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.

20200410_161734

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.

20200411_191024

20200411_165501

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.)

20200405_172905

20200405_172746

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.

20200416_172130

Moose Creek Cabin

20200414_124344

20200415_151205

Eleazar’s Cabin

20200416_105107

The trail up Moose Creek.

Frozen Rivers & February in Denali NP

20200218_180553

Winter camping is not something I would invite someone to do. It’s one of those things that for some strange reason you have an interest in, or that for plenty of good reasons you don’t. It’s a different kind of fun. Actually fun might not be the right word, though depending on the trip there can certainly be joy inducing moments. Reward may be the better term. There is challenge in encountering the elements and taking care of yourself in demanding conditions. Everything moves at a slower pace. Tasks must be completed with deliberation. One must constantly evaluate and deal with fluctuating circumstances. It is rarely ‘go go go;’ it is often ‘stop and fix.’

20200216_170904

Sanctuary River

Some examples: You must not, obviously, let yourself get too cold. You should do your best to leave your gloves on, which turns easy jobs into tedious chores. As long as it’s not really really cold, it’s probably okay to cheat every now and again, but exposing hands to frigid wind and/or touching metal (think setting up a tent or using a stove) can quickly escalate into severe discomfort and potential risk. You must also not let yourself get too hot, which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. You want to avoid heavy sweating, which means delayering for movement and regularly changing into dry clothing, especially socks. This generally means taking off clothes in the cold before you start moving, and as soon as you stop in order to put dry layers on. Neither a particularly inviting occasion to get naked in icy temps while surrounded by blowing snow. You must also make sure to consume lots of calories and liquids, preferably hot. This means keeping things from freezing solid, and eating when you might not want to, and heating water, and cooking food, all of which require attention and time. You must make sure not to clumsily spill boiling water on yourself in spite of bulky clothing, or dump dinner on the ground. You must be methodical and organized and proactive. You must deal with wind, and snow, and darkness.

20200217_151123

The rewards then: The satisfaction of self-preservation. The snug feeling of being properly layered and tucked into a sleeping bag while the wind howls around you and snow piles in drifts against the side of the tent. The knowledge that after you’ve finished dinner for the night and made all the preparations for bed there is absolutely nothing going on for the next 12-14 hours. The sleep. The enjoyment of having miles of wilderness all to yourself. The light and the landscapes. Moments of intense quiet and stillness. Guiltlessly eating as much chocolate as you thought to bring.

20200217_133646

Mushing Trail to the Teklanika River

I recently spent a few mid-February days and nights in Denali National Park. I won’t bother with the specific logistics, but things are going on in the park this year which shaped the route I traveled, a 30-mile figure eight from the Savage River over to the Teklanika drainage and back. I hiked the main park road, which is closed in the winter, on the way out, and was able to hike and ski along a sled dog trail on my way back in. The only people I saw in the backcountry were a group of four rangers and their sled teams who packed the trail while patrolling. I went up and over a couple passes from one drainage to the next, and crossed a few frozen rivers, exhilarating moments for one unaccustomed to the practice. Caution is advised, as while there could be several feet of ice up top, current still runs underneath. A mishap could easily prove fatal, though iced over waterways have been utilized as winter travel routes for centuries.

20200217_122107

Nice work if you can get it… NPS Rangers

20200218_135903

Trail across the Savage River

20200218_140328

Huge depression of collapsed ice right next to crossing

IMGP1096

Savage River downstream, AKA why I took the bridge the 1st day

The trip provided the opportunity to optimize winter gear options, and to experiment with using a toboggan to transport it all. Officially known as a ‘pulk,’ I was able to put one together with a sled I found at work, some webbing and carabiners I had at home, and two lengths of PVC pipe which provide stability and prevent the sled from sliding forward into your ankles on the downhills. The day before I left, my boss excitedly presented me with a harness (actually designed for pulling one of these things) he happened across at an outdoor store. Thanks Sid. The set-up had its challenges, especially since I packed the sled like someone else was going to be pulling the 100+ pounds on there, but proved to be an efficient tool in the end.

The weather was a mix of everything. Wind, cold, blowing snow, spots of sunshine and warmth, a serene winter scene of big falling flakes on the last morning. Temperatures ranged from negatives to high 20s. I spotted one snowshoe hare and stood very close to a large bull moose grazing in a snow drift. I also saw tracks from all sorts of other animals, including one large wolf print. It was all about exactly as I was hoping for, and probably the perfect amount of time to hang out down there.

Again, I wouldn’t try to convince anyone who wasn’t interested to experiment with tent camping in the winter. It was hard enough to convince myself to go with the thermometer reading -30° the morning I drove down (it was up to zero by the time I started walking, however). A more popular option would be to utilize one of the amazing huts—equipped with wood stove, kitchen, beds, etc., available to rent all over the state. But I enjoy seeing what life must have been like not all that long ago, and what Iditarod mushers and arctic explorers and all sorts of other crazy folks do or did on a regular basis. It’s also remarkable to experience natural environments as they exist as a whole. To know the forces which shape and define them. Furthermore, it’s nice to rethink what’s important in life for a while, to shift focus from the irrelevant to the most basic. A cup of hot tea, a warm sleeping bag, a long night’s sleep, and a good bar of chocolate.

20200218_154852

20200216_135355