The Sheen Of The Great Nunatak

By Linus Lawrence Platt

One day in 2018 I get a Facebook Messenger text from Rich Page of Hyperlight Mountain Gear in Maine, asking me if there was any truth to a rumor he had heard from Danny McGee, a mutual friend of ours from La Sal, Utah. Rich and I had neither met nor spoken previously, but in a recent telephone conversation with Danny, I had mentioned I was pondering the idea of writing a short biography of the late, great Kyle Copeland, a mutual friend and well know Colorado and Utah rock climber. Turns out, Rich had known Kyle back in the late 70’s and early 80’s in Colorado, a few short years before Kyle took up in Moab. Kyle would often drop by Steve Komito’s Boot Shop where Rich spent time working and hanging out in Estes Park. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease sometime around 84′ or ’85, Kyle relocated to Moab where he and I met in 1990 and we became good friends and climbing partners. I texted Rich back and leveled with him that the biography idea was likely never going to see the light of day, but I was happy that it got he and I introduced. Rich is an outdoor gear developer and manufacturer who has been involved in the outdoor equipment business since the 70’s in one way or another. His specialty is designing and manufacturing backpacks, and at the time of our introduction, was a gear developer for Hyperlight Mountain Gear in Maine. Since I lived in Alaska, and Rich being a former Denali guide who has a long history of adventures in Alaska, we hit it off and over the course of time, came to conjure up doing some kind of an Alaskan adventure together.

Later That summer, Rich proposes the idea of skiing Mt Sanford, a 16,237′ glacier covered volcano in the Wrangell Mountains of South Central Alaska. While I have never really called myself a skier, I always identified as a climber. I had seen Mt Sanford several times over the years and without a doubt I stood in awe of it’s size and magnitude; The first time was on a multi month bicycle journey where I found myself atop McClaren Summit on Alaska’s Denali Highway. At the time, I knew not of its existence, but there it was, certainly one of the biggest peaks I had ever seen. Over the years, it would catch my eye when on various trips around that part of Alaska, dominating the skyline when it was clear enough. Mt Sanford is the second highest peak in the Wrangell’s and rises over 11,000′ from its base, making it as big or bigger than many mountains on Earth. Only Mt Blackburn (16,390′), also in the Wrangell’s is higher. Skiing to me had always been more something to do to fill time during winter months while waiting for climbing season to sprout, but the thought of ski mountaineering up a giant Alaskan peak sounded appealing to me, so Rich and I began to hatch the plan.

We agree that late April or early May 2019 would be the time frame, since that is the standard “big mountain” climbing season in Alaska; stable weather (mostly), cold temperatures at higher altitude, and strong crevasse bridges from the tail end of winter. Any earlier and a climb is more or less considered a “winter ascent”, and later, the lower mountain becomes soggy and melted out with crevasse bridges becoming increasingly soft and fragile. We begin to sort out the details and logistics, finally settling on hiring Jake Combs at 40 Mile Air in Tok to fly us in to the base of the Sheep Glacier via Super Cub. The Piper Super Cub is the standard de facto Alaska bush plane when one wishes to get into tight spots in the backcountry. Of course there are thousands of Cessna 185’s in Alaska flying in and out of the bush, but nothing can beat the Super Cub for its ability to land and take off in a very short distance on a remote gravel bar or short strip of tundra. The downside to a Super Cub is its size; it holds one pilot, one passenger, and a tiny bit of gear, perhaps one fully loaded backpack; that’s about it.

Eventually, Rich purchases a plane ticket and the deal is sealed, but a trip of this sort is safer and more fun with a team, so we ponder some of our contacts and my old friend Cameron Burns whom I had not seen in many years comes to mind immediately since he and I had recently re-connected via the good ‘ol internet. Cam and I first met in Indian Creek, Utah nearly 30 years prior, where we climbed the Lightning Bolt Cracks on North Six Shooter peak together with Steve Porcella and Sue Kemp. A couple years later, I had temporarily re-located to Boulder, Colorado from Moab, where Cam and his now wife Ann would drop by my house for social visits. Cam is an Australian and lives in Colorado still, along with Ann and their daughters. He is a world traveler and accomplished writer with a wild sense of humor and a penchant for telling stories. After inviting Cam on the Sanford Expedition, he ponders for a while, then accepts the invite. Now we are three… Danny McGee, who made the introduction for Rich and I, was also invited, but situational and family issues prevent Danny from making a commitment at this time, so his spot is left open for him should he be able to join us. In the meantime, Rich invites Jeff Rogers, a 26 year old accomplished ski mountaineer who had skied Denali a year or two prior. With Jeff’s addition, we were now a solid team of four, with Danny’s spot still available to him should his situation change. Before Jeff was brought in to the picture, it was looking like it was going to be Rich, Danny, Cam, and myself… all of us were over 50 years old and jokingly, I said “Hey we’re kinda like Over The Hill Expeditions”… and the name stuck. So when a 26 year old hot shot skier was added to the picture, I was skeptical. Luckily, Jeff turned out to be not only a great asset and expedition partner, but an excellent friend as well and I’m very happy to know him.

Once the plan was made and we had our crew together, it was time to start preparing equipment wise. Going through all my expedition gear, I realize that much of the stuff I had been getting by with for the last few years was simply not up to the task any longer. I wound up buying a new sleeping bag, down parka, shell set, and various odds and ends. The previous winter I had bought a brand new pair of alpine touring boots and had been using them in my Silvretta mountaineering bindings, with plans to upgrade to a nice pair of modern skis with proper AT bindings, but at this point, the boots I bought just weren’t working out with my feet (pain), so I sold them. My choice was to buy a whole new AT setup that would set me back a couple thousand bucks, or just use my mountaineering skis on Sanford with my double mountaineering boots. Due to financial reasons, I chose the latter. Rich also chose this type of setup utilizing an old school mountaineering package. Jeff and Cam both both would be on state of the art modern AT skis, boots and bindings. I believe it is safe to say that both Rich and I regretted this decision in the long run, as some of the outcome of the trip might have been different had we chose different ski gear. Rich, being currently employed at Hyperlight, got us a small sponsorship and each of us were sent backpacks, stuff sacks, and other goodies. Rich also managed to get us set up with a sponsorship from Mountain House who provided us with all of our freeze dried food needed for the expedition. I even set up an “Over The Hill Expeditions” Facebook page for us all to collaborate and share ideas.

