I could find it.
I encountered several "snow bridges" over the
creek within this short span.
Snow bridges can be very dangerous if a
hiker, runner, or dog falls through the snow and can't get out. These
don't look like they are that deep but I gave them a wide berth anyway:
No sense risking an injury or worse.
The footing got increasingly difficult as I
climbed higher. I got tired of slogging through the softening snow, mud,
water, and brush. In addition, dark
clouds were rolling in over the mountain from the west so I turned around at only 1˝ miles.
On the way back down the mountain I enjoyed
continual views of the bay down to the treeline:
I also took two short spur trails over to see
different views of waterfalls in the creek that parallels the jeep road:
Cody enjoyed the water and snow. This was a good
trail for him, especially on the single-track.
A local man and his young son and dog started up
the jeep road just ahead of me. When I passed them I asked about the trail
and where it went. He planned to go up to the cirque, too, and told me how
to get there.
At the end of the jeep road I wasn’t
sure which trail to take at an intersection. I waited for my new
acquaintance to catch up and he pointed me in the right direction.
He began talking with a
couple who arrived a few minutes behind me. They had questions about how
to get to the ridge the runners use. I went on ahead of the man and his
son and soon lost sight of them behind me.
Three older hikers who were enjoying a pool and creek at the
intersection (picture above) advised me there was a lot of snow ahead. As soon as they saw
it they turned around. As mentioned earlier, I kept going for half a
mile through intermittent areas of snow and sub-alpine growth before
After I turned around and started going back
down the trail I heard the man’s dog bark and then saw a black animal bolt
from the trail, running upslope into the brush and trees.
When I realized it was a black bear I got my camera out real
fast and got a butt shot that doesn't show up very well in this small photo:
When we came to the place where the bear crossed the trail
Cody was on high alert, the hair standing on his back like a Mohawk cut.
He could smell where it had been.
It was a little while before I saw the man, little boy,
and dog coming toward me. They didn’t see the bear or know why their dog had barked. I
had a bear bell and spray. The bear may have run because of the barking
dog, its scent or Cody's, or the sound of my bell.
I wish I'd been able to hike farther up this
That's one of the downsides of visiting Alaska
this summer, after a winter of record-breaking snow. I ran into the same
thing in Valdez.
Maybe next time we visit there will be less snow
and I can get out on more trails.
Jim had planned to go for a bike ride this
afternoon but was
too tired. He ended up doing four loads of laundry at the Seward Military Resort
while I was hiking.
WHERE IS LE MAITRE??
While I was hiking on the mountain today I couldn't help but keep thinking about
Michael LeMaitre, the missing 65-year-old runner who disappeared somewhere on Mt.
Marathon during the race on July 4th.
Even though the area I hiked has already been searched and is a fair
distance from the race course I kept my eyes
open, peered under some snow bridges and into some of the dense
underbrush, and watched Cody's body language carefully in case he
caught the scent of something besides the bear that crossed our path.
Two markers indicate rescue/recovery crews already
checked this snow bridge for LeMaitre.
Each time I saw one of the colorful plastic search ribbons along the
creek, a snow bridge, a cliff, or in thick undergrowth was also a
reminder of the risks I take every time I go off hiking alone like this.
I'm wired to take more risks than I probably should.
I can only hope that as diligent a search would be made for me as has
been made for this man if I ever get lost or injured in the wilderness.
Volunteer searchers descending the mountain this
Although the large multi-agency search has ended, local agencies,
volunteers, and family members continue to look for LeMaitre on the
mountain. If you're interested, here are some more recent news articles about
the man, the search, and possible changes to the race:
Addendum March, 2013:
I've been writing most of these Alaska entries during the winter of
2012-2013 but dating them when they occurred.
I'll cut to the chase -- despite an ongoing
search by local volunteers and family members, LeMaitre's body was never
found before the mountain was covered with snow in the fall.
Instead of continuing to include updates about LeMaitre from
online articles I read last summer while we were still in Alaska --
both the Alaska Dispatch and Anchorage Daily News websites had periodic
articles about the search efforts -- I'll give you
two more links that I found particularly interesting this winter. Both
were posted to the ultra running listserve. I found them to be
well-written and compelling, especially the second one.
Large-leafed devil's club, which grows up to eight
feet tall, grows in thick profusion in the
rainforest on Mt. Marathon. It could easily hide a
body if LeMaitre fell below treeline.
From Outside Online, written by Caty Enders and dated October 8,
And the very best article I've read about the situation is this one by Christopher
Solomon dated February 21, 2013 in Runners World Online:
(Please cut and paste that link instead of clicking on it; I
can't get it to work otherwise.)
