How Backcountry Camping can decrease Stress, Pain, and Renew your Appreciation for Life.

Backcountry Camping 1

By Amy Fahlman

Overworked, overstressed, not enough hours in a day, responsible for too many tasks, projects, or people?  As a physiotherapist, I commonly encounter how a high demand, high distraction lifestyle manifests not only as mental anguish, but physical pain.  However, recent research has shown you can actually reverse these negative effects by spending time immersed in nature.  This is why I love backcountry camping – to routinely unplug from devices and reconnect with oneself.  Here are the top 5 ways backcountry camping improves your health.

 

  1. It improves mental capacity.  Attempting to stay focused and productive in an environment of emails, texts, push notifications, advertisements and noise pollution is mentally draining. David Strayer studies how we can reset these effects by what he refers to as ‘the 3 day effect.’  He has found people perform 50 percent better on creative problem solving activities after they have spent 3 days immersed it nature. The tranquil sights and sounds of nature don’t require the same level of mental focus as our typical day, giving our brains a chance to rest and recover.  This actually restores our mental capacity so when we return to our usual tasks, we are actually more productive.

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  1. It improves physical health and training capacity. Paddling or hiking trips require daily, multi-hour, low level aerobic exertion.  More commonly referred to as zone one heart rate training, during these trips you are working your heart at a low level of your training capacity over a long period of time.  Zone one training builds the base of your cardiovascular fitness, which improves your physical recovery time and teaches your body to burn fat as energy.  Not to mention zone one heart rate training lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, and decreases the risk of heart attacks. Though the intensity of paddling or hiking may not be up to your usual workout standards, you are allowing your body to recover while continuing to be active, so you are getting health and fitness benefits at the same time as you rest from exertion.

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  1. Less is more. It’s hard not to get caught up in our consumer driven society.   Keeping up with the proverbial Jones’ can leave us unfulfilled and constantly consuming more.  However, one gruelling long portage through a boggy swamp is enough to reconsider the extra amenities.  Pack simple and light.  You don’t need much to meet your needs in the backcountry.

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  1. The appreciation for an abundant fresh water supply. Living in Canada, I have grown accustomed to fresh drinkable water flowing endlessly from the tap.  Though when backcountry canoeing, water is readily available in the lake and river systems, it is not so easily consumed.   Here you must consider how to safely collect and purify drinking water.  It’s a small extra step, but it brings the ease of first world water consumption to the front of our consciousness.  We are extraordinarily lucky to have an abundance of fresh water in Canada, a privilege billions around the world will never experience.  This serves as a reminder not only to be grateful for the world’s fresh water sources, but also to be conscious of consumption and preservation for future generations.

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  1. Let go of what you can’t control.  You can’t control the weather, neither literally nor figuratively.  Sometimes the conditions won’t be all that pleasant, and you will have to push forward and tolerate the discomfort if you want to make your destination. Likewise, sometimes it’s going to storm heavily and you’ll need to stop moving.  These things happen.  Yes it will slow your progress, but in the end that’s ok. Eat, nap, meditate, rest, refuel, refocus, and then push on. Certain aspects of life are simply out of your control.  It’s not good luck or bad luck, it just happens.  My advice – avoid checking the weather forecast.  If you approach each day in the backcountry without expectations, you will always be able to find gratitude in what you are given.

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If you have never experienced backcountry camping, but are at all conscious about your health and fitness, I would certainly recommend you give it a try.  You may be impressed by the wellness benefits you gain while exploring the world’s natural beauty.

 

Camping in Beautiful Bhutan is not as Far Reaching as You Think

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Me at Tiger’s Nest Monastery

By Mary Lyons

When I tell people I went to Bhutan, I get mixed reactions. Sometimes I get asked, “Where’s Bhutan?” Others say, “Oh, is everybody really happy there?” in reference to their reputation for measuring Gross National Happiness. But the response I get most often is, “Wow, I want to go there, but ______…” You can fill in the blank. There’s always a but, and when it comes to Bhutan, there are two main obstacles that prevent people from visiting this amazing country. Number 1 is money. Number 2 is lack of knowledge that results in the misconception that getting there is difficult.

