Archive for October, 2009

First ski of the winter

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Today was my first ski of the winter.  I skied into work this morning and while it was rough and not particularly graceful skiing,  it was really fun to be back on skis.  Hopefully it will keep snowing as I am really looking to ski trips this year.  Winter opens up a lot of the more fun areas of the greater Fairbanks area, and is the best time of the year for outdoor fun, at least in my opinion.

Its pretty rough skiing right now on the trails around our cabin – on the way in the tussocks fought back and stole one of my baskets..

A Family Trip to Tolovana Hotsprings

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

On a sunny Saturday morning the family and I headed out to Tolovana Hot Springs for a 3 day weekend.  After a two and a half hour drive we reached the trail head, loaded up our packs and headed down the trail for the 11 mile hike to Tolovana.  Tolovana is a natural hot springs with a three cabins that can be rented.  The hot springs is a pretty wonderful place – there are several hot tubs and the water is without the sulfuric smell I normally associate with hot springs.  Its also pretty easy camping, as the cabin we had rented is quite large and includes such amenities as propane lights.  Its not a completely easy trip though, especially with the twins, as there is one large climb on the way in and two large climbs on the way out.  The trail is also quite exposed for most of its length and can be quite unpleasant when the wind is blowing.   Fortunately it was a wonderful late fall day on our way out, with little wind and temperatures in the 20s.  There was a dusting of snow at the parking lot so the girls started out in a sled but the snow quickly disappeared as the trail dropped down 1100 feet to the lowest section on the trail.

The girls took advantage of the hard frozen but relatively free of snow trail conditions and walked for a mile or so.  The lower sections of the trail wind though some fairly swampy bits that were fortunately well frozen and quite hard and dry.   This area burned several years ago and the trail now winds though a forest of standing dead spruce trees with some thickets of alder along the sides of the trail. 

The twins were quite the troopers and hiked quite a ways.  I had gotten them yactraks before the trip and they were quite proud to be putting them to use on the icer sections.

Eventually the girls tired out and then the hard part started, at least for the parents – nap time!  The girls were loaded up into the backpacks and into their “sleepy sacks” and enjoyed a warm and comfortable ride for the next hour.  One of the funny things about taking the girls on trips like this is that it has redefined pack weights for me – our packs were in the 70lbs range with the girls in them, so normal backpacking weight packs seem light in comparison.

The girls slept for the next hour and a half as we hiked over the highest section of trail and dropped down towards the hot springs.

The view from on top is quite spectacular, with a wonderful view of the Minto flats and the Tolovana river.  This was the first time I had ever been on this trail and not been on skis, and it has a completely different feel to it when you are walking.

The trail had recently received a haircut which had widened the trail considerably in sections, cutting down the willows that had been encroaching on the trail.  After we made it all the way in we learned that the trail had been trimmed by a “John Deer decked mower” according to the log book.  This led to interesting visions of someone riding the trail in a lawn tractor, which seemed unlikely.  In the section of the trail that goes along the “old runway” this was quite noticeable.  This should make the trail much more pleasant skiing in a couple of the narrower downhill sections.

While there was only a couple of inches of snow in the most snowy sections winter is definitely on the way.  We ran across a some blue berries sticking still holding on to the bushes and I tried to convince the girls these were still edible to no avail.

Eventually we dropped down from the dome and were back into the snow less area. 

By this time the girls had had enough pack time and they went back to walking.  Molly took a brief ride in the sled down the last hill and by the time we reached the stream coming out of the hot springs the snow was completely gone.

Shortly after we arrived at the cabin Tom and Marsh showed up and we all settled down for some after hike snacks (two containers of Stax, the pseudo Pringle ) and a soak.  The hot tubs at Tolovana are all fantastic.  They now have three hot tubs, including a new wooden “horse trough” looking one.  The temperatures in the tubs range from “lobster boiling” hot to just hot.   Initially the girls were a bit suspicious of the hot tubs but by the time the second day came they were big fans.

The girls had quite a bit of fun in our cabin.  There were a number of card and dice games that were quickly pressed into duty.

