Bike rafting Manley to Rampart and back

June 7th, 2018

A year or so ago my friend Tom suggested doing some sort of loop using packrafts and bikes involving the new “pioneer” road to Tanana. Eventually a route was worked out, starting in Manley, taking the Eliot highway over to Eureka, then taking an old road to Rampart, floating down the Yukon to the new Tanana road, and taking that back to Manley. The basic idea was pretty awesome – a loop, involving bikes, pack-rafts, two new (to me) roads, and a new (to me) section of the Yukon river. Hurrah!

Details on the road to Eureka to Rampart were a bit spotty, but I was told by a musher based in Eureka it should be fine except for a few “wet” spots.

The trip started after work, when Tom, Heath, and I loaded up into Heath’s truck and headed to Manley. Manley is small town with a nearby privately owned hotsprings and a small roadhouse. Alas, the roadhouse was closed, but we wandered the town a bit, seeing the sights.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

(Tom and Heath, peering into the abandoned Alaska Commercial Company’s old building)

In the morning we headed out on the Eliot Highway to Eureka. Eureka was once a gold rush town, but now appears to be mostly inhabited by a few mushers and some smaller gold mining operations.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

After Eureka we slowly climbed up and over a pass, heading down to Minook Creek, which we were to follow all the way to Rampart. The “road” was in great shape and we had high hopes of zooming off to Rampart.

DSC00124

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Alas, the road turned into a muddy trail ended near Granite Creek, and things slowed down.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Five hours, four deepish stream crossings, and around 10 miles later we neared Rampart, and were finally back on fast, firm roads again.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

We did a short tour of Rampart, which was a very quiet town, talked to a few locals who were a bit surprised to see someone arriving on bikes, then camped on a out of the way gravel bar.

The next morning we loaded up onto our boats, and headed down the Yukon.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

I was a bit worried about the “bike rafting” part of this trip, as I had only done one short test float with a bike on my boat, but it turned out to be much easier than I expected. We spent the rest of the day floating down the Yukon, until mid afternoon, when the wind picked up, and camped just before the “Rampart Rapids”, a short section of faster water about halfway to our takeout point. I had been told it was only a rapid in name, and was just some slightly faster water. Our campsite was on a little fresh water creek named Bear Creek, and was a great spot except for a swarm of stink bugs that found our tents and Heath’s gloves fascinating.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

The next day we continued down the Yukon, bobbing down the Yukon until we arrived at the Tanana road.

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

The Yukon was much more scenic than I expected, with beautiful bluffs and big hills in the distance.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

We arrived at the Tanana road early afternoon, and switched back into biking mode.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Alas, the Tanana road ends at the Yukon, about 8 miles or so upstream of Tanana on the other side of the Yukon, so we didn’t visit the village, instead biked 13 or so miles and camped in a wonderful mossy spot on a hill. While we were sitting in camp that evening Heath and I had a bit of a panic after we convinced ourselves the maps we had contour intervals in meters, and noticed we had a handful of bigger than 500 meter climbs on the way to Manley. Fortunately we figured out our mistake, mainly that they were actually in feet, and went to bed happy we didn’t have thousands of feet of climbing ahead of us.

The Tanana road was in great shape for biking, but maybe a bit rough for vehicle traffic.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Most of it was in great shape, but it was very soft in a few spots, and the surface had lots of the sort of gravel and rock pieces that are hard on car tires.

The next morning we rode the remaining 30 ish miles into Manley, enjoying a few hot climbs (that were not thousands of feet tall) and dusty downhills.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

We arrived in Manley dusty and dirty, to learn one of us (probably me – duh!) had left an interior light on, and had drained the battery. Fortunately someone gave us a jump, and we on our way back home.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

This trip was pretty fun, but folks interested in replicating it should be aware that there is a lot of muddy soft trail after Granite Creek (mile 12 or so of the road/trail from Eureka to Rampart).

Gear wise, I did this trip with my Surly Ice Cream truck with some “normal” wheels with three inch tires. It worked great, but I was a bit surprised how little extra grip on got on the mud, and by how much the air pressure varied as we passed though cold creeks and hot sun. Tom’s boat has the “cargo fly”, zippers that let him store stuff inside the boat, which worked fantastic. I was jealous, and I think I have one of those in my future.

2017 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic – No Sleep ’til Wiseman!

July 23rd, 2017

To preface this post, this page is now near the top of the hits from Google for searches for the Alaska Wilderness Classic, which makes me feel a bit bad about it. This writeup is just intended to convey my experience, and I didn’t approach the event all that competitively, and I am a bit of a nincompoop. Luc Mehl has a much better write up and Andrew Skurka has a very nice writeup on the 2009 race – I would start with those to get a better idea about the event, rather than starting here. -Jay

For years I have followed the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, following the antics of Rocky R and Roman D, and later generations. I have wanted to do one for years, but alas, there was always some sort of conflict making so I couldn’t attend, or they seemed a bit too crazy. Finally last year the route switched to Galbraith to Wiseman, which is an area I am fairly familiar with (and shorter than some of the past routes!), and after sitting out last year due to conflicts, this year my friend Tom agreed to join me – yay!

