It’s been some time now and no time now. There is but vague recall of weeks long gone. Hazy recollections of months spent living in heat induced fugue. A compilation of obscure frames replayed in fast-forward—compressed memories of life condensed.
I don’t have much to say at the moment. Not a lot to report. It’s been hot. It’s still hot. Life has been a lot of time at work for lack of anything more inspired to do, regular siestas in the scorching afternoons, occasional attempts at being active. There were some day hikes, a couple river trips, a month plus of monsoons, lots of flowers, weeks of historically low water followed by a 100 year flood, numerous sunsets… There was a week in Sacramento for work, an oppressively hot weekend in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, local wanderings…
I don’t know if cooler temperatures will change the format, but I’m certainly hoping to find out soon. Thought I’d go ahead and post a few of those stop motion shots in the meantime.
World in Bloom
‘Till Next Time
*I’ll be spending some weeks in Mexico come November/December. Contact me if any interest in running a river or two down that way.
Big changes for certain. One extreme to the next. Back in the desert after several years away. AK to AZ. 49th state to 48th. Deep negatives to upcoming triple digits. Not sure how I’ll handle that.
What’s good? New job. Lots of time outside. Sunshine. The chance to contribute to the protection and conservation of public lands. A position with autonomy and plenty of opportunities to hike and paddle both. Wild places. Wildlife.
Everything else? Same same but different. Starting over once again.
Was -30 most of the week before I flew out of Fairbanks on the last day of January. Got in a few final ski outings, saw a couple last light shows, said goodbye to a few good friends. Not easy. It will always be hard to not be in Alaska. Stayed a night in Anchorage as I didn’t want to leave the state all at once.
Flew into Texas on February 1st just in time for a solid snow storm. Was in Arizona a week later and already over 80° in early February. Hit 90°+ when I was in Phoenix that week and I was about to meltdown physically and mentally. Thankfully, things have cooled off since then. Been off and on, a little warmer each week. Wind and heat, wind and cold. Chilly nights, hair dryer days. Mountains all around. Sky islands with crazy names: Chiricahuas, Huachucas, Gilas, Dragoons, Peloncillos, Pinaleños, Dos Cabezas… Have been out and about for certain. Dirt road driving, wilderness hiking, desert camping, shallow water boating, small town visiting, border crossing, solo missioning…
Having made it a goal to create one post each month in 2021, and seeing as how it’s the last day of the last month, I guess I better get on with it. And boy, what a month it’s been, though really more of a continuation of the couple before it. For many weeks now, Alaska has been keeping things interesting, firing from multiple barrels. The barrage continues to keep me pinned down, spending way too much time inside a little cabin where only a few hours of daylight filter in this time of year.
Climate madness is in full effect up this way. All sorts of records being broken on the daily, from warmest to wettest, but plenty of cold in the mix to add to the experiment. All the craziness has made it tough to spend much time in the elements, and impossible to know what trails or terrain might look like when heading out. The basics entail rapid fluctuations from one extreme to the next. Days of deep negatives, followed by quick warming and moisture. Last Friday, Christmas Eve, it was -27 when I went to work. On Christmas day the temperatures started to climb and the flakes began to fall in earnest. The next day, we saw temps in the 40s and heavy snow turned to icy misty drizzle, which showered steadily for 12 hours. By the end of the rain, everything was covered in several inches of ice. Ice that most likely won’t melt until April. Then the wind came and down went a bunch of trees. Power outages, collapsing roofs, etc. Without pause, an even stronger storm blew in, dumping almost two feet of snow on top of all the ice. A day later, we’re headed right back into a week of -30 and below.
It’s all a kind of metaphor for the last couple of years I guess, and probably all the years before those ones. There is no back to normal. No untroubled days ahead. There is only this. The what’s happening now. There is opportunity to find solace in acceptance. To appreciate the in-between moments, the work outs, good meals, companionship, spots of sunshine, an afternoon spent gliding along a well-groomed trail. A few hours to revel in a freshly cleared driveway.
I suppose the biggest adventure of the month was taking my turn with ‘the covid,’ as my mom refers to it. Not to be trifled with, but part of life and our world all the same. Honestly, I’m actually happy to have had the experience, to finally get it over with (at least for the first time… though the virus lingered for weeks and may be lurking still). No more fear of missing out on that critical piece of current affairs for me.
