Yakutak to Elfin Cove: Lost Coast South

Yakutak to Elfin Cove: Lost Coast South

The Lost Coast of Alaska stands as one of the more remote regions of the state.  The coast receives the brunt of storms rolling in from the Pacific and into the Gulf of Alaska, with no land in between to serve as a buffer.  With its many bears, storms, and rugged terrain, the area remains infrequently visited.  In the past, I’ve read of others who have done trips along this very coast (like Hig & Erin, Andrew Skurka and Roman Dial)  and had planned to follow suit one day.  Yet a trip of that magnitude didn’t seem to be within my repertoire of skills or expertise in terms of travelling solo, so it remained a distant plan. A few weeks ago, I received a message from a former coworker, Trevor Scott, who told me he had some free time and was thinking of doing the south portion of the coast, from Yakutat to Gustavus.  With nothing but time on my own hands, I invited myself along and the trip was born.

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After crossing the Situk River outside Yakutat, we found ourselves on the beach.  Endless miles of ocean lay off to our right and a wide path of sand lay straight ahead.  The sand was mostly firm and the walking was superb.  The initial forecast when we were planning the trip called for 9 days of rain, but showers were nowhere to be found.  The following day had close to no clouds in the sky, providing for a visual treat as we gained a greater view of the mountains in the distance.  Mount Fairweather dominated the skyline and after paddling across Dry Bay in the last light of the day, we made camp with it looming not too far off in the distance.

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The seemingly endless firm sand ceased halfway through the next day as we were introduced to the boulders along the coast.  The area holds many glaciers, most of which have receded throughout the past 200 years, leaving in their wake an array of boulders in all shapes and sizes.  Progress slowed further when we were forced to leave the coastline at the outlet stream of Grand Plateau Glacier.  We attempted to follow bear trails through the thick, but not yet leafed out, brush.  A short paddle among icebergs brought us to the other side and eventually back to the boulders.  At the end of the boulders and the close of our day, we found ourselves back on firm sand.  Here the trees towered much closer to the shoreline, leaving a much smaller beach.  It was beginning to look like the Lost Coast that I had envisioned.

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We awoke to earthquakes the next morning.  Two shook the ground and the tent in the early hours and served as a prompt to get us moving.  During the day, Trevor told me that he had a previous ankle injury that had a chance of flaring up again.  Coupled with a blister and rain, we made much slower progress than the previous days.  At Cape Fairweather, we found more boulders, which proved even more troublesome with the falling rain.  Halfway through, Trevor slipped; moving from one boulder to the next and fell.  There was no serious damage, but he wasn’t going to continue any further that day.  I was visibly annoyed, there was plenty of light remaining and I was in go mode.  My ego and this attitude would lead to further conflict in the coming days.

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The clouds lingered, but there wasn’t much rain the following day as we made our way to Lituya Bay.  Travel was becoming fairly routine. Miles of sand, both firm and soft, interspersed with patches of boulders, loose rock and water crossings.  The route had provided great travel up to that point.  There was minimal bushwhacking and any bushwhacking we did face wasn’t as severe as it could be due to the plants not having yet leafed out.  That very day we witnessed the onset of leaves and the blooming of leafing vegetation like the alders.

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We were protected from southeast winds before Lituya Bay, but as we approached we began to hear the beginnings of a storm raging on the other side.  The forecast called for 35 mph winds and that seems to be what we found.  Whitecaps and continuous waves filled the bay and large breakers rolled into the entrance from off shore.  A crossing was out of the question and we made camp in a protected stand of trees on the spit.

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We woke to lesser winds, 20-25 mph, but the bay remained rough and we were forced to do some more waiting.  Rain was often intermingled with hail, pelting the tent periodically.  Scaring off a brown bear that was grazing too close to camp provided the bulk of the excitement for the day.  There wasn’t much to do and we alternated between lying in the tent, eating and watching the water.  Trevor mentioned during the day that he wanted to go much slower from here on out and came up with a new itinerary.  With my attitude of go, go, go this was not a pleasant alternative to our pre-established plan. Tough discussions ensued concerning communication and planning.   We eventually came to somewhat of an agreement and left the tent to watch the waves at our own favorite viewing areas.