For me, going on a big extended trip like Mt Sanford ultimately represents my freedom and dedication to exploring as much as Alaska as humanly possible. Although I worked full time and now had a mortgage, I had made a promise to myself when I came to Alaska nearly a decade prior that I would not allow a normal life to interfere with my spiritual connection and vow to fully explore the planet known as Alaska, it’s people, landscapes, animals, climate, and way of life. A life in Alaska is very different than a life in 95 percent of the lower 48 (known as “The Outside” to some Alaskans). Life here has a way of commanding one to take up in self reliance and responsibility. Nowhere I have been where the Do It Yourself mentality is as crystalline as the mountain stream or surging glacier that exist here. While there are certainly pockets of similar disposition in the Outside, it is not the norm, Conversely, there are also pockets in Alaska that exhibit more of an Outside type mentality (Anchorage comes to mind). The climate and remoteness keep most people at bay, so when the tourists arrive in May and go home in August, the Alaskan landscape becomes still and quiet, and the fall colors arrive, turning Birch, Cottonwood, Aspen, and Tundra to fire hue. The crispness of the Autumn/Early winter time period is an extremely fascinating time for me in Alaska. It is a time of deep reflection and nurturing that is hard to put to word, but the crispness of the air and the stillness of the landscape prompts one to feel a deeper connection to the Earth and its beauty. Merging with the fall colors, hunting season begins, and soon after the beginning of 6 – 7 months of winter arrives, leaving the entire 665,000 square miles of unimaginable beauty blanketed in snow.

Winter is a time to work, ski, gain fitness, save money, and be thinking about Sanford. I saw a thread on the internet by a woman who had skied Sanford a few years prior, and wrote to her asking for some beta on the Sheep Glacier’s First Icefall. She got back to me with some pictures with a hand drawn line indicating the path they took through the fractured maze of crevasses and seracs. From her description and photos, the icefall looked like a route finding challenge at best and a dangerous proposition at worst. There were several internet articles and blog posts on skiing Sanford, so information was not too difficult to come by, but big mountain glaciers have a way of changing year after year. By far the most interesting essay I had read was Terris Moore’s account of he and Bradford Washburn’s first ascent in July of 1938, utilizing a dog team to reach 10,000′, followed by skiing from its 16,237′ summit. They had started in Chistochina, fjorded the Copper River, and utilized horses to carry skiis, supplies, food, and a dog sled up Sheep Creek to the toe of the Sheep Glacier, where they harnessed up the dogs and continued. It still amazes me that they managed to navigate a dog team through the maze of the icefalls without harmful incident. Since that time, it has been skied more times than can be counted; in fact it has become somewhat of an Alaskan ski mountaineering classic due to its fairly non-technical nature and gentle angle below 13,000′.

Early spring is spent working, fixing vehicles, and skiing in the Yukon and trips up and down Haine’s local mountain; Mt Ripinski rises right from town out of the ocean to an elevation of about 3600 feet where a myriad of ski and snowshoe trails lead to backcountry cirques, alpine ridges, couloirs, and summits, and being at this latitude and proximity to the Gulf of Alaska, receives many feet of snow every year. Aside from being non-glaciated, Mt Ripinski and the surrounding coastal peaks make a good training ground for the bigger interior mountains of Alaska and the Yukon. In late April, I leave Haines, driving north in my pickup headed for Anchorage where Rich, Cam, and Jeff would be flying to. I had been looking forward to this drive as much as the expedition itself; I had taken enough time off from work to allow several days of alone time for exploring the great Alaskan landscape at my leisure. Having free time in Alaska with no work commitments at hand, with vehicle and equipment at my disposal to do what ever I want is one of my greatest satisfactions. For me, driving slowly through Alaska, stopping frequently, hiking up this hill or that, fishing a small river, and camping where one pleases is paramount. Being free in Alaska is the ultimate in personal freedom and nothing else comes even remotely close.

Driving over Haines Pass, where the Takhinsha and St Elias mountains collide, I spot a thickly furred Fox lying in the snow beside a tussle of Willow; it does not look injured, but merely relaxing perhaps. I pull over and approach the creature and it lifts its head to look at me and simply yawns. I speak to it in gentle tones and wish it farewell as it curls its tail over its nose for a slumber. I zip Past Desdeash Lake and soon I’m topping the truck’s fuel tank in Haines Junction. I’m not sure where I’ll spend the night, but I find the temperature near Beaver Creak in the Yukon hovering right around ten degrees Fahrenheit, so I keep driving, thinking warmer temps are coming. Pretty soon I’m in Tok, where it is almost always much colder than any other place in the state, but on this lucky day it is 35 degrees, so I opt to head to one of my favorite standard camp spots in the area at Yerrick Creek just 20 mile north of town. I had brought my packraft on this trip because I had always wanted to hike up Yerrick Creek to the foot of the Alaska Range and paddle back down to the Alaska Highway, but of course now at this time, it is still frozen. Perhaps on my way back after Sanford it will afford a paddle. Back in Tok the following morning, I hit the market and pick up some supplies and head down the Tok Cutoff towards Anchorage. The Tok Cutoff is a short 125 mile stretch of glorious highway connecting Tok to the Richardson Highway just north of Glennallen; it slices through some of the finest countryside in the state, where it follows a corridor right smack through the middle of two of Alaska’s major mountain Ranges. When one is heading south west on the Cutoff, The Wrangell Mountains are on one’s left and the Alaska Range on the right. I find a typically free and spectacular camp along the Little Tok River, catch a nice Grayling for supper, and revel at the days growing longer each day. Winter has left the building.

