Here’s a draft of the story of last summer’s trip: Alaska
Sorry for the end-to-beginning nature of this format. As soon as I’m done writing down the last few weeks of the trip, getting myself back home, I’ll compile it all into one document. For now, if you want the narrative in order, go to the gallery and read it as a photo essay.
And now the story of the river.
I cruise along the 60 miles of dirt, back towards Chitna, back towards pavement, towards Haines, towards home. At the bridge over the canyon, I stop and make breakfast. A few people on motorbikes stop and we chat for a bit. The van is good at starting conversations. Not quite as good as a dog.
At the crossroads called Glenallen I get gas and stop in at the tourist information center. There’s a retired couple in an RV up from New Mexico. The guy at the counter remarks that there aren’t many people who visit from NM. I laugh and tell him that perhaps we just tend to keep quiet, but that there are probably more of us than he suspects. “We get more people from Switzerland than from New Mexico coming through here.” “Yes, you are probably right,” I say. “You’d have never known I was from there if these folks hadn’t walked in while I was here.” I sign his guestbook from Gunnison, CO.
In Tok I pick up a hitchhiker named Kevin. He offers to get out and walk across the border. It hadn’t occurred to me to be worried about being hassled. It’s no trouble. We stop for dinner at a pull out a little way into the Yukon. He plays his guitar as I cook steak and beans. We stop for the evening on the bank of the Duke River. The moon is very low in the sky, exactly half full, and hangs just above the horizon with its terminator appearing directly vertical. I wonder if I can calculate our location from the altitude angle of the moon. I think I need to know where we are in the 19-year lunar cycle for that. Which I would probably know if I’d grown up around people who celebrate Ramadan. Or around Mayans. It seems strange, the moon so low with the edge on circle-line dividing shade and sun so neatly vertical. In a week the moon will be full.
In the morning we continue on, get coffee and pastries in Haines Junction. Kevin what, I ask him when we stop for gas and at first he’s thinking that he’ll continue on into BC and so we trade contact info. Just call me Kevin Hitchhiker, he says. He offers to connect me with his family in Bend, Oregon if I end up passing through there on my way home. Then he decides to come check out Haines, since there’s a ride and all. So we set off.
At a pass, we stop and enjoy the views. The landscape is open, high alpine. Grey stones given a lick and a promise by recently retreated glaciers show through the pale green of full summer in the southern Yukon. Descending on the Pacific side of the pass, it’s a drastic change, passing through the range of mountains between the interior and the coast. Dwarf black spruce give way to gigantic trees. Tundra is replaced by underbrush.
Haines is like a little town in the Pacific Northwest, elements of Port Townsend or Squamish. I meet Greg and Jeff, Kevin takes off, perhaps he’s headed straight back to Canada. Greg is Coop’s friend who organized this trip. Jeff is a friend of Greg’s. Jonathan Coop is a friend from home. He teaches Biology and we bonded over the fact that we both are from New Mexico. At dinner, I meet Phil and Alaina, who will also be on the trip, and Eric and his wife (whose name I forget) who live in Haines.
I find a spot to park a bit south of town. In the morning there’s a cafe and market that makes a nice place to sit and have breakfast. In the afternoon, Coop and Mikal arrive on the ferry. We meet with Stan, the outfitter, and talk about the particulars of the river, and his system that he’ll be loaning us. Last bits of gear. I pick up some rubber boots. I got a drybag in Fairbanks. Coop brought the bright red all-weather suit I’ve had sitting in my closet for ten years or so and never used. My mom got them for me and my brothers a while ago because they seemed like a good deal. It turned out to perfect for this trip. She’s good at finding things like that.
In the morning, we park my van at the airport and Stan and his wife Katie drive us north to the put in at Dalton Post in the Yukon. This is in part of Alsek Provincial Park, which together with Kluane Provincial Park and Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks in the US form the largest protected natural area in the world. I’ve reached the saturation point where I’m enjoying gently poking fun at the flagrant affinity for superlatives that the Alaskan tourist industry promotes, but this is one that I wholly appreciate. Besides, I remember playing the “by far” game with my dad when I was little, where we’d name off things that Alaska was “by far”. Alaska is by far the largest, by far the furthest north, by far the furthest west, by far the furthest east, has by far the largest and the most mountains, is by far the least populated. Unless of course you include Canada in the game.
At the put in, we rig the boats, following Stan’s procedure. He’s good at taking this group of people, some of whom have plenty of river experience and some of whom, like me, have almost none, and giving us simple, functional systems that we can master quickly and that adapt well to the adjustments and idiosyncracies of a varied group.
The rafting party is an interesting band of people. Greg, Jeff, Paul, Alaina and Mikal are all friends from the old days of taking direct action in service of the forests and the wild places. Greg teaches at Gonzaga. He’s one of Coop’s mentors. His manner is a reserved sort of outgoing. He drops all sorts of hints of having a very interesting collection of stories to tell. All of these people do. Phil and Alaina are a very sweet pair, happy with each other, supportive. Together since the old days. On the drive to the put in, Phil and I discover that we seem to have studied the same joke book. The lama asks the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything, gets his sausage, hands the guy a twenty, ask for his change, and is told that change comes from within. Jeff’s the quietest guy in the group, an observer. Mikal is as obsessive about documenting things as I am. Perhaps more so. “Former technophobe” Alaina comments, smiling, as Mikal accumulates video clips in his phone and talks about his editing workflow. He’s working on a documentary about the changing nature of the pot-growing community in Humbolt County. And there is Coop and there is me.
Next to the put in a couple of guys are camped in pop up trailers, fishing. A couple of park rangers stop by and check our permits. The boats are rigged and we have lunch. We estimate that the river is flowing at 2-3 thousand ft^3/s. I check the units in my head and try to guess at the distance to the opposite bank, the speed of the river in ft/s. Stan says the average depth is about five feet right here. The river is opaque. This will make a good math 105 example. Especially when the river gets big. And it’s a fun diversion.
Eventually, everything is ready and it is time to go. The first day is the only stretch of river with unavoidable rapids. They start after about 45 minutes as the river enters a canyon. The land is young, the canyon’s unpolished. This river is just beginning to cut into this landscape, following the broad track laid out by the glaciers that were here just recently.
The rapids aren’t much this time. Enough to think about, enough to splash plenty and make me stash the camera at times. I’m riding with Coop and he is having a blast steering us past wave trains and holes, catching eddies to collect the other two boats and give me time to bail. When we are out of the canyon, cut banks and gravel bars abound. Driftwood piles on snags and islands and mossy vegetable mats overhang the banks. Stan told us that there would be about 45 minutes of rapids, and then after that, we were on pretty smooth water until camp.
On a small island, Jon and I stop to pick up some wood for our fire. As we pull onto shore, Greg and Jeff float by and then Mikal, Phil and Alaina. We gather a couple armloads and bundle them up in the bow of the boat. When we pull in to camp a little further down the river, Greg asks us if we had seen the bear who watched from along the shore as we headed to the island for wood, dropping to four paws and disappearing into the forest as Jon and I climbed out of our boat. Nope. Guess we had better open our eyes back up. Ed Abbey floated this river a while ago. He seemed to resent the fact that he never actually “encountered the Grizz” as he put it in his oft-quoted admonition. He did give name to one of the rapids a bit later on, Monkey Wrench.
We make camp at the place where Silver Creek flows into the Tatshenshini River, still in the Yukon Territory. River trip beginnings remain strange to me. I do not have habits on which I can rely for this sort of adventure. New people, new gear. There is a Dutch oven and I try again to make cornbread. But I don’t build enough of an insulator around the cast iron; it is a bit better than my poor showing along the Denali highway, but still not great. I open the growler of beer from Denali park and share it around.
Night does a better job of falling than what I am used to. Waking up in the middle of the night, I notice Cleopatra overhead. The big W, or perhaps E. In India, when the dipper goes below the horizon, Cleopatra is used to find the north star.
And then morning. Sitting on the river bank. Coffee. River ambles by, as always. Few flies. Greg, Jonathan, Alaina and Mikal are also writing. Jonathan examines the local flora, documents what he observes. I find his enthusiasm as a naturalist inspiring. Alaina is writing letters to her mom, not unlike my letter to my dad. Mikal takes any opportunity to write. He always keeps journals when he travels, and wonders about when he will ever make it to the point of editing the accumulated stack into anything coherent.
At breakfast, we talk about the ideal of a liberal arts education. I am stuck on the idea that we must not fear any discipline, as many fear math and as I have at times shied away from music. I was talking last winter with Dan Cress, a sociology professor at Western and a figure in the Gunnison music scene, about how he picked up the guitar. He didn’t play any instruments previously, but when he turned 40, he decided that he would give himself the gift of learning to play guitar. That also is inspiring.
When the coffee is done, we motivate. Today, Stan told us, involves a bit of rowing. We confirm Stan’s prediction. It’s a good day for conversation. Coop is stoked to be a dad. I’m glad to be a friend of his sons, Eli and David. The difficulty in this adventure is channel choosing. On one long oxbow, I choose poorly, and our three boats follow a long meander rather than the shortcut that the recent channel found. But maybe the shortcut was blocked by a log jam anyway. Another feature of the rapidly changing northern topography.
After a long day, we find Sediments Creek. There is bear sign at the campsite, tracks in the mud and a pile of berry-filled poo. Looks like a momma and one cub. There is some excitement, some talk about protocol to be sure that we are all on the same page in terms of keeping a responsible camp. This camp is at the mouth of a steep creek draining some small glaciers. The creek flattens out and ends in a half mile or so of flat gravelly outwash, covered in white tufts of dryas. The river and the creek running into it are full of silt.
We set up camp and make dinner. There is plenty of driftwood, it is nice to sit around the fire and let the conversation wander. Eventually I retreat to my tent. I am exhausted but sleep is not easy. Doubts which I hoped that I had left behind in the mountains resurface. They crawl across my thoughts like errant silverfish. Did I succeed on Denali? Eventually, I drift into unconsciousness.
A big breakfast — Ham and eggs with veggies, toast. Stan’s outfit is fairly deluxe. I’m not used to this river culture of bringing everything including the kitchen sink. (There is a foot pump rig for hand washing. This seems extravagant when there is a river nearby.) But that’s how it’s done. I think I’d be happy with about one quarter the stuff. But the comfort and the company is certainly worth whatever difficulty comes with extra things.
When breakfast is done, we go for a hike. A trail enters the woods a few hundred yards upstream. Lovely but poisonous bane berry bushes spot the underbrush with bits of bright red among the riot of green. Parallel gouges in the aspen bark ten feet above the ground again remind us of our ursine neighbors. Phil calls out as we make our way, “Hey bear! Hey-oh!” The trail starts up hill and doesn’t let go until we gain the shoulder of the ridge.
It’s a good viewpoint. Greg spots a moose, possibly with a calf, in a meadow on the other side of Sediments Creek, a four-legged speck through my little spotting scope. The scale of the glacier that carved out this valley is impressive to imagine.
A bit further along and the forest opens to fields of wildflowers. Jonathan and I are struck by how many of the species are common to the mountains outside Crested Butte. Which one of these mountains is Gothic? The Balsam Poplars are the most visible incongruity. We stop at a talus field for lunch. Alaina decides to head down, and the rest of us continue up to a broad plateau of alpine tundra.
We wander, still aiming generally uphill, alternating between immersion in the miniature beauties of the flowering tundra — forget-me-not, paintbrush, rose, heath, more — and expansion into the space between here and the mountains across the valley. Sediments Creek flows at the bottom of an immense gulf.
We sit on the edge and watch tiny flecks of white on the slopes opposite through our binoculars: mountain goats. I am reminded of picking out constellations; these seven goats are the Pleiades. Phil heads down to meet Alaina and get started on dinner.
Further along, we sit and stare across at the blue ice of the glacier that feeds Sediments. Greg teases Jonathan with an old Devil’s advocate: “What would Bill Cronon have to say about all of this?” I play along for a little while, until I start thinking about how to build an agent based simulation to determine the comparative strength of the desire to explore as a factor in human expansion in relation to less esoteric pressures such as scarcity of resources and overcrowding. I decide that it might be better to just look at the mountains enjoy the exploring.
From where we are sitting the ridge drops down to a saddle where it appears that there are a couple of bear dens dug into the loose sand and rock. Beyond this saddle there is no more vegetation. Jeff and I contemplate continuing up, tagging the next high point. We could probably get there in another hour or so, and then run all the way down the scree slope from the peak to Sediments. We decide against this and follow the others down the way we came.
The rain begins on the way down. It would have been a bit more of an adventure than we had anticipated if we had continued up and that rain had hit while we were still climbing on steep and crumbling rock. On the way down, I find a goat knuckle with a tooth-hole punched right through it.
Back at the river, dinner is ready. I’m settling in to this trip now. The rain continues sporadically through the night and the next day. It is a bit cold on the river, a short day to the O’Connor River. I wish that I’d brought my fleece pants. The rain kept up through the morning, and sitting on the boat means moving but also means sitting. So you don’t warm up by going.
