Donoho Lakes Glacier Trek: Day 1, June 16, 2019
Updated: Apr 18
Day 1 of 5 in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, land of the Ahtna people. This day includes a quick tour of the Kennecott Mines and Mill as we walk through the old company town settled to support copper mining, a 2-mile hike down the Glacier Root Trail, traversing the Root Glacier wearing crampons, then hiking uphill through glacial silt mud to set up camp on the Donoho Basin. All photos by Tenley Lozano unless otherwise noted in the caption.
Elu and I wake in our simple hotel room in McCarthy, Alaska to dark rainy skies and big puddles on the gravel road outside. After a quick breakfast with some backpackers from another group, I double check all of our gear then we load the packs on our backs and walk over to meet up with our guide and group from Trek Alaska. I'll introduce everyone in the group as their photos come up. This my first trip to hike in Alaska and everyone I asked for advice on backpacking routes told me not to go solo because the potential for grizzly bear encounters, the difficulty of route-finding in the backcountry without trails, and the risk of getting hurt so far from help. So this is also going to be our first backpacking trip with a guide, and the first time I've backpacked with a group without knowing any of them.
A few months earlier, I decided to sign up for Trek Alaska's 5-day Donoho Lakes Glacier Trek because it was the perfect length trip for me and Elu. Our longest backpacking trip in the past was 80 miles in about 7 days in the mountains of Washington, and carrying that much food and water was enough to give me neck spasms. This particular guided trip is also advertised as being less expensive than most backcountry trips in Alaska (which almost always require a bush plane flight), and the route includes three glaciers! It's a nice change not to worry about the logistics of a backcountry trip. All of our PCT section hikes have been solo, which certainly has its benefits but is also a stressful when making contingency plans for migraine days and service dog heat and water concerns. All we need to do for the glacier trek is have the proper gear and show up ready to hike!
Our guide Mat Brunton, founder of the Anchorage Avalanche Center, checks over our gear one last time, and we hop in the shuttle van to the nearby company town of Kennicott. You might notice that the town and glacier are spelled differently from the Kennecott Mines and Mill. The glacier and town was named after Robert Kennicott, but apparently whoever filed the paperwork for the company in the early 1900's misspelled the name and the company became known as the Kennecott Copper Corporation,
The route down to the glaciers goes through the copper mining town, with a brief tour of the crumbling structures, most of which were abandoned when the mine closed in 1938. Some of the historic buildings have been refurbished and there's even an active hotel and restaurant. The town was built on the side of the mountain, just above where the Root Glacier and Kennicott Glacier converge. The wooden bridge shown below crosses a deep gully with waterfalls on one side. Donoho Peak stands in the hazy distance at 6,696 feet.
The rain stops drizzling just as we enter the town of Kennicott, but the overcast skies hang around for a few more hours as we make our way down a 2-mile trail to the edge of the Root Glacier.
We break for lunch on the gray rocks of the lateral moraine at the edge of the Root Glacier. Then it's time to strap the crampons to our boots and step onto the ice! We'll be walking westward to the Donoho Basin, a peninsula of shrubby mountainous land between the Root Glacier on the east and the Kennicott and Gates Glaciers to the west. Because there aren't any trails on the ice and for much of the backcountry, our group will be following a general route in a loop that will end up back at the 2-mile trail into the town of Kennicott. The loop should be about 15 miles, with four days of hiking with our packs and a rest day in the middle of the trip.
I've been worry about how Elu will handle the rocks and ice, since we've only crossed a small alpine glacier in the past and that was so steep and slick we needed an ice ax, but she immediately shows me that she's the better hiker by trotting off ahead of us a few paces. I'm not sure how well Elu will be able to grip without the use of her claws, so I let her walk ahead without booties first. I'm surprised to find that the glacier isn't slick ice at all, but more like the non-skid on a ship, or groomed corduroy on a ski-slope. It's all bumpy with gravel embedded in the ice and small streams of meltwater making interesting patterns as they run downhill.