 

SAVE YOUR PENNIES, AND NICKELS… AND DIMES… AND PROBABLY A FEW DOLLARS

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Main building of Bhutan’s airport. It was completely empty except for one custom’s official.

Money is a justifiable obstacle. It can be expensive just to get to Bhutan. I flew from Kuwait to Kathmandu, and then on to Bhutan, for less than 500 USD round trip. However, my friend from Boston who met me there paid 1500 USD, also going to Kathmandu first. Before flying to Bhutan, travelers will have to fly into India, Nepal, Singapore, or Bangkok first. There are two airlines that fly to Bhutan. I know, I know. I couldn’t believe it either. One is Druk Air and the other is Bhutan Airlines. The planes are fairly small due to the decent into Paro, between two mountains. You’ll want to be awake for that.

Most people who are aware of Bhutan’s tourism industry already know that everyone pays a fee per day to go to Bhutan, and it is not cheap. It does, however, include everything but tips, alcohol, and souvenirs.

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Town square in Thimpu and view from my hotel room.

Tourism fees are set by the government and do not vary from operator to operator within Bhutan. I consulted several websites for a variety of tour operators within Bhutan and for the trek I wanted to do, every operator charged the same price. That’s because they don’t charge by the activity you want to do, they charge a fee per day that is set by the government. For groups of three or more, the fee is 250 USD a day. For a solo traveler or a couple, it is a bit more per day. I went with one friend, and we paid 280 USD each per day. I think a solo traveler will pay 300 USD per day. This daily fee is probably the single biggest obstacle for people who want to visit Bhutan.

Wow, that is steep, you say? Actually, it’s not a bad considering what is included. All of our lodging, food, guides, visa, and any entrance fees (not sure there are any…), and a 65 USD tourism fee is included to ensure responsible tourism. The only things not included are alcohol, souvenirs, and tips for the guides. If you know how long you want to stay in Bhutan, you can multiply the number of days by 250 USD (or 280 USD or 300 USD) and you’ll know how much your tour costs without even asking. All the tour companies I checked online post this government set fee on their website. Tourists are not charged this fee for the day of departure.

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We were greeted by this stunning sight after returning to Paro after a short walk to a museum.

There are no hidden fees. You will not be asked to pay for this or that when you arrive. I needed to rent a sleeping bag from my tour operator and I was told up front before arriving what that would cost. However, if you are trekking, you need to have your own gear because it is not available to buy within Bhutan. I rented a sleeping bag that belonged to the manager of Snow Leopard Treks, the local tour company I used. Even in Thimpu and Paro, trekkers cannot find gear, so it is important to bring everything the tour company says to bring with you.

VISA TO BHUTAN? THAT’S THE EASIEST PART!

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Bhutanese people at a local temple at one of the largest prayer wheels I’ve ever seen.

Everyone needs a visa to enter Bhutan except people from India, Bangladesh, and Maldives if they have at least six months remaining on their passports. Everyone visiting Bhutan for tourism purposes must also book through a licensed tour operator, of which there are many. The Bhutanese government does this in order to protect their country and their people from the negative effects of tourism, (not sure this is 100% effective) and also to limit the numbers of people who visit each year so they can prevent environmental damage.  They have never reached the maximum number of tourists allowed in one year, according to my guide, but numbers are growing.

Your tour operator will tell you exactly what to send them in order for them to get your visa. The cost is included in the daily fee. No special documents are required. You’ll just need to photocopy and scan some documents to email to your tour operator.

I recommend booking through one of Bhutan’s many tour operators rather than one in a surrounding country that offers a package including Bhutan. Here’s why. One, your money will go directly to the people of Bhutan. Two, you’ll be certain that you are getting the right information about your tour/trek. Three, you will pay less. There will be no extra fees that go to the tour operator. Tour operators in other countries are just middle men. They have to contact and work with a tour operator in Bhutan to book your tour, and you will pay for that middleman service.

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Me, Big Buddha, and the only decent cup of coffee I had during the entire stay in Bhutan.

 

IF EVERYTHING IS PAID FOR, I DON’T NEED CASH, RIGHT?

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Red Panda is one of two local brews, neither of which is worth writing about.

