Songs About Drifters

Needles, South Dakota

Entrenched in winter. Around mid-October snow began to fall, followed by a cold snap which sent temps down in the deep negatives for days. A recent warming trend has suddenly brought on a serious winter storm, with a couple of feet of snow on the ground already, and no signs of letting up anytime soon. Outside the window, birch and spruce trees sit in perfect silence, giant snowflakes descending slowly from the sky. It’s calming to gaze out, observing the world as the serene place it can be. Elsewhere, the crazy continues to compound. The pandemic, the election, the denial associated with both, and the frightening fact that a significant percentage of our population refuses to accept anything as news that doesn’t bend to desired truth. Conspiracy over democracy, shallow self-interest above communal consideration, anger and lies trumping acceptance and positive intention…

But this isn’t about that. It’s about music. And roads. It’s about coming and going, and leaving more so than arriving. It’s about, as Sturgill sings it, ‘looking for the end of that long white line…’

As detailed in many prior posts, a good deal of my years have consisted of nomadic cycles of travel from one season to the next. Life in motion. And rarely set location to location, more like free-form rambling. One river to another, one state or country to the next, and a lot of worthy and whimsical attractions and distractions in the spaces between. Things have changed, of late, and I’m accepting of that in the moment, grateful for many aspects of my life in these difficult times, but it’s hard to subdue the spirit.

I chose a career based on opportunities to continually pursue a life outdoors, and accepted my current post with the intention of obtaining a different position in the near future—hopefully in another country altogether. In spite of having committed to a full-time job, I have no current plans or motivation to settle down to a sedentary lifestyle. Funnily enough, I’ve haven’t lived in Alaska even a full year this time around, but am already in my third residence. Old habits die hard. Something about staring at the same stale walls all the time, and sleeping in the same bed, and doing all the same things in the same places day after day tends to grind all the enjoyment out of life. Ugh, and don’t get me started on the accumulation of material goods. They’ve been piling up for months now, the needs and wants incarnate and little chance of even half of it fitting into the trunk of a Camry. Bed, sofa, mountains of warm weather gear, kitchen supplies, a good start at a home gym… Thankfully, however, I could throw it all in the Goodwill bin and walk away without a rearward glance. Could really care less about owning anything at this point.

There is just something about the kind of freedom that comes with leaving places and things and routines, committing instead to open roads and uncluttered options. Something that makes it seem like the only kind of freedom there is even. As Townes knew, ‘There’s no stronger wind than the one that blows down the lonesome railroad line; no prettier sight than lookin’ back on the town you left behind…’

And nothing enhances that feeling of freedom like music about endless roads, heartbreak, hopeless drifters, outcasts and outlaws. Windows wide open and desert air and straight lines into sunsets. Good time tracks you know every word to, along with a few ballads about lost love and longing. Songs that let you experience being alone but not alone, in other words. At other times, songs you can enjoy with that perfect someone in the passenger seat. As Isaac Brock concludes, ‘I like songs about drifters, books about the same. They both seem to make me feel a little less insane…’

Biggest tourist trap ever. And kind of cool. Wall Drug, South Dakota

Following then, the outlines of a playlist. A top ten of sorts, or thirteen, or whatever. Not even enough to get most people to the next state line, but maybe a half-tank’s worth of songs and a full start at starting over again.

fIREHOSE ‘Windmilling’ and ‘Sometimes.’ One of my favorite bands as a teen, once I finally figured out there were bands that no one played on the radio. Growing up in a very small town in Texas, long before the internet, our window to the outside world was limited to television and Top-40. I guess a lot of people there didn’t mind, as one of the main stations in Amarillo remains stuck in late 80s mainstream. Even today, when visiting the Panhandle one is guaranteed to hear Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, and Tears for Fears on a daily basis. Fashions at school were at least a decade behind, with pegged jeans and hair-sprayed bangs the standard. MTV did feature actual music back then, but ‘alternative’ anything was just beginning to emerge, and punk rock was definitely not part of the format.