Phil and Alaina’s friend Eric was part of the fight to keep the miners out of this area. Near here is Monkey Wrench Rapid. Perhaps it got its name from the fact that Ed Abbey took this trip, though perhaps he was a bit cynical about the experience. Maybe not. It is probably impossible to describe the magic of this place. Perhaps he didn’t try because he knew that. Or the rapids got their name from the monkey wrenching that went on to keep the big copper mine out of here. There would have been roads, bridges, tailings ponds. All these things that go along with the fact that there are at least seven digital cameras on this trip. We were talking yesterday about the Quechua distinction between we that includes you and the exclusive we. Nuqanchis need to take care of this place. Nuqayku will not let you bring in a mine.
Our campsite on the O’Connor is just past where it flows into the Tatshenshini. There are no trees for tying off the boats, so I dig a driftwood log in as a deadman. Jonathan, Mikal and I wander up the O’Connor. Our eyes are again drawn to the ground; the variety of river rock is phenomenal. Quartz and iron intrude in dark volcanic stone. Copper makes for brilliant greens. Our pockets fill with favorite specimens.
The next day brings us nearly to the confluence with the Alsek. The mountains have become larger, the glaciers closer. We camp just past the place where Melt Creek flows into the Tatshenshini. What’s a creek, what’s a river? I’ve lived next to the Santa Fe and the Pojoaque and the Snoqualmie and the Willamette and the Fraser. And the Gunnison. All rivers. Melt Creek has more flow than my southwestern rivers. I’ve found quite a few new creeks and rivers to call home this summer. When the Tatshenshini flows into the Alsek, it becomes the second largest river flowing from North America into the Pacific. Only the Columbia deposits more water into our western ocean. There are no dams on these rivers.
When Melt flows in, its turquoise mixes with the brown of the Tatshenshini in a fence of eddies that remind me of the Kelvin-Helmholz clouds I’ve seen a few times since moving back to the southwest, and of the Karmapa’s banner. In this place the dharma will flourish.
We decide to stay two nights at this campsite. Sunsets are phenomenal, and last for hours.
In the morning, we hike up Melt for a mile or so. There is an island near then confluence of the Tatshenshini and the Alsek where our guidebook says there are petroglyphs. It is just across the river from where we made camp, so the rafts won’t make it across. I have Vaughn’s packraft, so I decide to head over and look for them. I put in to Melt, careening down a swift mass of moving energy in a little plastic bubble. I keep to the left side as it enters the Tatshenshini, and pull my way over to the island.
Take a trail up to a high point, and find the rock just as described, but I can’t find the petroglyphs, even though it is obvious that if one were going to carve in a stone, that this one is the correct choice. I look around a bit more, bushwhack over to another high point where there are clearly no stones. I come back to the first high point. It is a beautiful place. I take off my shoes, and feel its textures through my feet: warm granite, soft moss. A couple of hours after I first found it, I return and sit down on the rock at the end of the trail. I take my dad’s ashes out of my pack and set them next to me, and write a bit more of the letter that I began composing to him on the shoulder of Donaho. After some debate, I pull out the walkie talkie and call Coop. I ask him to read the section in the guidebook where it describes how to find the petroglyphs, in case I am forgetting some important detail. “Take the trail to the high point on the island. Look closely at the rock at the end of the trail. The petroglyphs are hard to find.” As he reads, I realize that I have set my dad’s ashes at the edge of a circle carved into the stone. The light has shifted and the slight change in shadow brings it out. The world clicks into place, and I am filled with something greater than joy. It is perhaps the feeling that I would have had on finding myself at Swayambudhanath or the Wailing Wall or Notre Dame if I had been raised differently. I thank Coop for his help, and sit on the rock a while more, enjoying the peace, the sacredness of the place.
And when it is time to go, I am sad to leave. The packraft takes me back across the river and I hike back up to camp, in time for dinner and another mind-blowing sunset.
The morning brings us on to the Alsek, an enormous lake of a river that happens to be flowing through a massive range of mountains that just recently left the ice age. We see our bear, ambling with a slow and soggy majesty along the left bank of the river.
We cross the arbitrary line dividing Canada from Alaska, which has been marked with a line of trees mowed down like a firebreak. We navigate through a maze of snags to the Walker Glacier camp. The guidebook says, “This glacier is the one you can walk on, it’s the Walker.”
Weather rolls back in. We set up camp, and all meander out on our separate walks. I head up towards the glacier, find a nice place to sit, and spend some time writing. Soon enough, the river of ice is calling to me, and I find myself bushwhacking up towards the trail I can see around the lake at the glacier’s end.
Sometimes it seems that I am on a trail, sometimes not. This place sees enough human traffic that most places have trails. I think back to the Brooks Range, and the germ of a story comes to me, where a bear and a human use each other’s trails and fall in love. In Shadows on the Koyukuk, I recently read the story of the last time that Koyukuk natives hunted grizzly bear with spear. It mentions this strong connection in this northern Athabascan culture between women and bears. The hunters could not let the women know of their plans or it would doom the hunt. Eventually, I break out of the bush, and follow the trail to the base of the glacier.
Mikal is there, just leaving as I arrive. There will be time tomorrow to more fully explore this place, so I content myself with a short visit. Again, I return to camp late and my friends are already eating dinner. Tonight I sleep early, and wake early.
I get a fire going and make coffee. From where I’m sit on the beach under this tarp, I look out across the tree strewn river. The clouds are low. The river came up in the night, the boats are floating on their lines.
The others rise and we head out to explore the glacier. The water cuts through the ice like through sandstone.
Meanders, drops, falls. And also moulins, holes. And on the surface, rock collects. Dirt forms. Some plants, mostly alder shrubs, mosses, a few flowers grow on the thin layer. Dig down and there is ice.
This is another place where scale boggles the mind. My friends and I are colorful specks amid the grey and blue of the glacier.
Return to camp eventually. Tomorrow to Alsek lake. Then to the take out in Dry Bay. Then back to Haines. The day after the day after tomorrow. And then what? Back to the rest of life. Reconnect, see what I learned. Raining. Sitting in my tent. Socks, gloves, hat hung up to dry. Up early, to bed early. Hands smell like bleach from doing dishes.
After the glacier and a nap, conversation drifts through love and senescence and death. Alaina asks if I’d had visitations from my father. She’s thinking about her mother. Yes, perhaps. Subtle. Or maybe I’m just deaf to these sorts of things. Mikal the EMT from Humbolt says that people who are too stoned (apparently this sometimes happens in Humbolt) often think that they are dying. I tell my story about the chalk drawing of the angel on a bicycle that I saw on the way to Cody’s memorial, and a story about traveling with my father.
Paris subway. Dad asks, “What if you were on the subway and you see someone in the next car, the other train going the other way, and your eyes meet and you both know that it’s true love and then the trains move and you never see each other again?” I had some issues with the idea. “You’d find each other if it was true love.” Maybe not. Maybe love is like gravity. More subtle than anything else, unmatched at distance, but incredibly fragile at close range.
Maybe in some way the Pleadies are these seven goats we saw on the third day. Maybe the universe has topology but we are usually deaf to it because things change so much in the travel. I do an exercise with my students in math 105 about the scale of the earth-moon system. I learned it from the book I use for the course. When I got to ski with a shuttle pilot last year, I told him about this exercise. He does the same thing with the educators that come to his lectures. I’d not be surprised if the authors of the book I’m using learned it from him. The noospehre is not a sphere.
And then on to Alsek Lake. We head to camp on Gateway Knob, an island in the corner of the glacier-fed and iceberg-choked lake. It takes some decision making to get there. One must decide whether to venture out into the middle of the lake and navigate through a wall of icebergs, or to go around the Gateway Knob counter-clockwise and risk having to portage across a quarter mile of mud. The water seems high, and the icebergs formidable. When we stop to scout the channel, we watch a building-size iceberg capsize in a massive crash. So we opt for door number three. It works out fine, and there is no portage.
After dinner we head out for a row amid the icebergs. It is eerie, a bit frightening to be close to the large ones, after what we saw earlier. Mount Fairweather looms in the distance. It takes a long time for the sun to disappear from its slopes after we move into the earth’s shadow.
To the west there are no more mountains. The clouds are ocean clouds: flat, braod, curving to the horizon in the distance. We are still some miles from the ocean. Three hours on the river and then a five mile road.
Nobody wants to leave in the morning. I hike up to the top of the knob. When pressed to start packing, Coop announces from his tent that he is starting a movement called Occupy Gateway Knob. But we do eventually load up the boats for one last day on the river.
The icebergs are flowing with us towards the sea. A curious seal follows us for a little while. When we stop for lunch, we discover the game of skipping stones at icebergs. As usual, once a projectile leaves my hand, it travels along a random trajectory that may or may not have anything to do with what I intended.
After a little exploring to find the correct slough, we find the take out at the airstrip, break down the boats, and enjoy one last dinner together with another eternal sunset. I don’t feel like dealing with my tent. It doesn’t look like it is going to rain, so I don’t.
In the morning, I wake early and run the last five miles to the ocean. I put my feet in the surf and stand there for a while. I chat with some ravens.
I run back to the airstrip, the plane comes, we load up, there is some amazing scenery viewed from high above, and then we are back in Haines.
I change my oil in Vaughn’s driveway. The auto parts stores in Alaska don’t recycle motor oil, so I spend a little while driving around trying to get rid of a gallon of used oil. Eventually I drop it off at the transfer station, where as may have been expected, people were tossing things from the backs of pickup trucks and a man wearing shorts and uniform hat is rummaging through the castoffs in the recycle pile. I stop off at Value Village for a can opener and a kitchen knife. Lulu’s is closed for a belated solstice holiday, or I would have picked up another bag of bagels. My hosts head off for the day to retrieve some of Erin’s monitoring equipment that has been watching a glacier in the Delta Range. Erin is breaking up with Vaughn. Vaughn and I talk late into the evening. He seems like a brother, a member of the family we meet and choose along the way. I mention to him that at times I have felt like I traded my last relationship for a van and a trip to Alaska. He replies that perhaps he traded his partner of the past six years and possibly indefinitely many more for a climb of the Cassin. Was it worth it is not a valid question in either case. It’s life.
In the morning, there are other errands that I could run in Fairbanks, but I am ready to get out of the city. I turn the van south and seconds, minutes, degrees roll away. The forest is burning out by the hot springs. Someone was being careless during some live fire ordinance practice on the Army base, and now the sun is a pale orange disk. Anyone who claims that fire and pollution at least make for good sunsets is welcome to continue not having been to the desert Southwest. Or the high Cascades. Or the Brooks Range. Or the Alaska Range. Or wherever it was in the middle of the Atlantic that prompted Levi-Strauss to write that half chapter Brightman threatened to make us analyze in Anthropology 101. As I head south, the air clears a bit, and then the rain begins. I stop at the 49th State brewery and pick up a stainless steel growler, fill it with their IPA. I had stopped just for some takeout, but I end up having a pint and a pretzel for lunch, chatting with the guy next to me at the bar about vehicles. This place is more National Park than Alaska, with its high ceilings and many taps. I suppose that Alaskans can enjoy good beer and urban style too if they like. Still, I preferred the Golden Eagle in Esther, just outside Fairbanks. Vaughn and Ron took Fred and me out there. Grill your own burgers, reminds me of build your own Bloody Mary at the Steep. They had a nice porch, and I met a woman in the math department at UAF, yet another person who knows David Maxwell. David was one of the smart guys in the PhD program in Seattle. He finished in four years and went right into a tenure track job in his home state. Erin knows him too. Another example of the tightness of this web. Vaughn knows Zach Via’s dad.
Perhaps the reason I stick around for a pint is to chat with the bartender. She does her job well, and I’m grateful for the kindness. The IPA is much better than whatever it was I was going to get at first, and the pretzel is good. As I’m leaving, a state trooper having lunch at a table by the door asks me where’s his beer. “I left it inside, but I think I drank half of it.”
Not far south of the brewery, I pick up a hitchhiker, a middle aged native guy with long hair, getting soggy in the rain. I have some stuff sitting in the passenger footwell, so he gets in back and promptly falls asleep. I let him off in Cantwell, and turn down the Denali Highway. The rain is off and on, the clouds are low. After finding a couple of less than ideal spots to park, I find a nice spot, far enough off the road to be mostly out of sight, on enough of a hill to keep a good view. Across the broad river valley to the north the Alaska Range makes an arc, its spine curving to run east-west before it fades into foothills. I pick up a stick from the small stack of wood near the fire ring and carve out a pipe. I’m reading my dad’s stories about Alaska in the early 1970s, about Santa Fe in the early 1990s. I set the jar of his ashes next to me, the remnant of his physical presence reminding me of the finality of death, and of the immortality of a good story. I’m further south and the solstice is a few weeks past; the darker grey of twilight could almost be called night. My father said Kaddish for his father because his grandmother made him promise, and you can’t lie to the dead, just like you can’t lie to the living. I read the words that Fran taught me when I let go of his ashes on a peak far south of here. I stand barefoot in the stream and say a prayer of my own as I drop a bit of his remnant into the water.
