Abandoned buildings and structures, especially mining stuff, has always held fascination for me. Kennecott was spectacular… The hike up the lateral moraine of the Root Glacier above the mine was out of this world. Here’s a few of my favorite shots of the mine…
Up ahead, just past the top of the long, mellow hill we are climbing, I can see the junction of the Elliott and Richardson Highways, where we will turn south and enter the sublime alpine beauty of the Chugagh Mountains, Alaska’s splendid “coast range”. Last night’s camp, just past Kenny Lake was a fine birch forest scene with good weather and flat ground. Located just minutes from town, we were happily snuggled into the tent by early evening and a good night’s sleep was to be had. As we approach the intersection, there is a roadhouse visible just a few yards to the north and we decide to stop in for a coffee and some browsing at the roadhouse “garage sale” they are having. Angela begins browsing in a serious fashion and soon her arms are filled with trinkets and goods: a bicycle seat, a bicycle helmet, a candle holder, and assorted other comodities. I cheerfully remind her that we are traveling by bicycle; she reluctantly shelves her armload and we hustle inside to see what we can see.
After some local chat and too much cheap coffee, we are back on the road and headed south, toward the Klutina River. The last few days have been filled with their fair share of cool temps and lots of rain and mud; as a result there has been little activity in the form of bathing, swimming, and river laundry, and right now, that’s exactly what I need. The Klutina River is just another fine example of a spectacular, yet small, Alaskan drainage, filled with fast moving, glacial melt water the color of a grey, cloudy sky. The water is ice cold and sweet to the thirsty tongue. Ever since I began stomping around in these northern woods, I have seldom treated water for drinking. If it is standing water, such as a lake, I always filter; but generally, fast moving, glacial fed rivers are considered excellent “as is”. The Klutina is no exception and I drink freely and fill all of my bottles. A quick body dunk in the runnel is about all I can stand before a serious head freeze develops. I rinse a few clothes and hang them from my bike for a drying session while pedaling, and Angela and I are happilly heading, once again, up and into the alpine zone of Alaska’s mountains. Onward, the pavement snakes; deep into a forested valley filled with Birch and Spruce, Cottonwood and Alder. There is not a dearth of trees in Alaska, especially in the south, where permafrost is a rareness. Black Spruce taiga appears occasionally, a hallmark of the permafrost zone, but in the warmer and wetter areas of southern Alaska, large White Spruce and hardwoods are far more common. In fact, as we converge on the lower slopes of the Chugagh, the trees are very large indeed; magnificent specimens of a rich and healthy environment.
Looking ahead, I can now see small glaciers adorning the rocky peaks; sitting there quietly, keepers of time, observers of pattern, practitioners of routine. Collect, pack, advance; sit, melt, retreat. Repeating it’s endless yearly cycles, filling the rivers’, allowing the Salmon, feeding the Bears’, making the world. This is the interminable rythym of The North; it’s scale of balance all things wild and free depend on. Soon we are climbing upward; around every bend in the road, another glacier, each one bigger than the last. One is hanging in space, threatening to collapse and feed the one below it, like a hand me down from an older brother. As we ascend, the clouds become thick and a mist develops that is all but rain. The vegetation becomes greener and thicker, yet more sparce. Soon it is all tundra, and the final climb to the nearly three thousand foot Thompson Pass engages. Even though we are wet, we are ecstatic. This is another new place for my visual feast, for I have not been here before. New places always excite me, especially in Alaska. At the pass, it is damp and cold: we don more clothing for the giant descent towards the sea. Soon we are whizzing down, mile after mile, at high speed. 35 miles per hour in fact. Eventually it flattens out and we find ourselves deep within lush forest of Alder and Hemlock. Large firns are sprouting from the forest floor; a sign that we are nearing ocean. We cross a small stream and see the first of the Chum and Silver Salmon runs; ahead a bit further, there is a small black bear having a feast on the Salmon eggs, not even bothering with the flesh of the several dozen carcass’ lying about.
As we near Valdez, it begins to rain again, as it would do for another couple of days; in fact, early on the trip, we had promised ourselves a motel room somewhere, so now, in the rain at Valdez, it seemed appropriate. So a night with hot showers, a soft bed, and a rain free envoronment were to be had. We head to the ferry terminal the next morning, only to find that AMHS (Alaska Marine Highway System) had changed they’re schedules in the few short days time period since we had called for information; that meant another night in Valdez. So off down a trail we go, leading to the inlet of a small brook, to the kelp covered gravel beaches of the Valdez Arm. We stop for a bit and take it in, then head back the way we came to find a spot for the tent. Coming across another creek, it is seething with Chums and Silver’s. The grass on the shores of the water are totally flattened: we have just missed the Bears. We cautiously walk the perimiter of the area and see Salmon lying on the bare earth, with fresh bear tooth punctures. They must have been here seconds earlier. Had we startled them off? The scene is fantastic: a bear feeding ground, surrounded by salt water and a lush scene dominated by the peaks and glaciers of Valdez.
