Coal Mine No 5

Coal Mine No 5

Alana had some extended time off from work and we decided to take a trip south to the Coal Mine No.5 cabin near the Alaska Range. I was borrowing skis from a friend as I had recently broken my bindings on another trip. Alas, at the trailhead I discovered that their bindings were incompatible with my skis (maybe something to check beforehand) and both of us ended up walking.  The trails were in good shape and we were able to walk the 2 miles to the cabin without much issue. Remi and Taiga distracted themselves with the many smells outside the cabin, ultimately finding a frozen shrimp buffet on the ice from some past visitors.  This made the dogs very happy, but the owners less so.

On the trail

This cabin has the unique problem of having too small a woodstove.  In most cabins of similar style, one does just about anything to avoid starting a big fire as they can get remarkably hot.  However, the stove in this cabin is much smaller and we had it running wide open most of the time to keep it at reasonable temperatures (0 to +15 outside temps). Otherwise, we spent the bulk of our days sledding down the hill to the lake, reading and watching the mountains.

I paid extra to get a VIP sled tour of the lake

We took a few hours to head further south to see the ice cave at the toe of Castner Glacier. The trail in was harder than anything I’ve seen in the Interior and judging by the number of cars at the trailhead it wasn’t difficult to imagine why.  We first intended to go prior to the cabin on a Sunday, but encountered some 25 plus cars at the trailhead.  Quite the surprise and enough reason to turn around and try again a day later, where we ended up being 1 of 3 cars. 

Castner Glacier

We were blessed with great views of the mountains and the sound of wolves howling in the middle of the second night.  Remi was the hero on the way back, dragging everything back to the trailhead in the sled.  Quite the life, right? Oh, the contrary.   The energy of a 1-year-old husky knows no limits.  We ended up running after him so that we could keep up behind the sled, and of course helping pull the sled on the uphills. All was well though and it was a good test perhaps for further travel styles in winter trips ahead.

Shadows of the Nunamuit

Shadows of the Nunamuit

As I made my way into the headwaters, the snow became deeper and deeper.  With mountains engulfing the valley, the area’s snow was not impacted by winds.  The deep, sugar-like snow required tremendous exertion to move forward with each stride.  A ski slides forward atop the snow. I transfer my weight and then sink a couple feet to the bottom.  The other ski slides forward.  I transfer my weight and sink.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Progress slowed to only a few yards per minute.  I wasn’t far from my intended target, Peregrine Pass, which would take me up and over the Continental Divide to what I hoped would be better conditions on the other side.  But for now, I was stuck struggling in the flat light, trying to plod my way along while avoiding the dips and banks of the creek that faded into the snow.  Eventually, with fading light and darkness settling upon the valley, I was forced to call it quits for the evening, laying out my sleeping pad and quilt in a dense willow thicket.

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Headwaters of the North Fork

After continuing another hour with slower travel the following morning, I began to make my way up the pass.  The drainage soon became steep enough to require skins.  Not long after, they lost their grip forcing me to improvise and use zip ties to attach them to each ski.  Yet this was a small worry.  The sides and mountains that surrounded me were steep enough to allow for avalanches.  Conditions appeared to be stable and starting off early in the morning made for a firm snowpack and solid layer due to the lower temperatures of the previous night. I remained nervous and cautious and hoped to get to the top as quickly as possible.  After duck walking up the final steep rise, I emerged on top and surveyed my surroundings.  Grizzly Creek lay below, and stretching out beyond was the beginning of the Anaktuvuk River heading west towards the horizon.  In all directions lay snow-covered mountains and almost no vegetation.  The country appeared raw and rugged, evolving from and shaped by the rough conditions of the region.   Descending on my butt, I looked back towards the pass to see snow swirling in the air, tossed about by strong winds.  At the base, I donned my skis once more and began making my way down the creek, following the tracks of a wolf pack that had previously traveled the same path.

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Snow blowing off the top off the pass

At first glance, it’s a land that appears to be uninhabitable.  For much of the year, temperatures hover below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Its waterways are frozen and its vegetation lacks diversity.  Any vegetation in the area clings close to the ground, in hopes of preserving life and protecting itself from the frigid climate.  Out of the north come the winds that race over the frozen expanse of the Arctic Ocean, delivering a biting chill atop mountain peaks and through lengthy river valleys.  The area I speak of and the one in which the above story takes place is that of the Brooks Range, located above the Arctic Circle in Northern Alaska.  A chain of mountains that span the width of the state, stretching some 700 miles from the Canadian Border to the Chuchki Sea on the western coast.