I sleep, wake, and enjoy the cool of a grey Alaska day. Try to make some cornbread, using my skillet like a Dutch oven on the Coleman stove. It burns on the bottom. Should have built a fire, used the coals. Still, the top is good. Pancakes are what one can cook in a pan, remember that next time. Someone was blasting dynamite nearby and it was a little odd to hear and feel the explosions. One, then an hour or so later, two more.
Eventually, I get back on the road.
The way to drive to McCarthy is to first go to Chitna, 30 miles off the road down to Valdez. After Chitna, the road passes through a crack blasted out of the rock, turns to dirt, crosses the Copper River. Many people have fish traps set up, and are collecting salmon. From there it is sixty miles to the end of the road. The forest is thick on both sides of the road, and there are no good places to pull out and camp. A bridge crosses the river at a deep and narrow gorge, and then a few miles further on there is a spot under an old trestle where I decide to park for the night. It isn’t the best parking spot, but there’s a creek flowing by and I like the sound.
In the morning, I continue on, and make my way towards the end of the road. When I cross a creek broad enough to have enough airflow to discourage mosquitoes, I stop and splash off the grime of the past few days. The road ends at a footbridge. The guy who owns the parking lot wants $5 per day to park, $15 per day to camp. It isn’t unreasonable, I suppose, but I’m not used to being asked to pay to be somewhere. He tools around his lot on an ATV. I don’t ask if staying in my van counts as parking or camping and give him $5. I wander across the bridge and in to town. There’s a little gear store, and I chat with the woman behind the counter about where to go. She has some suggestions, mostly parallel to what I heard from Erin. What I’m up to seems clear to her, which is refreshing.
I wander through the museum, immersed in the durable ephemra of life as it was. Read the story of Dora Keen. Bike up the road to Kennicott, park at a rack, walk out to an overlook above the moraine. Kennicott has some impressive old buildings. Largest wooden structure in the world, the locals are telling me. “Except that one in China, and it fell down…”
Took some pictures of an old Studebaker truck and a green Willys. We had a Willys for a while when I was a kid. One of the many cars my dad had and was always fixing. At a certain point, he gave up with fixing and just drove them until they died. Maybe it was when the little Porsche caught fire on I-25. That’s the era in his life that I’ve been reading about. I was there too of course, but I am closer in age now to him writing the story than myself when I lived the story, so I have an easier time seeing things from his point of view.
Cruise down to McCarthy. Over at the pub I order a beer. It seems a little odd that the bartender checks my ID. Perhaps this place has been busted. “Gunnison,” she says, “I spent some time there.” A former Western student. And her fiance used to live in Crested Butte. People are easy going, making acquaintances isn’t hard. Someone invites me to come down the street for another beer on the porch, but I’m hungry, and decide to head back to the van for dinner. Potato pancakes with quinoa. The potatoes are from my garden in Gunnison. The maple syrup is from my relatives in New York. After dinner, a little wandering around town, standing down by the river. I’m asked to take pictures of the Kennicott guides. They are all dressed up, at first I think its a wedding. I take a few straight, and then ask them to do something ridiculous. A third of them moon the camera.
Back at the pub, I have a few more beers with the crowd. How did I end up here? The only plan that I had when I came to Alaska was to climb Denali. Part of my preparation for this trip was to ask people with time in Alaska where they thought I should go, what else was worth the glimpse that I could catch in my brief wander through this state. When I passed through Bellingham, Nate told me I should come here, and his house-mate Kyle, and Kira, who seems an interesting person to have met. All of them lived here at some point. It’s a nice place, McCarthy. A little town, full of people who found it and stayed, and people passing through for some time. As with every place in Alaska, I am encountering people from whom I am not far removed – the bartender and her fiance, the massage therapist Stephanie with the bright smile who lived at Irwin. The tapestry of human interaction is woven tightly in this place, in this life. What is it about this world, about my way of being in it, that draws me to these people, to illustrate these connections in the mesh?
July 11th, 2013
Got up this morning, made breakfast, moved the van to a spot that one of the people I met at the bar suggested, packed my stuff to go for a hike, got lazy and decided to just sit around today. That’s ok. I need to write anyway.
So, I’m on the bank of the Kennicott River, snacking on cherries that Vaughn gave me, just made a cup of coffee. Perhaps I am mildly hungover from last night, but I think that today’s laziness has more to it than that. It isn’t particularly early.
I read for a bit, finish Left Hand of Darkness, which somehow I missed reading when I was younger, contemplate a packraft adventure for the afternoon, decide to revel in laziness. I have some ice cream in town, chat with folks on the sunny deck. A young woman visiting from Anchorage with her parents who are from perhaps Ohio encourages me to go mountain biking on the trails south of Anchorage. I’ll have to save that for another trip. A writer who works for the park tells me about his novel, about an anthropologist who discovers where Perseus hid the head of Medusa, and falls in love with the Gorgon. He has a cabin up near Fairbanks where he hopes to retreat to finish writing it. A guy from Phoenix shows me pictures of his yellow Camero. We talk about cars for a bit. There is a band passing through, and we chat on the porch of the bar for a good part of the afternoon. Some of them play later, at the open mic. A Celtic trio from New York is passing through as well, and they play a few reels. They are charmingly abashed about playing in hiking boots. It seems so appropriate I doubt anything else will ever look quite right. Someone sings Leonard Cohen’s Allelujah and even though the sound system destroys her voice, it is beautiful. Someone plays a washtub. Someone notices my Messman’s hoodie and we chat about .83.
After a successful lazy day, I retire to my house on the river.
In the morning, I set out for the glacier. My bag is packed from yesterday, so all I have to do is get up and sit around drinking coffee for a while to get ready. I accomplish this, throw on my nice light pack, and pedal back over the bridge to McCarthy, up the road to Kennicott, and along the trail to where it drops down to the Root Glacier. The last bit of trail is singletrack, and it is in a national park, but not wilderness, so the bike is okay. Still, it amuses me when I pass a park ranger on the trail. She is chatting with a guy on an ATV, and makes a weird laugh-snort as I pass. Perhaps I am somewhat ridiculous. Anyway. Before long the trail leaves the forest and moves on to the moraine. I stash my bike in the trees out of sight, and hike down to the glacier. Strapping my aluminum crampons on over my hiking shoes is certainly ridiculous. When I bought these crampons, Second Ascent had one of them mounted on some sort of slip on casual shoe sitting on the counter, so I’m sure that I’m not the only one to be amused by putting crampons on shoes that are far from mountaineering boots. I am amused, regardless. It seems to work well enough. I cross the glacier. As I approach the other side, there is a waterfall on the left, pouring off the saddle of the peninsula for which I’m headed. Soon enough I’m off the ice onto the gravel. There’s a trail that goes to a campsite. I find a trail leading in the direction I’m headed that continues for a little bit, and then it isn’t there anymore.
Oh, good, I think. A real Alaska bushwhack to tick off on the list. Maybe I’m only half joking. A trail shows back up when I get to the first of two lakes. It’s easy going to follow the trail for the most part. At a junction of trails between the two lakes, I decide to follow the trail that goes up. It gets steep, heading straight up a drainage gully onto a scree slope that is desperately seeking the angle of repose. I figure I’ll get up to a camp with a view. I scrape some water from a patch of ice, hop over onto the rock on climber’s left of the gully, and mountain goat my way up to the place where the vegetation ends. There’s a nice little snow patch here, better than the one I dug from earlier, by a flat enough spot to make camp. Perfect. I’m tired. It’s late. There is a phenomenal sunset. Sleep comes easy.
In the morning, I’m again in no hurry. I sit around, writing and taking in the view, looking at the great white bulk of Blackburn accross the valley of the Kennicott Glacier, the drainage across revealing the remnant of Hidden Lake. I write a letter to my dad.
It’s hard to describe what I’m doing, writing this letter, taking this journey. Its hard to keep a train of thought because of the bugs. The two mountain goats—a nanny and a kid—are still watching me. As I make coffee and enjoy the views, they make their way down towards me. I recognize that I am in the path, and I try to make myself unobtrusive. They slowly make their way down, get within twenty feet or so of me, and then turn around, move back up the hill, and traverse a cliff that I would have probably died falling from had I tried to follow them.
It occurs to me that they didn’t go over and graze because of where my camp is set, but that I would have gotten out of the way if they were two bears. I feel like a jerk. Might makes right, what? Out here I feel a kinship with everything. I would not exist without the happenstance that brought together my parents, and their parents, and so on, and so my kin are close to me in part because almost all of the same seemingly random choices that led to me led to them. But I am struck by the unlikely miracle that a world has any sort of beasts at all. How unlikely is a world with animals, birds, insects? So I am kin with the bear and the moose and the raven and the gull and the eagle and the mosquito. Or any sort of life? So I am kin with the pine and the cedar and the spruce and the kinickinick and the bolete and the lichen and the grasses. Or liquid water, or this particular mixture that is our air? Or the physics that leads to these stones, these gullies? These things, out of all the possible universes that could be, these things are in the same one as I am, and so we are kin. Perhaps I have been spending too much time alone in places with really good views.
Adrift in this contemplation, I am happened upon by two hikers, one from Anchorage, one from Valdez. They are surprised to see me. We chat for a bit, and they move on.
Without dust, dust devils are invisible. Mostly, I can still follow sound. Distortion of air at different densities.
Ok, going to pack up. Motivate.
So, I head further up. Just before the ridge, the two hikers are coming down. Steep and loose. The angle of repose seems steeper in Alaska. Everything is younger. The ice keeps it frozen for much of the year. There are tufts of goat hair caught on the rocks. This is a Goat trail. In the Brooks Range I followed Bear and Wolf and Moose trails. There are blue flecks in the rock. It is almost steep enough to be scary that the rock is so crumbly. I look down and think about what I would do to arrest a slide if I did fall. I like this whippet. Better than fingernails. Better than a triangle of flat rock. Eventually I’m on the ridge, the saddle between the main peak of Donaho and the next highest local maximum. Look around, have a snack. Scramble the rest of the way up Donaho. This is the perfect peak for a lazy afternoon of staring into space. Space meets back with some amazing views.
There is Blackburn, with the glaciers flowing off in a torrent. “The glacier and the torrent, both get where they are going,” says LeGuin in Left Hand of Darkness. This glacier is a torrent. There is Hidden Lake, and the valley that leads up from the glacier. There is the broad valley of the Kennicott River, down to the town I just got to know, just a little. And across the broader valley of the Copper, to the Chugach.
Eventually it is time to descend. Plunge stepping my way down the snowfield is fun. I realize that I’m one drainage over from where I had meant to be, and I’m going to have some steepness to deal with. Being cliffed out is quite possible, so scouting is needful, but being on the wrong side of an event horizon would be bad, so one must be careful. Sketchy on-sight down climbing is going to be the next big adventure sport. This is ridiculous, what the hell am I doing? I’ll get a sponsorship or something. One 5-easy traverse and some class 4 (phew) gullies. Walking down the steep scree slope at the end, I ski the slides. Reminds me of running back to the ferry terminal on Thira when I was 15. My dad didn’t like me doing that. I think his fear of heights manifested in me as a love of the aerie. When the vegetation arrives, the slope stays steep, and the angle is mind bending. And wearying. Once it flattens out, I choose a campsite among the hills of gravelly moraine at the edge of the glacier. The edge of the glacier is at least a quarter mile wide.
I wake, and make my way down to a lake at a boundary between moraine and vegetation. Donaho looms above. Going to meander back to town today. Afternoon walk down the Kennicott highway.
Crampons on these shoes eventually bother my third toe, where the outer bar of the toe bail sits. I take them off for a while, but then put them back on when the glacier gets a bit steeper. There are waterfalls, lakes, runnells and moulins. Sightseeing planes buzz around like mosquitoes.
Then I’m back at my bike, back in Kennicott, back at my van, back at the pub in McCarthy. Somebody who I remember seeing but hadn’t met says, “you were here before, weren’t you?”
And then in the morning it is time to move on, go meet Coop in Haines.
I’m lying on the gravelly bank of Kinnorutin Creek, in the shadow of Apoon Mountain, two days’ hike in from the Dalton Highway. Kuyuktukvuk creek flows in to the Deitrich river about 60 miles north of Coldfoot, and Trembley creek flows in to the Kuyuktukvuk not far from the Dietrich. I hiked up Trembly creek, over the pass, down Blarney creek and up Kinnorutin. It is about nine o’clock in the evening, and the sun is still at least 25 degrees above the horizon, due west. It is mostly cloudy. I’m hoping that the weather holds – the past couple days it has been amazingly clear, warm and sunny. It would be less fun to have to deal with more typical Brooks Range weather while I’m out here. So far so good.