We board the ferry in the morning and across the Prince William Sound we go. Incredible coastline and calving tide water glaciers dominate the experience and soon we are in Whittier. Miraculously, the clouds break, and the sun shines strong upon our backs. A painless hitch hike through the Whittier tunnel (mandatory) puts us at Portage Lake and a spectacle of more glaciers and icebergs. It is still early, and we decide to try to make it to Girdwood by nightfall, which, after a couple of hours of battling heinous head winds, we accomplish. We camp next to a fast moving river, with glaciers viewable from camp, directly across from the Alyeska skii hill. Another great Alaska camp indeed. The pedal into Anchorage the next morning was filled with the terrible traffic of the Seward Highway, famous for it’s dangerous nature. we persevere and soon find ourselves in the hills above Anchorage, staying at Angela’s friends’ house. They are wonderful hosts and treat us like kings and queens; that night a delicious supper of Silver Salmon that was caught in Prince William Sound just few days prior. Stacey even supplies us with a box for angela’s bike to be shipped and gives her a ride to the airport. Angela and I say our goodbye’s for now; she is heading the the lower 48, and I heading to Eagle River, where I will meet my buddy Sven and we will drive back to Fairbanks and begin the fall season of training dogs for the upcoming winter, of which I will be staying in Bettles, AK.
It has been a glorious summer; nearly 2800 miles of pedaling, both solo and with Angela, across mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes, and ocean. I do love The North!
I first fell in love with Alaska when I was 15. Those early high school years were spent dreaming and executing all acts of climbing and mountaineering. I even tried to start a climbing club in high school; not a single taker. Climbing was off the map in the mid eighties, at least among high school students. In the evenings, I would often engage in as much climbing literature as I could stomach; Habeler and Messner’s’ “The Lonely Victory”, Doug Scott’s “Big Wall Climbing” and Art Davidson’s “Minus 148” were books that took me to far away places with far away ideas. It was “Minus 148” that took it’s toll on me and gave me an ironed-in impression of Denali and Alaska. Now, stomping around in this wild place, the memories of that book have come alive and they are hunting me down.
After leaving the Paxson Lodge that rainy afternoon, the Denali Highway still fresh in our hearts, we pedal onward, in search of a flat and comfortable spot to call our own for the night. When I look for a camp, I try as I must to fulfill the rules I have created for myself. An excellent camp must have at least two or three of the following: It must be flat, have water nearby, have a view, be protected from the wind, and be as far off the road as possible. A camp spot rarely has all of these attributes, but if there are a couple, then it’s usually deemed acceptable. Angela and I pedal down the Richardson about 15 miles or so and find a fine gravel pit that meets a couple of the criteria and we throw down our scene. A Loon cries out from nearby Paxson Lake, and makes the spot that much better even.
We awake the following morning to outstanding weather and an earlier than usual start sends us 55 miles down the Richardson Highway to the Gulkana river and an early camp for an afternoon of bathing and river laundry. It feels so good to be in the river, the sun overhead and our clothing, now clean, drying on the clothesline I have set up. Unfortunately, the river camp is very moist, and our clothing does not dry till nearly 1 o’clock the following day, which puts us on the road late and provides for a short pedaling day. It all works out for the best, because weeks prior I had scoped out a camp for us when Sven, Bill, and I were on a dip netting mission, out at Chitina. Now, on this afternoon, Angela and I roll into this fine camp. It is extraordinary to say the least; it consists of perfect, flat forest right next to a steep 300 foot cliff/embankment that drops to the mighty Copper River below; infested with Salmon and running strong. It also sports unobstructed view of Mt’s Sanford, Drum, Wrangell, and the enormous Mt Blackburn, all encased in glacial ice, and piercing the deep blue, cloudless sky. To me, it is a camp site to behold.
The Wrangell Mountains are a special place to me; they are nearly as mighty as the Denali area of the Alaska Range, but are connected to the monster of the St Elias Range further to the east. They are also more remote, and, according to some bush pilots I spoke with, the most beautiful place in all Alaska. That makes it pretty damn special indeed.
