August and the ANWR

It’s easy to post the good. To exult the positive aspects of an idealized version of our lives. To breeze over the banal, and conveniently omit the undesirable. To fabricate romanticized stories for potential audiences in an attempt to believe them ourselves. We all know the doubtfulness of the factuality of these flawless existences, but writing or reading otherwise often seems an uncomfortable petition for pity. We must stand on the affirmative.

And it is virtuous, I believe, to seek the favorable and show appreciation for the good we have in our lives. But it’s not always easy. This year has been one of major changes in my life, even before the virus, and in the world as a whole since the virus. In spite of all the activity and opportunity, it’s been dealing with health problems, and mental struggles, and even a bit of existential bleakness. It’s been months and months of limited social interaction, and a near zero expansion of acquaintances. And suddenly it’s already late August in Alaska. Even weeks ago the sun started to slant in a noticeable way. Shadows stretch further across the ground each day, and the air has turned autumn. Green leaves skip through yellow in a matter of minutes and sit brown on the branches. Summer moves swiftly into fall, a season we know will only last weeks at best, and impending winter creeps into the mind. The months of darkness and isolation to come. There is nothing to be done about it but to accept it. To keep on with it. To continue the search for import in the void, and press on with gratitude. To fake it till we make it—or otherwise.

In spite of some heavy realities, however, I continue to have plenty to be thankful for. Plenty to weave into one of those accounts of a blessed actuality, complete with accompanying photos, of course. I’m happy to report that I was recently able to achieve several of my goals for the year, and for Alaska, all at once. Those goals being these: to get into some real Alaskan wilderness for a while, many many miles away from any road; to travel in the Brooks Range; and to guide at least one trip in my 20th year of guiding. Happy to report that it all happened in a very fortuitous manner, opportunity presenting itself in the throes of disappointment, as it were, almost as if the universe decided to helpfully intervene for a quick second. For this I offer a heartfelt ‘Thank you!’ accompanied by a low bow to the daunting abyss.

For many weeks I’d been working on a plan for the realization of the first two goals, those of spending some days in the Brooks, far removed from civilization. I selected the river, scheduled the flights, planned the route, and dreamed up the itinerary. The gear was ready, the maps perused, the dates selected, and additional sources gleaned for pertinent information. As this was one trip I couldn’t really afford to do on my own, nor one I wanted to do alone, I even had one person, then two, lined up to accompany me. But, of course, people being people, the second dropped out almost as soon as he signed up, and the first found herself in a difficult workplace situation a week later. The imminent disappointments of not having a dedicated companion in other words, the same old nonsense as always. This same week, however, Michael, of Arctic Wild, a company out of Fairbanks I’ve been in contact with for several years, sent me an email asking if there was any chance I might be interested in helping to guide a commercial trip on the Kongakut River in the Arctic Refuge at the last minute. Turns out, I was.

So, I did. The trip was 10-days in the far northeast reaches of the state of Alaska; we rafted, camped, and hiked along 50 miles of the Kongakut River, our final nights’ camp located around 15 miles west of the Canadian boundary and about the same from the Arctic Ocean. There were six of us total, and the trip was incredible. The crew was myself; the clients, a family of four from New York; and Emilie, trip leader and awesome individual. Emilie’s been an Arctic Wild guide for 11 years now, spending probably several years’ worth of nights in the Brooks and otherwise, and is exactly the type of guide you would hope to get if ever doing a trip in AK—hunter, fisher, dog musher/racer, boater, and builder of her own cabin. She also has endless stories about life and crazy adventures in Alaska that have to be pried out of her one at a time, her modesty being but one of her many exceptional qualities.

The trip itself began in Fairbanks with early morning flights up north. I flew in on a bush plane with the gear, while everyone else hopped on a flight to Arctic Village, where they waited for the small plane to shuttle them out to the Drain Creek put-in on the Kongakut. The flights in and out of the Brooks Range were some of the best memories of the trip, as the pilot, Daniel, grew up on the Sheenjek River which we paralleled along the way. For most of his childhood, his family forged an existence by subsistence fishing and hunting, and trapped for income. His was one of the three families allowed to stay on the land when the area fell under federal protection as a refuge. Daniel told stories most of the way up, and the views from the low-flying aircraft, both there and back, were phenomenal. He stayed the first and last night with us out there, as well, which certainly added to the overall experience.

The ten-days we spent in the river corridor were spent in the same way as most river trips. Time on the water, time in camp, cooking, chilling, fishing, and hiking. The walking was definitely the most memorable aspect of the entire trip in my mind. Simply pick a direction and start off, probably uphill, and go until you feel obliged to turn back. It was all limitless and awe-inspiring. With the group we would sometimes walk in the mornings, or in the afternoons before dinner. From after dinner till around midnight, however, was the time for real exploration, the time when the true magic of the mountains was revealed in the constantly changing luminescence. On these hikes it was often just Emilie and myself, and sometimes B-Man, the 17-year-old son from NY. It was all quite dreamlike, and, like all enchanted experiences, proves difficult to recall in the aftermath. The light was ever-evolving, but also never ending, as darkness was still long days away in that part of the world.

The weather was about as perfect as it could have been for a trip in the arctic—cloudy, cool, sunny, drizzly. The last several days featured a low fog creeping in from the ocean and down into the valley each evening, ethereal landscapes a result. Most of the wildlife moves through this area of the refuge in June each year, accompanying tens-of-thousands of caribou on their migrations. We saw signs of animals everywhere in tracks and bones covering the beaches. We also spotted multiple groups of Dall sheep, heard wolves howling in the early morning, watched a two-toned grizzly lumber over a mountain, and got a glimpse of a couple massive bears, a pair of musk ox, and a big bull caribou when flying out of camp on the last day.

That flight, as mentioned, was also a high point thanks to the skills of the pilots, and Daniel’s desire to fulfill B-Man’s vision of jumping into the Arctic Ocean. We flew the remaining distance from camp to the ocean at around 100’, cruising between low-hanging fog and the channelized river corridor and coastal plain, and landed in incredibly limited visibility only a hundred yards from the cloud covered coast. Here, thanks to B-Man’s enthusiasm in enlisting accomplices for his objective, he, I, and Daniel quickly stripped down to our skivvies, ran across the shallow depths of the Turner River, and dove into the sea. After, it was back in the air and a quick ascent to sunshine, followed by an unforgettable flight back through the mountains and their infinite possibilities.

