The road to hell




CENTER CREEK, CHUGACH NATIONAL FOREST –  Bushwhack: “To force one’s way through a forested or overgrown area where no path exists.”

Synonym: Hellbashing”

Likely consequences: Ripped clothing, wet feet, scraped and scarred arms, maybe some beaver punji through a boot, hopefully no grizzly bear encounters. Close encounters where you can hear more than see each other are hair-raising.

Alternatives: Stay home. Otherwise, this is Alaska. More than 100 years after the late Archdeacon Hudson Stuck wrote “Ten Thousand Miles with a Dogsled,” the best gift one man can give to another remains a trail.

BFFS: The bears, moose or Dall sheep that travel the same route enough to create a decent game trail.

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Ethan Tyler abandons the brush for the water/Craig Medred photo

Many ways to say @#$%^&*()!


Given that  Yu’pik-speaking Alaskans have or had a lot of words for snow, it’s only reasonable to wonder how many words Alaskan Athabascans had for bushwhack. Sadly there was no Franz Boas around to record them and start a long-running and hopeless debate among linguists as to whether there are a few, a few hundred or an infinite number to match conditions:

Bad, badder, baddest, intolerable, unbearable, impossible.

OK, back up for a minute, there is no impossible bushwhacking. It might appear impossible, but you can always fight through.

Experienced Alaska wilderness travelers all know the swim move. It’s how you work your way through a thicket of alder or willow the same way a salmon goes upstream against the current of a raging river. Raging rivers, it should be noted, have a ranking system to inform the innocent of how bad the water will be.

Alaska truly needs a similar bushwhack-rating system.

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Class II+ bushwhacking/Craig Medred photo

Difficulty classes

BW Class I: Low brush and maybe some scree. Few obstructions, all with an obvious route around. Little water. Risk of injuries slight; travel is easy.

BW Class II (Novice): Brush to hip height. Occasional tussock patches or mud holes. Calf deep creeks with slippery rocks. Some navigation required, but routes are obvious and major obstacles easily missed. Minor injuries possible, but avoidable if you know how to identify Devil’s Club. Travel can be challenging.

BW Class III (intermediate): Confusing terrain, swamps, swarms of mosquitoes, extended tussock patches, willow and alder to armpit height, knee-deep creeks, slippery rocks, unstable scree, occasional beaver punji. Confidence and perseverance required. Maps and GPSs advisable for inexperienced parties. Serious injury is rare. Travel is difficult, but self-rescue remains relatively easy. Conditions at the lower end of this category might be rated III- and at the upper end III+.

BW Class IV (advanced): Seemingly endless tussock patches, head-high willow thickets, dense alder thickets that can only be swum through, steep descents with nothing to grab but Devil’s Club for protection; waist deep creeks; intimidating mountain terrain, beaver ponds, beaver punji, some blowdown timber. Moderate risk of injury. Navigational tools required. Wilderness travel experience recommended. Guides advisable for the inexperienced.

BW Class V (expert): Six-foot and taller willow thickets. Lots and lots of grizzly bears. Tens of miles of blowdown timber. Giant patches of devil’s club. Truly dangerous creek and river crossings where swimming may become necessary.  An abundance of beaver ponds and beaver pujgi. Risk of injury is moderate. Self rescue could become impossible. Group assistance in case of problems is sometimes essential.

BW Class VI (extreme): “Impenetrable” as Alaska Rep. Don Young described the Tongass National Forest on an Alaska lands tour long ago It is not impenetrable; it just seems that way. Travel is brutally hard, dangerous and slow. It may take an hour or more to go a mile or a half-mile through blowdown or beaver ponds Route finding may be difficult while lost in willow thickets that make you feel like the flea on a dog’s back. Charismatic megafauna may attack. Snowstorms may arrive at any time. Falls present the danger of serious injury. Some have disappeared into these environments never to be seen or heard from again. Higher elevation snow might be soft and slippery, and yet still offer the safest and easiest route of travel if you don’t slip and rocket off on a dangerous, bone-busting slide.

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The last pitch to Center Creek pass in the Chugach National Forest/Craig Medred photo

Welcome to Alsaka.




1 reply »

  1. My hat’s off to all the veteran aldermen in the devil’s club of Alaska bushwhacking.

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