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Empty Denali

Saturday, September 10th, 2022
Walking around the closure

Last year when the Denali NP road closed at the “Pretty Rocks” slump, I was very tempted to just haul my bike around the closure and bike the road after the slump. I assumed it wasn’t legal in the park to push or ride one’s bike around the slump. Roughly a year later and after my friend Tom suggested it was possible, I did some research and noticed it was not only legal (that is “allowed”) and appeared to biked somewhat frequently. Strava segments on the Park road after the closed bit showed a fair bit of traffic. So, on a overcast Saturday morning Tom and I meet up at the Denali NP’s Backcountry information center, got some permits, hopped a bus to the end of pavement, and started biking. I was somewhat bemused by the Denali staff, as just about every interaction could be summarized as some variation on “your not going to make it”, and constant reminders of how long it was to our selected backcountry units just past Toklat.
The ride to the road closure was fast and fun, though Tom got two flats in the first 25 miles, and there was one bus jam for a bear that we couldn’t see.

Neat Clouds



Soon we were dropping down the stairs to the East Fork of the Toklat river, after one last “that is a really long way to push that gravel bike” from a NPS staffer, and we were down riding then pushing up the river bed to go around the Pretty Rocks slump. The last NPS staffer said there were currently no NPS staff on the other side of the road, and the road was in bad shape. Our plan was just to go up the East fork of the Toklat, then head west towards the creeks draining down from Polychrome Glacier, then take a wash back up to the park road.

Pushing

Pretty Rocks Slump

Pretty Rocks Slump


That worked well, though the route was mostly a bit too rocky for me to bike on my touring tires in a safe manner. After a few creek crossings, and a little more than two hours of walking with the bikes we were back on the road, biking towards Toklat.

Empty roads


It was easy to find the right route, and there were lots of tracks to follow. Biking the road was an interesting experience – we had it entirely to ourselves, with no traffic besides three bikers and two people on foot. The road was mostly intact, though I was surprised by one unexpected drop-off around a corner, it wasn’t very deep and I made it over without going over my handlebars.

We camped in our unit as it started to get dark, and I fell asleep to rain the tent fly. In the morning we rode to Kantishna and back near the Eielson Visitor Center.

Neat clouds

Empty roads past Toklat

Ellison was creepily empty. On the way in we saw several Camp Denali buses there, with folks going for hikes, but the place was otherwise completely abandoned. Oddly, mechanical noises were coming from the building, and it looked like the heat was still on.

Empty Ellison

Empty Ellison

Folks can't read apparently

Toklat was also a ghost town with the bus schedule from a year ago still up.

Schedule from last years closure

Loved the LOTRs reference

A funny note left in the bear lockers at Toklat with a Lord of the Rings reference.

Kantishna still had stuff going on though, the outhouses at the runway were still open, and the lodges seemed to be all still in operation in one form or another.

Almost to Kantishna

The road near Kantishna, which is new to me, yay!

Extreme Danger!

The Kantishna airstrip signage is a bit over the top..

Our second night’s campsite was the best I have ever had in Denali, with a wonderful view of the Muldrow glacier. The sunset was fantastic.

Best Campsite Ever!

The following day we biked back out, running into a few more hikers, but otherwise didn’t see anyone else until walking around the closure, where we ran into a few hikers, and could see a few more in the distance.

The ride was a complete blast – the road is mostly in better shape than it is with buses. Almost no washboard and just a few short sections washed out. It is a like a 20ft wide bike path, though really scenic country.. so hard to beat!

Denali, from Stony Overlook

Denali, from Stony Overlook

Denali!

Wildlife wise we had a pretty busy trip – there were sheep on several ridges, but they were far away and only little white dots. We saw several groups of caribou in the distance, one quite close up, and several moose in the distance, and a bear on the bus ride. Just about all the megafauna besides a wolf!
We did have to detour around a bear near Stoney Dome on the way out. After waiting 15 minutes or so for a bear happily eating berries 20ft or so from the road, we pushed our bikes off the road and around the bear, well outside the suggested 300-yard safe zone, the NPS requires.

Walking around the bears

Untitled

Pearson's Cabin

Road damage

Leaving the road for the detour around the slump

Slump

Heading up back to the road

The climb back up the “civilaized part of the road..”



A few hours later we were back in civilization, wandering around looking for the employees-only bar Tom was fascinated with. Biking around the employee’s only area reminded me of working in Skagway in my late teens and early twenties, not the happiest time of my life, and I was made a bit melancholy, and left Tom to his devices and drove home, making it in time to see the twins before they were asleep.

The closed part of the Denali road is a pretty interesting experience. However, seeing Denali’s response to the closure was a bit odd – they seem to be operating like the closed area is just gone. There was very little sign of any motorized traffic from Ellison to Toklat. All the outhouses were closed and locked up outside Kantishna. A bit odd, as while the road is closed, the area beyond it is still quite accessible, and is going to see a fair bit of bike and foot traffic. The NPS staff seem to be discouraging anyone from biking or otherwise traveling past the closure. Perhaps that is understandable, but given we saw several Camp Denali buses, it is still quite possible to drive the road after the closure, and I would have hoped Denali would have moved to have some sort of reduced presence, not a complete abandonment. As one NPS wildlife person told me “As far as we are concerned no one is driving the road.” when I asked about traffic from the lodges.

