April 2, 2010

the big 4o in Alaska

Oh no, I'm gonna be forty, what do I do?
I wasn't really as hung up on it as it sounds, but that was the question that began rolling around my mind about a year ago.
I decided I needed to do something fantastic and ring the year in good. I thought about another Grand Canyon trip, but I got the opportunity to go to Alaska to see my friends Hugh and Ali, and there was no way I was going to turn it down.

As it turned out the day of my 40th year went like this: I woke early on the 27th, and stoked the fire in the woodstove. I made some good strong coffee, went for a soak in Tolovana Hotspring, then hiked 11 miles, on my skis, through an Alaskan Black Spruce forest back to the truck. It was the best birthday ever! By the way I must call B.S. on the "over the hill" thing. I feel better now than I did when I was 25.
The trip out of SLC was crystal clear all the way to Seattle. I thought it was kinda rare to come into the Northwest on a day so clear we could see Mt. Hood, Adams, St. Helens, and Rainer. The view made me miss my home stompin'' grounds. After leaving Seattle we quickly found the clouds that cloaked our view of the British Columbia coast line. About an hour from Fairbanks I put down my book and peered out the window to a hazy view that took my breath away. I could not believe the scale of the flow of ice pouring through the mountains at a geologic pace.  

Shortly after the cloud cover reformed and lasted until we crossed the Alaska Range. When we landed in Fairbanks Hugh met us with his usual great gusto. He informed us that Jen was in town and that since the evening was so beautiful and clear that we must go flying. I thought it'd be nice to sit still and chill out with a beer or something, but I couldn't turn down an aerial circumnavigation of Denali. So off we went for another three hours or so in Hughs plane, N3654C.

Denali: (aka) "The Big One"
Here again the scale of Denali is something that I couldn't begin to describe in words or pictures. There is just no substitute for seeing it. The Alaska range could be a string of beads hanging around the neck of the monster Denali. "The Big One" simply dwarfs everything else around.

White Mountains NRA; Wolf Run Cabin:
We returned to Fairbanks, had a beer or three, and planned our next chapter; a snowmachine (dare I call it a snowmobile) trip into the White Mountains NRA. We would drive up the Dalton Hwy to where it crosses the Tolovana River and park at the Colorado Creek Trailhead. From there we would ride the snowmachines, towing a sled with gear, 23 miles into the White Mountains.

We'd cross Beaver Creek and spend the night at the Wolf Run Cabin, then come back out the next day. The White Mountains NRA is a BLM area with backcountry cabins that are popular during winter with dog mushers, snowmobilers, and skijoring (being pulled on skis by a dog) folks. That night I again was witness to one of natures phenomenon that I don't know how I've lived this long without. The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, or as the locals call it simply Aurora. I couldn't believe my eyes; It was as if half the sky was a bowl of green jello, with a light behind it, being jiggled around. Unfortunately, I couldn't make my camera catch it, nor did I spend much time trying to figure it out, for fear of missing something. Oh well, some memories are better kept in my mind, and what a memory it is. I never did hear the wolves howl in the night, but the next day, on our way out, we saw their tracks and sign all over the trail at the river crossing.

World Ice Sculpting Competition:
The night we got back we hurried and put away everything so we could go to the Ice Carving World Championships. The event is held yearly in Fairbanks and these people take it very seriously. There are sculptors from all over the world that come here to participate. This is certainly the most dramatic form of art that I've witnessed.

Jen had to go to the airport and back to Moab and Hugh needed to work so Anja and I went around town and did some shopping. I unloaded too much cash at the map store at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. I bought maps for the Noatak river trip that came really close to happening in July 2008, until I got a cancer diagnosis in June. We still plan to do the trip and the gusto to do it is as intense as ever before, especially given the flight we took below.

