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

Spinning into Equinox

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

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

Quartz Lake
Arctic Harvest

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

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

Igloo and Cathedral, Denali NP

Gulkana River

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

September Lights as captured by Yi Wang

Days’d and Confused

Yesterday was a celebration of Summer Solstice, longest day of the year and the official beginning of the season. A big deal in these parts, though it’s been warm temps and forever light for many weeks now. Can’t even remember the last dark night. Fairbanks is not quite far enough north to experience the true ‘midnight sun,’ but close enough to feel like it. A few hours of twilight now and again add a little ambiance to ever changing skies, but the days just roll on and on and on.

This past week has been a few days down in Denali for some rafting, hiking, and ATVing; a bit of cruising around the neighborhood; and a Solstice float down nearby Piledriver Slough. Images from the field:

20200615_115511

Nenana River and Mt. Healy

20200615_191547

Threading through thunderstorms on the way up to Healy Overlook

20200616_132157

Crossing the bridge on the way over to Ferry, AK. The only way to get there in the summer.

20200616_154857

Mike and his boy Gabe checking out the Alaska Range

20200621_111438

20200617_075028

20200616_110421

Savage River, Denali NP

20200620_210925

Many Rivers to Run. Piledriver Slough.

20200619_190205

The neighborhood. Happy Summer!

Full Speed

Creamer’s Field

Summer. Sunshine and days without end. Continual hours of daylight and opportunity and limitless options for action and exploration. Life at full speed. Exciting and potentially exhausting. A full day’s work can easily be followed by what would otherwise be a full day’s activity. Up at six, work at eight-thirty, off in the afternoon, on the trail or on the water by six… forced bedtime around midnight with the sun still up and shining. It’s almost impossible to be inside. Every day is like two in one, and often features a week’s worth of weather to boot.

Due to the coronavirus, the cancellation of any and all social activities, and a wonky weekend working schedule, I still don’t know many people in the area. I am fortunate, however, to have met a couple of friends motivated to do the things. Neither of them have a lot of expedition experience, per se, but both have two things in common: an appreciation of new adventures and a love of Alaska. Still on my own most of the time, I’m always happy to have others along for the company. Each time we go out walking, Michael Ann, who sets her alarm for 11:30 each night to remind her to go to bed, says with near disbelief, ‘We live here!’ And Yi, a Taiwanese native who lived in LA for most of her life before coming to Alaska two years ago to see the aurora and never leaving, has an artist’s appreciation of experience. ‘I feel like I am in the picture,’ she said recently, meaning inside the post card print of these ceaseless scenic environments. Both have also selflessly volunteered to help me out with shuttles and more for several solo trips, for which I am incredibly thankful.

And every day, truthfully, there is always something new to see, to do, to appreciate. New species of birds flying through, wildflowers blooming everywhere, butterflies flitting about, insects in inconceivable numbers. Life exaggerated. And then there are the places, the creeks and rivers to paddle, the hills to climb, the sleep to miss out on… Mind numb, muscles failing, must keep moving…

20200531_110302

Birch Lake (the daily grind…)

20200603_195140

Evening thunderstorm and Jesus rays on Far Mountain

20200602_132932

Middle Chena

20200528_193202

After work mission down Moose Creek

20200610_104701

Stopping to smell the roses on the Chatanika

20200610_191130

Sometimes, the struggle is real!

20200610_125837

Wickersham Dome

20200610_185934

20200610_19092220200610_131819

20200607_215212

20200609_202411

May Meltdown

Another month in the Interior, and a complete transition from one world to another. Having been up a winter without an Alaskan summer, and many summers without an Alaskan winter, it all finally makes sense. Traveling from the outside in always seemed such an abrupt event that adjustment was an undertaking. Living from one season to the next, however, witnessing the lakes thaw, and the rivers break up, and the trees budding one week and rematerializing decked in green the next, both body and mind undergo a similar shift from dormant to fully alive. The 20-hour days and the 60° temperatures—so amazing when one can tangibly recall 100° down the scale—inject an insistent energy into everything around. It is good to be alive.

COVID has not yet had the dramatic impact on human health here that it has in so many places around the world, though the economic repercussions of weeks of lockdown and the crisis as a whole have only just begun. The Alaskan economy relies heavily on summer tourism, and there will be incredibly limited visitation this year, leaving many without work or an annual income. At the same time, there is trepidation concerning opening the state back up to visitors, as closing the borders prevented an initial spread of the virus, though may have only delayed the inevitable once travel resumes. Life as a whole seems to be moving back to the way it was before, however, or whatever the new normal might look like. Businesses have been okayed to reopen, with minor restrictions, the sun is shining, and Alaskans have reemerged from the confinement of both winter and quarantine. As for myself, I’ve been back at work for several weeks already, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to have employment in the outdoors (or at all, for that matter), as well as considerable chances to explore my surroundings. So much to see and do, and summer has only just begun. A few of those lived opportunities from the past several weeks:

Round-a-Bout. The last part of April and early part of May (something akin to spring, I suppose, or mud season in the Rockies) were a bit of a weird time for electing outdoor activities. It was skiing on the remnants of groomed trails some days, and running on a select few dry paths on others—or even both on the same day. It was slush, ice, miles of standing water, and lots and lots of mud. For the most part, trails were too muddy to walk or drive on, but also not snowy enough to travel. The rivers were melting off, but with huge ice dams creating lethal hazards in unexpected places, hence no early boating. A state of limbo. But it was also a time to get out and get going, time to do something, anything.