Some notes for others interested in biking the road past the closure:

  • The route around the slump is 5 miles. It is possible to ride a bike through most of it, though my little tires made that hard. Staying closer to the hill seems to have firmer and a bit smoother surface than the more actively flooded area. On an unloaded mountain bike, it should be almost entirely ridable. There are at least two water crossings, so expect wet feet.
  • Riding your bike off the road in Denali is apparently fine so long as you are not causing “resource damage”, whatever that means.
  • The walk around the closed part took Tom and I a little over two hours each way. YMMV.
  • The Denali staff say you can camp 125ft from the road centerline.
  • A backcountry permit is required to camp, and you need to get a backcountry unit to camp in, and camp in that unit. Be prepared for the backcountry permit process to take a while, and have all the stuff required (bear canister/ursack etc)
  • Expect the Denali staff to be skeptical and tell you it will be much harder than expected.
  • Expect no assistance from the NPS past the closure. I would have enough food to walk my bike to Kantishna or back out.
    • Which really, wouldn’t be that big of a deal – if you push your bike 12 hours at 2.5 miles an hour that is 30 miles, you could make it from near Ellison back to the area served by the busses or Kantishna in less than a day. It wouldn’t be fun, but totally doable – I would just keep in mind you mind have to do that if something goes wrong, and be prepared.
  • Be prepared to have some long bear delays.
  • Have fun – it is a blast back there, and enjoy it, in a year or so (or 10 if the NPS decides to re-route all the way around the Polychrome area. ) it will be back to “normal” with busses of people driving out and back and only getting out to go the bathroom.

So… Get Out and Bike It!

(Before some idiot does something stupid, wrecks it, and it is closed to bikes. 🙂 )

PS: Does anyone know what this sign means? I thought it meant to wait 10 minutes if you see sheep, others thought it means the road is closed 10 minutes after the hour, any idea what the official meaning is?

Odd Sign

Beaver Creek & the Summit Trail with the family

Monday, August 22nd, 2022

Note – This trip was in June 11-13, 2022, but I am falling behind on my blog..

A long time ago our whole family floated Beaver Creek, and hiked out the Summit Trail. Lizzy (daughter), Nancy (wife) both decided after that trip packrafting was “dumb”. A few years later Molly (other daughter) gave it another chance and had a blast. With a weekend (plus a day) free, Molly and I decided to do it again, floating Beaver Creek in packrafts and meeting up with Nancy and Lizzy half way out on the Summit Trail. This time we were joined by Ruby the loaner dog, who we were taking care of while her owner was off on the north slope. Our dogs Shiloh and Eddy are terrified of water, and are in no way packrafting dogs. It was a great float, the float was fantastic, the weather warm… just about perfect, though the water was a bit slower than ideal..

Ruby the dog on lookout beaver creek Mellow beaver creek floating
Lunch

Hot lunch – luxury!

Fellow travelers

We stopped briefly to check out an old cabin on the USGS topo maps, and found it – yay I love rusty old stuff!

Old Cabin

We spent the evening in Borealis Cabin, enjoying the clean (yay!!) and warm cabin as the temps dropped to near freezing overnight. Ruby enjoyed snuggling with me and found the cabin full of exciting smells.
In the morning we crossed the creek and started hiking after watching some beavers busily doing beaver things.

A Beaver on Beaver Creek! Ruby waiting with Molly for a ride

Ruby waiting for a ride across the creek..

Shuttling across Beaver Creek

Shuttling across the creek

Fording Wickersham Creek

Wading Wick Creek..

Footprints on Wickersham Creek

Busy banks!

We then hiked to the trail shelter, roughly 12 miles from the river. The trail was mostly great once off the winter trail (tussocky!), with marvelous colors and great views.

Tussocky Ruby The summit trail! PXL_20220612_195135432 PXL_20220612_195438110 Going under..

Under…

And under..

“I can make it!” – Molly

Eventually we made it to the trail shelter where we caught up with Lizzy and Nancy and spent the evening enjoying snacks, books, and games.

In the morning we headed out and hiked the rest of the way out..

Lizzy is preped for the bugs!

Lizzy, well bug proofed

A bit of spruce pollen

Pollen-licous!

Shiloh is unimpressed

Shiloh the dog is not excited about this hiking stuff.. 🙂

Lunching

Lunch!

BLM had installed new boardwalk on the really muddy section, and it was a fantastic addition – thanks BLM!

Eddy leading the way Eddy leading the way

The family dropped me off at Cleary Summit, and I biked to Nome Creek to fetch the car. The ride was great, but I didn’t bring enough food and bonked a bit.

The Davison Ditch! Nome Creek Road Almost done..

We are so lucky to have the Whites and Beaver Creek so accessible to us. It is amazing to go on a three day trip and to have the place completely to ourselves. Yay! Thanks again BLM for such a wonderful area! And of course thanks to Molly, Lizzy, Nancy, Ruby, Eddy, and Shiloh for the company. And Sinbad the cat for watching the house while we were away 🙂



A Family Tour of the White Mountains

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022

Leaving my office, I headed out into a dark -36f late afternoon to start my car and drive home. I started it up, then got out to unplug it*. Just after I unplugged it, I heard a “beep,beep” as it locked itself..
Crap.

