Tuesday, February 28, 2012

White Mountain Ski

Success should not always be measured in miles skied, peaks summited, or elevation gained.  The wilds of Alaska continue to define me.  Its daunting year round landscape provides challenges to last a lifetime.  My years in Alaska have only honed my skills and sharpened my senses in the outdoors.  Yet its times like this I’m humbled by her and forced to rethink what I call a successful backcountry trip. Is success simply spending two enjoyable days skiing with a friend.  Or learning the way snow falls in new mountains.  In the most morbid sense, success is merely returning home alive.

Did we complete the 3 day, 40 mile trip I had planned?  No.  Did we reach both cabins I had reserved for us?  No.  I hate to sound cliché, but if you measured success in these terms- we failed.  One of the things I love most about Alaska is while she crushes your ego with raw elemental force; she builds you back up in her beauty.  Alaska is always true to herself.  Daunting.  Deep.  Unembellished while teeming with elegance and charisma.  I find humility in the vigilant way this landscape lives and grows in the truest sense.  Forcing those pursing her wilds to be always ready, as she is ever present. 

It started as a three-day cross-country skiing tour of the While Mountains.  We were planning to ski the Wickersham Dome to Summit Trail. Eight miles the first day to the Summit Trail Shelter.  Day two called for 12 miles out the Summit Trail intersecting with the Wickersham Creek Trail, and arriving at a cabin I reserved, the Borealis-LaFouvre Cabin.  Then, our third and final day we were to ski 20 miles along the Wickersham Creek Trail back to the Elliot Highway mile 28 parking lot.   I knew the Summit Trail was the only non-motorized trail we would travel.  I believed this trail to be groomed a couple times a season as well as highly traveled, I was wrong. 

The first two miles of the Wickersham Dome trail were spectacular.  Rolling well-traveled trails over a couple domes before arriving on the summit ridge of the Wickersham Dome.  After another mile we were breaking crust on a windy exposed ridge.  Despite the Elliot Highway still being visible, I felt committed to our pursuit of the Summit Shelter.  This is the point my research failed.  We dropped into dense spruce forests with waist deep sugary faceted snow.  Even with skis on we were post-holing strait through to the frozen tundra below.  The progress was exhausting and painstakingly slow.  I think we traveled less than three miles in about eight hours.  As the darkness enveloped us so to our goal of reaching the shelter became dimmer and dimmer.  At 10:30pm Saturday night we made the call to stop, melt snow into water, and attempt to eat our first real meal of the day.  After 13 hours trudging along we were exhausted, dehydrated, and in need of calories.  The conversation quickly turned to our chances of surviving the night bivouacked here in the woods.  I know I’m very naïve of others feelings at times, and overly confident of my own self in the outdoors.  Surely both, because I wasn’t scared for a second about having to camp here, exposed, under the Arctic midnight.  My partner had doubts.  Maybe he had a better grasp of the gravity of the situation then me.  I feel decisions such as those we had to make are shaped by experience.  Several other situations came to mind where either I, or my Dad, made similar decisions.  Trudge beyond fatigue and exhaustion to a safer location.  Or, to the best of your ability, make this site safe as possible with any means available.  Despite oncoming snow flurries and frigid temperatures, I opted to stay.  Rest, food, water, and the warmth of a sleeping bag seemed to take precedent over continuing into the unknown.  Despite being only 1.31 miles away, according to my GPS, that trek could take hours, in the dark, through unfamiliar territory.   As I tried to melt snow and begin cooking food Scott collected wood and built a fire.  The decision to build a fire was Scotts alone.  I’m glad he was there, because it was a really good decision.  I probably wouldn’t have built a fire were it not for him.  The fire became an emblem of hope.  “We can make it if we have fire.”  I soon learned Jet Boil stoves don’t work very well in sub-zero temperatures.  With a nearby camp fire, the Jet Boil began efficiently burning the containerized fuel allowing us to melt snow quicker and prepare dinner. 

Quickly clouds moved in.  Throughout the night we were dusted with fresh snow.  I awoke in my sleeping bag several times over night, slightly chilled. Enshrouded in my cocoon it was hard to get up, knowing my ski boots were probably frozen.  I cringed thinking about cramming my warm foot into a cold frozen boot.  As I lay in my bivy sack, I yelled across our snow pit, briefing Scott- “Once we get up, we need to hustle.  Right now we’re comfortable, in about 10 minutes we’re going to be freezing.  Hands numb as we pack our bags.  Toes blocks of ice as we move about in frozen boots.  Just know the faster we get packed, the sooner we’ll be on the trail, moving along, warming ourselves back up.  Don’t worry, it’s all part of winter camping.”