Wrong! If you plan to buy alcohol or souvenirs, you’ll need cash. Most places do not accept credit cards. Be warned, most souvenirs are made in China. Or Nepal. Or India. Not so much in Bhutan, although most tour operators will take tourists to the Handicrafts Emporium where people with disabilities are learning to create some beautiful works of art, including mandalas, Buddha sculptures, and traditional weavings.

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The other local brew, also not worth writing about. But hey, it’s beer, right.

The main reason you’ll need cash, though, is for gratuities for your guide, cook, and any helpers during your trek. Tipping is most definitely expected. It was impossible to get a straight answer about how much to tip the guides on our trek. I checked my Lonely Planet guide and that was also no help. My guide was not much help either. It is not in their culture to ask or even really discuss money, but he did give me some idea.

 

I’M A SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER. IS IT SAFE TO GO ALONE?

My response to this question is YES! Absolutely. Bhutanese people are warm and welcoming. The crime rate in Bhutan is one of the lowest in the world and they have too much pride to harm anyone and risk “losing face.” Anyone visiting Bhutan will not need to carry large amounts of money because most everything is already paid for.

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Artists at the Handicraft Emporium.

You’ll be the only female on your trek unless you’ve joined another group. Your guide, your cook, and any helpers will be men. The horses might be female. Either way, it won’t matter because you can rest assured you will be safe.

 

WHERE SHOULD I GO ON MY TREK IN BHUTAN?

Trekking in Bhutan depends on how much time and money a traveler has. Regardless of both, there are several trekking options and tour operators will tell you in detail about the trekking options they offer. There are three most popular treks in Bhutan, but none of them will be crowded. To minimize environmental damage, a toilet tent will be provided and you will be very thankful.

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Cheri Monastery day trek is quite easy for most fitness levels.

Here’s some information to give you an idea of what to expect from these three treks.

Cholmolhari Trek – app 13 days including flight days – 8 days, tent camping – includes a trek to Cheri Monastery and Tiger’s Nest and other cultural sights, like the Folk Heritage Museum – No one is allowed to climb Cholmolhari because it is sacred. This trek is challenging and you’ll be rewarded with absolutely stunning views and a great sense of accomplishment. You’ll also see some yak farms and yaks are awesome.

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Me and our guide, Sonam, at Cheri Monastery. The caretaker wasn’t there so we couldn’t go inside.

 

Gangtey Trek – 7 nights, 8 days – 5 nights tent camping –  includes a visit to the Folk Heritage Museum – considered easiest trek in Bhutan – trek through the valley of Phobjikha which is a glacial valley at 3000 meters above sea level – This is the trek for bird watchers or those who want an easier trek, but one that still showcases the beauty of Bhutan.

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Prayer wheels on the way to Tiger’s Nest.

 

Bhutan Culture and Haa Valley Trek (this is the one I did) –  app 9 days total – 2 nights 3 days trekking – 2 nights tent camping – 1 day trek to Cheri Monastery – 1 day trek to Tiger’s Nest – visit to Handicraft Emporium and other cultural sites and temples in Paro and Thimpu – Haa Valley was opened to tourism in 2001 and is still unspoiled by tourism. There is an opportunity to walk around and see the small, traditional town of Haa.  You’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the Haa Valley and Cholmolhari.

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Tiger’s Nest, this time without my big head in the way. Absolutely stunning and not treacherous, although it doesn’t seem that way from this view.

 

No matter what trek you choose in Bhutan, altitude will be a consideration, but in the three treks I mentioned, the highest point is 14,000 feet, but camping is not at that elevation. I did not experience headaches or altitude sickness on this trek, but everyone is different. All treks will have challenging changes in elevation and some steep ups and downs, but your guide will set a pace that everyone in your group can handle. Trekking in Bhutan doesn’t come cheap, but it does come with many rewards.

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This is a yak. Yaks are awesome.

 

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Spinning the prayer wheels. They are everywhere.

 

Experience the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

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The herd starts to file through the gates into the corrals.

By Robin EH. Bagley

If you’re on the lookout for new, memorable experience, point your compass toward the Black Hills of South Dakota. Every September, Custer State Park rounds up their herd of 1,300 buffalo, not something you see every day. Disclaimer: the proper name for these animals is American Bison; however, they are colloquially referred to as buffalo throughout this region.

