-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 only partially feasible 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.
Alaska can be a rainy place. Going on my sixth summer up this way, and every one of them has been marked with gray skies and showers and storms. People that have lived here for a long time tell me each year that ‘it’s not usually like this,’ but I’ve come to realize these innocent self-deceptions (read: lies) as coping mechanisms. It rains here in the summer, sometimes for days and weeks at a time. Most days, the rain is pretty tolerable, more drizzle than downpour, and the low clouds create the most spectacular skies you’ve ever seen. Deep shades of palpable intensity, rainbows that make the soul sigh. But it does rain. A lot.
It’s also not uncommon to have several seasons of weather all in the course of a single day, which can be both challenging and rewarding. Wind, rain, sleet, snow, sun, clouds, repeat. One must always travel prepared—both with proper gear and proper attitude. There is always a potential reminder of how much bigger this place is than you might be. Self-reliance is a must.
But some days you do get a little something special. Sunshine to make the heart sing. Clear blue skies backdrops for mountains of dichotomous grandeur—jagged lines of black and white. With special thanks to customary weather volatility, it is easy to consciously exist in these moments—to fully appreciate the gift of a glorious morning, afternoon, evening, maybe even an entire day or two.
Several years ago, I was blessed with a string of such days. I remember them still. That summer had started off with a spectacular May, then steadily progressed into days and weeks of all types of rain. The end of July and most of August it poured steadily and without end. Sometime in August I guided a rafting trip down the Talkeetna (some big water, but a story for another time) and in the three days we were out there it didn’t stop raining even for a minute. The clouds set in a hundred feet above the river and let loose on us the entire time. A rough one.
A couple weeks later, however, the beginning of September, I went back up that way to hike Kesugi Ridge, a well-known backpacking route in Denali State Park. The day I drove up the skies finally cleared, and for the next three days the sun beamed across the landscape providing unobstructed views of 20,310’ Denali, and almost inducing heat stroke in the process. I was not used to the sun at that point, but loved every minute of it. And not only was I fortunate enough to dry out for a while, the nights, dark again after a summer of unyielding daylight, were highlighted by big green bands of aurora snaking their way from the mountain’s peak across the valley below and passing directly overhead my sleeping bag. True story.
I write this now, as the gray clouds pile up outside and the forecast has nothing but bleakness for the foreseeable future, because last week I was again gifted another stint of the same, in almost the same exact place. Between Kesugi Ridge and the Great Mountain, the Chulitna River works its way down into the Susitna. It follows the same basic path as the backpacking route, and both can be easily accessed by the Parks Highway. One high, one low.
A fortuitous shuttle left me sitting on the ice covered banks of the river around 9:30 p.m. last Sunday, where I rigged everything up and pushed off for a couple of hours of late evening boating. It was a beautiful night, clear and chilly, and when I made it to bed around midnight it was still light out. Woke up the next morning to frost covered gear, but after a couple hours on the water I paddled from winter back into summer. From still dormant trees and snow and ice right into green buds, then green leaves, and a day replete with sunshine, temps in the 70s, and big mountain views in abundance. It was clear and warm that evening, and every bit as beautiful the next day. Some days it seems like you must be doing something right. These were those days.
As I write this it’s difficult to believe that it’s the last day of May, but that seems to be the case. I’m glad to have the last two posts and a few other pictures to prove to myself that the month lasted longer than those few days. Other occurrences from the past couple weeks: paddling the Tanana, a weekend down in Southcentral for a wilderness medicine course, back at Birch Lake, Grapefruit Rocks.
Breakup season on several different Interior waterways this past week. A day of hoping to see a bunch of ice, and a several days of hoping not to.
Went down to Nenana with Yi on the 3rd, which turned out to be about two days late for watching the mass exodus of Tanana ice this year. While I did get a couple of good shows last year as the ice went out, witnessing massive flows smash their way down one of the bigger Alaskan rivers remains an elusive experience. Wah wah, better luck next year. Did take the opportunity to walk out on the train trestle and up the river a ways. Nice day for certain, and I’ve decided I could happily live the rest of my life in the 65° range.
