Redemption Float

The pain stopped me in my tracks.  A jarring sensation went up through my lower legs, from my shins on down.  I thought again if it was worth it.  Should I just turn back?  No. I told myself once again that I wouldn’t be mentally weak.  Almost reluctantly, I continued on stumbling over tussocks toward the pass.

Three weeks prior, I had completed the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.  The experience was exhilarating, but had left my legs in shambles.  The following weeks were comprised of me stumbling around, hobbled by swollen feet.  Once the swelling had decreased, I still could not walk quickly without pain.  Nonetheless, after a couple days without significant pain, I decided I was mostly healed.  During the Classic, I had walked the Hammond while everyone else had floated.  Now I wanted to see what I had missed.

The pass wasn’t far, roughly four miles distant from my starting point.  It’d be another four miles down the pass towards my put in, where I’d then float the ~30 miles to Wiseman.  I picked the wrong side of the pass to ascend, ending up unnecessarily climbing and descending numerous side drainages, clamoring over tussocks most of the way.  There were more instances of pain, though like before, I soldiered on.

After reaching the lake at the top of the pass, I hooped onto a well trod moose trail.  The trail wound the spruce forest, running parallel to the trickling waters of the creek. “Hey OOOH,” I yelled.  With fresh sign abound, I didn’t wish to surprise any moose along the trail.  The echo of my voice from a mountain bowl above was the only reply. By the time I had made it halfway down from the pass, the pain was no longer fleeting, having become a constant presence.  Each step provided a short of pain to my shins and lower legs along with a sort of mental anguish.  I debated whether it’d be better to turn around and head back or continue the last few miles to the valley floor.  More walking wasn’t an attractive option, so I lumbered on.  Fear and doubt crept in.  What if there wasn’t enough water?  During the Classic, everyone had been able to float the river from its headwaters with water levels near their peak.  Now in mid-July, the level had receded and even though I was trying to float from the halfway point, the water could still be too shallow for floating.  I dreaded the thought of more walking.

I had finally made it into the main Hammond Valley, weaved my way through the last spruce trees and arrived on the gravel bar.  I anxiously scanned the braided river channels.  There wasn’t much water, but it was just enough to float without scraping the bottom of the boat.  For the next seven hours, I paddled downriver.  The upper portion was more of a chore than anything else.  The low volume didn’t provide much of a current to propel me forward and I had to constantly paddle not only to advance, but to avoid shallow sections hoping to not scrape the bottom of my raft.

In the early hours of morning, I found enjoyment again in the Hammond Canyon.  With the large walls rising vertically on either side, I was in more familiar territory once again.  I paddled into the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk Valley to Wiseman, the diffuse colors of sunrise lighting the horizon at my back to the north.  Finished with the journey, I was now content and pleased with the idea of being able to finally rest.  My legs certainly had not fully healed and it would be a while before I was to go out again. In the entryway of an old cabin, I fell asleep in a rocking chair, pulling a caribou skin up over my torso for warmth.  I had travelled about 40 miles in 10 hours through big wilderness, but it wasn’t without its price.

Atigun-Sag

Dubbed by many as “the run” on the Haul Road, the Atigun-Sagavanirktok float offers intense boating through the northern reaches of the Brooks Range and onto the North Slope. I had wanted to do the trip since arriving in the country. Something always seemed to be lacking, mainly a partner or time.  In late August, I finally had both as my friend Ian and I took off north to the tundra.  Such a route was not without a troubled history.  Some had lost their lives in the past, falling off of cliffs and drowning after flipping their boats.

From the road, the river teases you.  It winds back and forth across the broad Atigun valley, slowly meandering towards the north.  It almost leads one to believe that it offers a gentle float to the coast.  For those who have travelled its lower reaches, they know that this is hardly the case.  The river makes a hard right at Galbraith Lake and heads east into the mountains, through what’s known as Atigun Gorge.

Not long after putting in, the action began.  Class II/III rapids were the rule.  Flat sections of any length were the exception.  We took out and scouted everything that looked questionable as a precaution, but ended up running everything with the exception of a bend where the main channel funneled directly into a rock face.  It was thrilling, we were always on edge.  Peeking around corners and craning our necks to see what lay ahead.  At the edge of our comfort zones, the experience was also mentally draining.  As such, we spent only a few hours on the river that first day.  A couple friends of mine were running the river as well and we joined their camp that first evening.