In fact, it’s something that might not have happened at all if hadn’t been for conservation efforts in places like Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. Prior to the 1700s, 30 – 60 million buffalo roamed the Great Plains. Their numbers started to fall as settlers pushed west, and by the late 1800s, they were nearly extinct. They were killed for their hides as well as to make way for railroads and settlers, and to deprive Native American tribes of their food source, thus making it easier for the government to force the tribes onto reservations.

It’s estimated that only about 1,000 animals, out of tens of millions, remained. Some brilliant ones hid out in what would become Yellowstone National Park, and they survived. A few were shipped to the Bronx Zoo, and that herd had a huge role in repopulating the western buffalo herds. The rest existed in tiny pockets dotted around the plains, and were saved by a handful of people, including Scotty Philip, who built up a herd after purchasing five buffalo calves in 1901. These five buffalo calves are the ancestors of today’s Custer State Park herd.

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Buffalo are matriarchal and follow the lead cow.

Today the park tries keeps the herd at 900 – 1300 animals. The park is 71,000 acres, but it’s fenced and resources are finite, so managing the herd’s numbers are important for the animals’ health. If the herd grows too large, food becomes scarce. So every fall the herd is rounded up, vaccinated for brucellosis (a bovine disease that can travel between buffalo and cattle), and a number of them are sold at the annual auction in November.

Over 10,000 visitors travel to this remote corner of South Dakota every year to watch the roundup. This year the event is Friday, Sept. 29 and it will be Sept. 28 in 2018. The roundup is held in Custer State Park, which is located five miles from Custer, SD and about 45 miles from Rapid City, SD, which is also the location of the nearest commercial airport. Normally there is a fee to enter Custer State Park, daily and weekly permits available; however, there is no entry fee on the day of the roundup.

This is a morning event, so go to bed early, and set that alarm clock. The roundup itself happens at 9:30 am, but the viewing area parking lots open at 6:15 am. Yes, you read that correctly. Allow yourself plenty of time to get there, leave early because traffic will get heavy as you approach the park and sometimes come to a complete stop. Don’t worry, it will start moving again, just be patient. Personally, I recommend that you leave Custer by 5:30 am. Audio books, podcasts, or plenty of music will help get you through the drive. And once the sun comes up, you can enjoy the scenery.

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There are two viewing areas, equally good.

This is an outdoor event where you will park your car and walk to the viewing area, so it’s nice to have a camp chair or a blanket to sit on. Wear plenty of layers as late September can be very cool in the Black Hills. And it’s nice to have rain gear just in case. It should go without saying to bring snacks, but in case you forget or want a hot breakfast, the park serves a pancake and sausage breakfast at both the north and south viewing areas.

Usually the morning starts cool but heats up once the sun rises, so be sure to have sunscreen. Binoculars are also a good idea to watch the herd as it starts moving in from a distance. You won’t need the binoculars once the herd approaches the corrals. And it’s just fun to absorb the whole spectacle. Bring your camera.

If you stay in Custer, there are a couple of shuttle services that will drive you out and back to the roundup, so you’re free to enjoy the scenery. Many of the hotels also offer an extra-early breakfast as well. And camping? Campgrounds are abundant in the Black Hills.

Camping reservations go quickly in Custer State Park, but there are a number of commercial and Forest Service campgrounds in the area. Helpful links are www.visitcuster.com; https://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer/, and https://www.fs.usda.gov/blackhills.

No two roundups are the same, and everyone experiences it differently. Go with warm clothes, plenty of snacks, and an open mind. See what you experience.

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A bull buffalo taking a snooze.

 

Avoiding Bear Problems in the Backcountry

Avoiding Bear Problems 1

By Carley Fairbrother

I went on my first backpacking trip when I was 19, and since then, solo backpacking has been an important part of my life.  It does shock people sometimes, though.  One of the first things people ask is, “what about bears?”

On the other end of the spectrum, I hear people talking about their bad habits and saying, “I’ve been doing it like this for years, and I’ve never had a problem.”

Both these mind frames can really ruin a trip.  On one hand, the fear of bears can hold people back from immersing themselves in nature, but on the other hand, being too relaxed about it can result in disaster.