It must be said. Just as I am loathe to detail personal problems, I am equally reluctant to express overt political sentiment. But here goes. The controversy surrounding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or AN-Wahr, as it is often pronounced) is deeply complicated and far beyond the scope of anything I care to write for the purposes of this blog. You may have heard about it recently on the news, or for several decades now. Information is readily available to interested readers, though rarely unbiased, just as I am not unbiased. Yes, we still currently need oil, but over 1000 miles of Arctic coastline have already been drilled, degraded, and dumped on. There are colossal rigs, and roads, and untold amounts of trash and toxic waste scattered across the entirety of it. The only untouched part of this ecosystem is that small percentage which lies within ANWR.

As a whole, ANWR represents one of the few true wilderness areas left on this planet. It is not at all, as you may have heard the mouths proclaim, a wasteland. There is not ‘nothing’ there. There is everything there. It is full of life. Unbelievable amounts of life. Every square foot of tundra holds seemingly hundreds of different plant species. Thousands upon thousands of animals rely on this environment to exist. Millions upon millions of birds, from around the globe, migrate to the area every year to nest and reproduce. To believe that it won’t be affected by development is to blindly swallow another lie of political convenience.

Donald Trump and his administration have consistently attacked and corrupted everything that truly makes America great, including democracy, environmental protections and policies, and our public lands. He has promoted division, hatred, xenophobia, and a distrust of the press—all while fostering an environment which allows for egregious undermining of moral values and common decency. As far as this issue is concerned, Trump states that he didn’t know anything about ANWR until ‘someone’ recently mentioned ‘something’ about it. He has since gone full bore on opening up the entire coastal area to industry development. As with most everything else, this ambition seems to have much less to do with the issue than with Mr. Trump’s ego and political ambitions. There is much to consider here, and it is impossible to estimate all that hangs in the balance.

Shades of Gray, Worlds of Green

20200718_221256From July into August. Peak greenness in all directions, yet a faint trace of autumn sidling into the air. A reminder to maximize every opportunity to appreciate the intensity of summer in the Far North. More weeks of sunshine and rain, though the last couple have featured more of the latter than the former. Still no reason to stay inside.

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Caribou in the Clouds. Quartz Creek.

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Moose Creek to Fairbanks on the Tanana

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Tiny tents and a classic campsite on the Upper Tangle Lakes

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This is my friend Yi, who is originally from Taiwan, but spent most of her adult life in California. She came to Alaska on vacation several years ago and decided to just stay for a while. We usually meet up once or twice a month for a couple of hours of mellow walking and to check out her plot in the community garden. Yi is a super positive and appreciate human being, and sometimes says some pretty hilarious things. An easy traveling companion, in other words. I told her a few weeks back that if she took a few days off we’d go on an Alaskan adventure. She did, and we did. Found her a tent, taught her some paddling basics, and then probably made her work harder than she has on any vacation in her life. These last few photos are courtesy of her documentation of the experience: 

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‘Glassing’ for Critters

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Tangle River and the Alaska Range

Embracing the Overnight

July in the Great North. Busy, busy and little time for rest. Sun and rain. Sun and rain. Clouds creating aura in abundance. Days at work, days on rivers, days on trails.

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Looking for the next adventure.

I have been accustoming to an unfamiliar lifestyle. For many years my life consisted of seasons rather than weeks. There was no 9-5 or 8-4 or 10-6. No weekends or weekdays. There was work, and there was not work. There was time to make money, and then there was time to travel and live and see and do.

Now there is still all that, though compressed into shorter segments. There are definitely weekdays and weekends, even if they don’t correspond to those on the calendar. There are days on, and days off.

Adaptation is an interesting process. There are aspects I appreciate, and others I’m not so sure about. I will say it’s been nice to know I’ll have those days off each week—days to experience summer on my own, rather than running trips every day from late May to early September. And at least two days in a row each time. However, out of all the configurations of trips I’ve guided, from four a day to full days to week long trips, the two-day has always been my least favorite. Going out for just one night entails almost the same amount of effort and energy and packing and unpacking and planning and even driving as going into the boonies for nine or ten days (my favorite length of personal trip, btw). It’s all the same everything to get together and clean and dry out afterwards. It’s a little less food to plan and purchase, but it’s the same pots and pans to cook it, the same coolers to carry it, the same tent, sleeping bags, dry bags, river gear, etc. It’s rushing to get in, and hurrying to get home. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible to consider one-night out as a wilderness trip. You’re in the car both days, you’re on the road, you’re busy with the logistics, etc. I don’t like it for clients, I don’t like it for myself. Give me a full day, give me a fifteen-day—even a three-day—anything but a single overnight! Too much work, not enough reward.

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Setting up camp on the Upper Nenana.

Thus, the dilemma and requisite alteration of attitude. The sudden necessity to suppress years of bias in an effort to remain grounded as an individual. I have discovered over the past several weeks that spending one night a week in a tent is indeed worth all that. Switching up scenery and sleeping spots and any sort of schedule seems to be a necessity somehow. Worth the effort to throw the things together and go somewhere new, see something different, to be my favorite version of myself. It’s worth it because it provides balance. It reminds me that there is so much more to life than the miniscule difficulties inherent in the workplace. Reminds me that I am indeed a very fortunate person to have access to all this. Reminds me that my life never has to stagnate, or be confined to any sort of redundancy. It lets me remember exactly what is good, and beautiful, and important in my life, and why.

Last few weeks: Upper Nenana from Denali Highway down; 100 miles of the Chena River section at a time; inundation and ducks growing up at work; Granite Tors loop; Fairbanks trail running.