Couple days later I ended up scouting a trip I had scheduled for work. Had no idea how much ice might or might not be blocking the route down Piledriver Slough, a casual half-day float trip a few miles out of North Pole. At the put-in the water was open, but the banks were still covered with several feet of snow and ice. As the ice melts each spring it ends up forming big undercut shelves on the sides of the river. This can be quite dangerous if there are rapids, or simply problematic if there aren’t, as there’s no good way to get into or out of the river. Knowing the take-out was clear, however, I opted to go full send and got in a fun little seal-launch followed by several miles of tranquil paddling. Very cool to see all the waterfowl back in town, as well as a couple big beavers busy at work after a long winter. I was also privileged to see a large wolf run through the trees as soon as it caught a glimpse of the boat coming downstream.
Two days later I took a group of folks down the same stretch, though we started a mile downstream to avoid the ice shelves. On that trip we saw several bald eagles, slowly floated past a couple of moose in the bushes, and spotted a couple more walking across the river just before the take-out.
And a couple days after that it was over to the Upper Chatanika and an informal river safety day for a few neophyte boaters looking to get into some good Alaskan adventures. I honestly had no idea what to expect, as all of the lakes and some of the creeks on the way out there were still completely frozen over, but once we got to the river itself things looked pretty clear. Well, actually, like really brown, but open water, good flow, and minimal ice on the banks. Ended up doing close to 30 river miles that day, and did indeed have to portage around and over several sections of ice dams in which the entire river was packed solid with massive blocks of ice. Extreme caution is advised when messing around with said features, as large hunks are subject to shifting without warning. Falling through and ending up underneath the entirety of it all would not be a happy scenario. We also got to paddle through a lot of ice as well, including one really fun little rapid comprised of a small drop through several berg-esque features. A little over two-thirds of the way down, a great teaching moment presented itself in the form of six-inches of canoe bow sticking out the top of one of those ‘deadly strainers’ I’d been harping on about all day. A little rope work and a lot of hearty pulling and we were able to salvage a thrashed Old Town from its watery grave. Paddled it the rest of the way down, and will hopefully one day paddle it again in restored condition. A long but awesome day, and a solid week of (mostly) fluid adventures.
Generally, I have an almost non-existent relationship with passive entertainment. Your typical couch potato activities, that is. I’ve never owned a TV, never paid for cable, don’t play video games or spend time on social media. At one point in my life I used to watch a lot of movies, but that was a long time ago. This past year, the year of binge watch marathons worldwide, I’m pretty sure I saw less than 10 films, and only fractions of seasonal shows. I can’t even remember the last movie I watched, but don’t think it was in 2021.
This past winter, however, I’ve developed an unsought YouTube habit. Not sure how or why it started, but it’s the truth, and I’m coming clean. It usually creeps up on me at the end of each day, around 9 p.m. By that time my brain and body are shutting down, but it’s not quite time for sleep. Can’t read anymore, already exercised out, played all the guitar I could muster… And out comes the phone, that awful little bugger. Often, the routine will start off well-intentioned. Initially, I’ll usually try to be somewhat productive. The first video or two will be in Spanish, or have something to do with music. Eventually, I’ll make my way into comedy. Try to get in a few laughs before bedtime. If motivated, I might start that off in Spanish as well—Carlos Ballarta, La India Yuridia, Alan Saldaña—if I can understand 80% of the jokes and catch a few in-the-know Mexican culture references I feel pretty good about it. Failing motivation, however, it’s usually into some Bill Burr, maybe a bit of Chappelle. Straightforward no-nonsense calling out of cancel culture and conservative conspirators alike. The truth is in the middle—if either one of those two things exist—and the reality really isn’t funny at all, but at least these guys can make us laugh about it.
But then, almost inevitably, comes the slide. I don’t often go down the recognized YT Rabbit Hole, but the algorithms have me figured out the same as everyone else. I usually manage to maintain some kind of category focus, but that’s about the only semblance of self-restraint I can claim. There is commonly a slight shift from one type of comedy to another, maybe over to a night-show monologue. You know, get a little daily news in. No less slanted or biased than any network these days, so might as well go with the lighthearted version. After that, about the time I really should be getting into some teeth brushing, what has apparently become a guilty pleasure/curious nemesis takes hold. Sometimes for a couple of videos, sometimes for a whole string of them. I’ve yet to remain captive past midnight, but it’s been close.
