Summer in South Central AK

Another summer in Alaska. Whole lot of time on the rivers, a little bit of wildlife, extended light and endless amazement at the sheer beauty of it all. The magnitude of the landscapes, the severity of relief. Seeing the same mountains day after day and marveling at their infinite capacity for captivation, their ability to generate wonderment, reverence. Watching colossal skies shift color endlessly, a steady transformation constantly at play between heaven and earth. A scope of supreme proportions.

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One can’t help but to sigh, to struggle with comprehension. The perfection uplifting and oppressive at the same time. The immensity of it all. The impossibility of so much space and land and beauty and indifference.

Once again, however, I feel as if I failed at Alaska. Perhaps it’s hard not to. After so many years of heading north, so many dreams of figuring it all out, of allowing myself to be totally consumed, or at the very least of seeing a little bit more of the place – I’ve still yet to come anywhere close. It’s always the road, the planes, the machines. It’s staying too close in. It’s lacking the proper dedication required to find oneself far far away from anything like this world, a thousand miles, at least, from the closest chain store. It’s the inability to summon the attitude and attributes necessary to disappear into real wilderness for weeks at a time. I still believe in the idea of it all, dream of possibilities, but continue to falter. To pretend to have more pressing things to do. Work, for instance, making more money to spend at strip malls and supermarkets and all manner of soul-sucking endeavor. Bah.

No matter, for now. We do the best we can, or say we do. And still, to be there, to breathe in that place for a while, to see those mountains, the same ones, though always different, day after day – there is some success in that. In the knowing that it’s all there, uncaring. In the knowing that it is there. Simply that, sometimes, is enough.

So we celebrate small victories. Celebrate making the most of all that our self-imposed constraints allow. Celebrate fragmented explorations and scratching the surface. Celebrate the day hikes and short trips and seeing a couple new places. We celebrate, as always, the floating of rivers and running of rapids and sleeping on sandy beaches. We celebrate life itself, the living of it. And even if every single day isn’t maximized to its fullest potential, there’s a close proximity to such. There is appreciation. So that’s what this is all about, for now, a little bit of success. A few small victories. A tiny tiny sliver of a domain unto itself. A summer’s worth of small adventures and daily encounters with grandeur.

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Matanuska River

Stacking up the fun tickets, as one James would say. Work, if you can call it that. Most days I run a couple of trips down the Matanuska River. Rowing folks down the morning float, putting them to work on the whitewater. The Mat runs gray, silty, and cold, like most glacial rivers in Alaska, and I love guiding on it for several reasons. The fact that it’s wild and free and constantly in flux, first of all. The level can change considerably between morning and afternoon trips, and significantly from day to day. I also love it because NOVA is the only company that runs it. No lines at the put-in, frustrations at the get-out, no ten boat trips of slack-asses dragging eddy lines in front of you. Just get in and go downstream and have the whole place to yourself. I love it because it’s fun. Three miles of scenery, three miles of crushing waves, and a bit of messing around on the last mile to the take-out. I love it for the ‘glacial facials’ the river dishes out daily. And I like working at NOVA, the 40+ year history of the company, the old school atmosphere but with quality gear, the solid team of guides, and the generosity of the owner, Mr. Chuck Spaulding, employer and friend.

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Matanuska Glacier

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Both creator of and counterpart to the river. Mostly I see it on the drive-by, admire it from afar, but I’ll go out and walk around now and again. Check out the formations, maybe kick a few steps in some slush and mess around with a couple ice axes and the glacier guides. Pretty amazing out there in the early summer, before the melting and flattening begin. This year featured the appearance of some monster moulins, massive potholes in the ice, and a secret ice cave to hang out in, its walls crystalline blue.