A couple days of screwing around and suddenly I’m in Eagle River about 10 miles north of Anchorage looking for a place to camp. I like to tell people that there is generally no need to pay for camping in Alaska, since there is an abundance of free and wild camping to be had nearly everywhere… except anywhere near Anchorage. Personally, I can’t stand Anchorage, or Anchoraugua, as some people I know sometimes call it. Camping is always a problem whenever I am near here. As the saying goes “The best thing about Anchorage is that it’s only an hour away from Alaska”. It’s true, yet to me, it is a congested slice of crime, traffic, and sprawl. It is a fairly beautiful place however, sitting at the foot of the Chugach Range and reminds me vaguely of Salt Lake City. It is desperately crowded (for Alaska) and I am always on edge when I am here. But finding myself in Eagle River, which is essentially a sleeper community of Anchorage, I decide to just grab a cheap motel since Rich comes in tomorrow. After neighboring crackheads keep me awake for portions of the night, I stagger out in the morning and hit a diner for coffee and grub and check on everyone’s flights.

Rich Page and I had never met, Jeff Rogers and I had never met, and Cam Burns I hadn’t seen in 30 years. An interesting expedition lineup I thought to myself as I entered the airport terminal to grab Rich. Before I get 10 feet in the door, I spot him; sporting a ball cap atop a head of long gray hair, feet adorned in flip flops, and a big grinning smile plastered to his face. After we grab his massive duffle bag full of expedition gear off of the carousel, we head to the Air B&B he had rented, drink beers, grill steaks, and get to know one another. I immediately like Rich and there seems to exist between us a certain bond regardless of having just met. We have a lot of laughs telling stories and after the last beer is finished at 1am it is time to crash out; Cam and Jeff will be arriving tomorrow.

Cam flies in at 2 pm and I go in the terminal to grab him while Rich waits in the truck, warding off any potential police waving a ticket book around. Cam is taller than I remember him being, appears to be about 6′, 2″, and like Rich has a massive grin on his face when we greet. We load the truck and head back to the Air B&B; Jeff will be here soon and we can all settle in to prep for the trip. Hours later, Jeff lands and takes a taxi to the house, saving us from having to pick him up. Spending the next couple of days running around Anchorage is taxing on me; not only do I have absolutely no idea where I am or where I am going most of the time, the traffic is overwhelming. In Haines, there are exactly zero stoplights, and if you have to wait more than 20 seconds at a stop sign it is a rare occurrence. But here in Anchorage, we are running all over the place looking for a pair of puffy pants for Cam, a foam sleeping pad for Rich, and buying all of our trip lunches, snacks, booze, and other extras. Finally, completion is made of these tasks and we settle in at the house to repackage the mountain of freeze dried breakfasts and dinners courtesy of Mountain House. Re-packaging these meals saves a tremendous amount of space and a tiny bit of weight. We pack for 15 days on the mountain, plus have another box to stash at basecamp at the landing strip a couple of miles below the toe of the Sheep Glacier. In the morning we hit the road, heading up the Glenn Highway toward our destination of Chistochina, where there is a small airstrip next to the highway where will meet our pilot Jake. Also in Chistochina is the Red Eagle Lodge, where we are certain we will spend at least one night.

One of my greatest thrills is being tour guide on these trips when folks from down south come up for a visit, and heading up the Glenn Highway into the great vast openness of Alaska’s truly face melting scenery, I point out this and that; we pass the Matanuska Glacier in the heart of the Chugach Range, stop at Eureka Summit, among other places frequently to observe various monster peaks and glaciers off in the distance. We stop to observe a small herd of Dall Sheep on a hillside near the Chikaloon River. Soon it is raining, and we continue on to Red Eagle, where the weather is simply nasty and cold. We decide to rent a one room cabin and settle in for the evening, listening to the downpour outside. A call to Jake in Tok reveals a no fly condition as things are currently. We will check back in the morning for an update. Anticipating the weather clearing and a monster day tomorrow getting base camp established, I am concerned, as I often am with getting proper sleep, and Cam offers a solution.

Cam hands me a couple of pills “for Sleep” he says. “I Guarantee that you will sleep”.
So after dinner and a couple of beers, we pack our packs just in case the weather works in our favor in the morning, I swallow the pills Cam gave me, and we all settle in. In the timeframe of a light switch engaging, I slowly peel my eyelids back to see everyone up and about, dressed, packed and ready for action. Seems they had been trying to wake me for a couple of hours. I feel like shit, and can barely walk once out of my sleeping bag. My mind is a haze that only pharmaceuticals can induce. The next hour is spent simply getting oriented, and I pray that we do not fly today. “What in the hell were those Cam?” I ask. “Anti-depressants Mate! They help me sleep…” he replies.

Unfortunately for me and the unbelievable “pill” hangover, the weather is improving slightly, and Rich talks with pilot Jake in Tok, and afterwards walks over and says “Jake will be here in a couple of hours”. So we pack the truck, get our gear together, and suit up with superhero mountaineering regalia before heading to the lodge for breakfast, that way if Jake happens to show up early, we are ready.

Richard and Judy Dennis, the owners of Red Eagle Lodge, have done a fine job of making us feel at home… Richard, a former educator and Alaska bush pilot has lived in Alaska for over 3 decades and his wife Judy, a registered nurse, has spent a great deal of time working in the African bush prior to coming to Alaska, where they discover the Red Eagle Lodge in 2006 and sign ownership papers in 2007. They have worked diligently to make the Red Eagle into what it is today, befitting a reputation for a pleasant and rewarding stay for travelers on the Tok Cutoff.

After breakfast with Dennis and Judy, we finish packing the truck and relocate it to a spot adjacent to the lodge where it will be out of everyone’s way for the time we will be up on the mountain. We then make a pile of the gear we’ll be taking. When Jake lands, he will be flying us in one at a time each with a backpack. After all of us have been flown in, he’ll make one more trip for our remaining gear for 5 trips total. It is only about 35 air miles from Red Eagle to the Sheep Glacier landing strip, which is but a gravel area that Jake has cleared by hand just enough to get his Super Cub to land. We spend the next hour or so milling about; excited for the flight in. As far as I know, I’m the only one in our group who has ever flown in a Super Cub; the year previous, Angela and I had flown with Drake Olsen of Haines in his Super Cub into the upper Tsirku river drainage for a 3 day packrafting trip down the seldom visited Takhin River.

