Bountiful (spectacular!) hiking trails are one of the many reasons we chose to move to Alaska. Neither Papa B nor I are experienced or knowledgeable hikers. It’s something we’ve done occasionally while traveling, and we’d like to do more of it. Since moving up here, we’ve explored several of the shorter local Homer trails, but hadn’t made it too far from home. Frankly, the thought of tackling some of the larger trails alone with a toddler in tow was a bit intimidating, especially since we recognize we’re novices.
As fate would have it, in mid-September a couple of ladies on the Kenai started up a new branch of Hike it Baby, a nationwide group for parents with little kids to hike together. Anyone can lead a hike, and they range from “urban strolls” on paved paths with strollers, to toddler-paced hikes through the woods, to carrier-only treks up a mountain. We’ve been on a couple of hikes so far, and it’s been a fun way to meet other parents with small kids in our area and learn about great hiking destinations. In addition to the social aspect, it’s appealing from a safety standpoint as well. There were a few bear maulings that happened on the Kenai this fall, so having a little bit larger group to hike with is a plus here in bear country.
Most of the hikes so far, however, have happened up in the Kenai/Cooper Landing area which is a trek from Homer just to get there. Between the 90+ minute drive each direction plus the rainy fall we’ve had, I just haven’t made it out as much as I’d hoped. Earlier this week, though, a hike was scheduled for Slaughter Gulch Trail up in Cooper Landing. The forecast predicted sun and we had no other plans, so I messaged the hike leader to let her know Little B & I were planning to make the 2.5 hour drive up from Homer to join in on the fun. She messaged me back and told me to bring my trekking poles if I had them. Ha! I have hiking boots and a soft-structured baby carrier…poles? Those weren’t even on this rookie’s radar! She replied that it was no big deal, and she looked forward to meeting us the next day.That was my first clue that perhaps I was a bit ill-prepared for this particular hike.
Later, as I was packing up snacks, water, and layers to keep Little B & I comfortable I realized that since Papa B wouldn’t be joining us, I wouldn’t be able to carry both the backpack with our stuff as well as Little B on my back. In the past when I’ve travelled solo with Little B, I’ve always worn her on the front, and the backpack on my back. Being almost six months pregnant, coupled with the nature of the hike, that wasn’t going to be an option this time. But doing a hike like this is something I’ve been wanting to do since we arrived in July, so I figured I would make the best of what I had.
The morning of the hike, Little B and I loaded up and hit the road around 8:30am for the drive up to Cooper Landing. This time of year, the sun is just starting to peak out at that time. It was 36 degrees in the Homer city limits when we left, and by the time we had driven the 15-20 minutes up to Anchor Point (and gone up about a thousand feet in elevation), the temperature had dropped to 26 degrees and stayed there for most of the rest of our drive. It’s amazing what a difference elevation and proximity to the water makes in regard to temperatures. We’ve been told certain areas of Homer see spring as early as a month (month!) before other areas due to location. While I understand why this happens, its still interesting to experience it firsthand. Particularly because the various microclimates are just a short drive between one another.
I hadn’t driven the Sterling Highway in the morning hours since this summer, and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful morning. Skies were clear making for great visibility across the Cook Inlet. The morning sun lit up the volcanoes in lovely shades of pink. Most of the bright golden leaves are gone now, but frost covered the grasses and trees adding a different sort of interest to the landscape. Near Ninilchik, I even spotted a cow moose and her calf trudging across a clearing. It’s also quite obvious we’re no longer in peak tourist season, as the amount of traffic is substantially lower this time of year than it was in the summer. Since most of my drive was a two lane highway, less traffic is a treat.
When we arrived in Cooper Landing, I knew it could be challenging to find the trail. I have only ever driven through Cooper Landing, and Slaughter Gulch Trail is unmarked and located off a seemingly obscure road. I knew that I was supposed to turn north onto a dirt road just past Bean Creek Drive. I did just that, but as I pulled in, I noticed there was a street sign and chickens running around the yard. It looked like I was about to pull up into someone’s driveway, and the street sign threw me. I was expecting no signs at all since Google Maps didn’t have a name listed. So I turned back out onto the highway and pulled into the gas station just up the road to call one of the gals I was meeting. She assured me the chickens meant I was in the right spot, and told me to follow the narrow road up into the woods. So back we went, and soon found our hike mates.