But the best day, by far, in December was the only one where I spent all day outside, which was the Winter Solstice. The sun barely rises this far north in December, and this year on the 21st it sat low between a thick blanket of clouds and the horizon for but a few hours. Hours of punishing beauty. It truly is almost too much to take in at times. The layer cake sky, profound unearthly hues that hurt the heart to look at. Weight pressing deep into the chest, a sigh you can’t get out. To fully exist inside of that world, which IS a fragment of the world we live in, even if only for a few hours, is privilege. The privilege of being alive. The ephemeral nature of existence raw and exposed. Cold wind whipping across the frozen landscape. Unnecessary excuse for the tears in your eyes.
Anyways, the end of an additional calendar year is upon us. Another circumnavigation of the sun. The only certainty for 2022 is assuredly more change. Deeper sorrows? Greater awareness? Increased frustration? Projected enlightenment? Change and more change.
Speaking of, this will probably be my last post for quite some time. Changing things up a bit. All the best to you and yours. Happy New Year.
-26° as I type, and lower on the way later this week. But it may not be only the temps that are down this month. A lack of snowfall has certainly induced a lack of motivation, though I try my best to stay out of the negatives myself. Unfortunately, however, it’s the outdoors I’ve been staying out of, quite possibly spending more days inside over the past weeks than any other month in my adulthood. There’s been a lot of gym time, book time, and guitar time, but with only a couple exceptions there has been very little fresh air and frolicking. Unfavorable conditions for skiing did provide the opportunity for a couple of interesting hikes, and with Birch Hill being the only decent place to get out for some snow sliding—it’s important to be thankful to have that option. I am.
Sean and I drove down south a ways to check out Gunnysack Creek. I’d never heard of the place, but thanks to Sean’s penchant for dreaming up out of the way, and often ambitious itineraries, I got to go see something new. Early in November things were actually eerily warm, so the creek wasn’t nearly as frozen up as it might have been. We decided to do a little adventuring anyway, and spent a pleasant afternoon post-holing along the creek bank, and hopping back-and-forth across questionably stable ice bridges. Was a beautiful little canyon, and quite unlike anything else in that area. Finished the evening with a quick stop at the Delta Brewery. A successful day and a good scouting mission for future forays into the area.
Tolovana Hot Springs
I had been hoping to visit Tolovana for a lot of years. Not sure when I first heard about the place, but by the time I arrived in Fairbanks a couple years back, getting to the hot springs was already etched in my mind. I almost committed two years ago, but this is one trip that didn’t seem like a good solo mission in the middle of February, or any other time for that matter. The trailhead is a couple desolate hours from Fairbanks on what is for all purposes a trucker’s ice road in the winter time. While the Elliot is one of Alaska’s main highways, it’s difficult to keep it clear of drifts, and impossible to do anything about the ice. The trailhead itself is alongside a remote ridgeline that is notorious for high winds and extreme temperatures. Perhaps the most fearsome part of the trip is knowing that you have to leave a car there for a day or two, and that if it doesn’t start when you get back you may be in serious trouble. It’s imperative to prepare for the worst contingencies imaginable, and to bring along all the winter gear you may need to shelter in place, along with a jumper kit and portable stove to warm the engine.
Thankfully, Melissa and I didn’t have to worry about any of that on this trip. We considered ourselves quite ‘lucky’ to have a steady -5° the whole time we were out there, and only a mild breeze along ‘Windy Gap’ and the top of the dome. The route itself is a TOUGH 10-miles or so. Lots of elevation gain and loss, plus carrying a backpack, wearing all your winter gear, and walking in the snow. Along with all this you have to try and keep some water usable so you might have a little sip now and again, but only when you stop and dig it out of your pack, because otherwise the bottle will be frozen shut along with half its contents. You will overheat regularly while on the move, and instantly feel the shivers coming on if you stop for more than two minutes. On the way in, you immediately drop almost 1000’, then climb it all back plus some, then drop right back down again. On the way back, it’s climb, descend, and climb, and climb, then scream profanities to the birches, maybe weep, and then climb some more. The last mile might have been one of the more demoralizing (but funny, if you can laugh at your own weakness) experiences I’ve had in recent years.