Jake had left Tok about 45 minutes earlier and at just about noon, I hear the distant but always familiar sound the Super Cub makes; Jake will be landing momentarily. The Super Cub always amazes me in the very little distance required for a take-off or landing, and Jake piloting the little craft today is no exception as he comes in fairly high, then suddenly drops down steeply and rolls the machine to a stop right in front of us. Rich, Cam, and Jeff all have this shit-eating grin plastered to their faces having just seen how impressive it’s landing capabilities are and anticipating the coming joy ride. It’s decided Rich will go in first; Jake loads his expedition pack into the tiny area behind the passenger seat, then Rich climbs in, followed by Jake. The little yellow beast fires up and soon another prime example of the Super Cub is at hand as Jake taxis the machine to the start of the road side landing strip, adds heavy RPM’s, and they are off, gaining speed in an incredibly short amount of time with wings abruptly airborne and elevation rapidly gained; soon they are gone beyond the tree tops, only the faint hum of the engine audible as it slowly dissipates into the still Alaskan air.

Each flight takes about an hour round trip, and by late afternoon the 4 of us are at the makeshift gravel landing strip along Sheep Creek, an unknown number miles from the toe of the Sheep Glacier. Jake takes off for a fifth and final trip to grab the rest of our gear at Red Eagle and we use the time to get tents setup and become organized. By the time shelters are in place, Jake comes around again and we take some group photos with Jake included; we shake hands, and Jake, back in the air, does a nice low 180 tipping his wings at us as he slowly gains casual elevation before disappearing behind the low peaks down valley and is suddenly gone, leaving us there at our makeshift base camp to the silence of the snow and the rocks. After the sting of the silence has worn down to an acceptable level, we continue organizing and getting things setup for a possible stay here at basecamp as the weather report on the GPS indicates some snowfall this evening. After our initial chores are accomplished, someone opens up a bottle of whiskey and after a few rounds of shots, we decide to don skis and skin up a nearby hill to catch a few turns. Snow conditions are quite terrible really, and we are all slightly inebriated. Being somewhat of a lousy skier to begin with, I did not fare well. Neither did Rich… Cam fares slightly better, and Jeff, being the young hot shot skier he is, cuts a flawless line of turns down said hill like it’s just another day at the office, because it is.

That night it snows a bit, and the morning brings cloudy, but snow free weather, so after a hearty breakfast of pancakes, sausage, and coffee, we pack up a load and see what the upper reaches of the valley reveal, hoping to get to the toe of the glacier and make a cache. We are utilizing duffle bags wrapped in plastic tarps for their slippery sliding capabilities and pulling them like sleds in classic “drag bag” style. We meander up valley, pulling our loads through the thin snow and every now and then engage in a wrestle getting the bags through sections of rocks and embankments. Soon we are faced with a choice; we can either stay low and follow the drainage, pretty much guaranteeing a certain, but possibly long ski to the toe of the Sheep Glacier, or, as at least two of us believe, a possible shortcut up and left. We choose the latter, but after a dead end up high amongst volcanic outcroppings, we descend back to the creek where we commit to the flattish trudge continuing up valley. After a couple of hours, we come to a small headwall of sorts, where we decide to make a cache amongst the large pumice boulders. We have fallen short of our goal of making it to the glacier, but everyone is feeling tired and the decision is made to return back to basecamp.

That night it snows again, but we wake to blue sky, sunshine, and mild temperatures. After another round of breakfast decadence, we pack up everything but a spare stove, extra fuel, and a box of food, which we make a cache of and pile rocks atop as to deter animals from pilfering. Our packs and drag bags are full and heavy, and we begin a slow trudge once again up valley. Not wasting time with meandering this way and that, we arrive at our cache in a reasonable time frame, where we decide to grab only a few items and continue on to the toe of the glacier. After topping out above the cache we expected to be near the glacier, but were surprised to find a long flat valley of pumice; according the topo maps we had, the glacier had been here sometime in the last 50 years or so, but it has receded about a mile back. We drop our load here and make a dash down the boulders to the previous cache which was only about a quarter mile distant and ferry that gear back up to the north end of the pumice flats. We make a temporary stash here and continue skiing south across the pumice flats towards the now visible glacier. Not knowing what to expect in regard to a location for an advanced basecamp, we figure it will just all come together as needed. Skiing in and out of boulders and creek drainages, the toe of the Sheep Glacier is directly above us, and it getting late in the day, we decide that here and now is the place for camp, since the weather is deteriorating and we have no idea what lay above on the ice. In fact, the wind is picking up as Rich, Cam, and Jeff proceed to setup our tents, while I make the commitment to ski back across the pumice to retrieve the last of our gear stash. Skiing back with a 100 pound pack plus a drag bag makes for some strenuous work and the going is slow, but by the time I make it back, they have three tents setup – Cam and Jeff each have solo tents, while Rich and I share a big expedition tent, plus we have 4 person Hyperlight UltaMid with a dedicated pole to serve as a cook hut. This “Pumice Camp” as we have not-so-affectionately dubbed it is a terrible place to camp; it is made up entirely of pumice rocks ranging in size from golf ball to Volkswagen, and covered in just a few inches of barely skiable snow, making purchase for tent stakes grim at best. We have brought along dedicated snow stakes for use higher up, but manage utilize them here in the frozen pumice. I set about to getting the ‘Mid erected so we can fire up the stoves for hot drinks. Getting the mid setup is a difficult task, as it absolutely relies and solid staking of its 4 corners. Additionally, since the ground (I use this word loosely) is nowhere near flat; there is a hump in the middle making the single center pole too long. I manage to get it setup just as the big winds started coming down from the glacier, gaining velocity as it hits the pumice flats where by the time it gets to us feels like a freight train hitting us. I grab my camera, intent on attempting to document this expedition, which quite frankly is generally a giant pain in the ass. I pan the camera around camp as the wind accelerates, and then hear a virtual explosion of wind followed by seeing Rich’s big expedition tent tumbling across the pumice full of our gear. Rich, running as fast as he can in mountaineering boots to catch our needed survival supplies, I continue filming. As he drags back the tent, he shoots me a rather unaccepting look and asks if I wouldn’t mind giving him a hand. I holster the camera and sheepishly apologize for not dropping everything and running after the tent with him. Of course, Rich was right and that is certainly what I should have done, but it was way hard putting that camera down once the action started. After getting the tent back up and making some repairs to the ripped fly with duct tape, we manage to get the stove going inside the mid and brew up. The wind is ferocious, and the rocky surface we are sitting on is not enjoyable with all 4 of us cramped in with 2 stoves running. After we eat and drink hot liquids, the wind comes now in heavier bursts, one of which simply flattens the ‘Mid with us in it. We scramble out and decide to just let it alone and stack rocks on it to keep it from blowing away and retreat to the tents to weight them down as well, where Rich and I spend the next 14 hours sleeping and wondering what the upper mountain was going to be like.