After trying all the doors, I headed back inside. We have two keys to this car, and the other one is at my house, three miles away. After calling my wife Nancy who didn’t pick up, I started panicking and I called my daughter Lizzy, asking her (very optimistically!) if she could bring me the other keys.

Much to my surprise she said “Sure!”

30 minutes later Lizzy showed up on her fat bike, with the keys, and quickly unlocked it and headed out. We had to stop for gas, as it turned it was almost out. Wow.

Covid has been a bit rough on the twins. One year of online schooling, then it was back to school, with masks. First home made cloth masks, then N95s.. Limited social interactions, and so much fear. To top it off, the school bus was only running ever other week due to driver shortages. The twins decided this school year that they were just going to bike to school, as it is only three (ish) miles one way, mostly downhill in the morning on the way in. After finding out they could beat the school bus (the biking route is more direct) they were even more excited about biking. As the fall transitioned to winter they switched to snow bikes, with bright head tail lights lights, reflective vests, and warm clothing. A bit to my surprise they kept doing it even as it became honestly cold, close to the -40s. As far as I know, they have never been late. I tried to bike a few times a week with them for the ride in, but school starts early (7:30am!), and I am not as a consistent of a bike commuter as they are.

Cold biking Cold biking

Photos from a different, slightly warmer day where I biked in to school with the twins.

Fast forward half a year, and we were heading out on a family trip, heading around the White Mountains NRA “main loop”, stopping at Borealis, Windy Gap, Cache Mountain, and Moose Creek cabins. The twins had been to Moose Creek in the winter before, were I had to make the “no complaining while going up hill” rule as the twins (Lizzy in particular) would complain how miserable the biking was going up each of the hills, then would be perk up and continue on happily when it flattened out. They had also been to Borealis before too, but in the summer only. It would be their longest winter bike trip, and I was a bit worried they would be unhappy, warning them in the days leading up that they might have to walk up a lot if the conditions were really bad.

Yeah yeah, Dad.

The first day of the trip, three miles from the parking lot, after several crashes and one mini soft snow melt down, everyone had a break to snack and recover.

My bike is so heavy!” – Lizzy.

I was a bit worried that this was going to be a long, long trip.

Five days later, 90+ miles later we were back in the same spot, heading the other direction, everyone, tired, but happy and joyful.


First day went by quickly, with great trails besides a bit of soft snow.

Whites Loop with the Family

The ride was mostly uneventful, though at the top of the first decent Molly and I stopped a bit for her to take some photographs from the first scenic view stop.

Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family

Eventually Molly finished taking photographs and we rode down the final hill, only to see a group of people with several dogs teams making camp. I stopped and chatted then looked for Molly and Shiloh the dog. No Shiloh or Molly. A bit more chatting, and still no Molly or Shiloh the dog. It was starting to get awkward, as they were waiting for me to go by… so I turned around and headed back up the hill. Part way up Shiloh the dog and Molly showed up. Apparently she had dropped her sunglasses at the top of the hill, and had to go back. I grabbed Shiloh, and we passed the dog teams with lots of barking – apparently this is the most exciting thing that had happened to the dogs in the team all day.

We arrived at a pre-warmed Borealis cabin, with embers in the stove that were soon rekindled into a nice blazing fire. The evening was spent hanging out, cutting wood, and enjoying a mellow evening.

The morning it was -30f ish at the cabin, probably much colder on the river, so we waiting until 10am or so when the sun was hitting us before heading out. It was in the single digits but felt warmer in the wonderful sun.

Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family

The twins enjoyed the firm trails, and the great views. And hot lunch – since this was a “mellow” trip, I brought various dried or freeze dried meals that could be made with hot water from a thermos for lunch. It was a hit.

Whites Loop with the Family

Enjoying Heather Choice African Peanut Stew from the discount bin at REI. So fancy!

The twins had a blast and were handled the single digits in an occasionally brisk breeze. Nancy was also excited to be riding this outside the White Mountains 100 race, at a slower pace, and enjoying the trail.

Whites Loop with the Family

Shiloh and Eddy the dogs also had fun, though Shiloh likes to pretend he wasn’t..

Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family
Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family

Molly needed to take some panoramic photos (panoramas?) for school, and I told her about the new climb a few miles before Windy Gap cabin, where she stopped to get a bunch of photos. They turned out pretty well.
The twins handled all the biking and the hills pretty well – all those days riding to and from school had given them lots of biking base!

limestone jags panorama

Then it was a long downhill and a few flat miles to the cabin. Alas, the cabin hadn’t had any recent visitors and was much colder inside than out. Walking into it was like entering a freezer. Once the fire was going it started warming up, but Lizzy was quick to find the warmest spot, in the loft directly above the stove.

Whites Loop with the Family

It was still mid afternoon once the cabin warmed up, so I headed out with Eddy to go checkout Windy Arch, a few miles from the cabin. Eddy wasn’t having it though. He kept looking at me like, “What are you doing?” and once he figured out I was going for a ride he abandoned me and ran back to the cabin. I had a great ride though, even though not even the dogs wanted to join me.

