Upper Lynn Canal featuring the tiny town of Haines, Alaska below. Panorama taken from just below Mt Ripinski’s summit utilizing 4 separate 6K RAW images from Sony a6300 with 16-50mm kit lens stitched together in Adobe LR…
Upper Lynn Canal featuring the tiny town of Haines, Alaska below. Panorama taken from just below Mt Ripinski’s summit utilizing 4 separate 6K RAW images from Sony a6300 with 16-50mm kit lens stitched together in Adobe LR…
It’s springtime in Haines and it’s also the time of year I start getting the itch to get out of dodge and head for the hills on some overnight ski or snowshoe trips. Since the COVID madness began in earnest here recently, and the border now closed, homebase destinations are now in order.
Since being laid off from my job, countless house and other projects have taken precedence. A spell of clear and gorgeous weather inspires me to take a break from chores and do an overnight stomp up Mt Ripinski… one of our local summits.
The trail leaving the Young Road trailhead was easy to follow until it spurs with the Ridge trail, where many folks this time of year simply double back towards town via the Piedad Trail. Far fewer continue on to the summit this time of year. As a result, the trail dissapears, and I am now comitted to memory as the deep snow cover has hidden all normally familiar features.
At about treeline, I run into a guy named Harry who had been up and down Ripinski more than once this week… traveling lightly and armed with practically no gear at all. We chat for a bit and I continue on to a semi sheltered place where I can dig out a shelter platform and build some snow-igloo walls for wind protection. That night, the temps dip into the single digits, but as the sun rises over the Chilkoot Range and splatteres sunlight over the Takhinsha mountains to the NW, it warms me deeply, and after a pleasant time eating breakfast and drinking coffee, I blast up to tag the real summit and take in the changing light before descending to my camp and back down to my truck.
These last weeks have flown by so fast in preparation for the upcoming Over The Hill Expeditions trip to climb and ski Mt Sanford in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains, that I barely noticed that the departure date is just next week! Gear is together, money is (well, mostly) together, and fitness, well… ahem, uh, well…
So… the last Saturday before I leave to drive up north to pick up Rich, Cam, and Jeff in Anchorage, I decide that a jaunt up Mt Ripinski is in order; Angela also wants to go, so that is even better. Ripinski is a coastal, non-glaciated peak sitting directly on the waters edge of the mighty Lynn Canal; it’s summit clearly seen from most anywhere near or in Haines. It’s summit is a 3600′ rocky point amidst small rolling hollows of tundra and outcroppings, where Mountain Goat, Wolf, and Grizzly Bear all roam.
From the end of Young Road in Haines, at an approximate elevation of 400′, the trail climbs rapidly to it’s summit 4.5 miles and 3200′ later. It is considered a local classic and the views from the summit encompass the Chilkat Range, the Lynn Canal, the Chilkat Inlet, the Chilkoot Inlet and lake, the Alaska Coast Range, Skagway, and many of the area’s surrounding glaciers. It’s the best bang for your buck view-wise around.
Leaving Mountain Market at about 9:30 am, we head for the trail and begin to stomp up the muddy, root infested path to snow line, where we swap running shoes for mountain boots and snowshoes. The forest is becoming increasingly engulfed in a mystical dream state of fog; the trees appear tortured from they’re entombment in rime ice; an indication of the severity of the wind coming off the Pacific waters of the icy Lynn Canal below.
Soon we are lost and grappling with creating a zigzagging, weaving line through the struggling stunted alpine Spruce at timber-line; the snow very deep and the steepness increasing to the point I would gladly trade in my snowshoes for an ice axe and a set of ‘pons. Alas, we stumbe into the second meadow, where we lose the trail again, but finally find “The Overlook”, a place on the edge of a great chasm overlooking town when the weather is clear. Not today however, as visibility has been reduced now to about 10 meters, and the wind, now picking up velocity and numbing my fingers severely.
We somehow manage, after me considering bailing several times, to find the final summit climb up a spiny, rocky ridge. On top, visibility is basically zero, and the wind raging. I put the camera away and go into survival mode, donning all layers and with special attention to my hands, which now are useless chunks of lumber somehow attached to my arms. We aren’t even sure we are on the summit, so we blindly stagger further, where I slip off a steep edge of snow that is completely invisible to my eyes in this torrential whiteout. No harm done and we scramble back in the direction from which we came, ponder for a moment at the highest rocky point, and then skedaddle. The whiteout seems to be increasing, but the further we descend, the warmer my hands become, and soon we find our tracks near the overlook and enter the trees below.
