Winter solstice, 2020. The darkest day of one bleak year.
December 21st. Fairbanks, AK. Sunrise: 10:57 a.m. Sunset: 2:42 p.m. Not quite the full story, as it’s certainly light out for a little longer than those few hours each midday. However, with the sun so low on the horizon, overcast weather can obscure it for days at a time. I am fortunate in that I’m able to be outside for at least a couple hours each afternoon, and that my schedule conveniently allows for driving to work in the 9:30 predawn. Nice to get at least a few hours a day of visibility, even if it’s through a windshield. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go to an office in the dark and sit inside all day and then drive home in the dark. But then again, I could never even imagine the office part to begin with.
A lot of folks, including myself before moving here, say they think the darkness would be tougher than the cold. They’re both just part of life, I guess, these days. And I suppose one’s reaction depends on how life happens to be going that winter. I’m working on three years of solo living, the last one in a new place where I moved just in time for a socially distanced pandemic. So, there’s certainly a lot of darkness outside the window. Every morning, every night. No people, no pets, no TV, no terrible habits or hopeful distractions. I won’t lie, it’s a lot. The deepest blues are blacks. At some point one has to be honest about whether or not more daylight would help anyway. Trying to keep the faith. Trying to stay healthy. Trying to find new ways to fill up brain space, and override the thinking time. A few new songs on the guitar, a foray into picking up some Italian, books and more books. Reading overdose. Exercise and stretching. Lot of time to manage and strange how it passes. Weeks and months blur together leaving one wondering where they disappeared to. Days, however, or the long dark hours between them, drag on forever.
In the daylight hours it’s the usual, but with less motivation than usual. Skiing, walking, skiing, couple days of snowboarding, bit of snowshoeing. Trying to get in at least a few hours of socialization each week. Been out on a few jaunts with the Fairbanks hiking club, which materializes as anywhere from 2 to 10 people depending on the week (though several hundred members on Facebook, of course, always ‘liking’ it up). Have also been able to run a few trips at work, trying to keep other people on the positive side of winter as well. A few photos from work and not work, and an encouraging end note: After tonight—Gaining!
Work: More Castner Glacier, Ski Land Resort, Plow Truck, Trail Maintenance, Trail Enjoyment.
Not Work: Moose Mountain, Rat Pond, Angel Rocks, Chena Dome, Mastodon Trail, Upper Angel Creek Cabin.
Happy Solstice. Happy Holidays. May there be light in your life.
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…’
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.
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.
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…’
Above photos taken during a trip from Texas to Alaska a few years back: Northbound 17.
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.
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…)
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.
From 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.
Caribou in the Clouds. Quartz Creek.
Moose Creek to Fairbanks on the Tanana
Since 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.
Tiny tents and a classic campsite on the Upper Tangle Lakes
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Nenana River and Mt. Healy
Threading through thunderstorms on the way up to Healy Overlook
Crossing the bridge on the way over to Ferry, AK. The only way to get there in the summer.
Mike and his boy Gabe checking out the Alaska Range
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…
Birch Lake (the daily grind…)
Evening thunderstorm and Jesus rays on Far Mountain
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Chena River, Downtown Fairbanks
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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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.
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.
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.
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.