Once it's clear that Elu's four webbed paws are giving her plenty of grip on the rough ice, I stop for a couple minutes to put on her cloth booties. Some of the ice is sharp enough that she already has one small cut on a paw web, so the booties are pretty important for the glacier traverse. For the humans in the group, we crunch up and down the hills of ice with half-inch long aluminum spikes strapped to our feet and carrying hiking poles with metal tips that can dig into the ice a little. The crampons might not be completely necessary for the whole glacier, but they really come in handy on the uphill parts, especially while wearing a heavy pack.
Elu starts getting bold as we cross the glacier and she runs ahead up small hills on the ice making me nervous. There are moulins nearby where the snowmelt streams disappear downward in deep holes. It's probably irrational, but I'm a little distracted worrying she'll slip and fall into one of the moulins, never to be seen again. I call Elu back to me and attach her leash for a few minutes.
There's no trail on the ice, so our group stops often to asses the glacial features ahead. Mat (in orange and blue below) points out the best route for us and we clomp on the ice after him. Elu only needs me to point in the direction we're traveling, then she trots on ahead.
Once we reach the western edge of the Root Glacier, we stop on the lateral moraine to remove our crampons.
Next up is hiking along the lateral moraine through the Mud Pits of Despair. This is where we learn that glacial mud puddles contain a special kind of mud that tries to eat you alive. The glacial mud is made up of tiny rock particles crushed in the gradual sliding of massive ice sheets flowing through the valley. Elu is the first to step into an innocuous looking mud puddle fed by a small stream. She's a couple steps ahead of me, and as her paws sink into the goop until it's touching her chest, she stands petrified and throws me a horrified look over her shoulder. I step carefully at the rocky edge of the puddle and sink only ankle-deep before I'm able to haul her out by her harness. She stands on the other side of the puddle and shakes mud off before trotting ahead looking relieved. We resolve to be more careful with our foot placement and only step towards the more stable edges and we pick up our feet as quickly as possible, but our boots and paws are still coated in thick sludge.
I'm amazed to see moss and lichen growing right at the edge of the Root Glacier past the mud pits. It's so squishy! Did you know ancient moss has thawed from glaciers and the moss was still alive?! Frozen for hundreds of years and that ancient plant was alive the whole time! So cool! I just have to stop and poke it for a bit, and Elu gets in on the squishing action. The green pads compress then immediately spring back up, which is fascinating to me. After 8 years living and hiking in Southern California, everything in Alaska just seems so different and amazing.
While I'm busy admiring the mosses and lichens, Some of the other members of our group are sinking hip-deep in the Mud Pits of Despair! Blood was left on the glacier earlier, and now tears are shed and curses are thrown at the mud; this day is a real initiation into Alaskan backpacking.
Once we're safely on solid ground again, it's straight uphill to a ridge line that leads to some campsites where we meet up with another Trek Alaska group to set up our tents and cook dinner. The few hundred feet of elevation gain aren't shown on the routes in guide books. After looking at photos from just a few years ago, I suspect that the discrepancy is because the edges of the glacier are melting very quickly and exposing the rocky and muddy Donoho Basin.
We set up our tents in camp and gather for a shared meal of Mexican rice, beans, peppers, and lots of cheese in tortillas. Elu curls up in some soft plants and naps while we all chat about the day and how Alaska is more than living up to our expectations. In the late evening, the clouds part and a lovely blue sky is visible. The sun won't truly set tonight, but around midnight it will hover below the mountains at the horizon in an artificial twilight, rising above them at around 5 am the next morning. Just a few paces from our tents, we have an epic view of the Root Glacier and the Stairway Icefall. With out first day of hiking behind us, it's time to rest and try to clean some of that glacial mud off our our boots, paws, legs, and clothes. I tuck Elu into her sleeping quilt in the tent and put on my flannel eye mask to catch some sleep while the sun is still shining.