The river provided much of the same character that next day with almost non-stop action, bend after bend.  In one set of rapids, I glanced further downstream to see Ian’s boat floating upside down.  A quick scan of the water found him near shore unharmed.  He had lost his paddle and was a little shaken up.  We set out along the river’s edge, scanning up and down the bank for its tell tale bright yellow blades.  Without luck, we continued on.  The incident had occurred near where my friend’s group had taken out to scout for caribou.  Glassing amongst traditional campsites of traditional peoples, they offered Ian a ride down river on one of their bigger boats.  A much larger convoy travelled down the river.  The big boats took the lead, my packraft and I bringing up the rear.  One large rapid remained before we left the Gorge and in light of the recent event, I decided to portage. Instead helping the big boats come through before moving on.  The tight enclosing nature of the Gorge was behind us.  No longer were we surrounded by cliffs and mountains rising up directly from the river.  We encountered a seemingly larger landscape upon entering the broad Sag valley.  Rugged mountains rose out of the valley to the south.  Downriver the foothills of the Brooks Range rolled out onto the North Slope.  For now, gone were the major rapids.  The gas wasn’t flat, but much more gentle than what we had experienced over the past couple days.  Camping with my friends again that night, we moved in and out of the rain.  We shared meals (or receiving them in our case…Thanks Barry!) and stories, enjoying the experience of being out in the country.  In the evening, Ian and I wandered over the tundra. We found numerous caribou antler sheds, signs of movements in the past.  Rain drizzled down as we walked towards a small lake, picking blueberries along the way.

Before we had arrived in camp, Ian had found his paddle.  It had floated a few miles down from where he had flipped and had washed up on a bank.  With necessary gear in hand (or boat) again, we set off the following day.  It was just the two of us continuing on, the others would remain to hunt caribou.  Like the Atigun, the Sag at this stretch was deceptive, with calm and flat waters. We knew it’d pick up later on with more nonstop action and one large class IV rapid before we were to end our time on the water.  Pyramid Peak came into sight, the marker for which we were told was a sign of the big rapid somewhere in the not too distant future. Out front, I craned my neck at the riffles ahead.  It seemed to be just lower grade rapids so I turned to give Ian the all clear sign.  How wrong I was.  It was the big one.  Big rapids amongst a large boulder garden.  I maneuvered as best I could, constantly attempting to scan ahead for obstacles.  Water filled my boat and I had bounced off a few rocks but I had made it out safely.  I dumped my boat out, looking back and hoping that Ian had recognized my mistake (he did).

It was rock n’ roll from there to the take out with large wave trains every few hundred yards.  On a flat stretch, we watched a grizzly walking on the gravel bar towards the river.  Once it sighted us, it took off and bolted the opposite direction, only stopping to glance back when it had reached higher ground.

The river was thrilling, providing plenty of challenge and excitiement but not too much to be overly intense.  With the incident the day before, Ian wasn’t feeling completely comfortable.  We took out early, hiking the few miles back to the road near Slope Mountain.

This was a great trip and one I plan to make again somewhere further down the line.  For those who are skilled and short on time, the trip can be done in one long (intense) day during the summer.  Total float time was probably around 16 hours or so, with lots of scouting.

The end of the trip ended up being the most frustrating aspect.  Ian’s truck was parked back at the put in, 30 miles down the road.  We tried to hitch back, standing at the side of the road for about 2 hours.  With no luck, we decided to start walking.  It was another 3 hours and 10 miles of walking before we caught a ride at last light.  A state trooper and a couple in a Subaru were the only ones that stopped before we were able to get a ride.  The couple stopped to ask us if we had seen any caribou.  When we said no, the driver gave us a disgusted look and drove on.  Break down in a car on the side of the road? Plenty of people will stop for you.   Find yourself looking to get a ride without one?  Good luck.  It seems to become harder and harder with each passing year.

Strategy and Gear Notes from AMWC 2016

I’ll start with what turned out to be the most notable strategic decision, not bringing a packraft.  It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to say I should’ve brought one.  Water was really high and I could have cut significant time off my total.  But knowing what I did then, I probably made the right call.  Steady rain brought water levels much higher than what they had been for most of the week prior.  A few weeks after the race, I went to float the Hammond and found very shallow waters.  If rains subsided, that could have been the conditions present and I would have been in a much more favorable situation compared to other participants.  The lesson I gain from this is to pay much more attention to weather closer to the starting date and maybe take the forecast for the upcoming days into slightly more consideration as well. I’m still unsure as to what the ideal ratio (walking/floating) is where bringing a packraft is more beneficial than the added weight is a hindrance.

Sleep:  I slept much more than all the participants who finished before me.  In total, I was trying to sleep or sleeping for roughly 3.5-4 hours out of the total 53.75.  This was likely too much.  Granted, walking the entire distance calls for more rest due to more activity.  But I believe if I cut down the amount of sleep (or attempted sleep by hours) I could still see similar results.  I’d sleep for shorter durations, such as > 45 min, instead of an hour and a half to 2 hours at a time.

Navigation– The route I travelled was perfect.  It was the most direct and contained great walking.  Hard ground and minimal tussocks were the rule, not the exception.  I was caught in brush on Trembley Creek for a couple miles, but outside of a few yards elsewhere, the route was brush free.

I made 2 major errors in navigation which likely cost me 3-5 hours.  The first was just after the continental divide.  I descended into an unnamed valley and had to climb another pass to get into the Koyuktuvuk, though the view was obscured by thick clouds.  I crossed the creek, walked a little ways down valley and guessed at where I was.  The pass I ascended had a glacier ant the head and the upper bowl was filled with snow.  I trudged up halfway before realizing my mistake and turned back.  The next pass over was free of snow.  This is a hard situation without a gps.  There isn’t much I’d do differently other than be more aware of distances between areas on the map.

