Follow Through

Been a busy couple of weeks, both at work and not at work. Set the intention to spend as much time as possible out of the house, and have done my best at the follow through.

As winter turned to summer, I knew there were a lot of things left over from last year that I wanted to make sure to experience before the end of this one. Goals, one might call them. Places to see and things to do. Trails to walk and rivers to run. The idea then, that these numbered summer days were already slipping past without the number of goals decreasing stimulated even greater motivation than usual. I’ve been very fortunate to have recently enjoyed opportunities to live out several of those specific objectives.

This is not to say I have not appreciated the many opportunities that sporadically, and also intentionally, came about beforehand. The much anticipated time with my mom, all the spontaneous river trips and hikes and travels in May and June. I certainly feel fortunate for all those experiences. However, last year, my first summer up in the Interior, I tried hard to maximize my time. To do as much exploring as possible, to get to know the area and all it had to offer. And I definitely had a great time figuring out a lot about the region, learning more with each weekly outing, with each new trail hiked, and each section of river explored. But there is so much to do here, it felt like I barely scratched the surface, and there were a handful of trips specifically that I simply couldn’t get to due to weather, time, lack of partners, etc. These became the thoughts that held over, the trips dreamed of in the dark days of winter, the ones now demanding to be carried to fruition. Here’s three of them.

Sumer Solstice around 1 a.m.

Chena Dome

The Chena Dome trail is a 30 mile backpacking loop with a total elevation change of 14,100’. The math there basically equals: Ooof! I had the last minute idea to hike the trail on the Solstice, mostly to experience the longest day of the year out in the mountains. I wanted to be walking during the late evening light, which is phenomenal this time of year. The hours between 10pm and the early morning are incredible due to the angle of the sun as it hovers on the horizon—but obviously elusive for people that need to sleep at night. As I began to walk, I decided I would try to get all the way up to the top of the dome around midnight. At just below the Arctic Circle, the true ‘Midnight Sun’ cannot be seen from Fairbanks as it will dip slightly under the horizon, but I had read that from a high enough vantage one could indeed watch the sun not set for a day. Seemed like it was worth a try.

Like many of the bigger treks around here, the trail is also notorious for being void of water. There is always a balance to hiking many of the better known local routes as one must determine when the snow might be thin enough to complete a route, but also when there might be enough of it in meltwater pools to provide drinking water. And then there’s dealing with when the mosquitoes might be better or intolerable. Anyways, I did an online trip report for members of the local hiking club with details for anyone thinking of heading up that way. A slightly edited version follows:

“Few people been asking as to Chena Dome conditions. Quick report with the most pertinent info first, followed by fluff and photos.

Water: There is some water out there, but not a whole lot. Small puddles in the saddle between mile 7 and 8; a few nice pools before and after milepost 12; full cisterns at the shelter (half-barrel out front, and covered clean water on the other side); and, thankfully, several filling spots in a marshy area at the end of mile 24. I discovered first thing that my filter wasn’t really working all that great when I started pumping in the mudponds at mile 7. We’ll see how that works out…

The question of how much water to carry should not be taken lightly! (See what I did there…) My max capacity was one US gallon and I often wished I would have thrown in another Nalgene for peace of mind. It was close to 80° yesterday, and hiking those hills was no joke. I will admit to feeling very sorry for myself indeed when around mile 22 I resigned myself to hiking all the way out (which would have made for 19 miles) due to fading prospects of finding water.

Bugs: Oh buddy, you betcha. Not a trip for the insect averse person. First day was mosquitoes; second day was mainly clouds of those little black flies that like to dart deep into nostrils, eyes, and all the way to the back of your esophagus when you’re panting for air on the uphills; third day was a mix of both. There were a couple of times I did indeed feel like an arctic caribou in July. I even checked my stomach for warble flies when I got home. God help you when the wind stops blowing.

Wildflowers: Everywhere!

Highlights: Started the trip on the evening of the 21st hoping to get up high and watch the sun not go down. Last December I did a dawn-to-dusk winter solstice walk of Upper Angel Creekside to the winter trail, and didn’t see the sun at all that day, so it was cool to observe the drastic difference in approximately the same location. Parked at the lower lot and used the road mile to the upper lot as a warm-up rather than highway hobbling at the finish. Got going around 6 p.m. just in time for the remnants of last weekend’s storms to roll through. A few sprinkles early on, but nothing but clear skies and a light breeze once the climbing began in earnest.

Hadn’t necessarily planned to go to the top of the dome that evening, but after a while it seemed like the obvious destination. Around 11 the sky started to change colors to pinks and purples all around. It was amazing to continually walk from the shadow of one hill back into full sun at the top. A heavy pack and steep terrain called for slow steady plodding, but I finally made it to the summit about a half-hour after midnight. The sun was just touching the mountains, but still fully visible above the jagged horizon in the distance. Hung out until 1 a.m. Ate some food, took a few photos, looked around for a good long while.

I thought about setting up my tent on top of the dome, but some clouds on the horizon encouraged me to drop down a couple hundred feet to a flat mesa instead. On the way down, I had a slightly different vantage point of the skyline, and at the bottom of the hills the clouds in the distance suddenly changed to an intense crimson, which quickly faded away. I found a spot to sleep, set up my tent, and looked over again to see the same clouds turning a bright salmon color, and the sky behind them lighting up white and blue. Sunset to sunrise in the span of 15 minutes. That’s my story at least, and something I won’t forget for a long time.

As for the rest of the hike, all good. Walked up and down a bunch of big hills in the heat yesterday, thankfully found water at 24, spent another night on the trail, and cruised out this morning. Happy days.”

Late night and golden glow reflecting off an old plane wreck. This is the light!

Delta River

The Delta River is not to be confused with the Delta Clearwater River, which I’ve mentioned here a few times, though they may both be found in the proximity of Delta Junction. The Delta originates in the Tangle Lakes of the Alaska Range and flows north into the Tanana. It starts with a nine-mile paddle through several large lakes which connect with each other and eventually pour out into a river. From the beginning of the river, one floats a couple of miles before coming up to an interesting portage which involves carrying boats and all other gear up a hill and across some wetlands on a bunch of planks. There you put your things together again, paddle across a tarn, get out, and then portage some more. After that there’s a little section of small rapids followed by easy floating for about twenty more miles through some pretty spectacular scenery. We spent three days out and got a good mix of Alaska weather—that is to say a couple days of steady headwind, a good bit of rain, a fair amount of sunshine, and a chilly gray morning to finish. I’d been wanting to do this one for a while, but couldn’t ever find anyone to go with and help out with the shuttle. Thanks to my new ‘Bro’ MB for making it happen and smiling through all the conditions.

Beach camp on the Delta.

Mt. Prindle

Mt. Prindle is the highest peak in the White Mountains, which the mountain range just north of Fairbanks. Chena Dome, and a whole bunch of other domes, may be found in the White Mountains, as well as a good percentage of locations I’ve written about this past couple years. Prindle boasts an elevation of just under 5,300’, which means the Whites aren’t nearly as dramatic as other ranges in Alaska, but they have their own special beauty. They kinda grow on a person. Most of the scenery is represented by low lying hills covered in birch and stunted spruce trees. Every so often, however, one can get up above the trees for some amazing views, and encounters with seemingly erratic rock formations generally known as Tors. I tried to get up Prindle a couple times last year, but was shut down by storm after storm. Finally got lucky yesterday, though I did get hammered a couple times by passing showers. Was happy for the low cloud scenery and the cool weather. The complete white out before I descended back into the valley just made things a little more exciting. Some of the most amazing ridge walking I’ve ever done, and a truly special place.

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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