I think it all started with cop videos. As in real ones. The body cam captures of crazies, criminals, and constant haters, and all the people and seedy situations police officers deal with on a regular basis. Why or when I started watching these channels, I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps it was searching for another side to a now popular narrative, or maybe it was some really good clickbait. I do have this to say, however, I would recommend watching a couple hours of these videos to everyone.
I’m guessing most of us have a fairly ambiguous view of police officers, they’re good when we might need them, but defiled if they’re holding us personally accountable for something—spoiling our fun or slowing down a commute. Watching certain versions of the news these days sees them constantly demonized, and it is both acceptable and prevalent in pop culture to portray cops as a united enemy to be opposed. And violently opposed at that. There is even blather about defunding departments and eliminating entire forces. Which is why, I would suggest, that before considering joining into any of those conversations a person should sit down and watch some YouTube. Afterwards and during, one might consider what society would actually be like without any means to enforce the laws that most of us agree allow our world to function. That is without the thousands of decent men and women who work at a thankless and potentially fatal occupation dealing with entitled assholes and violent criminals alike. Certainly caused me to soften up a bit. I know I wouldn’t want any part of that job. While fully aware that significant issues exist within the system, and across all strata of our governmental organizations, I can still be thankful for the majority of the people that volunteer to serve in them.
The channel I found myself viewing most is created by a man who goes by the intentionally ironic mark of Donut Operator. Donut, as far as I can tell, spent several years working as a police officer, though now seems to make a living from his YT channel and streaming himself playing video games on Twitch. What a wonderful time to be a creative entrepreneur. Anyways, most of Donut’s videos feature footage from incidents ranging from traffic stops to deadly force encounters. In each episode Donut attempts to objectively assess the actions of both officers and offenders, as well as to address prior and current viewer comments regarding the prudence of decisions the officers make, along with the training and procedures they might be following in doing so. As in, why did an officer shoot a crazed addict who was charging them with a broadsword instead of using a Taser or verbally assuaging the danger. The range of scenarios officers may come across is baffling in scope, as are the outrageous and entirely unrealistic demands for non-lethal force against very lethal threats.
But it’s no longer the cop videos that are the draw, they’re just how I got to the next place. The place I’m in now. Even with Donut’s admirable sense of humor and objectivity, the negativity of each situation on his channel quickly becomes a draining experience, even if it does create a sense of empathy for what a lot of officers routinely go through. Realizing this adverse reaction—that of the negativity, not the empathy—however, makes the decision to watch what I’ve been habitually watching somewhat confounding. The name of the channel I’m now hooked on is Active Self Protection, and I obviously ended up there through the benevolent auspices of the algorithm. Like watching people get shot? You’ll love this next suggestion. The thing is, I don’t think I particularly enjoy witnessing or even imagining violence, though somehow find myself captivated by this particular channel (which features nothing but violent situations), and its host, John Correia (pronounced similar to the country in Asia).
The format goes like this: we see a snapshot of a real-life encounter which inevitably involves a person, or multiple people, attempting to violate the rights of another person, or persons—generally a robbery, mugging, car-jacking, kidnapping, etc., though occasionally a road rage incident, bar fight, etc.; the preview is followed by a brief intro of the day’s topic by Correia and a short advertisement by his sponsors, usually makers of pepper spray, targets, ammo, gun holsters…; after the ad we get to the footage, which usually comes from one or multiple angles taken from security or dashboard cameras; following the video, Correia introduces the lessons viewers might take from each incident, often while replaying and reviewing the tape. Once again, these are all real incidents, most of which happened fairly recently. And people, real people, often die violently—almost always by gunshot—in the encounters.