The next instance also involved choosing a wrong pass.  This time from Trembely creek going into Big Jim.  I went too early and had to cross over a few hills and fight through brush to get back to where I was supposed to be.  This mistake was just due to poor navigation.  Visibility was sufficient.  I need to take a better look at the map when judging the surrounding terrain.

I think the argument could be made that these areas cost more than 3-5 hours due to the extra distance through snow and brush, causing more wear on the body.  Route mistakes are a major time killer.  Sleeping a few minutes extra is OK.  Travelling a few extra miles is not.

Gear

Weather conditions made for much more difficult conditions.  For most of the duration of my trip, it was raining or snowing.  Temperatures likely weren’t below freezing, but I don’t imagine they passed 50 degrees either.  Skies were overcast and I saw the sun for the first time 8 miles from Wiseman.  With the race being held in late June, there was still deep snow in the high passes.

I was pleased with almost everything I brought, there was very little excess.  I had a full out weight of somewhere between 12-13 lbs.

Before I go into a brief line by line analysis here are the major items of gear I didn’t bring:

Packraft

Stove

Tent

I still would not bring a stove or a tent.

ULA CDT 55 L Pack-  A little too big for my purposes but its what I have and provided easy access to contents in the pack and things in pockets outside.  The material does absorb lots of moisture which probably didn’t help to provide any additional warmth.  I won a HMG pack through the post race raffle that I’ll probably use next time.

Rab Pullover- I wore this almost the entire time.  There were no issues of being soaked by rain and it was breathable enough that I wasn’t too damp from sweat underneath.  No major complaints.

Base layer T shirt-Worked well.  There were basically no bugs.  If there were bugs, I’d switch to a long sleeve base layer

Wind Pants- Dried quickly after numerous snow and river crossings

Salomon X3 shoes- These were essentially worn right out of the box.  I love these shoes.  Comfortable fit for my foot, great grip and dry very quickly.  No foot issues outside swelling.

Winter hat- Wore almost the whole time

Sun hat- Remained in bag the whole time

Glove liners- Don’t remember using. I wouldn’t bring these again.

Sherpa fleece pullover- Never used. Would not bring again.

Sat phone- Required. Never used.

SPOT Messenger- I sent messages out every 6 hours or so. There were 3-4 instances where my messages that were reportedly sent did not reach my recipient list.  I’m becoming less and less a fan of SPOT.  For something similar, the InReach is a much better option.

Enlightened Equipment 20* quilt- Overkill for the conditions but again, it’s what I own.  It became wet in the rain but still had plenty of insulation to keep me warm on my extended rests.

Thermarest ¾ CCF pad- Functioned as sleeping bad and pack support.

One trekking pole- I found this very useful once leg pain started to increase.  I would not bring 2.

Miscellaneous- Olympus Tough Camera, extra battery, very basic med kit, fire starting materials, and headnet.

The 2 things I wouldn’t bring amounts to liner gloves and the fleece pullover.  Not bad.  In the future, I’d also consider a different strategy of less sleep which would allow me to remove the sleeping quilt and the lseeping pad.  Instead I’d bring a jacket, like the Montbell Pro (I think that’s the name) and curl up under a tree somewhere.

I was pleased to discover that I remained outside of hypothermia/warm enough to function in that setup.  If I was packrafting I’d slightly change my approach.  I rode on a packraft for a few miles and when I wasn’t padding I was constantly shivering.  Rain pants would help.  This is another instance where jacket over sleeping bag could be of great help.

Food– For efficiency and speed, I went without a stove.  I brought dried mangoes, peanut butter pretzels, homemade granola (oats, peanut butter, brown rice syrup) and one other thing I’m forgetting but I believe peanut/almond/raisin combo.  I planned 1.5 lbs/day for 4 days and threw in an extra pound for good measure.  It was too much.  I finished with a little over 4 lbs of food remaining.  With the benefit of knowing my capabilities now, I’d plan for less food per day maybe 1.33 lbs and/or try to more accurately account for days out.  If every pound costs a loss of a mile (according to research done by Roman Dial for Arctic 1000) then it is better to end with none than 1 lb of food remaining (provided that you run out of food as close to the end as possible).  I think I’d switch up my food choices as well, keeping the chocolate and dried mangoes but removing the other two and adding jerky plus some other type of nut combination.

 

 

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2016

The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, as the name implies, is an annual wilderness event occurring in the mountain ranges within Alaska.  The event was started by a group of friends in the early 1980s and has continued ever since.  It is a point to point trip, meaning you’re given a starting and ending location and you have to figure out where to go in between achieve that.  There aren’t many rules, only that you must be self supported and only using human powered transportation.  The most popular methods are usually hiking and packrafting, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying their hands at other means like using paragliders and fatbikes.  The Classic is without any frills.  There are no event fees, no sponsors, and no awards or prizes of any kind.

