Editor’s Note: Special Correspondent Caleigh Jensen heads across Kachemak Bay to Grewingk Glacier. She and her cousin, Sarah, had a real adventure! —Scott
Let me just start off by saying this: I’m not much of a hiker. Don’t get me wrong, I love the outdoors and the beautiful scenery that Alaska has to offer, but I am about as inexperienced as it gets. If you’re a newbie hiker like me and looking for advice on being prepared, life lessons and how to not spend the night lost in the woods, this one is for you.
The Perfect Start
My hiking adventure started off perfectly. It was a beautifully sunny day as my cousin Sarah and I drove to Homer from our family’s cabin in Clam Gulch. The trek took about an hour (four if you’re coming from Anchorage). We stopped by Mike’s Alaskan Eatery to order two specialty grilled cheese sandwiches to take with us, then met our crew from Mako’s Water Taxi at the boat launch. Across Kachemak Bay was our destination: Kachemak Bay State Park and Grewingk Glacier.
We passed by Gull Island, seeing puffins and sea otters along the way. When we arrived at Kachemak Bay State Park, our driver prepped us on the trails and with a map in hand, we were off.
The Glacier Lake Trailhead was easy to find, clearly marked with a bright orange sign displaying the letter T. We walked the winding trail through the trees, stopping for a few photoshoots, of course. When we arrived at the first trail sign, we opted to take the path to the Grewingk Tram — as per our taxi driver’s suggestion — and headed straight. The tram was exactly a mile away and boy was it a sight to behold.
The Hand Tram
The hand tram stretched across a rushing river and looked out over the bay. It took a lot more strength and breaks to catch our breath than I’d care to admit, but we successfully pulled ourselves across. As a reward, we took our lunch break on the other side and enjoyed the view of the river. Let me tell you, a grilled cheese with bacon and avocado has never tasted so good. Thank you, Mike!
This is where things started to get interesting. Rather than taking the tram back across the river and following the Saddle Trail to the beach, we took the 4.9-mile path to Emerald Lake. I mean, how hard could it be, right?
Well, it got a lot harder than I imagined. The trail had suffered a harsh winter and countless trees had blown over to block it. We climbed and army crawled our way over them, but not without suffering a few scratches and Devil’s club wounds. The first fallen tree should have been our clue to turn around and head back the way we came, but like I said, I’m a hiking newbie. I figured becoming one with nature by navigating a trail filled with obstacles was just part of the Alaskan hiking experience.
Nearly 5 miles and two out-of-breath girls later, we reached the lake. It was definitely beautiful, but we didn’t spend much time admiring it, as we were just a few hours away from our 3:30 p.m. water taxi pickup. Being as inexperienced as we were, we figured the trail must loop back around to our starting point, so we followed it another 1.5 miles. As the woods started to clear and the end was in sight, we felt proud of our nearly 9-mile trek and perfect time management. We hiked up the final hill, satisfied but exhausted, to see perhaps the most disappointing sight I’ve ever laid eyes on. We were not back at our pickup location. Nope. We were at Grewingk Glacier on the complete opposite side of the island.
What little breath was left in me escaped in a gasp. Panic started to set in as we realized the only way back was to turn around and hike the 9 miles we had just come. With heavy hearts and a hyper-awareness of the bear scat we saw on our way there, we turned around. We made it about 3 miles before things got even worse: we lost the trail.
Call for Help
The panic we were already feeling about making it home before dark quadrupled. We retraced our steps five times, but could not find the other side of the trail. With what little battery I had left on my phone (Sarah’s phone had been long dead at this point), I called my mom and sent my location to her and the police. This was perhaps the best move we made during the whole trip. They both told us to stay put and help would come to find us.
In the first hour we spent in that spot in the woods, our minds spiraled. What if the location I sent was inaccurate? What if a bear found us? What if we were so far off the trail that it was impossible to get back on it? We were out of food and water and only had light rainjackets to keep ourselves warm. The only other items in our poorly-packed backpack were our purses, but chapstick and gift cards weren’t much of a help to us right now.
In the second hour, when our sweat dried and the clouds began to roll in, we huddled together and tried to stay positive. We found comfort in playing games, talking about fond memories and making friends with a nearby squirrel.
Tick Tock Tick Tock.
In the third hour, the overwhelming sense of panic set in once again. It shouldn’t be taking them this long, we thought. We are going to have to spend the night out here with no knowledge of how to start a fire and only our body heat to keep us warm. We screamed for help at the top of our lungs, desperately hoping that a fellow hiker would hear us and come to our rescue, but the only voices we heard were figments of our imagination. Until one wasn’t.
Lucas to the Rescue.
At around 9:30 p.m. (our journey started at 10 a.m.), Sarah heard someone call my name. We called back, but were skeptical that it was just our minds playing tricks on us. When we heard another call about a minute later, a wave of relief washed over us. We were safe.
I have never been so happy to see someone in my life as I was to see our rescuer Lucas Thoning, a guide from Stillpoint Lodge in Halibut Cove. He consoled us with granola bars, hand warmers, extra layers, water and a phone charger. He led us from the game trail we had stumbled upon back to the main trail, and recounted his experiences getting lost while hiking to ease our nerves. We were still shaking and in shock, but the nightmare was finally over.
Lucas led us back to the beach where we started our journey 12 hours ago and we were greeted by Anders Gustafson, his friend and a boat operator for Mako’s Water Taxi, and both of their wives. Anders lightened our moods with a few jokes, and brought us back to the boat launch, where my mom and brother from Kenai were waiting for us with blankets, hot water and hugs.
The entire journey was about 16 miles in length, a lot farther than I’ve ever walked in my life or care to walk again, let alone hike. I doubled, maybe even tripled the physical activity limit I thought my body had (the exercise app on my Apple Watch was certainly impressed). Along with the six blisters, two splinters, one hole in my pants, sore legs and sunburn on my shoulders that I took home with me that night, though, I also took an unforgettable story, one that I will not soon forget (my family is making sure of that!) Sarah and I would like to personally thank Lucas and Anders once again for rescuing us. Without their willingness to spend the evening looking for two complete strangers, we likely would have stayed the night in the woods.
Don’t let my experience discourage you from planning your next hiking adventure. I’m taking it as a lesson on what definitely NOT to do and an inspiration to get back on the trails and try again. If I survived possibly the worst-case hiking scenario I could have imagined, it can only get better from here.
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