Yesterday I started out from the haul road with Fred, who I know through Sean Davis by way of Denali. Fred climbed the Cassin Ridge, one of, perhaps the, classic technical routes to the summit. He climbed with Ron, and Vaughn, both from Fairbanks. Ron used to be a musher, and seeing images of his dogsled trips up into these mountains was part of the encouragement I needed to get up here. Ron’s also the father of three little girls (they are down to Peru right now, he’s on his way there to meet them), and his house is an interesting collision of climbing gear and cute pink things, dirtbag meets Dora. Vaughn put me up in Fairbanks, and loaned me his packraft for this trip. He lives on Cheena Ridge outside of town. The house has an open floor plan, with a second story that does not extend over the living room, creating space for the mind to relax. There is a rope fixed to the ceiling, hanging down behind the couch. It doesn’t seem out of place at all; it is simply a piece of furniture, like the wood stove or the rocking chair. When I arrived in Fairbanks, I was generously welcomed by Vaughn and his girlfriend Erin; they grilled a delicious salmon for dinner, and helped me plan my current and next adventures. It is true, at least in this case, what they say about the hospitality of people in the north. Fred knows Ron from climbing in Peru. He’s also headed there next, and will drive my van back to Coldfoot so that it will be there for me when I get out.
Fred decided to join me up here at the last minute. I stopped by Ron’s house to say goodbye, and Fred decided that heading up north for a few days would be more exciting than continuing to relax on Ron’s couch. So, we got out of town late, driving north into the almost but not quite setting midnight sun. At around one in the morning, we stopped and tried to sleep for a bit, but the mosquitoes had found their way into the van, probably five hundred of them, and sleep was impossible. This was the first time I hadn’t been able to clear them out and sleep mosquito free.
After a couple hours we continued north, crossed the Yukon river at about six in the morning. On the north bank of the river is a camp where we stopped for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. We caught a little sleep with a nap at a pull out on the side of the highway. A breeze cleared the mosquitoes out of the van, and I made some pancakes for lunch. Continuing north, we came to Coldfoot in the early afternoon, stopped in at the ranger station, and then over to the Furthest North Truck Stop in the World, where we got our money’s worth out of their all you can eat dinner. Both of us are still in recovery mode after Denali. We met Will and his father, Doug, who are up here working a small gold mine. Doug is classic. He asks me, “You drive that van up here all the way from America?”
We continued up the road over Atigun pass, to stick our toes in the North Slope, and made camp near the headwaters of the Atigun river. Finally, a good sleep. We woke up late. The van was full of mosquitoes again, but these ones were not interested in biting. Atigun pass held weather and we almost just sat around drinking coffee and reading all day. Luckily we made a move back south to our trailhead, where the sun was shining warm. Crossing the clear Dietrich river was refreshing. We commenced hopping gravel bars upstream, splashing back and forth through Kuyuktukvuk and Trembley creeks, climbing over boulders and the remnanats of pack ice, following tracks of wolf, moose, and bear.
In a small pool, Fred fished out three grayling, and we fried them up for lunch. I’d thought about getting set up to fish on this trip, but never got around to it. If I were taking a longer trip, it would be more enticing. In Bellingham I picked up reading material at Village Books, to add to the small library I’m carrying around already. On Denali I started The River Why, but I doubt I’ll finish it. Maybe someday fishing will interest me. I also picked up The Left Hand of Darkness, and this has been more engaging. Not yet started is Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk about Running, which seems good. Climbing through the remnants of the aufeis reminded me of climbing through the sandstone canyons of Utah. There was no night, and we kept hiking until late; it was after midnight when we finally turned in.
Fred and I parted ways this morning. He hiked out, I continued up the creek until it became a trickle and then disappeared into the tundra. Over the pass, Blarney Creek picks up where Trembley left off, rivulets between shallow pools flowing together. They merge into a small stream that sprinkles its way down a steep jumble, where it joins another flow coming in from the right. I stop and brew up a cup of coffee, sitting on the stones of the riverbank. A thin riparian line of willows gives way to mossy tundra climbing to the chossy cliffs above. The landscape is immense, the light is somehow different, older, or perhaps younger, from an earlier age, this place out of step with the life of other mountains to the south. And here I am in the middle of these mountains, camped by this river. Practical concerns: bug dope is often required, swallow a few mosquitoes and out comes the headnet. My food is cached in a bear can fifty strides upriver. I do not need a headlamp. I do not need to carry water. I cup my hands and drink directly from the river. Wool socks seem functionally equivalent to Neoprene for walking in and out of the water all day – one pair of each are in rotation, and I have a pair of dry wool socks in reserve. These little ankle gaiters are good for keeping things out of my shoes. The willows have fresh green leaves. Tracks of wolf, bear and moose are everywhere.
The original plan was to hike in and climb Mt. Doonerak. (Bob Marshall gave the name to the mountain. A Doonerak is some sort of a trickster spirit.) From there, I would float out the Koyuykuk to Delay Pass, and then hike out to Wiseman. I might still do that. Plans are always in flux. The BLM ranger, Craig, at the station in Coldfoot said that as of last year there was a Zach Hugo, age 81, living at Anaktuvik Pass. (He used the internet.) I’m inclined to go over there and see if I can meet the man after whom I am named. I should have made this plan earlier and tried to get in touch. And mailed myself a food drop. What would usually be ten days of food might last six if I restrain myself. I’m still recovery eating after Denali. I might be able to wrangle a resupply, but I don’t have enough on me for the trip to Anaktuvik and then on down the Tinyaguk to Coldfoot. I could buy supplies in Anaktuvik, except that I don’t have my wallet with me. Or I could fly out from Anaktuvik. Doonerak looks large, steep and messy, not sure I want to climb it. Tomorrow I hope to get to try the pack raft (if I climb Doonerak, not tomorrow). If the going by raft is easy enough, it will make extending the trip more attractive. Actually, maybe not having a plan is the best plan. Enough for tonight, I’m enjoying this book that I’m reading, Shadows on the Koyukuk, and I want to read a bit more before bed.
I made it to the Koyukuk river today, and am settled on a gravel bar in my bivy sack with the mesh up against the mosquitoes. Today’s hike came up to Kinnorutin Pass, where I decided not to climb Doonerak. I would be more likely to run out of food if I took the extra day to do that. And I’m feeling kind of lazy. So I crossed the broad tundra plain of the pass towards Amawk Creek. The creek begins as a large shallow pool, flowing out in braids a few inches deep, funneling together as the stream cuts through a harder layer of rock. I splash through the stream, crossing from bank to bank as I downclimb. The upended geology has created a series of steps and benches on the way down from the pass. As I start to descend one of these steps I notice two bears about a quarter mile downstream. They are heading up the trail I am following down. (This is a trail in the Brooks Range sense, with broken branches holding tufts of brown fur, not in the established path where you think a person might have come by here recently sense. I have not seen obvious sign of human presence on the ground since leaving the Dietrich River.) So, I change sides of the creek to keep it between me and them, and stay high. The bears are full grown, but tumble and play with each other like cubs, like puppies. Amazing to watch. Want to linger. They looked full grown enough that mom is probably not around, but I don’t want to make an unfortunate assumption. Also, if they are young and rambunctious enough to be so playful, I don’t want to arouse their curiosity. The bears continue upstream. I wish I had a telephoto, or a better scope. Eventually, I pass around a bend in the river and lose sight of them.
Amawk is steep until it gets to the broad valley of the Koyukuk. At this point, it turns to the left and angles dwonstream to meet the river. It has gained enough water that it is awkward to walk in the flow, but not enough to float with the raft. The banks are thick with willows, so I brave the tussocks and strike off straight towards the Koyukuk. It isn’t that bad. It takes maybe half an hour to traverse about a mile of open ground and then bushwhack through the thick brush to the river. Mount Doonerak looms downstream on river left. Tomorrow, I’ll float to the inflow of Ernie Creek where I’ll make the decision: turn right and head upstream towards the Valley of Precipices, Ernie Pass, and Anaktuvik, where I will have to resupply or exit by plane; or continue on downstream with the Koyukuk, through the Gates of the Arctic and on down to Delay Pass, where two more days of hiking will bring me to Wiseman, and either my thumb on the haul road or the packraft on the Dietrich will return me thirteen miles south to Coldfoot and my van.
My first experiment with the raft part of the packraft: After coffee (instant, with hot cocoa mix added to make it palatable) and oatmeal (also instant, threw in some chia seeds and dried blueberries for an extra bit of energy) I blow up Vaughn’s little blue boat. Inflation is done using a nylon bag that screws in to the valve on the raft. Open the bag, catch a bagful of air, push it into the boat. Finish it off with lungs. Assemble the paddle. How much extension, how much offset? Dunno. New to this game. Seat and backrest also get inflated. Spray skirt zips on and then closes up with velcro. Another air chamber on the lap of the skirt. Pack gets tied onto the bow. Ready the pack for getting wet. Everything that stays dry inside the plastic bag, roll it up and put the bear barrel on top. Snug it all down. Life jacket. Neoprene gloves in the pocket. Camera zippered up and attached to the pfd high on my chest. Boat in the water, everything snug, spray skirt closed. Ready to go? Ready. Looks like it is class II to start and for the foreseeable future. Push off, here we go.
I’m paddling down the Koyukuk. Turquoise wave trains. Doonerak towering above on the left. Riverbank, hill, mountain, sky. Green rises to black meets grey. Snags and soon to be snags of spruce leaning into the current. Feeling the current, learning to move the boat, learning to choose lines. Sometimes. Mostly just going with the flow. Streams flowing off the crags add to the river. It splits, braids, turns past gravel bars and around rocky outcrops. Flat sections followed by a rock gardens. Water splashes in; after half an hour, I’m sitting in an icy puddle. After an hour, I have to stop, empty the boat, dry off in the sun. I put on another layer (the R1 hoodie I pretty much lived in all summer). Have a snack.
Second time around I do a better job with the spray skirt. Parts of this river have just barely enough water to flaot. I feel bad for Vaughn’s boat as I plow into rocks and over gravel bars that I am not yet skillful enough to avoid. Eventually, the river mellows and I’m at the inflow of Ernie Creek.
I take out onto a gravel bar. Build a little fire from driftwood. The Gates of the Arctic mark a psychological boundary down river. Marshall named these mountains as well. He saw them from the south. Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain. The weather is lousy – cold, rainy. A couple planes fly overhead. “Why am I here?” occasionally whispers as I slowly warm up. My little fire doesn’t do much good. It is too windy, too small to dry anything without burning it. Make a cup of coffee and sit under the boat with my back against a log. Warms me more than the fire.
The airplanes flying over, oil traffic, remind me of a story from my dad. One of the cases he argued for the village of Anaktuvik Pass was about the routes that the pipeline traffic was taking during construction. The original agreement, the route authorization, was to take Dietrich Pass, but the Alyeska cats were driving right over Anaktuvik, because it was more convenient, cheaper. Judge von der Heydt presumed to read the minds of the Natives and used the reading to find against them. “Counsel by these pleadings make light of the critical national interest in this matter, but the Court is sure such is not the intent of the good Native people named as plaintiffs in the case.” You know, National Security and all that. My dad did a lot of work for these people, but always, the deck was stacked against him. The story of Indian Law seems to be that the locals usually lose. I think about how I got here, driving my petroleum fueled van up the haul road, into territory that less than fifty years ago was accessible in summer only by boat or plane.
During the hearings about the slicing up of land up here, many environmentalists argued that no land be placed in private (i.e. Native) hands until appropriate easements had been established. Any delay favored the more forceful actors, the oil industry. Believing my enemy’s enemy is my friend, some of the natives threw their lot in with the oil companies. The Sierra Club wanted people like me to be able to take hikes like this, so they alienated the Natives and unwittingly helped create a space for the oil companies to push through into Prudhoe Bay. There is a big difference between recreational environmentalism and true stewardship. It is also easy to make costly mistakes, even when well-intentioned. Bringing the case about the cat traffic caused a judicial order that enshrined the route over Anaktuvik as a legal alternative to Dietrich Pass.
We must honor the past, we cannot break promises to our ancestors. And yet we cannot revere the dead at the expense of the living. I drove Skinny City, crossed the bridge over the Yukon, gorged myself at the truck stop staffed by earnest, nature loving white kids from Seattle, who will carry a deep seated appreciation for wild places in their hearts all their lives because of the time they spent in the far north. Doug and Will, while working to scrape the precious yellow metal from the earth, grow to appreciate the profound emptiness and silence of the boreal forest.
I collapse the boat, pack up and start hiking upstream. Anaktuvik. Want to meet Zach Hugo. I’ll figure the rest out when I get there. Hiking up valley again, wading, tussocks, bushwhacking. None of the going is particularly easy, but by mixing up the types of slogging, it isn’t particularly bad either. I stop on a gravel bar for quesadillas, hike another hour, and here I am.
Greylime Creek, Arctic drainage.
Today’s hike was spectacularly beautiful.
After breakfast, an hour or so of hiking across tussocks brings me to the flanks of Blackface Mountain. The sugar and caffeine rush from breakfast tends to last between one and two hours, and then I need a snack. A rocky bench is my goal, my target as I trudge across the squishy, unstable ground. The locals do their land things in the winter, when the ground is frozen solid. Tumbled slabs of dark rock support a colorful array of lichens and moss. There is a political division here, and on this black rock a cairn is stacked. It is the first sign of humans on the ground that I have seen since I started up the Kuyuktukvuk.
I am up high enough that the view down river to the Gates of the Arctic is unobstructed. Clouds create a second, inverted landscape which joins the rock, grass and water at my sight line’s point of tangency visible far to the south. The air is clear enough that I can see this place, measure it against true local horizontal, and know that the world is round here as well.