I have wanted to compete in the Classic since learning about the event in the fall of 2013.  With minimal experience at the time, it seemed more fantasy than reality for a long time to come.  Though as the years passed, I gained more and more experience, exponentionally so after moving to Coldfoot, AK last summer.  Every three years, a new course is chosen.  With last year being a memorial course dedicated to Rob Kehrer, the course was set to change.  There were rumors during the Winter Classic that this year’s course would be in the Brooks Range.  The rumors turned out to be true and with the course set in my backyard, I was faced with an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

The route I selected was the most direct path that one could do, while staying within the course boundaries.  I had gathered a plethora of information and beta from Jack Reakoff, a longtime resident of the area who knows the country well.  My plan was that with low water, I’d be able to outrace everyone with a lighter pack and lesser miles.  I was not going to be bringing a packraft.

At the event check in the night before, the major topic of conversation was water levels.  After sharing my thoughts on not bringing a raft, some were reconsidering their idea of bringing one along, especially with me being the only local in the race. At typical levels, my route likely would not offer more than 25% floating.  Leading up to the event, I debated back and forth whether floating 25% of the route was a substantial enough number to bring along an extra 9 lbs.  Ultimately, with hot weather and clear days, I decided no and left the raft at home.  I would be the only one not to bring a raft.

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Last minute preparations at Galbraith Lake

21 of us set off from Galbraith Lake Airport around noon on Sunday the 19th.  Most of us followed the road over towards the campground before heading off into the mountains.  The beginning of the route was a very social hike.  For about the first 10 miles there was a group of 8 of us that were hiking fairly close together.  After continuing into the Itikmalak River Valley, the group started to spread out, with Luc and Todd setting the pace out front and me following closely in their footsteps.

The crux of my route was the high passes.  Those were the sections I was most nervous about both before and during the race.  I had scouted out the region near the Continental Divide a week before and found that there was minimal to no melt off of the winter snowpack.  Low clouds and limited visibility also proved to be another challenge.  I made it up the first 6,000 ft pass with no issues, able to avoid all the snow.  The continental divide looked to be a bit trickier.  I was keeping pace with Luc and Todd and we kept switching off back and forth.  We were both going for the same pass at the Divide and we made our way up, alternating breaking trail through the snow.  I sure am glad I was near them at that time otherwise I would’ve been expending a lot more energy.  In some spots, the snow was so deep that we’d break through to our waists.  Todd was fed up at breaking trail at one point and instead of walking on he decided to start rolling over in the snow to the nearest section of dry rocks.

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Plenty of snow near the Divide

On top of the Divide, Luc and Todd moved quickly by, ending my social section of the race.  I would travel almost completely alone for the remaining ~80 miles. As we were making our way up the Divide, it had started to rain.  That combined with breaking trail through the water dense snow made for a wet experience.  I had brought along no rain pants and a light rain pullover.  My shoes, wind pants and jacket were soaked and would remain so for the majority of the rest of the race.

Descending into the next valley, I had to cross one more 6,000 ft pass before passing the crux of the route.  Not only would that in itself prove to be challenging having already traveled 25 miles and crossing two 6,000 foot passes, but I descended into a valley that was completely socked in by clouds.  One could not see more than 100 ft off the valley floor.  Those aren’t ideal conditions when you are trying to select a specific pass.  I thought maybe I could see where Luc and Todd went, but they bolted off into the clouds, leaving me staring at my maps and guessing where to go.  I made my way across the raging creek and started up.  I quickly encountered snow, continuing to trudge up the mountainside, postholing one step at a time.  Eventually, I was able to see farther ahead and realized I was in one pass further east than I should have been.  There was snow all the way up to the pass and it would take too long at my current pace, so I decided to descend and try another route.  I was thinking about going further down the valley and crossing a lower pass that I had went up on a previous trip.  On my way down, I found myself halfway up the pass that was one over and was able to find a snow free route to the top.  Standing at the top of the pass, I wasn’t entirely sure if I was continuing into the right area, yet at the time I let out a whoop in exultation, as that was one of the most joyous moments of the trip.

I kept continuing on, feeling great and moving at a decent pace.  Up to that point, the walking had been tremendous.  There had been fairly firm ground for the vast majority of the route, no tussocks, great scenery and absolutely zero bugs.  I saw Luc and Todd’s footsteps along the gravel bar in the next valley and figured they were much further ahead.  The navigational error at the previous pass had cost me around 3 hours.  Nevertheless, I was making great time.  By this point, I was about 15 hours into the race and had traveled just over 45 miles.  Feeling a little tired, I found a spot underneath some willows laid my sleeping quilt and pad out and got three hours of sleep.  I was wet and without dry clothes and found myself shivering myself to sleep. I woke up to a thoroughly soaked bag.  I had brought along no tent or bivy sack.  I was using a large trash compactor bag as an emergency bivy, which went up ¾ of the way up my bag.  That didn’t turn out to be as effective as I thought and I had a wet bag as a result.