During the endless daylight night we listen to the wind attempting to shred our camp into oblivion, sometimes putting a leg up on the pole structure to help stabilize the shelter from collapsing, then later drifting off into a fitful sleep only to be woken by and variable and treacherous gale outside; additionally, the wind has a serious chill to it since it as it rolls off the bare ice of the lower glacier just above us. Eventually, the wind settles down and we sleep into the later hours of the following morning, where I awake to find Rich outside setting up a makeshift kitchen outside of the collapsed ‘Mid. I crawl out and head over to the frozen creek where Rich had broken through the ice to expose the water below; I fill water bottles for drinking, coffee, and breakfast. Jeff is out of his tent, followed by Cam and as we all set down upon the pumice to collect ourselves, it occurs to me yesterdays events took a small toll on us all as we all appear somewhat disheveled; from the looks of it, none of us seem to have any affinity for this Pumice Camp, we all vow to get moving after breakfast and get this wagon train up on the glacier.

After breakfast, we spot a group of three skiing toward us; carrying full packs and sleds and exhibiting the same look on their faces that we had only worse. They told us of a night spent at about 11,000′ during the hurricane force winds that ravaged the mountain, and describe the conditions up high as “Himalayan”. They had had enough and were retreating to the gravel bar where they hoped to send a GPS text to their pilot to come and pick them up. It occurs to us that we did not even know there was another party on the mountain, but after they ski off down valley, it seems reasonable that we are entirely alone on Mt Sanford.

The plan all along, for better or worse, was to climb Sanford in a more or less “expedition style” versus going lean, fast and light. This method generally allows, or even requires that each incremental advancement up the mountain be made twice, or a “double carry” if you will. This also allows for the notion of “climb high, sleep low”, a technique that allows one to become acclimated to the high altitude, there alleviating altitude related illness. The downside to this approach is more gear, more weight, more work, and more time. I personally prefer the “fast and light” approach, but on a big peak like Sanford, this approach has its advantages. Today’s progress out of Pumice Camp will be no exception, and we pack up the supplies we will need higher, flatten our tents, leaving most of our camp behind, and set out on skis to gain the glacier and make another cache. The weather has improved for the moment so we capitalize on this and get moving. Soon we are at the toe of the glacier and as luck would have it was covered in skiable snow, rather than bare ice I was expecting which would have required us to put on crampons and carry our skis, slowing our progress significantly. Skiing up the lower glacier was a cinch and soon we emerged upon the flat and mildly crevassed lower Sheep Glacier, where only a mild breeze was felt. We don our harnesses and rope up; Conditions are great with the sun pouring out from the sky, we ski further towards the First Icefall, where we come upon an abandoned camp that the previous party we had built on their way up the glacier. Consisting of a large ring of snow blocks to protect tents from the ferocious wind, it has a kitchen pit dug into its center, but the whole thing is in bad need of repair. We stash our loads in the kitchen pit and ski down glacier back to Pumice Camp, where we all dreaded to spend another night. Upon arriving back at the rocky hell hole of a camp, we are feeling tired, but good, and a nice long celebratory supper and whiskey cocktails was to be had. By the time we all went to bed, the conditions were eerily calm; warm even.

I sleep exceptionally well that night and morning finds us experiencing fortuitous conditions and a casual breakfast followed by an acceptable late start. By the time I roll out of the tent, Rich is firing up the stoves in the 2-3 inches of fresh snow that had fallen during the night. About an hour later, the sun peeks up behind the upper glacier and it appears we are in for a glorious weather day, and after breaking camp, we bask in the sun for a spell, lay out the solar panel to charge phones and GPS, and check on the weather forecast. Sitting upon a semi flat pumice boulder in the sunshine feels fantastic; it’s the first real comfort any of us have felt since leaving the gravel landing strip a week earlier. By noon we are traversing the lower tongue of the glacier; our skis gliding crisply through the fresh snow, the only sound audible are climbing skins gliding and crunching, a wisp of breeze sailing through our jackets from time to time. We emerge on the flat glacier above; this time with all of our gear and ready for the tasks ahead in general and the navigating of the First Icefall in particular. Rich and I share a rope, Cam and Jeff on another. Eventually we find ourselvesIt at the abandoned snow block camp where we must repair its deteriorating condition. After some time cutting dozens of blocks with our snow saw, we had stacked the walls high enough for all three of our tents to be sheltered adequately from the monstrous winds we have been experiencing on this trip. Next, we widen and deepen the kitchen pit, build a couple of steps leading in to it, begin setting up our new “nylon ghetto” which we figure under traditional standards would be called Camp I. Once tents are up and gear organized, we head down glacier for a quick jaunt to collect the gear and wands left earlier. The lower portion of the glacier where we are is lightly crevassed and are generally very small; the situation is a such that I would feel extremely comfortable skiing unroped, but in the interest of safety and group continuity, we remain roped and with crevasse safety equipment engaged, creating a mind set that this is how life on any glacier is. The fact of the matter is that even seemingly tame sections of a glacier can be extremely dangerous, especially if one takes a cavalier attitude by making assumptions that it is safe. Back at camp, I study the landscape ahead, observing the icefall we must tackle tomorrow. The aerial photographs I had seen recently indicates that the glacier has changed significantly since the pictures were taken. In the photos, the icefall was a massive, chaotic array of giant crevasses and enormous seracs sized bigger than the average house; in fact the photos indicated we may have difficulty finding a way through the quandary, but from my perspective here at Camp I, it does not appear to be what it once was; the glacier at this level has melted enough to smooth itself out and undermine the potency of what is commonly referred to as The First Icefall. That evening at just around midnight, the daylight night turns into a short lived dusk; the Nunatak at around 10,000 feet becomes an unpropitious orange, and the sinister line of menacing seracs atop of the West Face shift a glaring purple timbre as if to amplify their threat to anything below. Exhaustion takes over and soon camp is still and silent; sleep becomes us.

