“What’s the best hiking route through Chugach State Park?” I asked Dan Hourihan, the park ranger at the time.
He traced it for me on the USGS topo map spread out before us. His timbre rose with excitement as he described notable landmarks: The Shroud, Bellicose Peak, The Watchmen. Travel through Bombardment Pass should be along the right snowfield to avoid crevasses. Hourihan was awestruck still as he recalled pushing a boulder into a cylindrical crevasse on Wall Street Glacier—he’d listened to it roll down the glacier for a long time but never heard it hit bottom.
A hike I did in the early ‘90s turned out to be as good as the ranger’s description. I found out firsthand how Bombardment Pass got its name—ice and rocks crashed down all night as we camped on a ledge. I remember seeing a wolverine in Rumble Pass. The Shroud and Bellicose Peak lived up to their names. We glissaded through Benign Pass in a snowstorm, which transformed into bright sun and a rainbow. We followed the rainbow out to Eklutna Lake.
A natural hunter
In 2019, I received a drawing permit to hunt Dall sheep, so I planned to return. My son Hans would accompany me during a break from work; he is an electrician general foreman for NANA (Northwest Alaska Native Association, one of 13 regional Native corporations) and works across the Arctic from Red Dog Mine north of Kotzebue to the North Slope oil fields. Hans’ crew is known as the “A-Team.” Spools of electric power cable weigh thousands of pounds, and the “A-Team” is called in for this heavyweight specialty work. Every crew member is a weightlifter—Hans can deadlift nearly 500 pounds.
Hans began hunting at an early age. He accompanied me on a bow hunt for moose when he was only nine. Early in the hunt, we were standing under a tree on the lookout for moose; Hans asked about how long it normally took for the moose to show up. I smiled to myself as I thought of the remote chance for success. The last day of the season, we fooled a bull moose into close range by scraping a moose scapula on brush, imitating another bull. The moose passed directly broadside to Hans at seven yards. Hans coolly drew back and released an arrow, which passed through the moose, slicing off the top of the heart. I knew then that Hans was a natural hunter.
High temperatures during the summer of 2019 broke records, and fall highs followed suit. As Hans and I headed up Ram Valley north of Anchorage, the cool mountain stream refreshed us. Every so often, I yelled “Blueberry break!” and we plopped into the flora and snacked on the abundant fruit. Handfuls of blueberries were delicious and nutritious, and resting gave us a chance to wipe the sweat from our brows. A large group of young sheep traveled just ahead. At one point, they formed what appeared to be a picket line to halt our advance. We counted close to 40 sheep on our way up.
The moraine from the glacier in Bombardment Pass halted our travel at the head of the valley, and we made camp. The scene had changed from the early 90s. The glacier had receded, and the snow field was mostly gone except for at the pass.
We headed up the steep slope to near the top of Peeking Mountain. The smoke from nearby wildfires affected the view as well as our respiratory efficiency. We scoped the country north and east. Hans spotted a large sheep in what looked like impassable terrain to the north. We were excited to see a large white object below Pleasant Mountain, but it turned out to be a large mountain goat. We could see all the familiar peaks and the route of my hike from the ‘90s.
The luck factor
Two climbers stopped by the next morning. They were headed to Mount Rumble and wore shorts, T-shirts, and low-cut rock-climbing shoes and carried helmets. They appeared to be dressed for a rock-wall gym rather than for wilderness trekking.
We headed the same direction, picking our way carefully over the moraine to Bombardment Pass, as one bad step on the rock pile could cause injury. As we neared the pass, we skirted some crevasses. As usual, Hans was ahead of me and studying a route through. A high snow field appeared to offer a way across the top. Crevasses were present along a steeper ice route. We did not have crampons, so we chose the snow field. Loud ice and rock falls echoed at the head of the canyon, out of sight. Hans pointed out that the falls were occurring beneath the snow field, and that attempting to cross it might mean plunging through to the cavern or crevasse below. We decided it was too risky and turned back.
We packed our gear and headed out. On the way, we met a group of hikers. When asked why we were not successful, I mentioned the luck factor that comes into play. The hikers offered that perhaps we needed to make our own luck. On my previous trip, I’d found success in another location; perhaps I could get lucky again.
Nine Mile Creek
The following week, we pedaled mountain bikes with gear bags on Peters Creek trail, a couple drainages north of Ram Valley. We stashed our bikes and hiked to Nine Mile Creek. Long ago, at the top of the mountain overlooking Thunder Bird drainage, I’d spotted five full-curl rams and took the largest.
After following Nine Mile Creek up the mountain to near tree line, I spotted a level spot for the tent. A scraggly small spruce tree was torn up with broken branches. A bull moose will sometimes tear a tree up during the rut, but this one was different—it was loaded with clumps of fine blondish hair. This was a scratching post for a grizzly bear.
While I spied a tree where we could hang our food, I told Hans that I hoped the grizzly would not get an itch that night. Hans related a grizzly encounter from a few years back with his sister Ingrid at Mount Baldy above Eagle River: They were hiking near Baldy’s popular main trail when Hans surprised a sow grizzly with two cubs in the brush. He turned and ran with Ingrid screaming that mama bear was closing in fast. Hans grabbed his knife and wheeled to face the bear. They faced off at 10 feet, and Hans spread his long arms above his head. After a brief stand-off, the grizzly returned to her cubs.
A nighttime visitor
Now, at our camp, Hans brought up the idea of moving away from the scratching post. I vetoed the idea—it was almost dark and would be hard to find a flat spot on the side of the mountain.
We retired to the tent, where I ruminated on bear encounters—a fatality in Alaska the prior year, plus a couple of maulings in recent years; I’d been bluff-charged once; and memories of a Kodiak hunt where we held our guns all night as a bear walked around our tents. Eventually, I dozed off.
Thumped in the chest, I woke to Hans’ urgent voice. “Did you hear that?”
I listened intently. A loud snort from a large animal broke the silence.
Now it was my turn. “Did you hear that?”
A large animal was trying to get our scent, I knew, as I had heard it on other occasions. I grabbed my gun and exited the tent in skivvies. Hans did the same as we heard a large branch crack under the weight of something big. I started whistling and yelled “Hey bear! Hey bear!” Another branch broke, closer. I slid a round into the chamber. Another big branch broke directly behind a large spruce tree 10 yards away. We raised our rifles, expecting the worst, and waited. Nothing. Then we heard sounds down toward the creek; the animal was moving away. We remained vigilant, trying to guess if the critter was actually leaving or circling around us. We retired to the tent with no further disturbance.
The next morning, we climbed the 3,500 feet to the top of the ridge. We glassed and scoped all three branches of the headwaters of Thunder Bird drainage as well as Peters Creek drainage. Not only did we see no rams, but we spotted no sheep at all. On the way up the mountain, Hans had seen a large bull moose below. Perhaps it was our dusk visitor.
We were right across from the spot I’d gotten the ram long ago. The scene was beautiful—Thunder Bird Peak in the background, and we could see all the peaks along the headwaters of Peters Creek. I again pointed out the hiking route from my past—Ram Valley to Eklutna Lake.
On our way out, Hans spotted a great gray owl and another legal bull moose right off the trail, but moose hunting season was not yet open. After all that mountain climbing, we celebrated with a pizza and schooners of beer at a local joint. I suddenly felt very lucky.