Most life in the area finds itself on the move throughout the year.  In a region that has minimal vegetation, short growing seasons and a low population density of animals, many must move to source their food.  For instance, in the spring and summer, caribou and birds migrate to the north, out of the mountains to the Arctic Coastal Plain.  As the cold and darkness encroaches on the land once more, caribou return to the safety of the mountains and birds flee to warmer climates.  The same has held true for the people that have resided within these mountains.  A few hundred years ago, the Nunamuit (“people of the mountains”) moved to the Central Brooks Range area away from the coast.  They are Inupiat, but unlike their brethren elsewhere, the Taremuit (“people of the coast”), they chose to make their home among the mountains.

Living in an area with dramatic fluctuations in animal populations and location, the Nunamuit were forced to lead a highly nomadic lifestyle.  They lived and died with the rising and falling of the caribou herds.  Life was simple.  If the herds couldn’t be found, the people starved.  They were forced to become highly skilled in their mode of living, coming up with ways to catch quick-footed animals like caribou in open country with limited resources.  This resulted in creative ways to funnel the caribou, by means of strategically placed rocks (inuksuks), into corrals made of willows or lakes, where the people would have the best opportunity to make their kill.  Meat was taken for food, hides were taken for clothing and bedding materials, and bones and antlers were used for tools.  Throughout the year, the people travelled.  Early on, movement was primarily done on foot.  Eventually, as dogs became more prevalent, they were used as pack animals and in formation as a team throughout the winter season.

 

While there was enjoyment in being out in the country, such travel was a necessity in a landscape where animals and edible plants were widely dispersed.  The Nunamuit settled in and formed the community of Anaktuvuk Pass in 1950, largely marking the end of their nomadic ways.  In more recent years, long range travel under human power has drastically decreased as snow machines (also known as snow mobiles or snowgos depending on your locale) took hold in the state throughout the 1970s and beyond.  People in rural villages and communities throughout the state lead a more sedentary lifestyle with this new wave of high powered technology, and now typically only venture away from home for no longer than a day at a time.  Long range travel under human power has become something that is done for recreational purposes, not out of necessity.  Even travel with dog teams has been relegated to only racing or tourism.

In today’s urbanized and fast-paced world, there are those that feel out of place and use the outdoors as an escape and reprieve.  For some, that means a short hike on a nature trail or a trip to the beach.  For others, they seek out more intensive trips spending multiple days performing various outdoor pursuits like camping, hiking, skiing or hunting.  Like all pursuits, there are some that take this to the extreme, covering large swaths of wilderness in a quick manner.  Despite the lack of hunting or gathering on most of these adventure trips, such activities aren’t far from what was performed by our hunter/gatherer ancestors long ago.  In Alaska, wilderness events like the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic and the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic offer such an opportunity.

The travels I discussed at the beginning of this essay took place during the 2017 Ski Classic.  It being my first year in the event, I was only permitted to travel within Gates of the Arctic National Park, while event veterans skied routes through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Two others would attempt to complete the same route and we set off on a clear day from Galbraith Lake, just outside the eastern boundary of the park.  Our final destination was Wiseman, but first we needed to reach the checkpoint about 90 miles distant at Anaktuvuk Pass.

Old sled dog trails provided a path towards the Itkillik Valley.  The Itkillik was one of the major drainages which the Nunamuit regularly inhabited during the nomadic times.  The valley often had caribou and other animals to offer as food sources.  After the national park was established, there have been many archaeological surveys revealing old tent sites and kills throughout the Itkillik region.

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Looking up the Itkillik Valley

As I skied through the Itkillik Valley, light rapidly faded as the sun dipped behind the mountains to the northwest.  Soon, it became too dark to travel efficiently and I began looking for a spot to camp, sheltered from the wind.  Trying to eliminate as much unnecessary weight as possible, I left my tent at home.  I found a small thicket of willows, set up my sleeping pads and tucked myself into my quilt for the night.  I awoke early in the morning to the sound of wolves howling further up the valley.  Their location was difficult to determine with them being upwind, but after beginning to ski the next morning, it wasn’t more than a few hundred yards before I went over their tracks.

The presence of wolves suggested the presence of other animals throughout the valley.  It didn’t take long to confirm this hypothesis.  Throughout the day, I passed small bands of caribou, most often digging beneath the snow to feed.  In the willows encompassing the edge of the river, ptarmigan set among the branches and my close passage flushed them and sent them fleeing.  By the end of the day, I had left the caribou and ptarmigan behind, moving out of the Itkillik and into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk that I described at the beginning of this essay.