It would have been really nice to spend two nights out there in order to have a day of rest between the hikes, but then it also wouldn’t have been as brutal, so probably not as much fun. I did drag an empty sled attached to my pack, which we took turns riding along the way. Some exciting, but sketchy descents. On the way out, Melissa managed to get an uninterrupted entire mile of riding coming down from Windy Gap. Having already had my share of sticks to the eyes, and a sore tailbone from the landing part of airborne experiences, I was happy to walk behind admiring the sled tracks in support.
The destination itself is comprised of three cabins (the reserving of which is the most difficult part of making this trip happen), and three hot springs. The springs are really incredible, and spread out along a small creek. Somehow, most likely due to the nonsensical reservation process, we were the only ones out there. We arrived with plenty of time to stoke a fire, warm up the cabin, do some exploring, and then soak in the upper springs, which has an impressive view of the valley below. After, was an evening of bagged wine, card games, curry, and deep sleep. In the morning it was breakfast followed by a dip in the middle springs, and then the long walk back. A truly awesome trip.
‘Sitting here in limbo, like a bird without a song…’
How does one go about effecting change? Initially, as in goal setting, the intentions must be clearly identified, as well as attainable. It’s all about figuring out where desires align with possibilities. Since signing on to my current position here two years ago, I’ve been living in that first stanza of the Serenity Prayer—that is, searching for the ‘wisdom to know the difference’ between the malleable and the fixed. Making attempts to alter aspects of individualized reality, but also practicing patience and acceptance, and waiting for opportunity. A balance of proactive behavior combined with tolerant resignation.
Acceptance has also been part of the new abnormal with regards to climate everywhere. The first snow of the year here was on the 24th of September. This was shadowed by a big storm a week later, which dumped over a foot of powder across the Interior. Immediately after, however, a warming trend brought rain and melting, and it’s been nothing but weirdness ever since. Today, Halloween, we started the morning at almost 45°. Thus, ‘sitting here in limbo, waiting for some snow to fall…’ Not a lot going on as far as getting out there. Gray skies combined with nothing but ice and mud make for gloomy conditions.
This past month was a hike in to Nugget Cabin with Emilie after the first snow fall, a bit of ‘skiing’ around after the second go round, taking some folks out to the Reindeer Ranch, too much indoor time, and a trip back to Texas to visit family and soak up a bit of sunshine.
‘But momentum propels you over the crest. Imperceptibly, you start down. When do the days start to blur and then, breaking your heart, the seasons?’ – Annie Dillard, ‘Aces and Eights’
Spit-roasting through the galaxy. Round and round that hot old sun in a sizzling self-marinade. Days and thoughts on repeat. Rising and falling. Held in place by forces of gravity; hurtling through empty space thanks to the same. Time crumples in the created cosmos of memory and experience.
Light snow yesterday. Equinox tomorrow. More dark than light the next—and many to follow. Fall to winter. Seems like the one before last just got started.
Triple Lakes Trail, Denali NP
Rainbow Ridge and Canwell Glacier
Denali Highway (135 mile stretch of dirt road on south side of Alaska Range)
Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs (after this season’s Munson Creek fire)
Beginning to feel as if I might have run out of words for this project. Cat’s got my keyboard, or something like that. Have also been feeling detached from reality at times (assuming there is one), like I’m floating around filming someone else working their way from one day to the next. But wanted to do a little something for the month, and suppose the location shots that person’s been wandering through have been interesting enough.
The beginning of August saw depressingly high temperatures breaking records across the state. Soon after, however, a return to something more akin to ‘normal’ occurred, and it’s been clouds and rain ever since. And yes, the impending return to dark and frozen. Ready or not.
I’m going with not quite, and hoping for some likeness of fall, though that semblance has already been creeping in for while now. Cooling temps, changing leaves, the inevitable setting of the sun. And it is all as beautiful as ever—the reds and golds replacing the greens—just feels a little early this time around.
