Sunday, August 26, 2012

Wood Fired Cedar Hot Tub

For years Sam has dreamed about getting a wood fired cedar hot tub.  Whenever we would get back from a long run, bike ride or hike Sam would mention, "wouldn't it be great if we could soak in a hot tub right now?"  So recently we decided to quite literally take the plunge and we purchased a kit to build our own cedar hot tub.  

With the help of a few good friends, Sam poured a concrete slab a few weeks ago to be the base where we placed the hot tub.

The tub rests on four cedar joists and we installed a drain that we can thread a garden hose onto for easy emptying.  In the winter, emptying it will probably mean that we have our very own ice skating rink as well!

Sam pounded as I held staves in place.  It was like assembling a giant puzzle, making the pieces fit together with just the right spacing.

We read and re-read the directions, trying to make sure we got each step just right.  The trick was making all the flat boards  come together to create a circle.

The wood is gorgeous western red cedar.  It smells wonderful and has beautiful natural color.  Cedar is supposed to weather well and not need any finishing or coatings.


We eventually got all of the staves onto the base and then made adjustments to ensure the gaps between the boards were as minimal as possible.


 Metal hoops hold the tub all together. The design is basically like a giant barrel.  We made many adjustments, hammering on the staves and hoops to get the tub as round and tight as possible.

I built the fence as Sam assembled the benches.

The wood stove is mounted onto the wall of the tub.  It will actually be submerged in the water, efficiently heating the water all around it.  The great thing about a wood fired hot tub is that it heats quickly and all it needs is wood, no electricity or other fuel.

The "Snorkel Stove" was designed by a UAF graduate student with his ski buddies.  So it is a Fairbanks original idea, although now they are sold by a Seattle based company.
Let the filling begin!  Our first filling took quite a while.  Initially the water leaked from many small cracks.  As the water level rose, the tub looked like it was bursting at the seams.  The instruction manual assured us that leaks are common and that as long as there are not large openings the wood will swell and become more water tight as it saturates. As of our second filling, it is already holding water much better.  We no longer have gushing leaks, just a few steady drips.  Hopefully we can get it water tight and heated up enough to soak very soon!

Our well water is a brisk 40 degrees and a fire cannot be started until the water completely covers the stove, so initially the tub was more suitable for polar bears than people.  Once it is full and a good fire is going it is supposed to be able to heat up 30 degrees an hour!

The Snorkel Duck was our "Free Gift" that came with the kit!

Monday, August 6, 2012


While cleaning up our armada of packrafts after the last trip to Denali I noticed several things about two  different generations I thought should be photographed, compared, and noted.  These little boats really are truly amazing.  If you don't know much about these boats, they are made by Alpacka.  Originally manufactured in Chugiak, Alaska.  The factory is now located in Colorado.

I'm not sure when I first heard about packrafts, it was certainly after moving to Alaska.  About four years ago I started looking out for these hot little boats.  Three years ago I was lucky enough to borrow a couple from a friend.  My first adventures were Crow Pass and 20-Mile River.  Click on the title to checkout old posts about these original adventures.  

Now, getting to the point.  The photographs below compare an older, maybe even close to original generation Alpacka, age unknown, with a brand new 2012 model I just bought from Beaver Sports.
The old green boat is comparable to a Alpacka Llama.  Its the largest of the sport packraft models.  It comfortably fits me, and I'm 6'3".  Gretchen had more problems piloting this large boat.  She is 5'9".  So we've been talking about buying a newer, smaller, Alpacka Yukon Yak for a couple seasons.  I'm really glad we waited for the new boat geometry to come out.  Despite having a smaller cockpit, the overall length of the boat is longer.  
The bow of the newer boats is much "pointier."  This really helped the boat cut through the splash while also keeping the bow from bouncing repeatedly off the water as my old model tends to do.  A lot less "tippy."

The stern of the new boats is also much pointier when looked at from above.  Overall the shape and geometry of these new boats is more in tune with traditional hard shell whitewater boats, I think.