After brief introductions with the other two mamas and their kiddos, I quickly prepped as best I could for the hike. I changed Little B’s diaper, fed her a snack, and dressed us in our layers to keep warm. I forgot to look at the temperature as we arrived, but I’m guessing it was in the low 30s at this point. One of the other mamas told me to grab my Kahtoolas if I had them. My response was, “Kah-what-a’s?” 🙂 She said she had a second pair with her, and grabbed another pair of spikes for me to borrow in case we encountered icy trails. The other mama kindly offered me her trekking pole to borrow. At this point, I’m starting to feel a little nervous. Here I am, closing in on the third trimester, toddler on my back, woefully unprepared, about to tackle a trail that climbs 1500 ft in elevation over just 1.3 miles I am in over my head? At this point, though, Little B and I had come a long way for an adventure, and we weren’t turning back now! Thankfully, one of the mamas has done this trail many times, and didn’t seem concerned. We were soon on our way.
The first (very short) portion of the trail is a piece of cake, but let me tell you, it’s all straight uphill from there! I knew going in that I would need to listen to my body and rest as needed, and I was a bit nervous that I would slow them down. Thankfully, though, they were happy and willing to take breaks whenever any of us needed. The mix of fallen leaves, sludgy mud, and wet granite made for some slippery spots, but thankfully we didn’t encounter much frost or ice. While it was dicey at points on our ascent, one of the other moms and I joked that coming back down would be the real challenge. I had grand plans of taking lots of pictures throughout the hike, but I quickly realized it would be more prudent of me to focus on staying upright and on the mountain. Luckily, the other two mamas snapped more pics, and were willing to let me share them here. It took us over an hour to reach the saddle, and let me tell you, climbing like that with a toddler on your back is sweaty business! It was also great that while I did stop for a breather now and then, this pregnant mama was able to keep up with the other two no problem. Walking all of these Homer hills and my Sweaty Betty classes must be paying off. 😉
We reached the saddle just in the nick of time, too, as Little B was ready to get out of the carrier. At that point, she was hungry and it was her nap time. Of course, since I didn’t have a ton of space for carrying things, I didn’t have many snacks for her. Total mom fail. The other moms graciously offered Little B some of the snacks they had packed. I both felt like a loser for not having enough snacks along on the trail for my kid, and incredibly grateful for their generosity. Between Little B and I, we had also polished off the entire bottle of water by the time we reached the saddle. Again..mom fail! Ugh! But thankfully I had more water & snacks waiting in the truck, and we made it through just fine until we got back.
After letting the kids explore a bit, and checking out the herd of mountain goats (or Dall Sheep…obviously I didn’t have binoculars with me…ha!) on the next peak over, we began our descent. It was actually easier (but not easy!) than I was anticipating, although I was extremely grateful for the borrowed trekking pole. Little B fell asleep about half way down the trail. For the last portion of the hike, I was at the back of the pack. At one point, I turned around and noticed Little B’s hat was gone. Either she had gotten warm and took it off, or it got snagged on a branch somewhere along the way. I was definitely bummed, as this was the only hat she was willing to wear. One of the other moms suggested we go back up a bit to see if we could find it. At this point, it was almost 3:30pm, and the sun was already starting to make its way behind the mountain. (Cooper Landing is a gorgeous area, but being surrounded by mountains, they definitely have a much darker winter than we will experience in Homer.) And frankly, I was ready to be done. Not to mention the 2.5 hour drive I had ahead of me. We backtracked a bit, but couldn’t find it. From a monetary perspective, this was the item to lose if we had to lose something. It was an inexpensive beanie from Target way back when. But those of you who have experience with independent, determined toddlers will understand why I was disappointed to leave without it.
All in all, we had a blast. It was great to meet the other moms and kids, and, as always, Alaska didn’t disappoint. I’m so thankful we went, despite not feeling 100% prepared. (Although I would never have tackled this hike alone without bringing more supplies…that would just be asking for trouble.) One thing that we have been frequently reminded of since we’ve moved up here is how valuable it is to have the right gear. Sure, you can hike/fish/hunt/cut firewood/etc with minimal supplies, but life sure is easier, and arguably more enjoyable, with the right equipment. Add a kid into the mix and that becomes even more evident. This hike-full-of-mom-fails was a great learning experience for me, and now I know that we definitely will need to be on the lookout for a structured hiking carrier that will allow me to carry not only my child, but also supplies. A pair of trekking poles and a hydration pack would also be valuable additions. A certain phrase from my past comes to mind: “You don’t know what you don’t know,” and experience is the best teacher. In this new world we find ourselves in, it’s safe to say this won’t be the last time I find myself on a “learning excursion”.