Ice Ice Maybe

Breakup season on several different Interior waterways this past week. A day of hoping to see a bunch of ice, and a several days of hoping not to.

Went down to Nenana with Yi on the 3rd, which turned out to be about two days late for watching the mass exodus of Tanana ice this year. While I did get a couple of good shows last year as the ice went out, witnessing massive flows smash their way down one of the bigger Alaskan rivers remains an elusive experience. Wah wah, better luck next year. Did take the opportunity to walk out on the train trestle and up the river a ways. Nice day for certain, and I’ve decided I could happily live the rest of my life in the 65° range.

Couple days later I ended up scouting a trip I had scheduled for work. Had no idea how much ice might or might not be blocking the route down Piledriver Slough, a casual half-day float trip a few miles out of North Pole. At the put-in the water was open, but the banks were still covered with several feet of snow and ice. As the ice melts each spring it ends up forming big undercut shelves on the sides of the river. This can be quite dangerous if there are rapids, or simply problematic if there aren’t, as there’s no good way to get into or out of the river. Knowing the take-out was clear, however, I opted to go full send and got in a fun little seal-launch followed by several miles of tranquil paddling. Very cool to see all the waterfowl back in town, as well as a couple big beavers busy at work after a long winter. I was also privileged to see a large wolf run through the trees as soon as it caught a glimpse of the boat coming downstream.

Two days later I took a group of folks down the same stretch, though we started a mile downstream to avoid the ice shelves. On that trip we saw several bald eagles, slowly floated past a couple of moose in the bushes, and spotted a couple more walking across the river just before the take-out.

Photos: Mike D.

And a couple days after that it was over to the Upper Chatanika and an informal river safety day for a few neophyte boaters looking to get into some good Alaskan adventures. I honestly had no idea what to expect, as all of the lakes and some of the creeks on the way out there were still completely frozen over, but once we got to the river itself things looked pretty clear. Well, actually, like really brown, but open water, good flow, and minimal ice on the banks. Ended up doing close to 30 river miles that day, and did indeed have to portage around and over several sections of ice dams in which the entire river was packed solid with massive blocks of ice. Extreme caution is advised when messing around with said features, as large hunks are subject to shifting without warning. Falling through and ending up underneath the entirety of it all would not be a happy scenario. We also got to paddle through a lot of ice as well, including one really fun little rapid comprised of a small drop through several berg-esque features. A little over two-thirds of the way down, a great teaching moment presented itself in the form of six-inches of canoe bow sticking out the top of one of those ‘deadly strainers’ I’d been harping on about all day. A little rope work and a lot of hearty pulling and we were able to salvage a thrashed Old Town from its watery grave. Paddled it the rest of the way down, and will hopefully one day paddle it again in restored condition. A long but awesome day, and a solid week of (mostly) fluid adventures.

Walking down the river.
Ice Capades
Score! Photo: Ryan F.

Transitional Spaces

Generally, I have an almost non-existent relationship with passive entertainment. Your typical couch potato activities, that is. I’ve never owned a TV, never paid for cable, don’t play video games or spend time on social media. At one point in my life I used to watch a lot of movies, but that was a long time ago. This past year, the year of binge watch marathons worldwide, I’m pretty sure I saw less than 10 films, and only fractions of seasonal shows. I can’t even remember the last movie I watched, but don’t think it was in 2021.

This past winter, however, I’ve developed an unsought YouTube habit. Not sure how or why it started, but it’s the truth, and I’m coming clean. It usually creeps up on me at the end of each day, around 9 p.m. By that time my brain and body are shutting down, but it’s not quite time for sleep. Can’t read anymore, already exercised out, played all the guitar I could muster… And out comes the phone, that awful little bugger. Often, the routine will start off well-intentioned. Initially, I’ll usually try to be somewhat productive. The first video or two will be in Spanish, or have something to do with music. Eventually, I’ll make my way into comedy. Try to get in a few laughs before bedtime. If motivated, I might start that off in Spanish as well—Carlos Ballarta, La India Yuridia, Alan Saldaña—if I can understand 80% of the jokes and catch a few in-the-know Mexican culture references I feel pretty good about it. Failing motivation, however, it’s usually into some Bill Burr, maybe a bit of Chappelle. Straightforward no-nonsense calling out of cancel culture and conservative conspirators alike. The truth is in the middle—if either one of those two things exist—and the reality really isn’t funny at all, but at least these guys can make us laugh about it.