Hard to say if skateboarding led to a rejection of that small town mentality and accompanying status quo, or if it was the other way around. Maybe I just loved the freedom and creativity and sense of individualism that skateboarding provided, and craved more of the same. I wanted to know what else was out there. Not only that, but I wanted to go and skate it. When we turned old enough to drive, cars weren’t a good reason to stop skateboarding, they were tools to travel to far and away skating adventures. And then there was Thrasher Magazine, which, if I’m being honest, probably wasn’t always the best influence content wise, but provided a much desired counter-culture for a Texas teenager with little interest in pick-ups and team sports. Thrasher gave us inspiration, along with access to music and skate film soundtracks we never would have found otherwise. fIREHOSE was one of the many featured bands, all of them to become favorites, on the original Santa Cruz videos. These two songs in particular still evoke the feeling of freedom found with those first energies towards what would become endless road trips. Journeys of discovery.

Modest Mouse ‘The World at Large.’ With music, as in life, I always appreciate new interests. Love to stumble upon new sounds, artists, genres, and songs. It’s nice to switch things up a bit, to find something that creates excitement and revives passion. At various times I’ve put effort into doing so, and other times that stimulation appears organically. You hear something through the static of a community radio station while driving across a sprawling reservation; are captivated by a group of drunk strangers singing along to a heartfelt ballad in a palapa bar on a Mexican beach… You remember a few lines, maybe scrawl out a name, scan the credits at the end of a movie. You find that song, and perhaps others at the same time, and play them until you never want to hear them again. That’s what happens to me at least, a lot of the time. Every couple of years sees a shift from one or two genres to significantly dissimilar interests. I’ve gone through phases and hundreds of albums from punk, ska, grunge, alt rock to industrial, tribal, dub step, folktronica to rancheros, norteños, banda, ballenatos, flamenco, reggaeton to country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and old gospel. Just as I can’t imagine living in the same place for decades at a time, I cringe to think of getting stuck with the same music for all the days of my life—rocking out to tired sets of unchanging ‘classic hits’ on stations called Big Dog and K-WOLF.

Upper Missouri River, Montana

There are a few bands, however, that have proven the test of time. Artists I’ve been listening to for years that I’m still happy to hear on occasion. Albums and songs that still raise that same original energy upon listening. Modest Mouse is one of those bands. Not sure I could say what the exact appeal is, but I suppose it is the variation throughout each album, and even most songs. It’s the craziness, the melodic discordance. It’s that Isaac Brock is a remarkable lyricist, that even today I still catch deeply considered phrases that have passed by unheard somehow in 20 years of listening. It’s that so many of the songs are about searching for whatever—truth, meaning, purpose, sense in the universe—as well as the search itself, stories of pointless adventure, rambling chaotic songs about life and perpetual motion and infinite miles of freeway. Songs like ‘Dramamine,’ ‘Dashboard,’ ‘Float On,’ ‘King Rat.’ Probably my two favorites ever are one of their shortest tracks ‘So Much Beauty in Dirt,’ which speaks of local adventures, and one of the longest tracks, ‘Trucker’s Atlas,’ which sprawls from California, to New York, to Florida, to Alaska. ‘World at Large’, however, is replete with incredibly poignant lines, all relevant to the impulsive need to wander, from leaving the front porch without founded intention, to shifting seasons portending imminent departures. The ultimate song about drifters. One other great thing about being a Modest Mouse fan is that their digital discography represents at least a couple states worth of recordings—the perfect soundtrack for ‘a long drive for someone with nothing to think about.’

Waylon Jennings ‘Ramblin’ Man.’ I was emphatically not ‘country when country wasn’t cool.’ As mentioned, while growing up in Texas I was less than enamored with cowboy culture, and had little interest in romanticizing small town life. I guess it was in the Army when I eventually came around to that country state of mind, once I started listening to Hank Jr. and all the rest of the outlaw country legends. Waylon, David Allen Coe, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, and on and on. Songs about drinking and rambling and being free from care of judgment. Well, some of the songs at least. The best ones. I have little in common with the protagonist of this particular song, but like so many of those best ones, it sure is fun to roll down the windows, crank the volume, and sing along as loud as you can.

Hank III ‘Thunderstorms and Neon Signs.’ I love all the Hanks, and have spent a lot of hours listening to each. Senior sang about life, love, and loneliness, and died on the road. Bocephus—bad habits and good times. And Hank III, well, all of the above plus some extra darkness and added twang.

