JUNEAU (AP) — There was a collective sigh of relief as our group reached the Peterson Lake Trail parking lot. A few inches of crusty snow blanketed the area. It was then, if only for a moment, were we glad we brought our pulk, a low-slung toboggan that skiers or dogs can pull.
Winter had settled in Southeast Alaska. As frequent summer visitors to the area’s public use cabins, we had decided to book a stay at the recently remodeled Peterson Lake Cabin.
The cabin is located at the end of a 4.5-mile-long trail that has seen upgrades in recent years. Getting there means following a gentle uphill grade that follows a historic horse tramway once used to access a mining claim in the area. The Peterson family ran the mining operation in that watershed (which bears their name) from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.
On this day, our party of five included two children, one six and the other three, my husband and my father, who was visiting from Oregon. Our plan was to stay one night and the weather (it was clear and crisp) appeared to be in our favor.
About three minutes down the trail, our optimism faded. The snow had ended just a few steps in and the pulk now grated like a plow on bare ground as it bumped down the gravel-lined pathway.
After about a mile, the trail improvements ended and a section of twisted roots, frozen mud holes and craggy rocks began.
A good pair of ice cleats was all the hikers needed — but for the lone sled-puller, life became just downright hard.
One hour turned into three and the short daylight of winter began to fade. Although the forest was now draped in a solid blanket of snow and frost, and ice lined the creek, the trail remained a part of the landscape that could never be ignored. There was always something to step over, or around, or a sheet of ice to navigate, ever so slowly. It demanded all a hiker’s attention and was as treacherous in winter as it can be in summer after a hard downpour.
When we spotted the lake, the sun was just setting on the horizon. One half mile later, we were stomping our boots off on the porch at Peterson Lake Cabin.
If we’d learned anything on the hike up it was that ice cleats are a requirement on this trail in winter. No question. Rubber boots or similar water resistant footwear is ideal. Snowshoes? Not a bad idea, especially if a snowstorm blows in unexpectedly. A sled? Not going to happen. Our pulk ended up strapped to the back of a backpack at about mile 2.
The cabin is a cozy, brighter version of a typical USFS cabin design. During the remodel in 2011, the dingy inside was replaced with yellow cedar, the porch was rebuilt and made ADA accessible, the dock improved (in the summer this cabin is accessible by float plane) and crews installed a vault toilet. We joked that the toilet structure was just about as spacious as the cabin; it’s high class for a wilderness latrine.
The interior of the cabin boasts a small amount of cabinet space, a prep counter, and two sets of bunks with a lower portion that doubles as bench seating for the table in between. There’s both a propane heater and a wood stove. The pilot light in the heater is almost always lit (it was when we arrived, anyway, and there are instructions in case it’s not), which makes the task of warming up a frigid cabin a whole lot easier. Our other option was firing up a pile of soggy wood, which at the time happened to be frozen to the top of the wood stove.
As temperatures plummeted outside in the clear night, the interior of the cabin quickly became cozy and sauna-like. Our evening consisted of typical cabin antics: a rousing game of Bananagrams, dinner prep (there’s a metal plate on top of the propane heater perfect for keeping foods warm, or for drying damp gloves), storytelling and — our family’s personal favorite — a quick review of the cabin log and any area maps.
Unlike most of the year in our temperate rainforest, obtaining water proved to be an unexpected challenge; it was winter, after all. We brought a water filtration unit but, due the cold, preferred to boil our water clean. Behind the cabin a little stream still flowed and some spots in the ice were thin enough that we could pound through to expose a small hole from which to fill water bottles and containers. It’s easy to imagine that at other locations around the Tongass National Forest, melting snow and ice is the only way to obtain extra water in winter.
Morning came late with the sun rising around 9 a.m. Long crystals of hoar frost covered all surfaces. As light hit the lake and landscape, everyone’s spirits seemed to brighten with the day.
It wasn’t long before breakfast came and went, gear was packed and the cabin swept clean. We groaned under the weight of our packs (one of which carried a 30-pound 3-year-old) and set off crunching down the trail.
It took us only 30 minutes less to hike out than in due to the rough going of the trail. But it’s an easy grade that could be easily navigated by an amateur hiker; the 6-year-old in our group hiked on his own both ways.
On our way out, we passed a medium-sized group heading in. One man had a pair of hockey skates dangling off his pack. Depending on the time of year and the conditions, ice skating could be an option at this site. A word of caution, however: Choose to skate at the cabin-end of the lake; at the outflow to Peterson Creek, the water picks up velocity and is less likely to be stable.
Like any good outing into the wilderness, we celebrated as we reached the parking lot. And, with a few good lessons learned — bring ice cleats, more water and leave the pulk at home — we vowed to come back again soon.