Posts Tagged ‘packrafting’

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. 

Packrafting Beaver Creek Again

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

I love Beaver Creek! I try to do the classic Nome Creek to Summit trail float and hike once a year or so in some form. It is beautiful and the logistics are simple so it makes a great easy packrafting trip.

Four years ago our whole family packrafted (google says it should be spelled pack-rafting, but what does google know? 🙂 ) Beaver Creek, floating down to the Summit Trail and hiking out to the Wickersham Dome trailhead. It was a mixed bag – the twins had fun for sections, but Lizzy in particular hated the brush and didn’t enjoy the packrafting with two people in a boat that much. The weather was not ideal – we got hailed on several times during the float and rained on a fair bit. This year we ended up with a Memorial day weekend without commitments and so I started aggressively pushing to do something fun outside. Doing a repeat of the Beaver Creek came up, and Molly seemed excited about it once I pointed out they could be in their own boats, and that BLM had trimmed the dense (!!) brush in the first eight miles from the river. Lizzy was not excited about the hiking part because of all the brush in the trail, and “packrafting is dumb”. Her irritation about the brush is understandable as it was in her face when she hiked it four years ago, which is a lot worse than having it waist level like it is on me. Her disliking of packrafting is also sort of understandable, as the the only trip the twins have been on they didn’t get to control their own boats and were in double boats, so there wasn’t much to do besides bob around and be cold. Eventually a compromise was reached, and we decided Molly and I would float Beaver Creek, then Nancy and Lizzy would meet us half way on the hike out. My friends Tom and Amanda were going to join us.

Alas, as the trip came closer Tom hurt his back and the forecast was for unseasonably cold weather. Yikes! Tom’s back issues were abating but not well enough for the hike, but Molly was still up for it, and the weather was to go back to the normal sun by the time we were hiking so we charged ahead. Our friend Heath dropped us off at the put in were our car read 37f with a stiff breeze. Molly was in my boat with a white water skirt, and I was in an open double boat (alpacka calls them double ducks). After a bit of messing around we got inflated and were soon floating down the river.

Beaver Creek 2021 Beaver Creek 2021

Much to my surprise Molly was quite warm sealed into the boat with a skirt. I was not though – my feet were very cold by the end of the day.

Beaver Creek 2021

The float down beaver creek was uneventful but fun. Molly seemed to pickup the packrafting basics quickly, and my worries of her flipping or getting into wood in Beaver Creeks class I (maybe II if one is very generous) whitewater didn’t come to pass. The twins have been doing an internship with the Alaska Songbird Institute helping monitor Tree Swallows, and have developed a keen interest in birds.

Beaver Creek 2021

There were lots and lots of birds to see. Bald eagles, a few other large birds of prey, tons of ducks and other waterfowl.

Beaver Creek 2021

lots of wolf tracks on the river..

Beaver Creek 2021

The brief bit of winter trail near the river looked great.. the other side was a different story though.

A few miles upstream of our take out in a straight line the river had cut off a long oxbow and was now taking a new channel, leaving a deep backwater pool were the river used to flow. Seeing the river evolve was pretty neat!

Beaver Creek 2021

Beaver Creek 2021

The “too much floating look”..

Our plans were to float most of the way to the takeout then camp on the river, but the float was faster than I expected, and in around eight hours we pulled into Borealis-LeFevre cabin just across from the take out. The place was a bit of a mess – very muddy, with TP and trash littering the grass around the cabin, but the warm of a woodstove was very appreciated. It took several hours for my feet to recover from the cold float.

Beaver Creek 2021

Beaver Creek 2021

Mystery drift wood..

Beaver Creek 2021

The previous visitors had left the new window open and the shutters unlatched, and as we arrived they were banging in the wind – I was bummed to see it left like that. BLM had just put a new opening window in this winter (I think? Maybe it was earlier..) and it still has a screen free of holes. An opening window with a screen without holes is quite a luxury in this cabins, but it is going to be a short-lived one if folks leave it open all summer. A bit of sweeping and picking up, the fire started, and the place was warm and cozy. In the morning we loaded up into the double boat, and with two trips we are across the river and hiking out.

Beaver Creek 2021

BLM had done a fantastic job clearing the trail. The dense brush of our last hike is gone, leaving a nice clear trail – yay!

Beaver Creek 2021

Beaver Creek 2021

Beaver Creek 2021


It was wonderful to see all the clearing that had been done – they really put a lot of effort into it! It has turned brushy hike were it is hard to follow the trail into a fun and pleasant easy to follow trail. As forecasted the weather warmed up, and Molly and I enjoyed a fantastic (but longer than I remembered) hike to meet up with Nancy, Lizzy, and the dogs.

Beaver Creek 2021

Molly’s snow field crossing technique..

Beaver Creek 2021


Along the way we found a small pool with magically delicious “mountain water” as Molly put it that she hoarded for the rest of the hike. A mile or so from our meetup point the brush came back and we had to smash though a brief but dense thicket – I expect the trail clearing crew ran out of time and didn’t clear the whole thing.