Sturgill Simpson ‘Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean.’ These days I listen to a lot of new country, probably even more than is good for me. It’s what’s on the radio. And I like a lot of the top 40 songs, the relatable ones I suppose. Songs about merciless southern girls breaking hearts, and feel good numbers dedicated to boats and beer drinking and Mexican beaches. A couple of the following bands on this list, as a matter of fact, might be heard on some of those stations. But probably not Sturgill. And that’s fine by me. Would hate to wear these songs down. Mr. Simpson sings it raw and real, often times with humor, and sometimes straight psychedelic. ‘Life Ain’t Fair’ is just a starter. ‘You Can Have the Crown,’ is an even better time. Things get stimulating with ‘Turtles All the Way Down.’ ‘Panbowl’ could crush a person.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Ramon Ayala ‘Un Puño de Tierra.’ This song came across the only radio station I could pick up last winter as I was driving aimlessly through a desolate section of New Mexico. Apropos lyrics for the moment, to say the least. The singer was a guy named Chris Arellano, and I certainly appreciate his voice and cover of the song. But it was originally made famous in separate recordings by a couple of Mexican greats: Ramon Ayala and Antonio Aguilar. At least, that’s what I was able to discern through some perfunctory internet research. Spending so much time next to the border, out west in general, and down in Mexico itself, I’ve certainly come to appreciate a wide variety of Mexican music, and love to pick it up on random stations across the US. Most of the OG machismo tracks fit right in with all that outcast country. Couple of the best examples would be ‘El Aventurero,’ by Aguilar, and ‘El Rey’ by José Alfredo Jiménez, covered also by the great icon Vicente Fernández.

Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes del Rancho ‘Amarga Derrota.’ Another band from border travels. Kids really, these three, from the northern desert states of Mexico, and unbelievable talent. Songs about all the things, ‘corridos’ about cartels, ballads of new love and lost love. Check out the creatively original tuba of Omar Burgos, and consider the legacy left behind by prodigy singer-songwriter Camacho, who died in a car accident in Chihuahua at the age of 22. So many good songs, all of them really, including ‘Hablemos,’ ‘Del Negociante,’ y mi favorita ‘Con Cartitas y Whatsapp.’

Zac Brown Band ‘Stuck in Colder Weather.’ This is a band you will definitely hear on the radio. Some songs might cause you to tear up a little, like this one, while others make you want to hoot and holler. ‘Chicken Fried’ anyone?

Townes Van Zandt ‘Snowin on Raton.’ If you have never seen Be Here to Love Me, you should watch it. Townes Van Zandt spent most of his life living on the road, writing and singing songs that have been performed by almost all the country greats. A true Texas legend, Townes’s songs are about seeking and rarely finding. So was his life. I guess that’s theme for a lot of the music on this list. In the verse mentioned earlier, the one about the lonesome railroad line, the speaker has actually found the one thing that will keep him settled for a while, true love, though it’s difficult to know how long the convictions will hold. And maybe that’s what all the roamers out there pretend to be looking for: something to make them stick around for a while, be it person, place, or thing.

Chris Stapleton ‘What are You Listening To?’ A song about being stuck in love with someone you’ll never see again. A voice that encapsulates all the loneliness in the world. A look that says pariah as fuck. Stapleton has been making the move from underground to spotlight these last couple years, singing duets with J. Timberlake, and Pink, as well as his own wife. Success well deserved. His latest release, ‘Starting Over,’ is not only playing on commercial stations, it debuted at number one on the charts. It offers a different something to search for: that someone who wants to be there with you the whole time, no matter how hard life might be otherwise. A lasting companion willing to pack it up, get in the truck, and go along for the ride. Two people that don’t need anything but each other.

Tom Waits ‘Long Way Home.’ (Also, amazingly covered by Ms. Norah Jones.) Seems like that’s the goal more than anything else. The dream. Finding that person that’s happy to be part of the process. The one that appreciates the adventure, and doesn’t obsess over the small details. If I ever had to pick the one song that says it all, the few verses that manage to distill life values into a couple of simplistic ideas, it’d be this one. ‘Money’s just something you throw off the back of a train…’ ‘And I love you pretty baby but I always take the long way home…’

Upper Missouri River, Montana

Above photos taken during a trip from Texas to Alaska a few years back: Northbound 17.