I eat a bagel. I’m halfway through the stash I acquired at Lulu’s in Fairbanks. It’s good. I have a small bag of salt licorice candies from a place just off the plaza in Santa Fe. (Does Senor Murphy’s still exist? How I loved that place when I was a kid.) I’ll have to remember to restock on licorice next time I’m down there. I’ve taken to calling them my magic bullets. When I hiked from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the river and back, they were all I could eat. Of course, Tom Waits’ The Black Rider is playing in my head. “Think you can use just a few of them magics, save the rest for your bad days?” Good thing it’s salt licorice, not heroin. I have seventeen of them left.
Up the Valley of Precipices. It doesn’t strike me as much more precipitous than anywhere else. Blackface has impressive cliffs, but so do Apoon and Falsoola. Names can refer as much to the frame of mind of the name-giver as to the thing named. Halfway up the valley, I see a boot print in the dried mud, next to the ubiquitous wolf tracks that I’ve been following since day one. Further up a snowmachine carcass rusts in the river. This drainage is a well traveled corridor. Every few hours, another plane flies overhead. I can sense that others have experienced the vastness of this place, and it is both comforting and disheartening. I gently chide myself for the ego that is disappointed in the crack in its solopsistic isolation. I feel a kinship with these mountains. Walking up this valley, I am among family. I do cross over a precipice of sorts in this place.
Past the discarded snowmachine, I climb the ridge to the left of the river, psychologically pulling myself up by creating a trail from feature to feature. Up to that rock, now that one, that clump of flowers, to that flat spot and I can rest for a minute. The valley drops away below me as I approach the broad tundra plain of Ernie Pass. Once I am high above the river, I can see that it would have been easy going to stay in the drainage. By this point, I am committed to crossing high, contouring through the creeks that pour down from the crags with their attendant gullies of loose rock and scree. To the north are the ash-grey cliffs of Limestack Mountain, clearly a different geologic phenomenon from that through which I am walking.
I reach a creek that may be the beginning of Greylime, and stop there to cook dinner. There are lots of mosquitoes, but I’m mostly covered up and I sit facing into the wind. In any case, they are not biting. They are fascinating if frustrating little critters. I see the resemblance to Les Claypool. After dinner I pack up and follow the creek downstream for a while until I find a nice spot to camp.
I’m wearing a head net for the mosquitoes, but my feet are bare. They seem much more interested in the protected rest of me, about which I am not complaining. As they do at the end of every day on this hike, my feet need to dry out. Greylime creek is not big enough to be packraft navigable. Parts of it would be. If those parts become a bit more frequent, maybe I’ll see how it works to not close the spray skirt, hop in and out as needed. Tomorrow, if all goes well and the river is navigable and I find ATV trails to follow when I need to walk, I’ll make it to the village of Anaktuvik Pass. If not, I’ll do some slogging and suffering. Hopefully that’s not the case. I’m also going to run out of food in a few days.
I made it to Anaktuvik this morning. Last night I camped at a little uninhabited cluster of buildings a few miles away. Apparently I missed a good party for the 4th of July. But there are festivities continuing through the weekend and I’ve finagled a re-up on food so I’m going to stick around, fly back to Coldfoot on Monday. (Today is Friday.)
Yesterday I woke up and tried to raft Greylime, but it wasn’t worth it. So I carried the raft inflated down to the Anaktuvik River. This was still a pretty low flow, but with the spray skirt off I was able to hop in and out and make pretty good progress. After 4 or 5 miles it became mostly navigable, though I was still in and out of the boat a fair bit. I feel bad about the abuse I’m inflicting on Vaughn’s paddle and boat. I’ll check in with someone who knows before I send it back to him, see if there’s something I can do to repair or replace what wear I’ve created. I guess that this is what these things are designed for. It is quite the travel tool. Making twenty miles in a day was amazing. Usually that’s not such a big deal; twenty miles is a big day, but one I’ve done plenty of times on trails or even overland through open country. Out here, it is a different story, one that Bob Marshall apparently learned in a similar manner.
The river was quite varied. Some sections were gravelly and braided; I was in and out of the boat, trying to follow the deepest channel. Others meandered through thickets of willow, where at one point I came around a corner and surprised a large cow moose – sent her crashing off through the trees. There were some rock gardens where I had to pull and spin to try to keep my little bubble of air from bouncing off of too many of them, or turning over and giving me even more of a soaking than I was already getting. There were huge walls and slabs of aufeis, winter ice that only partially melts during the brief Arctic summer. Sometimes the river flowed under one of these slabs, and I had to make sure not to be swept along with it.
It rained, and I did get kind of cold. When I took out it was certainly time to do so. A cup of oatmeal and dry, warm layers felt really good. I had spied this little cluster of huts where I am sitting now from the river. Hiking across the tundra finished the job of warming me up. The mosquitoes were pretty bad, I had to brush them off my head net so that I could see.
When I did reach the little cluster of huts I found that it was obviously not town, but I was tired enough not to care. It turns out that I could have taken out earlier, where I saw an ATV track, and had a shorter walk to actual town, but I didn’t know.
Anyway, I walked into town this morning. It was fairly deserted, but there were a few people wandering around the streets. I asked a woman, maybe twenty-something, if she knew Zach Hugo, if he was still around. “Oh, yeah, he’s my grandpa,” she replied. “He lives right over there, in that house with the little blue and white truck thing out front. But they aren’t here, he’s in the hospital in Fairbanks.”
Not really knowing what to do, I knocked on the door anyway. My namesake’s son in law opened the door. “Yep, he’s in the hospital in Fairbanks. He’ll probably be there for a week or so. He’s okay, it’s nothing major. Can I tell him who came calling?”
I wandered around town a bit more, and ran into Sarah and Troy at the airport, also in the middle of a long trip. They flew up here from Florida in their little plane, and set up their tent under the wing. We chatted for a bit, they told me about the party the night before, where they were pulled into the songs and dances that have tied this culture together for as long as anyone can remember. They showed me pictures of the singers and the drummers lined up, holding the large flat caribou-belly drums like the ones that growing up, were one of the icons of the life that my parents had in Alaska, before I was born.
The three of us wandered over to the ranger station, where we met Al Smith, who has been part of the Park Service’s presence in the Brooks range for the last ten years or so. Al is the good type of ranger. He knows a lot about the land and the people, he is deeply invested in the place. He’s perhaps a bit of a nerdy recluse at times (or maybe I’m projecting my own traits onto the poor guy). Apparently last night was the first time he’d gotten up to dance at one of these festivals – it was an initiation of sorts.
Anaktuvik Pass has an interesting history. Al told us some stories, and then we went over to the museum. The Nunamiut are some of the last people in America to go from subsistence hunter/ gatherer lifestyle to town-based living. Zach and Doris Hugo were born when the Nunamiut were still nomads, living in tents and sod huts, following the caribou. When they were children, most Nunamiut hunters used rifles, but some were still using bow and arrow or atlatl and spear. The anthropologists discovered them as the transition was underway, so it is well studied and well documented. The museum is named for Simon Paneak, a Nunamiut who befriended the anthropologists and enabled their study of his people. Also, with their encouragement and enabling, he documented much of his own culture, recording methods of making and using tools that were being replaced by modern conveniences. This rapid modernization hadn’t been going on for too long when the oil rush started and everything changed again.
The story that brought my dad into Zach and Doris’s life is a tragic one. Two fuel experts (I think from the army corps of engineers) showed up in early May one year, maybe ’73. The villagers asked them to camp just outside of town, at the far end of the airstrip. They were woefully inadequately prepared for the Arctic in their khakis and light spring jackets. May is still winter. Anaktuvik Pass has recorded subzero Fahrenheit temperatures in June. When their tent blew down in the snow, they bundled themselves in the torn canvas and walked backwards up the runway in to town. One of the villagers rented them a hut, a traditional sod building, and loaned them a stove. The village children, naturally curious, came to visit, ten kids in the hut with the two foreigners. Neither of the fuel experts knew how to use the stove, and it exploded, spewing fuel and fire everywhere. All of the children were badly burned. At least one died. When my dad was visiting the village, staying with the Hugos, Zach apologized because his son would wake up crying in pain in the middle of the night. “He doesn’t like it when it is hot,” he explained, embarrassed. Is it right for me to appear in this village? Am I anything more than a reminder of great pain? Of what value is the fact that my dad tried to honor this man who so impressed him by giving me his name?
I’m camped down by the river now. Al gave me some old backpacker meals (project food he called it) and Sarah and Troy gave me Triscuts, an apple, cookies and chocolate. So I’m set for food, good to go. Or to stay as the case may be. On Monday morning I have a flight back to Coldfoot and then begins the long trek back south. I’ll have adventures on the way, the Tatshenshini river trip in a couple weeks, perhaps McCarthy and the Kennicott.
So, I decided not to stay the whole weekend in Anaktuvik. Last night I hung out with the locals as they played games, like the Eskimo version of mumbleypeg where a dart is thrown at a wooden board following a sequence: touch the shoulder, the elbow, knuckles, ears while flicking the dart, continue if it sticks. I’m standing around a fire – built for piling moss onto and making smoke to drive off the mosquitoes, not for warmth – and one of the guys I’m talking to, his name is Fred, tells me that I should go talk to Ray, an elder who might remember my dad. I introduce myself to Ray. He is wearing a brown leather jacket. His eyes have the cloudy look of one who has been outside in bright sunlight for much of a long life, but they sparkle with a vibrant intensity when I ask him if he remembers my father, who was there maybe forty years ago. “Oh, yes, Eric!” He breaks into a smile. “The village was a lot smaller then.”
“What was it like when my dad came out here? Can you tell me some stories?”
“It was good!”
And that was it. Someone called him away, it was his turn to play cribbage. I didn’t want to press. I was a bit disappointed to not get to meet Zach or Doris. I wasn’t sure of the story about the fuel experts and the children at the time, but I didn’t want to prod at old wounds, and I understood that I might be doing so just by being in town. So I caught the plane back to Coldfoot in the morning. There was my van, and there were the keys, tacked to a beam next to the cashier in an envelope with my name on it.
When I was returning my bear canister and checking out at the ranger station, one of the rangers, Susan Deatherage I think was her name, overheard me tell the retired couple volunteering at the front desk what I had done, and we chatted for a bit about my trip, and about the mountains and rivers of this landscape. She invited me to head over to the Fourth of July barbeque in Wiseman, which was happening today, even though technically it is the Sixth. So I did, where I spent the whole afternoon eating, drinking, and enjoying the company of the people who Bob Marshall called the happiest people on the planet. Doug and Will were there, and several other miners, there was a couple who had just about finished their trip, driving their bus from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay. He was Spanish, she French. There were some students up from Fairbanks, who wanted to hear about my adventures on Denali and in the Brooks Range. There was a truck there with New Mexico plates, and when the owner moved it, and I introduced myself, he was ecstatic to hear that I grew up in Pojoaque and Santa Fe, and that I had heard of Rio Rancho. I was welcomed into their community simply by being there, and fed until I couldn’t even contemplate another bite of caribou stew.
Eventually it was time to go. The students were having car trouble, so one of them opted to catch a ride with me. It is nice to have company on these long drives, when so much of my windshield time is just me and my thoughts. We drove for a bit, tried to sleep by the Yukon River but the mosquitoes were bad, made it back to Fairbanks in the early hours. I parked in Vaughn’s driveway and caught a few hours of good sleep.
As I was telling my story to Vaughn and Erin, when I got to the part where I learned that Zach was in the hospital, Erin joked that perhaps he was Vaughn’s patient. (Vaughn is a nurse.) His eyes opened wide for a second. “He is a very sweet old man. He really wanted to go home.”
June 23, 2013
I am parked by a river, at a spot where the road further becomes too sloppy for me to be interested in driving, and the sound of water entices me to set my house on river rock, sip a beer from the cooler, and try to put the past couple of weeks into words. I’m in the Peters Hills, and if later, or tomorrow, I decide to hike or ride further in and up, perhaps I can get a good view of the mountain I just climbed.
So, how does this story go?
Morning, June 7th. I close the door of the van and trundle my gear over to the tarmac in the steel mesh wagon with wheelbarrow wheels. My pilot in nine-zero-yankee, a Beaver fitted with wheels and skis and trimmed out nicely in the blue and red of Talkeetna Air Taxi, is Brad. Brad came up here from Oregon to be a fishing guide a couple dozen years ago and ended up flying climbers and sightseers into the Alaska range. The Beaver seats five, and the other passengers are still getting ready, so I joke around with the mechanics, try to ride their unicycle (which doesn’t work so well in my ski boots). Two climbers appear and introduce themselves as Dick and Rhys, father and son from Western Massachusets. Rhys just graduated from high school and this is his graduation present, to climb Denali. Last year, the two of them came out in April and did a glacier safety course with Alpine Ascents. They’ve been practicing by climbing in the White Mountains and on trips to the Cascades. Dick has been running stairs with a 50lb weight vest. Both are tall and wiry. Dick is friendly, energetic and outgoing. Rhys is scrawny and strong, smiling with excitement, perhaps quiet with anticipation. We wait a few minutes for the third member of their party, Rich. Big red beard, tele boots, seems observant, thoughtful. They call themselves the Western Mass Crew.