The real difference of the stern is when you look at it from the side profile.  It almost has a bird beak shape to it, with a rise coming up above the back.
The bow of the new boat has a similar rise to the old boat, but again, being narrower, really helps the boat cut through the waves and stay closer to the water.  I think surface area of the bottom of the boat also has a lot to do with it, as you'll see in later photographs.

Here is the bow and stern of my much loved old Alpacka.  Very different when you compare side profiles of the new and old boats.

Looking at these boats from above the changes are also obvious.  The yellow Yukon Yak is made for a smaller paddler then the Llama, but the shape alone is also slightly different.  The new Yukon Yak only weighs five pounds.  I think my older Llama is a tad heavier around seven or eight pounds.

A quick search on youtube shows paddlers are doing amazing things with these new boats, and the epicenter is Alaska!

There are lots of places to purchase or order these fine boats.  There is also a great book out by Roman Dial called PACKRAFTING! 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Chena Dome Trail

"I miss Jack," said Sam.  

"So do I," responded Gretchen.

"Lets go home!"

After six spectacular days backpacking around Denali National Park, we decided to return home and kidnap Jack for a local hike.  I had broken our Denali trip into three phases, the first two phases, though rainy the last two days, were so spectacular that we decided not to conclude with the final phase, but save the grand finale for another trip (this was 5 days packrafting to Bus 142 via the Toklat River then return via the Wyoming Hills and through the East Fork Toklat drainage).  

It took a couple hours of Fairbanks sunshine to dry out our soggy gear, then we packed back up, grabbed two days of food, and headed for the Chena hills.  Around mile 50 of Chena Hot Springs Road the Chena Dome Trail begins and ends from two separate parking lots.  We started from the Upper Chena Dome parking lot, and finished at the Lower Chena Dome parking lot.  They are only 1.5 miles apart, and walking the road is almost easier then stressing about a shuttle.  The trail, a thirty mile C-shaped "loop," is sure to be a classic.

When we left the parking lot thursday morning, the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, it was bound to be a spectacular hike.  The trail switchbacks through gorgeous birch forests for about a mile, then crosses into various degrees of burned out forest fire for another two miles before breaking above tree line.

Always capturing my eye, Fireweed

These trees were knotty

Around mile 2.5 we lost the trail.  Several hundred feet below a bluff at tree line, the trail became indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.  We ended up bushwhacking for about twenty minutes walking strait up hill, wandering through a forest in various stages of post forest fire regrowth.

For about twenty five miles the trail rises and falls along a series of ridges.  With an elevation gain of almost 15,000 feet, it seemed nearly every "mini" dome along the ridge climbed at least 700 feet.  The walking was easy once along a ridge line, but strenuous constantly gaining and loosing elevation.   Once out of the safety of thick trees the wind picked up.  Clouds began to darken and move in quickly from the north.  It seemed as if the storm was chasing us around the ridge line.

Another climb

At mile 8.5 the hillside is scattered with ruins from a 1950's military airplane crash.  Some parts, like the fuselage, and one engine, are obvious.  Other pieces seem to have timelessly become part of the landscape.  Gadgets and gizmos of avionic origin are scattered all over the tundra.  We took only pictures, touched nothing, thinking about how many souls might have been lost in the crash, and wondering what sort of weather conditions brought this plane down.

