Kenai Fjords National Park Backpacking Disaster

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Kenai Fjords National Park is one of eight National Parks in Alaska and is the smallest of the eight. The park is known for the Harding Icefield, 714 square miles of ice, where over 40 glaciers flow out of the mountains. I visited Kenai Fjords National Park during my 5 week road trip throughout Alaska and Canada; I decided that the Harding Icefield was a great place for my first backpacking/camping adventure. Well, let me just tell you about my Kenai Fjords National Park backpacking disaster.

Exit Glacier.

The Exit Glacier area of the park, is the only part of the park that is accessible by car.

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The neat thing about the 0.5 mile, wheelchair accessible trail to the Exit Glacier viewing area, is the year markers/signs along the trail that marks where the glacier was in previous years. It gives you a great perspective of how far the glacier has receded in the years. If you take the 1.2 mile, strenuous trail to the edge of the glacier, you can come to the face of the glacier, which is pretty awesome.

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A strenuous 8.2 mile, round trip, hike will take you to Harding Icefield itself, which is where I decided to backpack to… for the first time… without the proper gear… without knowing how to put up a tent.

Harding Icefield Backpacking Disaster.

I know, you’re saying to yourself, 4 miles is not that far. Yes, I didn’t think so either! At this time, I had just bought my first tent, and didn’t have a hiking backpack. I put my heavy, big, two person tent into my Jansport backpack, some bottled water, and my heavy, synthetic sleeping bag into a second backpack. I put my 10lb dog into his carrier across my chest (since dogs were technically not allowed on the trail), and my two backpacks overlapping eachother on my back. This 4.1 mile hike, was so difficult without the proper gear, not to mention it started pouring and getting dark before I got to the ice field. My dog was shivering, I was soaked and exhausted, and my back hurt. I definitely pulled my first and last Cheryl Strayed during this trip.

I found the closest open area with semi soft ground, not knowing whatever ground covering I chose to set up my tent on, was a sponge for water. I pulled out my heavy tent and the directions for set up; however, the directions soon became drenched and the wind coming off the ice field made it very hard to hold the sheet flat enough to read the directions. I soon gave up on trying to follow the directions and with the approaching darkness,

I was finally able to piece the tent together to some type of shelter, even though I knew it wasn’t put together as it was designed. I threw my gear in the tent and pulled out my sleeping mat, which was supposed to be inflatable by pumping it with your hands. This took me over 15 minutes to figure out as the top layer of the tent was flapping violently in the wind and water was accumulating at the bottom of my tent from the rain falling and the water filled sponge it resting upon.

At this point, I didn’t care about any of my gear getting wet at this time, I only cared about getting into my sleeping bag and getting warm, as my hands and feet were going numb. My clothes were soaked and I again, didn’t think to bring a spare pair. I struggled taking off my clothes without standing up, surprising myself with this new found flexibility. I finally grabbed kadin and all of the hand warmers (surprisingly I brought them) that I could pull out of my backpack and we shivered until the feeling finally came back into my hands and feet and I almost felt comfortable from the warmth of the hand warmers and 15 degree sleeping bag. Kadin’s shivers finally ceased and we started to drift off to sleep.

The constant noise from the near frozen rain drops hitting the tent and the flapping of the outside layer of the tent, that I did not assemble, nor secure correctly, made it very difficult to fall and stay asleep. Just when I thought that it couldn’t be much more of a miserable first time wilderness experience, something started scratching and digging at the bottom of my tent, close to where my head was resting. The irrational, scared shitless side of my brain thought it was a bear and all I knew to do was to play music to scare the “bear” away. I pulled out my iPhone and played music as loud as it would and started praying for my safety, and I admittedly was thinking of how bad I wanted my mom. The digging eventually stopped and I finally drifted off to sleep from the exhaustion.

To my surprise, I woke up 8 hours later, still alive. My rational brain was back and I realized whatever animal that was digging at my tent in the middle of the night, could not have been a bear. I doubt a bear would be digging to get into my tent; I am pretty sure it would just shred my tent with one quick motion. Whatever the small animal was who instilled so much fear into me, also pooped around the outside of my tent, resembling deer poop, but I am not sure that a deer would be digging like that either.

About the time I started to feel refreshed and excited to begin the sunny, glad to be alive hike, back down to my warm car, I realized that all of my gear and my clothes were sitting in inches of freezing water. I will never forget the feeling of putting back on freezing cold, drenched clothes. I would have been more comfortable and really wanted to just hike back naked, but thought that required clothing might be an unspoken rule of all national parks.

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The views on the way down were awesome; honestly though, I was so cold and wet, that I just wanted to get back to my warm car and put on dry clothes, so I didn’t fully appreciate the views around me, like I should have.

My first time putting up a tent and backpacking (if you could even call it this), was a disaster. I didn’t put up a tent again for several weeks, but the second time I put up my tent was much better after a practice assembly in my hotel room.

Although this was a miserable experience, I learned so much and I definitely do my best to be as prepared for my adventures and to do the research before another disaster arises.

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