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Thoroughly soaked

The walking wasn’t as great during the beginning of the second day as I traveled through narrower valleys with high water and more brush.  I picked one pass too early once again and this time was penalized by having to go over two more small passes to get to the Hammond River.  The climbing was starting to wear on my legs and it was about this time that I started to develop shin splints.  After finally ascending what turned out to be my final pass, I made my way down into the main Hammond Valley.  It was at this point that I experienced the lowest emotional moment of the trip.  After travelling down Kapoon Creek, I found myself in the main Hammond valley staring at a roaring river.  That rain had not only made my trip a bit more wet and cold than otherwise desired, but also allowed the waters to swell to near flood stage.  Everyone would be able to float the entire Hammond River, from the headwaters to Wiseman, while I would be stuck walking the remaining 40 or so miles.

I moved down the valley, cursing myself out quite a bit. About an hour later, I heard someone call my name as they floated up in a packraft.  It was another racer, Alex, who after sharing some details about our trip up to that point, offered me a ride.  I was absolutely ecstatic.  The rafts that most people had generally aren’t made for two people.  With his legs wide and over the side, I was able to crouch up front, holding my pack on the bow.  It wasn’t the most comfortable position, but I was happy to take what I could get for free miles.  Eventually, we switched positions, as I was getting to cold in the front being continually splashed by water and without a drysuit.  However, the other arrangement wasn’t really ideal.  With two people, the raft is tippier and a lot less responsive.  Those factors combined with high water and my mediocre at best paddling ability made for a limited float.  After about 5 or 6 miles of travelling, Alex kicked me out, leaving me to walk the rest of the way.  I was happy to get some rest while floating, but now all my gear was completely soaked and I still had to walk the rest of the valley.

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Hammond River Valley

The Hammond provided very easy walking with its wide gravel bars and fairly firm grounds and game trails in the forested areas.  Animal sign was abound as I passed countless bear, wolf and moose tracks.  My shins were starting to hurt more and more as I continued on.  I began to take longer and more frequent breaks, stopping every 2-3 hours for 30 minutes or so at a time.  Late in the morning, I decided to sleep again.  I lay out underneath a spruce tree beneath cloudy skies.  An hour later, I woke up in the rain, with my sleeping bag soaked and in a state of delirium.  I thought there was supposed to be a cabin around, but that someone was playing a joke on me and moved it.  I walked back and forth looking around the area for the cabin, talking to myself and searching through my pack during that time before realizing that I’m out in the middle of the wilderness and there was no cabin.

The cold and rain proved to be a constant challenge.  My clothes were soaked for the majority of the race.  If it wasn’t from the rain or the brush, it was from one of the many river crossings, difficult in their own right due to the high water.  Moving forward was essential just to stay barely above freezing and a hypothermic state.

After what seemed like endless walking, I arrived at the head of the Hammond Canyon.  I followed a game trail up and over the canyon down to the other side.  Wolf and moose trails continued to lead me through willow thickets in the forest to the end of my route off trail at the Hammond Road.  Upon reaching the game trail before the canyon and up to the road was one of the happiest times during the race.  I was living out my dream and not only just getting by but thriving.

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The lower Hammond Canyon. Descending Canyon Creek

The happy moments were short lived however as the road turned out to be a death march.  I had about 10 miles along the Hammond and Wiseman Road before finding myself in Wiseman.  The hard packed surface caused my feet to swell up quite a bit, making for some significant hobbling for the remaining portion of the trip.  A few hours later, I crossed the bridge at Wiseman Creek where I was greeted by Luc and a few other participants who had finished before me.  I had finished the Classic.  I completed the course in 53 hrs and 45 minutes, walking roughly 105 out of the 110 miles.  Not bringing a raft cost me about 14 hours, but I still managed to place fairly well without it.

One of the best things about the Classic is not only the amazing country you travel through during the course, but the community that it fosters.  Completing such a challenging and tough event, creates quick bonds between participants.  Everyone is so giving of their energy and time.  Thank you to Luc and Todd for organizing the event. Thank you to the Hickers for hosting us in Wiseman.  Thank you to Jack for helping me with my trip preparation and thank you to anyone else who offered support along the way.  This is one of the top highlights/accomplishments in my life to this date.  I can’t wait until next year. And you can be sure that I’ll definitely be bringing a raft.

Here is Luc’s write up

Confronation with the Locals Part 2

I had undergone a transformation over the past year and a half.  On the Colorado Trail in the summer of 2014, I found myself so scared of bears after hearing one huffing and stomping around in close proximity to my tent one night that I thought they were waiting around every bend.  I would get quizzical looks from people on the trail while passing them, for they had heard me singing quite loudly to myself before they had came into view.  The bears (both real and imaginary) would be one of the reasons I left the trail a few days later.  Fast forward a few months, I am camping out in a state forest in northern Michigan while taking a Wilderness First Responder Course.  On three of the five nights, I hear black bears tramping around the forest, sneezing and scratching their backs against big trees.  Yet this time, I had no fear.  To validate my feelings, I remained fearless and calm while being charged by a black bear mother with her cub half a year later in northern Alaska.