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Dwarf Fireweed and Panorama Peak

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Couple of nights on the Middle Chena

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Granite Tors

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Bear-y Interesting

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Canoeing into the flooded workshed

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Mallard and ducklings on Birch Lake

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The go-to after work ride or run loop

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Fairbanks Community Garden

Days’d and Confused

Yesterday was a celebration of Summer Solstice, longest day of the year and the official beginning of the season. A big deal in these parts, though it’s been warm temps and forever light for many weeks now. Can’t even remember the last dark night. Fairbanks is not quite far enough north to experience the true ‘midnight sun,’ but close enough to feel like it. A few hours of twilight now and again add a little ambiance to ever changing skies, but the days just roll on and on and on.

This past week has been a few days down in Denali for some rafting, hiking, and ATVing; a bit of cruising around the neighborhood; and a Solstice float down nearby Piledriver Slough. Images from the field:

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Nenana River and Mt. Healy

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Threading through thunderstorms on the way up to Healy Overlook

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Crossing the bridge on the way over to Ferry, AK. The only way to get there in the summer.

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Mike and his boy Gabe checking out the Alaska Range

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Savage River, Denali NP

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Many Rivers to Run. Piledriver Slough.

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The neighborhood. Happy Summer!

Full Speed

Creamer’s Field

Summer. Sunshine and days without end. Continual hours of daylight and opportunity and limitless options for action and exploration. Life at full speed. Exciting and potentially exhausting. A full day’s work can easily be followed by what would otherwise be a full day’s activity. Up at six, work at eight-thirty, off in the afternoon, on the trail or on the water by six… forced bedtime around midnight with the sun still up and shining. It’s almost impossible to be inside. Every day is like two in one, and often features a week’s worth of weather to boot.

Due to the coronavirus, the cancellation of any and all social activities, and a wonky weekend working schedule, I still don’t know many people in the area. I am fortunate, however, to have met a couple of friends motivated to do the things. Neither of them have a lot of expedition experience, per se, but both have two things in common: an appreciation of new adventures and a love of Alaska. Still on my own most of the time, I’m always happy to have others along for the company. Each time we go out walking, Michael Ann, who sets her alarm for 11:30 each night to remind her to go to bed, says with near disbelief, ‘We live here!’ And Yi, a Taiwanese native who lived in LA for most of her life before coming to Alaska two years ago to see the aurora and never leaving, has an artist’s appreciation of experience. ‘I feel like I am in the picture,’ she said recently, meaning inside the post card print of these ceaseless scenic environments. Both have also selflessly volunteered to help me out with shuttles and more for several solo trips, for which I am incredibly thankful.

And every day, truthfully, there is always something new to see, to do, to appreciate. New species of birds flying through, wildflowers blooming everywhere, butterflies flitting about, insects in inconceivable numbers. Life exaggerated. And then there are the places, the creeks and rivers to paddle, the hills to climb, the sleep to miss out on… Mind numb, muscles failing, must keep moving…

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Birch Lake (the daily grind…)

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Evening thunderstorm and Jesus rays on Far Mountain

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Middle Chena

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After work mission down Moose Creek

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Stopping to smell the roses on the Chatanika

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Sometimes, the struggle is real!

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Wickersham Dome

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May Meltdown

Another month in the Interior, and a complete transition from one world to another. Having been up a winter without an Alaskan summer, and many summers without an Alaskan winter, it all finally makes sense. Traveling from the outside in always seemed such an abrupt event that adjustment was an undertaking. Living from one season to the next, however, witnessing the lakes thaw, and the rivers break up, and the trees budding one week and rematerializing decked in green the next, both body and mind undergo a similar shift from dormant to fully alive. The 20-hour days and the 60° temperatures—so amazing when one can tangibly recall 100° down the scale—inject an insistent energy into everything around. It is good to be alive.

COVID has not yet had the dramatic impact on human health here that it has in so many places around the world, though the economic repercussions of weeks of lockdown and the crisis as a whole have only just begun. The Alaskan economy relies heavily on summer tourism, and there will be incredibly limited visitation this year, leaving many without work or an annual income. At the same time, there is trepidation concerning opening the state back up to visitors, as closing the borders prevented an initial spread of the virus, though may have only delayed the inevitable once travel resumes. Life as a whole seems to be moving back to the way it was before, however, or whatever the new normal might look like. Businesses have been okayed to reopen, with minor restrictions, the sun is shining, and Alaskans have reemerged from the confinement of both winter and quarantine. As for myself, I’ve been back at work for several weeks already, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to have employment in the outdoors (or at all, for that matter), as well as considerable chances to explore my surroundings. So much to see and do, and summer has only just begun. A few of those lived opportunities from the past several weeks:

Round-a-Bout. The last part of April and early part of May (something akin to spring, I suppose, or mud season in the Rockies) were a bit of a weird time for electing outdoor activities. It was skiing on the remnants of groomed trails some days, and running on a select few dry paths on others—or even both on the same day. It was slush, ice, miles of standing water, and lots and lots of mud. For the most part, trails were too muddy to walk or drive on, but also not snowy enough to travel. The rivers were melting off, but with huge ice dams creating lethal hazards in unexpected places, hence no early boating. A state of limbo. But it was also a time to get out and get going, time to do something, anything.

I didn’t know anyone when I moved here only a couple of months before the beginning of all this, though thankfully I met a few people just before things started shutting down, and was lucky enough to have one quarantine companion to socialize with during the ordeal. Not sure what life would have been like otherwise, and don’t care to imagine complete isolation for the duration of all those days. The importance of friends has never been more pronounced. Anyways, right before going back to a regular schedule, we headed south for a few days and ended up making a big highway loop from Fairbanks to Delta to Glennallen to Palmer, Talkeetna, Denali, and back. A round-a-bout on a significant portion of Alaska’s limited road system, in other words, the 2,4, 1 & 3, or the Al-Can, Richardson, Glen, and Parks Highways respectively—though the numbers are rarely referred to and the names change confusingly along the way. The original intention was to travel the Denali Highway, which is in reality a 130 miles of dirt road on the south side of the Alaska Range, but we only made it in about 20 miles from either side as several feet of snow prevented through travel. Even that early in the year, however, the daylight was abundant, allowing for lots of sightseeing and plenty of hiking around. Highlights were moving through a wide variety of terrain and weather conditions—bone dry mountains on one side and pure winter on the opposite; hikes up Donnelly Dome, Lion’s Head, along the Matanuska in Palmer, and down to the Nenana River in a couple different places in Denali; witnessing huge chunks of ice crashing their way down the Susitina and Chulitna Rivers; lots of wildlife including groupings of moose grazing together and a quick glimpse of a wolverine crossing a dirt road; and amazing views of Denali from multiple vantages.

