Lake Clark: Hiking Holy mountain

There are only two maintained trails in Lake Clark. One goes from Port Alsworth to Tanalian Falls and Lake Kontrashibuna. The second one goes from Port Alsworth up to Mount Tanalian. Other than those two trails, it is up to you to create your adventure. At just over four million acres in size, there is ample room to explore. After finishing our coffee and oatmeal we decided to hike up the nearest mountain. It was the mountain behind our campsite and was apparently called Holy Mountain.

There was no path, trail, or marked route to guide the way.  When we were in the boat we got a decent look at the ridgeline and decided to aim to the right of the mountain so that we could hike the easier ridge that looked less forested going up. Initially the hike was quite pleasant, we were hiking through dry muskeg with sparse tree cover. It should be noted that we could expect to see a brown bear at any moment; having sparse tree cover is good because it gives you the visibility to see what it is ahead and around you. As we moved along this little ridge we aimed for another ridge that would take us up to Holy Mountain. We crossed a small river and then the forest got dense.  When I say dense I mean, you need a machete to cut your way through dense. We were scrambling uphill and fighting bushes the entire way. I believe they were alder. Luckily we only had one daypack so we could squeeze between the trees pretty easily. It was slow going and tough hiking. You could bob and weave through the underbrush, but you still had to break through the line of alders at some point. This continued for probably a mile, uphill. At some point we broke through and found blueberries. As we learned from Wrangell, Alaska blueberries are different. They are abundant and way more delicious than those you can buy in the store, there are also several different species with slightly different characteristics. There are bog blueberries, which grow close to moist ground. They can get massive and grow in berry clumps. It seems that most of their energy is dedicated to creating fruit. There are also mountain blueberries which are the more traditional blueberry bush you are akin to seeing, they can be as high as your waist/chest and have blueberries spread out pretty evenly across the branches.

We came to recognize (and name) a blueberry-eating pattern. After hiking for a bit, you are generally in need of sustenance. Berries provide a little bit of flavor, a little bit of sugar, and antioxidants. They are like nature’s Gatorade, recovery drink, and pre-race snack all tied into one little blue berry. Anyways, back to the pattern, which goes like this.

  1. Hike, until you are tired enough to desire sustenance.
  2. Find blueberries.
  3. Gorge yourself on four to five handfuls of berries until you are satiated.
  4. Delicately pick and eat three to four more handfuls as you start to realize that you are actually uncomfortably full.
  5. Eat two to three more handfuls as you think about how much it would cost to buy them at the farmer’s market. They lose their sweet taste and become sourer. At this point, you really can’t and don’t want to eat more.
  6. Eat one more handful so as to “not waste” any of nature’s bounty.
  7. Regard blueberries with utter disgust.
  8. Hike, until you are tired enough to desire sustenance.
  9. Find blueberries.

After hiking and taking several blueberry stops we made it up onto the ridge leading up to Holy Mountain. I almost forgot to mention, the weather was unbelievable. As we flew into Port Alsworth, the pilot noted “These are the days we Alaskans live for, all four to five of them.” It was 75-80 degrees, sunny and stunningly beautiful. We were up high enough to get a good look at Lake Kontrashibuna and Lake Clark. We ate lunch and decided that we would hike down and try our hand at fishing instead of trying to go further up the mountain. As we had gone up one ridge, we thought it would be fun to hike down the moderately steeper ridge adjacent to it. To say that it is moderately steeper is based on our imperfect perception of steepness from a distance. To say that we were wrong in our assessment would be correct. But before we get to the steepness, both Trevor and I experienced something we haven’t had happen to either of us since we were kids. Trevor was stung by 3 bees, and I was stung by one. Expletives were yelled. Wow does that hurt, I have completely forgotten how painful it can be. There must have been ground nests that we didn’t see. Thankfully it wasn’t worse.

Anyways, back to the steepness. In some of the places that we were hiking down, it was 70-80 degrees. Yes, near vertical. It felt like we were stepping from a ledge of moss and lichen down to the next step. I would step down several feet and Trevor’s feet would be level with my head. It was ludicrous, but surprisingly safe. Everything was covered in moss and alders and blueberries surrounded us, so it never felt as steep as it looked, as there was always some sort of tree to grab onto for support. We only cliffed out once and had to switch directions.  There were descents where I would sit down, dangle my feet and jump down a foot or two, before moving to the next little drop. It was intense, but I never felt unsafe.

We came to the surfing part of the journey after the steep descent. As difficult as the alders were to get through on the way up, they were just as annoying on the way down. Luckily though, gravity was on our side. You could “surf” them by stepping on the largest branch and holding onto ancillary branches from neighboring plants, you could then walk or slide on the branch until you hit the next line of alders. The one downside to this technique is that the people behind you have to avoid being hit in the face with trees. Additionally, sometimes the branch breaks and, in less than a second, you find yourself on the ground—hopefully without injury.

We finally broke through the alder forest to large pine trees and could see Lake Kontrashibuna as we hiked the final half-mile through the muskeg and looked for firewood as we returned to our campground.