We can drive it home with one headlight

I closed out my Alaskan hiking with an epic day hike to Donoho Basin. A trip to Donoho is always rewarding, but the fall colors make September particularly brilliant.

Getting to Donoho means hiking across the glacier, which isn’t easy. The glacier rolls up and down, with pools and crevices that require careful footwork as well as patience. The crooked path is the way, the better to navigate around many potential hazards. Most tourists wisely hire a guide.

Hiking to Donoho. This is the smooth side, the “easy” way.

At the beginning of the summer, Ben (a summer co-worker) had asked me what I thought the best way was to Donoho. I told him that I kind of buck the conventional wisdom and prefer staying to the left of the basin and walking where the glacier is smooth, then hiking up the left side of the waterfall and crossing the creek/river that feeds the waterfall.

The conventional wisdom is to access Donoho on the right side of the waterfall, but for me this approach has had its perilous moments. Last year, I went without crampons, for example, which is a pretty big mistake in and of itself. At the point where the glacier meets Donoho basin, the glacier takes a steep dip, and more than once I just about slid a few hundred feet down the glacier and into the rocks below. It was a fall that could have killed me — or worse, as one of America’s uninsured, I could have had a million some odd dollars in medical debts to pay.

Donoho Basin, looking back onto the glacier I just crossed

There were four of us on last year’s hike to Donoho, but on the way back we split up into two groups of two. Anna and I tried a different route going back, hiking along the more smooth side, but just to be safe I borrowed one of Anna’s crampons. Together we awkwardly navigated, each wearing one crampon. The chorus from the old nineties Wallflowers song was in my head the whole trip back: We can drive it home, with one headlight.

There’s the perilous glacier itself, but when you try to access Donoho on the right side, there can be some serious mud to navigate. And it isn’t easy to spot it, not until you get sucked in up to your knees in the unforgiving goo. Our group of four last year was covered up to our thighs in mud by the time we navigated through. Alecia had the most epic dip when she found herself submerged waist deep. She scored a 10 out of 10, so far as I’m concerned, my scoring system based on the fact that none of us could stop laughing, including Alecia.

I tried to convey some of this to Ben, but apparently I didn’t make a strong enough case. Never one hold back his true thoughts, Ben kind of just shrugged and said, “Uhm, that’s cool but I think I’ll go up on the right side.”

Donoho Basin, Wrangell St-Elias National Park, fall 2017



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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

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Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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