Finally, Chena Dome was insight, 4421 feet

The summit of Chena Dome is anticlimactic.  After spending hours hiking along the wandering ridge, the summit just seems to be another ridge.  It is obviously higher then the rest, but adorned with a communications station makes for unnatural objects in the foreground.  After snapping two shots, we became wary of the ever present storm, and continued onward.  Our goal, a trail shelter at mile 17.
The shelter is rustic at best, but a welcome sight in the midst of foul weather.  We cherished not having to set up our tent and cook in the rain.  Inside, there was a wood stove, bench to sleep one, and plenty of floor space for three more people.  We found several holes in the floor and wall that appeared to be chewed through.  We also found lots of trash left behind from previous occupants.  I ended up carrying out a large bag of trash, and Jack volunteered to carry more trash in his doggy-backpack.
I made one large mistake on this overnight backpacking trip- we didn't bring enough water.  I typically carry two liters, and a purifier.  I think I drink more water then the average hiker, but opt for more frequent stops to fill up and purify, instead of just carrying more liters.  In most places in Alaska, you can get way with this method.  Being fairly new to hiking in this part of the state, I expected more springs or water sources on or near the ridge, there were none.  The trail description found on the state park website lists several places to get water.  This is probably the case for early season hiking right after snowmelt, but not by the end of July.  There were no places once on the ridge to get water, none.  Around the summit of Chena Dome I suggested we start conserving water, saving at least one bottle to cook dinner and breakfast with, then "nurse" our other bottles along with small infrequent sips.  At the shelter I was surprised and excited to see a rain water collection system.  Jack was also very happy.  He seemed quite exhausted carrying his little pack up and over all the climbs.  He brought his own one liter water bottle and drank that within the first couple miles.  Upon arriving to the shelter Jack saw the rain barrel at the same time as me, he promptly parked himself alongside the barrel, and attempted to drink it dry.  Luckily a few minutes later there was plenty of water left for Gretchen and I.

In near perfect timing, just after settling inside the shelter the heavens opened up.  Wind shook and rattled the tiny shelter as rain droplets became weapons pelting its sides.  Throughout the night the storm grew and blew through in various stages.  I built a fire using some dry wood found in the shelter. The fire only briefly warmed the uninsulated shelter, the real enduring warmth came when we climbed into sleeping bags on the floor for the night.  The next morning the storm continued.  Thankfully, we packed our bags in the dry security of the shelter after making breakfast.  It was obvious we would be hiking in wind and rain as long as we were upon the exposed ridges.

The thirteen miles from the shelter to the parking lot tested our abilities to navigate through inhospitable conditions.  Visibility was at best 75-100 feet ahead of us at any one time, often it was worse.  The trail is littered with large rock cairns, which during inclement weather don't seem close enough for easy navigating.  We checked our map and trail description often.  Our usual pace of 20-30 minute miles became 45 minute miles, and sometimes slower.  We never actually lost the trail, nor did we really end up hiking any extra distance due to the weather, but we did spend a lot of extra time moving at a pace comparable to crawling while searching through the fog for those precious trail markers.  The trail had various places where false ridges dropped into the fog, making terrain association decision making essential to successful navigation.  It seemed intuitive to me the trail went in a certain direction.  Though at first sight, it appeared no different from other directions.  Taking a navigational leap of faith, it always seemed to workout in our favor.  After seven hours we made it back to the protection of thick birch stands at tree line, and a well defined trail all the way to the parking lot.

In good weather I would love to hike this route in one day.  It would be a push, but really fun to trail run.  The risk is the exposure when foul weather moves in.  I don't care to hike this trail again under such stormy foggy conditions, but its Alaska, so you don't always get that choice...

Final Note: Chena Hot Springs is about six miles down the road, after hiking thirty miles soaking in to warm water is a great way to sooth weary legs and tired shoulders. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Almost MacGonagall Pass

Preface: I did not make it all the way to MacGonagall Pass.  I had originally intended on hiking to the pass, but due to inclement weather and time we did not make it.

Unit 20 is a thin slice of backcountry that starts at the McKinley Bar River, just south of Wonder Lake, and extends all the way to the Muldrow Glacier.  It is the original and current informal climbers trail to routes on the north side of Denali.  

The journey begins with a bus ride along the park road, nearly five hours and 85 miles later, ending at Wonder Lake.  This would serve as day three of our eleven day trip.  Were I to do this trip casually by itself, I would probably spend the night at Wonder Lake, then get an early start on the trail the next morning.  Riding the bus for five hours is more taxing then hiking for ten, to me at least.  I'm exhausted when I get off that bus.  Warm dusty days are no different from damp dreary days- I'm not usually ready to launch into an immediate trek stumbling off the green bus.

Whenever you do decide to start your trek, walk about 3/4 of a mile back up the park road, then make a right onto the McKinley Bar Trail.  This "family trail" winds about 2.5 miles mostly downhill to the McKinley Bar River.  

Upon mentioning traveling in this unit, the Rangers eyes grew wide and wearied.  Justly so, the Bar River can be treacherous to cross.  She was quickly reassured to hear we planned to use packrafts.  They generally talk most travelers out of this unit that haven't planned accordingly, or have avid experience crossing braided glacial rivers.  