No back country trip is complete without the girl’s two lambs, named naturally Lamby and Fred.  The black footed and faced lamb is Fred, in case you are wondering.

On the second day Tom,Marsh, and Nancy disappeared during the middle of the day to go hiking and I hung out with the girls and read some fine escapist science fiction. Later in the afternoon I took off to explore the trails heading down the Tolovana river and the Dunbar Trail.  The last time I had been in this area was the winter after the forest fire and the trees in the area still smelled of smoke.  Things are quite a bit different now, and its w
as pretty fascinating to wander though the burn exploring.  And of course, enjoying another soak.

The next morning we all got up early in an attempt to make a quick start.  Tom managed to sleep though most of the early packing and breakfast making, and woke in time to have the last plate of pancakes and the remaining slices of bacon.

The dogs were pressed into duty as bacon frying pan cleaners –  its amazing how clean they can get a frying pan clean.  Rest assured, we also washed the pans afterwords.

Bacon powered (except for Nancy, who had her normal, vegetarian breakfast of milk and cereal) we headed off on the long walk out.  There is quite a bit more climbing on the way out and the weather was not as nice, but it was not that strenuous of a hike out.   The wind had picked up and was blowing 10 to 20 miles a hour, but otherwise it was a fine day.

The Tolovana parking lot was quite a different scene and the wind was blowing quite a bit harder.

I had a nice collection of rime ice on my truck.

All in all this was a wonderful trip and was very much enjoyed by all.  The twins in particular had a great time.  I think I will have to visit again in the fall – it was quite a mellow trip in and out.  Its often hard to get folks to make a trip out to Tolovana, as there are lots of horror stories about how its not a fun ski (too steep) and can be quite cold and windy.  The trail seems quite passable once it starts to frost up, so early-mid fall seems like a good compromise – the weather is not too harsh but its not too wet as to be unpleasant hiking. A couple of week earlier would probably have been more ideal.

Fun on Carlo Creek

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

I should preface this post by saying this is written by a guest, my wife Nancy. Thus, there are probably no spelling errors, all the words are used correctly, and it makes more sense than usual. But don’t worry – the spelling and grammar mistakes will return in the next post!

Nancy here… I decided to write up a great trip from this summer, in part to show that Jay really does stay home with the kids sometimes while I have adventures. Alas, some of those “adventures” are business trips for work, but this one was spectacular enough to help make up for that.
We (Tom, Marsh, and I – note that I have joint custody of our friends) blatantly borrowed our itinerary from Ed Plumb’s blog Who could resist a trip named the Coffee and Pizza Traverse? The trip was a hike up the Carlo Creek drainage, starting at Milepost 224 on the Parks Highway, crossing over a high pass, dropping down to the Nenana River, and packrafting back to the starting trip. It sounded too good to pass up – and for the most part, it was.
We were grateful that parking at Panorama Pizza turned out to be ok with the owner, although he was most definitely not serving coffee mid-morning when we showed up. However, our exploration of river access proved to be more challenging. The folks at the private lodge across the road clearly remembered chasing the most recent pack-rafters off their property, and were most emphatically having no more of that, no matter how quiet and low-impact the trespassers might be. So we scouted an alternate takeout a couple of miles south.
The hike itself was everything promised, and more. An ATV trail provided easy access to the meadows above treeline. There were, miraculously, no bugs, perhaps due to the hot July sun. We followed the creek as it gradually grew smaller and smaller, and made a couple of crossings that were probably unnecessary, but overall found easy walking. That first night, we camped right at the top of the drainage, comfortable in soft grass, but surrounded by imposing peaks and ridges.

The next morning we hiked up the pass. It was steep, with a large lingering snowfield, but still generally easy going. A caribou was even kind enough to pose for us. It was when we reached the top that we faced the biggest challenge of the trip. Ed had described the descent as “steep and rocky” with “serious scrambling.” He wasn’t kidding. The boulder fields were almost vertical, and all seemingly poised on the point of creating massive rock avalanches. Unencumbered, the scrambling might have been fun. With a fairly massive pack, it was less than fun for me, and downright scary for Marsh, who doesn’t like heights. It was also extremely slow. Still, we eventually made it down to easier ground, and enjoyed more ambling over grassy hill slopes on our way to the Nenana.