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Talkeetna River

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An Alaskan classic, they say, though I’m not selling it quite so hard. Do feel privileged to have had the opportunity to run it a few times, but the scenery can get a bit monotonous, low hills, low clouds, and half-dead spruce forests. More than anything, I suppose, a lot of flat water for a 3-day whitewater trip, and, again, not the most engaging landscapes Alaska has to offer. Lots of salmon streams to stop at during the right season, however, hundreds of multi-hued forms visible under the surface, and generally plenty of other wildlife to be observed. Eagles, caribou, bear, moose… And the half-day of whitewater, if the river gets going, certainly has the potential to make the trip truly memorable – continuous miles of big hits, huge waves, and terrifying pour-overs. I saw it BIG the first time, and will not forget. Did I mention that you fly in and raft all the way back to town? And that town itself, the celebrated Talkeetna, is a cool little place in its own right? Certainly worth the time, and worth checking out if you have the chance, but if I was spending my own cash on a charter I would either spend a couple days hiking in the high-country after flying in, or more time fishing, or perhaps search out a different destination altogether. Perhaps even the…

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Chickaloon River

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Another trip we offer, and run quite often, mostly with organized groups of southeastern teens who do things right and spend 8 days hiking through the Talkeetna Range to the headwaters, where we fly in with boats and a whole mess of food to meet them and raft the 30 river miles back to the highway. Now this is some amazing scenery, massive peaks and granite cliffs the whole way down. It’s just on the other side of the mountains from the Talkeetna River, but the landscapes are far removed. The river itself, like all the rivers I’ve been on in Alaska, never stops moving, though also never gets too crazy, mostly Class II with a couple more exciting parts, and one annoying boulder and log jumble we call Hotel Rocks that warrants attention. Would be awesome to fly in to the airstrip (more like a BMX track in the middle of a bunch of alders…) and check out the basin for a few days before getting on the water.

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Other Places of Note

As mentioned, most of the summer was dedicated to income generation. There weren’t many days off, and our departure came premature due to quick changes in personal obligations. But, when there were opportunities, we took advantage of them. A few words and photos from those times.

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Pioneer Peak

Highly recommended if you’re in the Palmer/Anchorage area and up for a worthwhile challenge. An amazing day hike to test both legs (ha, both legs…) and endurance. Like most trails in Alaska this one goes straight up (and straight down) the side of the mountain. With a starting elevation around sea level and the peak at almost 6400’, obtained in a mere six miles or so, you might guess there’s a degree of suffering involved, though in my experience more during the descent than the climb. The rewards, however, in the form of awe-inspiring panoramic vistas, are immense and almost immediate with abundant and ever-changing vantages of the Knik Glacier/River and the ice-covered Chugach Range in the distance. The option to turn around whenever you like always exists, of course, but one of two basic goals generally determines most peoples’ motivations. The first stop is at the top of the ridgeline, about 4.5 miles up. The views from here are probably almost as good as from the peak, but if you’ve got heart (lungs and legs) enough to keep going, the hiking gets even more remarkable from this point as the trail follows a narrow ridge the remainder of the way up. A bit more heavy breathing, a few short breaks, a couple exciting scree encounters, and you’ll be there. And there is a good place to be. Views of the confluence of the Matanuska and Knik, the estuary, and the Inlet/Pacific Ocean await your arrival, along with glimpses of Marcus Baker, highest point in the Chugach, to the east. Take a while to be there if you make it, as there’s no reason to hurry to the knee-walloping walk back down. One of the best days I had all summer.

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Gold Cord Lake

Hatcher Pass is one of the more popular destinations in South Central AK, in summer and winter both. Just outside of Palmer, year round options for recreation abound amongst a backdrop of stellar mountain scenery. The area offers several great trails, and opportunities to explore old mining ruins, the most popular being Independence, one of Alaska’s top producing gold mines until WWII. With only a day’s rest after Pioneer, we took it a little easy and opted to walk up to Gold Cord Lake, then stroll through the mine site on the way back down. One of the most traveled trails in the area, the path climbs from parking lot to lake in a mile or so. We were fortunate to have the place to ourselves for a short while, and were treated to fluffy clouds mirrored across the emerald green water. Afterwards, we drove over the pass itself, a dirt road leading over to the town of Willow and eventually on back to Palmer and the Arkose Brewery (best beer in AK if you ask me).