I wasn’t able to finish the Ski Classic, instead I scratched and flew out of Anaktuvuk Pass.   After descending Grizzly Creek, I made my way to the Anaktuvuk River and traveled quickly with ease over its frozen expanse.  But the hard surface of the ice had negatively affected my knees and negligent foot care had led to areas being rubbed raw on my feet and shins. The next morning, I shuffled the final 10 miles into Anaktuvuk with my feet in poor condition.  Taking a break outside the park service building, I talked with locals, was invited innumerable times to a potluck and watched as children zoomed by on new snowmachines.  Arriving after me, the other participants told me how they were bailing and I soon came to the same conclusion for myself.  I skied out beyond the village, sleeping among the willows once more before flying back to Coldfoot the following morning.

Although it’s north of the Arctic Circle, the Brooks Range isn’t covered with snow throughout the year.  The high and always circling sun helps to melt all the snow in the summer except for patches hidden in the deepest nooks and crannies.   That snowmelt flows off the mountain sides and into the valleys, forming rivers and creeks throughout the region.  In the past, the Nunamuit would take advantage of these natural highways to travel north for trade.  Each year, the people would load up their kayaks with their belongings and head down a river such as the Colville to meet others from the coast.   Each side would trade what was plentiful in their locale.  For example, the Nunamuit would offer caribou meat and hides, while the Taremuit would offer seal oil and muktuk.

Mimicking this change in mode of travel due to the change in seasons, in late June of the prior year, I participated in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.  Ditching last year’s skis for travel by foot or boat, 22 of us set off from Galbraith Lake with Wiseman as the final destination once more.  Snow lingered in the high passes, making for difficult passage as we crossed the divide early on.  Rain had started falling heavily the day before the start and continued throughout the course of the event, causing further saturation.  Rivers ran high with the resulting runoff causing further wetness and difficulty.  Constant movement was the theme and I only stopped twice to take short naps, amounting to about 4 hours in length during my 53 hours of travel.  I had forgone bringing my packraft, thinking the waters would be low, only to watch high waters rush swiftly by as I stumbled along the river valleys to Wiseman.  I had traveled about 115 miles, seeing only 4 large mammals during that span, two grizzlies and a cow moose and her calf.  One would imagine seeing significantly more than 4 animals after walking such a distance through numerous river valleys, yet the norm was minimal to no animal presence.  It didn’t take much prompting to think of the Nunamuit and the tough times they had faced during their nomadic era. This surely proved to be a hungry country.

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Thoroughly soaked

Travelling throughout the region that the Nunamuit previously roamed gave me a better understanding of their livelihood.  But there are massive differences in what I did and what their daily life consisted of.  I was outfitted with lightweight modern clothing, and I not only had a satellite phone, but also a SPOT messenger device in which I could seek help if anything went wrong.  My purpose was not to find food, but to travel fast.  And despite these superior modern tools, I still ended up battered and somewhat beaten following both events.  Contrast that with a people who had to travel the same landscape, but without a surplus of food.  My abundance of food didn’t allow me to feel hunger, but it isn’t difficult to imagine how much more arduous such a trip or journey would be without such bounty.  I may not be able to empathize or fully understand the everyday reality of the past, yet I have emerged with a new appreciation of the tenacity, skill and hardiness of the Nunamuit of old.

Growing Up in Alaska

Growing Up in Alaska

The drizzle trickled down through the canopy. A few feet away the stones on the beach shed the droplets. Beyond, waves crashed lightly against the shore. We were attempting to set up our tent on our first night out. The only experience I had setting up a tent was on the pristine lawn the day before back in Palmer, or helping my dad bang the stakes into the ground on a backyard camping adventure when I was younger. I was on the lowest end of the spectrum in the outdoor skills department, that spectrum bottoming out at having no skills. Some of my peers had their own personal experience, but none had ever participated in such a collective endeavor. As a result, we struggled. It had been so easy to set up a tent the day before in the world of flat, squared off pieces of land. Now in the real world, the uniformity ceased to exist. Roots surfaced above ground near the base of trees, brush covered areas that could otherwise be good sites and uneven surfaces abounded, daring anyone to try and achieve a good night’s rest.

