The forecast was enough to cause some trepidation for those with any sense. High wind advisories were in effect across the Alaska Range with sustained winds forecasted for 40+ mph and gusts up to 60 in the passes. Our route involved one such pass and we found ourselves a few miles away as the evening’s summer light waned. We had long since passed the tree line and the encompassing rocks and hummocks offered no respite from the wind that stirred through this upper section of the valley. We had spent the moments prior watching dozens of caribou, feeding on lichen a few hundred yards distant, unconcerned with the thoughts that preoccupied our minds. We had no notion of what lay beyond the bend on our route ahead, but knew that continuing would add a few more hours to our already late evening. Weary but determined, we pushed on.
Towards the end of June, I joined friends Shannon, Evan and their dog Cooper on the Coffee Pizza Traverse. Set in the heart of the Alaska Range off the Parks Highway, this is a well known “route” involving equal parts packrafting and hiking. We set off from The Perch following the ATV track off the road and up the powerline. Without knowing where the trail led, we hopped off, navigating spruce bog, willows and tussocks on our way up the alpine. The trail led the same way and not much later we were back on its hard surface. Within a couple hours, we found ourselves beyond the willow thickets with a grand view of the Nenana River Valley.
Sunny skies and alpine hiking allowed for joyous moods as we continued our way up the valley. I was reminded of Roche Montanee Valley further to the north, with the clear creek gurgling down the middle of the valley and the still snow clad peaks towering on either side. Unlike Roche Montanee, there were no sheep atop the hills but er ran into a herd of caribou in the evening, with a surprisingly high proportion of calves. As discussed in the opening paragraph, we decided to push on up and over the pass in the late evening of that first day. Ascending the boulder fields, we soon found ourselves staring ahead at a wall of snow. Just past solstice, this tucked away section of the valley had yet to melt. The snow offered good purchase and we were able to pick a route out without too much risk. Sidehilling along the valley’s eastern wall before walking (and postholing) our way to the top.
Strong winds greeted us atop the pass and provided enough of a motivator to continue on and down to camp. Unlike the north side, the south side was free of snow. In its place were massive boulders that slowed travel to a crawl. Cooper had great difficulty in navigating this section, forcing Evan and Shannon to guide and carry him along the way. After another hour or so, boulders and rocks gave way to grasses and moss and we eventually set up camp. Ptarmigan were scattered throughout the rock fields in this section and despite our best efforts, fresh meat was not part of that evening’s fare.
The wind was only the beginning of a front coming from the southwest off the Bering Sea. Rain fell throughout the following day wetting the vegetation, and therefore us as we navigated through dense willow thickets and alders on our way down to the Nenana. We left the alpine environment within an hour of breaking camp and soon found ourselves in dense thickets. We sought out moose trails, following them under and over willow branches, down to the creek’s edge and back up high again searching in vain for an easier route. Eventually, we stumbled upon a moose superhighway (the largest and greatest network of moose trails that I have ever seen) leading us through willow thickets and the spruce forest down to the banks of the Nenana. Mosquitoes kept us company as we blew up our boats, put in and floated a couple miles down to that evening’s camp.
Swift waters brought us quickly back to civilization without much effort the following morning. While we drifted along, low clouds hung atop the mountains and fighter jets from JBER roared through the valley ahead. Cooper wasn’t fond of the whole boat experience necessitating a few stops as Evan and Shannon switched back and forth, trying to find the best way in which to situate him without flipping over. The water became a little choppier as we entered the main valley and soon we were watching cars rush by on the highway just beyond the river’s edge. The trip had offered welcome respite from the often too frantic world. Like always, it was never enough and left us yearning for more as we reflected and munched on pizza at Prospector’s later that evening.