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Copper Center to Chitina

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A week before taking off, we got in a 24 hour mini-vacation and headed southeast, eventually ending up in the tiny town of Chitina where we camped out beside the mighty Copper River. Along the way we managed to check out a couple of short hikes, one to the Tonsina River, and another to a waterfall and high mountain lake. The next morning, we found another trail overlooking an upper portion of the Tonsina, and walked in a steady rain for a couple of hours before heading over to Copper Center. That afternoon we met up with some guides from NOVA’s sister company, River Wrangellers, and rowed a raft down the Klutina.

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Klutina River

Had a chance to float about 18 miles of the Klutina one afternoon in August. Long bumpy 4×4 drive along the rim with great views of the river on the way to the put-in. Once in the boats, it was fast moving, turquoise blue water, big sedimentary cliffs, and bald eagles galore. The guides there do mostly fishing trips, and could talk of nothing but Kings.

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And that was that. Time moving. Months disappearing, the days convoluted blurs across the backdrop of mind. Better enjoy each one as it passes, no matter what you’re doing as it does. I try, I really do. Currently in a part of the world I have never spent much time in, Ohio. The fabled, or perhaps rarely discussed, Midwest. Specifically SE Ohio, and, from what I hear, there is a distinction to be made. The foothills of Appalachia, rather than the flat fertile expanses of farmlands one might imagine. A long way from Alaska, to be certain, not only in distance and geography, but all manner of comparison. There’s beauty to be found everywhere, however, and this place does not lack for it. Guess it’s exactly where I should be for the meantime.

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Run Alaska! (and Canada…)

Didn’t know if there would be enough to write about by merely focusing on a state which encompasses 1/5 the size of the continental US, so figured I’d better throw in another country or something as well. But not all of Canada, of course, just a few western provinces.

Obviously not going for full coverage here. Not even close to a comprehensive examination of running up north, just a few ideas on the feel of it all, and a couple of suggestions for anyone happening up this way.

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Running in Alaska (and Canada…) can be a lot of things. Challenging, steep, fun, frustrating, visually gratifying, and even a bit nerve-wracking. The minute you hit the trail, even paved ones, you know there are lots of things out there that can kill you. Bear, moose, humans, and even the mountains themselves occasionally seem a bit malicious. Even in the major cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, wild animals often prove potential hazards, and stories abound about unprovoked maulings by drunk natives and bears alike. No lie. I don’t want to be macabre with the sharing of details, but people have been killed (and partially eaten, or in one case never heard from again) while participating in major running events in the state. And not even the ones out front, usually just unfortunate mid-packers in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not always the most pleasant thoughts to consider when out all alone.

So yeah, there’s that. The need to be constantly alert, the need to make some noise, the need to carry a can of bear spray in hand, just in case. The perpetual requirement of heightened awareness proves both exhilarating and exhausting, depending on one’s mood. Gives a person something to think about, provides the mind with license to fancy.

Then there’s the weather. Rain, frequent wind, rapid changes in temperature. Maintaining any sort of regimented running schedule requires dedication and self-discipline. Flexibility helps as well. Best to go when the going’s good, or simply deal with the elements as they are.

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Locals don’t seem to mind a bit of discomfort or danger with their recreation. Though you might never see another person out running, the state boasts plenty of crazy die-hards, endurance athletes, and quirky ‘sourdoughs’ up for a challenge. A quick perusal of some of the races sponsored each year provides an idea of the type of adventure Alaskans prefer, from the insanity of the Mountain Marathon hosted each 4th of July in Seward, to the mid-winter Susitna 100.

My own experience in Alaska stems from several summers of living here and working on various rivers throughout the state. I am not a local, by any means. Each year I usually do a bit of traveling before and after the season, and I’ve driven multiple routes across Canada on the way up and down. In that time, I’ve seen a fair bit of some of the more accessible parts of Alaska, and the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, etc., often taking the time to survey some trails along the way.

