Reflecting, on the journeys I have been honored to take part in, one of the common joys each has attached are the hidden gems that can be found in the wilderness of Alaska.
The hidden gems, may be simple moments; a glimpse of the rarely seen wolverine, a bird held still in mid-flight by the wind while frantically flapping its wings, the majestic mountain caribou stepping out of the fog or the mighty grizzly bear doing anything it might be doing at all.
Hidden Gems of Alaska
These hidden gems may be closer to the word itself, raw copper, gold, meteorite fragments, crystals like diamonds or raw jade; found just laying on the ground. Beautiful rocks, fossilized bones or plants and the occasional tool, left over from the last historic gold rush and dropped by a frontiersman (or woman) or prospector around the late 1800’s.
These particular memories come from a beautiful day’s ride from my favorite camp, Cross Creek.
Hidden Gems of Alaska
We saddle up and ride out, up the horse trail we follow to hobble and bell the horses each night. We are crossing Ram Creek and to head up Cross Creek.
Riding across the base of the big mountain that sits on the corner, we spot Dall Sheep scattered about the face, above us.
The ground is knobby, in rolling mini-hills, plenty big to hide a Grizzly Bear and her cubs, so we will keep a close eye at all times as we cross the base.
Only an hour out of camp, we tie up our horses and glass the big creek and the surrounding mountain valley from the higher spot I can imagine a watch tower would be built in another time.
From here, we can see most of the massive Cross Creek Glacier’s valley and it is a phenomenal site. The blue skies, broken with the glacier’s weather changing storm clouds and sunlight breaking through creates a mystical and moody backdrop to the mountainsides in lush green and the starkness of the snow-capped mountain tops.
We look for Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Dall Sheep, Caribou and wolverine along with anything else that may catch our eyes and inspire the photographers muse.
As we sit there, the enormity of the creek will astonishes all.
We ride on, off the bench onto Cross Creek, continuing up the 12 miles of discovery. Every draw in the valley is another reason to give thanks that you are here.
Many of these cuts and draws in the valley can be explored and hiked for hours, discovering even more to explore and experience.
About two hours later we cut out across the creek, heading for an island, long and skinny, sitting on a raised sand bar of the creek.
This is where we stop, to have a snack and build a tiny campfire, and heat some water for tea and coffee. We’ll glass the side of the valley we are facing, watching closely for the bears that love the hillsides, berries and ground squirrels.
Now, as we keep riding, the mountain peaks have snow-caps, even glaciers, at their tops and they get more rugged and reach higher and higher. There are some that even after more than 20 years, I haven’t climbed or explored yet.
The creek is wide and long and the terrain we will cross changes in a step.
As we approached the Cross Creek Glacier, the merrain hills are bigger next to the base of the mountains and we have to angle our horses to begin climbing and weaving through the boulders that the glacier dropped long ago.
As we reach the last few big willows, everyone dismounts and begin to tie up the horses.
My trainee and I will hobble all the horses and check their ropes and make sure the knots are correct. “Grab your lunches.” I remind everyone, and we’ll stretch-out again, before starting to hike and climb.
Backpacks on and we start to climb. We are heading towards one of the prettiest places I have found in all the years I have spent exploring Cross Creek.
The moss and grasses are close to the ground and make for easy walking, although we are climbing a whole lot faster than it seems to the eye.
The long past movement and recession of the glacier has left a natural staircase to follow for us and we’ll wind our way around and to the top of the last merrain hill, where we’ll rest and have our lunch.
As we find comfortable spots to sit back against the rise of the hill, looking around, it is spectacular.
The shale slides on one side of the glacier are dark charcoal grey, marred only by the occasional boulder imbedded into the side of the mountain.
It makes for a dramatic backdrop for the playful lambs running back and forth and the older younglings practicing their mock fights.
The creek itself, is beneath us, pouring out of the glacier with a muted roar. The willow bar, on the other side of the headwaters of Cross Creek is a big one and I like to watch..for movement.
It is a favorite spot of the critters up here, and you never know what you might spot.
As everyone finishes their lunches, stretches out to absorb the warmth of the sun, one by one they dose-off and I sit with my notebook, keeping an easy watch to prevent a rude awakening by some critter investing all the funny looking lumps spread out.
Before we start our ride back down the long creek and 5 more hours in the saddle to camp, we walk up the remaining distance to the glacier.
The terrain is easy walking, but much more difficult than it looks from any distance and not nearly as flat and rolling as it appears. Created from the recession of the glacier it looks like a big rug, all scuffed up by the passage of a giants scuffling walk.
Most of us have pockets full of nifty colored rocks and bits of copper found on the ground. All of us have hundred of photographs stored in our cameras and the memories to go with each.
I have always considered Cross Creek to be one of the most precious hidden gems of Alaska and each person led here feels the same.
Will you be next?