We drove to Wiseman, spend the night camping on the lawn of the Arctic Getaway (great folks!), and the morning loaded up and drove to Galbraith. There were 14 folks and 7 teams doing the event, including another group from Fairbanks.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
The Winning Edge
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Lindsey and Ellen, team Giggle

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Matt (I think)

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Harlow in his bug proof ultra running attire

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
John (I think)

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

After a bit of futzing around and someone waving a flare gun around, it went off (fortunately pointed up and safely at the sky), and at around 12 we were off!

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Our plan was to take the “direct” route over to the Hammond River, going over 4 passes, and floating the Hammond out to Wiseman.

Things started well, zooming along enjoying the fast walking..
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo compliments of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo compliments of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alas, when we reached the final pass, we couldn’t find a way over it, working from the west side to the east side. It ended in a small glacier which had a pretty shallow angel, but was a bit too steep for me to feel comfortable to walk on. Later I would find the Toby and Harlow walked straight up it.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Failing at route finding.. photo complements of Tom

It was pretty socked in, and the brief glimpses of the east side of the pass showed cliffs – so we turned around and headed back down to take the scenic route around the passes.

On the way down we bumped into Lindsey and Ellen on the their way up. We wished them luck with the pass. I was pretty sure they would find a way across, Tom was less certain. Later we were to find out they found a pretty straightforward up it on the east side.

We headed back down, and over to the Itkillik River, taking a pass over to an unnamed creek that lead to the creek. It was mostly uneventful though at 2am I got a bug stuck in my eye, and there was a few minutes of fussing before I got it and a ruined contact out of my eye in a comical bit of futzing.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We headed over to the divide between the North Fork the Koyukuk and the Itkillik, then headed down to the North Fork.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo complements of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

There is a deep canyon were the north fork drops off the divide, and while I had been told it was possible to walk the canyon, we walked the benches above the river. Eventually we dropped down to the river, and followed the creek until it looked (safely!) floatable.
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
my styling head net replacement..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

The north fork quickly turned floatable, and we put in, deciding to take the scenic route to Delay Pass and out the Nolan road to Wiseman.

The floating was fast and fun, eventually turning very fun, with lots of nice fun boulders and water features. Alas, Tom was having spray deck issues, and we ended up walking a few miles around Bombardment Creek, but soon we were back in the boats enjoying gliding along with minimal effort..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

After a nap on a sandbar near mid night with a small fire, we pushed on to Delay Pass, where we took out, and grabbed another hour or so of sleep, then packed up and began the hike out.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Me, catching some sleep, and breaking the no-sleep-til-wiseman rule

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
signs of racers in the past..

Everyone says Delay Pass is miserable hiking, but I didn’t find much of it to be actually miserable, and while it was a bit of a slog, we made pretty good progress.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We cut off a fair bit of the winter trail by taking a ridge around the worst part. Climbing up the ridge kicked my butt, and my feet were starting to get a bit sore and waterlogged, and my achilles were starting to hurt, but otherwise everything was mostly fine. Once I loosened my shoes a bit my achilles were much happier.

Soon we were on the road out of Nolan, slowly shuffling down the road to Wiseman. These 6 miles took forever and were a bit hard on the feet..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
two miles from Wiseman..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We finished Wednesday at 4:30am, 65 ish hours since the start.

It was a great experience, thanks for the company Tom, and thanks to the Hickers of the Arctic Getaway Cabins for hosting us!

I am already thinking about next year..

As a post scripts of sorts – folks often accuse me of saying things were “mellow” when they are not. This trip wasn’t mellow – but the walking was mostly good, and the floating really split things up so my body got a nice break, making for a relatively trauma free adventure. And of course, we got 4 ish hours of sleep, making things even nicer. The “harder” parts, and things I need to improve on would be to walk a bit faster, concentrate more on micro scale route finding (sticking to the bands of nice walking though the areas of not nice walking), and “staying the course” when the planned route appears to go bad, and finding a way to make it work. On the last point, I feel pretty disappointed with myself that we turned back at the first pass, assuming there was no way over, even though we knew at least one other party had gone over – Harlow’s footprints were pretty distinctive, and I saw the prints on the first climb up the pass, so I so I knew folks had made it over.

A second post script – here are some brief notes (to myself mainly) on things that worked or didn’t work:

  •  i used Gaia GPS for a bit of the navigation on this trip, and was amazed by how much easier to navigate with vs the garmin unit I normally use.  I should pre-cache satellite imagery for tricky bits, i expect that would help with navigation.
  • I brought a ultra lightweight bivy, and it was great for a little extra warmth and to keep the bugs off.
  • I pre-taped my forefoot and heels, and the tape lasted most of the trip, and I survived with only a few small blisters – success!
  • I had treated my shirt with Permethrin, and it worked great for keeping the bugs away.
  • The hmg backpack was awesome – worked great, comfortable, and light.  I wish it was made of something besides cuben fiber, as it already appears to be showing signs of wear, but I guess that is life.