Brooks range:
The next day Hugh went to Flight Service to check on the conditions over the Brooks Range. The news  sounded like it'd be marginal but worth a chance so we set about on a trip to go see Hughs friends in Wiseman, Ak. We crossed the big Yukon river and I was again amazed at the the scale that lay below.

When we started getting close to the mountains there was a layer of turbulence between 3 and 5K that we tried to get below, and couldn't without getting beat up, so we said the hell with it and turned around just above Coldfoot,Ak. I was glad because I was getting ready to puke!

After we turned around we decided to wander over for a look at the Arrigetch peaks and the headwaters of the heretofore only dreamed of Noatak River. The coolest thing about the Noatak is the wildness of it. You may say well, it's Alaska, and not only Alaska, but the Brooks Range, why is the wildness of the Noatak special? Everything in the Brooks Range is wild and special. This is true, but what makes the Noatak special is that not only is the river wild from source to sea, but all of it's tributaries are also. The enormity of this wilderness is something I don't ever expect the finite capacity of my humanity to fully grasp, but thats ok because I'll have a blast trying. The afternoon we spent over the Brooks Range in N3654C, is one of the highlights of my life! All these pictures are large and will expand with a click for a better view.

Arrigetch Peaks of the Brooks Range:

Mount Igipak and the Headwaters of the Noatak River:

That day in Hughs plane was almost a 6 hour flight. We ended up pissing in water bottles. Somehow Anja held it, and still maintained a pretty smile, she must be half camel.

We landed with about 20 minutes of fuel left, Hugh said. Despite the trials it was sure worth it. Thanks Hugh!

GCI Open North American Sled Dog Races:
The next day we went to a dogmushing race where Anja took a nice picture of a dog team in action. There was also a fur auction going on, the hides on the left are wolf hides.

Wonder Lake:
I don't remember what happened next, but a couple days later Ali was off work so we took a ride out under Denali where we landed on Wonder Lake and went for a ski.

Denali again:
We flew up close to the mountain and over a couple ridges to check out some big glaciers. It's gets funny to try to describe some of this stuff, it's just not possible. The glaciers are just like the pictures, but not. Anyway, here are more pictures of the icy blue heights. One of them is a picture I took, of the top of Denali, out the top window of the plane. The top of the mountain was nearly twice as high as we were in the plane. I just laughed at the impossibliity.

Tolovana Hotsprings:
We loaded up for Tolovana Hotspring next. It was an 11 mile trail to get there. We'd use the snowmachines and sleds to haul gear, then everyone else would ski. It's a nice little oasis to spend a couple days and I think it's quite popular with the crowd from Fairbanks. We all met at Hugh and Alis house, loaded up, then headed out up the Dalton Highway.

We certainly couldn't forget the dogs. Bailey and I made quick friends. Puck was sad that he couldn't go, but it was probably for the best, as i'm sure some ferocious beast, deep in the forest, would've thought his chubby ass too irresistible.

We made quick work at the trailhead, because the wind was cold and swift. The trail passed through a beautiful Black Spruce forest most of the way.

There were 9 of us total, mostly new friends to me.

The woodstove in the cabin gave the place t-shirt weather in no time, and hotsprings were wonderfully relaxing after the long hike in.

When we left Tolovana we stopped by the local brewery for some beer and food on the way home.

We got back late and started the job of unpacking and cleaning up. Anja and I had to be at the airport early in the morning, and Hugh had to depart for South America at midnight the next night, so there was no time for rest. As Hugh drove us to the airport it didn't even feel like the same airport we spent quite a bit of time at. I was looking forward to the temps in the 60's that I heard about in Salt Lake City, but it was a sad ending to see the big-bird that would take us south.

As we left Fairbanks and approached the Alaska Range the clouds enveloped the mountains and stayed that way until we got to Seattle. I read from my new book by Bob Marshall about his explorations of the Koyokuk, and the Brooks Range. I contemplated a return to Alaska with my boat and a good pair of boots during the summer of 2011 to, as the locals say, go inside.

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