The past several summers I’ve been based about 45 minutes east of Palmer in the Matanuska Valley. The name of the general location is Glacier View, a sparsely populated ten-mile stretch of the Glen Highway, or Alaska Highway 1, which leads from south of Anchorage up to Tok and onto the AlCan. Our headquarters/camp sits at the bottom of the valley at the confluence of the river and a couple of small creeks. From the office, it’s uphill two-miles in all directions. My first year living here I did my best to explore every game trail, 4×4 track, and dirt road around. I spent a lot of time running through the woods, crawling over and under downed trees, and doing my best to stay alert to my surroundings. Moose, which injure way more people each year than bears, are abundant here, and both black bears and grizzlies live in the area. Even on wider trails, I would be frequently whooping to announce my approach, and diligently scanning for animals to the front, sides, and rear. I eventually grew tired of the routine, of mustering the hyper-awareness I felt necessary even after miles of steeply inclined effort. These days, when I’m right here, right here, without any developed trails in the immediate area, I’ve reluctantly restricted my energies to road running.

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I don’t particularly like running on roads, especially trafficked highways. In fact, I would prefer not to even hear vehicular noise while exercising, much less be passed with frequency by speeding trucks and roaring semis. As such, Glacier View would not make a list of my top favorite places to run. Quite the opposite, in fact. The good news is, however, that sections of old highway, somewhat separate from the new one, still exist. The whole route was redone several years ago (a popular bumper sticker here reads: ‘Welcome to Alaska, Road Construction next 2000 miles.’), leaving leftover miles of decomposing concrete along the way. One such stretch extends a couple of miles from the back of our office, and another lies nearby to the cabin I’m staying in this summer, making for somewhat more pleasant runs, though both are still close enough to the highway to eliminate any sense of audio-tranquility. (Must point out here, however, that a busy highway in Alaska means a few trucks every couple of minutes…) Though as much as I loathe the idea of running along the shoulder of the main road, which I occasionally relent to on longer runs, the touted ‘glacier views’ often compensate.

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What I really wanted to write about, however, weren’t the highways, but a few of the running opportunities and trails I have found while traveling around Alaska as well as to and from. Just a short list of great places to run spanning across the top corner of the continent.

Palmer. The closet town around is Palmer, a quaint little farming community established in the early 1900s, and home of the Alaska State Fair. I generally find myself heading that way a few times a month in order to resupply, and each time I go I try to make time to run on the Matanuska Greenbelt Trails, probably some of the best developed trail running I’ve found in Alaska. The network of connected trails consist of small and large connected loops spanning many miles of open space. Most loops cut through densely wooded hills, occasionally opening up to provide great views of the surrounding mountains. The trails consist of a mix of road-width swaths and single track, and access can be gained at multiple trailheads. Due to the density of trails, routes can sometimes get a bit confusing, though trail markers and maps may be found sporadically placed along the way. I’ve definitely ended up out there for much longer than I originally planned due to the fact that the trails are both extremely enjoyable and, at times, disorienting. Paper maps of the system can be obtained at the visitor’s center in Palmer, and there are larger overviews at most trailheads. One of my ‘standard’ runs (quotes due to the fact that I don’t know that I’ve ever gone the same way twice…) consists of trying to find my way to Mooseberry Mesa and the aptly named Moose Poop Loop, and then trying to find my way back.

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Urban AK. Chances are that if you visit Alaska you’ll find yourself in either Fairbanks or Anchorage at some point. Both offer many miles of paved bike paths, as well as dirt trail options within their city limits. Again, this is Alaska, so even though you’re in the closest thing to a metropolis available, vigilance is still required as far as wild animals are concerned, with the added excitement of drunken homeless derelicts thrown into the mix. Have fun, but be alert. Easily accessible from downtown Anchorage one will find the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which meanders along the Knik Arm providing great views of the water and glimpses of snow covered peaks, including Denali on a really clear day. Many of the bigger running events in the city incorporate sections of the path, and several spur trails lead to other parts of town. Scenic flat cruising at sea level. Fairbanks also offers miles of paved waterside trail along the Chena River, as well as multiple off pavement options. A popular place to walk, run, and admire migratory birds can be found at Creamer’s Field, while those looking for longer routes and less people should check out the trail network near the university.