In 2013, I was one of eleven students who completed the National Outdoor Leadership School’s (NOLS) Mega Semester in Alaska. The school is renowned for its long-time effort and practice of teaching leadership and outdoor skills in a backcountry setting. Six months prior to embarking on our expedition, I had read the journals of Dick Proenneke, a famous Alaskan who turned to the land at age 50, building a log cabin by hand in what is now Lake Clark National Park. That felt authentic and meaningful to me, something that was worth pursuing at a time when my peers talked of corporate internships and jobs. However, growing up in suburban Chicago hadn’t prepared me for the rural Alaskan lifestyle. I was a cheechako. But not long after reading Proenneke, I came across NOLS and saw a stepping stone towards the life that I envisioned.

My eyes were glued to the front range of the Chugach Mountains as I stepped off the plane into Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. I had been to other areas in the country with mountains and big landscapes, but none held the mystique and mystery that surrounded the land of Alaska. I walked the coastal trail towards my hotel, eyes darting back and forth between the Cook Inlet and its mud flats and the forest, waiting for a whale to breach or a moose to dart across my path. I remained in awe throughout the day and into the night, marveling at the light that still lit up the sky when I turned in after 11.

We would spend the first segment of our semester, 25 days, sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. Starting outside of Whittier, our route led us south towards the open ocean and the Gulf of Alaska. Each day followed a similar pattern. We would wake around 6, emerge from our tents and check the weather and sea conditions. After breakfast, we would ready our boats and depart from our campsite, paddling up to 22 nautical miles each day to reach our destination.

After a week of travelling, our group began to show growth and development in our water skills. When travelling between campsites, we intended to move in formation as a pod. This meant that there was a lead boat and rear boat with the rest arranged in rows in between. This was impossible to attain early on. One boat would be moving almost perpendicular to the path of the majority, another would be far outside the group and the group would be spread out, due to a lack of a uniform pace. Yet with each day of travel, along with lessons from our instructors, our skill improved and we began to travel as one unit.

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Early paddling

As we paddled along, we were treated each day to sunny skies, an abnormality in a region known for its abundant precipitation. Mountains thick with spruce trees extended up from the edge of passageways and channels. Bald eagles soared overhead in such large numbers that they became almost commonplace. Each morning after waking in the tent I was eager to see what the land and the sea held beyond the next bend. Already we had been treated to soaring eagles, curious sea lions and otters, innumerable waterfalls and sunsets. What more could I ask for? What else did the land have in store?

After a group discussion one evening, we prepared for bed, a few of us brushing our teeth along the water’s edge. A few hundred yards out in the bay a whale breached the surface. A moment later, a tail shot up further out. Over the next half hour we were treated to the spectacle of a pod of humpback whales moving about in the bay. Snow draped the nearby mountains and the reddish orange sky provided the perfect backdrop for an awe inducing experience. I had come to find joy in the simple things. Standing on shore watching those whales had left me content in a way I’d never known.

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Hiking above Johnson Bay in Prince William Sound

Leaving the water, we moved inland to the rugged and glaciated mountains within Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. The previous section had allowed us to meld as a group, but that would soon be put to the test under heavy loads, rough terrain and long days. Shouldering our new packs, we trekked past the old gold mining structures at the end of the Nabesna Road, crossing the Park’s boundary in the process, our home for the next 48 days.

Like kayaking, I had never done any serious backpacking. Or for that matter, any backpacking at all. I took to it well and found joy in moving through wild country with everything that I needed on my back. That freedom led to an internal peace that would remain for the majority of the trip.

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A lake in Wrangell St. Elias

We were tested from the very beginning and each challenge seemed to send forth another to replace it. The glacial waters of the Nabesna River stood in our path. Working in small groups, we scouted and picked a route across its swollen and silty waters. After leaving the valley floor, we traveled through the forest and tundra. No longer were we swiftly moving along hard packed sand and gravel bottoms, now we encountered tussocks and boggy environments. With heavy loads, we fought to maintain our balance and figure out the most efficient route through each segment. The tussocks relented and we entered the canyon of Monte Cristo Creek. What appeared as a small creek on the map, existed as a formidable obstacle in reality. The long, warm days melted snow and ice further up the valley sending water rushing down the creek bed. Boulders rumbled along the bottom as we picked our way back and forth across the creek over the coming days.