Drove the loop in the center. Line through the loop is the Denali ‘Highway’.
Donnelly Dome looking south.
To the north.
Hours long sunset illuminates the Mat Valley.
Nenana below Dragonfly Falls
Nenana overlook
Denali from the ‘highway’.

Delta Clearwater. Finally, after weeks of waiting to get on some moving water, the opportunity presented itself with an overnight on the Delta Clearwater. The original plan was to float the Chatanika, but hot temps and excessive melting created flooding throughout the area, so last minute research revealed another local run which proved to be the perfect spring float and testing run for the little ‘pack raft’ I plan on using for the summer. There are two commonly run trips on the river, both of which begin about 12 miles from the confluence of the Delta Clearwater and the Tanana. Each trip involves floating those miles of the Clearwater and then joining up with the Tanana. The shorter run, which I chose this time, ends with a mile float down the Tanana, followed by a one-mile paddle up a side stream to Clearwater Lake. The second option is to continue another 18 miles on the Tanana and end up at a bridge just outside of Delta Junction, something I certainly hope to get in before the end of fall. Both are also amenable to a bike shuttle, which is always an awesome way to deal with logistics. The Clearwater itself is a bit more developed than I’d imagined, with lots of summer cabins along the banks, though has its wild sections and certainly lives up to its name with crystal clear water revealing school after school of fish swimming below. There was also lots of waterfowl, along with a great campsite and sunset, a couple well-timed rain showers, and more of a wilderness feel the last few miles.

The PR 49. Not as classy as a canoe, or as comfortable as a raft, but holds plenty of gear and easily fits in the back of a Camry.

Tanana. My next couple days off (full weekend warrior mode (though with Tuesdays & Wednesdays as weekends)) I paddled 56 miles of the Tanana from the Pump House in Fairbanks down to the town of Nenana. I left at noon the first day and arrived around 5 the next, and got incredibly lucky with a steady downstream breeze and the push of some high water current. Could have been brutal otherwise, as the Tanana is a massive river (the largest tributary of the Yukon) which can be miles wide, and slow moving as it meanders through multiple braided channels for the majority of the time. The highlight of this trip was definitely the island camp which I found at exactly the mileage I’d hoped for after an afternoon of steady paddling. A small flat sand patch surrounded by mounds of driftwood, with an excellent view of the Alaska Range in the background.

Tanana Valley
Rusting relic. Old Tanana riverboat.
The get-out in Nenana.

Up Close. Hard to not be effusive when detailing the amount of potential in this area of the state. Summer seems to hold even more prospects than winter, with an abundance of hiking, climbing, biking, boating, etc. all within an hour’s drive. There are trails galore, a profusion of float trips from a few hours to a few weeks, and lakes, mountains, and rivers in every direction. The hardest part is narrowing down the next adventure, and trying not to worry about how much you’re missing out on while doing it!

Run Free! Moose Creek Dam in Chena Lakes State Rec area. Walk, ride, or run for miles.
200′ from the front door. Bear Lake.

Back Upstream

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Breakup. Days of sunshine, warming trends, rainfall, and rapidly melting snow. Creeks and rivers transforming from frozen to flowing. Huge blocks of ice splitting apart, fragmented sections of floes meandering downstream only to crash into the next gridlocked section of river where they rise up, spin, and submerge. I have long wanted to witness the phenomenon, and it is quite the sight. Now is the time of shifting seasons, and accompanying thoughts. Dreams of rivers, of drifting current, of past and future adventures, of days spent running rapids and nights sleeping on sandy beaches, the arterial OM of the universe etched in the background.

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Chena River, Downtown Fairbanks

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Chatanika River

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Tanana River

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Nenana Ice Classic an Alaskan tradition since 1917. Ice melts, tripod falls, winning guessers as to minute, hour, and day win upwards of $300,000.

Back Upstream. Rivers have been part of my life for a long time now, and I hope they always will be. If I lead even one trip this summer, which I certainly hope to, it will represent my 20th season as a guide; and even if I don’t, I will almost certainly be floating new sections of streams, and spending many summer nights camped alongside them. There is no greater feeling of freedom and peace and contentment than traveling for miles and days down a moving river.

My life has consisted of so many days, months, and years with rivers as a focus that it would be impossible to account for all of the positive experiences that guiding as an occupation, and running rivers as a passion, have contributed to my individual experience as a human being. I really can’t imagine what my life might be like had I done anything but. I thought it would be entertaining then, while waiting for everything to come back to life this spring, to briefly revisit a few of those places and times. To pause for momentary reflection, a look back upstream. The following words and photos represent but a sampling of some of the rivers I have been fortunate enough to work on and travel down throughout those years, mainly chosen simply because they’re pictures I happen to have saved to this computer. My apologies for the lack of photo credits, at this point I have only vague recollections as to who took many of the pictures. A few other trip accounts and photos, from Idaho, Alaska, New Mexico, Texas, and more, can be found on the Rivers page as well.

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Arkansas River, Colorado. The first rafting trip I ever went on was the Brown’s Canyon section of the Arkansas, but it took me several years to piece this information together once I became a guide later on. I went as a commercial customer, and mostly remember a cocky college kid at the oars alternating all day between talking about himself and telling us what lousy paddlers we were. Oddly enough, I didn’t really think the experience was all that fun (which is why it took so long to figure out what river we’d gone down), and have no idea what prompted me a couple years later to attend training and become a guide myself. But that guide school, which included a six-day trip on the Dolores River, followed by a couple summers of taking customers down the mellow town stretch of the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, sealed my fate for the next couple of decades. Later on, I ended up working several seasons on the upper stretches of the Arkansas, one of the most rafted rivers in the world, and spent countless days alternating between talking about myself and telling people what lousy paddlers they were.