A few things that worked less well:

  • My food choices could have used a bit more thought – i bought about 5 of the ominously named “Meal Pack Bars” – they are very calorie dense and pack well, but taste bad and are like eating dirt – dry and unrewarding.  Otherwise my food selection was fine, though perhaps more Snickers next time.
  • I brought a freeze dried meal, which I made before hiking delay pass – I should have brought two more, it went down great.
  • I was a bit unhappy with my footwear – montrail mountain masochist trail runners.  They are light and grippy, but need a stiffer rock plate for some of the walking – i bruised my feet a bit.  Otherwise they worked great – I just wish the forefront of these shoes were stiffer.  Otherwise they worked fine.   If anyone has recommendations I would love to hear them.  I would love to just use low top hiking shoes for these sort of trips, but alas I can’t find any that are not goretex.
  • I didn’t bring enough foot lube – I could have used a lot more after my feet dried out after the nap before delay pass.  Live and learn..
  • trekking poles would have made some of the hiking faster, and some of the stream crossings easier – next time I will bring them!
  • I really wish I had brought some sort of lightweight bug proof long sleeve top with a hood – it would have made the bug pressure a bit easier to deal with at times.
  • I suck at micro scale navigation – I need to work on finding those sections of nicer walking in sections of bad walking.  Mostly I think it just requires me to be more aware of where I am going – something to work on.

The route:

Summer of 2018 update
The 2018 version of this is just around the corner, and I was digging around for info on the water levels when we did it in 2017. Alas, I didn’t save the info (curses!), but
The Slate Creek Gauge looked like this:

The current state of the gauge is: Slate Creek
For some reason I cannot find historical data on the river gauge at Bettles, but the current info can be found here: Koyukuk at Bettles

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 4

July 22nd, 2017


This is part four – part one can be found here, part two can be found here, and part three can be found here.

Leaving Unalakleet and Kevin behind was pretty sad, but I was cheered up almost immediately when a couple from Buckland stopped to talk to me. They were on their way back from a trip to St Michaels via the sea ice, which seems to me to be a pretty crazy adventure. The rest of the ride to Shaktoolik was fast and pretty fun.
DSC08298
Just as a I crested the final hill before the descent into the bay outside Shaktoolik I was passed by Mitch Seavey, who asked me if this was the final hill. I was pretty amused, as he definitely should know better than me. His dogs were in fantastic shape with upright happy tails, which made my day.
Shaktoolik desent..
Shaktoolik truck
Arriving in Shaktoolik, I quickly found the school where I was hoping to spend the night, but when I knocked to be let in, some Iditarod media folks told me that the school was closed and they were the only folks allowed to use it – doh! A quick call soon had a very helpful local named Marvin had me inside the school and comfortably tucked into a corner. Alas, the Iditarod folks got revenge by walking back and forth down the hallway, setting off a motion control light near by and waking me up every 30 minutes.

The next morning came way too soon, and soon I rolling on the sea ice towards Koyuk.
Musher on the sea ice outside Koyuk
Shaktool to Koyuk trail
Seaice before Koyuk
The ride to Koyuk was mostly uneventful, though I was pretty fried when I arrived. After a quick stop at the store, I found the school and the very helpful principal helped me find a box of supplies I had sent out. Alas, I was having a hard time staying awake, so I arranged to spend the night in Koyuk, planning to head out in the early AM hours so I could hopefully arrive at White Mountain at a “normal person time”. At this point I had one goal- to arrive at White Mountain and Nome at hours that everyone would be awake to talk to and wouldn’t inconvenience my hosts. I was set up in a cozy room in the school, the same room I was in last year, though the school was without running water, so alas no shower. I hit the sack, planning to head out at 1am. One am arrived sooner than I would have liked, but I got moving and was on the trail quickly. The ride to Ellim was fast.
Selfie
I bumped into Paul Gebhardt just off the sea ice, feeding his dogs. He was bundled up in so many layers he looked like he was wearing a giant hoop skirt, with skinny legs sticking out from the layers. The extra layers were justified – it was a bit cold, nearly -30f. He seemed to be in great spirits, and his dogs were chowing down or rolled up into balls resting. I chatted for a bit, then rode on to Elim, where I hit the store to grab some snacks, including my new favorite foods, a quart of chocolate milk and more Fritos, then headed to the school to eat, then was back on the trail.

Just outside Ellim while pushing my bike up a hill I was surprised by a famous musher Jeff King, and in my hurry to get off the trail fell over with my bike on top of me. The first couple of dogs ran over me, then when the musher hit the brake. His leaders, who were a little over eye level with me, looked down and gave me “That is not where you are supposed to be, idiot!” looks. I will never forget the look of scorn on the faces of those dogs. Mr King was very apologetic, and we both spent the seconds it took to get me off the trail saying we were sorry to each other, before I was out of the way and he was off up the hill again.

The next leg into White Mountain was pretty uneventful until I neared Golovan.
Golovin
Golvin sea ice
Golovan is a long narrow town set on a strip of land jutting out into a bay. As I neared town I could hear the wind howling on the other side, so I knew things were about to get unpleasant. Once I rode through town it was a headwind all the way to White Mountain. Mushers kept passing me, and I tried to draft them, but I am just too big, and their draft isn’t tall enough. A musher in an orange jumpsuit kept having trouble, where his dogs kept turning to run 90 degrees to the wind. I had sympathy to their plight.