Back in the forest below the snow line, I’m too tired to put my running shoes back on and finish up the stomp in my expedtion boots back to the truck. Angela looks tired, but happy, and I feel the same. Just another semi-epic day-adventure in Alaska…
Up next: Mt Sanford departure in T-Minus 7 days.
As one drives north over and beyond Chilkat Pass, a broad and beautiful alpine valley is entered; the beginnings of the White and Black Spruce, Aspen, and high Tundra dominate the landscape here. Once past Kelsall Lake, the road climbs up and over an ancient moraine and drops to an expansive river filled valley; the birthplace of the fantastic Tatshenshini River at Goat Creek and the terminus of the short but spectacular Parton River. Fitness training and gear testing for an upcoming alpine adventure sees me driving up near the Yukon border for a solo ski into the Parton River region. I wish to scout the take out of the Parton River area for a future summer packrafting trip trip and get a layout of the landscape.
For me, the primary reason as an American to live in Haines is the access to the great and mighty Yukon Territory; a land full of wilderness, mountains, rivers, glaciers, and animals. Similar to the interior of Alaska, it too offers a lifetime of exploring, climbing, and packrafting that beckons me as often as I can muster.
Parking the truck on the shoulder of the Haines Highway, a short one mile ski down a dirt road leads to the first of three put-ins for the Tatshenshini known as Bear Camp. Here, the Tat is frozen and I ski across happily and pick up the faint and snow covered old mining road beyond; shortly after, I come to the frozen Parton River and once again ski across and beyond into the fields of stunted arctic Willow and deep snow. Someone else has been in the area recently, and at first I begin to follow a relatively fresh set of snowshoe tracks, but soon veer off course to find my own way. I spot Arctic Hare tracks and soon spot Wolf, Lynx, and Ptarmigan tracks… A couple of miles skiing in and out of the Willow thickets and up and over several creeks finds me entering the White Spruce of the Parton River corridor where it enters a canyon to the south and it’s headwaters lie.
A quick snack and a few clicks of the camera see me skiing back to the Parton River, this time further upstream to inspect the river herself. Always fun skiing down frozen rivers this time of year… easy skinning with no obstructions gives me the opporotunity to inspect the area for log jams, debris, and other future packrafting concerns.
With the sun getting low, I head back down stream, cross the Tatshenshini, and skin back to the truck just in time to see the beginning evening Alpenglow.
Till next time…
An early winter stomp up in Northern BC at Kwatini Creek in search of skiable snow produces little snow but a great hike up Kwatini Canyon past the old cabin there and into the alpine… complete with a mountaineering finish. A perfect day marred only by me pretty much destroying my brand spanking new (first time wearing) Arcteryx bibs…😫😢
Looking for a bit of fun and adventure finds Angela and I heading north out of town and up into the high country to parts unknown. We packed the truck with bicycles, packrafts, hiking paraphernalia and some snacks. About halfway up Marinka’s Hill, we stop to gawk at the Northern Takhinsha/Southern Alsek’s baring their blue and stoney ice in the spectacular late summer light. I have never seen these peaks so devoid of the previous winter’s snow. The result is visually striking; the glaciers are on full display and the rocky summits piercing the deep blue hue above. Once past Three Guardsmen, it is decided a paddle across the mystical Kelsall Lake is in order, and soon we are bouncing the truck down the 4WD track to it’s shores.
Once in the water, a pleasant paddle two or three miles to the inlet stream that feeds the lake comes around and we stop for lunch and a swim on the sandy beach below the glacier of Kelsall Peak. Back in the boats, a great wind swells up and we fight the lateral rollers all the way back to the truck and happily scurry back over The Pass and head back home.