I didn’t know anyone when I moved here only a couple of months before the beginning of all this, though thankfully I met a few people just before things started shutting down, and was lucky enough to have one quarantine companion to socialize with during the ordeal. Not sure what life would have been like otherwise, and don’t care to imagine complete isolation for the duration of all those days. The importance of friends has never been more pronounced. Anyways, right before going back to a regular schedule, we headed south for a few days and ended up making a big highway loop from Fairbanks to Delta to Glennallen to Palmer, Talkeetna, Denali, and back. A round-a-bout on a significant portion of Alaska’s limited road system, in other words, the 2,4, 1 & 3, or the Al-Can, Richardson, Glen, and Parks Highways respectively—though the numbers are rarely referred to and the names change confusingly along the way. The original intention was to travel the Denali Highway, which is in reality a 130 miles of dirt road on the south side of the Alaska Range, but we only made it in about 20 miles from either side as several feet of snow prevented through travel. Even that early in the year, however, the daylight was abundant, allowing for lots of sightseeing and plenty of hiking around. Highlights were moving through a wide variety of terrain and weather conditions—bone dry mountains on one side and pure winter on the opposite; hikes up Donnelly Dome, Lion’s Head, along the Matanuska in Palmer, and down to the Nenana River in a couple different places in Denali; witnessing huge chunks of ice crashing their way down the Susitina and Chulitna Rivers; lots of wildlife including groupings of moose grazing together and a quick glimpse of a wolverine crossing a dirt road; and amazing views of Denali from multiple vantages.

Drove the loop in the center. Line through the loop is the Denali ‘Highway’.
Donnelly Dome looking south.
To the north.
Hours long sunset illuminates the Mat Valley.
Nenana below Dragonfly Falls
Nenana overlook
Denali from the ‘highway’.

Delta Clearwater. Finally, after weeks of waiting to get on some moving water, the opportunity presented itself with an overnight on the Delta Clearwater. The original plan was to float the Chatanika, but hot temps and excessive melting created flooding throughout the area, so last minute research revealed another local run which proved to be the perfect spring float and testing run for the little ‘pack raft’ I plan on using for the summer. There are two commonly run trips on the river, both of which begin about 12 miles from the confluence of the Delta Clearwater and the Tanana. Each trip involves floating those miles of the Clearwater and then joining up with the Tanana. The shorter run, which I chose this time, ends with a mile float down the Tanana, followed by a one-mile paddle up a side stream to Clearwater Lake. The second option is to continue another 18 miles on the Tanana and end up at a bridge just outside of Delta Junction, something I certainly hope to get in before the end of fall. Both are also amenable to a bike shuttle, which is always an awesome way to deal with logistics. The Clearwater itself is a bit more developed than I’d imagined, with lots of summer cabins along the banks, though has its wild sections and certainly lives up to its name with crystal clear water revealing school after school of fish swimming below. There was also lots of waterfowl, along with a great campsite and sunset, a couple well-timed rain showers, and more of a wilderness feel the last few miles.

The PR 49. Not as classy as a canoe, or as comfortable as a raft, but holds plenty of gear and easily fits in the back of a Camry.

Tanana. My next couple days off (full weekend warrior mode (though with Tuesdays & Wednesdays as weekends)) I paddled 56 miles of the Tanana from the Pump House in Fairbanks down to the town of Nenana. I left at noon the first day and arrived around 5 the next, and got incredibly lucky with a steady downstream breeze and the push of some high water current. Could have been brutal otherwise, as the Tanana is a massive river (the largest tributary of the Yukon) which can be miles wide, and slow moving as it meanders through multiple braided channels for the majority of the time. The highlight of this trip was definitely the island camp which I found at exactly the mileage I’d hoped for after an afternoon of steady paddling. A small flat sand patch surrounded by mounds of driftwood, with an excellent view of the Alaska Range in the background.

Tanana Valley
Rusting relic. Old Tanana riverboat.
The get-out in Nenana.

Up Close. Hard to not be effusive when detailing the amount of potential in this area of the state. Summer seems to hold even more prospects than winter, with an abundance of hiking, climbing, biking, boating, etc. all within an hour’s drive. There are trails galore, a profusion of float trips from a few hours to a few weeks, and lakes, mountains, and rivers in every direction. The hardest part is narrowing down the next adventure, and trying not to worry about how much you’re missing out on while doing it!

Run Free! Moose Creek Dam in Chena Lakes State Rec area. Walk, ride, or run for miles.
200′ from the front door. Bear Lake.

Back Upstream

20200426_091235

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.

20200422_170329

Chena River, Downtown Fairbanks

20200422_143301

Chatanika River

20200422_143056

20200422_091402

Tanana River

20200426_090619

20200426_091126

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.

IMGP2299

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.

BCL_4286

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.

12

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.

25

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.

132

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

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.

DSC_0078

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.

gutierres 100

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.

GC 053

GC 093

GC 075

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.

IMGP2312

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:

20200330_200009

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.

20200331_185004

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 

20200329_160431

20200329_160325

20200329_163250

20200329_162807