Dawn Sunday morning brought clear skies and fresh snow on everything.  Scott and I quickly discussed our options as we packed our bags.  Trudge another 1.3 miles to the shelter, then possibly five to six more miles down to the motorized trail, or follow our already broken trail back to the parking lot.  I felt lost giving up on my expedition so easily.  The 40 mile loop in my mind, the measure of success for this trip, had vanished.  It was time to let common sense prevail, and consider returning via the known safe route.  With little debate, we both decided to turn around.  What took 13 hours Saturday, only took 8 hours backtracking the same route Sunday.  In the densest of trees and deepest of snow the already broken trail was glorious.  Atop the exposed domes our trail from the day before had already blown away.  Leaving only hard crust that we quickly skated across.   

My feelings of defeat turned to glory as we crested the Wickersham Dome.  The midday sun shone through frozen spruce trees.  The surface of the snow glazed over with a thin wind hammered slab.  It was so hard my ski poles could not penetrate the surface.  As we skied closer to our final destination, the sun began setting.  Unlike the night before, when I had pull out my headlamp navigating the dark woods, trying to find a shelter- now I knew we would reach the truck before twilight.  I enjoyed the orange, pink, and purple glow illuminated across the frozen White Mountains.  All the clouds had lifted revealing the surrounding mountains.  Endlessly the landscape lifted and fell in all directions.  They were not jagged peaks but mountainous domes, rising above the valleys below.  Tapering off into the great beyond.  I wondered if on a clear day I could see the Yukon River from here, at least a hundred miles to the North.  Despite fatigue growing and growing, the last 3 miles were enjoyable- with sun setting, fast trails, and a fun descent off Wickersham dome.  I felt as if once again it had been a successful trip, until discovering the beers in the bed of my truck had frozen…

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chasing Caribou

After multiple reports of the Caribou herd sighted from the plane, I decided to chase them down myself.  What I found was groups of Caribou numbering 20-50 moving amongst the lakes to the South of Arctic Village.  Gretchen and I left Jack-Jack at home, for fear he would scare away the Caribou,  hoping for some good photographs.

Within 200 meters of passing the last house we spotted 4 caribou in the trail.  They quickly became aware of our presence and ran away.  For the next hour we crossed a couple smaller lakes East of the airport, then turned due South.  Our first contact with the larger herd was on Khaali lake.  From at least 3/4 mile away, we watched about 50 caribou crossing the open frozen lake.  With a bright sun shining low on the horizon behind them, only their silhouettes were visible.

Next we turned West and headed back towards the Southern end of the runway. Then found a side trail taking us even more Southerly and encountered "Caribou Cove".  A small serene lake hidden by rolling hills and surrounded with snow covered slopes.  Here we had a perfect vantage point to watch the caribou meander across the frozen space.  Bedding down and munching on vegetation around the edges.  Occasionally digging up snow looking for lichen to eat.  Scattered across the lake was the entrails of several caribou shot days before.  Attempting to sneak up on the small pack of 5 didn't go so well.  They were very alert.  Watching as I began moving closer, then darting off across the lake and into the black spruce trees.  The caribou seem more timid now then I remember.  Last year I rode in the school maintenance truck as we drove through the middle of them.  Worried they would bounce off our hood.  Today, they wanted nothing to do with human contact.  Have they been over hunted the last couple days?  Are they more self aware of the world around them near the end of winter?  Or are they less safe in smaller numbers then the 1,000+ I witnessed last year?

At this point we were beginning to think about our way home.  Fingers had become a little numb after stopping to snap photos for to long.  We discussed a route back over the village landfill, down to the Chandalar, and home via a packed snow machine trail heading up river.  It sounded great, but we would find out the packed snow machine trail didn't extend as far South as I expected.  So we ended up bushwhacking and following caribou trails for another two hours before finally intersecting the packed freeway.  Arriving back home with purple pink skies turning quickly darkness.

The total ski was 10.6 miles.  Enjoy my short film, "Chasing Caribou".

Good Ole' Fashion Fun

I wouldn't consider myself a "motorhead" kind of guy- but I enjoy a little throttle therapy every now and then.  The past warm week brought with it several inches of fresh snow.  This morning I awoke to a heavy layer of hoar frost on everything.  As soon as school got out I rushed home, warmed up the snow-go, and started playing.  

My original goal was a scouting mission looking for Caribou.  I had heard several people had seen the herd numbering over a thousand very close South of the village.  

