Twenty-one miles and 6,000 feet of climb? In four days?”
The scene was the lobby of the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center in mid-April, immediately following a KDLL Adventure Talk on the Tutka Backdoor Trail.
I bumped into a frequent hiking companion and she was thinking the same thing.
We had recently done a 20-mile, 3,900-foot hiking and skiing adventure in a single day.
“I’d think it would be one or two days,” she said. “I’m not much for spending a lot of time in camp.”
The Tutka Backdoor Trail, under construction since April 2016, is the Kenai Peninsula’s newest option for a long trek. It starts in Tutka Bay, which is across Kachemak Bay from Homer, and travels 21 miles to Taylor Bay on the Gulf of Alaska side of the Kenai Peninsula.
The trail is being built by Ground Truth Trekking, a nonprofit headquartered in Seldovia. One of the presenters at the KDLL talk was Bretwood “Hig” Higman, executive director and co-founder of Ground Truth Trekking.
He warned of river crossings, navigational challenges, steep rock and snow. He said that some areas were still an “adventure trail.” He advised that some even found packrafts and ice axes necessary.
But when my hiking companion, another experienced hiker and I headed out for five days on Tutka Backdoor Trail in early July, the thinking was we’d get to Taylor Bay and back. We’d heard dire warnings about trails before. They rarely panned out.
On Day 1, even with a wrong turn costing us an hour and an extra 1.8 miles of hiking, we cruised through the first 9.2 miles in 5 hours and 30 minutes. We’d be at Taylor Bay by tomorrow.
Then came the first major stream crossing, and two positives combining to make a negative.
The positives? My last crust ski in Homer this year came on May 9. And the weather on Day 1 of our hike was clear, beautiful and hot.
The negative? All that snowpack that kept me skiing late into spring was now liquifying in the mountains and gushing down the river.
So the height of the river was a challenge, but the real problem was our lack of experience and knowledge in that situation.
We knew about locking arms and using trekking poles for balance, but we didn’t know about how to read the water and the river bottom to find the safest way across.
Luckily, on the morning of Day 3, we ran into Erin McKittrick, director and co-founder of Ground Truth Trekking. She gave us a brief lesson on crossing the stream. When we still looked skeptical, she pointed out a 10-year-old had just crossed that morning. Yes, the water had been a bit lower early in the day, but it was McKittrick’s knowledge that made it possible to cross.
It was the first of some extremely humbling moments.
Later in Day 3, at the top of Tutka Pass and about halfway to Tayor Bay, a friend of ours caught up to us, relaxedly, freshly and comfortably ambling along as if a helicopter had just dropped him off around the corner. He had started from Tutka Bay that morning.
He was familar with the trail, having hiked from Taylor Bay to Tutka Bay last year. It was a stark reminder of how much time we lost to route-finding and scouting.
As long as I’m embarrassing myself, I’ll give the best example. Returning to Tutka Bay on Day 4, we were trying to find a better way around a troublesome “pinch point” in the river valley below the pass.
Our new route put us on a cliff about 30 feet above the river, needing to find a way down to complete the bypass of the pinch point. My hiking companion, who becomes Alex Honnold when there are alders on a cliff, insisted there was a safe way down.
“No way,” I said.
We circled back, taking our original route through the pinch point, and, an hour and 15 minutes later, arrived back at the cliff that I had declared impossible to scale.
Looking at it from below, there sure seemed to be an easy way up and down that cliff, just like my companion said. So I tried it. I scrambled up and down the cliff and returned, sheepishly, in less than two minutes.
She had been right.
What didn’t feel right was not getting to Taylor Bay, not even getting within 8 miles of Taylor Bay.
I’m used to getting to my intended hiking destination, but Tutka Backdoor made me realize how much I rely on the intel of others and the choice of friendly terrain.
We didn’t have great maps of the Tutka Backdoor Trail, partially because we hadn’t picked up a nice map produced by Ground Truth Trekking, partially because it’s hard to have a map of a trail that is not yet finished in many areas. The terrain also is tricky, with many routes that look doable quickly turning dangerous, especially in a remote area with balance and agility compromised by heavy packs.
The trail is quickly getting easier. When we got back, McKittrick posted on Facebook a run she had done through the whole route, with GPS coordinates available to download. In the last week of July, a group of volunteers organized by Ground Truth Trekking cut a trail through the pinch point that had so mystified us.
I’m glad we didn’t have the GPS coordinates or the new trail.
Not only did Tutka Backdoor force us to explore our limitations, it also forced us to explore valleys, mountains, streams and glaciers both for route-finding and pure pleasure.
The quarter moon rising at sunset through notched mountains while camping at the Tundra Playground. The purest field of lupine I’d ever seen. Floating on my back while swimming in the Infinity Pools, staring up at pointy peaks all around. Even a disputed wolverine sighting.
All this would have never happened if we cruised straight through to Taylor Bay.
21 miles and 6,000 feet of climb? In four days?
That’s not enough time.