Friday, July 27, 2012

Sanctuary River Packraft

Mountains, rivers, wild animals, beautiful flowers, blue skies, and more abound on our 15 mile hike and 14 mile float in Denali National Park.  Sure to become a classic, if not already- this two day excursion is a perfect hike/packraft for the beginner while providing enough scenery and variables for the seasoned adventurer.  While searching for trips to fill our 11 days in the park, I came across multiple hikes surrounding the same float down the Sanctuary River.  Whether coming from the north, south, east or west- the Sanctuary River provides countless approaches for the same great float.  I'm sure my route wasn't new, but I did not find any other posts discussing it. 
Despite having lived in Alaska for over six years, I have little experience in the Denali backcountry.  This is largely due to being intimidated by strict procedures, hordes of tourists, and distance from my old home in Anchorage.  Since relocating to Fairbanks, the park is now less than two hours away.  

Here's the "procedure":  

First, check in at the Backcountry Information Center (BIC).  Sit through a thirty minute DVD from the 1980's.  Listen to a fifteen minute lecture from the Rangers on how to use a bear barrel.  Spend a few more minutes going over your route and itinerary with another Ranger in order to get your free backcountry pass.  The park is broken up into 60 some land units.  Each unit has a quota for backpackers per night allowed to camp within that area.  It's important to be flexible, and come with a backup plan if your first choice units are full.  

Next, go to the Wilderness Information Center (WIC) near the BIC.  Pay $34 for a camper bus pass, allowing unlimited access to the national park via the park road.  Personal vehicles are not allowed within the park, so traveling on the contracted bus lines is the only way to get around.  There were only four camper busses a day entering the park (the online schedule is incorrect showing many more).  Despite being done and ready to go by 10:30am, we had to wait until 2pm to catch our camper bus.  Tourists buses leave every 20-30 minutes, but only the camper buses are available to hikers and campers entering the park.  Once inside the park, nearly any green bus with room will pick up a hiker or camper and transport them- but your initial entrance must be via a camper bus.  

So we got our pass, bought our ticket, killed some time, and finally just after 2pm were on our way into the park.  After sweet talking the bus driver, she allowed for a quick stop to cache some extra food at Sanctuary River campground, before continuing on to our drop off point at Sable Pass (eleven days of food weighed roughly 40lbs, plus a few more pounds for each empty bear barrel).  Most of the camper bus drivers are very experienced toting around backpackers.  I told the driver we wanted to get off at Sable Pass and she knew right were to stop.  On the return trip from Wonder Lake, a week later, I heard the bus driver giving loads of advice to several backpackers about drop off points, camping spots, and a variety of other beta.  Its worth telling them what you want, then asking their advice, it can only enhance your experience in the park.
Once disembarking from the bus, a trail is clearly visible on the south side of the park road, just before the Sable Pass closure takes effect.  It was about two miles through low scrub and shrub to the Teklanika river bed.  The closure area is to the west, but well away from the social trail to the river.  Denali National Park has few established (or published) trails.  At the BIC, you will hear time and time again "there are no trails in the backcountry."  This is only partially true.  Yes, there are no official trails with blazed markers or published on maps- but there are social trails, animal trails, game trails, climber trails, and hiker trails leading every which way.  These trails can make for quicker traveling when they head in the direction you want to go- the key fact being you want to go that route.  Despite the presence of a trail, it is still essential to carry a map, compass, and know how to use them.  Terrain association is vital for making good navigational decisions using available trails and topography.

Caribou that thinks it's a Dall Sheep 

Once on the wide braided Teklanika River, the walking is fast and easy.  Traveling on the many river beds is the ideal way to go in Denali.  Heading almost due south, the rocky ridge of Cathedral Mountain looms in the distance.  On the sandy river bed we saw a lot of Caribou, Wolf, and Bear tracks.  Being prepared to cross a river is essential for travel in Denali.  We carried trekking poles, two each, for support hopping and walking across rivers.