What we really need to bear in mind (pun intended) is that bears think a whole lot like us.  We have similar food preferences, we’re both curious, neither of us are great hunters, and we’re both pretty darn smart. It makes sense that we run into each other so often in nature.  It’s helpful to keep those similarities in mind when considering how to avoid dangerous situations with bears.

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Berries – a favourite food of humans and bears

 

On the Trail

Like us, bears want to avoid other large predators. It’s their instinct to avoid us, and knowing where we are will allow them to do just that.  They don’t like being surprised, and running into a potentially harmful creature like a human may trigger some aggressive behaviour.

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A lot of people like to bring bear bells with them, so that they are constantly making nose.  However, I’ve heard of accounts of bears coming to inspect the curious noise.  This is unlikely to create an aggressive encounter, but it’s something to keep in mind.  The main reason I don’t use bear bells is that it stops me from hearing my surroundings.  Aside from the fact that I love the peace an quite of the forest, I feel a lot more comfortable if I can hear a large creature moving around in the underbrush.  Instead I opt for yelling periodically – something like “Hey bear ” or “Way O.” This also lets other people on the trail know that I am human.

 

Avoiding Bear Problems in Camp

Bears usually wander into camp because they’re hungry – no, not for human flesh, but for whatever delicious meal the humans have been cooking up.  Bears have very similar food preferences to us, though they are significantly less picky.  This means that you have to watch out for things like your garbage and sunscreen too.  To keep your camp safe, follow these three rules.

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 1. Store your food (and other smelly stuff) properly

When it comes to storing food, it’s important to put it somewhere where a bear isn’t going get to it.  Anything that smells, such as chapstick, toothpaste, dishes, sunscreen, and garbage should be stored with your food. Some folks say to put the clothes you wore while cooking in the bear cache, but I don’t think that’s necessary unless you’ve spilled food on them or have been gutting fish all day.  And yes, a bear can smell your candy bar, so don’t even think of trying to store it in your tent for a midnight snack.  When it comes to how to store your food, there are a few options.

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Use the bear cache provided: A lot of sites that are maintained by parks will have bear caches already set up.  They can come in the form of big metal lockers, a cable and pulley system, or, if you’re lucky, an old rickety ladder leading up to a sketchy platform.  Use these if you can.  If those aren’t available there are other options.

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Hang it from a tree:  This is probably the most common method.  It’s a pain in the butt, but all you need is a waterproof bag and some rope.  There are a number of ways to hang food, the simplest being to throw something weighted (I use my water bottle) over a tree limb, tying one end to my food bag, pulling it up, and tying it off to a tree trunk.  Of course, there is always the risk that I’ll lose my water bottle in a tangle of branches, and it can be hard to get it far enough away from the tree trunk using this method.  Speaking of which, your food bag should be 2 m (6 ft) or more away from the trunk and 3 m (12 ft) above the ground to actually get it out of reach of a bear.  Make sure your bag for this method is waterproof.

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Use bear proof canisters: If you like camping in places with no trees (or small trees), hanging food from a tree is obviously not going to work.  Even in some forested areas, bears, being the smart critters that they are, have managed to figure out that getting that yummy smelling bag down from a tree isn’t actually that hard.  As a result, many busier parks, particularly in the United States, now demand that food be kept in a bear canister. This saves you the trouble of hanging it from a tree, but they are heavy (at least 1 kg/2 lbs) and bulky.

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Use bear resistant bags: Bags such as the Ursack are made of tough, bear resistant fabric.  They are light and easy to stuff into your bag. The drawstrings are very strong, and allow you to tie the bag to a tree.  The downside is that a bear will be able to crush your food, and probably get a tooth or two through the fabric.  As a result, most of the parks that require bear canisters do not allow bear resistant bags.  This is, however, my preferred method.  If I’m camping in the forest I will put it in a 20 L dry bag and hang it from a tree.  If I’m camping in the alpine, I will hide it outside of my camp and try to tie it to a rock or a dwarfed tree.