Since moving to Haines from Fairbanks nearly 5 years ago, I have been fascinated by a local piece of wilderness called the Takhin River Valley; a river born of the Takhin Glacier high at the western end of the Takhinsha Mountains at the far northern most tip of Southeast Alaska. The nearby Tsirku River is born from the Tsirku Glacier far into the western reaches of the range where massive ice sheets dominate the landscape. Further down stream a Tsirku feeder, the Le Blondeau Glacier, comes very close to the Takhin Headwaters and is separated from it by a 500 foot high, two mile wide swath of an ancient moraine covered in Alder thickets and Devil’s Club, and is know locally as Heartbreak Ridge. I had heard many folks talk of the Tsirku… it is of fairly easy access by bush plane, or by foot, is big enough for a full size raft at spring and summer water levels, and is fairly tame overall. But I never ever heard anyone speak of it’s sister, the Takhin. After asking around about it, I discovered that there is a locally operated bush airstrip about 3/4 the way up the Takhin Valley known as the Fox Airstrip, but it seemed there was no way to gain plane access to the headwaters at the Takhin Glacier itself.
Last year I decided that the best way to investigate was to hike up the Tsirku on foot from the Devil’s Elbow, where one can park a vehicle, and attempt to get to the Le Blondeau and have a look at Heartbreak Ridge. At the time, I had no packraft, and made many dicey river crossings on foot until deep snow, and high water blocked passage about a mile and a half from the landing strip near the Le Blondeau. After spending a night in the upper Tsirku watching and listening to a pair of Wolves, I packed out, vowing to return better equipped.
This year, Angela and I, armed with packrafts, hired Drake Olsen and his Super Cub to get us landed on the tiny gravel air strip near the Le Blondeau near what is locally known as Horse Camp, a group of seasonal tin cabins from which hunting and guided Tsirku River trips begin. It’s from this place we could easily hike to Heartbreak Ridge, and begin it’s Alder thrashing, which more than one person had guessed would be “extreme”.
The tiny Super Cub plane holds one pilot, one passenger, and a wee bit of gear. That’s it… so Drake takes Angela in first; it is about a 20-25 minute flight in and I wait by the Haines landing strip for his return, eagerly anticipating viewing the Takhin from the air to inspect for any obstacles we may encounter. The Super Cub re-appears, and in minutes gear is loaded and we are airborne and slicing through the crystalline sky along the lower reaches of the Takhin. Drake flies as low as possible so we can look for log jambs, wildlife, gravel bars, and any other thing of interest on the ground. We pass the fantastic Bertha Glacier and her giant iceberg filled tarn; the lake is still partially frozen over. It is May 17th 2018…
After Drake drops me off, Angela and I watch as he hits the air and disappears over the ridge and is gone. We shoulder packs and begin walking the Gravel bars of the Tsirku in search of a supposed trail leading through the forest to Horse Camp. After a bit of wandering and doubling back, we find the trail and find ourselves deep within the confines of the bush. A large Moose antler is found on the ground, likely dropped the previous Winter. The cabins of Horse Camp are dilapidated and run down… animals have had their way with them and are in pretty bad shape. The tarn of the Le Blondeau Glacier is partially frozen over, and great slabs of icebergs are float here and there. The views of the glacier and peaks are amazing… one peak, known as Tomahawk, has gorgeous plumes and flutings descending from its jagged and corniced summit. Not all mountain ranges have these flutings, but are common in Alaska, The Andes, and Himalaya. Truly a signature of deeply glaciated peaks and severe weather.
We stomp around the east side of the lake all the way to just shy of the ice and right up against the mountain where we believe the easiest passage through the two miles of Alders might be. After having spoke with some people who had seen it, and seeing it from the air myself, I estimated it would take us about 4 hours to get through it, over Heartbreak Ridge, and to the toe of the Takhin Glacier. Soon, we cannot go any further and so we dive into the Alders to our left and begin the extreme thrashing. The paddles sticking out the tops of our packs make the going much worse. Alders are notoriously bad for this sort of bushwhacking and this is no exception. We gain a lateral snowfield and follow it, postholing in knee deep snow to ankle breaking downed Alders beneath. Two hours later we come to a stream where we break for snacks and water before committing to more thrashing. Occasionally, we find old avalanche chutes to traverse up, then down, up, then down, avoiding short sections of thickets. It is time consuming and exhausting to say the least. Hours later, we are at the base of the final climb up Heartbreak Ridge proper. It’s nothing short of a heinous and evil Alder thrash. Did I mention Devil’s Club? We gots that too folks. Lots of it. We emerge on top, bloody, sweating, exhausted… and ornery. The Alder thrashing we did last year on the approach to Mt Archibald in the Yukon was actually worse, but this was sustained. It had kicked our ass, but we did it. In fact, I do not believe any one in recent memory (or ever) has gone over Heartbreak Ridge during the non-winter months (skis, snowmachines, etc) The view down to the Takhin Glacier is breathtaking and the descent looks steep and dangerous. After the initial loose and steep drop in, it is easy going and soon we are on the rubble covered glacier and boulder hopping to the toe to find our camp.