But then, almost inevitably, comes the slide. I don’t often go down the recognized YT Rabbit Hole, but the algorithms have me figured out the same as everyone else. I usually manage to maintain some kind of category focus, but that’s about the only semblance of self-restraint I can claim. There is commonly a slight shift from one type of comedy to another, maybe over to a night-show monologue. You know, get a little daily news in. No less slanted or biased than any network these days, so might as well go with the lighthearted version. After that, about the time I really should be getting into some teeth brushing, what has apparently become a guilty pleasure/curious nemesis takes hold. Sometimes for a couple of videos, sometimes for a whole string of them. I’ve yet to remain captive past midnight, but it’s been close.

I think it all started with cop videos. As in real ones. The body cam captures of crazies, criminals, and constant haters, and all the people and seedy situations police officers deal with on a regular basis. Why or when I started watching these channels, I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps it was searching for another side to a now popular narrative, or maybe it was some really good clickbait. I do have this to say, however, I would recommend watching a couple hours of these videos to everyone.

I’m guessing most of us have a fairly ambiguous view of police officers, they’re good when we might need them, but defiled if they’re holding us personally accountable for something—spoiling our fun or slowing down a commute. Watching certain versions of the news these days sees them constantly demonized, and it is both acceptable and prevalent in pop culture to portray cops as a united enemy to be opposed. And violently opposed at that. There is even blather about defunding departments and eliminating entire forces. Which is why, I would suggest, that before considering joining into any of those conversations a person should sit down and watch some YouTube. Afterwards and during, one might consider what society would actually be like without any means to enforce the laws that most of us agree allow our world to function. That is without the thousands of decent men and women who work at a thankless and potentially fatal occupation dealing with entitled assholes and violent criminals alike. Certainly caused me to soften up a bit. I know I wouldn’t want any part of that job. While fully aware that significant issues exist within the system, and across all strata of our governmental organizations, I can still be thankful for the majority of the people that volunteer to serve in them.

The channel I found myself viewing most is created by a man who goes by the intentionally ironic mark of Donut Operator. Donut, as far as I can tell, spent several years working as a police officer, though now seems to make a living from his YT channel and streaming himself playing video games on Twitch. What a wonderful time to be a creative entrepreneur. Anyways, most of Donut’s videos feature footage from incidents ranging from traffic stops to deadly force encounters. In each episode Donut attempts to objectively assess the actions of both officers and offenders, as well as to address prior and current viewer comments regarding the prudence of decisions the officers make, along with the training and procedures they might be following in doing so. As in, why did an officer shoot a crazed addict who was charging them with a broadsword instead of using a Taser or verbally assuaging the danger. The range of scenarios officers may come across is baffling in scope, as are the outrageous and entirely unrealistic demands for non-lethal force against very lethal threats.

But it’s no longer the cop videos that are the draw, they’re just how I got to the next place. The place I’m in now. Even with Donut’s admirable sense of humor and objectivity, the negativity of each situation on his channel quickly becomes a draining experience, even if it does create a sense of empathy for what a lot of officers routinely go through. Realizing this adverse reaction—that of the negativity, not the empathy—however, makes the decision to watch what I’ve been habitually watching somewhat confounding. The name of the channel I’m now hooked on is Active Self Protection, and I obviously ended up there through the benevolent auspices of the algorithm. Like watching people get shot? You’ll love this next suggestion. The thing is, I don’t think I particularly enjoy witnessing or even imagining violence, though somehow find myself captivated by this particular channel (which features nothing but violent situations), and its host, John Correia (pronounced similar to the country in Asia).