A mile or so outside White Mountain two snow machines pulled up, jumped off, and one of them offered me a fifth of Fireball – Bill and Adrian had caught up with me. Bill was planning on sweeping the course, and I had been expecting them to catch up with me ever since Ruby – and they had arrived! After a quick chat and a burrito (yay for snowmachine cookers!), they zoomed off, and I caught up with them in White Mountain. I arrived a little after 10pm, hours after I hoped, but everyone was awake. At White Mountain we stay with Joanna and Jack, who very kindly open up their home to the racers. Their house was full of activity, with their children Ki (probably misspelled), and Liam running around, Bill, Adrian, several guests, and one of the film crew, Kenton. A full house, and it was great to suddenly be around people again!

Arriving in White Mountain is always fantastic – Joanna and Jack really welcome us into their home, with lots of great food, a shower (yay!), and a place to sleep. I was very happy to have arrived. Alas, I did have to leave, so I set an alarm for 6am, and tucked myself away into one of the kids’ beds in the top of a double bunk. Kenton apparently found this amusing, and started trying to interview me while I was conking out.. I expect I didn’t make much sense. Thanks, Jack and Joanna, I will always be grateful for the warm welcome!

The next morning I rode the rest of the way to Nome, with a brief stop at Safety for a burger. Folks always talk about the burgers at Safety, so I was looking forward to something awesome – the frozen gas station style reality was a bit of a letdown.
Topkok
20 miles out..

I made it to Nome at around 6pm, and was met by a small crowd. The next few days were a bit of a blur, and I had a case of “mushy brain” making thinking a bit slow. I stayed with Glenn, Sue, and their four dogs, who kindly let me take over one of their couches for a few days while waiting for flights out. I will be forever thankful to Glenn and Sue for letting me crash on their couch – it was like heaven!

It took a few days to get out, given all the Iditarod traffic, but on the upside, I got to hang out with Glenn, Sue, and two of the other racers — RJ Sauer and Tim Hewit. I also hung out a bit with Jorge, the walker I ran into at 3am at the North Fork cabin. Eventually I was back on a plane to Anchorage, where my sister (thanks Theresa!) gave me a ride back to my folks’ house, from which I drove back to Fairbanks and back to my family. It was great to see Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy again, and to be back home.

I would love to thank everyone who helped me along the way – Scotty, Jack and Joanna, Sue and Glen, the Schneiderheinzes in Mcgrath, the miners in Ophir.. I am sure I forgot folks, but thanks!

I awe a huge thanks to the folks who organize the race – thanks to Bill and Kathi, O.E., Adrean, and everyone else who makes things happen.

I would also like to thank my very understanding family, Nancy, Molly, and Lizzy, for allowing me to do be away from the family so long – I am forever thankful for you understanding!

Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017, part 3

July 22nd, 2017


This is part three – part one can be found here and part two can be found here.

Leaving Ruby was a bit hard – the food, the warmth, and the people to chat with were a fantastic change. I told Scotty I would leave at at 5am, but overslept, and he had to prod me awake at 7am, and I left 8:30am ish. Leaving Ruby, there were dog teams everywhere. The ride from Ruby to Galena was amazing – happy mushers, a bit crazed from lack of sleep, kept me company for the whole ride, and I was in heaven. If I rode hard I could just keep up with most of the teams. I really enjoyed the ride.

The first musher to passed me.

One of the highlights was riding along behind a musher in an orange jacket who appeared to be cooking a giant pot of something in a little box behind him, while riding the sled. He would turn completely around, facing backwards, and alternate between waving a huge metal ladle around and stirring the pot, all while his dogs were going full tilt down the Yukon River at 9ish miles per hour. The other funny encounter was a musher in dark clothing who was singing to his dogs some sort of nonsense song. It really made my day!

backwards musher

About half way to Galena a snowmachiner pulled up and started asking me about my ride from Skagway – apparently I was being mistaken for Jeff Oatley. Alas, I am not nearly as fast a rider as Jeff.

He asked me how my ride from Skagway was going, mistaking me for Jeff Oatley.

The ride from Galena to Ruby was very fast, and I arrived at around 3:30pm.

Nancy had booked me a room, as I was planning on a pretty mellow day, and texted me that Kevin was in the same bed and breakfast, and was apparently sick. There had been some sort of stomach flu going around, or at least it sounded like it. I hadn’t seen anyone with it, but it sounded like Kevin might have had it – a huge bummer. I was given directions to the place I was going to stay, but they didn’t make a lot of sense, and after asking some local kids watching the dogs at the iditarod checkpoint, I wandered around a bit, trying to locate the store and the B&B. Eventually I asked someone where the store was, and was pointed to a large, unmarked, grey building I was standing next to – duh! I went inside, grabbed a bunch of food, including several apples, added in a giant container of pedialyte, and headed back out to locate the B&B. While balancing the box on my bike while riding down the main drag, a red SUV pulled up and the driver introduced themselves – it was the owner of the B&B – hurrah! She gave me much better directions, and took my box of food, and soon I found myself back inside, saying hi to a very sad and not well looking Kevin. We chatted briefly. He was having trouble keeping food down (and in!) and was having a rough time. I gave him the pedialyte, and he went to bed. It made me very sad to see Kevin. Up to this point, he was having a great race, and should have been almost two days ahead of me.