The snow lying on the river was at least two feet deep, three in places.  Unlike south central, here it is typically dry and very cold- making what I call dandruff snow.  It is so unbonded that abruptly stopping causes my track to sink all the way to raw ice.  Once you stop, its hard to start again.  I made this mistake once, and spent 15 minutes digging out the rear end and dragging my machine to a compacted trail where it could grip.  The key, don't stop, hold the throttle and float on the snow, as if you were carving out the clouds.

All photographs are by Gretchen.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The New Guy

by Gretchen

As I was sitting in the lobby at Wright Air Service today I sat down next to a wide-eyed guy, quietly taking everything in.  It was obviously his first time here.  You could tell by the look on his face.  The regulars at "Wrights" walk in, chat with the ladies at the desk, joke with the pilots, drink bad coffee and stand outside for smoke breaks.  It is really more like a bus station than an airport terminal.  If Wright Air had a Frequent Flyer program I would have Super Elite Premium Platnum Status by now.  I always see people I know here.  Today I was busy watching someone's baby while they went out to pack boxes and check in cargo when the new guy started asking me questions. "Where are you flying?" "You mean you live all the way up there?" "What do you do there?"  I am a talker by nature and always glad to chat about the beautiful and unique place we get to live.  So I told him a bit about the area, then asked what brought him to Alaska.

He is from Chattanooga, Tennessee (where my Dad grew up!) He just graduated from UT with an engineering degree and decided to take a 45 day trip to experience Alaska before getting a job.  (Gotta love that!)  This was his first time ever flying. Not just his first time flying on small planes, but ever flying at all!  What a trip to take for someone who has never flown!  He flew from TN to Minneapolis, to Anchorage, to Fairbanks, then was heading out to Tanana to meet a musher and take an 11 day dog sled trip across the interior.  He hopes to see the Northern Lights while out dog sledding.

It reminded me how much I love to hear stories of people who venture out to see Alaska!  It is such an amazing place to explore.  I wonder if he'll be one of the ones that starts out on vacation and ends up staying.  It seems to happen up here!  Have a great trip!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Blood In The Tracks

After almost two weeks of frigid temperatures around -50F, it was a welcomed blessing to see the thermometer rise above 0F this past weekend.  I grabbed my ski's, Jack grabbed his harness, and we headed out!  

My goal with warm temps and soft snow was to ski all the way up Dachenlee.  This is the "holy" mountain with gently rising slopes South East of Arctic Village.  The days tally would be 10 miles skied with 1200ft elevation gain.  

I wasn't able to reach the final ridge of Dachenlee because of low hanging snow clouds.  So I pulled my thermos out and enjoyed a warm cup of tea at one of the Fall hunting camps.  Now just a skeleton of sticks and stones.  All around the ground was trampled, snow scattered everywhere, vegetation exposed.  The caribou had been here in small groups, bedding down, grazing, and moving on. 

On the way back to the village, about a mile away we encountered blood in the tracks, literally.  Someone had shot a caribou off one of the side trails.  The caribou had been most likely been tied to the back of a wood sled, his blood running out of him the whole way back.  Rather then follow bread crumbs home, we skied along a line of bright red. 
Jack was none to impressed.  I think he was hoping for a steak at the end...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Sort of Homecoming

This school year I have been part of a state funded social studies curriculum called Map TEACH.  The program is designed to get students thinking geo-spatially through GIS, GPS, remote sensing, and place based local knowledge of the land. Twice we’ve met in Fairbanks for workshops.  This time we met in Anchorage.  Its been almost nine months since I was in my old stomping grounds.  
To my luck I arrived on the first Thursday of February, just in time for First Tap!!!  This months lineup had the Young Fangs opening up from Fairbanks, followed by laVoy from Wasilla.  I really enjoyed both bands.  They had a post-punk emo/indie sound which really filled the room with screaming guitars, groovy bass-lines, and heavy drum beats.
Twice since I’ve become a teacher I had the pleasure of staying in the Hotel Captain Cook.  Not what I expected, but hey, with enough grant money anything is possible...
These photographs were taken from the 15th floor of my hotel.  I observed the icebreaker cargo ship passing by my hotel window out in the Cook Inlet.  I loved the way Sleeping Lady Mountain was looming in the distance.
Anchorage has had record snowfall this year.  Unfortunately I had to leave my skis in Fairbanks, with little time to spare for the backcountry.  The photos of Anchorage were also taken from the elevator lobby on the 15th floor of the Cook Hotel, just before sunset.