The very last part of the descent was also very steep, but not at all scary, since it was densely forested. We sang loudly (and badly) to the bears as we did a sort of controlled fall through the underbrush.

The bugs were fierce at the river, but we got underway quickly, and happily floated for about an hour and a half in the calm and relatively swift waters to the Parks Highway. At this point, it was getting late, and our stomachs were calling for pizza. The wind was coming up, too, and the water ahead was reputed to be choppy to start with. We decided to take out and hitch the last few miles back. I was the designated female for this role (Tom resents this, but a 6-foot-5 male just doesn’t get rides) and quickly retrieved the car.

The pizza? Delicious, but the slowest service known to mankind. Still, we were very grateful for the free parking, and for an incredible trip.


Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

On a sunny Monday morning, Marsh, Tom, and I headed out to Hutlinana Hot Springs for a day trip.  After a 3 hour or so drive up the Elliot Highway.  None of us had been out that way before and the plan was to scope it out as a destination for future winter trips, perhaps with the twins.

The drive out was uneventful though I had a winter driving reminder on some of the hills, as they were nice and icy in sections.

The references we found on where the Hutlinana Trail started said it starts at mile 130 of the Elliot.  We were somewhat confused when we arrived in the near by area and found the bridge over Hutlinana Creek was at a little past mile 129, and so mile 130 would be on the wrong side of the creek..  After a bit of searching we found a trail and started out.  Alas, the trail we found was not the right one, and we wondered around for a mile or so untill we hit the real trail.  Note the yellow line on the map – thats our route on the way in.  Once we found the correct trail we were off – it was in great shape and super fast walking.

Our side tracking in the begining involved a short stream crossing.  The “real” trail had a number of nice sweepers that made excelent bridges – alas our side trip did not.

The dogs had a wonderful time exploring.  Togiak, my older dog, sat this one out.  She is getting up there in years and longer trips are getting hard on her, especially on warmer days. It was a bit sad to keep her at home, but hopefully she will get some trips in once winter comes for good and the temperatures drop.

The main trail was marked by small socks for the first mile or so, which was a nice touch.  I expect there is a story there..

Once we hit the main trail we found it to be in fantastic shape and super easy to follow.  The trail winds though black spruce and the occasional stands of birches.  Near the hot springs the trail opens up and hits a beautiful large stand of poplars, tastefully decorated by a number of rusty 55 gallon drums.

We arrived at the hot springs after a little under three hours of hiking and were quite surprised by the fantastic shape we found them it.  I had been told they wash out occasionally and was not quite sure what to expect – it turned out previous visitors had constructed a wonderful rock pool that was deep, warm, and fairly free of hot springs funk.

The springs were quite warm and free of any sulfur smell.  It was quite refreshing to soak for a hour or so after the hike in.  The view from the pool was excellent!  Alas, this was a day trip so we headed back out to the car and a long drive home. 

On the way out we passed a couple hiking in – I was fairly surprised at the amount of traffic we encountered as we also passed a party on the way in.  I guess everyone was out enjoying the warm weather before the snow arrives in force. The walk out was uneventful, though we found a caved in cabin we missed on the way in.

The main trail back to the road was much faster than our side route.  There was some shenanigans when the dogs attempted to follow me across a sweeper and Remus attempted to pass Polar by crawling under him while he was walking the trunk of the tree.  This caused Polar to freeze up and get stuck in the middle of the stream on the log, leaving me to walk out to rescue him.

For future reference, the best trail head appears to be the 4th driveway or side road before the bridge on the right hand side heading towards Manley, including the parking area near the bridge. The trail is fairly obvious at that point – you will know you are on the right path if you see some very old junk cars near the start of the trail.