We continue onward, down the Richardson, and turn in on the old Elliott cutoff; a dirt track leading, for ten miles, to the hamlet of Kenny Lake, an area of rare Alaskan agriculture featuring pastures, Pigs, Yaks, and Chickens. We stock up on a thing or two here at the tiny store, and continue down the Elliott, enroute to Chitina, one of my favorite spots in Alaska. On the last hill into town, the headwinds are so strong, we must pedal hard to go downhill. We roll on through, eager to get ourselves established onto the dirt and gravel of the McCarthy Road, and away from the troublesome traffic. Crossing the Copper River Bridge, one is greeted with a fine, Alaskan sight; the confluence of the Copper and Chitina River’s, the Chugach Mountains to the south and the Wrangells to the North, and the dip netter’s, still pulling late season Red’s from the icy waters’. True Alaska. We roll across the bridge and turn into the free campground there, the only one we were to stay at on this trip.
Some time back, I had an interest in scoping out the Kuskalana Glacier Trail, aka the Nugget Trail, which lies off of the McCarthy Road to the north and in from the western end by about 15 miles or so. The trail, built by miners near the turn of the century, ends at the Kuskalana Glacier and a tiny cabin there. Angela and I decide to pedal down the side road leading to the trails start and check it out for future adventure, as this time around we were a wee bit shy on time. The trailhead begins about 4 miles back, and requires one to cross Native Land and pay a fee, as we found out. Perhaps another time.. Back out to the McCarthy Road, I catch fine glimpses of the awesome Mt Blackburn, 16,000+’, which I believe is the fourth or fifth highest in Alaska. As we travel the road we are traversing it’s western, southern, and southeastern sides, and every time it appears from the road, it is as if Blackburn herself is mounted to a giant lazy suzan, rotating around me, not the other way around, showing off her best.
The McCarthy Road seems blessed with many small creeks and rivers’, all crystal clears specimens, born of the ice and flowing to the Sea. There are fewer lakes, however. Angela feels at peace when she is swimming in a lake, so we are always keeping our eyes peeled for an opportunity to do so. We pass Moose Lake and pull in for a spell, but decide to push on to another lake further up called “Long Lake”. The lake turned out to be a little farther than expected, but soon it appeares and Angela declares the place her spiritual home. She fell in love with Long Lake. Unfortunately, we find no spot to camp on it’s shores, but a site within it’s view were to be had; again, with the best Loon calls I have ever heard that evening. Even Salmon enter the lake to spawn and the resulting Bears can often be seen catching their lunch. The next day was a fine one, with perfect weather and a short pedal to McCarthy, we were rolling through town by noon. About a half mile before reaching the tiny village, one is greeted by a mountainous site that can hardly be called simply “a nice view”. That will not do. In front of us lithe Kennicott Glacier and the Root Glacier, both giants and flowing from towering peaks, smaller peaks nearing the flanks of the grand centerpiece of Mt Blackburn. As the ice river rises up to it’s birth place, an enormous ice falls shows itself, the “Staircase Icefall” as it is known is a sea of jumbled and towering blocks and seracs, all destined to crumbled downward and become a pat of the valley glacier below.
We find McCarthy more than pleasing; a tiny little town full of laid back folks, tourists, flight seers, bush pilots, and mountain folk. We buy a few groceries at the happily unexpected grocery, and chat with a few folks before departing to find a camp of our own. A local tells us of a trail that leads to the toe of the Kennicott Glacier.. We head out and after getting temporarily lost, we find our way and are rewarded by a great field of gravel ind ice and water. The Kennicott’s tarn, the size of an Alaskan air strip, is under constant barrage from it’s gravel covered ice source just above, and great splashes can be heard very so often. We camp near the shores of the tarn and admire the unbelievable glacial view from our camp. Later, we hike out, away from the tent, at dusk, to inspect bear prints Angels had spotted earlier.
A day off of the bikes is in order and we decide to ride up the road 4 miles to the historic Kennicott Copper Mine, once the largest copper mining operation in North America. After passing through the mine area, we continue on a deterorating trail that soon requires the the bikes be parked behind a boulder and on foot we continue. We hike four, five six miles? up the valley, paralleling the Root Glacier, and high above it’s flanks. Eventually, we find a place that looks reasonable to descend, and down we go; crawling across the gravel covered ice hills to reach the main body of ice. Angela has never been on a glacier before, and it had been a while since I had last been on one this size. We cross out onto the flat ice, well below the firn line, and small, but open crevasses appear. A giant Mullion, the central body of exposed glacial water, is flowing wildly upon the giants back and we drink freely from it’s source. We ascend back up the loose scree to the trail and skedattle down valley to our bikes. A fast blast back to McCarthy takes only minutes and soon we are in camp once again. Our “rest” day consisted of riding ten or twelve miles and hike maybe thirteen or fourteen; we are spent. That night, very late, I got up and a bare twinge of the Aurora Borealis was beginning to appear. Summer was coming to an end.