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Odour Proof Sacks:  There are a number of companies that make odour proof sacks. The most popular is LOKSAK’s OPSak.  I’ll admit that I haven’t used them, but many people swear by them. This should be used in combination with one of the other methods, and not a replacement for it. I’ve heard of people keeping their food in a “smell proof” bag in their tents. Bears have an amazing sense of smell; some sources say that a bear can smell a carcass upwind from up to 30 km (20 miles) away.  Sorry, I but I trust a bear’s nose over a piece of mylar.  However, many of these bags are very light and make an excellent supplement to your food bag or canister.

 

2: Store your food away from camp:

Don’t get caught up in idyllic campsites on TV and movies where happy campers are roasting their hotdogs over a fire with their tents only a few feet away.  Evidently, movie makers don’t know much about camping in bear country.  Sleeping near anything that smells like food is a bad idea.

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Don’t do this in bear country
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Planning your camp area

 The last thing you want is to draw a bear into camp.  This means cooking and storing your food at least 100 metres (or yards) away from your tent.  You also want to minimize the smell around your food to reduce the chances of a bear finding it.  This means eating 100 metres away from where you are storing your food.  Essentially, your camp should make a triangle, with each side at least 100 m apart.  If you need help estimating distances, that’s about 120 steps.  Unfortunately, some sites are set up with a cooking area or fire pit right next to the tent pads.  Evidently, it’s not just Hollywood who don’t know much about camping in bear country.  If this is the case, still try to find somewhere else to cook.


3. Keep you camp clean:

Going through all these precautions aren’t going to do you much good if you’ve left a bunch of smelly morsels of food around. Try really, really hard not to spill, and pick up what you can if you do. Don’t bury leftovers or put them in lakes or streams, even if you think they will decompose easily.  Aside from bear concerns, this could attract a variety of unwanted critters and disrupt the ecosystem.  Pack your leftovers out or store them and eat them for breakfast the next morning.  Try to eat every bit of food before washing your dishes; heck, lick your plate if you need to (no one cares about table manners in the backcountry anyway, right?). Remember, leaving a mess not only puts you in danger, but also the people who camp there after you.  Plus, no one want see little bits of your ramen noodles in the stream.

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Don’t burn garbage or leftovers.

 

If you follow these rules, it will go a long way to keep you safe.  Bears are just like us but hungrier, and better at smelling things (okay, they also have bigger teeth and shorter tempers).  If you keep food smells away from camp, store you food properly, and make noise while you hike, the only time you are likely to see a bear is from a safe distance.  While following bear safe principles aren’t guaranteed to keep you safe, the vast majority of bear attacks happen when people haven’t followed them.

 

To see all about avoiding bear problems in video form please take a look at the video below:

 

Hike the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves before it’s too late

Mendenhall Glacier

By Joy Sheehan

Located just 12 miles outside of downtown Juneau, Alaska sits the Mendenhall Glacier. Hundreds of thousands of visitors gaze upon its beauty each year, but very few people actually see it from its most beautiful angle: the inside.

Inside the glacier is a series of ice caves that are simply otherworldly — like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. Only all of Narnia is blue. And you had to hike a moderately strenuous 3.5 mile trail (each way) to get there.

However, the caves are quickly melting and collapsing. Get to Juneau as fast as possible if you have any interest in photographing yourself as a Smurf experiencing this surreal natural wonder!

 

Know Before You Go

Before you attempt this hike, you need to know that this trail can be dangerous, arduous, and is somewhat unmarked in certain spots. A few people each year come ill-prepared, get lost, slip and fall, sprain their ankle, or need rescuing. I highly recommend not hiking this one alone if you’re not an experienced hiker.

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Expect the hike to take between 2–3 ½ hours each way. Start early and don’t underestimate the time. Plan it so that you’re not coming back in the dark! You should also know that you are not guaranteed access into the ice caves. Take note of the weather (beware on hot sunny days or rainy days) and always use common sense when it comes to your safety.

 

What To Bring

Mendenhall Glacier 5Dress in layers, bring snacks and water for the day, and keep in mind that you’ll get wet! This means safeguarding your phones and your cameras with protective cases! My Lifeproof NUUD Waterproof iPhone case saved me on this trip!

A warm top layer like a sweater, and a light rainjacket to change into will be wanted once you get closer to the cold wet glacier. Bring proper hiking boots or sneakers with ankle support, and wool socks. Chapstick with SPF, sunscreen on sunny days, and mosquito repellent are good ideas too.