As the end of the river valley drew closer, the many glaciers serving as the source of the river became visible.  The pass I had decided to take was obvious to me on the map, on foot it looked a little different.  The recommended route by the rangers was via Calico Creek.  This pass would have taken us off the Teklanika River much sooner, and dropped us into the Sanctuary valley much later.  I don't believe the pass I opted for has a name, but it is opposite Refuge Valley.  As we hiked further into the gorge the route became clearer.  From the mouth of the gorge three routes were possible, but only one was the correct way.  To the left, a low lying ramp rose quickly and seemed to head towards the pass.  This would later seem to have many abrupt drop offs or cliffed our ravines.  To the right another low lying grassy ramp began, then twisted to the right side of the valley.  This ended up cutting away from the main way up to the pass, and heading to a further back hanging valley with glacier.  Dead center was a raging creek.  Basing my decision off the map, and from standing in the mouth of the gorge, I chose the right side.  This choice was partially correct in that it provided a nice camping spot for the first night, but it wasn't the correct way to the pass- neither was the left.  After camping the first night we down climbed back to the floor of the gorge, then crossed the creek.  The correct route was to start dead center, follow the creek through the gorge past both grassy ramps on either side, then, a small scree slope will take shape around a slight bend in the creek.  After scrambling up this scree slope an even gentler grass ramp emerged, leading all the way to the pass.
Gretchen heading up the right side grassy ramp to our campsite.

Shadows climbing the scree field, gorge center, leading to the pass. 

 Looking up towards the pass from midway up the center grassy slope.

Follow the goat trails to the top. 

Gretchen nearly to the top of the pass.  Grassy slopes turned to small compact scree. 

The route into Refuge Valley was at first daunting from atop the pass.  A small snow cornice remained, which we had to divert around.  My first concern was the snow or ice was still part of the scree, making things slippery to down climb.  Luckily, the snow was only at the extreme top.  I estimate the slope angle at the top of the pass was probably 45 to 50 degrees.  Traversing to the lookers right of the pass the angle became a little less severe, and lessened quickly as we descended.  The scree and mud also became looser as we descended, turning each step into a graceful slide or standing glissade down the mountain.

Refuge Valley was as spectacular as I imagined.  Deep ravines dropped down from jutted peaks.  Snow still lingered in some of the deepest and steepest chutes.  The base of each clifflike mountain was vibrant green tundra.  Several of the ravines creeks had waterfalls tumbling down them.  We sat half way down the valley.  Resting by a majestic kettle pond reflecting a nearby rocky mountain.  Munching on snacks and enjoying the warmth of the sun.

Around 3pm we inflated our packrafts.  This was probably a little early, resulting in a lot of butt scooting on the thinner sections of the river.  In the future I would walk down river, putting in at the spot where nearly three small valley tributaries intersect with a main branch.  This location was clearly distinguishable by a variety of stream colors combining together, some rich glacial grays, another clear from snowmelt.  Up river multiple braids made for tricky navigating,  a couple places required hopping out and pulling the boat through shallow areas.  Starting at the main branch, it was clear sailing all the way downriver to the campground.  Total float time from high up river in Refuge Valley was about four hours.  I would rate the river a Class 1, or maybe PR 1-2, but I'm not one for assigning ratings to anything, so don't take my word for it.  It was generally just "splashy."  The only real hard part was reading the river to keep the pace up, navigating back and forth between cut banks where the current was strongest.  There were several "wave trains" that quickened the current and added some fun.  The weather was super sunny as we started floating, but after several hours the sun creeped lower in the sky.  Paddling in rain gear was fine with water shoes, I wouldn't necessarily recommend dry suits- though on a damp cold day, they would be nice.