We throw our gear on the plane, Brad runs through his checks, letting the plane idle for a few minutes to warm up the engine. I’m in front, the Western Mass Crew shares the bench seat in back, Rhys squeezed between his father and Rich. The day is calm, the weather board inside the office of Talkeetna Air Taxi says CAVU – Clear Above, Visibility Unlimited. Still, it is a small plane – as we take off, we feel every breath of wind, every pocket of more or less dense air, gently pushing us this way and that. Brad makes it look easy. Maybe it is. I doubt it.
The flight in to the range traverses over many miles of flat terrain, braided with rivers and patched with thick forest opening into pale green meadows and bogs. The Alaska range runs southwest to northeast, with the massive bulk of Denali posted in the middle of a vast array of glaciers, peaks, ice and rock. As we approach the range, this flat terrain becomes hills that quickly give way to angular juts of rock rising from a slowly flowing landscape of ice and gravel. We land on a tributary glacier to the main flow of the Kahiltna, the southeast fork, just outside the wilderness boundary in the shadow of Mount Hunter. Across the Kahiltna is Mount Foraker, the second highest peak in the Alaksa range.
Brad drops us off at base camp. It is still morning, and I think for a moment about heading out right away, and quickly realize that that would be foolish, that I need time to adjust to this new place. There is a stack of plastic sleds next to the airstrip. I retrieve a purple one and rig it for hauling my food, stove fuel, climbing gear, and other what not, all of which add up to more than 100 lbs. To rig the sled I use two pvc poles, about five feet long, run length of 6mm cord through one pole, through holes punched in the front of the sled, and back through the other pole. An overhand knot on a bight at the end of each pole, and a carabiner to clips each knot to my pack. Seems to work. Takes a little while to get it figured out, and it is the sort of system that will obviously evolve with use.
While I am finagling with the sled, the short circuiting of the social network begins. I meet few people in Alaska with whom I didn’t already have some connection. First, I meet the climbing ranger currently stationed at base camp, Tucker Chenoweth. His sister Darcy taught the Wilderness First Responder class I took back in 2006. Then I hear a familiar voice. It’s Rob Burrows. Rob is a glaciologist for Denali national park, I met him through our common friend Ali when Rob and I were both at UBC in Vancouver. He takes some of the credit/blame for introducing me to my ex. Rob and I haven’t seen that much of each other lately, since I’ve been in Colorado and he’s been in Alaksa, though we did meet up for some skiing at Wolf Creek a few years ago. He’s not usually on this side of the park, so it is a bit of a coincidence that he is here doing some research on this glacier when I pass through. We catch up a bit. He used to be the one living out of his camper, exploring various mountain ranges. Now he’s pretty established in his world up here: married, bought a house, has a 907 phone number. I’m the one following the free form adventure, living out of my van, going where my feet take me. Rob used to be a climbing ranger at North Cascades. We skied together on Mount Rainier. I admit to being a bit nervous, and he repeats a warning I have heard a few times already: these glaciers are not like the Cascades, the terrain is on a different scale, hazards are less predictable and higher consequence.
While I’m rigging my sled and meeting Rob, Rhys finds a campsite. I set myself up next to my three plane-mates. I briefly contemplate joining them for the first leg, across the flat glacier, where low elevation means softer bridges and more chance of falling into a crevasse, but decide to stick with my plan and move alone and in the early hours. I hang around the rangers’ tent, listening in as Tucker and Joe Stock, who is preparing a book on ski mountaineering, go over rope work. I’m impressed by Tucker’s skills. “A lifetime of things to learn,” he says. A Japanese soloist sticks his head in the tent to ask Tucker about the best time for crossing the lower glacier. I decide to leave at 2 or 3 am.
Not much sleep and up at 1 am. Cache some food in case the weather is bad when I’m back and the planes can’t fly in. I’m still not dialed into some of my new gear and systems, so I’m not out on the trail until 3:30. This is still early enough to get across the five miles of the lower Kahiltna while the ground is frozen hard. Every little rise and fall on the West Buttress route has a name – from base camp down to the main glacier is Heartbreak Hill. It isn’t much of a hill, but it is nice to get used to pulling a sled on a slight downslope. Supposedly the climb on the way out at the very end is heartbreaking. The solstice is less than two weeks away, so even in the middle of the night it isn’t dark, and I walk in a long morning twilight.
After about 5 miles, the slope increases and there is a cluster of tents. A few people have left camp just before I arrive, and I follow about half an hour behind them for the rest of the day, catching sight of them whenever the variations in the grade of the glacier provide a sight line. Though I had planned to stop moving by 9 am, I feel strong and keep going, making it to 11,000 feet by about 12:30. There is a sizable camp here, many tents. It’s been a long day; I set up my tent and crash. I’m feeling strong in body but I still have a lot to figure out and get used to in terms of gear, and the tricks my mind plays on me in this place will take some practice to understand. I’ve never done a ski trip longer than a few days. There is so much gear to haul. I could have practiced more, had my systems dialed. But I didn’t, so I’m learning on the fly. As usual, it works for me.
At about 10,000 I met Charles, Adrian, and Jarod, a trio of young guys who wanted climbing partners and found each other on the internet. We end up on about the same pace for most of the way up the Buttress. Charles is from Quebec and doesn’t talk much. Adrian is from Seattle, works as an actuary with a couple of guys who I knew in grad school. Jarod is still in college, in Wisconsin. They each have good systems, but it is clear that they have not spent much time as a team. They are learning to work together as I am learning to work solo.
Between 10,000 and camp, I noticed that my bindings are coming a little loose from my skis. This could be disastrous. I brought heavy ski gear so that I could rely on a stable platform underfoot in sketchy terrain. Losing a ski to equipment failure in a no-fall zone is not an option. After a nap, I pull the bindings and fill the mounting holes with epoxy and steel wool. I screw everything up tight. The epoxy takes a day to set, so I stay two nights at 11,000.
Above 11,000 foot camp is Motorcycle Hill, a fairly steep slope crossed by a few small and well-bridged crevasses. the trail then climbs onto a ridge and up the steep Squirrel Hill to the Polo Field, a moderate slope in the shadow of the cliffs at the end of the West Buttress. The trail turns around the Buttress at the Windy Corner, and then continues for a mile or so of sidehill and slight up to the broad flat area where 14,200 foot camp is situated. The whole route is marked by wands, and the trail is well trod. In the afternoon of my second day at 11,000, I walk up to the bottom of the Polo Field at the top of Squirrel Hill. The world feels good when I’m moving, sitting still is hard. All my questions, all my doubts, all the wounds I am trying to heal, they seep to the surface while I lie in my tent. Moving is good. There are decisions to make about the terrain. The scenery demands attention. I can focus.
Dinner. Have to eat, could have chosen my food a bit better. A pair of Japanese snowboarders are descending after a victorious mission and give Adrian, Jarod and Charles some steak. They share the bounty, it is delicious. Why didn’t I bring more bacon?
Angela, one of the guides who I met at Frenchman Coulee on the way up here, is camped at 11,000 with the group she is leading up the mountain. She seems to not be enjoying this trip as much as perhaps she has enjoyed others. Perhaps the dynamic of her group is off. Perhaps it is something else. She offers help in taking care of my binding issue, but I have everything I need.
Day four is June 10th. I am up early to a couple inches of new snow – the only snow of the trip. Seeing Foraker in the sunrise while making coffee reminds me why I am here. I push through the loneliness, strap my skis on my back, fill the thermos with coffee, and load up the sled with about two thirds of my stuff for the first half of a double carry up to 14,200. I leave my tent and what I’ll need for the next day. The weather is mostly good, but while I’m crossing the Polo Field, between Squirrel Hill and Windy corner, clouds roll through and I stop a few times, waiting for enough visibility to see the next wand. The new snow has mostly obscured the track. Pulling a sled along the sidehill of the Windy Corner is aggravating, it slides down and pulls awkwardly. My shoulder hurts where I tore a ligament biking a couple months ago. My body is working slowly, and it takes until early afternoon to get to camp. By now I am above the cloud and past the wind. It is warm. 14,200 camp is a big place – a village. I claim a little corner near the center of camp. I do a little work to shore up the walls of this site. My saw is inadequate for making good blocks in this snow, my walls look like junk, and I am self conscious about them. I feel, or perhaps imagine, doubt and amusement in the eyes of some people milling about. I seem to have placed myself in a spot surrounded by guided groups. Someone walks by and hands me a blow pop. It’s Joe, one of the guides for Mountain Trip.
By about 4 o’clock I decide to head back down to my tent at 11,000. The skiing is fun in spots, but at the places where it should have been best, where it is steep, the visibility is bad and I can’t really see where to go other than the well worn track. Back at camp in less than an hour. The three guys who met on the internet did one carry yesterday and are about to head up for the second. I make dinner and contemplate staying another night at 11,000. Climb high sleep low. I have plenty of time. But I have energy, and weather, and hamster-wheel thoughts that get rolling with inactivity, so at about 7:30 I head up the hill, on my skis and skinning this time instead of hauling them on my pack and hiking with crampons. It is beautiful, perhaps the best hike of the whole climb. The sun sets slowly across Hunter and Foraker, now largely below me rather than looming high above. Again, the altitude makes me slow. At about 13,500, just around the Windy Corner, I stop for a snack – some chocolate, some Acclimate. One more push and I arrive. Set camp, in my bed by midnight.
The broad flat area where 14 camp is situated is bounded on the north and west by the West Buttress, a 2,000 foot wall of rock and ice. To the east rises the south peak of Denali, the high one, the summit hidden behind the edge of a flat area at about 19,000 feet called the Football Field. The Messner and the Orient Express drop down this slope. I would like to ski these lines. They are intimidating. There are no tracks. The Messner was first skied by Sylvan Sadun. Attribution is a strange game. Some people call this mountain McKinley. To the south, the mountain drops away, the Northeast fork of the Kahiltna is 4,000 feet below the edge of the world. The view is dominated by the Kahiltna Peaks, Mount Hunter, and Mount Foraker.
I spend the morning building up my walls. They are getting better, but I would like a sturdier saw. Mine is a sawzall blade that fits onto my shovel handle, great for digging pits and carving blocks out of winter snow in the Rockies or the Cascades, but not ideal for cutting up summer snow at 14,000 feet in the Alaska range. It works ok though. Of course, I could have moved into a site with better walls already in place. This was the advice I got from Kyle, back in Bellingham. Activity is good though, it helps me acclimatize. I wander around camp. I turns out that the three guys I met at 10,000 are camped right next door. Over at the weather board by the ranger tents (it says, “You probably spend too much time looking at this board, and you probably put too much faith in what it says.”), I meet Tyler, a guide who finally convinced his group that it would be a good idea to be a bit more chill, and is quite pleased with the results. His clients have cut blocks to spell “Out Chill” and stacked them on their walls. The guided trip is a strange annex to the mountaineering subculture. Tyler and I chat for a while about the skiing, the weather, life. The board also says that good weather is coming in a couple days, so along with most of the people camped at 14, Tyler is planning on moving up to camp at 17,000 soon.
In the afternoon, I head out for a ski. The slopes below the Messner and the Orient are mellow, and already have a skin track up to about 15,400. The turns are fun, the snow is reasonable, still in decent shape after being refreshed two days ago. On a serac to the side of my run are two climbers, playing on the vertical ice. I ski over and introduce myself to James and Jared from Salt Lake City. We talk about the Black Canyon, Ouray. They can’t believe that I haven’t spent more time in those places. So much to do, so many places to explore. When I’m down, I join the other Jarod, Charles and Adrian on a hike out to the cliff overlooking the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna. I wonder what happened to the Japanese soloist, but I don’t see him. We chatted at 11,000, but he is moving faster than me. No sled, minimal gear.
This is an interesting sort of solo trip. I am by no means alone – there are always people around at camp. While hiking I’m solo. Kind of. I’m on a well trod and wanded trail, and I pass people, they pass me. Personal camp things: food, set up, take down, sleep, writing, this is just me. Sometimes I like this, sometimes it is difficult. It strikes me, the contrast between this trip and my solo desert trips, where I find myself with much more solitude.
On June 12th I wake up feeling pretty rotten. I don’t want to be altitude sick, not like what happened to me in Kibber. The second day of a ten day trek through the Himalaya I spent vomiting and feeling like my head was going to explode. I was living at sea level, and didn’t take time to acclimatize. I spend this morning loafing about, napping and snacking until about 3 in the afternoon. I start to feel better. I visit with James and Jared, who I met on my ski, and their friends Vince and Keith. Keith used to work at Mt. Crested Butte, and we chat a bit about the skiing, both here and there. Later I spot him sporting a confederate flag bandana and lose whatever esteem I might have had for the guy. I wonder how that fashion choice went over with the African-American team.