Though I now mostly lacked fear of bears, there has remained a niggling thought always present in the back of my mind.  Statistically, my odds of ever being mauled by a bear are extremely low.  Cases like Timothy Treadwell (who lived in close proximity to brown bears before being mauled in Katmai N.P.) demonstrated how tolerant bears are.  Yet, the cultural fear that was ingrained in me did remain.  I had read the accounts of people being attacked in their tents while they slept, or of those that had been stalked by grizzlies in areas not far from where I am now living.  Sure, these are extremely rare instances, but they are not reassuring for the emotional side of my brain.  And besides, all my close bear encounters up to this point were black bears, not grizzlies.  While black bears certainly can be dangerous, they lack the aura that surrounds grizzlies. Especially those of the far north.

Fall came and went with the changing colors of the leaves and tundra.  Snow began to fall on the mountains, ultimately creeping down until snow covered the entire valley.  Cold began to grip the land, as the lakes and ponds quickly froze up, while ice began to enshroud the creeks and rivers.  I continued my treks into the country and had not seen any sign of bears for quite some time by mid October.  It was highly likely that the vast majority (if not all) had denned up for the next 7 months.  However, that pestering thought remained in the back of my mind. Although even more unlikely than previous scenarios, there was the infinitesimal chance of coming across a winter bear, the worst kind.  A winter bear was hungry, relentless, and afraid of absolutely nothing.  These bears didn’t stay out late because they wished to socialize; rather they’re usually old, hungry and eager to lock their teeth on anything that moves. In traditional times, natives would carry spears with them on winter journeys in case they ran into the ice bear.  Dog mushers today still carry heavy weaponry on them in case of this possible scenario.  A number of years ago, there was such a meeting between a dog team and a winter bear on the pipeline access trail between Wiseman and Coldfoot.  A tragic event, that nobody would wish to repeat.  It was with these thoughts in mind that I traveled through the landscape.

Late in November, I had a group of Chinese guests that signed up for an aurora tour.  An aurora tour consists of driving guests from Coldfoot to Wiseman and hanging out at a historic gold miner’s cabin, where we watch the aurora if it presents itself.  Clouds covered the night sky and snow began to fall as we loaded into the van for our departure.  I had a sour mood, as I do not enjoy staying out late staring at clouds.  Thirty minutes later we were in Wiseman.  They shuffled into the cabin and I assumed my post next to the double barrel wood stove outside.  After building a fire, I began to scan the sky for any sign of aurora, while falling snow sizzled as it came into contact with the wood stove.  The guests weren’t interested in much in this area, besides getting some selfies with the aurora to post on Facebook, so it would be a relatively easy night.

As one could likely imagine, staring at the clouds gets pretty boring after a certain point.  I fiddled with the fire as much as I could, while I tried to find something interesting to look at in the near area.  Adjacent to the wood stove and cabin, there is a rough vehicle path that leads back to a summer resident’s storage area.  Looking down the path, I detected movement no more than 30 yards away.  That grabbed my attention.  I squinted, attempting to gain a better view through the falling snow.  Were my eyes deceiving me? It definitely seemed as if something was moving back and forth.  Something large.  I put the woodstove, between myself and whatever it was that lay out there.  Turning on my headlamp, I tried to gain a glimpse of what it was, if anything, that lay out there.  The beam from my headlamp struggled through the falling snow and dark night, but I picked up a gleam that looked like a pair of eyes.  “Oh shit. This isn’t a joke.” I thought to myself.  The dark shape had resembled a bear before and now I was almost certain.  I was a mere thirty yards away from one of my greatest fears, a winter bear.

It was the end of November. There was over two feet of snow on the ground and it had been cold. The temperature frequently dropping down below twenty below zero.  There wasn’t much life out and about at this time of year, certainly not enough for a bear to sustain himself.  I was legitimately scared.  What was I to do?  Do I go into the cabin and alert the group?  Should I retreat ten yards to the van that lay behind me? My mind was racing and my heart was thumping.  I grabbed the iron poker that lay at my feet and began to beat on the woodstove.  “Get out of here!”  “Go!”  It didn’t seem to work.  From my view, it was just moving back and forth, contemplating its next move.  I was literally shaking in my boots at this point in terror.  If bears can sense fear, this one’s sensors must have been going off the charts.

I finally decided that I would retreat to the van.  Bringing the poker with me, I retreated slowly then quickly moved the final few yards, slamming the door behind me.  My heart was still thumping and I thought I should get a better view of what I’m contending with.  I started the van, put it in reverse and angled the lights down the path to the left of the woodstove.  Angled correctly, I turned the brights on to find that my foe was a clump of alder trees, twenty five yards distant.  I had sworn it was a bear. “What an idiot,” I thought to myself.  I put the van back where it was and got out.  Looking down the path again it still seemed like it was a bear.  I cautiously walked down the path, for there still was a part of me that thought there was a bear there, and shined my headlamp on the location where my fabled bear was. Sure enough, it was just the trees.  I wandered back down the post and assumed my post once again with my tail between my knees, hoping the guests inside hadn’t noticed or heard anything odd going on outside.

I walked into the cabin to check in, “How are you guys doing in here? Nothing going on out there.”  We went back to Coldfoot a couple of hours later, with no sign of the aurora or problems with any of the guests, yet sure enough, my mind had conjured up a way to provide enough excitement for the otherwise dull evening.