Whites Loop with the Family

This was the first cabin that was totally new to the Twins, and they enjoyed hanging out in it, with lots of reading, snacking, and dog snuggling. And doing puzzles – someone had left a small puzzle that gave into a relentless attack by Nancy and Lizzy.

Whites Loop with the Family

The next day we headed up and over the divide to Cache Mt cabin.

Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family

We stopped briefly in at the “Ice Lakes”, a mile (ish) long section of ice for Molly to take another panorama and to have lunch.

ice lakes panorama-2

Photo taken by Molly

The trail was remarkably good, and we rode almost all the way up and over the divide, following some recent wolf tracks.

Whites Loop with the Family

Once over the divide it was a quick ride down to our next stop, Cache Mountain cabin. I had one over the bars crash right in front of Lizzy which she found endlessly funny.


The next morning we headed to our final cabin for the trip, Moose Creek cabin. I was a bit worried the trail would go downhill, but it stayed nice. The twins were troopers, riding up all the hills, including pushing up one really steep and rock hard hill that I almost couldn’t get my bike up.

Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family

Molly’s rear break did explode all over the trail at one point, but we were able to get it back into some assemblance of working. Apparently her pannier hand been banging on it all year, and eventually the outer park of her disk brake broke and shot off powered by the return spring.

Moose Creek cabin had a deck of Uno cards, and many, many games of Uno were played.

sleeping shiloh

Photo taken by Molly

The final day went by fast. It was much warmer, in the mid 20s which felt so balmy! Everyone in the family had done this last 17 miles of trail several times at least, and were well aware of the climbs and zooming fast downhills.

Whites Loop with the Family Whites Loop with the Family

Eddy caught doing a 180 to checkout a sniff. He did it so fast it looked like his nose had been glued to the ground yanking his body around..

Whites Loop with the Family

A happy family, almost out..

When we finally made it out I was happy the trip went so well, but sad it was done. I had been very worried the trail would be a mess with lots of walking, but everyone had a blast. The twins had enough biking base they were not super tired at the end of the days, but tired enough they didn’t get bored – perfect! 🙂 Nancy enjoyed doing the loop outside a race context, and I had fun spending time with the family. Eddy the dog just enjoyed being out, though he has all the cabins memorized at this point, as he had been around the loop three times this year, but I think enjoyed the slower pace, with more time to sniff things. Shiloh the dog I think thought the days should have been shorter, maybe eight to ten miles, with lots more stops to pee on things, and more snacks.

Sinbad the cat was very happy to see us on our return, even giving the dogs a few sniffs to say high, but probably thought our trip was way too long and had way too much time away from the cat who was surely going to expire from lack of attention! (Sinbad did have several caretakers who spend several hours with her, so she was not completely deprived.)

I do feel so lucky to have the White Mountain NRA – the trail and cabin system is top notch, and is one of the highlights of life in Fairbanks.

Yay for winter!

Editors Note: This post was edited and all the wrong details were corrected by the super amazing and very superb Molly!

Good think you have me to fix all your mistakes!” – Molly

2022 WM100

Tuesday, March 29th, 2022

As sort of a last minute thing I signed up for the White Mountains 100 last fall, in a last minute panic that another winter would go by and I wouldn’t do anything “fun”. I ended up being on the waitlist, and promptly forgot about it. Fast forward several months, and a few weeks out Stacy the organizer told me I was in, just as I got back from the Iditarod Trail Invitational. My motivation was a bit lacking, but I said yes, and thus found myself at the starting line at a wonderful 8am morning. I went out as hard as I could, and stayed riding as hard as I could. It was much hotter than I expected, and I was overheating right out of the start, and missed my tire pressure by a lot. When I finally stopped to put more air in just after the first checkpoint I put in 30 pumps, and it was noticeably faster. Duh! 45 ish miles in I tapered it back as my legs and body started objecting loudly. By Borealis I was pretty toast, and was having a hard time eating, and went pretty darn slow for the last 20 miles. Such is life. It was fun though, the second most fun I have ever had in this race (the first being 2019 when I rode it with my wife Nancy). I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, though better than I deserve for not getting in much high intensity riding this winter.

The weather was fantastic!

2022 WM100
2022 WM100

I didn’t plan my food very well, and ended up having trouble eating after the first 50 miles, but such is life. I had a blast though.

A few miles out from the finish I saw Tyson F riding towards me, and I stopped and congratulated him on his win. He said something about riding around the loop again, and I thought he was joking. It turned out he was serous, and he did another lap, finishing before the cut off. Wow!

When I finished I checked in with the headquarters to see how everything is working, as I provided the laptop, and a few other computer items for them, but alas, apparently I suck at it as I gave them the wrong charger cord and they had to round up another computer. Duh! Next year I will have to be a bit more organized about it I guess, I felt pretty bad to have messed that up. Fortunately they found something that worked out so it wasn’t the end of the world, but I should have screwed that up!

A huge thank you to everyone who makes this race happen, as always it is the most fun 100 mile snow race out there!

Photos:

Strava:

White Mountains Loop..