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Browns Canyon

San Juan River, Utah. Oddly enough, my first private multi-day trip didn’t happen until several years after I’d started guiding. Upon returning to Durango after a summer of working on the Yellowstone River in Montana, my old boss at River Trippers invited me on a week-long family float down the San Juan. The water was sparse at that time of year, and like a moving trickle of mud it was so low. By the end we were actually pushing the rafts along the sandy bottom for miles before the take-out. But we didn’t see any other people the entire week, and the trip was an incredible experience. Great campsites, side hikes, good food, good company, and good times. Something special, in other words, and a foreshadowing of the importance trips like that would represent for years to come. A week later, the river suddenly spiked due to fall flooding, and we quickly drove back over and did the upper stretch, normally a three-day trip, in just a few hours. Water in the desert is an amazing thing.

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White Salmon, Washington. The following year was the real beginning of my ‘career’ as a guide. It was my first experience with bigger whitewater, and the start of a trend of year round work on rivers throughout the US from spring through fall, and seasons of international work each winter. That April, I attended another guide school in California, followed by a swiftwater rescue course in Montana, and then spent the summer working in the Pacific Northwest. The company I worked for had multiple permits on rivers in northern Oregon and southern Washington: the Deschutes, Clackamas, Klickitat, Owyhee, Santiam, and the White Salmon to name a few. This allowed guides to move around a fair amount, and work on different sections of river throughout the summer, which always keeps things interesting. Trip photos are a staple source of income in the commercial rafting industry. Most of them merely capture close-ups of smiling clients with a couple of waves splashing around them, and make great family photos for Christmas cards or home hallways. Running Husum Falls on the White Salmon, however, provides some of the best shots ever if you’re looking for social media style points. Guiding the falls a couple times a day can be a bit rough as a guide—as things can get violent in the back seat—but the faces reappearing from the foam are always priceless.

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Tana River, Kenya. While running trips in Montana, I met a guide who worked for one of the other outfitters at an afternoon get-together in the Gardiner town park. He had a pronounced British accent, so I asked the usual questions to find out where he was from. Turns out, he grew up in Kenya, where his family owns a rafting company. I never saw nor spoke to this fellow again, but took down the contact information for the company, and pestered his brother, who manages it, for a couple of years before he offered me the opportunity to work in Africa for a season. What descriptors could possibly define the experience? It was all of them. Amazing, incredible, unforgettable… I spent several months in Kenya working mainly on the Tana, and also had the opportunity to camp in a few of the national parks, climb Mt. Kenya, and spend a couple weeks kayaking on the White Nile in Uganda just months before the first of two dams were finalized. Africa is as wild, chaotic, and mystical as this world gets.

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Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica. I worked several winter seasons down in Central America, the first couple of seasons guiding commercially on the Pacuare, which is probably the most popular rafting trip in Costa Rica, and another two years managing river operations for Outward Bound on rivers throughout the country. The Pacuare has changed significantly since the first time I ran it. Its commercial success actually saved the river, for the time being, from dying behind a dam—a fate of many sections of incredible whitewater in CR and the world over—but also altered the wild nature of the river corridor significantly as companies constructed roads to the river, and built campground resorts along its banks. This first photo, however, is of one of my favorite places in the world: Huacas Canyon, the heart of the run and still an enchanted environment of waterfalls, jungle canopy, and the three best rapids on the river.

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Kern River, California. On a good year, California has some of the best whitewater in the world, and I was fortunate to work three consecutive big-water years on the Kern. Years where the Sierras were piled with snowpack, and conditions were perfect for it to melt ideally, providing six-weeks a season or so of incredible spring paddling, followed by a summer of dam releases on the lower sections of river. The best thing about working on the Kern is that easy access to numerous different sections is akin to living next to multiple rivers all within a short driving distance. The Upper Kern is undammed, and has several stretches of Class IV and V whitewater, each one with its own distinctive characteristics. Day runs might include the big waves in Limestone, the technical and action packed Chamise Gorge, the seldom run Ant Canyon, the often run Cables section, and perhaps the munchy Class V Thunder Run. On a really good year, several trips down an even higher section, the Forks of the Kern, a multi-day undertaking which begins with a two-mile hike (with mules carrying rafts and gear down) into the Golden Trout Wilderness, provide epic adventures for guides and clients alike. As the summer heat hits, trips move downstream to the Lower Kern, where pool-drop rapids, desert scenery, swimming stretches, and jump rocks create a perfect mix of relaxation and good times.

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Rio Mendoza, Argentina. A few years ago I had the opportunity to guide for a couple of months on a section of the Rio Mendoza in the heart of Argentinian wine country. The river is a drainage of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes and the Americas, and several companies offer whitewater trips on a short section of rapids just upstream from the city of Mendoza, a popular tourist destination. Most of the time I was there, I guided for one of the worst companies I’ve ever worked for in terms of safety, equipment, professionalism, and taking care of employees. The last week or so, I finally defected to one of the best companies I’ve seen in terms of the same (Argentina Rafting). The river that year was huge, with one of the biggest run-offs in the past decades. Each day the river got bigger and muddier and faster, and more than anything I remember the powerful earth scent getting stronger and stronger each morning as I walked the riverside trail from town to work. It was late January, and springtime in the South American desert, and everything was in bloom and coming alive, including the Rio Mendoza.