The day following was Angela’s birthday, and it was raining badly. We take cover in the local coffee and burrito house and put off getting into the mud till past noon. The day was spent mostly in soaking wet conditions and endless amounts of mud. This signaled the impending end to my bottom bracket, rear hub, and drivetrain. We manage the day however; in the late afternoon, when we are ready to camp, an RV with two Europeans pull up and ask us about the road conditions to McCarthy. I tell them that the road is fine and they should have no problems with the road surface. As we were about to push on, the driver asks “Is it worth? I assumed that he meant is it worth the drive to visit a place such as McCarthy; I was taken aback and did not know what to say. Every where in Alaska (except Wasilla) “Is worth” in my opinion. The question of worth versus value is a question that I am constantly on the lookout for; everyones values are different, it seems. So that said, if one values what a place like McCarthy has to offer, then certainly “it is worth”. So I tell him: ‘ Look, if you are looking for 5 star accommodations, fine dining, a nightclub to attend to, or a theater, or a McDonalds, or a Walmart, then it is “not worth”, BUT, if you are looking to witness and experience some of the finest mountain scenery to be found on the planet, and have a great appreciation of all things wild and free, then sir, I promise you “It IS worth”!
The next morning we were back on pavement and headed back out to the Richardson Highway, in search of the next “worthy” wilderness.
After nearly a month of work in Fairbanks since returning from the Arctic, Angela and I decide that the best thing to do is for her to pick up my truck from my buddy Pat’s in Bellingham, and drive the damn thing to Alaska. This would accomplish two things; get her here and get my truck here, effectively getting two birds stoned at once. She navigates the truck through B.C., up the Cassiar Highway, and onto the Alcan for a 4 day trip to Fairbanks. One night around 1:00 am, Angela pulls up, wide eyed and exhibiting the thousand yard stare from many hours behind the windshield. We spend the next day and a half getting her bike prepped and our proverbial shit together, and together is comes. We leave Fairbanks at around 3 in the afternoon on August 4th, and still manage to pedal 34 miles to a nice woods camp in the Nenana Hills, including a stop at Skinny Dicks roadhouse for a beer and a laugh. The forest is a splendid place to be as the past weeks of being in Fairbanks had been wearing thin upon me. After hearty supper and a victory cocktail, we fall into a deep sleep that only two tired yet happy people can achieve. Pedaling the next couple of day brings us to Nenana, Healy, and McKinley Park; the third day of which, a car, speeding up behind me, veers onto the shoulder and nearly creams me, inches away from my handlebars. That night at a sweet lakeside camp just north of Cantwell, we watch as the sun sets behind the western rim and an alpenglow on the opposing peaks highlights a small herd of magnificent Dall Sheep, clinging wildly to the upper slopes. After entering the Alaska Range proper we finally sail into Cantwell, western end of the glorious Denali Highway, and an entrance into some of the most fantastic splendor and scenery Alaska has to offer.
The Denali Highway was built in 1957 and for many years prior to the George Parks Highway’s completion, was the only way to approach the areas of Denali National Park, hence it’s name. The road is 135 miles long and connects Cantwell to Paxson; 120 miles of that are dirt and gravel. To me, the DH, as I like to call it, is representative of the greatness that Alaska has to offer. Yes, that is saying something in a place that has greatness writ large across nearly every available foot of land spanning it’s monstrous heft. The DH traverses the entire Central Alaska Range, in all it’s glory, crosses uncountable streams and rivers, features tundra, forest, mountains and lakes galore. It also features some of the best free range camping anywhere I have ever seen. It is truly a mountain paradise.
We roll out onto the welcome relief of the gravel surface of the DH and, short of the dust from occasional traffic, sailed smoothly along the grandiose Alaska Range Central; surrounded by tundra, taiga, and wilderness. Dall Sheep and Caribou season starts in a couple of days and unlike the time I was here before, in 2011, the DH has more people roaming around, hunters in particular. We spy a two track leading into the forest and decide that there might be a reward at it’s end. We ride through beautiful forest and brush, spotting a large Bull Caribou along the way. After about a mile or so, the forest thins and the road turns downward to gain the roaring river below. But here, at this transition, lies one of the most spectacular camp spots of my life. It is an open view of all the big peaks of the range; Mt’s Hess, Hayes, Deborah, Geist, Balchen, and Shand. After recently reading Robert’s “Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative”, I was exited even more to once again be witnessing this spectacular place. In front of us was endless tundra and forest and river and towering peaks, encompassing one of the greatest wilderness regions on the continent. Watching the sun set upon this picture, with it’s hues of red and orange, mixed with the deep blue of the glacial spectacle in front of us, was a sight I will not soon forget.
