This is the 11th day of our flying tour to Utah and Idaho.
Between the guidebooks we borrowed from the Johnson Creek caretakers and advice from other pilots, we had plenty of possible hiking destinations. Most were too short, a mile or less, or too long, a three plus day backpacking trip. The only feasible hike, Tyson concluded, was a trail on open street maps which climbed from Indian Creek up to Grays Peak. The guidebook described backpacking trails around Indian Creek, but did not describe this trail.
Flight to Indian Creek
The flight from Johnson Creek (3U2) to Indian Creek (S81) was uneventful, which is quite something to say given we crossed a 9,000′ high snow covered pass. To get to the pass, we had to climb up the scenic Riordan Valley past where we had hiked the day before. The valley was long enough that we surpassed ridge height without circling. Gorgeous scenery the whole way. The higher ridges were all snow covered. Why didn’t we bring our skis? Tyson got a good look at the Indian Creek airstrip on downwind. The approach involved a dog leg to follow the Middle Salmon River, some blind spots where you can’t see the runway, and a large hill at the approach end of the runway. Despite all the challenges, Tyson landed gently only using 860 feet of the 4,650 long runway (elevation 4718′).
Hiking Grays Peak
The trail eastward along the Middle Salmon River sees plenty of use. It even had a sturdy bridge over Indian Creek. When we turned left on the trail up Indian Creek, we found a typical ill maintained wilderness trail. This trail was faint and overgrown with bushes. In those bushes, there were ticks. After every patch of bushes, we picked three or four ticks off each other. The next trail we were looking for was even fainter.
By the GPS dot, we missed both the trail up Grays Peak and the direct trail back across Indian Creek to the airport. We backtracked 20 yards to an open area I had looked at suspiciously. There we found the trail to Indian Creek. We followed it back to a definite ford. Then we went looking for the Grays Peak trail. We couldn’t find it, but Tyson was sure it should be somewhere in one grassy meadow. A little ways up the grass, Tyson found a track going diagonally up. I had been dubious of this trail ever since learning it wasn’t in the guidebook, but Tyson felt vindicated finding the track where he expected it. We followed the track under one giant pine tree and then out onto an open hillside. Then it disappeared. All that grew on the hillside were clumps of sage brush and a broad leafed plant that also grew in clumps. There wasn’t any soil. The dirt consisted of loose shards of reddish rock. Tyson said he found the trail bed again. Then we lost it again. I thought we were just finding natural terraces in the hillside, places where dirt had collected above a row of plants, pushed there by animals walking across the hill. But then we passed a large trunk toppled over on the hill. A section the width of a trail had been sawn out of it, and then it had burned. I guess we were on a trail. Above that, the hill flattened out and we clearly found a section of the trail that switchbacked the other way. Then the hillside got steeper and we lost the trail again. We might have seen a few more hints, but we weren’t sure. The hillside was so steep that we had to be careful to not slide down on the loose rocks. There were a few standing trees, but everything older looked burnt. At this point, we gave up trying to find the trail and made our own switchbacks. We headed in the direction of the shoulder the trail followed on the map.
After we were all getting hot from the sun, and Tyson’s feet hurt from walking on the side hill, the slope lessened. Now we were in a sparse forest of old ponderosa pines. Instead of loose rocks and clumpy brush, we were now walking on proper dirt, with a carpet of sedge and huckleberry(?) bushes. In that greener forest, we came upon the trail again. This was no game path. The trail bed had been cut into the side hill and packed down with years of use. I had to admit Tyson was right, it was real trail. However, downed trees and thickets made it impassable in places. We eventually lost it again. There was no way we were getting to Grays Peak proper. We bushwhacked up to the first knoll on the ridge and called that a success. From there, we had views of all the surrounding valleys and peaks. We also had to pick ticks off ourselves when we got back up.
On the descent, we found different sections of the trail. Our best guess is there used to be a good trail up to Grays Peak. Then a wildfire burned the side of the mountain. Either the wildfire itself burned the soil off, or the soil subsequently eroded after there were no plants to hold it in place. With the soil gone, the trail was gone. Even if someone had tried to reestablish it, the rocks would have slid down the hill in a year or two and erased it.