Wednesday, January 26th, 2022

Social media media reminded me that I normally ride around the White Mountains NRA’s main “loop”, which is a great 100 mile loop though most of the interesting parts in early January, and inspired, I booked a cabin trip. Then snow came (and lots of it!) and slowly the trails improved.. then more snow. So I moved the trip, and finally, with news that the far part of the loop was in, and with a forecast warm weather into the teens it was on.


The Whites are a special place for me..

The first day Eddy the dog and I (Shiloh the dog stayed home, as he isn’t into long days, the Twins had school, and Nancy had work and nicely took over parenting duties) rode to Cache Mountain Cabin.

It was beautiful, but cold – near zero Fahrenheit up high..

Looking back towards Moose Creek White Loop 2022 Sunset White Loop 2022

It was much colder down low, and when Eddy and I crossed Beaver Creek it was surprisingly cold. Cold enough my face felt numb in the still air. When we arrived at the cabin it felt a fair bit warmer, and it was -20f. The evening in Cache Mt cabin was spent relaxing and enjoying the evening, warmed by the huge stockpile of wood the “wood fairies” (aka previous visitors) had left us.
I was a bit saddened to see a big dent burned into the wall of the cabin – it looked like someone had hung a lantern on the wall of the cabin, and it at set fire the wall, burning a sizable dent in it. Sad..

Untitled

The next day Eddy and I rode over the divide to Windy Gap Cabin. I was hoping for a good trail, but was prepared to walk the whole way. Fortunately the trail was great! Alas, it was overcast with lightly falling snow so not very scenic, and I didn’t take a lot of photos.. The ride up to the pass was warm, and soon after leaving the cabin it warmed up to well into the teens, which was great. I was so warm I took off a bunch of layers as a rode up to the top, following the tracks of a large wolverine (no photos alas) most of the way to the top.

PXL_20220121_214134028

The ice lakes were mellow, with very little water..

PXL_20220121_222353899_2

I did find a dog bootie on the ice lakes with “fulda” written all over it. Later I put it on Eddy, joking it was his “Euro clubbing wear” with some folks we passed. It turns out it is a classic, from the 1997 Yukon Quest dog race! Amazing it is still around..

I have been bringing a small large mouth vacuum insulated container for lunches, and that has been rocking – it is so nice to have a hot lunch quickly while riding..

Lunch

It was much colder on other side of pass (or divide as folks like to call it), and I nearly froze my butt off until I stopped and added layers.

Shortly after the ice lakes the trail got a lot softer with no traffic since the last snowfall, and while it was still ridable, it was slow and high resistance.

PXL_20220121_235257357._2



Some bike selfies..

White Loop 2022 White Loop 2022

The wood fairies were out in force again, and I was happy to see a huge amount of wood at Windy Gap cabin. Yay!!

The evening was spend warm and mellow, listening to the wind howl outside.

Late in the evening a big dog team arrived with a snowmachine and a huge sled that made a wonderful looking trail. They were heading to wolf run cabin and were a bit lost, we chatted for a bit, then they were off. The next day we headed out to complete the loop, excited by a much warmer and calmer day.
The trails were busy on the way out, and I saw lots of people I knew..



Yay for a nice three day trip in the Whites! I returned to town a bit beat, but very enlivened by the trip that was ordinary enough I feel a little silly writing about it. Double yay for fun ordinary adventures!

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2021

Wednesday, December 29th, 2021

Bob and I were packing up on the side of Caribou Creek, looking forward to the last 15 to 17 miles of hiking to the finish.   A super cub flew over us, then came back to fly circles fairly low right above us as we got ready for our final hike, packing up our boats and our floating stuff.   It kept flying circles above us, and Bob and I gave them several thumbs up to make sure they knew we were ok.  Oddly, they kept circling above us.  As we got ready to go we speculated what they were doing: 

“Maybe looking for someone’s boat?”

“Maybe someone is lost and they are looking for them?” 

“You sure your Inreach didn’t go off?” 

When we packed up, and hit the trail, we soon figured out why they were circling – we had taken out a few miles early on the wrong trail. It was marked clearly on our GPS – very obviously. Had I actually checked I would have known we were taking out at the wrong spot. There was a connector, but that turned out to be a lot longer than anticipated.  We finally reached the trail we should have taken out at, over two muddy hours later.   Sigh. 


So, this post is a bit wordy – it is hard to condense this experience down to something short and pithy, and that is of course beyond my writing skills, so to feel free to skip to the end to just look at photos.



The Alaska Wilderness Summer Classic is a point to point human powered event.  It is now in its 40th year, and the last year for the current route, which is from the Cantwell area to Sheep Mountain Lodge near Eureka. It switches every three years normally.   Last year Tom and I did a mostly overland route, and I was really looking forward to taking a boat and getting some floating in this year.  Alas, my normal partner, Tom, had back issues that were looking like they would be severe enough to require surgery, so he was out.   

Note – Tom ended up needing surgery, and finally got the operation done the week before the classic, and is recovering fine.

I am  too big of a wimp to do the whole route by myself.  Besides the extra safety factor, although  I am not a people person, that much time without any people seems like it would be a bit beyond me.  Fortunately Bobby Gillis said he was interested in doing it with me, and so it was a go!   Yay!  One problem is that  Bob walks faster than me and is considerably more hardcore, so I was pretty worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. 


