Pinnell Mountain Trail. 1972, 78, 80, 98

The Pinnel Mountain Trail is in the Steese National Conservation Area (a piece of ground administered by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and gerrymandered to nestle in among the placer claims of the Circle Mining District) about 100 road miles northeast of Fairbanks, running between Twelve Mile Summit and Eagle Summit. The summits (really passes on the Steese highway) are at about 3000 feet elevation, the trail peaks are around 5000, with timberline far below at about 1500, so the terrain is all arctic, talus, moss, and wildflowers. Wildflowers so dense that you can't step between them, and so extensive that they stretch from underfoot as far as the eye can see. The trail is a hundred miles or so below the Arctic Circle, but, because the peaks get to 5000 feet or so, the sun doesn't set for a week or ten days around the solstice. Here's what Pierre Berton says about the area as you approach it along the Yukon from the south in Klondike - The Last Great Gold Rush 1896-1899:

Here, the hills lose their grandeur and seem to sicken and die into monotonous wastes of sand, while the main stream [of the Yukon], broad as a lake and sluggish as a slough, describes its huge arc across the Arctic Circle for one hundred and eighty miles.

That part of the Yukon, called Yukon Flats, dominates the landscape from peaks on the Pinnell trail, occupying perhaps a 90 degree arc of the horizon. It looks blue like a distant ocean until the midnight sun skims over it and picks out its discrete lakes and oxbows and makes their reflections wink on then off like Christmas lights. It's a awesome sight, made more awesome by considering the tons of mosquitoes that must live there. Berton goes on:

The trail between Circle City and the mines led across a no-man's land of swamp and muskeg and stunted spruce, empty of game but swarming during the summer with mosquitoes so thick they blotted out the sun, suffocated pack horses by stopping their nostrils, and drove some men insane.

Well, most of the Pinnell trail has some elevation and breeze so it isn't quite that bad, especially when the weather is as cool (cold!) and windy as it was in June, but you get the idea. Whether they can drive you insane probably awaits clinical assessment - the fact that you have to be most of the way crazy to be there in the first place probably contaminates observations to date. Besides, Berton is a Canadian, so he might not be a purely impartial observer.

Normally, drinking water is a big problem. After mid June, there's usually no standing water around (except at Swamp Saddle where the loons live), and you either have to carry all you're going to need or depend on finding snow to melt in a north-facing hollow. This year, though, there was plenty of water; the muskeg was squishy wet the whole way, and both of the rainwater collection systems that the BLM installed on their two shelter cabins were full when I passed by. So the smart thing to do would have been to bring a liter bottle and a filter pump. What I did was to bring 7 liters of water and no filter pump. Fifteen extra pounds to start off with. Wearing Gore-Tex® or rubber boots would have been smart too. Two mistakes out of the infinity of possibilities isn't too bad.

The trail is officially 27.8 miles long with one shelter cabin about eight miles from either end. So the "standard" trip is three days of 8+, 10+, and 8+ miles, although many variations are possible, including turning it into a long, hard Marathon. Eight miles might not sound like much of a day, but it's pretty heavy going in the middle with some talus side hill traverses taking you down to one mile per hour. Then add some combination of bugs, wind, snow, rain, and fog, and you've got a decent workout. How decent? The day I started, four others set out too from Eagle Summit, and they all turned back the next day - three of them Adirondak 46ers (or whatever they call themselves) from Albany. Their welcome to Alaska was sharing the cabin on the first night with a guy who insisted on leaving his automatic shotgun loaded as he slept I just don't know how anyone can be that paranoid about grizzlies in country where you can see a hundred miles in any direction. Maybe you just like carrying a shotgun. Maybe you just like scaring the crap out of people from Albany. I ran into no one coming the other direction, but two whippersnappers passed me on the third day. They were computer programmers in their early thirties, who had taken the year off to travel and hike the Americas. They had started in Patagonia and were headed to Prudhoe as soon as they finished with Pinnell. There isn't much hiking at Prudhoe or much of anything to do at all, but when you start in Patagonia, you almost HAVE to go to Prudhoe.

The "standard" trip goes southwest from Eagle Summit to Twelve Mile Summit, because Eagle is about 600 feet higher, although, considering the total vertical distance that you have to travel, the difference is largely conceptual. The 'rhythm' is different, though. Starting from Eagle, you are on high (dry) ridge ground immediately heading for Porcupine Dome with wondrous views all around. To my personal taste, the trail unfolds in a more dramatic way going the other way though. Starting from Twelve Mile, you have to slog through a few miles of marsh, swampy this year but usually just bushwhacky, before you get to anything approaching pleasant hiking. Going this way, the country reveals itself gradually, and you don't get the full sweep of the trail until you're quite far in.