The format goes like this: we see a snapshot of a real-life encounter which inevitably involves a person, or multiple people, attempting to violate the rights of another person, or persons—generally a robbery, mugging, car-jacking, kidnapping, etc., though occasionally a road rage incident, bar fight, etc.; the preview is followed by a brief intro of the day’s topic by Correia and a short advertisement by his sponsors, usually makers of pepper spray, targets, ammo, gun holsters…; after the ad we get to the footage, which usually comes from one or multiple angles taken from security or dashboard cameras; following the video, Correia introduces the lessons viewers might take from each incident, often while replaying and reviewing the tape. Once again, these are all real incidents, most of which happened fairly recently. And people, real people, often die violently—almost always by gunshot—in the encounters.

The videos are generally not as horrific as they may sound—though a couple of them most certainly are. And really, all of them should be. Human beings are killing other human beings. They are killing them out of greed, out of spite, out of anger, and in order to survive. And we’re allowed to watch endlessly. We are desensitized to the violence, immune to the telling of these age old stories, and buffered perhaps by the poor quality of the often audio-free videos. We’ve seen it all before so many times on the screen, hear about it every day in the news, so none of it seems all that real. In order to make the scenarios more palatable for dissecting key learning points, Correia himself incorporates humorous euphemisms. The ‘good guys,’ when killed, ‘sadly didn’t make it.’ The ‘bad guys,’ when terminated, take ‘the room/asphalt temperature challenge,’ depending on whether or not they die indoors or out. The winner of a gunfight, we’re always reminded, is ‘the first one to get effective shots into the ‘meaty bits’ of their opponent.’ You should also keep in mind that when a gunfight starts, ‘You have the rest of your life to get shots on target.’ And then there’s John’s FIBSA Factor, the ‘F— I’m Being Shot At’ which often ends an encounter by sending perpetrators fleeing whether they’ve been hit in the meaty bits or not. Curiously enough, they usually run either way rather than dropping dramatically to the ground as Hollywood might have us believe. Like chickens with their heads chopped off, many of the mortally wounded criminals manage record sprint speeds before eventually keeling over.

A good portion of the videos hail from Brazil, which comes out seeming like a terribly dangerous place to live or travel as a result. Many amusing comments may be read pertaining to viewers’ newfound averseness to vacationing there. Ironic, of course, when one realizes that almost all the other videos come from the United States, and that this is exactly how we’re viewed by the rest of the world. Somehow this fact doesn’t seem to register with most of the folks commenting. Perhaps because we’re so used to it now, and perhaps because the incidents are often referred to by which state they come from rather than being attributed directly to our country as a whole. As of a couple of weeks ago, the US, in slightly over three months of 2021, has already ‘tallied more than 12,000 gunshot deaths… and 150 mass shootings in which four or more people were killed’ (The Week). Over 23 million guns were purchased in this country in 2020 alone. Some would have you believe that more guns equal less violence, but that clearly isn’t the case. Others call for the banning of guns entirely—an incredibly impracticable scenario given all the guns that are already out here. What’s the answer then? I really don’t have any clue.

But the real question here is: Why am I watching this before turning in for the night multiple times per week? Why is this what I end my evenings with when I’m too tired to focus on anything else? I guess I’m unsure of that myself, and often swear that I will cease this behavior, but sometimes can’t resist the enticing titles that continue to pop-up: ‘Store Owner Takes the Fight to Robber;’ ‘Two Armed Men Stop Knife Attack Cold;’ ‘Guard Forced to Shoot Angry Patient…’ Do I not already know that the world is fraught with peril? That good and evil are locked in eternal battle? That there are profuse numbers of wicked people waiting for opportunities to do harm? That there are guns and bad guys and boogey monsters everywhere? Is it that I like to see karmic justice delivered to criminals? Which happens, but not always—plenty of victims die as well. Do I like to imagine myself a hero? Or pretend that these videos will provide a sense of readiness in case a similar scenario occurs in my own life? I don’t even ‘keep my tools on’ me (i.e. carry a gun around everywhere I go) which is one of the top lessons of every video.