The last time I was on the DH, I had found a camp , just west of the airstrip of the Gracious House, located atop a hill, overlooking the braided and surrealistic Susitna River, and it’s mother source, the Susitna Glacier. I had spent 2 days camped here prior, shooting time-lapse and photos and generally freaking out on how this place blew my mind. Angela and I hike up to the old camp for a looksie and a breather; and the view is as grand as my memory had served. We were looking to gain some mileage that day and decide to push on; we are rewarded later with a nice forest camp that is secluded from the road and offers a nice ridge top for an after supper hike before bed.
The following morning it is raining, the first of this leg of our journey. We pack it in and commit to the rain and the mud, and soon McClaren River Lodge comes ’round and we drop in for a beer and a cheeseburger. Back in 2011, when I was here before, I had ducked into the Lodge from a viscous rainstorm coming over McClaren Summit, and today was no exception. We leave the lodge during a brief interlude in the water’s descent, and climb the 1000′ up to the summit. We are exhausted and wet, and it is raining solidly. We ride down the two track of the McClaren Summit trail, and throw down our nylon ghetto onto the soft and sopping tundra and dive into the tent. In the morning, it is still raining, but our spirits are high as we prepare for the last day on the DH. Cool temps and more rain bring us to the beginning of the pavement 20 miles from Paxson and signaling the end of the highway. Again, we stop at the Paxson Lodge for a treat. The weather begins to abate, and as we leave, we are granted fine weather for a pedal down the Richardson Highway in search of another fine Alaskan camp.
But that is another story…
Alaska is renowned for many things; big mountains, big rivers, and big Salmon to name a few. In fact Alaska has many, many of each. The Copper River is one such crick, born of the glacier and thrust knowingly towards a great and mighty sea to the south. It’s waters fast, deep, silty and cold; all the hallmarks of a great and fearsome Alaskan River. Being the tenth largest river in the United States, it is also home to one of the greatest Salmon runs in the world, and in a place festering with mighty river’s running full of the hardest working fish in North America, that’s saying something. July and early August are the time of Red Salmon or Sockeye as it is known; to me, the very tastiest of all Salmon’s. Theses beautiful fish congregate in large numbers at the mouth of the Copper, near Cordova, at the Gulf of Alaska. Over the course of a few short weeks, they swim, upriver, in search of their ancestral spawning grounds, to the place of their birth, to continue the cycle of life. Along the way, people have been harvesting these fantastic creatures for sustenance for thousands of years.
2 o’clock in the afternoon, Sven, Billy, and I pile into Sven’s truck and head south for the 6 hour drive from Fairbanks to Chitina, a tiny hundred year old fishing and mining community, born from the days of the mighty Kennicott. Chitina is a beautiful place indeed; nestled in a deep valley, surrounded by high forested and craggy walls, giant glaciated peaks of the Wrangell Mountains, festooned with wildlife, and situated at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers’. On the drive down, we stop at a pullout with mind numbing Alaska scenery, an eyeful of the central and eastern Alaska Range and it’s plentiful glaciers. It had been a couple of years since I had been to this place and it was as magnificent as I had remembered. We arrive in Chitina later, and meet up with Sven’s friends Cynthia and Diane. We will be crashing at Cynthia’s cabin and they will be joining us tomorrow, at the river. The last time friends were here, a couple of weeks past, they had caught their limit between the 4 of them: 70 fish! That’s a lot of cleaning and filleting, but in the end, it is a freezer full of the best eating there is.
The trail in from the road to the good dip netting spots are 5 or 6 miles down river, however, Sven’s four wheeler ATV makes fairly quick work of ferrying 4 people, dip nets, gear and ice chests to the chosen location. By 8 o’clock, we have our ropes tied to the shore trees and to ourselves, and the nets are in the water. The river was intimidating at first; it is the sort that, if one fell in, you might be a goner. It is super fast and cold, with hidden logs, rocks, and all sorts of strainers, waiting to snag anything that happens to be in the water big enough to catch. It is also full of glacial silt; it’s appearance is that of fast, cold mud. It’s visibility is zero. But it is full of Salmon; I hope. After a couple of hours, Diane has managed to net 2 fish, a small one and a good sized one, and for the next 5 hours we were only able to land 3 more, for a total of 5 fish. Not the fish bonanza we had hoped for, as the cost of the trip necessitates a good yield. The river was definitely higher than normal; this probably attributed to the low numbers. One never knows when it comes to the Salmon running. One day they could be so strong that, could you see through the murky water, one might be able to walk across the river, supported only on the backs of the working Salmon. On other days, scarcely a few seem to be near by. Perhaps when the water is so high, they hide out in the eddy’s and holes, saving energy, awaiting the lower water and easier swimming, upriver and towards their goal.