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Grand Canyon, Colorado River, Arizona. This is the trip everyone loves to ask about. The one everyone has heard of. And yes, the one you should definitely do if every the opportunity arises. As a mentor guide once expressed, ‘If you get an invitation, do whatever it takes to go—quit your job, get a divorce, anything….’ I concur. The longer the trip the better, and motorized, in my opinion, is not an option. Realize that the trip is not really about the whitewater. Many of the rapids are famous and massive and a few of them even frightening, but the trip is about everything, the whole experience. It’s about spending days and nights on end immersed in wilderness. It’s about the places you get to. The beaches you sleep on, the side canyons you hike up—all magical environments and each one unique. It’s about the silence, the routine, the meals, the comradery, the festivities, the complete absorption into a totally different way of life. For many, once the trip is over, it can be difficult to face the old realities. I’ve been twice: a 30-day winter trip and for 25-days in the spring. The toughest part of each trip, up to the point of legendary stories, generally has something to do with small group social dynamics. Friendships and romances may be forged forever, or dissolve in disaster (sometimes on the same trip in a related manner!). People have different goals, and desires, and habits, and schedules, and work ethic. But for the most part, small disagreements can be easily resolved, and each trip can be a positive and even life-changing experience for all. No matter what happens, however, as with all river trips, there will be memories engraved, stories which will not be forgotten.

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Buffalo River, Arkansas. For the non-initiated, hanging out around a campfire with a bunch of guides can be excruciatingly boring as far as conversation goes—it’s big rivers, epic trips, and carnage stories on repeat. It’s questions about different sections and logistics and wheres and whens, and I’ve always enjoyed gleaning information about potential rivers to check out. Many of those rivers of campfire lore I know personally by now, and am grateful to be able to say that. But I also always like to ask clients what rivers they know of in their own home states, which often elicits a few guffaws and stories about tubing booze cruises, but occasionally instills inspiration for low-key exploration should the opportunity arise—say, for instance, one just happens to be driving through Arkansas with a few days to spare and access to a canoe. Wherever there’s water and the slightest bit of elevation, there are rivers, often running through beautiful places the world over. The Buffalo was one of them, along with the Niobrara in Nebraska, the Upper Missouri in Montana, the Hocking in Ohio, too many rivers to count in Florida, and so forth. I recently read that there are around 3,000 rivers in Alaska, and don’t know whether to be daunted or inspired when considering the endless opportunities alongside the various commitments necessary to experience just about any of them.

Over the years, my focus in running rivers has shifted somewhat, though not completely. I still love exploring new places by downstream travel in a boat—be it raft, kayak, or canoe. Love being on the water, and the places one can access via waterways. I do love whitewater, and hanging out with like-minded friends that value time spent on rivers. I enjoy the thrill of rapids, and the inspired confidence of experience. But these days, more than anything, I love getting as far away from civilization as possible, for as many days as feasible. I like simplicity in travel plans and travel companions, the spontaneity of last minute forays into the wilderness. I like small groups, or just one partner, and also appreciate the occasional solo expedition. I’m in it for the exploratory nature of the process, for the opportunities to see new places and experience different environments. In it, I hope, for a while longer yet. People often ask me to name a favorite river. The very honest answer: Whichever one I’m on at the time.

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April Daze

On it goes. As you are well aware, I’m sure. Days of self-isolation and social distancing and the supermarkets getting odder with each weekly visit. The masks, the suspicious eyes above them, the random empty shelves and missing items and inclinations to succumb to compulsion. The longing, as well, to get back to a sense of normalcy, to roam at will, to have a few less worries in the world.

Here, the seasons shift with a swiftness. Ice and darkness give way to sunshine and rain showers. Colors reappear on the hillsides, stands of budding birch trees a wash of pink in the distance. Rapidly melting snow, a mess of slush and mud in its place. A palpable energy in the air, new life ready to explode at the seams. Another Alaskan summer is upon us, months of light and goodness and going and doing.

From adversity, opportunity. The restrictions on socializing and working have indeed caused much uncertainty, but continue to provide unanticipated prospects. The situation is most certainly not ideal, but at the same time, for anyone with motivation and drive it has provided unforeseen chances to act upon previously held desires—from exercising more to eating better to catching up on some reading to changing career paths and reevaluating life goals. I feel incredibly fortunate for the time, and have been able to see and do far more than I ever would have otherwise had the opportunity for this year. I have honestly, FYI, been doing my best to follow the recommended measures to keep myself and fellow citizens protected from potential threats, and to adhere to the state mandated rules on travel, distancing, etc. Fortuitously, however, one can stay within the guidelines here and still find plenty to do and see in the outdoors—all with plenty of distance from other individuals. I am thankful to be here, and to have had so many extra days to get out and look around. Photos and words from the past couple of weeks:

Ester Dome. Ester is one of several named ‘domes’ around Fairbanks, and a prominent feature on the outskirts of the city. There is a road to the top, which, even though covered in numerous antennas, provides great views of town and the Alaska Range, including sightings of Denali of clearer days. Several trails also run from the top down into the valleys below, making for multiple hiking, etc., options, though what goes down must also come back up. Let’s just say the day I spent out there ended up being a bit longer than anticipated, culminating with a relentless 2,000+ ft. return climb. Weapons training.

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Steese Highway. A day of scenic driving is not generally on my agenda, and rarely considered a fun activity. I’ve always wanted to see the frozen Yukon River, however, along with a couple other random attractions along the way. So, with not much else going on, decided to make the 180 mile run up north to the end of Alaska Hwy 6 which terminates on the banks of the Yukon in the town of Circle City, named by early miners who believed it was located on the Arctic Circle, though turns out it’s about 60 miles south of the line. Anyways, this was the one time to stray outside of the local area, and a series of misadventures led to feelings of regret at having done so. There were a couple of highs to the day, however, the literal ones being the views from Twelve-mile and Eagle Summits, the others a herd of caribou silhouetted walking along a snowy ridgeline, a large owl surveying Birch Creek, and gazing across the frozen expanse of the mighty northern river.

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The Yukon here extends to the trees and beyond. Can be 10-20 miles wide in this section.

Local Knowledge. Other days have been occupied with cross-country skiing at various locations throughout the area and getting to know my way around a bit more each time. I can’t believe what the trail miles-to-resident ratio would be around here. There was also discovering a little known public use cabin near where I work, which involved packing a trail in the day before just to see what was out there, and then snowshoeing sleeping gear and dinner in the following afternoon for a night’s stay. (After three months of winter teetotaling, I also decided it would be a good time to support the local economy during these tough times by stocking the ‘fridge’ there as well.)