Rich is almost always the first one up and out of the tent, and by the time I awake, he is already outside with stoves firing, melting snow for filling water bottles and brewing coffee. The cooking pit works well; we can sit on the rim with our legs inside of it with stoves and cook gear around the perimeter. We have a dedicated area outside the walls for shoveling snow to melt water and a dedicated latrine area far away from said water source. The ring of snow blocks is perfectly sized for its intended use to house three tents plus kitchen. After a hearty breakfast, The weather is deteriorating again as we rope up and shoulder our packs, but we figure we’ll ski up the glacier as far as we can till conditions prevent otherwise. After a spell, we can no longer see the icefall, and a steady snow descends from a darkening sky. We continue regardless, hoping that it might let up a bit, but even with goggles there are stinging blasts of spindrift peppering my face and getting past the foam seal, making visibility a further challenge. In the lead, Rich plants 36″ home made bamboo wands with bright pink marking tape attached to its end into the glacier for future route finding in similar conditions. Pretty soon, I can’t even see him at the end of the rope a mere 50 feet away. Rich has stopped and I catch up to him; Jeff and Cam are up ahead somewhere and we hope they are stopped as well, so we plod on looking for our team mates. Through the wavering spindrift, two figure appear and we all convene for a pow wow and it’s agreed we ‘ll make a cache here and head back to camp, We dig a pit in the snow till we hit bare glacial ice about 18 inches down, toss in gear and set wands so we can find it again when we return. Once past the flat area of the cache, there is a nice easy incline about a quarter mile from camp, where, unfettered with packs and the snow now letting up slightly, we carve turns in the pleasantly light snow which puts a smile on my face. Back at camp, we check the GPS for a weather report and are pleased to hear of improving weather tomorrow. That evening, more snow follows by a still silence that entombs the camp and I am thankful we are dug in as well as we are.

The morning sees bright, sunny, and cold conditions; we shovel tents free from the clutches of last nights dump, and afterwards sit down to fire up stoves for coffee and food. For the first time on the trip, it’s cold enough to warrant my big puffy down parka and puffy pants, of which I am grateful for. Today we will climb above the First Icefall and find a place to dig in a new camp. We pack up nearly all the remaining food, fuel, and wands to move up to the next camp, which having no idea where that might be, we hope to make it somewhere above the icefall at around 9,000 or 10,000. We also pack up tents and bivi gear, essentially leaving Camp I indefinitely. Skiing up the glacier is sensational; the sun is bright and the icefall, visible to this extent is the first of the trip. There is an artistic expression to it that is singularly unique, the seracs are lined up and are poised to do what all seracs must ultimately do: collapse and fall. There are great crevasses that are exposed and hold depths unknown. One serac near the bottom of the puzzle has a giant round hole in it, resembling an arch from the desert southwest. It’s bare blue ice shimmering a color that really only happens on a glacier; to call it blue would be simplified – it is far more complex than that. There are hues and abstracts no human words exist for. A glacier to me is a spiritual representation of life itself… growing from the womb of the mountain, picking up speed and flowing with intensity; crumbling along the way. Power, beauty, destruction, re-birth. It reveals textures and patterns not seen anywhere else on Earth – the smoothness of it’s terminus is somehow what we might all wish for at the time of our own demise…My infatuation with glaciers has been alive within me since I was 14 years old. The sensation they provoke in me is a deep sense of connection to the mountains and the Earth as a whole. I am the glacier. These magnificent rivers of ice are a truly unique entity; they are ancient beings and the environment they provide is as exclusive as its danger. Falling into a crevasse is one of my biggest fears, and the possibility of being deposited into one of these icy tombs commands the utmost respect and precaution. Passing our cache from yesterday, we figure we’ll continue on in search of Camp II, then return later for the stashed food and fuel. We zig zag around some of the bigger blocks and carefully around some open crevasses where the incline of the icefall steepens. Skiing upward gains a bit of altitude and soon we are looking down upon most of the seracs where a diagonal traverse puts us at the base of a great and stable serac at about 8500′ where we decide to dig out tent platforms. There are some disagreements among us about how and where exactly to dig created a minor chaos that we had to work through. During this event, it was decided to simply dig out a basic shelf in the incline, make a cache, and ski back to Camp I for one more night before committing to going higher.

The intense sun on this beautiful day has a negative effect in that the snow conditions are deteriorating rapidly; there is a dreadful breakable crust on top of sugary powder that, had I been skiing in modern alpine touring gear (and was a better skier) would still give me trouble. Skiing down this steep incline in my double boots and Silvretta mountaineering bindings was, at least for me, pretty much impossible. Rich was also having a difficult time of it, and looking back up towards Camp II, I see Cam and Jeff carving long graceful arcs whooping and hollering in joyous outburst. The four of us convene and I decide the best way for me to descend the icefall is to take my skis off and posthole down through the crevasse field. Rich agrees and after removing skis and affixing to our packs we begin the descent as Cam and Jeff pass us with lightning speed and are soon at the base of the First Icefall, where they remove packs and wait for Rich and I. We descend slowly and carefully, roped up and employing safety measures for crevasse danger. We no longer have the safety net of having our weight spread out with skis on our feet, instead we take each step with care into the breakable crust, penetrating 18 inches or so till boots hit solid snow. There is no need for crampons at this point as the snow is soft with the intense, glaring sunlight. One foot in front of the other, gently as she goes. Suddenly, my left foot punches through into black space and my body drops. The butt end of my pack hits the snow and I stop; my leg dangling in space. I yell out “falling!” a little late in the game, but I turn to see Rich already dug in ready to catch a crevasse fall. I easily extract myself from the hole; I peer into the black hole of the crevasse to see exactly nothing but menacing darkness. We continue on, more gingerly this time until we reach Jeff and Cam basking in the sunlight. They were unaware of the crevasse incident, and after a brief rest, Rich and I don skis and we all ski the gentle slopes back to Camp I, where in classic fashion, Rich fires up the stove and cranks out a batch of cinnamon rolls on the stove, aided by Jeff’s “pot parka”, a fireproof fabric cover that fits over the pot on top of the MSR stove that aids in heating and reduces fuel consumption. It also makes for a good make shift oven of sorts, hence cinnamon rolls.