Since the last time it’s been a week down in Denali guiding a few commercial trips on the Nenana, a hike up and over Mt. Healy, an overnight trip on the Chena River, a couple days over to the east (Tok and Delta Junction) trying to get out of the rain, and some hiking/camping/canoeing in the Maclaren Valley off the Denali Highway. There it was an upstream jet boat ride to ‘glam camp,’ a long hike to the Maclaren Glacier, a float out the next morning, and a stroll along the summit trail. It was also an amusing Alaskan souvenir brought to life when a moose swam across the river in front of us directly underneath a perched bald eagle with a glacier in the background. The T-shirts are real!
In early July, I graciously accepted an opportunity to accompany some folks to a couple national parks in the arctic. Got briefed on the planning, packed the food and gear last week, and flew into the native village of Kotzebue on the Chukchi Sea, where I met the clients. From there, we took a ride in a bush plane and landed on a swath of sand dunes just south of the Kobuk River. Camped two days and nights in Kobuk Valley NP, followed by a scenic shuttle to the Upper Ambler, where we spent another couple of days in Gates of the Arctic NP.
These awesome people were hoping to get in some walking, and walk we did, making the most of every minute out there. A great group, and a solid mix of Alaskan experience: intense mosquito moments, varied weather, bushwhacks, ridge walks, river crossings, a short period of being ‘turned around,’ and a close encounter with a big black bear (mostly comical). Appreciation in abundance for all aspects of the week.
Been a busy couple of weeks, both at work and not at work. Set the intention to spend as much time as possible out of the house, and have done my best at the follow through.
As winter turned to summer, I knew there were a lot of things left over from last year that I wanted to make sure to experience before the end of this one. Goals, one might call them. Places to see and things to do. Trails to walk and rivers to run. The idea then, that these numbered summer days were already slipping past without the number of goals decreasing stimulated even greater motivation than usual. I’ve been very fortunate to have recently enjoyed opportunities to live out several of those specific objectives.
This is not to say I have not appreciated the many opportunities that sporadically, and also intentionally, came about beforehand. The much anticipated time with my mom, all the spontaneous river trips and hikes and travels in May and June. I certainly feel fortunate for all those experiences. However, last year, my first summer up in the Interior, I tried hard to maximize my time. To do as much exploring as possible, to get to know the area and all it had to offer. And I definitely had a great time figuring out a lot about the region, learning more with each weekly outing, with each new trail hiked, and each section of river explored. But there is so much to do here, it felt like I barely scratched the surface, and there were a handful of trips specifically that I simply couldn’t get to due to weather, time, lack of partners, etc. These became the thoughts that held over, the trips dreamed of in the dark days of winter, the ones now demanding to be carried to fruition. Here’s three of them.
The Chena Dome trail is a 30 mile backpacking loop with a total elevation change of 14,100’. The math there basically equals: Ooof! I had the last minute idea to hike the trail on the Solstice, mostly to experience the longest day of the year out in the mountains. I wanted to be walking during the late evening light, which is phenomenal this time of year. The hours between 10pm and the early morning are incredible due to the angle of the sun as it hovers on the horizon—but obviously elusive for people that need to sleep at night. As I began to walk, I decided I would try to get all the way up to the top of the dome around midnight. At just below the Arctic Circle, the true ‘Midnight Sun’ cannot be seen from Fairbanks as it will dip slightly under the horizon, but I had read that from a high enough vantage one could indeed watch the sun not set for a day. Seemed like it was worth a try.
Like many of the bigger treks around here, the trail is also notorious for being void of water. There is always a balance to hiking many of the better known local routes as one must determine when the snow might be thin enough to complete a route, but also when there might be enough of it in meltwater pools to provide drinking water. And then there’s dealing with when the mosquitoes might be better or intolerable. Anyways, I did an online trip report for members of the local hiking club with details for anyone thinking of heading up that way. A slightly edited version follows:
“Few people been asking as to Chena Dome conditions. Quick report with the most pertinent info first, followed by fluff and photos.
Water: There is some water out there, but not a whole lot. Small puddles in the saddle between mile 7 and 8; a few nice pools before and after milepost 12; full cisterns at the shelter (half-barrel out front, and covered clean water on the other side); and, thankfully, several filling spots in a marshy area at the end of mile 24. I discovered first thing that my filter wasn’t really working all that great when I started pumping in the mudponds at mile 7. We’ll see how that works out…
The question of how much water to carry should not be taken lightly! (See what I did there…) My max capacity was one US gallon and I often wished I would have thrown in another Nalgene for peace of mind. It was close to 80° yesterday, and hiking those hills was no joke. I will admit to feeling very sorry for myself indeed when around mile 22 I resigned myself to hiking all the way out (which would have made for 19 miles) due to fading prospects of finding water.