Beaver Creek 2021

The remaining brushy section..

The evening was spent reading books, playing games, petting the dogs, and searching for water, as alas the water catchment’s barrel had split open.

The next day we hiked out, with Lizzy setting a blazing pace.

Beaver Creek 2021 Beaver Creek 2021 Beaver Creek 2021 Beaver Creek 2021

We had a question from a man in a kilt who upon seeing our paddles and life jackets asked about the trail up from the river, and was excited to be informed the brush was mostly trimmed out. Apparently we were not the only group put off by the thick brush. Lizzy I think ended up being sad she missed the float – I don’t think it entirely dawned on her how much difference having your own boat would have made fun wise. She and Nancy still had fun though, and the group of us arrived at the parking lot tired, muddy, and happy. I did have one freak out /breakdown as folks were getting in the car in regards to the mud free-ness (or lack there of) of their shoes – my apologies Nancy!


As a postscript, after checking with BLM to make sure it was ok, the following Friday I hauled in two new trash cans to function as rain barrels and a roll of hardware cloth to wrap around them to keep them from getting chewed up. Someone had put in a trash bag in the split barrel meanwhile and it was mostly holding water again. I swapped out the split trash can with a new one, stashed the extra, and hauled the broken one out. Hopefully it will several seasons.

Beaver Creek 2021

Happy summer everyone!

Taking a swiftwater rescue class..

Thursday, June 3rd, 2021

Years ago I took white water class from Jim Gonski of the Alaska Kayak Academy. It was a mixed success – the time spent in the water outside of the boats was really valuable. I didn’t get much out of the paddling part though. I think that was a mix of me being a bad student and Jim’s limited time in packrafts at that point.

When I learned Luc Mehl was going to be teaching some packraft specific swift-water rescue classes this summer I jumped at the opportunity, and signed up.

The class was taught under the umbrella of the Swiftwater Safety Institute, and we were supposed to take a bunch of online training provided by this before the class started. The training had me pretty worried – there was extensive discussion of rigging, gear, and other stuff that didn’t seem very practical for packrafting. I can’t see a situation besides a day trip where I would be taking a pulley and all that rope needed to setup a z-drag for example. At one point the instructor in the training videos talks about how he always carries three knifes in his pfd – two river knifes and a knife to use for normal use like cutting things. I couldn’t help but wonder how useful this class was going to be for me..

I shouldn’t have been worried – Luc spent almost no time talking about rigging, but instead spent the time on a pretty good mix of time spent in the water swimming, re-entry, rescue techniques (foot entrapment was discussed at length), and paddling skills. He also had the best description of how to exit eddies I had ever heard – I had been doing it completely wrong, and had missed some pretty basic stuff like how to hold/orientate the paddle. When Luc was discussing “risks”, he was careful to relate them to how they match up to whitewater accident statistics which was super useful. As an example, according to the stats presented by Luc, entrapment in the rigging of packrafts and stuff attached to them is a leading cause of accidents. I knew that that was an issue, I just hadn’t thought that though how this would rate risk wise. I am never really at good of a student for this in person classes, as I am a pretty shy introvert, but I think I got a lot out of it.

As an extra bonus we floated the section of the Nenana just above McKinley Village. It is a completely new to me section of river, with lots of interesting river features – Yay!

The class is well worth taking – anyone doing pack-rafting would benefit. I think Luc is going to run more classes this summer – if you have the opportunity take one of them! The SSI schedule is here.

The Hot Springs Trifecta

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

Several years ago, some friends and I, inspired by Ed Plumb’s epic trip to Dall Hotsprings , talked about using the Kanuti river for a longer trip looping back to the Haul Road.  After a bit of discussion, the plan morphed into a three hot springs trip. First, float the Kanuti River from the Haul Road, stopping at Kanuti hot springs for a soak.  Then float down the Kanuti river for another 20 miles and hike to the Upper Ray hot springs. Finally, walk or float to the Lower Ray hot springs and then back out to the road.  It seemed viable, but while I was aware people had floated the Kanuti River below the traditional take-out for Kanuti hot springs, I had not talked to them about it. While the walking looked good on the maps who knows how it would be in person.   Early this June, Ed, Matt, Chris, and I headed out to see if we could pull it off.  It was going to be awesome — a new section of river, two new hotsprings, wahoo!   Heath and Patrick joined us for the first leg, floating to the first hot springs, Kanuti, and shuttled Chris’s truck to our take-out (thanks guys!). 

We left town fairly early in Chris’s “fry truck”.  (Chris and his wife Robbin heat their house and power their truck with used oil from local restaurants.)  We drove the Kanuti River, and after a bit of futzing around, put it and began the adventure, yahoo!  

Hot Springs Trifecta

The water in the Kanuti River was high, and the float was fun and fast.   The day was beautiful, with lots of sun and a brief rain squall that mostly avoided us. 