The answer to that question is also that I don’t really have one. But I think it has a lot to do with Correia himself, and the lessons he provides in each video. Each one is analogous to fostering a holistic lifestyle of awareness and introspection. Correia encourages viewers to think about what they would do in each situation. His channel might even be viewed as an acknowledgment that there is evil in the world, and that we must live alongside it. Correia promotes preemptively identifying our values in order to let them guide us in the event of danger. What is worth dying for? When is compliance a better strategy? Where should you draw the line as far as that compliance is concerned? In what instances might you step in to assist someone else? When shouldn’t you? He talks about what it means to be a moral and ethical defender, and praises those who are able to reduce a threat appropriately and without undue amounts of force. In many of the videos he cautions against letting our egos get the better of us—‘Don’t start none, won’t be none.’ He counsels letting go of reactionary behavior and walking away from unnecessary aggressions.

Common chair partner at Ski Land. Worth those 1000 words. Bout all you need to know about that place.

Correia’s brand is built around the ASP acronym, and features a snake’s head as its logo. He admonishes viewers to ‘cover their ASP’ at all times, and promotes proactive measures to ensure physical and emotional fitness. The letters stand for Active Self Protection, but also double as the guiding principles that allow us all to be better prepared for the unexpected in life: Attitude, Skills, and a Plan. I appreciate the simplicity of it all. Be confident. Always work at improvement. Know what you’re about.

Correia also covers the tactical aspects of each scenario and highlights the need for increased diligence in certain situations, namely transitional spaces. While we should always be attentive to our surroundings, even in what we might consider to be safe zones, we put ourselves at greater risk as we travel about in the world around us. Vigilance is recommended. These spaces may be represented by thoroughfares and parking lots. Always go to ATMs (‘Accessories to Muggings’) inside of buildings. And so forth. This too, I think, can be applied to the larger scale of life. Seems like the transitional spaces can last for years even as we move about looking for a safe environment, our happy place. It’s imperative then to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. To be able to identify threats and deal with them appropriately. To remain aware. Stoicism is an endorsed form of compliance, and we must accept much of what life visits upon us—though there is also time for action and self-preservation. It’s also significant to realize that sometimes bystanders are there to help you out. Even more important to know that you can help someone else out. And finally, when life suddenly spirals into chaos, we must recognize the wisdom of Correia’s guidance, ‘Attitude is Everything.’

Honestly though, I really need to just go to bed when I’m supposed to.

Speaking of transitional spaces, the day I got back from the trip down south it started snowing and didn’t stop for days. Then it warmed up and all that snow started to melt. And then it got really cold for a while and all that melted snow turned to a whole bunch of thickset ice. For days the roads were about as treacherous as they can get. A few places even shut down for a minute, but for the most part it was business as usual, though more cars in the ditches than ever. And after that, it got crazy nice. From -20 on Saturday morning to 50 something on Sunday afternoon. And it stayed there for two full weeks. Days of glorious sunshine and brilliant blue skies. Gorgeous spring weather and all kinds of snow for all the things. Perfect conditions for just about any winter sport you can imagine, but no need for bundling up. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It was days of getting out and getting after it. Waking up each morning and greeting the sun. The standard doses of fresh air and exercise, plus welcome regimens of Vitamin D therapy. Lots of day trips and multiple modes of transportation/recreation. One of the highpoints was a day with Emilie, Jim, and a few of Emilie’s sled dogs for a marathon distance skijor from her cabin at the top of Murphy Dome, down down down to the pipeline and the Chatanika River, along the river for many miles and then all the way back up the big hill. The morning was a bit harrowing with less than desirable conditions due to overnight freezing. Some sketchy descents, and a handful of falls for everyone but the dogs. The afternoon, however, was magnificent. Once we hit the pipeline it was nothing but sunshine and slush the rest of the way. The temperature was hovering around 60 that day, about enough to melt a person after a Fairbanks winter, and after lunch we all had to strip down to our skivvies to finish out the rest of the day. Even that layer proved too constricting for Jim, who bucked it all the way down and courteously hopped in the back of our line. Thankfully, no severe burns were accrued in the following hours, and the dogs pulled like champs in helping us back up the hill. A big outing for Jim and myself, a casual day in the life of Ms. Emilie.