Around 3pm, Adrian and I head up the trail onto the West Buttress. From 14 to the bergschrund at about 15, the slope is not too steep, and I am able to skin almost the whole way. At the bergschrund, it gets quite steep, and there are fixed lines. Adrian decides that this is as far as he wants to go and skis back down. I strap my skis to my pack and use my ascender to climb the fixed lines. This is a new tool and I am figuring it out by using it, learning by doing. I’m glad to have good weather for practicing. Up on the ridge, it is windy and cold. It has been a while since I’ve done many transitions in steep exposed terrain, so I am a bit afraid of dropping something going from crampons to skis. It was the same going in the other direction back at the bottom of the fixed lines. Practice days are good, I make mental notes on how to rig up a better system back at camp. Skis on, I traverse back to the south side of the ridge, looking down at camp. It isn’t as windy. It is steep. I stand at the top of the headwall and calm my nervousness. The snow feels good and I link solid turns down the headwall, stopping just above the bergschrund. I am not graceful in crossing, nor is the rest of my run particularly elegant. Still, I am riding high on the seventeen turns I made next to the ropes.
I wander around camp some. Jared from Salt Lake has frostbite on his finger. No climbing the Cassin for him. It reminds me to be very careful of my toes. I wish that I had had someone punch out a little more room in my boots for my big toes. Next season.
June 13th begins with wind. Enthusiasm has definitely waned, I spend the morning in camp. I smell bad, I doubt my plans, I am tired and the altitude is hurting my head. Why am I still in winter, when this season is such a long one at home? Why did I remove myself from warmth and green things? What can I do to recapture the magical enjoyment of this place? Why is it so fleeting?
Get up, walk around camp. There is a team from Stanford doing experiments on people’s adaptation to altitude. They just set up, and are only taking data points who have been at 14 for less than 24 hours, so I can’t participate. I chat with Pat, the lab tech running the outside part of the experiment. He has a fair bit of rock climbing experience, but the big mountains are a relatively new thing. Pat has laid out a walking course, and has the participants follow it for a few minutes while their pulse and oxygen saturation levels are monitored. Then the other researchers measure hydration levels and give them a trucker hat that says SHARP (Stanford High Altitude Research Project). One of the participants compliments my tracks from yesterday, and asks me about the snow conditions. We talk for a bit, and I get the impression that he’s somehow familiar. When I excuse myself and wander on, he introduces himself as Jeremy, and my brain realizes that this goes with the Jones hat that he wears. Seeing his movie last fall is part of the inspiration for this trip. There’s a group of famous people up here: Jones, Conrad Anker, John Krakauer, some other folks I don’t know.
The weather has turned, the wind has stopped, and it is still forecast to be nice for a couple of days.
June 14th I get up early and hike to 17,000. As I am waking up, Dick, Rhys and Rich pull in to camp, exhausted. It is good to see them again, and I’m glad that they are progressing up the mountain. Climbing, the going is slow, both because I am feeling the altitude and because all of 14 camp is on their way up to 17. At the top of the fixed lines I sit for a bit with Jarod, Adrian and Charles. Someone above me dropped a tent while climbing the fixed lines, and his party waits while he goes down to retrieve it. I feel the altitude. Moving on, I hike very carefully, thinking of how I passed out while walking around Cusco when I showed up and didn’t pay attention to the altitude. The trail is not difficult, but if I were to zonk out, the consequences could be high. A slide unarrested could send one a long way down. The West Buttress trail consists of sections of steep snow winding among boulders, where so many have walked that the snow is compacted into a staircase, and other sections of narrow but not knife edge ridge walking. There is fixed protection along the route, and many of the teams are roped together and clipped in. It doesn’t seem necessary to me, though in foul weather, the story would probably be different. I finally come to 17, exhausted.
I spend an hour or so recuperating, sitting on an outcrop, looking down at 14 camp, out at Foraker and the like, enjoying the view. I cache my skis and bivy gear, planning to return in the morning to continue on up to the summit. On the way down, I run into Jeremy Jones and his crew – Brody and Robin, headed up to ski Rescue Gully, a line from 17 down to 14, looker’s right of the fixed lines. Returning to camp, I take stock of my energy levels and realize that I am not ready to summit the next day.
The next day starts out as a rest day, but then at around 2 in the afternoon I get antsy and head up to fetch my skis. My plan is to ski Rescue 3, a gully on looker’s right, also coming from 17 down to 14, just to looker’s left of the bottom of the Messner. There is blue ice at the bottom, but I see a traverse and what looks like a way through some crevasses to the mellow slopes where I took my first run from 14 camp. Getting back up to 17 is easy, my body has finally adjusted to at least that much altitude. I chat with the Jarod, Adrian and Charles for a bit; they aborted a summit attempt in the morning due to cold and wind. I talk to Tyler a bit too. He led his group up to the summit, and is going to head down in the morning.
It takes a little while to find my way in to the gully, but I do find it. The snow feels ok, a bit wind-affected. One turn in and I kick off a slide. The ground disappears from beneath me. Luckily I am able to dig in to the bed surface with my whippet, and catch myself on some rocks. The slope I was looking to ski immediately goes from looking like fun to looking like death. The thought crosses my mind that I could still ski it, and is quickly shouted down by the voice of reason telling me to not die. So, I anchor myself, change modes, and climb back out. I’ll either ski Rescue, where Jones and crew skied yesterday, or just hike back down the Buttress. It is probably 9 pm and I’m walking back through camp at 17. Tyler sees me, calls me over, and on hearing my story, tells me to stop my mini epic, and offers me a spot in his tent for the night. He and Garret, the other guide on his trip, have an extra everything, so I take them up on the offer. The weather tomorrow is supposed to be perfect.
I sleep poorly, but wake ready to climb. I don’t have my skins with me, and even if I did, I’d probably have opted for crampons anyway. From 17 camp, the West Buttress route crosses a steep slope called the Autobahn to Denali Pass. The Autobahn is north and west facing, and it is cold in the shade, even on this gloriously warm day. I am glad to come to the pass and step into the sun. From the pass, the trail gradually gains altitude, winding among rock outcrops and over gentle rolls up to the Football Field below the summit ridge. The last steep climb is called Pig Hill. I’m moving quite slowly, the altitude and my lack of sleep are making me suffer. Slow works though, and the suffering isn’t bad. The weather is indeed perfect. Standing on the summit ridge at the top of Pig Hill, I meet the three climbing rangers, Chris and his two volunteers, both named Mike. Mike Kingsbury is from Crested Butte. We wait for Angela to bring her team down from the summit, and then make our way to the peak.
It is late afternoon, I am standing on the summit. Charles, Jarod and Adrian are there, we shake hands, high five, and they head down. I pull the little jar of my dad’s ashes from my pack, take them to the peak. I sit down in the snow and cry: relief, release, sorrow, joy. The world flows through me. I am a lightning rod, a hollow bone, a prop, a gate. I am completely lost in my own story, and vaguely aware of the fact that only a few feet away are others, lost in theirs. I am not the only one crying.
It is a glorious day to be on the summit of the continent. The weather is calm, warm. Visibility is endless. The Alaska Range stretches out to the northeast and the southwest, and in other directions, drops off almost four miles straight down to the lowlands.
I linger and a crowd assembles. Jeremy Jones, Conrad Anker, their friends Brody and Robin; Chris, the climbing ranger, and his volunteers, Mike from CB and Mike with the big gummy bear; Rory and Fred, up for the weekend from Anchorage. There is a guided team, including Dubai’s first Everest summiter. Chris points out highlights of the terrain. Jones takes mental notes when he talks about areas rich in potential for first descents.
Eventually it is time to leave. I stand at the summit, touch the marker, push off and drop into a turn. It isn’t great skiing. In fact, skiing over the wind shaped sastrugi is a bit like skiing down a flight of concrete stairs. Perhaps if I were JP Auclair I could do something with it. Jones and Brody take the Orient Express down – that crew climbed it and while it seemed sketchy, it seemed to the two of them rideable. Perhaps I should have followed them, but instead I follow Anker, Robin, Rory, and Fred down the Buttress trail. The bulletproof snow continues to the top of the Autobahn. I meet Charles, Jared and Adrian there. Once on the Autobahn, the surface has softened up enough to make a few turns, but there is the climbers’ trail below me, so I can’t kick off any slough or debris. I traverse to avoid skiing above anyone. Still, I am mostly skidding. I pass Angela just before arriving at 17 camp. She has a client on a short rope, and seems exhausted. From 17 camp, I ski Rescue Gully. Below 17,000 the snow softens and the surface turns to slush. I side slip the top hundred feet or so of Rescue Gully, and then it opens up. For the last 3,000 feet, I can arc big water skiing turns, shifting my line sideways when too much slush starts flowing, hopping about five feet of bergschrund, and cruising victorious back to camp at 14.
Now I can take an honest rest day. The furthest I go from camp is to the crevasse where we throw bags of poop. (Biodegradable plastic bags and hard canisters are provided by the park service, and everyone on the West Buttress route is required to responsibly dispose of poop. There is a crevasse at 14 camp specially designated as a receptacle.) The guided groups are packing up and leaving, so all sorts of food is being offered around. Now I have plenty of bacon, bagels, elk steaks … I’m better provisioned than I was when I arrived. I take my little down vest around and try to collect signatures from everyone with whom I was on the summit. I visit folks at Anker’s camp and end up sharing stories about my dad.
Dick and Rhys make bacon quesadillas for breakfast, and remind me that my summit day was Father’s Day. I borrow Adrian’s saw and rebuild the walls around my tent. Jarod and Charles are done, ready to head down. Adrian wants to stick around, so I invite him to join me. We plan on climbing some more routes, skiing some more lines. It seems wise to have someone to rope up with for the lower Kahiltna, those five miles of mostly flat will be more treacherous with another couple weeks of warm weather. Conrad Anker wants to get a picture of everyone, so at 8pm, we all gather by the Stanford team’s tent. Brody and Robin appear with a sled full of snacks and hors d’oeuvres. This is the highest village in North America for a few weeks each summer, and Anker wants to commemorate its existence. Adrian and I make plans to head up the Orient, and talk to Jones and Brody about their climb and their run.
We wake early and head up in twilight. Adrian is faster than me, but his experience trapped in a crevasse has left him with a lot of fear. Twice, he almost turns back, and we end up climbing up the mixed rock and snow of the West Rib rather than the Orient. When the rock ends, just below 18,000 feet, he is done. The snow is still hard, not ready to ski. I debate climbing higher, summiting again. I feel like I may have already pulled Adrian past his comfort zone, and I am anxious about ditching him. This is why I did this trip solo. I don’t want to have my decisions influenced like this. But I’m glad for the company. We wait, I ski down a bit. Adrian downclimbs. We wait some more. I decide to keep skiing, he to keep downclimbing.
The skiing is scary: steep, exposed, icy. One whippet seems inadequate, but I feel off balance with just my ice axe in one hand. So, keep in control. One thing I learned in Darcy Chenoweth’s WFR class that has served me well many times was the reminder, not quite a mantra, that her ski coach gave her as a young downhill racer: “You’ll be fine, just don’t fuck up.” I make it down to the gentle slopes where I first skied and let myself take a break. I de-layer – up high it was cold, back down here, sheltered from the wind, it is summer. Three people are skinning up. “Someone told me there was a guy up here skiing in a cowboy hat!” (My sun hat is a fake cowboy hat, the kind you get at a state fair in the West or a tourist market in Mexico. They are made of plasticized paper, and have a wire in the brim, so they are light, durable, and can be easily reshaped after being stuffed in a pack. And the look amuses me.) We talk for a bit. I’m worried about Adrian, feeling bad about leaving him to downclimb the West Rib. They remind me that he’s a grownup and able to look after himself. The one who likes my hat went to Western. They invite me to stop by and say hi later, but I don’t realize that by the camp on the edge of the village that they mean where Anker et. al. are set up.
Adrian makes it down, but he’s done, ready to head down. I’d still like to play a bit, but I am also enticed by warmth, green smells, flowing water, beer.
Next day, I want to go up to 17 and get Chris, Mike and Mike, the rangers who I summited with, to sign my vest. Rich wants to hike up there for acclimatization, so we head out in the afternoon. The going is slow, and at the top of the fixed lines, I decide to press on ahead of Rich, since I want to ski Rescue Gully again, and if it gets into the shade, whatever softening happens during the day will be quickly lost. The clouds are in and out, the light is amazing. This is the third time I hike the Buttress to 17, and it is a lot easier than the first time. On the way up, I meet Ron, Fred, and Vaughn. They are on their way down from climbing the Cassin Ridge, probably the classic technical route up the mountain. Fred and I have a friend in common, Sean Davis in Boulder, and Sean has told me to keep my eye out. All three of them are exhausted, and rightly so. We pass quickly and continue on. I show up at 17 camp, say hi to the rangers, get their autographs, chat for a bit, and head out. Rich arrives just as I am getting ready to ski.
The snow is hard. It never really softened up much, and now the sun is behind the ridge. I experiment a bit and conclude that the telemark turn is objectively worse for skiing steep and icy terrain compared to regular alpine turns. What I really want is a snowboard, or maybe ice skates. Something with a short, sharp edge. A long edge distributes the pressure too much, and doesn’t bite. So, I mostly make alpine turns. Still, it is fun. By the time I’m down, it is late, and Adrian has resigned himself to the fact that we aren’t leaving that day.