Confrontation with the Locals

All summer I had stared at her. She lay glittering right across the river or just off the road depending on where you were, changing colors with the seasons.  If you think I am talking about a woman, I’m going to guess that you haven’t been to Arctic Alaska.  For there are no women here, at least none that make themselves available to a strapping young lad like myself.  Though I am talking about a mountain, Michelle Mountain*, just across the valley from Wiseman, AK.  As part of my job, I spend a fair amount of time in the town of Wiseman.  As part of my life, I try to spend a good bit of time in the mountains.   After spending quite a bit of time staring at Michelle Mt. from Wiseman, I decided that I needed to become intimate with her.

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Sad to discover I only have one picture of Michelle Mt.  This is one week from one week after the hike described in this post. Picture taken in Wiseman on the banks of the  M. Fork of the Koyukuk.

It wasn’t until mid-August that I finally decided to make an attempt up the mountain.  Late in the day, after tours and dinner, I made my way the 10 miles down the Dalton to the base of Michelle. I quickly made my way out of the rock quarry in which I had parked, beginning to ascend through the forest.  It was not long before I found myself above treeline, for I was climbing the west face of Michelle, which does not receive much sunlight.  The going was steep, yet not overly strenuous. I enjoyed the beginning of the fall colors, as the ground and surrounding vegetation varied from green to yellow and red.  I soon found myself rounding a large rock outcropping and at the top of the first ridge.  I had a wide view of the valley, but I could not see much higher up the ridge, likely only about 40 yards or so.  Looking around, I thought that this would be a perfect spot for a quick break.

The next thing I know, there is a black bear running downhill, directly at me.  There are a few standard guidelines for travelling safely in bear country. So far on this hike, I had followed none of them.  Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Travel with others: I was alone, as I often am on many hikes, bears aren’t deterred by single humans.
  2. Carry bear spray: If you live or travel in Alaska you will hear from many people who live in Anchorage or Fairbanks that you shouldn’t travel in bear country or if you do, you should bring shotguns or various heavy artillery so that you can kill these indestructible creatures. The favorite past time of many people in Alaska is to tell bear stories.  As one of my friends says, “You’ll hear stories of bullets bouncing off skulls or impossible to kill.  Don’t listen to them; they’re drunk or poor shots.  Many of these people haven’t even seen a bear.”  At the least, many recommend that you carry bear spray.  I had neither.

However, I did do a few things correctly.  I instinctively raised both my arms into the air, protruding out in a wide formation, trekking pole still grasped in one hand. As I did this, I began to yell at the bear in quite a loud manner. “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!”  The bear was either really anxious to say hi or did not like me very much, for she did not stop.  As I continued yelling, as if I was a broken record, she continued to rapidly make her way toward me.  During this time, I had no fear. My thinking was extremely clear. I debated whether or not I should throw my trekking pole at her.  I also thought that the bear would not stop.  This whole process felt like minutes, but only occurred in a matter of seconds.

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One of the few women in the Arctic

Finally, she stopped at a mere 10-15 foot distance away.  She did not rise up or change in action, but noiselessly stood there, staring intently at me.  At this point, the record was still broken for I continued to yell, “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!” on repeat.  She quickly became bored with the conversation after about 5 seconds(“These stupid humans only knows 2 words.”) turning around and walking back up the slope.  This seemed to appease my internal mechanisms and I stopped yelling.  She continued walking, stopping to glance back every 20 feet or so. As she stopped, I’d yell once again. “Go on, get out of here!”    She responded, “What rude manners, these humans are oh so insensible.”  As she made her way to the edge of the slope, I caught a glimpse of a cub trampling through the willows.  She joined her cub and they ambled over the edge into the unknown.

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Check out dat butt. Dang girl, you fine! You can see the cub’s ears/head directly to the right of mama.

At this point, I could either continue up the mountain, proceeding up the slope and over the edge to where the bears likely now lay, or I could retreat down the mountain and call that enough for one day.  I elected to choose the latter option.  As much as I would have liked to continue up the mountain side, I don’t think I left a positive enough impression on Mama Bear to chance a second encounter.  Michelle remains for another time, meanwhile continue to dazzle me with her everlasting beauty.

 

*While there may not be many women in these parts, there sure are a high number of natural features that bear names of women from the past, who lived in this valley!  There’s Clara Creek, Emma Creek, Emma Dome, Minnie Creek, Minnie Dome, Kahlabuk, Rosie Creek….the list goes on.  However, I still prefer the living, breathing kind over the names.

Snowden

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Rock formation on Snowden Mt.

All I had been hearing all summer was how it couldn’t be done.  “Oh you can’t do that, X couldn’t ever do it and he was a really good hiker.”  I had never met X but I could tell you one thing.  I did not really give a shit whether he had done something or not.  Someone else’s failures would not stop me from doing any trip.  As you may be able to tell from my writings, meager successes and failures, I am fairly ambitious and have some lofty goals.  But I’d much rather try and fail, then sit around musing about other people’s journeys.  The mission was the summit of Snowden Mountain.  Snowden sits in the Dietrich River valley 40 miles to the north of Coldfoot.  At ~6,400 feet, it towers over everything in the near vicinity.  A friend and I were planning on making an attempt at one point, but were turned away due to wildfire smoke.