The morning brought much calmer winds and with it, our successful crossing of Lituya Bay.  We met a couple, Ben and Stephanie, on the opposite beach, who were undertaking essentially the same trip.  They were forced to call it short due to injury and would be flying out in the afternoon. After exchanging stories and gaining valuable route info, we continued on, following a continuous 2 mile bear trail, past a sea lion rookery, back to the beach.  The storm had passed and we were treated to grand views of the ocean, forest and immense mountains.  Travel was at a slower pace, but we still walked all day, leaving everyone pleased.  A wolf and a bear sighting, plus an encounter with another hiking group from Arctic Wild, capped off an end to a great day.

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Another clear day greeted us in the morning and we worked to move past La Perouse Glacier, less than a mile distant.  This was one of the question marks of the route. A few years ago the glacier had surged, blocking off any travel on the beach.  Some who had traveled at that time were forced to launch their boats into the surf and go around.  We found a glacial face that received waves from the ocean, but we were easily able to skate on past at low tide.  There was a continuation of travel like the previous days as we made our way to Icy point.  Firm sand, clear skies and water crossings filled the day.

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By this time, Trevor’s foot was feeling better, but he wanted to stick around Icy Point for a few days and explore the area.  I was not interested in doing so, and with that we decided to split amicably.  I wanted to see how fast I could reach Gustavus, estimating about 3 days if conditions and terrain went my way.  Goodbyes were exchanged and I set off down the beach at a fast clip. My first obstacles were two separate headlands that I’d have to navigate before leaving the coast and heading inland.  Skurka had described them as ardous.  But I figured without budding leaves and solid bear trails they couldn’t be that bad.  A rougher than comfortable ocean forced my hand, keeping me onshore, and off I went into the woods, attempting to find a clean route to the other side.    I think that arduous could be an understatement.  What I found was a mess of disappearing bear trails, thick alder, windfalls, steep slopes, plenty of devils club and rolling terrain.  The section was about 2 miles and took me 2.5 hours to complete it going at a hard pace.  Upon reaching the other side, I was exhausted and drenched with sweat. And there was still one more to go.  Suddenly, lounging about for a few days didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

The second headland was difficult, but nowhere near as grueling as the first.  A bear trail led me from one end, up, over and through the brush and down to the boulders before the beach on the other side.  After 5 hours of being separated, I had managed to cover only 7 miles.  My overestimation of my abilities and underestimation of the land was starkly apparent.  I made camp, scaring off a closely wandering brown bear before dozing off.

The agenda called for more bushwhacking as I had to make my way to the Dixon River.  At Lituya Bay, Ben pointed out a route he saw that looked like it had a lot of muskeg, which could make for much easier travel than reports of elsewhere.  Brush was thick, but the terrain was flat.  With patches of muskeg, I found myself making good time.  About halfway through, I reached back to make my standard check to ensure everything was still in its place.  Water bottle? Check. PFD? Check.  Poles for my paddle? Gone.  I was soon filled with a sense of despair.  I raced back a short distance but was unable to find them.  Having lost them in the past half hour, a search seemed futile in the thick brush.  I trudged back to the beach to what I was sure would end up being a flight out.  Another mistake causing a shortened trip and more $$$ down the drain.  Before hitting the beach, a pack of wolves darted in front of me, offering a small consolation prize.

Meanwhile, Trevor had decided he didn’t want to linger around Icy Point after all.  He took advantage of the good weather to paddle around the headlands and continue on.  We were able to get in contact, and after making a surf landing, we linked up once more.  We would attempt to make a wood shaft and move our final destination to Elfin Cove, which lay closer than Gustavus thus requiring less paddling.  A day of rough travel and bushwhacking ensued as we made it to the Dixon River, up to North Deception Lake and after slipping and stumbling down a creek in the dark, found ourselves camped at the base of North Trick Lake.

During a break along the Dixon River, I had found a shaft for the new improvised paddle.  With Trevor’s superior lashing and knot skills, a respectable paddle was formed.  It was put to the test the following day on a crossing of the lakes.  And much more extensively later on as we navigated much of the outlet stream towards and through the tidal flats that lay before Brady Glacier.  It was heavy, but held up reasonably well for what it was and achieved its purpose.  Rain pelted us all day long and after being treated to a view of another wolf, we left the boats and walked quickly across the flats and found a protected camp near Taylor Island.

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The walking section of our trip was essentially complete.  We lay 10 miles distant from Elfin Cove and were now waiting for decent conditions to embark.  Rain and wind continued the following day, with less than ideal conditions we were provided with another day of forced rest.  Staring at the green wall of the tent for much of the day can’t be good for the soul.  The crossings would be the crux of the trip and with rain, an improvised paddle and low confidence, my mood sunk.

Both conditions and my mood improved the following day and seemed to be good enough for an attempt.  We set off with the intention of hitting our first crossing at slack tide.  With favorable conditions, we traveled quickly and made the decision to cross earlier than planned.  Midway, we found ourselves caught in a riptide and being pushed up the channel, away from our target, towards Gustavus.  We retreated towards where we originally planned to launch, eventually making another attempt much closer to slack tide, this time without issue.

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4 miles out from Elfin Cove, I called to book a flight for later that afternoon.  Shortly thereafter, we came across The Hobbit Hole, a local bed and breakfast that apparently had some history attached to it.  Trevor was interested in checking it out.  I didn’t want to risk missing my flight.  In disagreement once again, we parted ways.   I was left with ~3 miles of travel, with one smaller crossing along the way.

It wasn’t anywhere near slack tide as I started the crossing but conditions appeared favorable.  The sea was calm, the distance relatively short and the wind was in a position where it wouldn’t cause stacked waves.  I took what I considered to be a conservative line and set off.  All was going well until I reached the midpoint of the crossing.  Beyond protection of land, I found myself in the main current and being sucked out to sea.  I was aware of how serious my predicament had become and tried to remain calm.  I paddled furiously, attempting sharper angles to get across more effectively.  But my boat continued to drift past my intended safety net and out towards open sea.  Unable to return to a safe point, I felt my fate was somewhat sealed and became more anxious.  But with continued paddling, I found myself a few moments later out of the current into an eddy and ultimately back to safety along the shore. A half mile further, Trevor arrived with Greg (resident of The Hobbit Hole) in his boat and provided a ride for the rest of the way.  Another hard lesson that would round out the trip.

The Lost Coast proved to be spectacular, nothing short of the hype that others have generated.  Some have called it the best trip in Alaska.  I’m in no position to take a firm stance on that statement but it certainly is an exceptional route.  The trip was another step in my learning experience, in physical, mental and interrelationship skills.  It was filled with lessons concerning communication, group dynamics, subjective risks and ocean travel among others.  I had been to Southeast Alaska once before, but this trip allowed me to get a glimpse of its core.  I’d like to return for the north section at some point, but for now I’m content to flee north to the sunny and dry lands of Interior and Northern Alaska.s

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2017

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2017

Every major multi day winter ski trip that I have attempted has resulted in failure due to significant foot blisters.  I wanted to be like the cool kids and use the Dynafit plastic boots but could never seem to get them to work.  Shells and liners that were too tight or hotspots that couldn’t be stopped were a few of my many problems.  It was with this in mind that I prepared for the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic.  Like the summer Classic, the event was in my backyard and something that I couldn’t envision passing up.  With no job, I had plenty of time to train hard for a few months prior to the event, skiing every day along with resistance and high interval training. At the end of March, a week before the race all seemed well.  I was in great shape and had mutilated my boots to give my feet more room where I had experienced any problems.  The only thing left to do was ski.

This year, the Ski Classic offered two courses, one in the traditional area on the west side of the road in Gates of the Arctic National Park and the other on the opposing side in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Veterans of the Ski Classic and those more experienced would be given the opportunity to travel east on the new routes, while rookies and those without significant experience would travel west.  At the pre-race dinner, I discovered that there would only be three of us heading off into the Park.  I had been interested in potentially partnering up with others, but this strategy seemed limited if my pace didn’t match the other duo.

Watching the ANWR group begin

The following day everyone unloaded at Atigun Gorge and worked quickly to find and assemble their gear.  It was a weird feeling, I was participating in the Ski Classic, but from the sidelines I was watching the vast majority prepare to set off without me.  They were soon off and the remaining group filed back into the vehicles and proceeded over to Galbraith Lake on the other side of the valley,

With a somewhat ceremonial firing of a potato cannon, we were off.  The weirdness subsided as soon as the focus and action turned towards skiing and forward progress. The snow offered good support as I made my way across the rolling foothills.  By the end of the gravel road, I had made my way in front of Heath and Tyler and continued on, following windblown dog sled trails.  At the Itikmalik, I took a hard left and skied down towards the river.  After sinking only 4 inches or so in the snow, I was sorely tempted to stay above the mountains and traverse the North Slope to Anaktuvuk.  Yet, trip reports and advice from others had warned me of potentially deep snow and that was enough to dissuade me and keep me on my way.   I made a couple minor route errors, climbing high where I should’ve stayed low but eventually made my way into the Itkillik River Valley.

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Looking up the Itkillik Valley

At Itkillik Lake, I took a break to refuel and check my feet.  After following their tracks for about an hour, we switched roles once again.  It would be the last time I’d see them until reaching Anaktuvuk Pass. As I advanced further up the valley, I debated travelling on the river versus following a more straight shot overland.  The river was longer and didn’t seem to offer significantly better travel, so I chose the latter.  Night at this time of year is slow to arrive but it gradually became darker and harder to navigate on a micro scale without the aid of additional light.  With this cue, I found a relatively dense patch of willows, set up my quilt and nestled in for the night.

Before falling asleep the night prior, I had heard two or three wolves howling not far off to the north.  In the morning, I skied across fresh wolf tracks not far from where I had lay out and heard a lone howl.  I wasn’t able to spot any wolves, but didn’t doubt that I was being watched as I continued on.  Ideally, the goal for the day was to get up and over Peregrine Pass, the crux of the route. It was enjoyable making my way up the valley. Not only was I treated to the presence of wolves but every couple miles there were bands of 20-60 caribou digging for food amongst the tussocks. My approach would send them running away in fear, sprinting forward or to the opposite side of the valley.  Those wolves certainly must have made their presence known. Travel still remained good, there wasn’t much significant trail breaking, though it still took longer than I envisioned to make my way out of the Itkillik, across the pass and into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk.

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Itkillik Pass

With only a few miles before the pass, I began looking at the map very frequently.  I had been treated to stories before the race of others in the past heading up a pass too early and ultimately finding themselves back where they started.   Katie Strong had also mentioned that they had run into deep snow the previous year before and after the pass. As the windblown surface ceased and I began my own slog, I wished I had asked for more specifics. The going turned sloth like quickly.  Without a base, each stride sent my ski through ~2.5 ft of snow to the bottom.  Further slowing my progress was the flat light.  Late in the day and with heavy cloud cover, the snow appeared as one flat surface and I was not able to discern the minute differences in elevation and terrain.  This made following the low point of the creek difficult as I almost blindly ascended unnecessary small rises and banks.  Turning around every so often, I hoped to spot Tyler and Heath so that I could have company in tackling this section.  Yet, each glance only revealed my lone trail. Frustrated, I settled in early for the night among the willows, with the base of the pass still lying ahead.