There were also a couple days of snowshoeing around Wickersham Dome and a perfect three-day weekend—t-shirt snowboarding on Saturday, super-fast skate skiing on Sunday, and the season’s first float trip on Monday with Emilie and Becky down the Delta Clearwater, the only ice free section of water around. Well, mostly ice free, I got to hop out and ride a big floe down the Tanana for a few minutes, which was actually more stimulating than it sounds. Fun facts: first mosquito bite on April 20th, first cloud of mosquitoes encountered two days later (even though still in the 20s most nights!), and then all the sudden one more full day of winter and snow on the 30th. So now back to transitioning with a little Alaskan reminder of the impermanence of all things. Those sure were some amazing days though. Warm memories, you might say.

Bonus Track: Clay Pigeons. I heard this song for the first time ever a couple days ago. Originally by a singer/songwriter from Texas named Blaze Foley, it was also recorded by John Prine. Both artists use a technique called Travis Picking for the song, and both versions are worth a listen, or lots of them. Maybe I’ll get there one day, but for now just sticking with some chords. The most basic ones. Like the rest of life, a work in progress.

The End of Dreaming

There is an alternate hazard, I suppose, to that of creating endless lists comprised of future plans. And that would be the living of them until no further desires remain. The point where invasive realities and uncontrollable circumstances descend—a deep fog obscuring the bygone brilliance of halcyon days. Colorization in reverse: full spectrum vibrancy turned monochrome. The point where the choices don’t make sense any longer, and only confusion remains. What happens when all the dreams are gone away—whether realized or otherwise? When the things one lived for previously have disappeared into the past forever?

What’s left then? And how to make sense of it all. Can meaning be created? Forced? Found again? Hoped for or believed in? The obvious truth is that life goes on with or without overt implications of purpose. Some people care more about this than others.

To wonder what this world might be about may be the most senseless burden a person can voluntarily assume. Crushing, really.

Time, considered a constant in many practical conversations, seems anything but, and paramount somehow to any discussion of reality and the meaning we might impose upon it. It is this concept of time in which we work out our interpretations of attainment and fulfilment, or their antonyms. Time alters as we age. It changes with mood, with activity, when we are with different people and in various environments. Without a feeling of purpose in life, or a someone to mark the memories with, weeks and months melt into years and disappear without notice—while mornings, nights, and hours alone languish in indefinite suspension.

What is there to do then, at least in the meantime, but move from macro to micro. To focus on maintaining, to figure out improving. To hold fast to hope. To do the things, and work at appreciation in the moment. To be open to new experience and change. To eat less sugar and play some more guitar. To get some rest. To sleep, perchance to dream.

March in Alaska is appreciation in the moment. The light, the snow, the warming temps. Every single day importunes to be lived in. Recent things: hiking six miles up the McKay trail with MA, Jack, a sled, and enjoying a few speedy descents; killer day of skiing with Sean on the old Fairbanks to Circle route; long shadows and tea time on big solo Stiles Creek loop; the Fairbanks World Ice Art Championships; my little place in the birch trees and the more guitar part. (Might have to give the page a minute.) They say you have to perform to get better. With gratitude and apologies to Mr. Guy Clark.

Dublin Blues

For a Minute

January 20, 2021. To take some time today for thanks. To acknowledge a sense of coming out from underneath something. To breathe regular and deep. To celebrate less anger and antagonism, a respite from doublespeak and incessant invocations of lies. To appreciate a little more class. A modicum of decency. To hope that the terrible ironies of the past weeks, months, and years may relent, even if only for a minute.