Snowden represented much more than a mountain to me.  It was a mental hurdle.  By this point in the summer, mid-July, I was largely dissatisfied with what I had achieved in the hiking and packrafting domain.  Sure, I had done more and been out more, than everyone else in the area.  Enough that people were coming up with stories about what I’d done that weren’t even true.  It was like a scene from the Wild West, where a basic event eventually turns into an incredible and unbelievable yarn.  All this was very flattering, but I tried to downplay it as much as possible. Because for me, and for who I was trying to be, what I was doing was nothing.  Thinking about people I looked up to for inspiration in the outdoor world, like Luc Mehl and Roman Dial, put my situation in perspective. It was peanuts.  That is certainly fine, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more.

It is with all that in mind that I prepared to make an attempt on Snowden.  My friend was way too busy with work. This would be something that I had to do alone, as it should be. By the middle of July, I could procrastinate no longer.  One clear evening, I hopped in the van and made my way along the Haul Road to that familiar spot.  As mentioned in the previous post. I had received beta from a local and had studied the route on topographic maps quite extensively.  I would start on the north side of the mountain, just off the road, edging my way along the northern face until I hit the summit ridge that would lead me directly to the top.  It wouldn’t be as straightforward as it sounds, I’d be gaining over 5,000 feet in the process and travelling over 12 miles total while attempting to navigate around the various rock formations on this massive mountain.

Soon I had begun my journey, navigating through the dwarf birch and tussocks of the spruce forest.  One step in front of the other, I slowly made my way uphill. After fighting my way through a dense patch of willows, I finally found myself above tree-line and onto the firmer tundra.  Low growing vegetation interspersed with various rocks lay beneath my feet.  I quickly ascended to the base of one of the “molars” of the rock formation that’s locally known as the wolf’s jaw.  Leaving the grass and mosses behind, I stumbled over rock and lichen, paralleling the rock formation up to the canine, or the highest protruding rock.  The process was slow, as I moved across steep talus fields, picking my way so as I would not tumble down, unlike some of the rocks I was setting loose.  Moving along, I reached an opening in the rock formation, gaining my first glimpse of the summit while on the mountain.  I had a long way to go, as I gazed up at the jagged limestone formations on the main western face.  Not long after this grand view, I stumbled across a sheep trail.  Those high mountain dwellers had established a narrow, well maintained single track trail that followed right underneath the wolf’s jaw.  I quickly left the jumbled talus fields behind, electing to follow the path well traveled.  My pace drastically increased, as I was able to move quickly along the established path, stopping every so often to pick up the trail again wherever it went faint.

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The Wolf’s Jaw

Eventually, the trail ended at a scree field consisting of thing shale rocks.   These rocks lay between me and where I wanted to be, so there was no other path but to follow them up to the top of the wolf’s jaw.  It was a lengthy process.  Not only was I travelling up a steeper slope, but for every two steps forward, the talus seemed to cause me to sink one foot back.  Slowly and surely, I found my way to the top of this section, atop the wolf’s jaw. And what a view lay ahead!  I was taller than most mountains in the vicinity that allowed me to have quite the view of the region.  I looked south down the Dietrich Valley towards Dillon Mt. and Sukapak.  North, east and west lay innumerable lofty mountain peaks protruding into the clear, never ending summer “night” sky of the Arctic.  While the view may have been glorious, the route ahead did not.  I had ascended most of the elevation necessary to achieve the summit, yet distance wise I likely only remained just beyond halfway.  The immediate route ahead wasn’t promising.  It looked as if I would have to traverse a very narrow ridge (potentially non-existent) ridge to a steep colouir.  Whether or not I could get across the colouir to the summit ridge was unknown.  Scanning the area, I noticed that if instead, I had taken the creek north of where I started, it would have led me to a more gradual ridge that eventually connected with the ridge leading to the top.  I pondered what my options were.  I could consider as planned, although that route wasn’t likely to go.  The other route that I spotted, looked like it would, but that would involve descending, then ascending yet again.

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The Abyss.  Snowden summit in center background.

I stared into the metaphorical abyss.  This felt like it could be a point of the transformation. Into the person that I wanted to be and knew I was.  I knew the route.  I was almost 100% confident that it would work.  But what would I choose?  The easy retreat? Back down the scree and into the easy comforts of civilization? Or would I transform, moving forward, doing what I know what I could accomplish, yet undergoing some sort of pain on the way. Definitely mental, possibly physical as well.  For whatever reason, I once again stepped away from the edge, convincing myself to retreat down the mountain.  Quickly, descending via the scree back to where I started. What had taken five hours to reach and ascend, only required an hour and a half to follow back down.  A lump in my stomach remained.  I knew how close I was to the other side, but for whatever reason I didn’t continue.  This may not have been the time, but I am there. I feel as if I am on the edge of a breakthrough of some kind, whether it is just physical or of my character remains to be seen.  My Snowden journey awaits.  I don’t know when, but I will stand on the summit, crossing to the other side.