This video is a brief glimpse of our adventure.  It's mostly footage from the trail, we got so excited to finally be in our boats, we only took a few photographs and video shots.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Remaining Days of Summer

Well, I guess its official now- I will be starting a new job August 13th.  About a month ago Gretchen very encouragingly suggested I apply for a vacant position in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.  The posting was for a 7/8th grade language arts and social sciences position.  What struck me was the third bullet listed as a must for the position: cross country skiing.  I wondered if a place truly existed where cross country skiing was equally as important as core subjects.  So I looked up this "Watershed School."  After quickly perusing the website my interests were perked- so I read nearly the whole website in its entirety, then applied for the job.

Watershed School is a charter school, though still considered a public school residing within the borough school district.  Students from Kindergarten to 8th grade can apply to attend.  I look forward to learning more each and every day I teach there.  The school has been around about four years, most of the original teachers are still there (from what I heard).  The focus of activity is on getting out of the classroom, learning in the outdoors, learning about the community by becoming a part of the community.  Needless to say, I'm as nervous as I am excited about this new journey.

So, what am I going to do with the rest of my summer...  Well, I've spent the last two days constructing the awesomest shelves ever in our garage.  All my "gear" now has a home with plenty of room to spare.  I have a ceiling fan I'm not looking forward to hanging.  Almost 100ft of timbers to landscape with.  And still plenty of unpacking to do.

But, we're off to the wilderness, as that is where I enjoy spending my time.  Plans are still being formulated, but they will involve a packraft, a backpack, and two sets of mountain ranges (the Alaska Range and the Wrangell-St Elias),

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina

The physical pinnacle of our visit to North Carolina was by far the hike up and over Grandfather Mountain.

In 2003 I visited this area while working for Geometrics GPS.  As one of my first "business trips" I vividly remember nearly every day spending long hours lugging survey equipment to various locations around the western corner of North Carolina.

For this high adventure, we chose to hike Grandfather Mountain up and over the multiple summits from the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Check out my highlight reel...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Picking Wild Berries

While visiting my sister Maggi in Western North Carolina, we were invited to pick wild blackberries.  After a wonderful breakfast with Travis's parents, we set out into the hills behind their quaint home, among hundreds of thousands of christmas trees, to seek out tasty wild berries.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

East Coast Tour

Just a quick update- Gretchen and I are over midway through our "2012 East Coast Tour."  Its been great catching up with old friends and visiting family while attempting to survive record breaking heat.  Visits include Delaware, Fredericksburg and Richmond, Virginia, and finally Jefferson, North Carolina.

A lot of my photographs of the trip thus far can be found on Facebook.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Steamin' Days at Auburn Heights

New things have come to Delaware in the 12 years since I have lived there!  My parents are now volunteers at Delaware's newest state park -Auburn Heights.  They have actually been volunteering there for a few years, but this was the first chance Sam and I have gotten to go check out Auburn Heights.

Auburn Heights is a Victorian Mansion owned by the Marshall Family and later donated to the state as a State Park. If you go to check out the house, you just may get to go on a guided tour with my Mom.  All of the volunteers wear period dress from the early 1900's, but the day we were there since the heat index was above a hundred and the house does not have AC everyone was opting for the coolest clothing possible!

Inside the house and museum are many antiques.  Since the house was lived in until the 1990's everything was left in place and did not need to be recreated.  The original furniture was all still in the house being used.

On the property there is a train track and a "toy" train that people can actually ride.

Driving the Stanley Coach is Tom Marshall, who grew up on the property and can tell you all of it's history first hand.  He also shared with us that he has visited Alaska! 

The Stanley Coach is the largest steam powered vehicle Stanley made and one of only a few still in existence.

Here is my Dad driving the 1916 Rauch and Lang Electric car.  Since many of the parts of this car are wooden, restoration has taken some woodworking skill.  My Dad rebuilt casing for the battery compartment, the rear panels, and many other detail pieces in the car.  My Dad also showed us a wooden steering wheel he recently completed for one of the Stanley Steam Cars.  It is incredible how many pieces on the early vehicles were handcrafted wood.

Here we all are in the car.  It is quite small and two people have to face backward.  The car can go about 30 mile on a charge, more if you can coast for a bit.

There is no gas required, just a bunch of battery power!