I cooked up my food, which mostly consisted of apples and two large pizzas, and took a shower, my first since McGrath, while they were cooking. The Sweetsir Bed & Breakfast in Galena is a fantastic place, and includes full cooking facilities and laundry facilities. The shower was truly magic, and having clean stuff again was even more awesome. I chatted with Kevin before hitting the sack, and he was feeling a bit better, but he made an appointment with the local clinic to get checked out in the morning. I slept in an actual bed for the first time since the start of the race – it was like heaven. I was pretty bummed about Kevin’s illness though, and was really hoping he would be better in the morning.

Unfortunately the owner of the B&B had it booked the next day by a group from the Alaska Dispatch, and she was pretty concerned that her other guests might get ill. Instead of kicking us out, she found other accommodations for them. This was amazingly nice, and I was very impressed. Anyone passing through Galena should check out this B&B! I was pretty concerned that everything in the whole town would be booked up, but it appeared that there were still lots of places with space, which was sort of mind-blowing, as it seems to me that Galena would be the ideal place to watch the dogs race.

The next morning I got up, ate a giant breakfast, and amazingly Kevin seemed on the mend, and wanted to continue – hurrah! On the way out of town we planned on hitting the “store”, and I followed along after Kevin, and soon I was very confused, as Kevin appeared to be taking us the wrong way. Kevin insisted he knew where we were going though, and lo and behold we arrived at another unmarked building with a small but well stocked store in it. I picked up a bunch of the little babybel cheeses – very tasty and still edible in the cold, a big Dr Pepper, and a large bag of Fritos – hurrah! After checking with some locals we found the trail out of town, and were soon zooming down the river to Nulato.

Kevin, back on the bike, and zooming!

Bishop Rock (I think)

Last year the ride to Nulato was overland, and wandered through swamps and forests. This year it was entirely on the Yukon River – wide, flat, and fast. Kevin was zooming, and even sick was riding faster than I was, and slowly rode away from me. I would occasionally catch up when there was some trail confusion or someone who stopped to talk, but then Kevin would slowly ride away again.

One of the highlights of this year’s race was talking to folks on the trail. Just outside Galena we bumped into someone traveling from Koyukuk, who stopped and talked for us a bit, talking about growing up in Tanana (a village about 200 miles up river), and deciding he really wanted to see the ocean. He traveled downriver until he met his wife-to-be in Koyukuk, where he now lives.

Koyokuk snowmachiner

I spent the rest of the ride to Nulato thinking about him floating down the river 40+ years ago on his way to sea the ocean.. Several other groups stopped to chat, including Jon (I think!) the mayor of Galena, who was returning from taking a group of Chinese visitors on a mushing trip from Nome, and another Jon from Fairbanks who volunteers at the White Mountains 100. Jon the mayor told us that Jeff Oatley had ridden from Galena to Kaltag in one day on his “vacation” when he rode from Skagway to Nome earlier this winter, putting a bit of pressure on Kevin and I to get moving.

DSC08287

If Jeff could do that on his “fun” ride, we better get moving as were were racing (or at least, as in my case, pretending to).

Soon Kevin and I pulled into Nulato, making our way to the school, where I had a drop box waiting for me. We were slightly ahead of the mushers at this point, and I was amazed by all the activity in Nulato. Nulato has a bit of reputation, but everyone has always been nice to me there, and this year was no exception. The school was the Iditarod checkpoint, and there were tons of people just standing around waiting for the dog race to arrive, which meant we were the only excitement, and were offered dinner and cheesecake. I was a bit worried – we had been told not to expect or ask the Iditarod folks for anything, and I had always avoided them, thinking I would get in their way, annoy them, or otherwise cause trouble, but the folks in Nulato were very welcoming.

The Nulato checkpoint crew

A local lady plopped a cheesecake in front of Kevin and I, and told us to eat up – and we did, and it was amazing! We had a bit of confusion about how far it was to the next stop of Kaltag. The official mileage chart on the wall of the checkpoint said 50, which seemed way too far, given I think I rode it in four or so hours the year before, but a local soon corrected it saying it was only 35 miles. We headed out. Kevin soon zoomed off, and I slowly ground away riding towards Kaltag. I arrived a little after 11pm, and beelined for the school. Alas, it was locked up and dark, and I didn’t see Kevin anywhere. Expecting he headed out to the Tripod flats cabin further down the trail, which I was not up for as I needed sleep, I knocked on a nearby door, the one I thought was most likely the home of the principal, and was soon tucked away in the school, making dinner – hurrah!

