Around here the locals tell us they use the Fireweed flower as a weather barometer of sorts. The plant pushes up a single flower stalk which is preloaded with hot pink buds. These open from the bottom and over a period of time the initial blooms drop off and are replaced by new blooms opening further up the stem. So on and so on will the buds at the very top finally open. At that point, when the flowers have expired and the last ones transformed into ‘smoke’ filaments the first snow is due to arrive. There is no prospect of snow right now since these flowers are only blooming halfway up the stem. However there is another metric at play. Fireweed Mountain, which looms high above us to the northwest of our lodgings and which forms the western buttress through which the Kennicott Glacier attempts to squeeze, is also a winter canary. Once Fireweed Mountain has received its third dusting of summer snow winter proper will arrive and if you are a ‘summer only’ resident it’s high time to get out of Dodge. So far, we are told, the mountain has received its second dusting. From our front porch it looks like a single peak but it’s actually a series of peaks laid out not unlike a trident, the tines splayed out pointing towards the glacier, and the highest point at the hilt being well out of sight. But its promoted as a challenging bushwhacking climb and its right on our door step so it would be a shame to ignore it. Safe to say its been calling a few if us ever since we arrived here. We can see the base lined with Aspen, mainly across the moraine into which the mountain falls. The lower parts of the mountain are thick with white spruce above which we can see a band of low, sub alpine scrub and then the alpine cap with thin vegetation. It all looks very straightforward. The previous day I have taken advice from the local park ranger in Kennicott who advised the route in the guidebook had gotten him bushwhacked only two weeks earlier and he recommended a parallel course which offered us more chance of success. So that is carefully studied on our maps which are 1:63,000 – I could really use one of our 1:25,000 maps but none exist for this part of the world. That lack of detail is reflected in our launch which took off much later than planned, entered the bush at the wrong point and delayed us getting n to the mountain proper. But the day is planned as a ‘lay day’ so a slow start is understandable. And perfectly tolerable.
We push through tight undergrowth and slightly undulating rocky ground. Well, its mossy actually but the moss is a soft blanket over large rocks which are the remains of glacial moraine so it can be quite treacherous underfoot. It doesn’t help that our route is described in general terms but its obvious that we have missed the track. I know if we press on that at some point we will cut across the track that skirts the base of the mountain. We veer right to avoid a private property and Kavitha makes the sensible suggestion that veer right a little more , cut back onto the open ground not too far from our start point at the Lodge and make a more straight forward route through alpine meadow rather than wrestle the close Aspen. Once out on the meadow we cut a direct line to the mountain and intercept the track as planned. Well, as per the revised plan. Actually there was not much of a plan to start with. But we make slow progress . No one is fixed on Fireweed it seems and are quite happy to faff around, throw stones into the glacial tal and otherwise mooch along. Did I mention it’s a lay day?
Eventually three of the group who had no plans to attempt Fireweed turn and take a route back to the edge of the Tal while the rest of the group follows the high ridge of lumpy moraine , slide down a 25m gravel slope, cross a rushing stream and ascend more gravel before stopping for lunch on a grassy bank for lunch before tackling the mountain proper. We stand on some clear ground and set some rough bearings, looking for the next piece of high ground on the ridge above and to the right of us. Despite the height of the spruce I’m confident we can so this with some dead reckoning. We had been warned the bush is impenetrable around here but that is not the case. It’s thick but with care it is passable. The ground under foot is mossy and soft even when we are on the moraine. The moss and leaf fall compost do a good job of softening our tread. We travel up and down a few stony hillocks dotted with young spruce and the occasional Douglas Fir and some scattered Aspen before dropping into a creek with willow suckers by the million. We jump the creek and at this point I start laying a deliberate trail of markers which was to be beneficial on our return, although we could have just as easily bush bashed our way straight to the glacier. But if we have gone to the trouble of finding an accessible route in then we might as well use the same accessibility on our return. And it’s handy to have an informal bushcraft lesson. I use the usual tricks of saplings broken to form an arch through which we walk (they are most easily spotted on the return trip), half broken branches twisted to indicate direction we have come and the occasional stone cairn.
We climb up into dense spruce and the mountain kicks up, forcing some stiff climbing. We cut around a steep drop off and find a bear track complete with bear paw imprint confirming the author of its construction. At this point the ridge we are on has thickened up with brambles, blackberry (or groganberry) soapberry and other plants and we enter a thick stand of fir. So we follow the bear track which climbs a few metres then cuts right, down through a small depression as it roughly follows the contour, across fallen pine and out onto a relatively clear rocky ground of the neighbouring ridge. We have now been out here for four hours and it’s time to turn around which we reluctantly do at 6.30. The sun is still high in the sky and will not have moved much in even the couple of hours it will take to return. It’s little disappointing to have come this far only to turn around so soon, especially given we have made good progress. If we had spent less time on our slow start and stone throwing and other faffing around the subalpine line might have at least been reached. But in truth the faffing around was part of the pleasure of this walk and we have all enjoyed ourselves.
Ever alert for bears we plunge back into the thicket from which we have just emerged, Joshua leading the way and seeing if he can spot the trail markers we have left. It’s a hard task to spot marks you have not set yourself so I stay on his shoulder. He does a good job walking us out and we are soon back where we had lunch. We launch off a gravel bank, sliding and jumping or the sheer joy of it, build a rock bridge across a stream to ensure a ‘dry feet’ crossing, find the track we should have been on at the start and are back at the lodge by 1930. It’s been an exhilarating day of good company, clear and sunny weather and a little bit of adventure. But no bears which disappoints us all – though, as the guy at the front of the group, it’
s disappointment mixed with slight relief.