Rotisserie Blues

‘But momentum propels you over the crest. Imperceptibly, you start down. When do the days start to blur and then, breaking your heart, the seasons?’ – Annie Dillard, ‘Aces and Eights’

Spit-roasting through the galaxy. Round and round that hot old sun in a sizzling self-marinade. Days and thoughts on repeat. Rising and falling. Held in place by forces of gravity; hurtling through empty space thanks to the same. Time crumples in the created cosmos of memory and experience.

Light snow yesterday. Equinox tomorrow. More dark than light the next—and many to follow. Fall to winter. Seems like the one before last just got started.

Granite Tors

A visit from my old friend Peter, and a big loop up and amongst the Granite Tors.

Triple Lakes Trail, Denali NP

Rainbow Ridge and Canwell Glacier

Denali Highway (135 mile stretch of dirt road on south side of Alaska Range)

Yi doing what she loves.
Above three photos courtesy of Yi Wang

Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs (after this season’s Munson Creek fire)

Denali Park Road

Last weekend and gettin’ to winter, but that snow’s from August!
‘The world was made to be free in…’ Photo: Melissa B.

Ready or Not

Beginning to feel as if I might have run out of words for this project. Cat’s got my keyboard, or something like that. Have also been feeling detached from reality at times (assuming there is one), like I’m floating around filming someone else working their way from one day to the next. But wanted to do a little something for the month, and suppose the location shots that person’s been wandering through have been interesting enough.

The beginning of August saw depressingly high temperatures breaking records across the state. Soon after, however, a return to something more akin to ‘normal’ occurred, and it’s been clouds and rain ever since. And yes, the impending return to dark and frozen. Ready or not.

I’m going with not quite, and hoping for some likeness of fall, though that semblance has already been creeping in for while now. Cooling temps, changing leaves, the inevitable setting of the sun. And it is all as beautiful as ever—the reds and golds replacing the greens—just feels a little early this time around.

Since the last time it’s been a week down in Denali guiding a few commercial trips on the Nenana, a hike up and over Mt. Healy, an overnight trip on the Chena River, a couple days over to the east (Tok and Delta Junction) trying to get out of the rain, and some hiking/camping/canoeing in the Maclaren Valley off the Denali Highway. There it was an upstream jet boat ride to ‘glam camp,’ a long hike to the Maclaren Glacier, a float out the next morning, and a stroll along the summit trail. It was also an amusing Alaskan souvenir brought to life when a moose swam across the river in front of us directly underneath a perched bald eagle with a glacier in the background. The T-shirts are real!

Denali NP

Mt. Healy and ridge walking for miles.

Chena River

Couple miles from the house as the raven flies, but feels pretty far from everything when you’re out there.

Tok, Delta Junction, Quartz Lake

Mukluk Land. Monument to the epic quantity of junk weathering away in the Great North.
Little Tok River

Maclaren Glacier, River, Camp, Summit Trail…

Outhouse with a view.
Sunset of nothing but blues.

North of the Line

In early July, I graciously accepted an opportunity to accompany some folks to a couple national parks in the arctic. Got briefed on the planning, packed the food and gear last week, and flew into the native village of Kotzebue on the Chukchi Sea, where I met the clients. From there, we took a ride in a bush plane and landed on a swath of sand dunes just south of the Kobuk River. Camped two days and nights in Kobuk Valley NP, followed by a scenic shuttle to the Upper Ambler, where we spent another couple of days in Gates of the Arctic NP.

These awesome people were hoping to get in some walking, and walk we did, making the most of every minute out there. A great group, and a solid mix of Alaskan experience: intense mosquito moments, varied weather, bushwhacks, ridge walks, river crossings, a short period of being ‘turned around,’ and a close encounter with a big black bear (mostly comical). Appreciation in abundance for all aspects of the week.

Kotzebue

Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

Gates of the Arctic

In-Tention

Looking over to Mt. Prindle in the White Mountains

‘First day of summer’ yesterday and Summer Solstice 2021 today. Mixed feelings for multiple reasons. Was there a spring? Will there be a SUMMER summer at all? Is this it? How far off is winter this year? Didn’t it just end a few weeks ago? No, turns out like almost two months ago, but now maybe only two months before the next one? Really? And even though those two months will have every bit as much near 24-hour daylight as the last two, we’re definitely on that downhill slide after tonight… Oh jeez, it’s a lot. Aspects of arctic existence are not conducive to focusing on the present, that’s for sure. There are also the thoughts of ‘what have I done’ and ‘what all can I do’ with this precious summer season, the one that many people speak of as if it’s over before it’s begun.

