Cirque de Bird
Late fall mini-epic through Chugach State Park
September 27, 2016
A few things I’m thankful for: clean running water, wool socks, and friends who don’t blink when you ask them if they can get up at 5am to go hiking. With the snow making an earnest effort to take the tops of the peaks and the summer light slipping away, I was eager to get in one last Chugach mini-epic: a 20-something-mile, mostly low traverse around Bird Ridge, threading through the mountains and passes and the end of the ridge.
With a short window of sunshine forecast for Tuesday, I called Michael Dickerson and Sarah Glaser. I’ve come to expect some hedging and a lot of bailing this time of year, so I was almost surprised when both of them not only said they were up for it, but were still up for it the night before.
Sarah drove up from Moose Pass, got to the Bird parking lot at 6:45 in the dark, and enthusiastically greeted two startled hunters who drove up right after she got there. A little while later Michael and I pulled in sheepishly, coffee cups in hand. Fifteen minutes isn’t that late, is it? We ran a shuttle to drop Sarah’s car at Indian, headed back to Bird, laced up, and had boots on the ground just as the early morning sun started erasing the frost off of the brush.
We tromped quickly up the web old logging-turned-ATV roads around Bird. Somehow in 32 years I’ve managed to miss this area entirely, except for a short bike ride more than a decade ago. The road up the valley was wide and fast, though laced with epic puddles and ruts. Once we got to the ATV gate, the trail tightened down to very pleasant singletrack, with a mossy wooded landscape very similar to that of Girdwood.
A few miles in we came to the ford across Bird Creek. The knee-deep creek crossing became a mini laboratory for backcountry strategy: I laced up my boots as tight as I could and waded across in my long underwear, Michael changed into river shoes, and Sarah braved the creek barefoot and pantsless. While I have to say I made it across in the best shape and my feet stayed dry below the ankles, I’m sure Sarah and Michael were happy to be totally dry a half-hour later.
On the other side of the creek, we immediately lost the trail and went bushwacking in moose-track-laced meadows and alders. I’m always a little nervous when I go ‘shwaking around the brush with new hiking buddies. But Michael, who grew up hiking in North Carolina, explained that back home the brush is riddled with deadly snakes and spiders, so this wasn’t so bad. Another thing I’m thankful for: people who have hiked in places so nasty that Alaska bushwacking seems nice.
We angled back down toward the creek and found the trail again, which I was surprised to find in great shape. Poor signage and chilly ford aside, the Bird Creek trail probably deserves a little more credit. Someone’s put some good work into it recently.
The maps show the Bird Creek Trail turning away from the river and climbing toward Bird Creek Pass, but we must have missed a cutoff because the trail sputtered out and faded away into a patch of thick alder and Devil’s Club. Rather than backtrack, we just climbed straight uphill into some meadows and followed game trails back toward Bird Creek Pass.
We found the well-defined trail again in the pass, and then promptly lost it again and had to bushwack and leap across the small creek. I suspect that most of the traffic on this trail comes from moose, and bears, who don’t always respect the finer points of trail design and etiquette.
A few water breaks and friendly backcountry debates later, we reached “Bird Creek Pass” the indistinct intersection of this side fork of Bird Creek with the North Fork Ship Creek drainage. The North Fork Ship Creek valley is one of the most remote corridors in Chugach State Park, a beautiful broad ramp of low brush and tundra steps that gently climb toward Grizzly Lake and Moraine Pass, some 5 or 6 miles from our location.
We stopped on a sunny bed of cloud lichen for a long, lazy lunch. My original plan was to circle around the far end of this set of mountains, cross a pass to the northwest of Tail Feather Peak, and climb up over Shaman Dome en route to the Indian trail. But after looking at the map (and the snow levels on the peaks) we decided to readjust.
We roused ourselves onto our feet and headed downvalley, sidehilling over patchy brush toward the hanging valley below the impressive north face of Bird’s Eye Peak.
Once we reached the mouth of the valley we dropped down to the creek. There are hundreds of valleys like this tucked away in the Chugach, lined up in long rows off the sides of bigger drainages: secluded tundra cirques with clear brooks and little bluegreen tarns, magazine-cover-worthy campsites, and as much solitude as anyone could want.
The pass between Bird’s Eye Peak and The Sail looked eerily vertical as we approached, but it turned out to be a steep but manageable Class 2 tundra/rock scramble. At the top of the pass, we stepped into winter. Immediately below us, a herd of sheep ambled across the yellow and green tundra near a small dark tarn. Above, snow and ice laced through cliff bands, and lay in foot-deep drifts over the scree.
We sidehilled around the bottom of the broad snow-covered southern summit face of The Sail. The summit was just a few hundred feet above us, but with the snow, fading light and darkening clouds, we didn’t even talk about jogging up and checking it off.
To the west, the back side of the Chugach Front Range loomed up toward the clouds, looking slightly Himalayan with their coat of fresh snow.
We picked our way down the south ridge off of the Sail, looking for the least slippery and snowy way down. Eventually we settled on the route that the sheep had taken, thinking that they probably knew this terrain a little better than we did. Sarah took off first, careening down in some sort of controlled near-somersault that probably would have impressed the sheep if they’d been around to see it.
There are a lot of places that could be called “the best kept secret in the Chugach,” but the set of tundra valleys to the north of Bird Ridge Overlook must be toward the top of the list. The open tundra makes for perfect backcountry strolling and camping, there are a number of interesting small peaks and ridges to scramble up, the passes are passable, and the landscape of deep valleys, cliffs, and deep blue tarns is dramatic and picturesque. The only reason this set of peaks and valleys isn’t very well-known must be that there isn’t a trail directly here, but the whole area would be pretty easy for most backpackers to reach in a day. Michael and Sarah stopped for another short berry-break while I ran around a large tundra bench to snap photos.
At this point, we were well aware that every minute we spent poking around this Chugach Shangri-La was another minute we’d have to spend hiking out in the dark. We dropped off the tarn-y tundra bench to the blue lake below the north face of Bird Ridge Overlook.
At the mouth of the lake we jumped over a small stream full of wriggling trout that we could have caught with our hands. At the other side we climbed our last pass, between Bird Ridge Overlook and Bidarka. True to form, Sarah and Michael both beat me to the top. Another thing I’m thankful for: hiking buddies who don’t crash, even at the end of a snowy, ‘shwacky 20+ mile circuit.
On the other side of the pass we dropped down into a steep, rock-and-tundra hanging valley with a little stream cascading down the middle.
If you work your way down this valley just right, you can get all the way to the Indian trial without any bushwacking. Whether because we were tired, lazy, or just used to it at this point, we pretty much beelined for the trail, and hit it just as the sun was starting to go.
The Indian trail is a mess. It’s one of the few Chugach trails open to horsepacking, and the combination of horse hooves and wet fall weather isn’t really the best for keeping trails in good walking shape. In some places the mud was shin-deep, and so squishy we couldn’t help but laugh and grimace. We pressed on, as the cars were beckoning and darkness was falling fast. About two thirds of the way back to Indian we pulled out our headlamps. And then, finally, we were there: back in a Chugach State Park parking lot, with a friendly trailhead map and a soon-to-be-warm car.
The last things you can be thankful for after a 26-mile Chugach trek: Moose’s Tooth, and a big, warm, fluffy bed.