On the drive out we stopped to take a better look at a bus in the ditch – we passed a bus on its side just after the Tolovana trail head.  We stopped briefly on the way in, but keep going after it became obvious that no one was around.  The bus was quite out of place, as it appeared to be a military transport, though perhaps they are used for other purposes too.  We spent a bit of speculating as to what they were doing out this way on the drive back to Fairbanks. Hopefully no one was injured.

This was quite a fun trip and I was thinking about returning later in the year for a overnight ski trip as the trail looked like it would be wonderful skiing, or perhaps a spring ski trip with the twins.  All in all a very pleasent day trip, though a super long drive, alas.

Woofie and Bunny go Hiking

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

On a brisk Sunday morning the family and I set out for a day hike. We had planned on hiking to Stiles Creek Cabin for a overnighter, but Lizzy had a low fever the day prior so we turned it into a day hike instead. Lizzy and Molly started off walking and after a hour or so switched to being carried. The hike was wonderful – we did this hike in 2006 with the kids and the first mile was an utter mess – huge ruts, massive muddle puddles, and other general “Lets drive our ATVs though a muddy swamp!” madness. It had been getting worse in the last couple of years, and was getting so bad it was actually starting to make winter skiing unpleasant as the ruts where not completely filled with snow even in spring. In the last couple of years (I think last 2 years) Alaska State Parks had been in the process of doing some sort of reroute of the first 2 miles of the trail to deal with the really bad sections, and it appears they finally finished or at least reached some stage of completeness. The trail is now completely different – its dry and mostly free of killer mud holes and ruts. In fact, it would have been great mountain biking. I am going to have to come back here in the spring and try it out. Go State Parks! Its really refreshing to see the state spend money on things like trail improvements. The skiing this winter should be much improved too, as the reroute is not quite as steep. Parts of the old trail can be a bit tricky on skis – steep, fast, and a not a lot of room to snow plow.

Lizzy and Molly started off walking and carrying Bunny and Woofie in their backpacks.  After a brief stop to stick Bunny’s and Woofie’s head out (“No, no, Bunny can’t see” – Molly) we where off.

As mentioned before, the re-route has dried stuff up a lot – this is a good example of what the new section looks like.

Contrast this with the old trail, circa fall 2005.

The dogs had fun running around and exploring. Soon the “exploring” part will stop and they will have to start pulling pulks when ski season starts.

Molly outfitted herself with hiking poles for a while.  It is really rewarding to see the twins enjoy hiking.  I hope it lasts, as many adventures await.

The walk was quite beautiful, with the fall colors giving way to the winter gray, black, and white. I love this time of year, as there are constant reminders that the best season is about to arrive, Winter!

Eventually the little trekkers wore out and it was nap time. They rode for the next couple of miles in the backpacks, wrapped up in lots of layers.  Its funny – now that I have started carrying the twins, it really puts backpack weights into perspective – when I put on a normal multi-day pack for a trip without kids I am surprised how little it weighs.

After nap time came snack time, when the passengers where treated to a delightful repast, artfully served in a small zip lock bag. 

Eventually we returned to the trail head where the girls played on some left over trail hardening material (also known as a pile of rocks).  This kept them busy for almost a hour, which was truly amazing.

Just before we left Molly found a small stick that was sort of shaped like a person, and after some help from Nancy, soon became more person shaped and was christened the “Tree Man”.

All in all it was quite a fun way to spend a day.  We even made it to Mias, where Nancy and the twins had Korean food, and I was treated to a fantastic burger!   I am looking forward to skiing this in a month (or less if all goes well – bring on the snow!), and biking it next summer.

Trips For Next Summer..

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

While coming back from a day float on Brushkana Creek, I noticed that the hills above the Denali Highway in that area looked quite hikable.

Earlier this summer I had asked someone about how interesting Brushkana was to float, and was distracted with stories about how beautiful the upper Jack River is.  It appears it would be a easy 2 day or hard 1 day hike into the the upper Jack River from the Denali Highway, from which one could packraft down the Jack River or continue hiking over to Carabou Pass and packraft down the Chutlitna River.