Isaac loved descending without a real trail. It was so steep, he could leap clear over the bushes and then land with a soft slide. We happened across some large vertebrae. It might have been deer sized. For a while we could see the airport over the neighboring hill, but then as we descended into the Indian Creek valley the airport disappeared.
To add a little variety to the trip, we opted to take the direct trail back to the airport. It forded the creek and then climbed up and over a hill. The near side of the creek was shallow. The far side was about knee high. Isaac would need to be carried across. Tyson looked at the water and thought “knee high, it will be cold, but doable.” Tyson has mostly played in lakes and swamps. I looked at how fast the water was moving and thought “this might be dangerous, better unbuckle our packs and be ready to turn around.” We needed to get the packs across, Isaac across, and both of us across while only having two poles. Our solution – Tyson and I would go first with the packs and one pole each. Then Tyson would cross back over with two poles and get Isaac. We slung our boots over our shoulders and walked out into the water.
Mid way across the stream, the water got deep and fast. It piled up a wave to my mid thigh. Tyson and I had to brace against each other. [Note from 2022: the Wrangell-St Ellias hiking guidebooks have instructions on formations that work best for crossing glacial streams. Also they say to wear your hiking boots for better footing even if they get wet.] The water pushed hard. Every step was forced downstream no matter how hard you try. The footing was terrible, all large loose rocks, and painful on bare feet. I was quite glad to reach solid ground on the other side. Tyson left his pack and headed back to get Isaac, thinking it would be easier now that he knew the route and had two poles.
He made it a yard from shore.
“This isn’t going to work,” he had said, “I can barely get back across by myself. I won’t be able to carry Isaac safely.”
He retreated to the bank with me. From our side, we had a short walk up over the hill to the airport. Isaac was on the wrong side with a long hike out and around and several trail junctions. There was nothing for it but that we needed to cross back to the wrong side to join Isaac. We tied our boots securely to the packs, and stashed everything from our shorts pockets into the tops of our packs. Before stepping back into the water, we strategized about the best route back. We decided to start a bit upstream and then let the stream push us down to a gravel bar. When we did step into the water, we were very methodical. We moved one foot or one pole at a time and kept the other five points on the ground. It was slow, but secure. Lesson learned. We took the longer route back via the bridge.
Return flight to Johnson Creek
Continuing with our policy of alternating who was pilot, I got to fly back to Johnson Creek. I know I make mistakes flying when I am hungry or tired, so I ate a large snack and rested while Tyson loaded our gear.
It was warmer, than in the morning, so the airplane wouldn’t be able to climb as well. We might also have issues with the oil overheating. The wind was favoring taking off upriver (10kts from SW, slight crosswind for runway 22). This meant taking off into rising terrain. I planned to turn left shortly after takeoff and circle in the valley to gain altitude. The next choice was which notch to cross to return to Johnson Creek. Unfortunately my notes don’t say why we choose to return via a different drainage than we had followed over in the morning, but we did.
The takeoff was uneventful. I turned 180 to start the circling climb. I had easily gained 500′ when I got to the Indian Creek drainage. That drainage is long and gradual. We had climbed fast enough that I thought we could out climb the drainage. So I turned left and followed Indian Creek up into the mountains. Once over the pass, we were back in Riordan Valley.
Riordan Creek brings you to the middle of the downwind leg for landing at Johnson Creek. I came in 2000′ feet high. That might not be a big deal at a normal airport with a normal pattern, but the mountains are so tight around Johnson Creek that I didn’t have enough space to descend for an immediate landing. This was my first landing at Johnson Creek. If I remember correctly, there were a couple other planes landing at the time. So I did the sensible thing and circled, descending down to a more appropriate altitude. Interestingly enough, when I came back around to Riordan Creek we encountered significant sink. I hadn’t noticed that when cruising.
Trying to fly close enough to the mountains to fly pattern altitude is mentally hard. I still ended up 1,000′ high in my pattern. To compensate, I used every bit of space in the canyon for my base and final legs. I intentionally followed the turns of the river on final to elongate my final. That gave me time to establish a stable descent profile and steady airspeed. Tyson disagreed with that technique. He preferred to keep more distance between himself and the mountainside, especially when turning toward a mountain. The landing went fine and I stopped the Bearhawk by our tent.