Here, aside from those outside influences, it’s been an intentional shift of focus. No longer the same drive to go out and about no matter. A hiatus from solitary efforts and extended excursions in exchange for a few hours of fellowship when available. Still the long hours of confinement, the days and nights of quiet seclusion, but a renewed concentration on communal activities. And a few new ones at that. Ice fishing with MA and Yi, cross country skiing and exploration with whoever wants to go, a newfound enthusiasm for winter biking, and a foray into skijoring (skiing super fast on sketchy trails while tethered to a sprinting sled dog) with Emilie, Salomon, and Ragnar.

Half-Full

A few hours from now I will have been in Alaska for one complete year. It’s been interesting to assess, over the past several days, how much has shifted since this time last January. Globally and socially on the macro scale, and all sorts of ways at the individual level. Thinking about how foreign this place seemed at times. All the darkness and a certain kind of cold, and trying to figure out how to exist in it one day at a time. Trying to figure my way out in this part of the world, that is, and how to navigate in a new reality with minimal support. I thought that moving here mid-way through winter might have been a better time to arrive than earlier in the fall, but now I realize it was probably more difficult not having any sort of transition time. I smile to think of all the groping around in the dark on several different levels, often quite literal. How a majority of learning my way around occurred in the black of some very long nights.

But one acclimates. We figure it out. We get comfortable, and gain an awareness of our environments until a place holds a certain familiarity. We adapt. We learn to appreciate what we have around us, and to embrace the locations we live in with a certain sort of pride. We work to identify the beauty therein. Or, at least, we are capable of doing so if we commit to it. It’s been refreshing then, over these past few days, to think about those first winter months compared to now. The cold and the darkness are simply a part of life, and I’ve learned the whereabouts of all sorts of amazing places, and the timeframes for experiencing them. It’s also been inspirational to realize that there is still a lot of exploring to be done, even just a few miles from my doorstep.

Another calendar year now a shaving of history. What we learned in the process remains to be seen. Upon us now, 2021, The Year of Unprecedented Expectations. May it live up to even a small fraction of these anticipations. And may we notice if it does.

For my own part, there are aspects of life, mostly out of my control, that I hope will shift in the near future. Yet it seems the best way to start a new year, or week, or day, is with an attempt to offer appreciation for what we might have, rather than lamenting that which we don’t. I like the idea of resolutions, but more so, it’s prudent to reaffirm that which we are doing right in life, make some small adjustments, and move forward from there. Change, as has been proven, does not occur overnight, not even on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps better than a list of unlikely habit modifications then, how about a list of the things we are thankful for, an expression of gratitude for the things we’re already doing right, and maybe, just maybe, a couple things we might want to work on from there.

Mine? Gratitude: Family, healthy body, income, house, motivation, good sleeping & eating habits, books, curiosity, ability, free resources for learning, access to the outdoors, access to equipment, memories and impressions left over from years of adventures, a life in Alaska, a few friends to call, money in the bank, food in the belly, clothes on the back, car in the driveway, fuel in the tank, keys on the table, skis in the backseat… Keep doing it right: Language practice, exercise, exploration, personal and professional growth, focus on healthy practices, positivity, learning, letting go, holding on, keeping some faith… Two things: Less sugar, more guitar.

It has not been an easy year, and the next might not be any easier, but I’ve always loved ending and starting a new one not just with words and thoughts, but with actions as well. What better way to confirm one’s convictions than invite them to the party? The past couple holiday weeks have held some tough days, but many positive experiences as well. The solstice was indeed a celebrated time of year. The night before, I met up with a friend and her friends who decided to create a small community event with the making and lighting of ice lanterns (a core of ice illuminated by a candle) along a mile of trail just outside of town. It was fun to participate in the placement and lighting of the lanterns, and then watch the whole neighborhood come out to walk and ski the route. The following day, that of the actual solstice, I did a ‘Dawn to Dusk’ hike, something I’d heard of months back, and wanted to participate in. The event is more of a do-it-yourself thing, which is exactly what I did, but sponsored by the local running club. The idea is to run/hike ‘all day,’ on the shortest day of the year, which, if you’re going by sunlight hours up here, was around 3 hours and 48 minutes. I went up to a place called Chena Dome, started just after it got light, and walked steadily for 15 miles on snowpacked trails around Angel Creek. Took about 6 hours total, and was almost dark by the time I got back to the car. I got to see some spectacular colors in the sky around sunup, but never saw the sun itself as it was too low on the horizon and behind the mountains all day. The moon that night was huge, its light shimmering across the snow covered landscape.