The evening before the start,  everyone met up at the start, attended a mellow pre-event chat, then camped on the side of the road.  The next morning everyone gathered up, everyone fiddled around a bit, then took a photo and we were off! 

AKSWC-2021
AKSWC-2021


The first few hours flew by.  I was pretty worried, as it didn’t take Bob too long before he was poking me about walking slowly.  After I tried to speed up he didn’t poke me again – hard to say if I actually walked faster or he just gave up on me. 

AKSWC-2021

At one point I had to stop to re-adjust my pack.  I have one of those super trendy Hyperlite Mountain Gear packs that everyone loves, and while I mostly love it, it is a bit too floppy for really long days with loads over 30lbs for me, and I always seem to be brought up short at some point with an excruciating shoulder neck pain.  I think this is my last trip with over 30lbs in that pack.  I quickly repacked my pack to move everything of any weight right up against my back and things seemed better.  I also took out the trekking poles I had been carrying, and unfolded them, only to discover the connecting part on one of them had been pushed down into the body of the pole.  I break poles fairly regularly and these were one of a set I had bought to replace another pole I had broken, and for the classic I brought the unused one as I assumed it would reduce the chance of breaking  – but now I was going to carry a broken pole for another 100 miles – arrg!  When we got walking again I was pretty irritated, but happy my shoulder muscles were not killing me.  Thirty miles later I broke my other pole, leaving me to carry two broken pole, sigh. 

It was much hotter than I expected, and I was having a hard time staying hydrated.  I had brought chlorine dioxide tablets, which treated a quart at a time but required 20 minutes of waiting.  For pretty much the whole way I was filling up whenever I had a chance, tossing a pill in, waiting anxiously for the 20 minutes to go by, then chugging.  If I had been thinking more clearly I would have brought the uv wand for faster treating and to carry less water.

It was hot enough that Bob was worried that his bacon would go bad, and he offered some, which I took “some” as most, and nearly choked myself to death cramming a huge wad of it into my mouth.  I survived, but Bob didn’t offer me any more food. 

Near the headwaters of the Jack we saw a huge group of people on the other side of the valley that looked oddly well organized – everyone was in a line, and their tents were in a pattern. We were later to find out they were a NOLS group on a several week trip.

As the hours zipped by, we gradually made our way up the Jack River, and down to Tsusena Creek, where we passed the leaders, Matt, John, and Brian,  blowing up their boats.  The water looked pretty thin, so Bob and I kept walking, waiting for another tributary to come in before putting in and floating.  The creek was a bit low on water, but the floating was non-threatening and bouncy at times.  It was much faster and more fun than walking along it like I did with Tom the year before.  I only have a few landmarks to watch for along the creek, and was in constant searching for the tree stand Tom and I had walked by.  It was hours before we passed it.  I think Bob quickly got sick of me constantly looking for it, and mistaking various bushes for it. 

A few hours into our float, well past the point where we dropped back into the treeline, Bob was slightly ahead of me, and just ahead of us on the river’s  left there was a huge brown bear, with its head in the water, big butt up and facing towards us.   After I realized Bob had not seen it yet, I started to panic, worried we would float right into it, surprise the bear, and have it bounce us around like beach toys.  After much panicking I finally got Bob’s attention, and we pulled over, only to discover it had wandered off.  Yay!  This was the first of several bear miscommunications – apparently I just suck at communicating.  We continued floating until we finally took out just after the sunset, cold and wet. As we packed, up the “leaders” – Matt, Brian, and John – floated by us.  We had been in the lead for the whole float – yay!  Apparently walking instead of floating had been a good call.


Bob and I packed up, hiked over to the Tsusena Lake, floated across the lake in the dark, arriving at the far shore where I staggered off to find a place to camp for a few hours.  Morning came too soon, and we were off again, hiking over to Deadman Creek. 

At one point my watch warned me that I should get more sleep and my recovery would be reduced. Hah, if only!  The next few miles were a slog.  We tried the direct route and that didn’t work as well as we hoped –  there was lots of not so good walking, and brush.   We did hear another group at some point, and Bob saw them briefly, and they seemed to be moving much faster.  We made it down to the Susitna, where we inflated, crossed, then hiked up out of the river valley in the boiling hot sun.   I don’t do well in the heat, and I was hammering down water.   It was quite a contrast to last year with warm nights and hot days. 

As we hiked up Fog Creek we saw two groups in the distance behind us, which we assumed were other AWMC people, but they were traveling slowly and soon dropped out of sight.  In retrospect it is possible they were another group?   In the early hours of the morning we camped just above Tsisi Creek. 


The next day we hiked over to Kosina and there our route diverged from the route I took last year, and we headed up river. 

The internet has said the Kosina was great walking – and there was some wonderful walking in there, but while there was some good walking, but a lot of trudging through wet swamp.    

Unfortunately Bob’s knee was starting to give him trouble, and by the time we made it to the second tallest pass of our route it was starting to look like things might be over. 