Bugs: Oh buddy, you betcha. Not a trip for the insect averse person. First day was mosquitoes; second day was mainly clouds of those little black flies that like to dart deep into nostrils, eyes, and all the way to the back of your esophagus when you’re panting for air on the uphills; third day was a mix of both. There were a couple of times I did indeed feel like an arctic caribou in July. I even checked my stomach for warble flies when I got home. God help you when the wind stops blowing.
Highlights: Started the trip on the evening of the 21st hoping to get up high and watch the sun not go down. Last December I did a dawn-to-dusk winter solstice walk of Upper Angel Creekside to the winter trail, and didn’t see the sun at all that day, so it was cool to observe the drastic difference in approximately the same location. Parked at the lower lot and used the road mile to the upper lot as a warm-up rather than highway hobbling at the finish. Got going around 6 p.m. just in time for the remnants of last weekend’s storms to roll through. A few sprinkles early on, but nothing but clear skies and a light breeze once the climbing began in earnest.
Hadn’t necessarily planned to go to the top of the dome that evening, but after a while it seemed like the obvious destination. Around 11 the sky started to change colors to pinks and purples all around. It was amazing to continually walk from the shadow of one hill back into full sun at the top. A heavy pack and steep terrain called for slow steady plodding, but I finally made it to the summit about a half-hour after midnight. The sun was just touching the mountains, but still fully visible above the jagged horizon in the distance. Hung out until 1 a.m. Ate some food, took a few photos, looked around for a good long while.
I thought about setting up my tent on top of the dome, but some clouds on the horizon encouraged me to drop down a couple hundred feet to a flat mesa instead. On the way down, I had a slightly different vantage point of the skyline, and at the bottom of the hills the clouds in the distance suddenly changed to an intense crimson, which quickly faded away. I found a spot to sleep, set up my tent, and looked over again to see the same clouds turning a bright salmon color, and the sky behind them lighting up white and blue. Sunset to sunrise in the span of 15 minutes. That’s my story at least, and something I won’t forget for a long time.
As for the rest of the hike, all good. Walked up and down a bunch of big hills in the heat yesterday, thankfully found water at 24, spent another night on the trail, and cruised out this morning. Happy days.”
The Delta River is not to be confused with the Delta Clearwater River, which I’ve mentioned here a few times, though they may both be found in the proximity of Delta Junction. The Delta originates in the Tangle Lakes of the Alaska Range and flows north into the Tanana. It starts with a nine-mile paddle through several large lakes which connect with each other and eventually pour out into a river. From the beginning of the river, one floats a couple of miles before coming up to an interesting portage which involves carrying boats and all other gear up a hill and across some wetlands on a bunch of planks. There you put your things together again, paddle across a tarn, get out, and then portage some more. After that there’s a little section of small rapids followed by easy floating for about twenty more miles through some pretty spectacular scenery. We spent three days out and got a good mix of Alaska weather—that is to say a couple days of steady headwind, a good bit of rain, a fair amount of sunshine, and a chilly gray morning to finish. I’d been wanting to do this one for a while, but couldn’t ever find anyone to go with and help out with the shuttle. Thanks to my new ‘Bro’ MB for making it happen and smiling through all the conditions.
Mt. Prindle is the highest peak in the White Mountains, which the mountain range just north of Fairbanks. Chena Dome, and a whole bunch of other domes, may be found in the White Mountains, as well as a good percentage of locations I’ve written about this past couple years. Prindle boasts an elevation of just under 5,300’, which means the Whites aren’t nearly as dramatic as other ranges in Alaska, but they have their own special beauty. They kinda grow on a person. Most of the scenery is represented by low lying hills covered in birch and stunted spruce trees. Every so often, however, one can get up above the trees for some amazing views, and encounters with seemingly erratic rock formations generally known as Tors. I tried to get up Prindle a couple times last year, but was shut down by storm after storm. Finally got lucky yesterday, though I did get hammered a couple times by passing showers. Was happy for the low cloud scenery and the cool weather. The complete white out before I descended back into the valley just made things a little more exciting. Some of the most amazing ridge walking I’ve ever done, and a truly special place.