In the morning, after coffee and breakfast, I go say hi to Fred, Vaughn and Ron. We’ll meet up down in Talkeetna later. Adrian and I pack up and head out in the afternoon, gather our caches from 11,000, and make camp down at 7,000, where the glacier flattens out. I am regretting leaving, though I am looking forward to the comforts of being off the mountain. I almost turn around and hike back up, it is so hard to go. The last five miles to the airstrip is uneventful. My heart broke during the descent, the gentle climb up Heartbreak Hill to gather our caches and check in with Lisa so that she can get us on a flight out is just a formality.
The weather is variable, and for a while it looks doubtful that a plane will come in to fetch us out. Eventually it clears, and a TAT Otter floats up the glacier. Back in town, I retrieve my things from the fridge in the hanger, and have my portage ale, a bottle of the 6th anniversary ale that Raven Brewing made for Malt and Vine. I meet Adrian for dinner at the West Rib Pub, and have a double order of their beer and a cheeseburger special.
The next day, I’m still parked in the lot at TAT when Vaughn, Ron and Fred show up. We have some celebratory food and beers, decompress. They invite me to come visit up in Fairbanks, especially if I’m headed up into the Brooks Range. Vaughn suggests that I check out the lay of the land out the Petersville Road, so I do, and so, here I am.
More pictures are here.
June 7, 2013. Talkeetna, AK
The waiting, the readying, the anticipation is done. In an hour and a half, I fly in to the mountain.
I am ready. I continue to second guess. Enough food? Too much? Do I have all the right gear? How will I do with altitude? How will the weather be?
From Fall City, I drove to Bellingham. The van had developed an issue with the idle, and my initial fix wasn’t the right one. I decided to sort it out before moving on, even though it wasn’t critical. That took a few days, and was eventually accomplished by Josh, a friend of a friend with a shop and extensive Vanagon knowledge.
Monday I headed north. The next few days are a blur of amazing scenery seen way too fast, places that couldn’t be explored in a lifetime passed through with hardly a glance. I’ll take more time on the way back, visit places, people. The days grew longer, and the world became more surreal, more hyper-real. Passing from the Yukon into Alaska, I had an indescribable sense of homecoming. Turning the corner on the Tok cutoff and staring at the bulk of Mount Blackburn blew my mind. Everything seemed to hold some special significance – the color of the leaves on the black cottonwoods with the sunlight coming through, the pale blue of the high latitude sky, even the curve and pattern of yellow lines in the middle of the road – all seemed like catch points, where time could be loosed and sent sliding sideways.
Three days and two nights of little sleep and much driving brought me to Talkeetna, five minutes late for my appointment with the climbing ranger to go over route conditions (pretty good, crevasses are opening up, and it has been good weather for the past few weeks, which is generally good, but makes for more collapsing of snow bridges, and sketchier conditions low down on the way out, which is one of the things I’m most worried about) and poop disposal (I have a plastic can to carry up this mountain. Bags go in it, and can be tossed in particularly deep crevasses).
After the meeting with the ranger, I made my way over to Talkeetna Air Taxi, who will be flying me in to 7000ft, and spent the day sorting my stuff again. 115lbs, plus what’s on my body. A few ounces of that is a little jar of my father’s ashes.
I’ve been away from altitude for a few weeks. Talkeetna’s at 345ft. I wonder how much of my living at elevation I’ve lost. Not much, but some.
In the early afternoon, I stood at the edge of the runway, watched a few planes come and go. The sun seemed like a portal, a gate in the sky, almost close enough to touch.
For the past few years, I’ve kept the habit of committing a poem to memory every summer. Last year it was Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. Year before that it was Gary Snyder’s Riprap. This year, I’ll learn the quotation from Einstein that I was honored to read at Rachel and Denny’s wedding last month in Seattle. I have the page from my notebook where I scribbled it down, trying to learn it as best I could before the ceremony.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” -Albert Einstein
An hour to go. One more cup of coffee, straighten up the van. Add a few last minute things into the load. I’ll be back to tell about it in a few weeks.
This time, I’m headed back to Alaska. Back, because I was born there, but since the last time I was there was when I was two, it is really an exploration of a new place. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’d see pictures of Alaska, I’d think about how I am from there, and how at some point, I’d make the trip up there and see it in person. It was like looking at pictures of ancestors, familiar eyes staring at me from grainy black and white snapshots. Maybe it resonates with the experience of meeting one’s birth parents. I am fully in love with the homes that have adopted me – the mountains and deserts of the Southwest, the rain-soaked forests and glaciated peaks of Cascadia, but I long to know that place where I am from. So I’m going there.
I left Gunnison a couple weeks ago, made my way meanderingly from Colorado through Utah and Idaho to Washington. Actually leaving town on a big trip like this is never straightforward. There are always a few more things needing to be done to batten down work for the summer, another thing that will be needed remembered, another issue that needs to be fixed or feature that needs to be added on the van. Eventually, the time comes and I point it out of town, and remember that there is only one road.
The first night I stopped at Rabbit Valley. Just a few hours from Gunnison, it makes a great landing spot for the jump out of town. Even when waking up and taking care of the last few things takes all day, I can get there, find my campsite in the dark, and enjoy a bit of desert evening. The bluff on the north side of the road has a few good spots. The interstate is audible, but traffic is pretty sparse at night. If I’m going to be there for a day or two, I like to go south, towards the river. I stopped for dinner and a beer at the Hot Tomato in Fruita, and ran into Jari, a CB local and badass mountain biker whose path I’ve crossed paths with a few times but never actually met.
From Rabbit Valley, I explored north into the Book Cliffs a bit. The oil and gas companies have bulldozed roads all over the place in there, tracks following canyons through sandstone, sage, piñon and juniper, punctuated by a well every few miles. Since I had the wrong Utah map, the one without all the little dirt roads and desert landmarks, after a few hours of tooling around I turned back down to I-70 to continue the drive.
Not long after getting back on pavement, I picked up Stuart, a vagabond-by-bicycle who needed some time out of the saddle and wanted a ride to Green River. Based out of LA, Stuart travels a lot, pedaling along the shoulders of the interstates all around the west. He told me about his screenplay (a rather intriguing collision LA Confidential and the Saddleback Church) of and his sci-fi novel. I couldn’t help trying to correct some of his misunderstandings about general relativity and quantum coherence. None of them were plot-killers, just the sorts of things that can be annoying when you are trying to suspend disbelief. I would have given him a ride all the way to Price, but he said that would be cheating, and I was really enjoying being in my own world that day.
In Price, I jogged northeast to avoid driving through Salt Lake and et cetera, and ended the day at City of Rocks, in Idaho. I found that place on a map halfway between Seattle and Santa Fe about ten years ago, and it has become a standard stop on these recurring road trips between the Southwest and the Northwest. City of Rocks is a hotspot for climbing, with good reason. The rock is a magic granite that offers up a nice hold exactly when you want it. After morning coffee I took a little hike up and around the crag where I had parked. Since it was me, hiking, it involved a bit of scrambling, and since it was me, scrambling, I realized at one point that there were bolts both above and below me on the slab I was traversing. It was okay where I was, not on the route, just crossing it. Topping out on a rock a hundred feet or so below the top of the crag, I watched a trio of ravens playing in the morning sun – catching thermals, spiraling up, diving, flipping upside down and gliding feet to the sky, buzzing the rocks, shouting to each other through the air whose texture I could not see, but they clearly could.
The next stop was Boise. Dave Rosoff came out to meet me for coffee. It had been about a year, and it was great to catch up. We mostly talked about work. Both of us left New Mexico and went to Reed and UW, and there’s a fair bit of similarity between Western and Boise State, where he is teaching. We tend to see eye to eye on a lot of things, and it’s great to have his perspective. Dave also told me that he and Katie recently got engaged, which isn’t much of a surprise to anyone who knows them, but is of course awesome. We didn’t get around to talking bikes at all, so I’ll have to go visit again.
From Boise, I headed towards Hell’s Canyon, and found a spot in a meadow that was absolutely exploding with wildflowers. Spreading my sleeping bag out on the ground after dinner, I called back and forth with a Great Horned owl for a while before falling asleep. It became clear that evening that the nights are getting shorter, and I realized that as I keep moving north, and the planet spins towards the solstice, that this will continue, until eventually, they disappear entirely. It made me glad to be making this trip entirely overland, moving deliberately and organically, if not with the honesty of travel by foot, bicycle or canoe, but at least without the teleportation of stepping into a jet. I spent the morning crawling around with my camera, chasing bees as they pollinated their busy way across the meadow. (I didn’t have a system figured out for dealing with photos on the road so I’ll have to wait until I get back to Colorado to share what I captured. My perfectly serviceable computer from 2006 is too old to talk to my camera, or apparently even the new SD cards. Now I’m using a microSD card in my camera for pictures that I want to post from on the road, so that I can plug that directly into my phone, which is actually a computer, and post from there. It seems to work.)
Poking around at the visitor station for Hell’s Canyon, I met a guy who was sure that there were no glaciers on Mount Hood, and that Columbus had convinced Ferdinand and Isabella that the world was round, rather than just annoy them enough that they gave him money for his adventure even though he had his math wrong and thought that the world was 6000 miles smaller than those who had been more careful with their measurements and calculations knew it to be. (Was it Hawthorne who instigated this misconception, that educated people in the 15th century still thought that the world was flat? I remember that it was some American author who wanted to avoid a technical discussion in a story for popular consumption.) Anyway, the five bikers from Edmonton who I met at an overlook later were much more interesting, or perhaps tolerable is a better word. (Fresh faced young kevlar and Ducati bikers, not grizzly leather and Harley bikers.)
That was Tuesday. Tuesday night I pulled in to Vantage and met up with Jason. Jason is in process of moving from Crested Butte up to Bellingham. We’d been planning on climbing Rainier, but the weather was predictably lousy up high, so climbing on rocks became the preferred alternative. I’d only climbed there once before, on a trip with my brothers, Mike and Duncan. Jason and I climbed some nice bolted routes, Jason leading for the most part because I’m very hesitant to injure myself before Denali. Sitting on the Sunshine Wall, we ran into Phil and Angela, both guides for AAI (but different AAIs) who will be on Denali when I get there next week, and who know people in common with both Jason and I. Small world.
Vantage is at the low, wet western edge of the land of high desert sagebrush. And spring is going full bore. If sagebrush can make anything like flowery jungle, this is at Vantage. Walking along the canyon rim at sunset, sampling the smells and tastes of the different varieties, or hanging off the dark basalt of the Sunshine Wall, looking out over the partially dam-filled chasm of the Columbia Gorge, breathing the dry but plant-filled air, I was glad to be alive and in that place.
The rain came in on Friday, and we motored over the Cascades to my mom’s place in Fall City. My gear exploded into the big room (a converted carport that picked up that name shortly after it was built in the ’80s and never found a new one), and I got to sorting. My mom put Jason to work, pulling blackberry vines and moving fallen branches. Saturday evening my friends Rachel and Denny got married in Seattle, complete with a photo op in a double sleeping bag and the bride and groom riding chairs above the dance floor. Sunday Jason and I headed down to Rainier, chasing a promised break in the weather. It lasted long enough for us to get to Muir, but that night the weather rolled back in. I’ve skied down from Muir in a whiteout three times, and this was much the same as those other two. Without visual context, it can be hard to tell if you are moving or not. I think this is connected to weightlessness of skiing, the decrease of g that is the magic of gliding down a mountain.
Sitting on the deck at my mom’s house, I am enjoying a typical grey/green Washington evening of late spring. The day was warm but overcast, rainy. The plants are growing like madness, like life, filling space. The sky is mottled with cloud, but the features are subtle. Apparently a cloud can weigh 32 million pounds. Here, in the Northwest, this weight is more subject to gravity. They are abundant, these colors, grey and green, and they take some getting used to, coming from my home, where the palates are predominantly brown (rock, dirt, dry scrub) and blue (sky). The soft green smell of new sage is replaced by the thicker green of cedar.
The journey is mired in reality, it revels in stuff. My vehicle, my home, is a quarter of a century old. It likes attention, frequently, but it responds well to these attentions, at least so far. In relying on it, I am relying on my ability to fix it when I need to. Today, I added a basket the roof, moved the spare tire to this attic. I’d like modify the stock carrier behind the front bumper to hold my larger than stock wheels, put it back in the basement, but that will be another day’s project. The anchor of this trip, climbing Denali, also requires a lot of stuff, demands close attention to reality. I’m doing the climb solo. I’ll be on a busy route, so I won’t be alone by any means. This decision does not follow common wisdom, but neither is it stupid. In climbing solo, I promise myself that I am careful, methodical, and can keep both focus and perspective. I acknowledge that I am a bit too introverted. I accept that I have a task, a mission to fulfill that is mine and mine alone. It is not the time for me to deal with other people’s business, or to make others deal with mine.
Place, appearance, sensation, color, texture, structure, movement. This is a journey about place. From the place where I live to the place where I came from, through former lives in former places, and back again to home. A journey to a cold place to touch the sun, to fetch some of its light and warmth, fuel for my life. Returning to the place where I was born, but of which I have no memory. It is time to build memory.