The Kaltag school was the start of my troubles with motion-sensing lights. I found a nice room to crash in, and went to sleep, but every time I rolled over the lights turned on, even though I was pretty sure I had all the switches “off”. Eventually I moved a bunch of stuff to block the sensor, and got some sleep. In the morning I headed out again, a bit groggy from the interrupted sleep. I had a bit of trouble locating the trail out of town, but two kids on a very old Bravo snowmachine took me to the start of the trail heading out of town, and soon I was zooming along towards Unalakleet.
My escort out of Kaltag
I was excited to see Kevin’s tracks again, as it meant he was ahead of me, hopefully recovered. A hour or so outside of Kaltag I was passed by the Iditarod Trail Breakers – the crew that mark (and when needed break) the trail for the dog race. They were super cheerful, and told me Kevin has spent the night with them, and had left a hour or so ahead of me. It was great seeing them, as they are a bit of a legend. Hours later I pulled into the first shelter cabin on the Kaltag portage, and was a surprised to see a bike outside – I had caught up with Kevin. Kevin was looking a bit rough, and after a bit of rest and a bite to eat we headed out together.
Heading to old woman cabin
The ride to the next cabin, which was not very far down the trail took forever, as the trail got softer after several groups with giant paddle track machines passed us. We pulled into Old Woman cabin, and after finding it warm we decided to get some sleep and hope the trail hardened up overnight. Kevin was looking a bit rougher, and alas, was having trouble eating.

Tripod flats and Old Woman cabin had been just stocked with wood by a BLM crew from the Unalakleet National Wild River, and it was in great shape.

In the early hours of the morning we set out, and were happy to see the trail was much faster. We rode into Unalakleet, arriving in the early morning, and headed right into Peace on Earth Pizza – hurrah! Peace on Earth is a pretty nice pizza place in Unalakleet, and has some of the better food on the trail — besides Joanna and Jack’s in White Mountain, and of course Tracey and Peter’s in McGrath! I asked if they had any fruit, and soon they had a bowl of frozen wild Alaskan blueberries in front of me, as well as a giant pizza – heavenly! The frozen fruit was pretty awesome, and really hit the spot.

Alas, Kevin was looking even rougher, and had noticeably lost weight. He scratched in Unalakleet, and in the saddest moment of my race I left him to fly home the next day.

Kevin and I had talked about scratching earlier, and I told him of my scratch in 2012 in Skwentna, when I just wasn’t prepared to push my bike as much as I had to, and destroyed my feet. Scratching there made a huge impact on me, and molded how I approached the race in the following years, and I have always regretted not continuing. I am not sure I could have actually continued, but the ..

Alaska Cross 2017..

June 12th, 2017

Thump, thump, thump.
I turned around to see Nick and Stefan running up the road behind me, zooming along at a pretty good clip.

“Where is the rest of your group?” Nick or Stefan asked.
“They are ahead – go catch them!”
And they zoomed off even faster.

Alaska Cross is a semi organized unofficial race that was originally from Chena hot springs to Circle Hot Springs in Central. The last few years the course has bounced around a bit, trying routes in the Alaska range in a few different locations, but now it was back to the original form, and I really wanted to do it. Tom and I made plans to do it, and eventually joined up with Drew, and finally Seth at the very last minute. Before the race there was a bit of discussion of routes, all with tradeoffs of one sort or another.

The race start was a pretty low key affair – there were only nine people there, and after a short talk by the (un) organizer Mark Ross, everyone was off. The two runners, Stefan and Nick, zoomed off, while the rest of us plodded along on foot.

We took the “default” route, taking the quest route over to Birch Creek, then floating Birch Creek down to a bit before Harrison Creek and hiking the ridge over to the mining road, and walking the road out to Circle Hot Springs.

Alaska cross, chena to central

I haven’t been on this section of the Yukon Quest trail before, and I was super excited to see a section of new trail.

Alaska cross, chena to central

Rosebud summit was neat to see, and it was great to think of all the epic adventures mushers have had going up and over it from the comfort of a nice warm summer day.

Alaska cross, chena to central

It was pretty scenic and very fast walking, at least until the last few miles which were a bit tussocky. At this point in the race it was pretty clear that Tom and Drew were in much better shape than I was. They were much faster going up hill, and Tom in particular was powering through the tussocks at a pretty amazing pace.

Alaska cross, chena to central

Alaska cross, chena to central

We arrived at Birch Creek around 5pm. The creek was, alas, a bit on the low side, but that was expected. We had talked about shortening the float by taking a longer route to the river – trading 10 miles of hiking to cut off approximately 25 miles of floating, but tales of how bad those 10 miles would be made me a bit concerned.

I unpacked, inflated, and messed around a bit trying to put together a makeshift replacement for the spray skirt poles I had left behind accidently cobbled something together from willow branches (which worked ok – hurrah!). Skirt semi-assembled, I looked over and saw that Drew was totally packed and ready to go, and Tom was almost ready – doh, I was holding folks up! I got moving and was soon ready to go, but alas Seth still had a considerable yard sale spread all around him.

This was the story of the trip – Drew packs up almost instantly, and is ready to go fast, Tom is nearly as fast, leaving me in a panic that I am holding everyone up. And of course, I was!

Just as I was starting my full on panic packing, Jenna, the only solo entry popped out of the woods. She seemed to be in great spirits and it was looking like she was going to be ready to go before I was, causing my packing to get even more frenzied!