On the way out, we crossed the river in the widest spot, being almost over a mile wide here.  Looking across the river, the tundra slowly rises in the distance.  A rounded hill, named Turtle Hill, sits just upstream from where the trail intersects with the river.  This is a good landmark to target in the distance.  In total, our crossing going out resulted in about 8-10 ankle deep crossings, 4 knee-thigh deep crossings, and 1 main channel crossing which we inflated packrafts and ferried across.   

Once on the far shore, we enjoyed the benefits of our friend, the sun.  Drying out gear, changing into dry clothes, and cooking dinner.  By the time dinner was done it was about 8pm.  I planned to walk for about an hour, then camp, but the tussocks had different plans for me...

I've read numerous reports about an informal climbers trail heading south from the bar river, we didn't find it until reaching Turtle Hill.  Thus, we spent over two hours hurdling our self from tussock to tussock trying to climb uphill- it was exhausting.  My only advice is be prepared for the same.  This is one place I wish the park service would suck it up and establish a trail.  The informal climbers trail is actually a historic trail, having been used by many of the pioneers of Denali.  It could be a treasured landmark, established accordingly, as much of it already exists, then maintained seasonly by experienced backcountry backpackers and climbers wishing to use the traditional routes to the mountain- instead of the more contemporary method of approach via fixed wing aircraft.  
After stumbling between tussocks while swatting millions of flies swarming up from below- we found a nice clear spot to camp.  This was probably the first and only piece of flat tundra, until Turtle Hill, able to host a tent.  Sunrise came early and brought a swollen hot sun to the east and a brilliant Denali to the south west.  Each equally filling our tent doors on either side at 7am.

Above tree line, nearly suspended above the tussocks, our route is visible from Wonder Lake. 

The only thing I hate more than mosquito head nets is mosquitos... 

We would later hear Rangers and bus drivers describing the past 36 hours as the past views of Denali in five years.  It was certainly the closest we had ever been to this awesome mountain.  I have no problem lingering over a long breakfast when you have views like this.  

Denali view, tent sold separately.  

 Most photogenic fireweed in Alaska

I don't really have an ethical stance on leaving gear stashed in the backcountry.  Normally, I would probably say carry it because you don't know when you'll need it.  But, in the moment, we said screw it, leave it.  Atop Turtle Hill we decided to stash our packrafting gear behind this large lone rock.  Dropping paddles, dry bags, PFD's, and boats saved about 8-10lbs in our packs.  It doesn't sound like much, but it sure felt great.  In my opinion, the gear was scentless, so there was no risk of animals bothering it.  I don't think anyone had been in unit 20 lately, so we weren't concerned about it being tampered with or inhibiting someone else's experience.  And two days later, it was still there.
Several miles back into the valley above Cache Creek, we came upon this small beaver pond.  One lonely beaver was continually making laps around this swimming pool sized pond.  His small muddy lodge on the far side, he kept swimming figure eight shaped loops around the pond, ever so often slapping his tail and diving under the water.

The highlights of our hike can be seen in this quick little video.

When the weather turned soggy, so did our aspirations of achieving the pass.  We camped about four miles from the actual pass.  Continuing would have meant descending from a nice knoll we camped upon, to travel back into the Cache Creek valley and ascend at least another two thousand feet.  The return hike took us about eight hours to hike 12 miles back to Wonder Lake.  On the return trip across the Bar River we crossed about a mile further up river.  The river here was much narrower and had just four main channels which we ferried across with our packrafts.  I made the mistake of thinking the third of four crossings wasn't dangerous, and attempted to walk across.  Making it midway across my feet quickly were flushed out from beneath me in chest deep frigid water.  I was able to lunge for my boat washing briefly downriver before my feet caught rock again and I could flop onshore.  Lesson learned, if the packraft is inflated, and you don't know the rivers depth, just use the boat.

This three day hike into unit 20 wetted my appetite.  I'm not sure how soon I'll be back, but I will be back.  Maybe a trek and climb will be in the future...