Kenai Peninsula. Again, only offering a few initial points for the short term traveler here, as options for exploration abound in this area of the state. While running anywhere on the Kenai, the probability is high that you will be running in some type of rain. Embrace it. Or, rather, be embraced in the drizzle or all-out downpour. For starters, it’s often enjoyable enough to meander around communities such as Seward, Hope, and Homer with no particular destination in mind. Homer has its spit, Seward its sidewalks and paths along Resurrection Bay. Hope has one road in and the same road out, though that road terminates at Porcupine Campground, starting point for several runnable trails. One of the more popular summer events in the state goes 16 miles from Primrose Campground to Lost Lake, and there are many other roadside trailheads all along the highway.

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Haines. End or beginning of a ferry trip along the Inside Passage. On my way up last season I took the boat from Bellingham and, after disembarking, spent the night in Haines and several hours exploring a few trails just outside of town. Three sedentary days aboard the ferry readies one for a run or two. Definitely check out the popular Battery Point trail, and brave the thick underbrush along the coastline in the Chilkat State Park if you dare.

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Talkeetna. Confluence of three major rivers and departure point for most Denali bound mountaineers. Train stop and tourist hub. Quintessential small town Alaska. Again, just running around town leaping across mud filled potholes and exploring dirt side streets can be plenty entertaining. Check out the river trails at the end of the main street, then cross the Talkeetna on the railroad bridge and head out of town. Do some trail running out at X,Y,Z Lakes. A paved path parallels the highway into town. Don’t forget to stop by Denali Brewing on your way out.

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Running opportunities in Alaska are endless. I’ve had a great time running around Chena Hot Springs, Valdez, and even good ol’ Tok while on my way through. Imagination, a bit of courage, and a little grit are all that’s required when it comes to fun, fitness, and exploration in the 49th state, the touted last frontier.

As promised, however, I don’t want to end without making a quick reference to America’s hat, Canada. Each time I’ve found myself heading this way or that across our neighbor to the north (or, if you’re here, to the east…) I always intend to spend more time exploring than I ever actually have time to do. Most of my drives up or down have taken around a week, and set plans become distant dreams as hours on the highway grow long – mere inches on the map turning into days on the road. In my experience, the best way to break up long day of driving is stopping off somewhere for an hour run, allowing for exercise, fresh air, and a chance to check out a bit of Canadian countryside – somewhat of a small condolence for the necessary acknowledgement as to the impossibility of previous objectives.

One of the many awesome things about Canada is the abundance of visitor information centers, state sponsored offices dedicated to providing local information to passing travelers. These centers can be found in bigger cities and small towns alike, and even in seemingly remote areas you will often find a clean building filled with myriad brochures and friendly Canadians eager to ply one with maps and advice. Thanks to these centers, their kindly hosts, and a little bit of luck, I’ve been able to find great trails in both bigger municipalities and random towns across the country.

A couple of the places along the highway I remember discovering some fun trails would include Ft. Saint John and Grand Cache, though I recall exploring trail systems in several other places whose names are long forgotten, though the routes themselves still memorable. One of my favorite stops every time I’ve driven by would have to be the community of Whitehorse, Yukon. Parking in the Robert Service Campground provides access to a paved trail system running up and down the Yukon River. Downstream takes you to downtown, with loop potential on the return; upstream sends you up a big hill, onto dirt trails, past the dam, and along the reservoir where you can watch float planes take-off as you run along high cliffs above crystal blue water. Downtown can also be a good time, and your one chance for a healthy meal in a couple thousand miles.

My last trip across Canada found me a bit further east heading across Alberta. There are all kinds of trails in the national parks of Jasper and Banff, as well as everywhere else in the area. Finally, the city of Calgary boasts miles (well, kilometers) of bike paths, and some fantastic trails in Nose Hill Park on the outskirts of the city with great views of the downtown skyline.

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I suppose that’s about all I have to write about running in the great north. So much to see, so many places to check out. And always remember, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than your running partner.

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