Another night at the snow block camp and in the morning we disassemble everything in its entirety for a second time. This morning we are being extremely casual regarding time, as the weather is decent, and we are all enjoying just hanging around drinking coffee; it should not take us long to make our accomplishments today. Cam is an accomplished writer and has a penchant for sometimes bizarre humor and tends to be pretty successful at making everyone laugh. When I lived in Boulder back in the early 90’s, Cam and Ann would drop by my house for from time to time, often times dressed up in an array of unusual costumes; sometimes he would show up as a drag queen or lumberjack, he always had some kind of shock value humor happening. Today is no exception as he disappears around the back side of the snow blocks, emerging minutes later wearing a multi-colored dress, a bright blue wig, and clutching in his arms his beloved blow up sex doll “Sheila”. We were all laughing pretty hard at the ridiculousness of this scenario up here on the flanks of Mt Sanford, camped in a crevasse field on the Sheep Glacier. Cam and Jeff both had the benefit of being sponsored with skis and boots for the expedition, so we figure we owe the sponsors some photos, and the drag queen/sex doll outfit commanded to be apart.

After the photoshoot, we pack up in a fashion that concludes our stay at Camp I, rope up, and ski upwards toward the icefall. The weather is another fine day, and I can’t help but feeling like we have not been taking advantage of it fully. I feel we should be higher on the mountain by now, but regardless I am happy to be here with my friends as I look north across the great drainages that separate the Alaska Range from The Wrangell Mountains. Far, far off, I can see the peaks of the Central and Eastern Alaska Range: Mt Hayes, Mt Moffit, The White Princess, Mt Gakona, and at the far eastern terminus of the range is the remote and seldom climbed Mt Kimball. This drainage is a unique and beautiful area of Alaska and is home to the headwaters of the Tok, Slana, and Copper rivers. It is an area of incredible white spruce forests, Athabaskan native villages, wildlife, and expansive wilderness and natural history. Far, far off to the northwest, I can just barely make out the faint outline of Denali, The Great One. We ski silently till we near the base of the seracs of the First Icefall; Rich has been moving slowly today and is quiet, something is on his mind. Jeff and Cam were ahead of us and were taking a break as Rich and I skied closer. After all four of us were back together, we took off our skis and had lunch with the bright glacial sun beating down. After some discussion, Rich and I both agreed that the skiing was a bit over our heads given the equipment choices we had made. At the beginning of the trip, Rich and I discussed this before even leaving Anchorage and we came to the conclusion that should the need arise, we could always take skis off and simply crampon up Sanford, but after punching through a crevasse yesterday, removal of the safety net the skis provide was not really acceptable. After a brief GPS weather check and the realization that another storm was developing, Rich stated that he did not wish to continue, and me being his rope partner, I agreed to accompany him back to Camp I while Jeff and Cam opted to continue on to our dugout for Camp II and beyond if possible. So it was decided; We emptied our packs to split up gear and food. Since Rich had one stove and I the other, I hand Jeff the stove and cook pot, while Rich and Cam divided up most of the food we have. After a brief discussion on logistics, Cam and Jeff saddle up and begin the ascent through the icefall, as Rich and I turn and head back to the snow block camp. When we arrive, we realize that the wind barrier was deteriorating from the intense sunlight, and with the impending weather front moving in, we spend the remainder of the afternoon cutting snow blocks and reinforcing the walls of camp. Looking back up the mountain, we spot Cam and Jeff; two tiny figures just reaching the platform of Camp II. Later, we spot a lone figure skiing down from the camp and through the icefall. Not long after, Jeff comes skiing into camp by himself and wanting to know why there was not a lighter in the stove kit. Rich and I informed him that lighters belong in ones personal kit (pocket) and it was his responsibility to have one. For whatever reason, neither Jeff nor Cam had a lighter between them. Baffled by this, I dig through my bag and find my 3 – 4 lighters and hand him one. At first Jeff seemed annoyed by the fact that there wasn’t one with the stove, but by the time he started his ski back, we were all in good spirits once again. I did find it disconcerting however that he was willing to ski 2500 feet down through an ice fall and back by himself and unroped. Skiing down unroped is one thing and is a more or less an accepted practice, but going up at a snails pace is quite another. Regardless, for whatever reason, He and Cam had decided on this and so it was. Rich and I bid Jeff farewell and he began his long arduous ski back to where Cam was holding down camp. That night, Rich and I settle in, preparing ourselves for a stay at Camp I for an undetermined amount of time, as we are hoping that the weather holds and Cam and Jeff will simply make a big push for the summit in a day or two. Later, it begins to snow again and this time is accompanied with intense wind. Our reinforced snow walls are giving great protection, but we imagine that Jeff and Cam at the precarious platform at 8500′ might not be faring as well.

The morning brings sunshine and a calmness that was unexpected, so Rich and I spend most of the day just lounging about soaking up the sun, talking, eating, and sleeping. By late morning, we see Cam and Jeff as two tiny specs advancing beyond the serac camp and are now just below the amazing and unique Nunatak whose summit it at just about 10,000′. For many days I have marveled at this Nunatak and its amazingly smooth ice walls that just beg to be climbed, which is exactly what Paul Tureki and partner did in the 80’s on an expedition that involved a dog team and skiing from Sanford’s summit. Like so many of Alaska’s 26,000 glaciers, the Sheep Glacier has been around for approximately 30,000 years; the Nunatak in question is likely a great and monolithic rock formation jutting from the flanks of the mountain, but thousands of years of glacial ice have all but buried it to the point it is literally a part of the glacier today as we see it. There is no rock exposed, only massive sheets of ice and an overwhelming serac barrier east of its smooth rounded summit. Its west face, the one that Tureki climbed is a steep 800′ slab of beautiful shimmering glacial ice that later in the day exhibits a haunting sheen giving the entire structure an eerie yet alluring quality.