After reaching the snout of the Takhin Glacier, a gaping ice cave appears and the very utmost of the Takhin River is born, emerging as a rapid and icy tongue from it’s innards. We thought since the goal of this trip was to packraft the entire Takhin from it’s beginning, it would be especially cool to start from inside the ice cave and emerge in true fashion. However, it looks dicey so we decline, stumbling off to find a camp spot. We pitch the awesome Hyperlight Mountain Gear Ultamid 4 that was loaned to us by the company for testing and inspecting; I find it extremely light, easy to setup, and bombproof. Many thanks to HMG for this shelter. After camp is constructed and I lay in my sleeping bag, it occurs to me that it took us over ten hours to get from the landing strip on the Tsirku to the Takhin Glacier; I severely underestimated Heartbreak Ridge.
The morning sees the weather in fine shape with early morning light splattering the fluted ridges high above us. We walk for about a half mile downstream on the gravel bars in search of water deep enough to put the boats in. Since it is morning and the temps still chilly, the water has not yet come up, but we finally find adequate water and we inflate the rafts. A pleasant float downstream on class I-II, puts us in a forested area, where log jams and shallow water force us once again on foot. Another paddling section begins and a mishap with a strainer and a missing paddle ensues. We thought that the paddle had floated away, but was in fact stuck underwater in the submerged thicket. We were soaked and needed to dry out. Luckily it was hot out… too hot in fact and we were both getting somewhat sunburned. back in the water, we paddle through another alluvial fan and spot a large Mountain Goat about 200 meters off walking right towards us. We eddy out and watch silently; the Goat stops and finally takes notice to us. We stare back and forth and the Goat decides these strange creatures near by are best not to get tangled with and starts trotting south and away from us. What a magnificent animal…
Back on foot again to avoid low water levels, we decide the best way to travel is to mount the inflated rafts to the tops of our backpack and hanging down with the bottom of the boat facing behind you; doing this makes one look like a giant alien Beetle. We walk through the open forest like this for a spell and I spot a Grizzly 100 meters away (close!) staring us down. I freeze, Angela freezes. It appears to be a lone male Grizzly, not giant, but not small either. We stare at each other for several seconds and the Bear flips 180 and bolts the opposite direction. After that, I decide that the Bear spray will go in one pocket, and the Colt 1911 .45 in the other.
Eventually, we begin paddling again, and even though the water is low, we are able to float big sections and simply drag the boats through the shallow areas and then jump back in. Soon we come to end of the big braided section of the Takhin near where the Fox Airstrip is, and realize that it is getting late and that we are very tired. We pitch the ‘Mid on a sandbar riddled with Grizzly prints and attempt to sleep. Soon however, a great wind pick up and after a bit, blows a steady 30 knots, showering us with sand and dust. It was miserable, but we hunkered into our bags deeper and got through it. Eventually it died off and we drifted into needed slumber.
Another fine morning of gorgeous weather finds us paddling immediately and entering the “Boulder Field” we had heard about from one person who claims to have jet boated up the Takhin. The river slices through the tight forest here and turns into a different animal than we had previously seen. Small rapids appear… class II-III; twists and turns and rocks and holes all become the experience. The paddling is excellent; this is what we came for. One nasty looking class III section with a big rock at it’s bottom that would surely flip you we decide to portage around. Following that, the Takhin turns into one set of glorious Class II-III rollers after another for several miles. It is an instant classic Alaskan paddle in my mind. We pass the Dickinson, Willard, and Bertha Glaciers, and into the final twists of the river a few mile before it’s confluence with the Chilkat River, where enormous log jams bar passage and force us out of the boats. We drag the rafts through the sand past Wolf and Bear prints and back into the water where more Class II rollers and some technical navigation around strainers and timber force a keen and sharp attention. Angela has a mishap with a pesky log and flips the boat, but all is well. We stop for a breather and laugh about the incident as we pour the water from our Extra-Tuffs and wring out our wool socks.