The wait on Seth’s yard sale continued until Tom and Drew’s egg timers went off, and they headed out. I took off with them, figuring that Seth would get going and catch up on the river.

Alaska cross, chena to central

Alaska cross, chena to central

The float was pretty uneventful. Paddle. Paddle. More Paddling. I think we found we could make around four miles per hour if we paddled continuously which we did except for 3 breaks to stretch our legs and warm up. Fortunately it was windy on the river, which kept the temperatures warm. Which was awesome, as the first year I did this route I had ice on my deck in the middle of the night – it was a bit cold!

We saw Jenna and Seth periodically, but they seemed to yo-yo around us, getting ahead then falling back.

In the early hours of the morning we bumped into Nick and Stefan as they were preparing to cross the creek.

Alaska cross, chena to central

They looked to be in pretty good spirits, but I was pretty happy we didn’t take the route with more walking as they had light packs and still were not very far ahead of us.

Alaska cross, chena to central

We ran both rapids on the creek after boat scouting them – they were pretty tame at this low water level.

Alaska cross, chena to central

Alaska cross, chena to central

Just as the sun hit the river it was time to take out, and Seth joined us just as we pulled up on a rocky beach to take out. Everyone was a bit discombobulated, but we got packed up climbed a hill over to the mining road we would take to walk out to the hot springs.

Alaska cross, chena to central

Alaska cross, chena to central

The climb took me from cold as I left the river to really hot as I sweated away climbing up hill. Drew and Tom zoomed up the hill like it was nothing as I slogged along in their wake.

Zoom the climb was over, and it was down, down, down to the mining road, where I took advantage of an outhouse nicely situated near on top of a little mound near the road to answer the call of nature. Just about finished with the deed I discovered the outhouse was very unstable and there was a bit of a panic as I tried to get out without having it fall over and slide off the hill..

Then it was back to the road, walking, walking, walking.. until Mark Ross showed up.

Alaska cross, chena to central

This is the first year he hadn’t done the race, and I think he was not sure what to do with all his nervous energy.

Alaska cross, chena to central

Eventually Mark drove off, leaving us to enjoy the dry, hot walk by ourselves. Tom, Drew, and then Seth all tired of my slow pace and disappeared off in the distance.

Alaska cross, chena to central

Tired and with sore feet I pulled in 20 minutes or so after Tom and Drew, and a few minutes after Seth. Nick and Stefan finished 20 minutes or so before Tom and Drew, and giving them the win. Jenna pulled about an hour after me, looking happy and chipper.

The total mileage was 72 miles, 45 of which was floating. Our average pace including stops while walking was 2.5 mph, 3.5mph floating.

I brought just enough food – I was down to three gels (GUs), two snickers, and a little bit of frito powder when I finished.

Thanks for the company Drew, Seth, and Tom! And a huge thank you for picking us up at Circle Hot springs Trusten – that pizza you brought to the finish really made my day!

A few notes:

  • Like I mentioned, I should have brought more food in case it took me longer.
  • I really felt like I was holding folks up this year, I definitely need to get into better shape.
  • I took my new HMG pack (all the cool folks are using them, got to join in! 🙂 ) on this trip, and it was the first time I have used it in any real sense. I liked it, it seemed to work very well, carries fine. One gripe – it is hard to water bottles in and out of the pockets on the side without taking the pack off, which is a bit of a downer.

P.S. After I got home I fell asleep on the couch, and was apparently out enough Molly (one of my daughters) could “paint” my toenails blue with a magic marker. Sigh.. 🙂

Map:

Packrafting Beaver Creek with the family..

June 10th, 2017

Ever since I got my first packraft I’ve had packrafting adventures on Beaver Creek . This winter, with the hope that I could share a packrafting adventure with my family, I picked up two packrafts that can each hold two people. I was very excited to try them out! I made plans to do the classic Beaver Creek with the family and a few others in late winter (or early spring, depending on your point of view).

Trip day arrived. Our party of 10 included me, Nancy, Lizzy (age 11), and Molly (age 11); Trusten (age 70) and his daughter Robin (age 17); Beth and Constantine; Tom; and Gregg. We piled out of our vehicles to start the adventure. On the drive, Lizzy had told me firmly that she wasn’t going to be happy if it rained. When it started (very lightly) snowing, I pointed out that it wasn’t raining. She was not amused.

It took a while to get going with such a large party, but eventually we were all bobbing along, enjoying the current. The weather was pretty cold and the sun came and went as clouds passed by. When the sun was shining it was pleasant, but when it dipped behind the clouds it was a bit nippy.

Midafternoon we had a serious hail storm, with enough hail for it to pile up on the decks of our boats. LIzzy, who was floating with me, was wearing a neck gaiter, and pulled it up over her face to keep the hail from hitting her.

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

I was a bit jealous how comfortable she appeared to be. After a few hours, though, the twins started raising objections to the floating, mostly involving their cold hands and feet.

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28
The adults seemed to be having fun though..
Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

Fortunately, we had two days to float roughly 30 miles, which in my experience is about 8 to 12 hours of floating, so after about 5 hours of travel we pulled out and made camp.

