The Russian River Trail & Russian River Falls

When it comes to venturing out with kids in tow, I’m still learning the ropes. A couple of weeks ago, our Hike it Baby branch here on the Kenai had a hike planned for part of the Russian River Trail in Cooper Landing. The goal was a seven mile round trip hike to the lower lake, with a stop at the falls if there was enough time.  While we are continually getting better at embracing the “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” motto, it didn’t hurt that the weather forecast looked promising. High 40s with sun definitely makes driving two hours for a hike with two {little} kids much more appealing.  Since we had just decided the day before that we would be making a last minute venture up to Anchorage to look at a piece of equipment and run some errands, a hike seemed like the perfect way to break up the four hour drive.

Lower Russian Lake
Lower Russian Lake

Turns out making last minute plans to travel with babes, even for something as seemingly simple as a short weekend trip, takes a fair amount of planning on the front end. And while I’ve improved over the course of all of our travels with kids, I’ve yet to feel like I’ve mastered it. I wanted to be on the road by 10am on Friday morning to allow plenty of time for the two hour drive to Cooper Landing.  On Thursday evening, I lined up snacks, water, paperwork for a few of our Anchorage errands, did last minute laundry and set out the kids’ clothes. I put off actually packing everything into the suitcase until morning, figuring I would have plenty of time. Mistake! Even though I was up at ‘em several hours before we needed to leave, I always underestimate the amount of time our morning routine takes with a baby & a toddler. And it seems like right as you’re about to pack them up to get in the vehicle, somebody needs a new diaper or change of clothes.

While Papa B was originally planning to join us, a call on Friday morning changed our plans as he needed to stay back in town to take care of some business. Instead, he would take an evening flight up to Anchorage to meet us that night. Thankfully, the portion of the Russian Lakes Trail we were going to be hiking that day was wide enough to accommodate our double stroller, so the kids and I were still able to go despite the change in plans. (I knew tandem-carrying the two of them wasn’t going to happen for a seven mile hike.)

After a hectic morning scrambling to get things all packed up and ourselves out the door, we finally got on the road, only 20 minutes behind schedule. As I headed out of town, I crossed my fingers for smooth sailing on our drive. This was Baby B’s first drive up to Anchorage, and he was a wild card. I was hoping for long naps, but knew it could go either way. I also started going through my mental checklist trying to figure out what I inevitably forgot to bring.

  • Water? check.
  • Snacks? check.
  • Extra warm layers for the three of us on our hike? check.
  • TP/baggie/hand sanitizer for the drive/hike? check. (This is more important than ever when the littles have me outnumbered! When we first moved up here, I don’t think I could have imagined that I would prefer nature’s restroom to a real toilet. But alas, the city girl in me is fading rapidly. I don’t even bat an eye at the thought of it these days. While there are restrooms available off the roads of Alaska, they can be few and far between, and many are just glorified port-a-potties. Even if you find yourself approaching a Fred Meyer, having to schlep both kids into the store by myself for a quick pit stop is miserable. Thankfully, pull outs off the highway with lots of wooded privacy abound in these parts.)
  • Traction cleats for the trail? Oops. Forgot those.
  • Bear spray? Oh crap! We live in bear country, and it’s important to always be aware and prepared. Even though it’s still a bit early for the bears to be out, they are starting to emerge from their dens. Heck, a fellow Homer Sapien was charged by a bear back in February just a few miles out of town. General rule of thumb in these parts is to be prepared to encounter a bear any time of year. I hoped that perhaps we had left it in the truck after our last excursion….no dice. At this point, I was approaching Anchor Point and knew I didn’t have time to turn around and go back for it. I decided since we were going with a larger group (there were five of us mamas total on this hike, plus six kids), that I would continue on without it.  I knew a couple of the other ladies I would be on the trail with would come prepared.
  • Baby carrier so I could wear Baby B when he needed to nurse or got sick of the stroller? Bugger! Thank goodness my head is attached or I may have forgotten that as well the way this is going.