Back in the water and around the next bend in the river, we can now see the peaks of the Tahshanuk, indicating that we were extremely close to the Chilkat. We ponder for a moment if we should spend another night, or just simply paddle down the Chilkat back to the Haines airport where the truck is parked. After reaching the mother Chilkat, a great wind picks up and it is decided instantly that paddling home is the ticket; three days and 35 miles of bushwhacking and paddling behind us, our weather window had closed, and it was time to end this adventure and begin looking forward to the next…
After a day outing to explore the possibilities of a foot journey into the upper Tsirku River region of northern Southeast Alaska, and scouring maps and extensively discussing the area of the upper Tsirku River with Dan Egolf in Haines, I decide that a trip up into it’s innards was in order. It is springtime and the river is still somewhat low, but will be rising fast due to the onset of summertime temperatures.
The area I wish to see is an area of historical significance in regards to local area mining operations regarding primarily Gold, but also Tungsten and Silver; these prospects date as far back as the 1890’s, and continue to be a source of local mining activity. Last year, while flying back from Alaska’s ephemeral Outer Coast in a friend’s DeHavilland Beaver, I spotted a magnificent peak with a thin, serpent-like glacier flowing from it’s summit and into the Tahkin River valley. It is a beautiful and mysterious mountain to me; I do not know even if it has been climbed, but I wish to. Having given much thought on how to approach such a mountain, I figure that bushwacking up the dense Tahkin River corridor was completely out of the question. Seems landing a bush plane anywhere near by is also problematic. After looking at the map, I see that the source for the Tahkin River is the Tahkin Glacier, which is separated by a narrow, ancient moraine from the Le Blondeau Glacier, one of the Tsirku River’s sources; it’s main source being the Tsirku Glacier many miles further up stream; a massive example of a meticulous icefield glacier with many forks, lobes, and peripherals. Along the way to the Tsirku Glacier, one will find several other un-named valley glaciers spilling from the high peaks and into the Tsirku Valley, adding more and more water.
But today, I merely wanted to see if I could somehow make it up to the Le Blondeau and see if it might be possible to cross over the moraine in question in order to gain access to the upper Tahkin River. I figure that if it is possible, a packraft will be necessary to descend from the valley after climbing the beautiful Serpentine Peak.
These past weeks have presented me with challenges and inquiry regarding matters of the heart that reflect within me the ultimate need to express myself, to find truth, and to seek happiness on this mysterious planet. Wilderness has always been the major component in my existence here; without it, I feel lost and empty. And today, with a heavy heart, I walk into her, seeking the nurturing convalesce of her Earth womb. To even maybe capture visual glimpses of the other wild creatures within.
So today I lift a light 35 pound pack and begin the stomp up the Tsiku’s gravel bars and alluvial river flats; these glacial rivers can often times be heavily braided, wide, and treacherous. The Tsirku is a good example of this. Back some 20 or 30 years, a prospector walked a front end loader from the Devil’s Elbow all the way to Cottonwood and Nugget Creeks, forming a sort of road in places, but in others, not so much. The river has re-claimed much of it, and not only is much impassible when the water is anything but at it’s lowest, the channels themselves have changed a great deal and are continually evolving. At first I am able to follow faint ATV tracks leading away from the Devil’s Elbow, a point at which the Tsirku makes a dramatic near U-turn before opening itself into a massive river delta at it’s junction to the mother Chilkat.