By mid afternoon, we, with our 5 fish, decide to head out as it is a long drive home. As Sven is ferrying loads back to the truck, I clean the fish, pour the last bits of diesel fuel into the truck, and clean up. While the fishing was of limited success, the day was a fulfilling one, hanging with friends, taking in the best Alaska has to offer, and generally enjoying ourselves all around. Additionally, 3 of the 5 of us had seen bears today. Sven and Diane had seen a big Blackie earlier, and in the afternoon, Billy had come across a Griz crossing the trail and headed to the river, no doubt attracted the pungent odor of the Salmon. Afterwards, we say goodbye to our Chitina friends and hit Uncle Tom’s Tavern in Chitina, for a celebration beer; and afterwards, a long and tiring drive to Fairbanks, but with smiles on our faces.
In the event of the unexpected, unexpected events will follow. Like a chain reaction; an ability to become flexible and malleable at any turn or ripple in the fabric of what we perceive to be absolute, is what is in order. That is why I am in Fairbanks. I have landed here. After the unfortunate event of losing nearly all of my expedition funds, I felt like giving up; consorting to failure, and returning “home”. I guess by “home”, I mean where my truck is parked in Bellingham, filled with my tools to make money with, and the remainder of my material life. At the convincing of Angela and my Mother, plus a bit of financial support, I continued on. And on I will continue. After pedaling through the Brooks Range and witnessing the Arctic, I have been recharged, and my thirst for wilderness and travel greater than ever before. To simply sit in these places, where quiet reigns supreme, the main thoughts in my head are ones of wonder and fulfillment. Yes, part of me still wishes for the previous alternative of continuing on some short journey’s northward, up to Circle, Alaska and an exploration of the historic Circle-Fairbanks Trail. Or perhaps an even more remote foray into the bowels of the Pinnel Mountain Trail. I would like to experience these places eventually, but alas, it is not to be on this go… I am in Fairbanks, working, making friends and connections, relaxing my mind, and getting ready for the next leg of this journey; the journey of my life. Angela will be here on the 26th and we will continue south towards the Denali area, into the high country that I love so much. To the land of the Dall Sheep, the Caribou, the Grizzly Bear. Places where there is only tundra and peaks, streams and lakes, animals and sky; away from the traffic and the commotion of Fairbanks; away from Fred Meyer’s, away from the public library and away from the chainsaw and the hammer. Back to the roots of my soul and beyond shadows of the mountain tops.
The weather in Fairbanks recently, has been of record heat; Alaska’s interior is notorious for it’s hot, dry spells in Summer, but in recent past, it has been downright cruel, by Alaska standards. 95 degree heat, no wind, no rain, and in the fashion of pouring salt into a sore wound, terrible forest fires have been raging on, filling the entire Tanana Valley with a thick layer of smoke that would make even a hardened Los Angeles veteran choke. It sure put a hurt on me. Then, like magic, the clouds rolled in, and, in a rainstorm unlike I have normally seen in the north, unleashed a fury of water that seemed violently thick, yet refreshing to the earth, and the fires. Now, the weather is cool, slightly damp, and smoke free. It is like summer took a drastic turn into another season altogether. While summer is not quite over yet, it is beginning to feel a bit like fall already. The days are getting shorter as well; last night at 1:00 am, it was a bit to much of a strain on my eyes to read “Mountain of My Fear”, so I closed the book, and my eyes, and dreamed of mountains instead.
There are only two roads, in North America, that one might pilot a vehicle of some sort, which lead to this continents Arctic area’s. As far as I know, there is only one other road in the world that leads into the Arctic outside of North America, the Arctic Highway in Norway, which might just be the northern most connecting road in the world. The two roads in question are the Dempster Highway in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, of which I attempted to ride weeks prior, and the Dalton Highway, AKA “The Haul Road” in Alaska. Both of these paths’ through the wilderness are of the dirt and gravel variety, however, there are bits of pavement and chip seal surfaces as well, scattered about, here and there. The Haul Road, remote indeed, was built in 1974 as a supply line to the north slope oil fields at the Arctic Ocean, and parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipe-Line, was not open to use by the general public until 1996. Up to that point, the truckers had it solely to themselves. The Haul Road, as it was called in the 70’s, traverses a rugged landscape north of Fairbanks and leads to Deadhorse, Alaska. It crosses terrain varying from the endless, forested hill country beginning at Fairbanks, to Taiga swamps and open tundra, crosses many, many rivers and streams, and penetrates the “Alaskan Rockies”, the continental divide at the bastion of true roadless Alaskan wilderness, the mighty Brooks Range. The Brooks, since I was a teenager, has been a source of great mystery and a true icon of the remote and windswept tundra of northern Alaska. It has also been a dream to visit that whimsical place since that time.
