Pinnel Mountain Trail 1999

Last Monday, I went up to the Circle District to look at the sun, but both summits at the trailheads for the Pinnell Mountain Trail were socked in with visibility much less than the distance between rock cairn trail markers. So I drove on to Central and camped in the middle of downtown. Sort of perverse, but interesting. Tuesday, I spent at the Circle Historical Society and stuck out completely on McPhee. This is going to be harder that I thought. By Tuesday night, things had cleared a little, and I took Keno up to the trailhead at Eagle Summit, and we did a five or so mile trial jaunt with a full pack and the boots and socks I intended to wear. Went fine, but the ceiling was a dark gray 5500 feet or so that reached to the horizon. Not very inviting.

Wednesday morning, I had intended to get a reasonably early start and planned a big breakfast at the only eatery in Central that opened by eight. When I walked in, there were four locals drinking coffee, and I simply didn't have the guts to ask the cook, who was sitting at the bar drinking beer, to cook me some eggs, sausage, and potatoes. So we hit the trail on a granola bar.

There were only a few cars at the trailhead, we met three people coming the other way after overnight stays, and we had the trail and the shelters to ourselves Very spooky.

Keno pretty much behaved himself and he adopted the 'old wise dog' approach to the ptarmigans and marmots that had run him ragged last year. 'Diffident' would be the word. Until he spotted the small herd of caribou in a valley far below the trail and mile or so distant. He spotted them before I did, and he took off at a trot ignoring whistles, yells, and curses. It was amazing to watch the whole thing evolve - Keno trotting and stopping to assess the geometry, that 'bou just standing and watching and doing the same. Finally the caribou broke, and Keno took off after them over ridge, over saddle, and out of sight. I truly thought that I would never see him again. Somehow, he tracked back and found me, but he was one pooped puppy. Of course, It was utterly no contest, but thinking people who worry about biothermodynamics and the marginal nourishment required for unnecessary caribou aerobics would disapprove. There are no hostas there after all. In any case, I don't think that I'll mention it the next time the subject of chasing wildlife comes up on the MALEMUTE-L mailing list.

Pinnell Mountain stories never seem to end without an odd little twist, and this one was maybe the oddest. I hope so, anyway. I got to the roadhead at 12 Mile Summit at about 8:30 Friday morning and set up for the hitchhike back to the car at Eagle. Get to Circle Hot Springs before they stop serving breakfast, I said. But by 3:30pm - nothing. Land yachts sailed majestically by, and I seriously thought I might starve there twenty miles from the safety and respectability of my very own vehicle. And wondered what fantasies worked in the minds of all of those golf shirt wearing bastards. Maybe a serial killer who had invented a ruse - posing as a Pinnell Mountain Trail hiker to lure innocents. Shortly after noon, I had decided to start walking, having rested up some, but Keno was so footsore from the sharp rocks on the trail that he simply refused.

I was, at this point, a little punchy, buried in my parka against the persistent, howling wind at the summit, intermittently dozing off on top of my pack. A rumble louder than the wind would wake me up, and, if the vehicle was heading north, I'd stick out my thumb. Finally, I heard a southbound rumble, opened an eye and looked out through the parka snorkle. A large blue Suburban sails by headed for Fairbanks, stops, and backs up. A guy leans out and yells, "Hey. I'm lost. I'm trying to find Connecticut. You know which way it is?" Porten! It;s that sonofabitch Pierre Muskrat. What's he doing here? I point east and say, "It's over there. Leave me alone." He says, "And another thing. Isn't there a toxic waste dump around here somewhere?" I say, "You're probably thinking of the Butte Creek gravel mine 16 or 17 milies back the way you came." He says, "You bastard. When did you know it was me?"

Porten had arrived in Fairbanks that week, found out from Mark that I was in town and that I had come up to do the trail. He had come up to the Circle District to see old friends, had seen my car with the CT plates at Eagle Summit, and concluded that that derelict on the road was his faithful catskinner whom he hadn't seen for sixteen years.

But rescue wasn't that simple. Pierre didn't have enough gas to make the round trip to Eagle Summit nor the time because he had to deliver his kids to an important engagement in Fairbanks. So he accosted two women in the parking lot, women who had driven past me earlier with a smile and a shrug and a gesture toward the back of their compact car stacked roof-high with camping stuff. They said maybe, but they couldn't take the pack or the dog. Fine, Pierre says, "I'll take Keno and the pack to my place in Fairbanks. You pick it up after you get back from a soak in Circle Hot Springs." "Fine," I said. The women still said, "Maybe. We'll see." Pierre then sends his intelligent and persuasive wife Shannon (the Irish pub owner) over to appeal. She succeeds. Pierre takes the pack and Keno and leaves, and I stuff myself into the compact with the cooler on my lap and a warm sixpack on top of that. Off we roll for Eagle Summit. "What was that noise?" said the driver. She stops an looks back. Her radio, which was left on the roof of the compact now lies in the middle of the road in pieces along with the pieces of her new Patti Smith CD. Both women are now bummed. "Thing is," she said, "it wasn't even my radio. It's my Mom's." Silence. After a while, I asked, "So. Where are you guys going?" "Circle Hot Springs," the driver said. "Shit!" I said to myself, "They have to get over this, and they don't need the cause of their grief, however innocent, to be floating in the same pool." So when I got to Eagle Summit, I assured them that Someone indeed keeps track of good deeds, and that they both racked up many points that day and could I pay for the Patti Smith CD? No thanks. Bye and we're glad we could get you out of a jam.

So I went back to Fairbanks, eventually had dinner with Mark and the Muskrat family, retrieved the dog and pack and collapsed. I forget what I did Saturday, but the dog slept around the clock twice and was pretty bouncy after that.