The first three miles are straightforward: river flats, ATV tracks, and high gravel bars with only a few scant stream crossings to navigate, and I am soon far from the truck and at the entrance to the real wilderness. The first real river crossing is at a place the Tsirku is starting to gain momentum and takes a hard S-turn across the valley. Dense Alaskan jungle and steep cliff’s come direct to waters edge and one is forced into the water to fjord it’s icy current. The water looks deep, fast, and strong. I donn my water shoes, strip down to my birthday suit, shoulder the pack, and gingerly step into the ice coldness of the raging river. Soon I am in crotch deep water moving at a swift 4-6 knots. I am barely able to maintain a footing, but am now fully committed. My 190 pound frame is suddenly knocked from it’s foundation and I go down fast. The ski pole I am holding in one hand struggles for penetration among the bowling ball sized river rocks. My body and my pack plunge into the Tsirku, but only for a mere second as I am able to miraculously get back on my feet. Somehow, I am able to get to shallower ground and and eventually haul myself ashore. I am shaking wildly from adrenaline and the freezing water. After drying off and inspecting the pack and determining no real damage, I ponder the possibility of what I am trying to accomplish. If there are more of these crossings, and if the temperature increases and the water rises even slightly, I might be trapped back in the Upper Tsirku River drainage. Or worse, come into serious injury or peril if attempting overcome such obstacles.
Another crossing about a mile past, this time much easier, brings me to a place where the massive glaciers of the Takhinsha Range come into view and their razor sharp prickly summits penetrates the endless sky. The striking sight propels me to continue scrambling among the softball sized rocks and endless gravel bars, in search of… something. Wolf tracks appear, many of them in fact. A sure sign that I am getting deeper in. Another river crossing, this time treacherous, but I manage, just barely. It occurs to me that I must re-cross these on the way back out tomorrow, the next day, or the day after that. If the water rises any, I will be in peril.
I look closely at the map, and guess that I have come about 10 miles or so; looking up valley to the base of the mighty peaks, I clearly see the Le Blondeau Glacier… both her forks, and the imposing icefall looming above one of them. I can just barely make out her tongue peeping out from around the low moraine separating the Tsirku from the Tahkin. The glacier has definitely shrunk according to the map, but not as much as I had expected. At least it was visible from this point in the river valley.
I come to another river crossing; this one is moving much faster that the previous braids, and appears to be deep. I have come more than ten miles, all of it essentially off trail and have fjorded 4 major river crossings and countless smaller ones. I am exhausted and cannot even consider attempting this in my state. So I pitch my tent, savor the salami, green beans, cheese and chocolate, and lay in my sleeping bag. I am not paying attention to my surroundings, and thoughts of the previous week continue to voilate my headspace. I grab my binoculars and scan the upper river flats ahead of my camp. Way off, I spot two Wolves. They are in a solid trot, but the lead turns and runs back to tackle the follow. They play fight for a moment before all eyes and ears are at full attention to whatever creaks in the woods nearby, and soon they are gone. A mated pair I assume, roaming this homeland valley of theirs.
As the sun drifts behind the peaks and the shadows grow ever longer, the temperature drops and evasive thoughts enter me again. I feel fortunate and alive to be here, but silmutaneously alone and empty. The boundary between sanity and madness splits my heart in two, and a quiet desolation drifts over the Tsirku River valley and pierces deep within me. I am wide open, my heart is the sky. My body, a vessel. Hours pass without sleep, and the haunting echo of rockfall rattles the valley. It is dark for a brief time, then light begins to fill the peaks again; the morning alpenglow paints the summits and accentuates the seracs in a kaleidoscopic array of color and light. I manage to drift into sleep for a period, but soon I am awake again and realize that I am cold, so I decide to get up and inspect the world. Crawling out of the tent, I look at the dicey river crossing I am confronted with… a walk up and down the shore, reveals no place better in which to cross. If I could manage this crux of a crossing, would I be able to reverse it coming back? The thought penetrated me while I packed the tent and sleeping bag. I shouldered the pack, and in an instant, decided the risk was a foolish one. I turn to the Le Blondeau and and wish her farewell; The adjacent peaks beginning now to come alive with color.
On the way back out, I decide to attempt to find a better route, but in the process, make it worse and I encounter even more full sized river crossings, one of which swept me completely off my feet and dunked me into it’s icy depths. A close call by any standards, I am becoming fearful of the next and last of the crossings about a mile further down valley; it is the one that first knocked me from my feet in order to let me know who is in charge. I try not to think of it and traverse a willow flat with some of the largest Grizzly prints I have ever seen upon it. There is something very big roaming around here.