The videos are generally not as horrific as they may sound—though a couple of them most certainly are. And really, all of them should be. Human beings are killing other human beings. They are killing them out of greed, out of spite, out of anger, and in order to survive. And we’re allowed to watch endlessly. We are desensitized to the violence, immune to the telling of these age old stories, and buffered perhaps by the poor quality of the often audio-free videos. We’ve seen it all before so many times on the screen, hear about it every day in the news, so none of it seems all that real. In order to make the scenarios more palatable for dissecting key learning points, Correia himself incorporates humorous euphemisms. The ‘good guys,’ when killed, ‘sadly didn’t make it.’ The ‘bad guys,’ when terminated, take ‘the room/asphalt temperature challenge,’ depending on whether or not they die indoors or out. The winner of a gunfight, we’re always reminded, is ‘the first one to get effective shots into the ‘meaty bits’ of their opponent.’ You should also keep in mind that when a gunfight starts, ‘You have the rest of your life to get shots on target.’ And then there’s John’s FIBSA Factor, the ‘F— I’m Being Shot At’ which often ends an encounter by sending perpetrators fleeing whether they’ve been hit in the meaty bits or not. Curiously enough, they usually run either way rather than dropping dramatically to the ground as Hollywood might have us believe. Like chickens with their heads chopped off, many of the mortally wounded criminals manage record sprint speeds before eventually keeling over.
A good portion of the videos hail from Brazil, which comes out seeming like a terribly dangerous place to live or travel as a result. Many amusing comments may be read pertaining to viewers’ newfound averseness to vacationing there. Ironic, of course, when one realizes that almost all the other videos come from the United States, and that this is exactly how we’re viewed by the rest of the world. Somehow this fact doesn’t seem to register with most of the folks commenting. Perhaps because we’re so used to it now, and perhaps because the incidents are often referred to by which state they come from rather than being attributed directly to our country as a whole. As of a couple of weeks ago, the US, in slightly over three months of 2021, has already ‘tallied more than 12,000 gunshot deaths… and 150 mass shootings in which four or more people were killed’ (The Week). Over 23 million guns were purchased in this country in 2020 alone. Some would have you believe that more guns equal less violence, but that clearly isn’t the case. Others call for the banning of guns entirely—an incredibly impracticable scenario given all the guns that are already out here. What’s the answer then? I really don’t have any clue.
But the real question here is: Why am I watching this before turning in for the night multiple times per week? Why is this what I end my evenings with when I’m too tired to focus on anything else? I guess I’m unsure of that myself, and often swear that I will cease this behavior, but sometimes can’t resist the enticing titles that continue to pop-up: ‘Store Owner Takes the Fight to Robber;’ ‘Two Armed Men Stop Knife Attack Cold;’ ‘Guard Forced to Shoot Angry Patient…’ Do I not already know that the world is fraught with peril? That good and evil are locked in eternal battle? That there are profuse numbers of wicked people waiting for opportunities to do harm? That there are guns and bad guys and boogey monsters everywhere? Is it that I like to see karmic justice delivered to criminals? Which happens, but not always—plenty of victims die as well. Do I like to imagine myself a hero? Or pretend that these videos will provide a sense of readiness in case a similar scenario occurs in my own life? I don’t even ‘keep my tools on’ me (i.e. carry a gun around everywhere I go) which is one of the top lessons of every video.
The answer to that question is also that I don’t really have one. But I think it has a lot to do with Correia himself, and the lessons he provides in each video. Each one is analogous to fostering a holistic lifestyle of awareness and introspection. Correia encourages viewers to think about what they would do in each situation. His channel might even be viewed as an acknowledgment that there is evil in the world, and that we must live alongside it. Correia promotes preemptively identifying our values in order to let them guide us in the event of danger. What is worth dying for? When is compliance a better strategy? Where should you draw the line as far as that compliance is concerned? In what instances might you step in to assist someone else? When shouldn’t you? He talks about what it means to be a moral and ethical defender, and praises those who are able to reduce a threat appropriately and without undue amounts of force. In many of the videos he cautions against letting our egos get the better of us—‘Don’t start none, won’t be none.’ He counsels letting go of reactionary behavior and walking away from unnecessary aggressions.
Correia’s brand is built around the ASP acronym, and features a snake’s head as its logo. He admonishes viewers to ‘cover their ASP’ at all times, and promotes proactive measures to ensure physical and emotional fitness. The letters stand for Active Self Protection, but also double as the guiding principles that allow us all to be better prepared for the unexpected in life: Attitude, Skills, and a Plan. I appreciate the simplicity of it all. Be confident. Always work at improvement. Know what you’re about.