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White Mountains Revisited. The closest trailhead providing access into this area is only a half-hour drive from Fairbanks. I spent a couple of days out there at the beginning of the month, and hoped I’d have the opportunity to get back out before all the snow melted. And I did, with two more trips since then. Spent one wintry Saturday afternoon skiing along a clouded ridgeline in one of the last big snowstorms, and the past several days doing a triangle loop trail from Wickersham Dome out to three different cabins, staying a night in each one.

Temperatures have been warming up quick, and the first couple of days was traveling on slushy snow and sweating in just a t-shirt and ball cap. The second night I was out it rained all night long, making for some interesting conditions the third day, and a slightly worrying creek crossing in the a.m. which had me slow creeping on skis across a questionable thickness of melting ice. It was all good, however, and a stellar trip overall. Also, quite possibly the last decent conditions of the year for having done it. As far as the rest of April, the weeks, months (?!) to come, it’s one day at a time at this point. Just one slow day at a time.

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Moose Creek Cabin

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Eleazar’s Cabin

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The trail up Moose Creek.

Cabins, Caves, & Quarantines

Early April in Alaska. Spring snow continues to fall this year, though transitions throughout the month of March were certainly dramatic. We now enjoy lots of sunshine most days, and light from early morning to around 10 pm. Definitely makes hanging out outside even more appealing, as do the temperatures which hover in the 30° range. As mentioned in the last post, things here are as elsewhere, though several weeks behind. Anyone coming back into the state is asked to do the self-quarantine thing, and the rest of us are mandated to stay within our local communities, though allowed to go outside while maintaining appropriate distancing from non-household members.

It’s certainly difficult not to get caught up in the severity of an unfamiliar situation. Hard to know what to do about any of it, and impossible not to consider all the difficulties—financial, physical, emotional, mental, etc.—so many are going through at the moment. But it is also important to look for ways to alleviate worry through deliberate action, as fretting about misery we have no control over only creates unnecessary internal despair. Inventing ways to morph negative to positive, to capitalize on the unexpected rather than dwell on the unchangeable, is an important aspect of successfully surviving the pandemic. It’s been uplifting to see how many are managing to do exactly this. Developing business strategies to continue to offer services to clients; inventing routines and challenges for working out at home; hosting live concerts from remote settings; and all manner of other motivating and engaging innovations are readily available for internet inspiration.

Like many, my work schedule has been drastically altered for the time being. Reduced responsibilities leave hours and days open for any and all activity which might alleviate the isolation. For me then, it’s been an opportunity to continue to explore the local area and do a few of the things I didn’t think I’d have time to squeeze in before this winter was over. With all this time, and the snow still hanging out, mini-missions to nearby locales have become the standard for escaping the confines of apartment exile. A few photos from the past week:

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White Mountains. Spent a few days in the White Mountains, a one-million acre recreation area west of Fairbanks. The BLM oversees the area, and grooms 250 miles of trails open to all manner of winter travel. They also manage 12 public-use cabins, which can be reserved online. Would really like to do an extended trip in the area at some point, but a couple of nights in the cabins was a good way to reconnoiter the opportunities, and a fun, and physically challenging trip in its own right. Stayed the first night at Fred Blixt, which is the only drive up cabin of the set, and then hiked/snowshoed 14 miles out to the Colorado Creek cabin the following day, returning on the third.

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Castner Glacier. The Castner Glacier Cave is an easy stroll/snowshoe off the Richardson Highway south of Delta Junction. The cave is at the toe of the glacier and formed by an underground stream which drains the glacial melt in warmer seasons. Travel on the glacier itself provides amazing views in all directions, and is reported to be a great summer hike into the Alaska Range.20200329_162647 

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Social Distancing in the Last Frontier

Interesting times to be certain. Myriad thoughts on the current situation, which is surely the same here as most elsewhere, many of those ideas derived from conversations with friends and family members. For one, turns out these past months I’ve spent primarily in my own company, I’ve simply been being proactive in my social distancing. Who knew? Other topics concern the role of media and politics in escalating crisis, as well as the role of citizens in their response to the same; the dubious actions of certain individuals; and the importance of living your best life in order to stave off the fear of death, which awaits us all.

Yes, the situation is real. A previously unknown strain of virus makes its way across the world at a rapid pace; people fear for their lives. Is there malicious intent involved on the part of the virus? Doubtful. It simply does as humans and every other animated organism, or in this case particle (apparently it’s debatable whether or not a virus is ‘alive’) on Earth does, it propagates to max capacity, sometimes at the peril of other life forms. This particular virus has been successful due to the successfulness of our own species in spreading across the globe and moving willy-nilly across its surface. It thrives because we do. In most cases, the virus does not kill its host; in certain cases, it does. To watch the news, to believe the incessant high-pitched fervor of media sources in our society, however, is to know that it is out to get us all. Depending on which ‘unbiased’ source you trend towards, Democrats or Republicans are to blame for its continued spread. You may easily stumble across related conspiracy theories concerning foreign governments, or our own, as well.

What you will not see will be a rational comparison of the probability of dying from the coronavirus vs. dying from causes due to smoking (480,000 deaths in US annually), obesity (280,000), gun deaths (35,000+), texting and driving (4,500), etc., or any mention of how the country (or we as individuals, for that matter) are addressing any of these issues. Personal responsibility is incredibly boring. We need something scarier. Something from which the only protection can be fear, isolation, hoarding, panic buying, and of course, hand sanitizer. Turns out, there is a big market for this type of reporting, and hordes of people almost hoping for the worst.

Here, as elsewhere, delusional preppers take to the internet to indulge in apocalyptic fantasies in which they thrive as ultimate survivalists in the wake of civilization’s downfall. As long as there’s enough toilet paper to go around, of course. They will use their stocked weapons to forcibly take that which they desire, and to right the injustices of their previously unrecognized potential. They dream of a world beyond decorum and communal consideration in which only the strong survive. They fail to realistically imagine the skills beyond shooting which might be required, or what the absence of civic services might look like. Rather than putting forth effort right now to create a dream life for themselves and a greater community, they dream of a life far beyond the failures of their present day existence. Somehow this will be the world worth living in.