Crampons for your shoes are extremely helpful if you want to walk on the top of the Mendenhall Glacier. Gloves to protect your hands while scrambling down the rocks during the last bit of the hike would’ve been handy to have.

And of course, please remember that this is an incredibly beautiful natural wonder in need of protection and safeguarding. Practice your Leave No Trace skills — and if you pack it in, pack it out.

 

How To Get There

The West Glacier Trail is on the Western side of the glacier starting at Mendenhall Lake. This out-and-back trail will bring you to the caves. You could also veer off at the “Viewpoint” sign on the trail, which will still bring you to the caves on a different route (the Cairn route).

Mendenhall Glacier 3

 

If you choose to visit the ice caves independently (not on a tour), you can either drive your own vehicle, rent one in town, or take a taxi. If taking a taxi, tell the driver you plan on doing the ice caves hike at the West Glacier Trail off of Skater’s Cabin Road. If driving yourself, use the Google directions below.

Mendenhall Glacier 2

 

Mendenhall Glacier 6Start on the West Glacier Trailhead. If you can, set up a GPS to track your course before you start the hike, as it’ll make finding your way back a whole lot easier. I also dropped a pin on my map on my phone when I started, and noted what time I started the hike and what time I arrived to the caves.

If you opt to take a guided tour, you’ll be shuttled by van from your pick-up point to the trailhead and brought back once the tour has ended.

Mendenhall Glacier 7The West Glacier Trail starts out in a forest and is fairly level to walk on for a while. It can get muddy and slick in some areas, and a good portion of the trail has uplifted rocks and roots. It begins to get pretty steep and you’ll have to go over bridges, switchbacks, stairs, and a large boulder with a knotted rope to aid in climbing up it.

You’ll reach a few scenic overlooks, and you’ll end the trail at the top of an area with shrubbery and exposed rock near the glacier. Again, not all of the trail is marked. Look for the colorful ribbons tied to bushes, or for cairns — rocks piled orderly on top of each other — that other hikers have created to help distinguish the route. The last bit is that loose rock scramble downhill to reach the cave entrance.

 

Mendenhall Glacier 8

 

Exploring The Caves

Again, the last bit of the West Glacier Trail has you scrambling down a hillside of loose rocks and pebbles. Be mindful of your footing and go slow. The cave entrances are right in front of you — holes in the sides of the glacier with an icy bubbly blue hue inside. You’ll see a little stream running through them.

Mendenhall Glacier 9

Caution : Once you enter the Mendenhall Glacier ice caves, you’ll want to stay forever and you will seriously contemplate adapting to the cold and taking an ice worm as your wife.

Fun Fact — Yes, ice worms actually exist! They spend their entire lives in glacial ice, only coming to the surface in mornings and evenings to feed on algae and pollen grains. Their bodies actually liquify if they experience temperatures of 41° F (5° C) or higher! So in retrospect, maybe choose a different wife species when you decide to stay here forever, unless you want to become a widow thanks to global warming. 😉

Mendenhall Glacier 10

 

The Mendenhall Glacier Is Receding!

Mendenhall Glacier 11The Mendenhall Glacier is receding and melting quicker than it can accumulate snow and ice. The snowfall at the head of the Icefield is heavily relied on. But with increasing global temperatures, it’s not looking very hopeful for glaciers.

Granted, the total disappearance of the Mendenhall glacier would probably take centuries, but the ice caves inside of it are disappearing at a much faster rate.

I first visited the caves in July 2014 and two days later, a ranger informed me that the main entrance had melted and collapsed! Talk about timing! I returned to these ice caves in August 2017 and the difference was alarming. The new entrance was much smaller and the caves weren’t as vast or extensive. Water was still dripping and pouring from its “ceiling”.

Some predict that it could be as little as 10 years until they are gone completely!

Avoid future disappointment and start planning your trip to Juneau ASAP!

 

Mendenhall Glacier 12

 

Mendenhall Glacier 13

 

Mendenhall Glacier 14

 

More of Joy Sheehan’s work can be seen on A Jaunt With Joy, her own Travel & Outdoor Lifestyle Blog.