After several rounds of inreaching, we decided to give it some rest, and set up camp near the top of the pass looking down on the Black River, far below us.   The advice relayed via the inreach from the marvous Dr Leistikow, my wife Nancy, and Bob’s partner Lee (who is a nurse) said to tape it and rest it.   Bob taped up his knee, and then we went to bed, planning to sleep in, and hopefully all would be well in the morning.   Just as I tucked into my tent it started raining, and I invited Bob into the vestibule. 

An ode to my tent – a sidebar.  Fifteen years ago when the twins were tiny, I looked around for small, light tents that would fit all four of us, and found a Tarptent Rainshadow 2 – an under 2 lbs tent for three adults.  Our family used it until the twins got too big for it, then moving on, but I liked the designs of the Tarptents enough so I got another one, the “Moment ”, a single person tent.   This summer, I noticed Tarptent was making a tent that was just 17oz – the Aeon Li and it looked like I could fit into it – yay!   It was  expensive, but I figured in the classic I would get at least a few nights out of it, so it could be worth it so I bought one.  I figured four nights in it would cost about the same as a cheap hotel.. I am glad I did – it isn’t quite as roomy as the Moment, but it is fast to set up, roomy enough, and has a wonderfully large vestibule that fits Bob in a pinch.  A lot of other folks use plastic bags, tarps, or bivvies, or other small sack like options in the classic, but I just don’t think it is worth it – saving a few ounces and being unable to sleep due to bugs or rain seems like a poor tradeoff.  I also brought one of the twins’ sleeping bags (the lightest one we own), and a short foam pad.  Bob was using some sort of plastic sack, down pants, and a down jacket.  I think my total sleep stuff weight was a little under 3 lbs, which I think was weight well spent, as it let me enjoy the limited sleep I could get.

Bob isn’t a tall guy, so he fit fine, and when it started raining as we went to bed, I offered him the vestibule and he joined me in the tent.  He looked more comfortable than he was in his plastic sack, and I quickly drifted off to sleep.  We ended up sleeping close to 10 hours, and when I woke up I felt completely normal and totally refreshed – yay!   Bob’s knee was better too, double yay! 

Soon we were zooming down to the Black RIver, and up to another pass.  The Black River valley is beautiful, but oddly the Black River is glacial, and very white. 

White River would be more appropriate..  Unfortunately now my knees were starting to hurt and near an old crashed plane we stopped and Bob did up his feet while I attempted to fix my pole with the slipped insert in hopes that would help.  Finally with the use of Bob’s pliers I managed to pull the insert out and super glue it in place – my pole was working again!   Yay!  The headwaters of the Black expand out into a huge open bowl with a landing strip marked out by cairns.   Just as we passed the landing strip I noticed two people hiking down a far ridge, and after I pointed them out we sped up – competition! 

The next pass (the second to last big one) was an easy walk up topped by a loose screen field.

Above us, seemingly an nearly infinite distance away, a caribou walked the ridge above us, running along the ridgeline as if to taunt us about our slowness.  Topping the ridge we dropped down into a beautiful valley with a small creek that quickly dropped into a deep channel, eventually reaching Nowhere Creek. 

While researching the route I had read that Nowhere creek had lots of petrified wood, and much to my excitement Bob pointed out some huge chunks of petrified wood.  Bob works for the Alaska Division of Geological Surveys and is a geologist, so there was much discussion of rocks and geology, but petrified wood was one of the highlights for me!   


After crossing Nowhere Creek we headed over the Oshetna, following an amazing maze of caribou trails winding through the tussocks, eventually camping after dark just below the final big pass. 

In the morning it was up and over into the Caribou Creek drainage, where we hiked on the west bank until running into an uncrossable flowing mud stream, something that I had never seen before. 

The mud was actually flowing down like a stream, with large rocks floating down it, and it was nearly bottomless – I couldn’t feel the bottom with my trekking pole.  Bob was in full on geologist mode, and was super excited by the muddy stream of certain death.  It was not going to be possible to cross it..  

We tried going down to the creek, but found it to be entirely blocked off with very soft and deep mud – it was either deep water, soft mud, or both, and thus uncrossable without swimming.  We then headed back up a quarter mile before finding a place where the lake was shallow enough to cross – it was still up to my chest though, and very opaque so I had to feel my way across and hope my pack would float enough I could hang on to it if there was a drop off.

Fortunately no drop off was encountered so we climbed up the other bank and enjoyed a wonderful “sound of music” hillside walk down to the ATV trails that we took to where Caribou Creek was floatable. 

The ATV trails were fast walking, and were littered with lots of interesting relics from old mines.  

We did run into one more section where the creek was dammed up by a huge mudslide, and this time went completely around it, only to find the mud was asphalt hard.  

There was lots of speculation between Bob and I if both slides were the result of the same weather event, as we didn’t see any signs of other slides.   Feeling a bit silly, we walked over the rest of the mud slide back to the ATV trail and then on to where we put in.  I was pretty worried about the float, as I had heard it was class III and IV, but it turned out to range from mellowish to bouncy class II, and we zoomed along, enjoying the float.  Eventually we reached what we thought was the take out, packed up while a super cub flew circles above us, before finally leaving just as we discovered we had taken out at an ATV trail a few miles upstream of the actual trail we wanted to get.  Oh, well, what’s a few miles..  well, a lot, it turned out.  The “extra” bit of trail we took was muddy, rutted, and had several climbs including one that seemed to go straight up.  I have no idea how ATVs get up that climb. Those folks must be crazy! 