Saturday morning I am up, gearing up. At Sven’s, all is quiet. There is not a soul stirring, most likely all are sleeping late from the inevitability of staying up too late in the bright Alaskan night time. Two night prior, I give a food bag to Sven’s trucker friend, Tommy. He is heading up the Haul Road to Deadhorse and will drop of my feedbag at Coldfoot. This will alleviate the need to carry 10 to 12 days worth of food, but cutting that amount in half. Thank You Tommy! I slowly pack my things and secure the Ogre for a lengthy trip into the wilderness. I pedal out of Sven’s area and on to downtown Fairbanks in hopes of finding some breakfast. After Eating, I head north, up the Steese Highway, toward Fox and Livengood. The coming onslaught of slim eating over the next week, prompts me to catch yet another grubstake near the edge of town and off I go, north.
That day was filled with some of the worst up and down hill climbing on a bicycle I had ever encountered and was indeed thankful for all the food I consumed; every calorie accounted for as I pedaled hill after hill after hill. Finally crossing Snowshoe Summit at the apex of Alaska’s White Mountains, I am rewarded with a long downhill and a natural stream of spring water shooting from a pipe near the road’s edge. The water is clear, cold, and delicious. Onward, passing a few creeks and abandoned cabins, I look for a camp. I pull onto a dirt track next to the Tatalina River and dive into the water after setting up. I am then greeted by terrible swarms of Alaska’s favorite insect. That night, I talk and drink Rum with pipeline workers from Pumpstation #7, just a few miles south.
The next day, more of the same hill climbing ensued, only worse this time. The hills are 12-14%, made up of loose, unconsolidated gravel, and the truck traffic is thicker than usual due to the summer time road maintenance. This day turned out to be the hardest of the entire Haul Road. By day’s end, I was so exhausted, I could do nothing but dismount the Ogre and push the dead beast upward and over the hilltops, coast down the other side and repeat. I was jello.
More big hills the following morning, lead, thankfully, to the Yukon River, where , once across, the road flattens out a bit and some nice forested Alaskan countryside sprouts from the earth like Grandfather Forest’s beard. Eventually, however, the hills re appeared and the grinding continued. After 70 miles, I find a gravel pit to call home right on the fringe of Finger Mountain and south of the Arctic circle maybe 25 miles. I am now seeing the first bits of true Arctic Tundra.. permafrost meltwater lakes, unglaciated Tors of granite, and windswept mountain passes are now within my eyesight.
The next day, the landscape changes dramatically to the type of high country I so desire. After crossing the imaginary Arctic Circle, I cross over a small mountain pass and catch my first glimpses of the mighty Brooks Range. I drop into the valley below, and am greeted with magnificent spruce forest, and creeks filled with 24 inch Grayling. There is drinking water everywhere, a far cry from the relative dryness of the last few days out of Fairbanks. In fact the dryness was accentuated by the fact that north central Alaska has been experiencing one of the hottest, driest spells in history this week. The second day out of Fairbanks it tipped the scales at 94 degrees! This new landscape was what I came here for… unparalleled high country filled with river’s, mountains, forest, and animals.
I roll into Coldfoot, the half-way point on this path, nestled in the Koyakuk River valley, in the heart of the entrance to the Brooks Range. I find a decent camp next to the river and go into “town” to find my food box. The box is not there.. Tommy had not made the trip, but had relayed the box to a friend of his to drop, but so far, it has not shown. There is a bar and a restaurant here and the food is decent and the folks here are nice and the scenery is unbeatable, so I have no problem sitting tight for a spell. Over a couple of beers, I meet Tom and Jane, a couple of extremely nice folks from the Hood Canal area of Washington state. They have flown up here from the states in their Cessna 180, and offer to take me on a short flight over the Brooks tomorrow if I wasn’t doing anything. Are you kidding? This notion makes me grin as wide as wide can be, and I accept. I meet with them the next day and, by noon or so, we are in the sky, flying over what can only be described as pure and simple wilderness bliss. Huge, craggy peaks, endless tundra mountains and rivers of a proportion that I can barely comprehend unfold before my very eyes. I hold back the tears of joy as I witness a childhood dream come true. There are no words to describe how my heart feels in this place, even from an airplane. How will I feel when I am actually in it? After about an hour, we head back to the Coldfoot landing field, and I thank Tom and Jane for their generosity. I wish them the best, and I hop on my bike, high as kite from the last hour’s experience, and eagerly pedal directly into what I had just witnessed, looking now for a direct contact with the landscape before me, which is exactly what I got.
