EAGLE RIVER, Alaska — For 26 miles of continuous hiking, no CamelBak water pack is big enough. And a flashlight will emit only a weak beam in mile after mile of rain.
Flat land would be one thing, but we were on the ups and downs of the Crow Pass National Historic Trail, which follows the historic Iditarod supply route.
The "we" were my stepson, Craig Feigenbaum, his longtime hiking partner, Copper, a distinguished pit-bull/boxer mix, and I. Craig would be hiking his age: a mile for every year. For me, well, my age is almost double.
Our hike began about 40 miles east of Anchorage, at the Crow Creek Trailhead near Girdwood, in the Chugach National Forest. We had flown into Anchorage from Chicago and rented a car.
When my wife dropped us off at our starting point at 11 a.m., the weather was pleasant: sunny and in the 50s at the end of July. The trailhead was surprisingly busy with hikers and campers gearing up to ascend the pass summit. Most were taking shorter trips in and back out to their cars. Some were camping along the trail and completing the trek the next day.
We were starting late, considering we were making the whole hike in a day. But making the entire trip in one stretch is a local challenge that hikers do regularly, including in the annual Crow Pass Crossing race. Geoff Roes of Juneau won it in less than three hours the Saturday before we set out.
It was no small feat, considering that from the trailhead, the first three miles ascend about 1,000 feet up the pass, winding gently to 3,500 feet. Mine ruins, snowfields, a waterfall and a rentable national forest cabin slowed us as we stopped to photograph the natural and man-made landmarks of the trail.
Topping off the ascent is the Raven Glacier, where we overlooked the Raven Valley and Raven Creek, swollen from the week's off-and-on rain.
Picking our way across and down the rock-strewn talus fields until we hit the valley floor, we spent hours making our way through high grass and thick alder bushes. And just so we didn't surprise any bears, we often called out, "Hey, bear!" "Go away, bear!" assuming they understand English, or clapped as we took turns leading the hike.
Then came the thermal challenge. It felt like a thousand needles sticking our legs as we forded 100 yards through the glacier-fed Eagle River. The river is 13 miles into the hike, and the recommended crossing point is marked with stakes. We read the posted crossing tips; leashed up Copper, who would swim it; changed into our water shoes; zipped our pants into shorts; and waded into fast-moving waters arm in arm. The 36-degree water was just above our knees.
On the other side, we caught our breath and let our legs warm before moving the next few miles over rocky riverbed. The easy, flat terrain soon turned into an obstacle course of small hills, roots, log bridges, ropes and even a ladder to scale boulders that Copper climbed easily.
At 9 p.m., not long before the 10:46 sunset, we sat down for dinner about four miles from Icicle Creek. I kept ticking off the landmarks in my head to tell myself we were making progress.
Then, refueled by salami sandwiches, we decided to put away most of the camera gear because of wet, dark conditions and to make better time.
Even with a momentary stop to keep a safe distance from a mother moose and her calf just off the trail, we got to Icicle in an hour, leaving just 5.5 more miles to our end point, the Eagle River Nature Center in Alaska's half-million-acre Chugach State Park.
Luckily, Craig had iodine tablets to make drinkable water; we both had sucked our water bladders dry soon after dinner. He dipped into a snowmelt creek running toward Eagle River that had little sediment compared with the river.
I started to fall behind with about three miles left. Copper kept coming back to make sure I was coming, then ran back ahead. With our navigation now by flashlights only, Craig stopped and doubled back to get me.
Just after midnight, the temperatures now in the 40s, we sat out of the rain on the dark porch benches of the nature center, enjoying iodine-free water from the outdoor drinking fountain. We called Vivian and Brooke, my wife and stepdaughter, to come pick us up. They showed up with hamburgers and Cokes. It's amazing how good such things can taste under those circumstances.
Then it dawned on me: This journey took me more than 10 hours longer than it took the runner Geoff Roes. But then, he's an ultra-marathoner who runs 100-mile races. And I'll bet all his photos come out blurry.
The Crow Pass National Historic Trail follows the historic Iditarod supply route. Along the way are mining ruins and spectacular views of peaks and glaciers. Excellent day hikes can be made from either end, or you can spend a few days hiking the trail length, camping along the way. Though the distance is listed as 21 miles, variables turned our trip into 26. Be warned: Stream and river crossings can be difficult.
The Eagle River Nature Center is the main visitors center for the nation's third-largest state park, Chugach State Park (dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/chugach) and its 500,000 acres. For information on the trail, visit dnr.alaska.gov/parks/maps/crowpasstrailguide.pdf, or phone 907-269-8400.