Kicking a stone off a narrow ledge to make room for my foot, I heard it clattering into the rocks just below, dislodging them in turn. Suddenly a rock fall of considerable mass ricocheted down the steep slope below me. Without loosening my hold on the ledge in front of me, I looked over my shoulder. The rocks rolled and bounced downward. Finally, some 200 feet below me, the rocks came to rest. The dust of their passing drifted in the air.
"Maybe I should call it a day here," I said to the rock at my face.
Alone some 4,500 feet up a ridge, more than five miles from the road, this seemed no place for bravado. Turning the way I had come, I gingerly backtracked across the slope to the saddle on the ridge. Looking back up where I had turned around, I did not feel terribly disappointed. The next summit would have only put the icing on the cake I already had in hand.
Often while approaching Summit Lake along the Seward Highway, I'd thought about climbing the mountains above the east side of the highway. Manitoba Mountain, while not the highest, remains the most recognizable with its open west face looking like a vast lawn from below. I frequently thought about climbing it, but thought Canyon Creek gorge prevented it.
Then John Wolfe, co-author of "55 Ways to the Wilderness," told me that Manitoba Cabin sits on the east side of the canyon, not on the west side as I had always assumed.
Now, a few weeks later, after crossing the bridge just below the cabin, I explored the mountains I had only looked at before. First, I followed the mining road leading past the cabin to where it dead-ended a mile up Mills Creek. Then I back-tracked to an old trail I had passed two miles from the cabin.
I followed the trail up through the brush to the top of a broad ridge. From there it led me along the right-hand edge of a spruce stand and dropped through a hole in the trees to the open meadows beyond.
Numerous walls of waist-high brush made the going rough. The now faint trail, though, led me through a hole in the first wall of low brush. Now hardly a line of bent grass, the trail bore to the left toward some sporadic spruce stands.
Once through the brush, the trail finally petered out for good. Turning now straight to the summit, I climbed into the tundra, then into the first rocks above. Occasionally glancing up from my steady plod toward the rounded summit, I noted the world slowly dropping away behind me.
I only planned to go to the first summit at the top of the lawn. But there I discovered a sheep trail leading down the ridge beyond. It followed the ridge for more than a mile to where it climbed onto another ridge, forming a T. One side, to the left, of the T led around the headwaters of Black Creek; the other side, to the right, continued up the north side of Juneau Creek. I wondered if I could reach the first summit along the Juneau Creek ridge.
Tracing a thin line through the first grassy knolls, the trail, easy at first, soon led into much rockier terrain. Then the final climb to the T entailed climbing a steep scree slope. After a grunt of a climb, I finally stood on the back ridge. But just over the first bump in the ridge a rock face forced me out on the steep-gullied face of the next bump on the ridge.
Halfway across that face I caused the rock slide that made me think better of continuing farther. Better to get down on my own power, I thought, than ride some rocks down.
But I knew I'd come back. As I worked my way back along the ridge and over the summit of Manitoba Mountain onto the great lawn below, I had already begun to trace other possible routes through the mountains around me. So many new trips to try, I thought, and all because of a conversation about a cabin.
The trail to Manitoba Hut (which requires a reservation if you want to stay there) and into the mountains beyond begins on the east side of the Seward Highway just north of Lower Summit Lake. To get there, drive 80 miles south from Anchorage to the two parking areas on the east side of the highway, just after Milepost 48. Park in the second parking lot overlooking the north end of Lower Summit Lake. The dirt road leading into the woods on the north end of the lot marks the beginning of the trail.
Stay straight along this road for approximately .75 miles to where it crosses the creek and climbs past Manitoba Hut. Approximately two miles past the cabin, the road reaches a faint trail on the left. This marked trail leads to the top of the ridge. Once there it follows the ridge toward Manitoba Mountain.