South to Center

Tanana Lakes, Fairbanks, AK

And just like that, springtime once again. Compounding daylight and warming weather—sometimes a whole year’s worth of seasons in 24 hours—the inevitable oncoming of another Alaskan summer. While many profess their impatience for winter’s departure, others feel a different sense of urgency. Panic almost, that we didn’t quite do as many things as we should have over the past months of frozen opportunity. The remaining days of serviceable snow calculated anxiously, plans made in hurried anticipation of life without skiing around every day. Last minute exploits and explorations executed with resolve.

When I came up a little over a year ago, I promised myself, for various reasons, that I would stay in the state for at least a year before even thinking about going anywhere else, vacation or otherwise. Turns out, COVID made it easy to observe that conviction. But honestly there isn’t anywhere else I really want to go at the moment anyway. Other than to visit family, I have no motivation to return to the continental US. And while I might move to another country if the opportunity presents itself, I have no desire to travel abroad for diversion. Too many people. Too much hassle. And truthfully, this place is the real Disneyland for anyone with free spirit and inspiration.

Not only have I not left the state, however, I’ve barely managed to make it out of a hundred mile radius most of the time. No need to. Other than the trip to Arctic, I’ve been perfectly content hanging out in Interior Alaska. I love the landscapes here, the lighting, the hundreds of miles of unpopulated trails and rivers.

Last week though, with the inescapable end of winter nearing, I motivated to take myself on a little trip down south. Back to Southcentral AK, that is, where I spent many a summer, but haven’t really explored in the winter. It was time for a breaking of routine. Time to re-center and recalibrate. Check out some new landscapes for a change. Search for inspiration. Maximize the season.

As usual, I had only a rough idea of an itinerary. A few thoughts, plenty of free time, and only myself to debate with regards to daily decisions. Easy enough. I might annoy myself a good deal of the time, but I’m quickly convinced to make abrupt alterations based on spontaneous motivation. And I got lucky. Every day sunshine everywhere I ended up. I needed that, and am grateful for the good fortune.

Along the Turnagain Arm

Kid’s Corner. Spent the first night at my friend Pat’s house in Wasilla. Imagine Sarah Palin as a mid-size city and you will know what Wasilla is like—a trashy, sprawling, meth addled, crime-infested nightmare of traffic, generic box stores, churches, and littered highway… But I digress; suffice it to say it’s my least favorite place in the state, but apparently it works for some people. Like Pat, for instance, who was a gracious host.

Pat used to work for NOVA as a glacier guide, and climbing, ice, rock, etc., is his passion. Last winter, he came up this way to help oversee a couple of ice climbing trips for the program, and I’ve always wanted to join him on a more involved excursion than the easy waterfall we took the clients on. We woke up the next morning to a heavy snowstorm outside, but loaded up the gear and drove out towards the Matanuska Glacier. About halfway through the drive, the roads and sky cleared up, and warm(ish) weather made for perfect conditions for a climb up Kid’s Corner, a multi-pitch series of frozen waterfalls in a small side canyon up Caribou Creek, the put-in for river trips down the Matanuska River, where I guided for several summers.

Pat is a pretty serious guy, but he’s always excited to take people out climbing. He’s also a great instructor, and after each section I would ask him a couple of questions to which he would offer tips to improve what he identified as my ‘shitty technique.’ You can’t teach someone everything all at once, however, so I had to learn a couple of lessons the hard way—such as each time you swing the axe you should look where it’s going to hit, then tuck chin to chest upon impact to avoid getting smacked in the teeth with an exploding chunk of ice. Good times. Really. It was an amazing day, and a great experience, and I am super thankful to Pat for taking me out there. So beautiful, and much more fun than I’d imagined ice climbing might be.

As a funny aside, as we were gearing up to climb a woman showed up at the base of the first falls with camera in hand. She was a professional photographer who had seen our car in the parking lot and followed our tracks up to where she knew we’d be climbing. As mentioned, Pat is usually a pretty no-nonsense character, so I was surprised at his generous attitude at being photographed while climbing, though he did (actually) refuse to smile. Look for us in an upcoming adventure magazine. I’ll be the one exhibiting the shitty technique.

Alyeska. Alyeska is the state’s biggest ski resort, located an hour south of Anchorage. The drive down takes you alongside the Turnagain Arm, where you can see belugas in the summer and lots of sea ice in the winter. Though not as massive as many famous ski areas, Alyeska is a world class resort with several high speed lifts, a tram, great terrain, and one of the best views ever from the entire mountain. Like you’re riding down into the Pacific. The last time I visited was a very long time ago on a pair of Army issued skis, bowlegging it down the mountain in camo Gore-Tex just wishing I had a snowboard. Well, that wish finally came true, and was one of the main intentions of the trip. And man-oh-man, what a day it was. Mid-week, no crowds. Early clouds and overcast turned bluebird before noon, ski patrol started opening up the gates, and it was sunshine, steep lines, and mashed potatoes. Run after run after run. Seven hours of straight shredding son. An all-time top-ten day of riding.

Seward. I had planned on spending a couple of days snowboarding, but after that day I knew the next would not compare, especially after waking up to cloud cover and colder temps. Thoughts of flat light and hard pack were entirely unappealing, adjustments appropriately made. Drove a couple hours down the Kenai Peninsula over to Seward, where I once again found sunshine beaming down on snow covered peaks and seascapes. Spent the morning X-country skiing around freshly groomed Bear Lake, the afternoon duck-walking for a couple of miles on a trail of ice through shady trees out to Tonsina Point on Resurrection Bay. As Pete wrote in response to the last post: ‘A land touched by the hand of God.’

Hatcher Pass, Independence Mine, Government Peak, and Palmer, AK. Initially, I imagined spending a couple days down south, taking my time driving back to Fairbanks, and camping out in Denali on the way home. Once I got down that way, however, there was no compelling reason to hurry back—especially given forecasted negatives in the park. So I decided to stick around for another day and check out Hatcher Pass in the winter and spend a night in Palmer. Palmer, in spite of its unfortunate proximity to the aforementioned Wasilla, which festers like a growing tumor a few miles away, is one of my favorite towns in Alaska, and has the added bonus of several great breweries. Not a hard sell to myself.

Admittedly, I was somewhat wary to visit Hatcher Pass. It’s beautiful and busy in the summer, and famous for snowmachining and backcountry skiing in the winter. I had always imagined it to be crazy and noisy with people and tracks and avalanche slide paths all over the place. Maybe it gets like that, but the day I went my car was alone in the parking lot, and there was only one set of ski tracks through a foot of powder on the mile up to the mine. Oh, and it was t-shirt weather. Truthfully. Spent a couple of hours soaking in the sunshine and poking around the old gold mining camp, and then drove over to the Government Peak cross country trails, which were freshly groomed and a blast to ski. Great views, lots of fun ups and downs, perfect conditions. That evening was sunlit peaks above town and a couple craft brews down in it. #blessed…

Made it home just in time for the biggest snow of the year here in FBX. First day back on the job was hours of deep pow tree riding at Ski Land. Looks like winter might be here for a bit longer after all, though it’s getting a little crazy out there conditions wise. After those days down south, however, I can know that I did my best this winter, and ease on in to whatever comes next. Which, I’m guessing, is like a bunch of mud followed by four straight months of daylight and all kinds of who-knows-what.

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