Falling to Winter

And I think over again
My small adventures
When from a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And thought I was in danger.
My fears,
Those small ones
That I thought so big, 
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing:
To live to see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

--Song from the Kitlinguharmiut. Copper Eskimo. Trans. Knud Rasmussen

Continuation of cycles. Almost a completion from when I arrived in Alaska this time around. It is mid-October, and winter has set in once again in the Great North. It feels right somehow, like it’s time, though a line from The Stranger appears amusingly in my head: ‘No, there was no way out, and no one can imagine what nights in prison are like…’ But still and again, the beauty of it all. The constant change of color and energy. The fascination in watching and listening as the world refreezes. The rivers, so recently thawed, now slush in motion. The lakes already solid enough to stand or skate on. The silence.

The last few weeks offered days on end of autumn at its finest, providing opportunity to get the head straight before the long nights ahead. It’s been good to slow shift from one extreme to the opposite. A few of the finer moments: paddling a bit more of the Tanana with Emilie and Toko; canoeing under the northern lights one week and hiking 12-mile summit in the snow two weeks later with Michael Ann; bike riding and axe throwing at work; and a visit from the lovely Renée, who flew from Phoenix, AZ to Fairbanks, AK—106° to 36° (and far colder by the end)—to hang out for a while. While she was around we managed to get up the Dome, visit Castner (as awesome in the fall as in the winter), hike Angel Rocks, hit up the hot springs, check out Fairbanks, and get in a dawn patrol paddle on Birch Lake. So incredibly nice it was to have someone to show around for a while, someone to share the world with for an all-to-quick moment in time. (Many of the following photos are courtesy of others…)

Chena Lake got the goods for every season
Just before the late-night light show

Spinning into Equinox

Three-quarters through the orbit and a steady transition from extended hours of sunlight to prolonged hours without. As mentioned in the last post, shifting seasons up here often portend instable emotional balance, as metaphorical dark days manifest as literal. Such was the case in early August, as autumn’s advance seemed to arrive far too early. It was difficult to stave off thoughts of the cold, dark, and lonely to come, even with relative warmth and long weeks of daylight remaining.

It is not uncommon this far north for sunny days to be replaced by snow storms overnight. In the visitors’ guide to Denali National Park seasons are defined as summer, winter, and ‘the other two weeks.’ But we are lucky this year to be experiencing a true fall season, replete with days of glorious golden glow and emphasized crispness in the air. Days that demand to be appreciated as they exist, without a thought as to any sort of before or after. Thankfully, these past few weeks have fostered a shift in focus from impending future to present moment. Days like these deserve mindful approach.

Quartz Lake
Arctic Harvest

As the dark skies return, so too do the extended sunsets, the northern lights, and opportunities to reflect rather than constantly move from one venture to the next. It’s time to be thankful for the past several months, as short as they seemed, and all that they contained. Time to take some time to look back on a few hundred miles of rivers floated, trails traversed, new areas discovered and explored. It’s time to slow down a bit, to get a little more sleep, maybe read a few books and reevaluate priorities. Time to spin through the equinox and settle into the balance which attends it.

Since returning from the trip to the Arctic, it’s been back at work and taking advantage of opportunities to return to running some trips for the program. It’s been a lot of days down in Denali, rafting and hiking and train rides with patrons, as well as a few days of camping and hill climbing on my own. It’s been checking out more local tails and continuing to expand awareness of the greater area. It’s been keeping an eye out for the aurora, and a four-day trip down the Gulkana River. It’s been a concentrated effort to live each day as it comes, all while taking in the fleeting colors of fall along the way.

Igloo and Cathedral, Denali NP

Gulkana River

Paxson Lake put-in. First day views of Alaska Range, two days later paddling towards 16,000′ peaks in the Wrangells.

September Lights as captured by Yi Wang

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

20200720_19053420200721_10240620200720_19115820200721_11172120200721_11041520200727_184804Since the last time it’s been berry picking and river floating and wandering in the clouds and even a few days of just hunkering down in the tent listening to rain on the fly and catching up on some reading. It’s been fleeting storms and thunder storms and storms that sit around for a few days—something I’m never quite willing to do. It was also a walk up to Gulkana Glacier, followed by an incredible few days in the Tangle Lakes region paddling and portaging from one lake to a second and on to a third where a small river drains back down to the first. Some beautiful country out there. 

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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 appreciative 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.

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.