‘First day of summer’ yesterday and Summer Solstice 2021 today. Mixed feelings for multiple reasons. Was there a spring? Will there be a SUMMER summer at all? Is this it? How far off is winter this year? Didn’t it just end a few weeks ago? No, turns out like almost two months ago, but now maybe only two months before the next one? Really? And even though those two months will have every bit as much near 24-hour daylight as the last two, we’re definitely on that downhill slide after tonight… Oh jeez, it’s a lot. Aspects of arctic existence are not conducive to focusing on the present, that’s for sure. There are also the thoughts of ‘what have I done’ and ‘what all can I do’ with this precious summer season, the one that many people speak of as if it’s over before it’s begun.
Turns out I’m a bit flummoxed that I’ve only spent a handful of days in a tent this year. Five maybe? Seems like it should be so many more this ‘late’ in the season. Last year I was out multiple times a month beginning in February; in 2019, the year before I moved up here, I easily spent well over 100 nights snoozing under a rainfly. I’m not interested in tallying exact numbers, but the amount of nights and days I’m able to spend in the wilderness provides a good personal measure for quality of life. The more nights out, the better I feel about it all. Days off are not meant for sitting around in the same old places, and sedentary hours in a house rarely have a rejuvenating effect. Currently, I’m fortunate enough to work a 4-3 schedule, and my general goal is to have a completely different life on those three days off a week than the other half. Last summer I feel as if I managed to do this most of the time, but this summer I’ve been off to somewhat of a slow start. Let it be known then that I am setting an In-Tention for the rest of the summer to spend as many nights as possible zipping myself into a nomadic nylon home. I will start tonight, and hope to get a glimpse of the true Midnight Sun on this longest of days.
And this is not to say that I have been sitting around, as the past few weeks have been filled with about as much activity as normal, just feels like it’s all flying by so quickly. June, so far, has been a big hike up Quartz Creek and a loop around Table Top Mountain; camping out at Prindle and chasing a porcupine out from under my car in the early morning hours; guiding several float trips at work and spending most other workdays at a lodge on Birch Lake; and enjoying a full week of showing my mom around.
It was her first time up to Alaska and we made the most of every day. As is often the case with having visitors, it was great to go and do some things that I may never have done on my own, as well as to share a few of the places I get to hang out in on a regular basis. We did lots of short hikes, paddled a canoe around Bear Lake and down the Delta-Clearwater, went out 4-wheeling, spent an evening at Birch Lake and a beautiful night cruising around on a pontoon boat, and then went down to Valdez for a while. There it was enjoying the seaside mountain scenery, and going out in Prince William Sound on a Stan Stephens tour for a full day of wildlife, waterfalls, and glaciers. Got really lucky with everything on that day of nothing but sunshine, and were treated to glimpses of just about every animal on the provided checklist: otters, seals, sea lions, puffins, gulls, eagles, porpoise, humpback whale, black bear, etc. Back this way for the last couple of days we hit a lot of the popular tourist stops, including Rika’s Roadhouse, Quartz Lake, the Santa House, UAF Museum of the North, Creamer’s Field, LARS, Ester Dome and more. I know she was happy for the opportunity to come up and hang out, but has probably also been happy to get some rest since she’s been home. A great week and plenty of requisite Us Doing Things and Standing in Front of Things photos to prove it 🙂
Finally, a few pics from a guided trip down Piledriver Slough two nights ago. Even though this little run is right next to the Richardson Highway, it always provides great wildlife viewing. This time down the group was able to watch a bull moose grazing on aquatic vegetation for a good while, and later had quite the thrill when a baby calf crashed out of the bushes followed shortly after by a concerned (and potentially very dangerous) mama moose. I ended up on one side of the pair, with the rest of the group on the other. Once reunited, the mother soothed her frightened baby, and eventually they walked off into the woods. One of the trip participants got some great shots of both events. (I do want to note that the perspective in the photos makes us look like we’re a lot closer to the moose than we actually were—other than when they came running out of the bushes. Significant distance is recommended.) Thanks to Jennifer Howell for letting me share them here.