I somewhat optimistically pointed to a blue patch and told the twins “Look – blue sky!” to which they pointed at a dark cloud and said “Look – dark clouds!” starting a blue sky, dark clouds chant that became a staple.

The twins and Robin helped Constantine (the master fire maker) make a big campfire, which was a huge hit with its makers (and possibly the adults).

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

S’mores were enjoyed, and eventually everyone was tucked in their respective beds. I was excited to find out I could hold up our pyramid tent with two paddles. This was a pretty awesome revelation, and makes the tent much more usable, as there isn’t a pole in the middle of it.

The twins packed their own snacks, and while digging out the next days food I noticed a lack of trust..
Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

In the morning we packed up – after another fire of course – and floated to Borealis cabin, where we made a nice fire, warmed up, and dried off. This second day was a bit nicer, with no rain, a bit more sun, and only a brief bit of hail.

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

Folks were a bit reluctant to leave the nice warm cabin, but alas we didn’t have it booked and the plan was to hike a few miles and camp on the ridge above the river. Eventually we left the warmth of the cabin and headed back across the river, packed up the boats, and walked up the hill. The twins needed rides across the first creek, and enjoyed nice piggy back rides, but the tussocky climb up the hill was less exciting for them.

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

By the time we made camp Lizzy was pretty tired and was almost to the point of meltdown. However, after some dinner and time enjoying a campfire, Lizzy recovered and headed off to build a little fort out of the many burned downed trees in the area.

[Molly and Lizzy are now old enough to read my blog posts and offer critizen; Molly wanted me to point out that while Lizzy enjoyed the ride, she wanted to walk across, even though it would have been mid-thigh on her. They also offered grammar and writing advice, which was a bit of a mixed blessing.]

The next morning we hiked about ten miles to the shelter at mile 8, which amazingly was empty. Alas, the rain barrel was also empty, and it took a while to find water, but otherwise it was a great place to camp. The twins appeared to enjoy the hiking a bit more, and I had a long discussion with Lizzy about the book series she is reading, the “Warriors series”. She is into those books at the moment, and it was great to share the experience with her.

Robin hiked most of the way barefoot, and arrived at the shelter pretty tired. I don’t think I saw her out of her sleeping bag the entire evening.

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

The twins did not enjoy how much brush there was on a few sections, though. There are several miles of trail where the alder are growing in the trail and it is easier to walk off the trail than on it. The day was a bit long for them, and I was impressed by how well they handled it.

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

The final day went by quickly, with slightly less mileage, less elevation gain, and a much easier trail due to better trail maintenance. The trail is in much better shape in this section, and much to their credit, BLM has made major improvements on a few of the swampy sections – thanks BLM! We were out at the trailhead mid afternoon.

The twins were in high spirits and were pretty bouncy for the last day of hiking. Perhaps a bit too bouncy, as they started trying to steal Tom’s snacks…

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

…and throw snowballs at me.

Beaver Creek -> Elliot highway mile 28

Boat notes :
We have two double person packrafts – a double duck and a gnu. The double duck is slightly bigger, and is very light – I think it weighs about the same as my “normal” packraft. The gnu is a heavier boat, but the two front ends are pretty awesome, and it seems to be the fastest packraft I have floated in by a fair margin. We all used kayak paddles, and that seemed to work fine, though we had to synchronise paddling so the blades didn’t hit each other.

The twins rated the trip:
Floating: 6/10
Hiking: 2/10 when it brushy (Lizzy), 2/10 when it was muddy (Molly), otherwise 8/10
The floating would have gotten a higher rating if there had been less hail and it had been warmer. I think the lower mud and brush rating would have been avoided if I had warned them of the brush and if Molly had brought waterproof hiking shoes. Nancy also was surprised by the brush. Alas, I think the trail gets very little attention from BLM, and is very brushy in a few sections from the river to the shelter at mile 8.

Thoughts from Nancy:

While I was editing the spelling and punctuation in the above blog post, the kids kept looking over my shoulder, so I put off the job until after I tucked them in for the night. When I came back from tucking them in, I found that the cat had added her own edits, consisting of about fifty semicolons. Pippin does not like it when we all leave on four-day trips. Neither do the dogs, but they would have been impossibly challenging to include. Thanks to Margaret for caring for the menagerie.

Right. So, for those considering this trip, I’d say that overall, it was excellent. The hail/snow/sleet/whatever were not much fun, but could be avoided by traveling later in the season or heeding weather reports. The approximate schedule and distances we adhered to were perfect, although a three-day version might have been fine without kids. I know Jay usually does the trip in two, with the 10 hours of floating packed into one day and the 22 miles of hiking the following day, but in my mind this doesn’t seem to leave a heck of a lot of time for roasting potatoes in the campfire, building forts, stealing Tom’s candy, discussing the iffy state of the world, and admiring Gregg’s impressive camp cuisine.

As far as difficulty goes, the float is easy, and perfect for beginners. The worst mishaps were brief groundings in shallow sections. The hike is not terribly difficult, but as noted, you can expect to have sodden, muddy feet. The dense, scratchy brush obliterates the trail for miles at a time. Lightweight but rip-resistant pants are strongly recommended.

Thanks for a delightful adventure, everyone!