What else? The last couple days have been great as well, and the amount of winter trails in this area is truly unbelievable. Must be hundreds of miles all a short drive away. The new ‘Trails Challenge’ has been revealed, with even more places to find, and just today I discovered a 12-mile loop right down the road from my house! Last day of December was teaching some ski lessons and taking a group to track down a few signs; New Year’s Eve was a midnight 5K run on ice at -10° in downtown Fairbanks with fireworks exploding from every yard in the neighborhood; and this morning was miles of skiing those newly discovered routes.

2021, so far, so good. All the best to you and yours, and may we all be inspired to adapt to and appreciate whatever might come next. Happy New Year!

12/21/2020 from Angel Creek Hillside early in the D2D
Figuring out the skis and searching for some signs

Then I See a Darkness

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.

Falling to Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Cabins, Caves, & Quarantines

Early April in Alaska. Spring snow continues to fall this year, though transitions throughout the month of March were certainly dramatic. We now enjoy lots of sunshine most days, and light from early morning to around 10 pm. Definitely makes hanging out outside even more appealing, as do the temperatures which hover in the 30° range. As mentioned in the last post, things here are as elsewhere, though several weeks behind. Anyone coming back into the state is asked to do the self-quarantine thing, and the rest of us are mandated to stay within our local communities, though allowed to go outside while maintaining appropriate distancing from non-household members.

It’s certainly difficult not to get caught up in the severity of an unfamiliar situation. Hard to know what to do about any of it, and impossible not to consider all the difficulties—financial, physical, emotional, mental, etc.—so many are going through at the moment. But it is also important to look for ways to alleviate worry through deliberate action, as fretting about misery we have no control over only creates unnecessary internal despair. Inventing ways to morph negative to positive, to capitalize on the unexpected rather than dwell on the unchangeable, is an important aspect of successfully surviving the pandemic. It’s been uplifting to see how many are managing to do exactly this. Developing business strategies to continue to offer services to clients; inventing routines and challenges for working out at home; hosting live concerts from remote settings; and all manner of other motivating and engaging innovations are readily available for internet inspiration.

Like many, my work schedule has been drastically altered for the time being. Reduced responsibilities leave hours and days open for any and all activity which might alleviate the isolation. For me then, it’s been an opportunity to continue to explore the local area and do a few of the things I didn’t think I’d have time to squeeze in before this winter was over. With all this time, and the snow still hanging out, mini-missions to nearby locales have become the standard for escaping the confines of apartment exile. A few photos from the past week:

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White Mountains. Spent a few days in the White Mountains, a one-million acre recreation area west of Fairbanks. The BLM oversees the area, and grooms 250 miles of trails open to all manner of winter travel. They also manage 12 public-use cabins, which can be reserved online. Would really like to do an extended trip in the area at some point, but a couple of nights in the cabins was a good way to reconnoiter the opportunities, and a fun, and physically challenging trip in its own right. Stayed the first night at Fred Blixt, which is the only drive up cabin of the set, and then hiked/snowshoed 14 miles out to the Colorado Creek cabin the following day, returning on the third.

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Castner Glacier. The Castner Glacier Cave is an easy stroll/snowshoe off the Richardson Highway south of Delta Junction. The cave is at the toe of the glacier and formed by an underground stream which drains the glacial melt in warmer seasons. Travel on the glacier itself provides amazing views in all directions, and is reported to be a great summer hike into the Alaska Range.20200329_162647 

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