The openness of the country contributes to the drama and the rhythm. From several miles away, you think that you can make out the filament of switchbacks threading up some unholy peak. You wilt, but hope that you're wrong. Surely, the trail goes over there through that saddle. You get to the base of the mountain, and the trail does, indeed, go up the switchbacks. You'll never make it, you say. You could turn back, you say. But back is that distant filament of switchbacks coming down the last peak. Somehow, by placing one foot in front of the other and stepping up on it, you get to the top. A grand vista attained? No such luck. Fog obscures everything. Even the next rock cairn trail marker.

"The silence that bludgeons you dumb." Robert Service used that phrase to describe an attribute of winters in this country, but it sometimes happens in the summer nights when the wind dies and the bugs are asleep and you stop long enough for your heart and breathing rates to come down. From the peaks, you can see for a hundred miles but there's not a thing moving, and there's NO sound. It's a silence so deep that it even drowns out the buzzing in your ears. At the lower elevations, sometimes you can hear the water cascading down one of the creeks miles away and thousands of feet below. I think about this place whenever I see the Alaska wildlife videos. If you believed those videos, there are animals everywhere doing interesting things. In this country, though, there's mostly nothing. Some ptarmigan for Keno to exhaust himself chasing, a few marmots, caribou scat, but no caribou that reveal themselves to the untrained eye. Berton again:

Sorry. The quote got lost somehow. I'll track it down later.

People deal in different ways with getting back to the start. Some hitchhike out and back from Fairbanks. Some park a vehicle at one end and do an out-and-back trip. Those who do the full tour must either shuttle cars, hitchhike, walk back on the road, or return on the trail. None of the alternatives is really that good: because the summits are about 100 road miles from Fairbanks, bringing two vehicles to run a shuttle with is pretty extravagant; the traffic is way sparse so hitching takes a lot of patience; twenty or so miles hiking on the road is a distasteful prospect after you've traveled thirty along the ridges; and carrying provisions and water for the return trip makes for a pretty ambitious trip.

All of these calculations were running through my head as I sloshed down the last few miles to the parking lot at Twelve Mile about 5pm on the third day. It was late in the day; the tourist traffic, if there was any, would be going the wrong way toward Fairbanks from a day in Circle or Central. But a tourist would be unlikely to let a wet, smelly, and bedraggled human and a wet, smelly, and bedraggled Malemute into their land yacht anyway. My best hope, I calculated, would be to catch someone from Circle with a pickup truck on his way home after a day in Fairbanks. If that were my hope, it would be a couple hours before they came along. In the rain and fog the night before, I had gone on half rations, so I would be ok here for another day or so.

Just as we descended to Twelve Mile, a huge Dolphin land yacht pulled into the parking lot. I could tell it was a Dolphin, because it had pictures of frolicking dolphins screened onto its back and sides - a bizarre intruder into the gray drizzle of the Circle Mining District. The dog thought so too. He started chuffing, balking, and sidewinding as we tiptoed down the terminal boardwalk. The Dolphin certainly didn't fit the profile for a ride, so I ignored it completely as I walked down to set up a hitchhiking post on the highway at the entry to the lot.

I was getting settled into the spot that I planned to occupy for the next day or so when a guy opened the door of the Dolphin and yelled, "Hey. You going to walk all the way to Fairbanks?" I walked over to say hello. He was in the area working for a subcontractor to the Alaska DOT removing old leaking underground fuel tanks. His company had rented a few motor homes like this one to house its crews. Complete with plastic runners screwed over the carpets and with blankets over the upholstery. He was here to run a few miles on the trail, and he would be happy to drive me to Eagle Summit, yes, the dog was fine, after he got back. He'd never explored the other (Eagle Summit) end of the trail, so I said (truthfully) that it was a much more agreeable place to run, and he should try it right now. He believed me, so we all piled into the Dolphin, and we covered the twenty miles in no time.

The Pinnell Mountain Trail is a trip that seems to present options at every turn, but at its end, there are none. You have to go up the road to Circle Hot Springs and soak in the pool. If you're lucky, it'll still be cold and rainy (remember, you've been out on the trail, so it's cold and rainy) so the part of you out of the water will be cold and the part of you in the water will be hot. If you're really lucky, the restaurant at the lodge will still be serving dinner - cuisine that tends toward traditional Alaska bush - more canned creamed corn than arugula salad - but a terrific way to end a backpacking trip. You might even relax enough to remember your last days here fifteen years ago when Pierre Muskrat gave you the night off from Butte Creek, and you came up here and got a tumbler full of Jack Daniel's and an Oly from the saloon, and you climbed over the gate and floated nekkid in the pool watching the aurora dance in the sky and you thanked God for letting you be there.

Copyright, Fred Klingener 2002
May be reproduced with copyright notice for personal use