Turns out I’m a bit flummoxed that I’ve only spent a handful of days in a tent this year. Five maybe? Seems like it should be so many more this ‘late’ in the season. Last year I was out multiple times a month beginning in February; in 2019, the year before I moved up here, I easily spent well over 100 nights snoozing under a rainfly. I’m not interested in tallying exact numbers, but the amount of nights and days I’m able to spend in the wilderness provides a good personal measure for quality of life. The more nights out, the better I feel about it all. Days off are not meant for sitting around in the same old places, and sedentary hours in a house rarely have a rejuvenating effect. Currently, I’m fortunate enough to work a 4-3 schedule, and my general goal is to have a completely different life on those three days off a week than the other half. Last summer I feel as if I managed to do this most of the time, but this summer I’ve been off to somewhat of a slow start. Let it be known then that I am setting an In-Tention for the rest of the summer to spend as many nights as possible zipping myself into a nomadic nylon home. I will start tonight, and hope to get a glimpse of the true Midnight Sun on this longest of days.

Escaping and avoiding stubborn snow fields on the Quartz Creek trail.

And this is not to say that I have been sitting around, as the past few weeks have been filled with about as much activity as normal, just feels like it’s all flying by so quickly. June, so far, has been a big hike up Quartz Creek and a loop around Table Top Mountain; camping out at Prindle and chasing a porcupine out from under my car in the early morning hours; guiding several float trips at work and spending most other workdays at a lodge on Birch Lake; and enjoying a full week of showing my mom around.

It was her first time up to Alaska and we made the most of every day. As is often the case with having visitors, it was great to go and do some things that I may never have done on my own, as well as to share a few of the places I get to hang out in on a regular basis. We did lots of short hikes, paddled a canoe around Bear Lake and down the Delta-Clearwater, went out 4-wheeling, spent an evening at Birch Lake and a beautiful night cruising around on a pontoon boat, and then went down to Valdez for a while. There it was enjoying the seaside mountain scenery, and going out in Prince William Sound on a Stan Stephens tour for a full day of wildlife, waterfalls, and glaciers. Got really lucky with everything on that day of nothing but sunshine, and were treated to glimpses of just about every animal on the provided checklist: otters, seals, sea lions, puffins, gulls, eagles, porpoise, humpback whale, black bear, etc. Back this way for the last couple of days we hit a lot of the popular tourist stops, including Rika’s Roadhouse, Quartz Lake, the Santa House, UAF Museum of the North, Creamer’s Field, LARS, Ester Dome and more. I know she was happy for the opportunity to come up and hang out, but has probably also been happy to get some rest since she’s been home. A great week and plenty of requisite Us Doing Things and Standing in Front of Things photos to prove it 🙂

My only decent wildlife pic out of all the time in Valdez… Dock Point Trail.
Confluence of Delta-Clearwater and Tanana
Paddling across Clearwater Lake

Finally, a few pics from a guided trip down Piledriver Slough two nights ago. Even though this little run is right next to the Richardson Highway, it always provides great wildlife viewing. This time down the group was able to watch a bull moose grazing on aquatic vegetation for a good while, and later had quite the thrill when a baby calf crashed out of the bushes followed shortly after by a concerned (and potentially very dangerous) mama moose. I ended up on one side of the pair, with the rest of the group on the other. Once reunited, the mother soothed her frightened baby, and eventually they walked off into the woods. One of the trip participants got some great shots of both events. (I do want to note that the perspective in the photos makes us look like we’re a lot closer to the moose than we actually were—other than when they came running out of the bushes. Significant distance is recommended.) Thanks to Jennifer Howell for letting me share them here.

Another tough day at the office. Photo: Mike D.

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.

The (Puke) Bucket List

Having done no real research into the origin of the phrase ‘Bucket List,’ I will simply proclaim with confidence that the idea of cataloging ones cravings pertaining to travel and experience went mainstream with the eponymous 2007 movie co-starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I remember watching the film around the time it came out, and enjoying it in the feel-good, mindlessly entertained manner intended (though with perhaps a deeper message overtly delivered).