If you've ever faced danger in the backcountry on foot, a
bike, an ATV, or a snowmobile you'll get goose bumps reading this article about the risks
sometimes take in our search for adventure.
I'm one of those people, so I can
relate to what drove LeMaitre to tackle this event even though he went
against the advice of race organizers to run the race only after first familiarizing
himself with the terrain.
View of Seward and Mt. Marathon
from Resurrection Bay
As Solomon writes, "How many of us have had near-misses—the
somersault over the handlebars 10 miles from the trailhead, or the mini
avalanche deep in the backcountry—and then laughed about those epics
around the campfire later on when all was well?
Have you ever thought how close you’ve come to disaster?
We all have a strange friendship with
risk. We crave its thrill—who doesn’t want to edge a little closer to
the red line where the adrenal gland squeezes and the colors grow brighter?
Yet we rarely understand how close we’ve skirted that line, or
what’s on the other side. Accidents? Those happen to the other guy.
Nobody ever laces up his shoes thinking he’ll lead off the Ten O’Clock News.
Does that make us all irresponsible?"
That's a very articulate explanation of what makes some of us tick.
Although I take fewer risks as I age and come closer to the natural end
of my life I'm still the curious, adventurous person whose later-life motto has
been that I'd rather die face down on the trail than face down in my
"The mountains are calling, and I
must go." (quote by John Muir)
Apparently LeMaitre died doing something he enjoyed. That's gotta be
a better way to go than some others I can think of.
After I got back from my hike this afternoon we tackled
the continual question we face during our Alaskan adventure of where to go next
and for how long.
As mentioned earlier, that's both the beauty and the challenge of "winging
through Alaska this summer.
It hasn't been easy
finding suitable campsites on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula this
week, especially since we didn't really begin looking until a couple
days ago. We didn't want to make reservations until we knew how long we'd be in
Seward. We did more diligent research online and by phone this afternoon,
trying to figure out where to camp on the Kenai Peninsula and for how long.
Cow parsnip grows next to a sunny pool of water at
the top of the jeep road.
Our timing isn't the greatest but it makes sense to stay down here since
we're already in the area.
Today just happens to be the start of the three-week dipnet salmon
fishing frenzy on the Kenai River, a fact we didn't realize until a few
Accommodations are difficult to find because in addition to
all the summer visitors in the area, many Alaska residents flock to the
peninsula for the dipnet season. (I believe that only residents can use the
nets to scoop up their allotment of salmon but tourists can still use fishing rods
to get theirs.)
Campground prices are
generally higher on the peninsula this month, too, because of the
heavy demand for sites.
Ferns, lichens, and other opportunistic plants grow
on this decomposing
"nurse" log that fell long ago in the rainforest on
Mt. Marathon's lower slope.
Like I said, our
timing to tour the peninsula isn't the best!
Keep that in mind if
you're planning a visit to Alaska. Whether you like to fish or
not, if it's important for you to be on
the Kenai Peninsula in July we advise that you check to see when the
various salmon runs are most likely and make reservations for
accommodations, vehicle rentals, etc. well in advance of those dates.
From what we've
folks will descend on the towns of Soldotna and Kenai -- our next intended
destination. We have no reservations there and we aren't keen on camping
in what sounds like will be very crowded city and private campgrounds or parking lots
where folks are permitted to boondock.
We had planned to stay a few days in the Soldotna-Kenai area on the
northwestern part of the Kenai Peninsula, then spend several days in or near
Homer at the southwest end of the peninsula.
We couldn't find any
campgrounds in either area that met our criteria for price and amenities
so we modified that plan today and began looking for campgrounds along the
Sterling Highway midway between Soldotna and Homer, hoping it would be
less crowded there.
Lupines (lower left side of photo) are almost ready
to bloom at about 1,000 feet elevation.
We lucked out when we discovered we could get a nice site for four
nights at the Kasilof RV Park, a small family-owned campground about 15 miles
south of Soldotna. We reportedly got the last available site.
We discovered that this area is busy, too, because several popular fishing rivers cross the
Sterling Hwy. on this side of the Kenai Peninsula and drain into Cook Inlet.
The little town of Kasilof is fairly centrally located along the western coast of the peninsula between
Kenai and Homer. We can do just about everything we want to do in the
area during day trips to the north and south in the truck.
The campground sounds very nice in Mike and Terri Churchs’ Alaska campground book and
on the RV park’s website. The owner was very cordial on the phone.
We were getting stressed out the last couple days about this
situation. We should be able to sleep better tonight.
Next entry: the scenic drive from Seward
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil