N. Fork of Chandalar-Bettles River Loop

N. Fork of Chandalar-Bettles River Loop

During my time living in the Brooks Range, I spent a lot of time staring at maps of the surrounding area and dreaming up routes and places that I wanted to go. One of those places was a packraft loop involving the North Fork of the Chandalar and the Bettles River via Geroe Creek. The area is infrequently traveled outside hunting season due to it not falling within the confines of one of the neighboring famed management boundaries (G of A and ANWR), despite having all the same characteristics. This past weekend, I joined up with my friend Steve in Wiseman to undertake the trip.

We drove up to Chandalar Shelf through cloud enshrouded mountains and a steady trickle of rain.  The Interior was expected to receive a major rain storm starting on Sunday and continuing into Monday with some areas receiving as much as 1 inch per hour.  It was a few hundred yards from the road to the nearest channel of the West Fork of the North Fork where we found sufficient water to allow us to blow up and float. We had heard of people canoeing the river so we had thought that we would encounter a narrow, quick moving river devoid of major rapids like the Hammond or even the Upper Dietrich.  Yet within a few miles we found our prior conceptions were quite wrong.  The North Fork drops a few hundred feet over its first 25 miles or so, leading to a river full of splashy class II rapids.  There were little to no large boulders allowing us to run everything and scout on the fly. We stopped only once in the canyon and took a look above and beyond, looking for any hazards before continuing on.  By the time we reached the narrows, the rain had stopped but we were thoroughly soaked from the rapids and stopped ten plus times to pour water from our boats.

20151231_151617[1]

At the put in

20151231_184733[1]

Beyond the N. Fork narrows

 

We were able to make steady progress into the evening and found ourselves about 8 miles away from Geroe Creek 7.5 hours into the journey. We caught sight of three grizzlies, a bald eagle, two golden eagles and a late season harlequin duck along the way. The quick progress all but stopped as we reached the flats and paddled around bend after bend.  With dark clouds threatening to burst, we paddled to and set up camp at the base of Geroe Creek in the early hours of the morning, after a seemingly endless three hours of winding and winding and winding and winding….

20160101_002633[1]

Winding along the N. Fork

We set off up creek the following morning.  We had been told prior to the trip about a great bear trail heading all the way up the creek to the pass. The trail was located not too far off the river and we were able to make good time traveling through the white spruce, in the rain and past the bear scat every few hundred meters. A few miles up the creek, a landslide slid across the path forcing us to hike around.  We continued up, but were never able to consistently find the trail after this point.

20160101_143918[1].jpg

Lower Geroe Creek

The mountains along the Chandalar valley run east-west, creating somewhat of a rain shadow.  However, the rain remained steady and continued to fall with increasing intensity as we traveled closer to the pass.  The foliose lichen, softened by the rain, and dense patches of willows brought our progress to a crawl.  In midafternoon, still a few miles from the pass, we decided to set up the tent and take an extended break due to fatigue and misery.  We rested on our knees, drifting in and out of sleep within the tent, before cooking up a hot meal and continuing on our way.

20160101_204408[1]

Heading into the clouds

20160101_213706[1].jpg

Upper Geroe Creek from the base of the pass

Through brief openings in cloud cover, we were able to see that the upper reaches of the mountains surrounding the valley had received a fresh coating of snow.  This did not bode well for boosting morale.  The pass we aimed to cross was above 5000 ft and would only become more hazardous with a light layer of snow.  We plodded upward, picking our steps carefully over the wet rocks before topping out in the clouds amidst only a few patches of snow.  Elated to have crossed the pass, we descended into the thick cloud bank and Willow Creek on the opposite side.

We were both ready for bed by the time we summited the pass and initially agreed to find the best spot that was available somewhere lower in the valley. But upon descending we found we had slightly more energy than we had though and vowed to push on to Roberts Creek.  Our energy levels proved no match for the soft ground and sidehilling and I doubted whether I could continue down to the Roberts that evening.  It wasn’t long after that we came across a horse trail, travelling all the way down creek to the Roberts. Our moods soared and we moved almost as a trot, relishing in the hard packed surface beneath our feet. We covered the remaining distance in quick time thanks to the trail, following it most of the way down to the Roberts, setting up camp along the water in the early hours once again.

20160102_152401[1]

Roberts River just above the canyon entrance

Clearer skies and sun shone briefly in the morning, allowing us to somewhat dry our wet gear before embarking on the river.  There was enough water for us to float the Roberts from its confluence with Willow Creek.  The river wasn’t too braided and allowed for quick and easy travel.  Closer to the canyon, the terrain dropped and we traveled through more splashy class II rapids.  A big drop at the Roberts Canyon forced us to take out and hike for about half a mile downstream before continuing on water once more.  We ran everything that followed, stopping to scout only once at another point further on down canyon. The water remained swift throughout the Roberts and started to widen out as we reached the Bettles.  By the time we reached the Bettles, both Steve and I were travelling through very familiar territory and made almost no stops between there and the road.

20160102_161025[1].jpg

Roberts River

Despite being wet and cold the whole time, the trip was enjoyable and mostly lived up to the expectations that I held.  It would be far more enjoyable with better weather (perhaps 2 hours of sun instead of 1?) and the absence of the flat water paddling on the Chandalar.  If I were to do it again, I would take out before Geroe Creek at one of the passes heading into the Roberts.  That would cut off a good chunk of the hiking portion, but eliminate the tedium of paddling the winding sections of the Chandalar.  A spray skirt also seems like a good idea given how frequently we were dumping our boats.  Water levels definitely influence the character of the trip, I’m not sure certain sections could be floated on the upper North Fork at low water and much of the Bettles would be very bony and slow.

 

Advertisements
Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2018

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2018

After scratching during last year’s Ski Classic, I made it my mission to return and finish.  This year I would be attempting to ski the route through the Arctic Refuge, from Atigun Gorge to Wiseman, via a checkpoint on the Wind River. In 2017, the going had proved to be slow for those on the east side, with the first participants finishing in 6 days.  All signs seemed to suggest more of the same. Northern Alaska had experienced heavy snowfall throughout the winter, blanketing the Interior and Brooks Range in a thick layer of snow.  At the pre-event dinner, we were told that most of the passes along the divide had hardly been affected by wind.  Furthermore, there were some river valleys south of the divide that were said to have nearly three feet of bottomless, sugar like snow. In my final preparations, I tossed a few ounces of extra food into my pack, in hopes of being prepared for the likely slog ahead.

On our way to the start, clouds hovered low above the road near the Continental Divide, reducing visibility and obscuring our view of the mountains around us.  High winds brought blowing snow and drifts across the road, slowing our progress. It was the worst conditions I’d seen along this stretch of road during my time in the area. By the time we reached our starting point at Atigun Gorge, it was enough to make two participants reconsider their decision and back out of the race.

We set off with a bang.  The ceremonial firing of the potato gun shooed us off the gravel pad and beneath the bridge spanning the river.  In the spring of most years, Atigun Gorge serves as a popular location for dog mushers and skiers who wish to travel in the refuge for recreational or hunting purposes.  For whatever reason, there were no travelers this year so we were forced to make our own trail.  A line developed and we alternated back and forth between leaders, busting through the snow until we were overheated or desired a break, steadily advancing the whole time.  The pace was slower than preferred, but within 3 hours, the walls faded away, signifying the Gorge’s end and the valley beyond. Our entrance into the Sagavanirktok Valley was marked by a small herd of caribou darting across the river and continuing up valley.

The clouds thinned and blue sky shone above as we made our way up the Sag.  As night fell, the clouds behind us burst out into streaks of crimson and orange, illuminated by the setting sun.  All of us had decided to take a pass dubbed as “the shortcut,” a creek from the Sag into another along Accomplishment Creek that cut miles off the suggested route.  Attaching skins at the base, we wove our way through the narrow creek bed, up towards the top. Distance and darkness would prevent us from crossing that day, and we dropped off one by one, stopping to camp at various points along the way.

P4022014.JPG

Nikolai nearing the top of the shortcut

The next morning found us making our way up and over the pass, into Accomplishment Creek.  In most years, it is rare for large groups to travel together during the event.  There comes to be a point where the leaders are able to break away and everyone’s pace differs enough to provide for random spacing.  That process was delayed with the deeper snows but began to develop as we continued.  Tobi, Chuck and Josh led the charge out front. I did my best to keep up and found myself a few minutes behind them. As we neared an icefall near the headwaters of the valley, I caught up and shuffled behind.  The ice was bare and too steep to allow passage, forcing us to pick our way among the slopes on the side.  A combination of skinning and boot packing led us past this obstacle.  A few miles later, we repeated the process again, navigating a headwall before a lake atop a pass.

 

P4022017.JPG

Eben skiing up Accomplishment Creek

Advancing up the headwall had required skiing across a steep wind blasted slope. This necessitated the use of the metal edges along my skis and I dug into the side with each step forward.  The situation was less than ideal, with no way to self-arrest and a few large rocks dotting the slope below.  After falling back once more prior to ascending, I had caught up to the group ahead, but was quickly left behind.  They strode confidently across the face, took off their skis halfway across, and scrambled to the top.  I moved slowly, hesitant to make any error that would lead to sliding a few hundred feet to the base.

P4022021.JPG

Frozen lake atop a pass before the headwaters of the Ribdon

 

I had made a large change in gear selection from the prior year, switching my boots from Dynafit with Intuition liners to a pair of 3 pins.  While the 3 pin boots were great for avoiding blisters, they weren’t the best for travelling downhill.  Keeping them very loose prevented blisters from developing, but it also prevented a sense of control when descending.  Combined with my less than stellar downhill skiing skillset, this made for a handful of crashes along the way.  Descending from this pass into the headwaters of the Ribdon Valley was no different.  The trio out front had rocketed ahead. The snow offered a great surface for travelling, firm from being blasted by wind.  It was exciting if you wanted to move quickly, nerve-wracking if you were worried about crashing. Nevertheless, I eased my way down.  On one of the smaller slopes, there was a set of large cracks adjacent to the others’ ski tracks.  My first thought was crevasses, but we weren’t anywhere near a glacier, meaning that they were signs of snow fracturing and possible avalanches.  I stayed to the side, following tracks off the slope and down rocks to a safer spot below.

Not long after, the trail from those ahead wound its way down through the gully and up a small slope on the other side, continuing across a larger face above.  I descended into the gully, shot across and lost my balance, crashing into the uphill portion of the slope.  As I crashed, the slope above me let loose, a small avalanche descending down towards where I lay.  I tried to move away, but struggled to get up from my position in the snow.  Within seconds of the first one, a loud boom rang from above.  I looked up to see the large face above break out, about 300 yards wide, and come crashing down.  I floundered around in the snow but was unable to make any headway. Helpless, I turned to the lip above, waiting for a wall of snow to come rushing over the top. Seconds passed, the wall of snow never came.  50 yards below, the entire gully had been filled with snow. Where I sat in the snow, it had stopped above the gully rim.  A matter of pure luck and chance that likely prevented the loss of my life.

I moved out of the small debris that was around my lower legs and skied over to the opposite side.  I was shaken and wanted nothing to do with being up high, desiring to get down as soon as possible.  But my confidence had dropped, reducing my movement to a crawl, as I sidestepped down the slope.  As I descended, I wondered about the others. They were much faster, but their track had gone directly across the face. Had they been caught in the slide? My fears were soon alleviated as I saw the three of them racing up to meet me from the valley below.

After waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, we all decided to camp together nearby.  However, the evening’s excitement wasn’t yet over. After the sun had set, the sound of thudding rotors sounded off in the distance.  Within minutes a massive helicopter landed with personnel rushing out.  A known design flaw in an InReach device among our group had allowed for the SOS button to be depressed in the locked position, unbeknownst to the user.  After assuring the responders that the person was in the area and was OK, they took off and the silence of the valley took hold once more.

Most of us decided that the avalanche was enough of a signal to keep us from moving on.  There were more slopes ahead, with much higher risks and probabilities of going than the one I had just encountered.  Only six would continue on, making an attempt at crossing the Continental Divide (They would successfully cross and end up going to Arctic Village). A group of five would backtrack and follow our trail back to the start. I wanted nothing to do with avalanche terrain and set off with seven others down the Ribdon Valley and out to the road.

P4032031.JPG

Ribdon River Valley

The Ribdon turned out to be spectacular, leaving us all fulfilled and satisfied with the trip.  The path was straightforward but there were enough obstacles to keep us on our toes and provide for a challenge. Hot springs made for abundant sections of open water, causing us to search for snow bridges and safe passage around without getting our feet wet.  Temperatures of -10 F during the day and -30 F at night prevented us from taking too many breaks, as we bundled up and tried to stay ahead of the cold.  Along the way we were left to marvel at the mountains, moose, a herd of muskoxen and the many tracks that were spread throughout the landscape.  We reached the road just before 10 PM on the second night after heading back, weary and worn, yet satisfied with our “North Slope Classic.”

Screenshot_20180409-131139

A rough approximation of the route

Late last fall, I interviewed the event sponsor and director, Dave Cramer, for my podcast. In our conversation we talked about the Ski Classic and what brings people back each year.  While each person may have the desire to win, Dave said that it is the sense of community and place that ties everyone together.  Participating in the Ski Classic is no walk in the park and requires significant mental and physical preparation if one is to finish. With such effort and time involved, it is easy to be disappointed upon being forced to turn back.  But unlike last year, I found myself satisfied with the end result.  I didn’t get to finish the Ski Classic, but I did get to ski through a magnificent landscape with people that were inspiring and a pleasure to be around.  The event leaves the Brooks Range and will return to the Wrangells next year.  I’ll return for the first time to the place where I initially fell in love with Alaska.   I’ll return to see familiar faces and the community I have come to cherish. And I’ll return with the intention to finally finish the damn thing.

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking back while ascending the pass

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Top of Peregrine with a view into Grizzly Creek

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Taking advantage of the hot afternoon sun to dry out

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.