In subsequent years, the phrase began to permeate the common lexicon and inundate the imaginations of millions of would-be travelers and experiencers. Most everyone, it seems, has a bucket list these days, and is happy to share that fact in casual conversation. Whether there is an actual bulleted list that lives on the back pages of mostly blank journals, or ideas that simply exist in the universe of intentions, its presence is regularly mentioned though rarely acted upon. Daring to dream, but not bothering to do.

As you may have ascertained from the title of this post, I’m not a big fan of the expression, or the expression of it. I don’t hate it in a serious manner, of course. More like a mildly perturbed one as with any time I hear someone sharing some trite cliché. A little cringe-worthy, it is. There are two reasons for the trifling revulsion, both of them, I’m sure, topics touched on at other points on this blog. The first one is the distance between words and actions; and the second has to do with consumeristic collection of events as compared to appreciation of authentic experience.

One of my most difficult struggles in life repeatedly resurfaces in activity-planning conversations with others. People talk. Sometimes they believe themselves, sometimes they simply say what they think others want to hear. They make plans on the premise that they might truly like to do whatever it is they say they’re going to do. They want to be the person that would get up in the morning committed to crafting a gratifying lifestyle. However, those plans are often made with the (perhaps subconscious) knowledge that when the time comes there’s little to no chance of said plan coming to fruition. As with dieting, exercise, and the cessation of self-destructive behaviors, many people like to imagine an idealized existence of motivation and fulfillment. In reality, however, the fridge beckons irresistibly, cigarettes and cocktails prove too inviting, and the couch feels way too comfortable come Saturday morning.

Having a bucket list is a lot like making New Year’s resolutions or even dreaming of winning the lottery. All of these things are benign in practice, and it’s often fun to envision a fortuitous restructuring of our personal circumstances. The only harm in resolutions and bucket lists is imagining that any of these things are truly going to happen without dedication and effort. And if a person isn’t willing to put either into the manifestation of their goals, there’s about as much chance of them happening as picking the Powerball.

This pattern, that of talk without action, blab without intention, the jib flapping and tongue wagging and word vomiting, only partially represent the overwhelmingly misdirected coopting of the bucket list ideal. There is also the issue of people doing things solely to say they did them. The accumulation of packaged adventures. The checking of the box, and buying of the t-shirt, and flaunting of the instantly posted photos. It is always mildly depressing to hear a rafting client exclaim: “I can’t wait to check this one off,” as we prepare to go down the river—the experience already over before it begins. To mark things off a list generally signifies getting them done and over with so that we can move on with our lives, little appreciation given to the chores that need crossing out. There is only a slim chance of truly living in the moment given such an attitude, where phone calls and photos are mentally making people jealous (adding items to their own bucket lists) even before the day’s journey commences.

It is even more disheartening, though more rule than exception these days, to witness individuals entirely consumed with their technologies rather than in physical experience. Obsessed with capturing proof for public reference. And surely this is all too familiar to all of us, expedited experiences forgotten in the moment only to live on in their documentation. As I heard it recently in a Ted talk from Argentina: ‘Como resultado, empezamos a vivir la vida para mostrarla, no para disfrutarla…’  [As a result, we began to live life to show it off, not to enjoy it…] And yes, it is fun to share our lives with others (as demonstrated on these pages), but it is even more imperative to live it for ourselves.

As such, the bucket list—if we are to define it as things you really want to experience/achieve before you die—should be getting shorter all the time, and each bullet on it best be meaningful. Which seems to be the problem with most people’s use of the phrase. To hear the items come up, the lists seem never-ending and constantly expanding—and based primarily on what other people are doing or have done. The things on it are things people imagine other people looking at photos of them doing, and judging them accordingly as intrepid adventurers and the protagonists of amazing lives. I realize I’m being both dramatic and literal here, but a real bucket list should be things you really want to do, and things you actually can do—and above all there should exist deeply developed reasons corresponding to each yearning. It should be personalized and prioritized and based entirely on individual values and goals rather than insatiable status quo/social media trends. You should have a plan to achieve each item, instead of hoping a chance appears in some far off future. If you want it, you will make it happen.

And if you don’t really want to put in the work—well, just pass me a bucket next time you decide to mention that list. Kinda makes me want to puke.

*Photos from various locations in Argentina 2016

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.