November in the Negatives

-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.

Gunnysack Creek

Sean and I drove down south a ways to check out Gunnysack Creek. I’d never heard of the place, but thanks to Sean’s penchant for dreaming up out of the way, and often ambitious itineraries, I got to go see something new. Early in November things were actually eerily warm, so the creek wasn’t nearly as frozen up as it might have been. We decided to do a little adventuring anyway, and spent a pleasant afternoon post-holing along the creek bank, and hopping back-and-forth across questionably stable ice bridges. Was a beautiful little canyon, and quite unlike anything else in that area. Finished the evening with a quick stop at the Delta Brewery. A successful day and a good scouting mission for future forays into the area.

Tolovana Hot Springs

I had been hoping to visit Tolovana for a lot of years. Not sure when I first heard about the place, but by the time I arrived in Fairbanks a couple years back, getting to the hot springs was already etched in my mind. I almost committed two years ago, but this is one trip that didn’t seem like a good solo mission in the middle of February, or any other time for that matter. The trailhead is a couple desolate hours from Fairbanks on what is for all purposes a trucker’s ice road in the winter time. While the Elliot is one of Alaska’s main highways, it’s difficult to keep it clear of drifts, and impossible to do anything about the ice. The trailhead itself is alongside a remote ridgeline that is notorious for high winds and extreme temperatures. Perhaps the most fearsome part of the trip is knowing that you have to leave a car there for a day or two, and that if it doesn’t start when you get back you may be in serious trouble. It’s imperative to prepare for the worst contingencies imaginable, and to bring along all the winter gear you may need to shelter in place, along with a jumper kit and portable stove to warm the engine.

And so it begins…

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.

Birch Hill Gratitude

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