We would spend three weeks travelling and living on glaciers. I remained nervous, unsure what glacier travel entailed. Glaciers weren’t a part of my vocabulary as a Midwesterner and my mind raced to assume the worse. Stories of crevasses that swallowed entire rope teams and people disappearing down moulins fueled my apprehension. That sense of caution would remain, but glacial travel didn’t prove to be as onerous as my mind imagined. Crevasses existed somewhere below, but on the surface was a white landscape, devoid of much movement or life. Colors in the sky seemed accentuated among the rock and snow below and each day offered a new vista of mountains to behold.

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Mt Blackburn towers over a glacial camp

We began to travel at night, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures and firmer snow conditions. Our time on the glacier was punctuated by a group summit of Mount Jarvis at 13,420 ft. Along the way we battled fatigue, low food rations, dehydration, and altitude while continuing to maintain strong interpersonal interactions. If we thought travel would become easier after our summit, we soon found we were mistaken.

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Atop Mt. Jarvis. Mt Sanford in the background

Leaving the glacier meant travelling down the Copper Glacier, one that was heavily ridden with crevasses. We only travelled a quarter mile on our first day, taking 20 hours to rappel down a crevassed face to the valley below. Tired and weary, we were forced to continue on the following afternoon after only a few hours of sleep due to avalanche danger. The mountains boomed throughout the day as snow crashed down from above under the hot summer sun. Weaving around the innumerable crevasses, we spent the following days travelling down to the end of the glacier. Bushwhacking through dense alder thickets at the glacier’s edge was the final test before we ended our time on the ice and returned to the wide gravel bars and open forests of the non-glaciated terrain.

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Wide gravel bar near the headwaters of the Copper River

There was only a week left for us in the Wrangells. After weeks of ice and rock, we reveled in the multitude of colors during summer’s peak and the blossoming of the flora, grazing in blueberry patches as we hiked. We travelled away from the head of the Copper River back towards Tanada Lake and the Nabesna Road. It was difficult to think that we would have to leave this lifestyle that had become normal and this area that had become home. I had entered the course as someone without any outdoor skills. By its end, I found myself comfortable in wilderness environments and in leading others through the terrain without instructor guidance or supervision.

It has been five years since that NOLS course. Five years since I first dreamed of living the authentic Alaskan lifestyle. I have now lived in Alaska full time for nearly four years, spending the bulk of that time living remotely in the Arctic, within the mountains of the Brooks Range. I have fished for salmon, hunted for moose, sourced wood for heat, and traveled the land on my own, withstanding the darkness and cold of three Alaskan winters. By most measures, I’m still that cheechako I once was. I still struggle to understand mechanical systems, I don’t have the skill to build anything of value and I still make mistakes out on the land. The journey began with that first step off the plane into Anchorage five years ago. It has been a journey of discovery and growth, of myself and the land. It’s a journey that’s bound to continue and one in which I still continue to find myself craning my neck to see what lies beyond the next bend.

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Indian Summer

Indian Summer

The wind whipped along the ridgeline, gusting across and ferrying the few loose flakes into the valley below. Up high among the tors, the light and the terrain made one think of winter. The soft pastels lit up the horizon beyond the mountains as the sun shone its last light for the day. Snow covered the ridgeline, while the brisk temperatures and strong breeze forced us to pile on layers to forestall the entrance of the cold. Atop the ridge, we had no choice but to continue, with hope of descending the bowl beyond and finding a campsite free of snow and out of the wind. After descending the icy slope with care, we set up camp an hour later in the dark. Strong gusts and frozen hands created an added challenge in establishing our home for the night. The frozen ground bent stakes while the wind haphazardly flung any that weren’t secure. After seemingly endless fussing around, the tent appeared to be stable. After miles of walking, three humans and a dog crowded inside, protected from the wind, trying to catch some sleep as the tent swayed back and forth, threatening to collapse.

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October in Alaska can be an odd time. In certain years, like this one, it is almost like it is another season. Leaves fell long ago and colors have changed, leaving a muted and bare landscape. Yet, snow has not fallen in most areas and temperatures remain mild during the day. It is easy to forget what lies ahead. Looming on the near horizon are months of darkness and an area completely blanketed by a layer of snow. For now, the cool night temperatures and dry days yield great hiking over firm ground. Cold nights serve as a reminder of seasons past. A reminder to bring heavier gloves, a pair of fleece pants, and to sleep with water bottles. In this transition season, the price is small. A little thirst or numb hands. Months from now, inaction can lead to frostbite or worse. Not too far north, snow covers the valley floors across the Arctic and rivers are nearly closed. Winter is knocking on the doorstep and sure to arrive soon. For now, I try to enjoy this uncertain season and the joys that come with it.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.