Wednesday, September 09, 2009

My new trail column

The Juneau Empire is bringing back its weekly Outdoors section after a yearlong hiatus, part of our effort to regrow the newspaper after a long, difficult period of cutbacks. Most of this growth has been hard - it means more hours in the cubical for me, more stress for my design team and more work in general. But the good thing about our new section is it gives me an excuse to write a weekly trails column, something I have always wanted to do. Juneau is surrounded by great trails, and information about them is limited (meaning there's not much on the Internet.) But I could write about a different one every week for a year, and not run out of places to write about.

Klas and I headed up Mount Jumbo today to do a little recon for my first column. Actually, he just wanted to get one more climb in before the Klondike Road Relay, and I didn't actually need to do any recon because I was just up there on Sunday. But when a friend suggests a fun outing, I'm not inclined to say no. Even when the weather is terrible, as it it was today - windy, rainy and mostly fogged in.

I always have a hard time making the transition from summer to fall in terms of clothing. This is the time of year that I keep dressing for summer and pay for it when I reach wind-blasted ridges, where air temperatures are in the 40s, soaking wet. I always come down with my worst bouts of hypothermia in the fall. Then I wise up and winter becomes quite the cozy season. But I finished up my first column, still unedited, and thought I'd stick it up on the Internet for Google to crawl, and maybe inspire someone else in Juneau to trek up this cold, cloudy peak.

Jumbo-vision: Standing on the top of Douglas Island

By Jill Homer

Juneau Empire

Do you hear that pitter-patter on your roof, the slow drip on the sidewalk? That’s the sound of autumn. It’s here.

Yes, I hate to be the one to deliver the bad news, but summer is over. And it won’t be long now — just weeks, perhaps even days — before the first termination dust coats Juneau’s skyline. After that, the mountains become significantly less accessible, so now is the time to bag those peaks you didn’t have a chance to summit when summer was hot and spectacular and you spent your days lounging in your swim suit on Sandy Beach.

I can already hear the skepticism: “Mountains? Hiking? Really?” So let me point out another obvious fact: You live in Juneau, perhaps one of the best places in the United States to be a hiker. “Discover Southeast Alaska With Pack and Paddle,” an obscure guidebook published in 1974, proclaimed Juneau “one of the few places where the casual hiker can gain entry into the mountaineer’s mystical world without the climber’s skills and trappings, and may better understand the mountaineer’s love of high places and his urge to journey into otherwise unreachable wilderness.”

If you have time to bag only one peak this season, I strongly recommend Mount Jumbo (also known as Mount Bradley) on Douglas Island. All of Juneau’s prominent peaks are stunning, but Mount Jumbo has the added benefits of being readily accessible, a shorter hike than most, with a well-established trail that crosses a range of scenic landscapes including rain forest, muskeg and colorful, autumn-hued alpine.

The trailhead is located on Fifth Street in Douglas. The first mile is a moderately easy jaunt through the rain forest on a fairly wide trail, followed by a walk across muskeg on single-plank boardwalk (Beware: It’s very slippery when wet, and almost always wet.) After leaving the muskeg, the route climbs steeply up an eroded, root-clogged trail. I have heard it compared to “walking up a ladder,” or “an endless Stairmaster.” The roots do provide nice steps and handholds, which help limit sliding as hikers gain a gut-busting 2,500 feet of elevation in the next mile and a half.

The trail leaves the woods about a half mile from the summit. From here, views of downtown Juneau become apparent, and on clear days, the numerous peaks that dot the Juneau Icefield also pop into view. The trail crosses a saddle and continues climbing up a steep, rocky drainage. Look for piles of rocks, or cairns, as the route isn’t always apparent. The final pitch is a scramble to a false summit, followed by a short drop and climb to the summit, 3,337 feet above sea level.

Rewarding the effort are spectacular views of Admiralty Island and Stephen’s Passage, downtown Juneau, Gastineau Channel and the Mount Roberts ridge. Perched high on the narrow spine of Douglas Island, Mount Jumbo offers what is perhaps the best 360-degree panorama in town.

The trail can be slippery when muddy, and clouds can choke out the views, so it is best not to attempt to climb Mount Jumbo in the rain. Budget at least three hours for the five-mile hike if you are feeling ambitious, and closer to six if you’d like to take your time (that is, take breaks.) This time of year, plan for cool temperatures and sub-freezing windchills, and carry rain gear. There is no snow on the ground, but wet vegetation can be slippery, so trekking poles also are a good thing to have.

But whatever you do, don’t wait. Winter is coming.

Mount Jumbo
Distance: About five miles round trip.
Elevation gain: About 3,300 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous.
Time: Three to six hours
Getting there: The trailhead is located off Fifth Street in Douglas. To get there, go straight on St. Anns Avenue and take a right on Summers Street, then a left on Fifth Street. The trailhead is sandwiched between two houses on the right side of the street.
For more information: Visit www.juneautrails.org.