This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
My hiking partner was about 10 feet in front of me. But on this steep mountainside — west of Bench Lake off the Johnson Pass Trail — choked with dense grass over 5 feet tall and cow parsnip at shoulder height, I was blind to his location.
I felt the prick of stinging nettles on my arms and legs through my clothes. It was hot. I was sweating buckets and DEET. All I saw was green around me and uneven ground underfoot. Grasping fistfuls of flora to hoist myself up, I found it difficult to breathe. It felt like I was swimming.
I hadn't really felt claustrophobic before. But I guess that was me now.
I lunged a step higher and finally spotted the back of Matt's head floating above a wave of grass. He turned and managed a halfhearted smile — or was it a grimace? — in my direction. And then the game of Marco Polo continued.
Our Sunday began with a late-morning start from the north trailhead of the Johnson Pass Trail, at Mile 64 of the Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula. To be fair, there were warning signs of the 'shwhack to come: The roughly 9 miles of trail leading to Bench Lake ducked in and out of overgrown vegetation, sometimes harmless, sometimes forming a tunnel of nightmares.
The other nuisances were present in such overwhelming abundance that when I did see the scarce patch of devil's club, I thought: Dude, you are the least of my problems right now.
I had kept a healthy distance behind Matt so I didn't get swatted in the face with clusters of cow parsnip, infamous for the skin reactions it can cause. The nettles got me then.
And since we left the trail? Boy, were they getting me now.
We clambered out of the worst of it, about 1,500 feet above Bench Lake, and I could breathe again in a field of wildflowers. Then I choked on a mosquito, and its friends arrived with a vengeance.
So went the nastiest bushwhack I've experienced in my time in Alaska.
Three slow miles later and grateful to be out of the weeds, we reached our destination: a deep teal, glacier-fed lake at 3,600 feet, tucked in a valley flanked by pleasant ridges and sloping tundra.
"That's pretty cool," I said.
Matt simply looked at me.
"Not worth it."
Did I mention, this hike was his idea?
He had been here before, in September one year. The grass wasn't so tall. There was snow up high, and blueberries were still all over. It sounded nice. We figured, based on the current plant growth, we were either a month too late or two months too early for optimal hiking conditions.
We hastily set up camp at our alpine lake and snoozed peacefully through the night. Breakfast was a freeze-dried meal of turkey tetrazzini that expired four years ago (a gift from former ADN outdoors editor Mike Campbell). He'd also given me a four-year-expired meal of freeze-dried chicken teriyaki, which we ate for lunch the previous day.
Both tasted great, in case you're wondering.
Before leaving, we took a detour up steep tundra and loose rock to gain the ridge north of the lake, which tops out at 4,785 feet. We were treated to 360-degree views, aloft in a sea of peaks with the Timberline Creek valley below us. A waterfall steadily thrummed in the distance. The breeze sent wispy clouds cresting over ridges that swirled in a mesmerizing dance above glacier-carved terrain.
"OK," Matt said. "This was worth it — at least, the short hike up."
We turned to leave our little oasis, dreading our choices on the descent to Bench Lake: either tight-woven alders, or dense cow parsnip and stinging nettles. But mercifully, we got lucky this time, picking a line that avoided most of the terror of the previous day.
At first I felt invincible, armed with long pants, long sleeves and a cloud of bug dope. I used my trekking poles as probes to determine whether I was about to step into a hole, on a rock, or on a mess of slick grass. Occasionally, I'd stick them out in front of me to sweep aside stalks of cow parsnip and curtains of grass, like Moses parting the Red Sea.
But it didn't take long for reality to sink in: There was no defying nature. Mosquitoes planted their flag all over my body. My feet kept getting tangled in verdant plant life, threatening to send me plunging forward on the steep downhill, as though nature were trying to reclaim me for her own.
Before this trip, I had forgotten about the overgrown charm of midsummer hiking. I won't make the same mistake again.
I couldn't even forget if I tried: I'm still feeling the prick of invisible stinging nettles and swatting at phantom mosquitoes. As for the effects of cow parsnip, well, it'll take another couple of days before I find out how bad it is.
Here's to scratching that midsummer hiking itch.