Soon I am at the dreaded crossing, and a look around reveals a shallower fjording upstream a bit. It was still nerve-wracking, but I managed it with out getting swept away, and a few hours later, I was stumbling across the final sandy river bottom to the truck. On the drive home traveling the swamps and wetlands of the Little Salmon River corridor, a young Black Bear ambles across the road, A cow Moose and yearling graze the willow thickets near the junction of the Porcupine Road, and me, being so tired I can barely drive, head home to grab some shut-eye.
Easter Sunday… fine spring weather in the northern panhandle is gracing the Chilkat Valley, and after a bout of home chores, I dig out the sleepy Surly Ogre from her months long nap for a kick up the Haines Highway to see what I can see. She snorts and growls, but soon is bucking wildly and fully resurrected. We spin down to Mountain Market for a cup of mud and then the highway is ours.
The sun is shining and it is a glorious day to be onboard the Ogre and spinning north. The high peaks of the Chilkat Range are spilling their sizable glaciers into magnificent sunlight, sending a deep chill down into me that strikes me every time I see it. I look to the north, into the mountains of British Columbia where friends are enjoying some spring backcountry skiing and I wish for them the same fine weather I am experiencing down here in the valley.
Coming into view at six mile of the Haines Highway is a small pond where two Swans float about grooming and obviously enjoying the beautiful day as well. Further past, the usual herd of Mountain Goats are clinging wildly to the flanks of Peak 3920, their white shapes ever so clear against the grey and rocky slopes they are suspended upon. I bet they too are happy that spring has finally arrived in Alaska.
It feels good to be on the Ogre again, sliding silently along while the beauty of the valley unfolds. The springtime is always a special time here; life is unfolding everywhere and the glaciers shine as bright as ever. The weather, such as days like this, seem to prevail. Not always of course, but often times the case.
At the 15 mile mark, I turn the beast around and we pedal home, stopping once more to speak with the Swans from earlier. At home later, I make some adjustment to the steed and vow to get aboard more often during this fine spring event.
Adjacent to the tiny village of Haines, Alaska, and across the emerald saltwaters of the Chilkat Inlet, lie the deceptively remote and jagged peaks of the Chilkat Mountains. These peaks are of a particularly steep and heavily glaciated nature and include the enormous mass of the Cathedral group that includes the mighty Mt Emmerich, clearly visible from town. Emmerich is the visual centerpiece of this group and rises out of the Kicking Horse River valley just east of it’s convoluted mass. The Kicking Horse River is a river born of the ice; it’s scant origins flowing from the snout of the Garrison Glacier situated at the northeastern end of the range, where it flows for a relatively short distance to it’s confluence with the heavily braided and Salmon infested Chilkat River. At the point where this confluence occurs, the Chilkat narrows to perhaps a half mile across, and on this 9th day of February 2017, winter temperatures has frozen the Chilkat solidly enough to allow crossing on foot.
This winter in Haines has been one of mostly consistently cold temps, with snow on the ground for the entirety of the winter season so far; only once or twice has rain been allowed passage to our winter Alaskan landscape. This is the way I like it and having the rivers frozen over has gained me the chance to explore the “far side” of the Chilkat several times this season. The far, or wilderness side of the river gains access to the peaks of the Chilkat and home to a wolf pack twenty strong. Once, last fall, I had the ultimate pleasure of viewing, with binoculars, several wolves attempting to take down two separate Moose. Ultimately, both moose escaped with lives intact. The visual experience left a deep impression on me and the deep wilderness just across the river has been enchanting me ever since.
Earlier in the winter, I had the pleasure of wandering across the river in other places; once at 10 mile and across to the dense Alder thickets of the Tahkin River, and another time near to 8 mile where once across and beyond the barrier of Cottonwoods lining the shore, I found open snow covered meadows full of Moose, Wolf, Lynx, and Rabbit tracks a plenty. For me though, these were just to test the waters of crossing the Chilkat and the ultimate goal was to reach the confluence of the Kicking Horse River. While there are other, more remote rivers that flow from the Cathedrals, the Kicking Horse to me was one that had a special interest. It was more accessible and equally as wild. So today it was to be…
Parking on the Haines Highway at the state fish and game run fish wheels, I meander out onto the ice and instantly feel the bitterness of the biting wind. The surface is a mixture of crystal clear ice several inches thick and more opaque sections requiring more care in regard to judging the thickness. As I walk the slippery clear sections, I look to see the bottom of the river a few feet below and imagine the thousands of Salmon swimming upstream as they do every year as they have for thousands. Chinook, Chum, Pink, Sockeye, and Coho all run in these waters. Soon I am near the other side and the frozen Kicking Horse is a mere 300 feet ahead. However, there is a channel of open and running river water just in front of me, blocking access to my destination. Further east, I can see that the channel slides under the winter ice pack and disappears. How thick is this newer ice I ask myself? I walk further downstream to where the ice re-appears and gingerly step into this new zone. I can see immediately that is is very thick and soon I am completely across the Chilkat and standing on the gravel shores of the braided Kicking Horse confluence.