On we drove, despite the forgotten items. The sun was shining, and Baby B snoozed away in the back seat. Our truck has voice recognition software in it, so I tried to call up some upbeat tunes for our travels. Turns out Sync needed a reboot, and wasn’t finding most of our music library. I tried repeatedly to load several different artists, with no luck. Little B could tell I was growing frustrated, and piped in from the back seat, “What goin’ on?” I said, “The truck computer isn’t finding the music I want to listen to, and I’m getting frustrated.” She immediately chuckled and said, “Uh oh. That’s not good.” This kid! She isn’t even two yet, but her timing is spot on, and she makes me laugh every single day.

The two hour drive went by in a flash (phew!), and we arrived at our meeting spot with a few minutes to spare. After a quick snack, fresh diapers, and outdoor gear packed up or put on, we set off on the one mile walk toward the trailhead. While the road continues on to a parking lot right at the trailhead, that road was still closed for the winter. (They actually opened it for the season while we were on the trail that day.)

Thank goodness for traction cleats! There was still some ice and snow left on the trail.
Thank goodness for traction cleats! There was still some ice and snow left on the trail.

In total, the Russian Lakes Trail is 21 miles long. We started at the lower end of the trail, and the three mile hike to the lake was, for the most part, a very doable stroll with the Chariot on a wide, gravel trail. Beyond that, the trail is no longer stroller friendly. I wouldn’t try tackling any of the trail with a traditional stroller, but a jogging stroller with bigger wheels or a Chariot can get the job done. The area is a popular destination for bears and fisherman alike, particularly in the summer months during the salmon run. While we didn’t see any signs of bear activity that day, the trail has a reputation for heavy bear traffic in the summer months. On that sunny morning, we pretty much had the trail to ourselves, save a woman out on her fatbike and a pair of guys out for an afternoon hike as we headed back at the end of the day. While there were a few stretches of trail still covered in crusty snow and ice, for the most part it was no problem with the stroller. Thankfully one of the fellow moms had extra traction cleats she let me borrow, and they came in handy while pushing the stroller up those icy inclines.

This girl loves to hike.
This girl loves to hike.
Our first destination- Lower Russian Lake
Our first destination- Lower Russian Lake

Little B  loved walking parts of it, and was never quite ready to get back in the stroller. By the time we reached the lake, the sky had clouded over and the wind had picked up, so we let the kids play and had a quick snack before we headed back. When we reached the fork in the trail that let to the falls, we paused for diaper changes and a few of us decided to head toward the falls, while a couple of other mamas and their littles decided to head back for the day. The falls ended up being maybe another 3/4 mile from that point, and that portion of the trail had the most elevation change of the entire day (downhill to the falls, of course…had to cap off the day with the uphill trek :-)). Both of my kids were sound asleep and missed the whole thing, but I was glad I decided to go. The falls aren’t life changing, by any means, and we didn’t see any salmon or bears (phew!) on that April day, but still a fun way to cap off our day in the woods. I’m certain we will be back again and the kids can experience it then.

The falls
The falls

As we neared the parking lot, a few raindrops started to fall. The kiddos were pooped. Frankly, so was I. Even my arms got a workout pushing the stroller over the soft ground and carrying Baby B for several miles. (A big thank you to my fellow Hike it Baby mamas who pushed the stroller so I could nurse Baby B as we hiked!) We had covered a little over nine miles. Not too shabby. As I pulled back onto the Sterling Highway, the rain really started to fall. Perfect timing.

All in all, it was a great day. Sometimes…ok, all the time… it feels daunting to get the kids (and myself!) all packed up for a day outdoors, but it is always worth it in the end. The fresh air and peacefulness of the woods is truly rejuvenating for us all. These little adventures are precious memories I know I will cherish in the years to come, and I hope the kids will feel the same way when they are old enough to look back on this time we spend together.

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