A couple of hours pedaling through mind boggling, awesome scenery, I decide to get off of the Haul Road proper, and get onto the pipeline pad road, which offers a bit more of the deeply spooky solitude that this unbelievable place can offer. Eventually the road dead ends when the pipeline disappears underground, which will dictate me backtracking to the Haul Road for a couple of mile. BUT, at it’s end, a spectacular campsite is to be had, on the Koyakuk, and facing a “sunset” view of the mighty southwest face of Sukakpak Mountain, an impressive chunk of pre cambrian limestone real estate. After swimming in the Koyakuk, I set up the camera for an evening time-lapse of Sukakpaks’ dramatic episode of color and changing light. I feel I have finally entered the place on this leg where I want to be; The High Country.
The following day is the creme de la creme; 40 miles of dead flat, yet scenery of a mesmerizing nature ensue. I see Eagles, Moose, and Fox, but no Bear, Caribou, or Wolf. The river becomes heavily braided; the forest begins to thin out. Signs of a changing ecosystem; of a different stature, more rugged than the previous mile, unfold. The weather begins to change too.. Thunderclouds build, then unleash, I retreat under a bridge and watch the storm from beneath, sitting next to river ice pack still 36 inches thick, here on June 20th. The storm breaks and and so do I. A few short miles and I pass the final spruce tree in this part of North America. No more trees at all, in fact. It is all tundra and the road begins to climb. Up, up, I go; the road flattens once again onto the spectacular Chandler Shelf, a flat area of a couple hundred square miles of tundra in the heart of the Brooks, just below the continental divide of Atigun Pass, Alaska’s Highest and most northerly road pass at 4800′. As I near Atigun’s summit, the storm once again decides to unleash it’s fury. High winds, sideways rain, and plummeting temperatures commence. I top out at 9:30 pm and find a patch of snow free tundra a way off the road and pitch my tent right there on Atigun’s high point. Even with guying the tent, I still have to brace the 4-season Easton shelter from the inside to prevent poles from snapping. Finally, the wind dies off and I drift to sleep, dreaming that night of being yet deeper into this range of magic mountains in the North, father in than I am now, traveling high valleys among Grizzly Bear and Caribou.
I awake to a deeply silent atmosphere of near whiteout conditions; it is eerily calm. I pack up, and descend the pass slightly to the shelf on the north side and park the Ogre for a hike up to a ridge top. The tundra here is short and squat and is easily traveled upon. It is festooned with tiny wildflowers of all shapes and colors. I pass the remains of a young Caribou, probably taken by Wolve’s. Farther up, I glimpse down great gully’s of rock towards a massive creek with outstanding waterfalls feeding it’s need to descend into the Atigun River and beyond into the Arctic Ocean. The peaks are mere 6000 footers, but are massive just the same. The Brooks is a dry region, as is the Arctic in general. It really is mostly an Arctic desert. There are a few small glaciers scattered in a couple of places in the Brooks, namely, the Arrigetch Range to the west and the Romanofz Moutains to the north east. But not here. There are thin gully’s of snow descending from the rocky summits of these peaks, providing a striking contrast to their nearly black and orange coloring. Eventually, I descend back to the bike, and continue on, down Atigun Canyon, and onto the great Arctic Plains of the Alaska’s North Slope.
The next two days are flat tussock tundra, starkly beautiful, and swelling with my favorite insects. I still see no Bears, but, plenty of Fox and Caribou. Alas, I spot a herd of twenty strong Musk Ox; the pre-historic, ice age creatures of the North American Arctic; an iconic figure of strength and endurance in this vast, untamed arctic landscape.
The next day, rolling into Deadhorse, it is 28 degrees F, and 40 MPH winds, but othersise uneventful. Deadhorse is the center of North America’s largest oilfield, which stretches for over 70 miles to the west. Camping looks grim, so I stay at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, which, for 125 bucks, includes 3 meals and free laundry. I figure it is a good deal here at the end of the continent and decide to pull the trigger. After a fitful night sleep in a strange bed, I pedal out of town a couple of miles and lay the bike down and put out my thumb…
…Later, after no success in hitching a ride back to Fairbanks, I catch an hour and a half flight back to Fairbanks, where, as it turns out, I have a job waiting for me to start right away. So, without time for rest or reflection, I begin work.. Operating a chainsaw in the woods 8 hours a day. Thing could be worse…
I am happy, but tired…