Mark Oliver Everett of the Eels sings, “If you’re scared to die, you better not be scared to live.” How true that life is a precious gift, but only if we regard it accordingly. There may be many takeaways from this pandemic, but above all: the future is unknown. Two months ago it would have seemed a highly unlikely prediction to announce that we would be living as we are currently. It simply didn’t seem like a realistic scenario. The vacant streets, the shutdown businesses, the empty shelves and freezers. But we do know this, and we always have: we are born to die. The whys of this may be forever a mystery, but the truth of it is with us always. It is up to the individual to determine how to exist under the shadow of this certainty. If you are reading this, you are alive right now. It is up to you to take action or not. Up to you to rid your future of regrets. To live your best life. To compile a bucket list for some far off future, or journal about the adventures you bestir in the present. To toil for money or live for something greater. To appreciate those that love you. To love those that appreciate you. To acknowledge all that you have. To live life rather than cling to it. For those who can claim to live in this manner, death is not to be feared.

Cases of COVID-19 are growing in Alaska, and stringent measures are in effect to slow its spreading. Schools and restaurants are closed. All public events have been cancelled or postponed. We have been asked to distance ourselves from others. People here, as most everywhere else, seem willing to accept these temporary actions, but are often loathe to completely give up their exercise, access to the outdoors, or freedom to recreate. Each day must still be lived.

The good news is, social distancing has never been easier than in Alaska, where outside of population centers one is unlikely to be within (at least) hundreds of feet from the nearest individual. I’d already been planning on writing something about a few of the winter sporting options here, so when I heard a man putting his skis on at the UAF trails proclaim ‘Ah, my favorite form of social distancing,’ I knew he was on to something. All these silly words then were really just leading up to an overview of a few of the ways to enjoy both life and winter in the Interior.

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Cross Country Skiing. Perhaps my own favorite form of social distancing in the winter as well. Two skis, two poles, a pair of boots. Kick, glide, kick, glide. Like canoes and kayaks, the stylistic simplicity of ski travel has been around for centuries, millennia even. No need for improvement. Additionally, the they say this is one of the best forms of cardio available as proper technique requires full body effort. It’s also an incredibly peaceful way to cruise around for miles on packed snow trails. There is nothing more serene than quietly traversing through lightly falling snow in the winter woods. There are more groomed areas in the borough than I can count, and many that I haven’t yet visited or discovered. There’s no telling how many hundreds of miles are accessible throughout the state.

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Downtown Fairbanks and the Frozen Chena River

Snowshoeing. In my opinion, snowshoes are not the most effective manner of traveling in most conditions, though they certainly have their place, and can be fun for a couple hours of walking around in the woods. A half-day of snowshoeing is generally a must for the winter tourist, as using them is as easy as strapping them to one’s feet and going for a duck-footed walk. They are quieter than skis, and allow one to trod through deeper snow. Can be good exercise if you’re breaking trail, and no designated trails are required. Explore at will.

Ice Climbing. I’m new to the sport of ice climbing. It’s something I never imagined enjoying before, as I pictured standing at the shaded base of a frigid wall of ice stamping my frostbitten feet while belaying. Being miserable, in other words, and bored both. But it’s actually quite fun and clearly spectacular to get to work one’s way up a frozen waterfall. I’m still very much a novice, but would like to do some more exploring in winters to come.

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Dragonfly Falls across from Denali NP

Fat Biking. So named due to the girth of the tires, which enable one to ride in winter conditions. Fat bikes are increasingly popular these days, and a great way to travel for miles on packed winter trails. Its pre-corona popularity as a group activity in Fairbanks was evident in weekly community rides and multiple races throughout the season. From my limited experience, fat biking can be as fun as any other sort of trail biking, or brutally challenging due to snow conditions. If you don’t have any set goals, however, even struggling through powder can be an amusing endeavor. Just don’t expect to go anywhere fast. Or straight.

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Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding. Unfortunately, the local areas prematurely closed for the year due to social distancing measures, but thought I’d mention what the potential for resort riding is up this way. There aren’t any huge developed mountains or big resorts in the Interior. Really, there’s only one in the state, and that’s Alyeska way down by Seward (awesome if you ever get the chance to go as the base of the mountain reaches the shore of the Cook Inlet—it’s like riding down into the ocean). But there are a few areas with enough elevation and trails to keep the locals entertained each year, each with transport to the top of the hill from the bottom, and open on the weekends and holidays when temperatures are warm enough to ride. There are three main spots: Ft. Wainwright, Moose Mountain, and Ski Land, and we even have a little T-Bar where I work which I’ve started up the past few weekends. Ski Land is the ‘Farthest North Chairlift’ in the US, and features an incredible view from the lodge. Moose Mountain is the local’s favorite, and utilizes a fleet of ‘variable capacity charged terrestrial trams’ (school buses) to shuttle folks from run to run. And Wainwright is actually on the Army base but generally open to the public and boasts the ‘best terrain park in the state.’

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T-Bar laps facilitate proper distancing.

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The view from Ski Land looking north.

Snow Machining. I don’t get too excited about two-stroke engines noisily spewing exhaust across the wilderness, but it would be unfair not to include this ever popular Alaskan activity, as well as to not inform you that saying ‘snowmobile’ up here will quickly identify you as an outsider. ‘We’ use snow machines, thank you. And I’ve definitely been on a few this season, as the population I work with seems to prefer motorized to exercise. Personal preferences and prejudices aside, snow machines can be a lot of fun, and are certainly useful tools and a valid means of transportation in remote areas. They’re also used to groom a lot of those awesome ski and bike trails, so I duly give them thanks and appreciation for that contribution.

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Big Sid ducks the Alaskan Pipeline

Everything Else. There are certainly all sorts of other ways to enjoy winter up here. Dog sledding, skijoring, ice fishing, trail running, winter camping, aurora chasing, ice sculpture carving, snow people making, hot springs soaking, or even just sitting in your house alone watching the spring snow accumulate outside the window and enjoying thoughts of extended winter adventures, as I’m doing right now. Social distancing at its finest.