Correia also covers the tactical aspects of each scenario and highlights the need for increased diligence in certain situations, namely transitional spaces. While we should always be attentive to our surroundings, even in what we might consider to be safe zones, we put ourselves at greater risk as we travel about in the world around us. Vigilance is recommended. These spaces may be represented by thoroughfares and parking lots. Always go to ATMs (‘Accessories to Muggings’) inside of buildings. And so forth. This too, I think, can be applied to the larger scale of life. Seems like the transitional spaces can last for years even as we move about looking for a safe environment, our happy place. It’s imperative then to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. To be able to identify threats and deal with them appropriately. To remain aware. Stoicism is an endorsed form of compliance, and we must accept much of what life visits upon us—though there is also time for action and self-preservation. It’s also significant to realize that sometimes bystanders are there to help you out. Even more important to know that you can help someone else out. And finally, when life suddenly spirals into chaos, we must recognize the wisdom of Correia’s guidance, ‘Attitude is Everything.’
Honestly though, I really need to just go to bed when I’m supposed to.
Speaking of transitional spaces, the day I got back from the trip down south it started snowing and didn’t stop for days. Then it warmed up and all that snow started to melt. And then it got really cold for a while and all that melted snow turned to a whole bunch of thickset ice. For days the roads were about as treacherous as they can get. A few places even shut down for a minute, but for the most part it was business as usual, though more cars in the ditches than ever. And after that, it got crazy nice. From -20 on Saturday morning to 50 something on Sunday afternoon. And it stayed there for two full weeks. Days of glorious sunshine and brilliant blue skies. Gorgeous spring weather and all kinds of snow for all the things. Perfect conditions for just about any winter sport you can imagine, but no need for bundling up. Quite the opposite, in fact.
It was days of getting out and getting after it. Waking up each morning and greeting the sun. The standard doses of fresh air and exercise, plus welcome regimens of Vitamin D therapy. Lots of day trips and multiple modes of transportation/recreation. One of the highpoints was a day with Emilie, Jim, and a few of Emilie’s sled dogs for a marathon distance skijor from her cabin at the top of Murphy Dome, down down down to the pipeline and the Chatanika River, along the river for many miles and then all the way back up the big hill. The morning was a bit harrowing with less than desirable conditions due to overnight freezing. Some sketchy descents, and a handful of falls for everyone but the dogs. The afternoon, however, was magnificent. Once we hit the pipeline it was nothing but sunshine and slush the rest of the way. The temperature was hovering around 60 that day, about enough to melt a person after a Fairbanks winter, and after lunch we all had to strip down to our skivvies to finish out the rest of the day. Even that layer proved too constricting for Jim, who bucked it all the way down and courteously hopped in the back of our line. Thankfully, no severe burns were accrued in the following hours, and the dogs pulled like champs in helping us back up the hill. A big outing for Jim and myself, a casual day in the life of Ms. Emilie.
There were also a couple days of snowshoeing around Wickersham Dome and a perfect three-day weekend—t-shirt snowboarding on Saturday, super-fast skate skiing on Sunday, and the season’s first float trip on Monday with Emilie and Becky down the Delta Clearwater, the only ice free section of water around. Well, mostly ice free, I got to hop out and ride a big floe down the Tanana for a few minutes, which was actually more stimulating than it sounds. Fun facts: first mosquito bite on April 20th, first cloud of mosquitoes encountered two days later (even though still in the 20s most nights!), and then all the sudden one more full day of winter and snow on the 30th. So now back to transitioning with a little Alaskan reminder of the impermanence of all things. Those sure were some amazing days though. Warm memories, you might say.
Bonus Track: Clay Pigeons. I heard this song for the first time ever a couple days ago. Originally by a singer/songwriter from Texas named Blaze Foley, it was also recorded by John Prine. Both artists use a technique called Travis Picking for the song, and both versions are worth a listen, or lots of them. Maybe I’ll get there one day, but for now just sticking with some chords. The most basic ones. Like the rest of life, a work in progress.