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
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!
Winter camping is not something I would invite someone to do. It’s one of those things that for some strange reason you have an interest in, or that for plenty of good reasons you don’t. It’s a different kind of fun. Actually fun might not be the right word, though depending on the trip there can certainly be joy inducing moments. Reward may be the better term. There is challenge in encountering the elements and taking care of yourself in demanding conditions. Everything moves at a slower pace. Tasks must be completed with deliberation. One must constantly evaluate and deal with fluctuating circumstances. It is rarely ‘go go go;’ it is often ‘stop and fix.’
Some examples: You must not, obviously, let yourself get too cold. You should do your best to leave your gloves on, which turns easy jobs into tedious chores. As long as it’s not really really cold, it’s probably okay to cheat every now and again, but exposing hands to frigid wind and/or touching metal (think setting up a tent or using a stove) can quickly escalate into severe discomfort and potential risk. You must also not let yourself get too hot, which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. You want to avoid heavy sweating, which means delayering for movement and regularly changing into dry clothing, especially socks. This generally means taking off clothes in the cold before you start moving, and as soon as you stop in order to put dry layers on. Neither a particularly inviting occasion to get naked in icy temps while surrounded by blowing snow. You must also make sure to consume lots of calories and liquids, preferably hot. This means keeping things from freezing solid, and eating when you might not want to, and heating water, and cooking food, all of which require attention and time. You must make sure not to clumsily spill boiling water on yourself in spite of bulky clothing, or dump dinner on the ground. You must be methodical and organized and proactive. You must deal with wind, and snow, and darkness.
The rewards then: The satisfaction of self-preservation. The snug feeling of being properly layered and tucked into a sleeping bag while the wind howls around you and snow piles in drifts against the side of the tent. The knowledge that after you’ve finished dinner for the night and made all the preparations for bed there is absolutely nothing going on for the next 12-14 hours. The sleep. The enjoyment of having miles of wilderness all to yourself. The light and the landscapes. Moments of intense quiet and stillness. Guiltlessly eating as much chocolate as you thought to bring.
Mushing Trail to the Teklanika River
I recently spent a few mid-February days and nights in Denali National Park. I won’t bother with the specific logistics, but things are going on in the park this year which shaped the route I traveled, a 30-mile figure eight from the Savage River over to the Teklanika drainage and back. I hiked the main park road, which is closed in the winter, on the way out, and was able to hike and ski along a sled dog trail on my way back in. The only people I saw in the backcountry were a group of four rangers and their sled teams who packed the trail while patrolling. I went up and over a couple passes from one drainage to the next, and crossed a few frozen rivers, exhilarating moments for one unaccustomed to the practice. Caution is advised, as while there could be several feet of ice up top, current still runs underneath. A mishap could easily prove fatal, though iced over waterways have been utilized as winter travel routes for centuries.
Nice work if you can get it… NPS Rangers
Trail across the Savage River
Huge depression of collapsed ice right next to crossing
Savage River downstream, AKA why I took the bridge the 1st day
The trip provided the opportunity to optimize winter gear options, and to experiment with using a toboggan to transport it all. Officially known as a ‘pulk,’ I was able to put one together with a sled I found at work, some webbing and carabiners I had at home, and two lengths of PVC pipe which provide stability and prevent the sled from sliding forward into your ankles on the downhills. The day before I left, my boss excitedly presented me with a harness (actually designed for pulling one of these things) he happened across at an outdoor store. Thanks Sid. The set-up had its challenges, especially since I packed the sled like someone else was going to be pulling the 100+ pounds on there, but proved to be an efficient tool in the end.
The weather was a mix of everything. Wind, cold, blowing snow, spots of sunshine and warmth, a serene winter scene of big falling flakes on the last morning. Temperatures ranged from negatives to high 20s. I spotted one snowshoe hare and stood very close to a large bull moose grazing in a snow drift. I also saw tracks from all sorts of other animals, including one large wolf print. It was all about exactly as I was hoping for, and probably the perfect amount of time to hang out down there.
Again, I wouldn’t try to convince anyone who wasn’t interested to experiment with tent camping in the winter. It was hard enough to convince myself to go with the thermometer reading -30° the morning I drove down (it was up to zero by the time I started walking, however). A more popular option would be to utilize one of the amazing huts—equipped with wood stove, kitchen, beds, etc., available to rent all over the state. But I enjoy seeing what life must have been like not all that long ago, and what Iditarod mushers and arctic explorers and all sorts of other crazy folks do or did on a regular basis. It’s also remarkable to experience natural environments as they exist as a whole. To know the forces which shape and define them. Furthermore, it’s nice to rethink what’s important in life for a while, to shift focus from the irrelevant to the most basic. A cup of hot tea, a warm sleeping bag, a long night’s sleep, and a good bar of chocolate.