Last week, Alana and I set off to complete the 40th edition of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic. The event was in it’s third year of the course starting from the Jack River Trailhead on the Denali Highway and ending at Sheep Mt Lodge on the Glenn Highway. I had not participated in any of the events in the past 5 years, coming close to starting twice but backing out each time due to lack of time available for recovery. With no job restricting my ability to recover, I went to work on convincing Alana that it was a good idea for her to join me. She was very against it at first, having heard stories elsewhere and of my experience in the past. I eventually promised her that we would sleep each night. There’d be no hallucinations (maybe) and less pain. Wins all around.
We met everyone at the trailhead on the Denali Highway the night prior, seeing many familiar faces and some new. The pre-race meeting ended quickly and gave way to talks about events past. At one point, Alana wondered aloud why more people didn’t participate. We fiddled with some last bits of gear then set off from the group, trying to find a quiet spot where we could camp before returning in the morning.
Gorde managed to find some red hazard type from some construction equipment nearby, allowing us to have a more ceremonial start. At 9:30 AM sharp, er 9:40, we set off, heading south down the trail. The group of John, Brian and Matt took off, quickly outpacing everyone else. Alana and I settled in as the second group with others scattered behind us. The walking was great and we were able to quickly move up the valley. The trail moved across the river at one point and we continued on the same side for about 15 minutes before realizing what happened. We crossed over the river and continued on up the hard tracks. Eventually the 4 wheeler ruts faded away and we moved to game trails as we crisscrossed the river, moving up valley. Caribou trails took us up out of the valley and into the Caribou Lakes area. We made great time moving along the brush, stopping for the first time about 5 hrs in to rest our feet and have some food. Caribou trails continued over the pass and into the Tsusena River valley.
As we went further down the valley, the trails became less visible and the brush increased, slowing travel. But we still made good time and found ourselves at a spot with enough water for floating at about 8 pm. As we were blowing up, we were surprised to see Brian, Matt and John float by, thinking they were far ahead of us. It appeared we weren’t going as slow as we thought and only had that group plus the duo of Bobby and Jay out ahead. Alana and I are both strong walkers, but paddling is not our strong suit. This was Alana’s first time floating class III rapids and while I have the ability to navigate class III, I do not necessarily have the ability to do it cleanly on the fly. As such, we ended up wet with water in our boats, necessitating dumping our boats about every hour or so. We paddled until about 10:30, making a fire on a gravel bar. We draped our wet rain gear over driftwood roots and warmed up our cold hands before turning in.
We glumly donned our wet gear come morning and set off downriver once again. The sun shone on the mountains on one side of the valley but had not yet made it down to the floor, leaving us with frigid fingers. The travel was quick though and we soon found ourselves in sunlight before reaching the next set of rapids. Everyone gets out of their boat and portages for about 2 miles towards the end of the river as there is a large waterfall. Even with the sun we were getting cold and I debated leaving the river and starting the portage early. At the time, I was under the impression that the normal portage was about 4 miles. The area we were at was 5 miles distant to the Susitna. A 1 mile difference didn’t seem like much and we decided to leave the river. It wasn’t long before it became apparent that I had made a mistake. Travel above the river was a mix of 6 ft tall, dense dwarf birch and open wet meadows. Travel slowed to about 1 mph and morale went down with it. On a break, Alana mused, “why do so many people do this?”
Roughly 5 hours later we found ourselves on the banks of the Susitna and at one of our first decision points. Alana was unsure if she wanted to continue and had to decide if it’d be worth flying out. We took a 20 min nap and she decided we’d forge ahead. We climbed 500 ft out of the valley into The Fog Lakes area, a string of open meadows and black spruce bogs. This 5 mile section was the most dreaded, as it had been described by others as one of the hardest parts of this course. Travel continued to be slow and we made it another 3 miles in 3 hours before deciding to camp, in what was a rare dry spot.
We continued through the worst of it the next morning, crawling through wet peat at points, reaching the timberline within a couple hours. From there we followed caribou trails through the forest and up Fog Creek. The brush broke away and we made our way up towards the pass, at times seeing individual caribou racing across the tundra. Atop the pass, the trails really improved and we were able to take caribou trails almost exclusively, and without brush, for about 5 miles into the TsiTsi River valley. We spotted 2 others on the opposite side of the valley (Lee and Alan?), and continued on to cross the river and follow more or less in line with their tracks up the hillside.
The ground was hard after gaining the hill and we made quick walking among the caribou trails and tussocks. We debated taking a beeline towards Terrace Creek and entering the Kosina that way but decided against it to avoid more steep climbing. We made our way nearly due west, setting up camp on a ridge above the Kosina Valley as the rain began to fall.
Fog filled the valley come morning, obscuring any view as we navigated towards the valley floor. The dwarf birch was dense, but we were usually able to pick up and follow caribou trails. I was hoping the solid trail system would continue into the valley with such a dense collection of trails on the hillside. However, it seemed as trails dissipated as the area one could travel became larger. As such, following trails became much harder, and we switched back and forth between walking the gravel bars and any trails we were able to find amongst the dwarf birch and open meadows.
The slower paced travel and all that went with it had taken its toll mentally. 8 miles or so into our travel on the Kosina Alana had had enough. There had been a few moments in each of the 2 previous days where it seemed like such a situation would happen but she had always wanted to forge on. We contacted our coordinator, Andrew Allaby, back in civilization and asked if he could look into a possible flight out. Within a couple hours, an R44 from Talkeetna Air Taxi was touching down on a sand bar and an hour later we found ourselves in Talkeetna.
It was a little disappointing to have stopped early, even more so considering that we were just shy of what was purported to be the coolest section of the route. However, we were able to leave with our physical and mental facilities intact as well as our relationship (she says she still wants to marry me), having traveled some 90 miles through a remote section of Alaska. She has been down on herself mentally but I have continued to tell her that she is 1 of only 18 to have even attempted the event. By my estimation, there have been less than 200 individuals to have finished and less than 500 individuals to have started over the history of the event. My hat goes off to everyone who makes it past the starting line each year. It takes strong determination, character and guts to participate in something of this caliber. I look forward to seeing where the event ends up next year and trying once again to push personal limits and see what’s possible.