Hot Springs Trifecta

The birds of prey were out in force, and we saw quite a few large raptors and a few owls.   The hours sped by, and soon we were at the take-out for hotsprings number one. Kanuti has had a problem bear for the last few years, but fortunately we didn’t see it.  Alas, it was a beautifully hot day, and unfortunately that meant the hot springs were a bit too hot to soak in for very long. On the upside, it was great to see the field of grass and wild chives surrounding the hot springs in the summer again.  It feels like a green oasis, and smells unique. 

We still had a long float ahead of us, so we said goodbye to Patrick and Heath, and continued floating down the river.  The Kanuti to our takeout was an interesting river – mostly pretty mellow, with a few splashy sections with large rounded rocks.  If the water was a lot higher, those splashy sections would have been a handful. At one point we came upon a cow moose with a young calf in the middle of the river, and we tried to gently sneak by, but they kept going downstream slightly ahead of us — until a black bear charged out of the brush on one of the banks and attempted to snatch the calf.   Much to our happiness and the bear’s sadness, the cow and calf escaped, leaving the bear splashing in the stream. It climbed out bedraggled and wet, and then disappeared into the brush along the bank. Matt is a biologist for the National Park Service, and explained the cow was probably aware of the bear and had been sticking to the river so that if the bear had attacked it could have used its longer legs to stomp the swimming bear and gain the upper hand.  Much to everyone’s happiness (besides the bear’s, I expect) our involvement hadn’t driven the cow or calf into the bear and caused a disaster… 


As we neared the ridge on which we were going to begin our hike, it soon became apparent that the nice campsite overlooking we Kanuti River wasn’t there.  Instead the bank sloped somewhat steeply up to the ridge.. We spent a few hot hours hiking up to the first flat spot we could find, at the high point of the ridge.  

Matt, happy to enjoy some cold snow after a long climb in his dry suit..

Matt had packed a few beers, and they were enjoyed in style, with a view. Thanks Matt! 

Hot Springs Trifecta Hot Springs Trifecta

The next day, we hiked over to Tokusatatquaten Lake, a beautiful lake with awesome sand beaches and really nice walking. 

Hot Springs Trifecta Hot Springs Trifecta Hot Springs Trifecta

It is in a truly wonderful spot, and if we had been faster it would have been a great place to camp.

Hot Springs Trifecta Hot Springs Trifecta

Alas, it was late morning, so we pushed on, enjoying great ridge hiking and neat tors while a thunderstorm passed off in the distance. 

Hot Springs Trifecta
Chris, retying his shoe after a tumble in the alder..

We had planned to camp at the Upper Ray hot springs, but a mile or so of dense alder slowed us down enough that we camped on a ridge above it. In the middle of the night, I woke to wolves howling in the valley below us.    

In the morning we zoomed down to the Upper Ray, enjoying awesome walking.  We saw our first sign of humans since leaving Kanuti, in the form of a survey cut.   We followed a hot stream of water through a dense patch of cow parsnip (the northernmost patch I have ever seen!) to where the water came out of a bluff into a neat pond. 

Hot Springs Trifecta Hot Springs Trifecta Hot Springs Trifecta

The water was hot, and very refreshing, with minimal sulphur smell. Alas, we couldn’t spend all day there, and we headed for what we hoped to be a shortish day to the Lower Ray.   Ed had been here once before, and had hiked on the south side of the creek, and said the hiking was pretty bad. Instead, we tried to take game trails on the north side of the creek.. It mostly had good walking, but it was very indirect.  After several hours of averaging under a mile an hour in a straight line we gave up, and put in and tried floating. The Upper Ray is deeply incised in silt banks, so it was sort of like paddling through a mud canyon. And it was muddy. Everyone else seemed able to keep mud out of their boat, but I wasn’t, and by the end of the day my boat weighed a ton with all the extra mud in it.   I made a serious tactical error and left most of my food in my pack, which was stuffed into my boat, and I only had 2 candy bars for most of the day.. By late afternoon I was full-on hangry. Fortunately, Ed took pity on me, and gave me some more food to tide me over. Eventually we made it to the Lower Ray hot springs – hurrah!

Hot Springs Trifecta


The Lower Ray hot springs is a neat place. The hot water comes out of a gravel bank, and flows right into the Ray River.  It had by far the least alge I have ever seen in a hot spring. Alas, it also had cow parsnip. The camping was great, too — a heated gravel bar, how can anyone beat that! And ever better, there was an old cabin across the creek. I love old rusty stuff, and this cabin was full of it — some old, some new.. It looked like it had been visited somewhat recently, but alas was a bit run down..

Hot Springs Trifecta Hot Springs Trifecta

The final day, we floated out to the road.  This section of the Ray had several sections of class II-ish rapids.  They were just bouncy enough to be fun, but not very threatening. By late afternoon, we made it to our takeout, and after a short but steep climb to the road, we were at the truck, and heading home. 

The upper and lower Ray hot springs are unique and well worth visiting.  I am already scheming ways to get back there. 


Thanks for the company Ed, Matt, Patrick, Heath, and Chris!

Our route

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Bike rafting Manley to Rampart and back

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

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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!

Sunday, 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