It feels downright sublime to be standing here and looking up the Kicking Horse for the first time; gravel bars and Alder thickets lead to a narrowing of the river before it disappears into the bowels of the wilderness. I walk these frozen river banks, occasionally crossing thinly veiled ice sheets over rocky surface, boots crunching loudly and the stiff breeze from earlier dissipating. A long stretch of snow leads to the forest where hundreds of Wolf tracks appear. At least part of the pack has traveled through here recently. I look around and see more Wolf tracks than I have ever seen and realize that the Kicking Horse must be some sort of Wolf highway; a passage leading from the wilderness of the Cathedrals to the shores of the Chilkat herself.
I travel further into the corridor till passage is barred by river ice with a couple inches of running water. Here, the forest at river’s edge are many dead Cottonwoods stripped of their bark and treetops. They stand like monuments guarding the inner access to the wildness beyond, Mt Emmerich towers over head, displaying intricate ridge lines, towers, gendarmes, and gullys. This is the closest I have ever been to this peak and I am awestruck by it size and complexity.
This is my turning around point and it is getting late and the temperature is dropping, so back through the Adler thickets and gravel bars and the multitudes of Wolf tracks to the frozen Chilkat, where an easy stomp back to the highway is in order.
The Kicking Horse has always held a great deal of fascination for me and today was a teaser that strengthened that notion.
I will return …
Out on the Chikat River ice after work today sees the sun dipping behind the omnipotent peaks of the mighty Chilkat Range and spindfift blasting from it’s summits. The wind must have been over 60 mph up there. Out there on the frozen river, the temps were close to zero with the windchill. Alaska in winter is spectacular to say the least…
2016 has been a good year. There has been much activity on my end regarding photography and video production and the hope and dream of one day not having to build houses for a living are just a teensy bit closer. There have been many small adventures in the form of day hikes, or stomps, as I like to call them, generally along the forested Bear trails along the Chilkat and Tsirku Rivers. Often is the case when I simply head out into the Alaskan forests and thickets and stomp, off trail, to glorious and unheralded spots for my own simple pleasure.
There was even one big adventure this year when I embarked on a pedaling trip aboard the omnipotent Surly Ogre and rode from my house in Haines to Skagway via Whitehorse. A mere eight day voyage that was over far too soon. Next year there are tentative plans for a ten day trip down a portion of Alaska’s magical and seldom visited outer coast, AKA the Lost Coast. A trip that will involve both legs, packraft, and bush plane. Also planned is a mountaineering trip somewhere locally with a friend from down south coming for an adventure in August.
Unfortunately, writing has been on the back burner, but capturing the Alaska world on video has been my focus. This latest video “OK In The AK” is all footage from the venerable Autumn here in Haines, and compiled as both a show piece for selling stock video as well as an artistic expression of the wilderness prevailing.
I hope you enjoy!
Brownie and ‘Lil Dickens playing in the Chilkoot River near Haines, Alaska
It had been some weeks since I had been out Chilkoot way… The summer hoards of tourists hoping to catch glimpses of the beautiful Chilkoot Bears has kept me away. Now, in September, the weir has been taken down, and the masses are at bay. I decide to head that way in hopes of seeing Speedy, Brownie, and ‘Lil Dickens on their home turf. Lucky for me, they are all there frolicking and catching the last of the year’s Chilkoot Salmon run. Here’s the footage from today…
“The more I see as I sit here among the rocks, the more I wonder about what I am not seeing.” ― Richard Proenneke
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