Arctic Horse Trails: Purinton Creek Trail, Alaska
Riding the backcountry of Alaska is pure medicine. That sweet vibrant green, those butcher paper mountains going on forever...my brain quiets down, and the wild open wraps around my anxious heart, syncing it with the rhythm of the unmanned natural way. Ahhhhhlaska, the shoe fits so well.
I am apparently unable to be in a picture without making that face, so I'm just going to suck it up and post it anyway. Just... focus on my pretty horse and that gorgeous background :)
My husband and I are planning a 46 mile loop through the Talkeenta Mountains later this fall with the horses. You know the best part about planning a riding trip? Riding parts of the trip in pieces to scout trail...
I'm sure you can relate- you know how some offices have meetings to plan meetings? Well, we ride to plan rides that we're going to ride. That is some serious equestrian logic right there. Who cares what the question is, the answer is always to ride :)
Last weekend we rode Purinton Creek Trail to Boulder Creek Trail, a 16.5 mile out and back ride (see the red circled section) through some heart-stoppingly beautiful country.
The auto-correct keeps telling me that "heart-stoppingly" isn't a word, but I'm leaving it. They can't see these pictures so they really don't even know what they're talking about. It should be a word if it isn't already.
Apparently we picked the less used parking area, which was more like a glorified pullout (mile 89 on the Glenn Highway). This parking spot required riding on the busy Glenn Hwy for about 30 seconds to where the trail actually started, 75 yards east of the Purinton Creek Bridge. I wouldn't recommend that parking lot for horse trailers, nor the ride on the busy road to the trail head. I'd suggest driving a few miles north to almost mile 91 to the new parking area...
We used the trail description in "55 Ways into the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska" by Helen Nienhueser (she's also the author of that map I posted earlier). A truly excellent hiking book, but not written with the equestrian in mind. I'll fill you in.
The first few miles of trail were hilly with a steady uphill trend. The last mile-ish before you can see Anthracite Ridge, the trail is a sharp, rocky creek-bed. You'll need very thick-soled hardened barefoot hooves, boots, or shoes for your horse to walk up it comfortably.
Once you climb out of the creek bed, Anthracite Ridge looms in front, the Chugach Mountains are behind, and to either side the rolling foothills below the Talkeetna Mountains offer a sweet reward for you effort.
Our destination was Boulder Creek- which is all the way at the western edge (left in this picture) of Anthracite Ridge. Yep. We had to ride alllllll the way over there. And then back.
Shem Pete's Alaska is a wonderful book of traditional Dena'ina place names and history of the Upper Cook Inlet Region. In that book, Johnny Shaginoff shared this knowledge about Anthracite Ridge:
“Indians were superstitious of that area. A lot of old timers were really scared of something. People used to live there long ago. Artifacts about 6,000 years old have been found here (West 1981)."Kind of glad I read that book after I took this trip.
Most of the trail is a well-used dirt trail, wide enough for a truck, but more so used by ATVs. The trail wound westward on the foothills below Anthracite Ridge. There were sections that were muddy, steep, and not pleasant to ride through. However, most of the trail was quite nice and definitely worth shouldering through the bad spots.
We rode past several small lakes with fish jumping and biting at the surface. You'll have no trouble accessing water on this trail, and the few creeks were low enough to cross easily.
About 6 miles in we fortuitously ran into an acquaintance. She advised us to go left (south) at the bottom of the hill rather than continuing straight, as the book had advised. She said the mud holes were so bad you'd never get a horse out... We took her advice.
The left hand/south route wound us up a steep hill into the tundra. At the top of the hill a sign read "Chickaloon-Knik-Nelchina Trail, Boulder Creek 2 miles." Almost to the promised land!
The top section through the tundra was extremely muddy with grooves from ATVs making the trail unsafe to walk on. We chose to walk on the tundra to the right of the trail which made for much safer passage.
After a few minutes, Boulder Creek emerged into view. I could tell you about it, but I'll just show you the video.
Did "Hallelujah" play through your head while you were watching it, too?
Riding up there on the tundra with my wonderful horse, gazing at that wide river valley below, and the promise of miles and miles and miles of wilderness before me, all I could do was shake my head and smile.
How in the world did I get here to have this moment? How was I able to be perched atop this magnificent friend of mine, riding through this beautiful, humbling country?
My thoughts turned to all of the hours of training and riding, all of the expense, and love and sweat that goes into someday being able to have a ride like this. What better reward than this view atop my magnificent boy?
Within sight of Boulder Creek, the rain came in. I took my Tongass Rain Riding Skirt out of my saddle bag, and put it on while mounted. I was feeling pretty proud of myself since I did design the thing. Didn't even have to get off my horse to put it on.
Little did I know the rain hadn't really started yet... read on. We meandered down to Boulder Creek Valley, our final destination before turning around.
Boulder Creek goes north for another 15 miles. How I wished we had time to ride up there and camp, but not this day! Caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and tons of other wildlife called this area their home.
This route to Boulder Creek took about 8.3 miles according to my GPS. We turned around and headed home.
And then the rain really came in. With three hours of riding to get back to the trail head, I was a bit smug with how warm and dry I was in my Tongass Rain Riding Skirt.
Remember my saddle bags? In addition to the rider, the rain skirt is built to cover the saddle, saddle bags, and worked like a quarter sheet to keep my horse's back dry. Win-win-win!
With all of the rain, the trail quickly became slicker than you know what... and those hills that we came down earlier? Well, they were a slippery beast to ride down.
I still shudder looking at that hill.
The good weather never did come back, we rode through three hours of rain on the way home. But, you know, they say there isn't bad weather, only bad gear. I had good gear, gorgeous scenery, my horses, and my husband. I couldn't have asked for another thing.