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Headwaters of the North Fork

After slogging it out for another hour and a half in the morning, I attached my skins before making my way off the main valley and up the creek towards the pass.  Off the valley floor and with a little bit of elevation, the deep snow subsided and I quickly ascended over the harder packed surface.  A lack of stickiness at points with my skins slowed me down but otherwise I was able to skin up to the pass without any significant issues.  The major fear on Peregrine Pass is that of avalanches.  While there were previous minor avalanches within sight, conditions were perfect that early in the morning and I was not very worried.  The view off the top was spectacular, but with strong winds I didn’t wish to linger long and prepared for the descent.  The butt slide down did not meet expectations.  The going was steep, but with me being the only one and no established trail, it was not the super slide that I had hoped for.  Nonetheless, I happily found myself in Grizzly Creek and on the other side.

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Looking back while ascending the pass

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Top of Peregrine with a view into Grizzly Creek

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High winds blowing snow off the ridge

I anticipated dealing with deeper snow once more but was pleasantly surprised to find relatively good going.  Most of the way down the creek I followed a heavily trafficked wolf trail before running into overflow that provided quick travel down towards the base.  Ernie Pass brought me to the Anaktuvuk River and with it, solid snowgo trails that inevitably led the ~23 miles to Anaktuvuk Pass.  I eventually left the trail and hit the large sheet of overflow that spanned across the river.  With the wind at my back, I was able to cover some serious distance.  My worry was that I was going too fast and I’d often attempt to find slushy spots or snow in order to slow my speed. The idea crept into my mind that I could maybe just double pole the rest of the way into Anaktuvuk.  Alas, it was not to be, after a few miles, the ice sheet ended.

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Taking advantage of the hot afternoon sun to dry out

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Mountains along the Ernie Creek Valley

My fantasy of arriving in Anaktuvuk that evening disintegrated with my first strides off the ice.  The ice had been hard on my knees and feet and I was reduced to a slow shuffle through the snow.  Not particularly pleased with my progress, I shuffled until just before dark before finding shelter amongst the willows once more.

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Travelling hard packed snowgo trail on the Anaktuvuk

After finding the snowgo trail again in the morning, I had what should have been an easy ~13 miles into the village.  Instead, it was anything but.  Each stride resulted in pain in my feet.  My shins were slowly wearing raw with each step, even with the foam liner as the only contact point.  The morning waned on and finally under the heat of the mid day sun I descended the last hill on the approach in to town.

I found the check in sheet at the Park Service building and with no surprise discovered that I was the first of the three to arrive in town.  There was a potlatch going on across the street and after being invited in for hot food for what likely was the tenth time, I made my way inside.  I filled up with water and chatted with some of the local residents about skiing and the area.  Not long after I returned to my post across the street, the duo (Tyler and Heath) arrived.  They brought word that they were considering bailing due to Heath likely having Bronchitis. I had been examining and managing my feet since arriving, and they weren’t looking particularly promising.  My shins remained raw and I had blisters around both ankles.  The thought began to creep into my mind of backing out.  Bad feet and being the only one out on the course didn’t seem like a good combination.  There was still roughly ~100 miles to go and I’d have to be breaking trail through much deeper snow.  After wrestling with the idea for a little while, I decided to end my trip there.  We arranged for a flight and flew out to Coldfoot the following morning.

Pulling out of the race early was/is embarrassing.  After arriving back in Wiseman, I discovered that the small blisters on many of my finger tips were a result of frostbite, further adding to my embarrassment.  With a couple weeks past and my feet largely mended, self doubt and questions start to fill the mind.  Could I have kept going? What could I have done to prevent this? Was my preparation adequate?  None of these questions can be put to use now or in the past, but can guide me going forward.  I envied the sense of accomplishment and joy of the other skiers as they came into Wiseman.  Chatting with others post race, I tried to gain as much information on strategies and gear so that I can better perform in the future.  For now, a void remains until next spring.

Appreciation must be given where it is due, so with that I’d like to thank the Hickers for being such gracious hosts, Dave Cramer for all he does in organizing the event and the people of Anaktuvuk Pass for being so friendly and welcoming.  Congratulations to all those who finished!

Katie Strong’s trip report from the other side

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.