Finally we reached our actual take out, and hiked up May Creek trail, where I filled my remaining freeze dried meal with cold water and hiked along, hoping it would hydrate and I could enjoy a nice final snack. 

The last few hours zoomed by, as we hiked up May Creek trail, which was less muddy than I remembered, across the beaver swap of doom (which now didn’t have any swamp), and up and over the ridge near Gun Sight & Sheep Mountain, before heading down to the old abandoned highway. 

We were supposed to avoid walking on the Glenn HIghway, and last year Tom and I were forced to walk along a utility cut, but I vetoed that this year – there is no way I was going to be walking though folks property at midnight in the dark, someone would likely shoot us!  Instead we walked the highway for the last few miles, getting off as trucks came by, zooming along in their bubbles of light.  We finally pulled into the finish at Sheep Mountain Lodge a little after 1am. 

I was saddened to find that I had forgot to pack any food in the truck besides a few Muscle Milks, but Bob was nice enough to give me his remaining freeze dried meal, while he had a ramen noodle packet, topped off with a few beers – the finish trailer was well stocked with beers.   Such a fine finishing feast – thanks Bob, I will always be thankful for that meal!
In the morning we caught up with John, Brian, and Matt who finished 17 hours or so ahead of us, and enjoyed a huge breakfast, before heading back to Fairbanks. 


Thanks for the company Bob, this was the adventure of a lifetime! 
Of course, a huge thank you goes out to my family for letting me disappear for a whole week, only to be asked random medical questions about knees via inreach, and then come back all sleep deprived. Thanks Molly, Lizzy, and Nancy!

And finally, a big thank you to Matt K for organizing. Thanks Matt, it is a lot of fun!


Some thoughts 

Gear

I brought a 30 degree bag I originally got for my daughter lizzy and a short section of closed cell foam pad.  It worked great.  

I took a tent, an Tarptent Aeon Li. ( https://www.tarptent.com/product/aeon-li/ ) . It rocked. 

We took an older MSR Pocket Rocket and a quart-ish pot for heating water for freeze dried meals.  Totally worth the weight I think. 

Foot stuff – I bought ¾ of a roll of Lukotape, and still had lots left at the finish.  I brought a fairly large amount of homemade hydropel replacement, and used lots.  I used some inov-8 RocLite 300 shoes, and they worked fine but were toast by the end.  I wore a thin liner sock and a thick outer sock. Mostly I was quite happy on the foot front, and finished with just two small blisters. 

Boat stuff – I took a dry top and float pants.  That worked fine, but would have been cold if I swam.  It was lighter than any other option I had.  I had a “normal” lama boat with am white water deck, Bob had one of the newer narrower boats with thigh straps.  We both had pfds, and bike helmets. 

Clothing – In addition to what I was wearing at the start, I took an extra top, bottom, a puffy synthetic top, and one set of extra socks. 

Navigation Stuff – Bob and I used cell phones for navigation.  That worked great, when we looked at them and didn’t do dumb things like take out earlier than we where supposed to. 


My total pack weight was a little under 40lbs.  Which seems pretty heavy. 

Food

I took roughly 12 lbs of food, plus four full size freeze dried meals. Two of the freeze dried meals were the jumbo Expedition Foods (https://expeditionfoods.com/ ) 1k calorie meals – and those were great.  The last one I had with cold water on Squaw creek trail, which was surprisingly good. Otherwise I was pretty unhappy with my food selection –  I needed more variety and easier to digest food.  My notes from last year told me to bring more variety and easier to digest food, so maybe I should read my notes and not stupidly repeat my errors.  I did take some fatty meat sticks’ ‘ and they were great and went down well.  I ate almost all my food. 

Route

The route we took this year was great – it was fast walking for the most part, and floating cut out a lot of time.  The walking was mostly good,and in parts it was fantastic.  The walking in the Oshetna and Kosnina valleys had some sections where it wasn’t as good as I would have liked, but otherwise it was mostly pretty good.  The area is super scenic, much more scenic than the ATV trails I took with Tom last year.  However, I think the walking on the ATV tails is actually a lot faster, and that still might be the “fastest” route, if a boat is taken to float Tsusena Creek.   Floating Tsusena Lake was also a time saver, and it was very neat to float across it in complete darkness.  Caribou Creek was a blast, super fun! 

What I would Change

I would take another water treatment system, like a steripen for faster hydration if it was hot.

I would take different poles.  Those black diamond poles I have been using suck, with their connector pieces coming out at inopportune times.

Better food choices.

Reduce! My pack was ~40lbs, I should be able to get it much lighter. 

After Effects

Last year my feet swelled up a ton.  This year I used compression socks just after I finished, and while my feet swelled a bit, it wasn’t nearly as bad.  However, my knees were super sore after finishing, and it took weeks for them to feel normal again.  I need to figure out something so these things are easier on my knees. Otherwise I was mostly intact at the finish.