By late afternoon, we can no longer see Jeff and Cam, and all we can do is speculate on their whereabouts and condition. Rich and I will remain here on the glacier to provide Cam and Jeff any support they may need. The barometer indicates another low pressure building, but at the moment the weather remains somewhat decent. The following day, clouds begin moving in, but remains windless and snow free for several hours till late afternoon rolls around and a light but steady snow begins to fall. Not long after, the wind pick up and it’s just like old times, and a laborious session of snow block cutting and stacking sees Rich and I fortifying camp once again in the deepening squall. After finishing the task, Rich cranks up the stove from the vestibule of the tent and we sip on some soup and tea, pondering where and what Cam and Jeff are up to. Sleep eludes me on this evening and as I lay in the tent I feel something is taking hold. Suddenly and with out warning, I am dashing from the tent and running for the latrine hole in the glacier, where I empty my bowels of liquid and stand pant-less staring into the blasting spindrift of the daylight night. I crawl back into the tent and slither back into my sleeping bag, fully aware that something nasty now resides inside of my body. Thankfully, I did not have another episode like that the remainder of the night, but instead I fight off a massive headache, stomach cramps, and an oddly sore throat. This persists well into the next day, and by mid afternoon the weather has improved just enough for me to lay my sleeping bag out in open to observe the upper glacier and Nunatak. Drifting in and out of sleep, Rich hollers that he sees the boys coming down from the area just above the icefall; two tiny figures seen skiing at a brisk pace, descending from the upper reaches and into the bowels of the seracs. Before long, the two of them are clearly visible below the icefall and within 10 minutes ski right into camp, where Rich has hot water waiting for them to re-hydrate and eat.

After a night battling the storm on the tent platform of Camp II , Cam and Jeff had broken camp completely, ditched one of their tents, some food and fuel and made a cache there, deciding on moving fast and light up past the Nunatak where they dig in to the side of a giant serac, setup the tent, and proceeded to take advantage of the temporarily clearing weather by skiing to and from the summit of the Nunatak. That night once again being hit by the increasing storm, it was decided that come morning they would descend back to Rich and I at Camp I.

The four of us back together again, we have a big feast and a hidden stash of whiskey allows a couple shots each. The weather is not great, but we are all having a good time; myself included regardless of my slowly improving stomach illness. The air is mostly still, but a light snow continues to fall and we decide that the best plan of action is to get out in the morning, and we send a GPS message to pilot Jake giving him the heads up. In the morning, the weather is about the same and no one really wants to deal with much; camp is a silent monastery for a long, long time before Rich and Jeff bust out breaking the silence. It is another cold morning wrapped in puffy gear whilst making breakfast, taking down tents, and reorganizing everything in order to do a single carry back to basecamp. By the time we leave, the temperature had risen significantly and the snowing had stopped. We all stand there gazing at the empty ring of snow blocks; each of us with a massive pack on our backs and a fully loaded drag bag behind us. We gingerly ski down glacier; the weight of the packs and the menacing instability of the sleds making the ski descent unnerving, but by the time we got to the tongue, we had worked ourselves into skiing groove and we were all able to carve a few last turns of the trip before descending completely to the now barren talus below.

Two weeks prior, there had been enough snow on the pumice scree to both ski and drag our sleds effortlessly. But now, the snow not far beyond the glacier had disappeared, exposing the jagged pumice underneath. We have no choice but to remove skis and walk. We can either make a double carry to basecamp, coming back for the sleds tomorrow, or just drag them through the rocks and get it done. We choose the latter, since our duffle bags are wrapped in cheap plastic tarps giving a decent sliding action even on the pumice and also protecting the more expensive duffle bag material. Eventually we are past the cree and talus and are traveling previously unseen tundra, where a lone Caribou crosses our path; likely a scout for a herd not far off. I am having difficulty with the drag bag, so I decide to ditch it and come back tomorrow for it. Cam, Jeff, and Rich and continue with both pack and sled; the going is very slow, but by late afternoon, we are all back at the landing strip setting up tents and getting organized. Later, a call to Jake confirms that he will attempt to pick us up in the morning, but it’s all up in the air since the weather is deteriorating and it is beginning to snow.

I sleep deeply for 10 or more hours and when I awake I find the ‘Mid sagging in from what looks to be several inches of new snow. I can’t help to feel a bit of dread, since this could prevent Jake from landing, as he has tundra tires fixed to the Super Cub that do not fare well in fresh snow. He was able to land previously because the old snow on the gravel airstrip was packed and settled. But this new snow could be an issue. Regardless, I have a drag bag to go and get up valley about halfway way to the glacier. Luckily it is very early as I crawl out of the shelter and even though there are several inches of fresh powder, the sun is out and it is an outstanding day. It is quite cold in the morning, but by the time I had gotten moving to retrieve my drag bag, the sun felt almost hot. Alone, I stomp up valley in mountaineering double boots across the scree and tundra to my stash, where I fill my empty backpack for hauling back to the airstrip. The pack is monstrously heavy and I can barely get it shouldered, and once I do, vow not to take it off again till I reach camp. Regardless of the weight of the troublesome pack, It feels incredible to be out here hiking across the snowy tundra; it was the first time I had been alone in 15 days and as I turn to look back at Sanford, she bares her true summit for me in the glaring sunlight. Ironically, this was the one and only time I would see the summit on the entire trip. Once back in camp, I drop the pack and a great sigh of relief pours from me. The warmth of the sun is extremely intense, and Rich is busy skiing back and forth, shirtless and in his boxers, up and down the airstrip attempting to get it packed down enough for Jake to land. We all join in and after a bit we are satisfied with the results and another call to Jake is made: he is on his way. By noon, we hear the unmistakeable growl of the Super Cub, and Jake lands the aircraft effortlessly on the packed snow of the runway we had tailored. A man pops out of the plane, it’s not Jake but his pilot Leif, who is filling in for Jake. One by one, Leif ferries us back to Red EagleOnce in the air, I look back to see the tongue of the Sheep Glacier disappearing over the massive moraines below it, and soon we are flying low above the endless tundra and Alaska’s great Boreal Forest.

Stepping out of the plane at Red Eagle, my boots hit the grass of the landing strip and once Jake takes off to retrieve the others, the boots come off and sore feet and toes do the same. It feels sublime to walk on grass and be surrounded by trees rather than snow, ice, and rock; there is a gentle breeze that drifts through the treetops giving way to a faint and pleasant hissing sound that is absent in the higher alpine environment. Once the last gear load is dropped off, we settle finances with Leif and he lifts the Super Cub into the air and heads east towards Tok. The four of us stand there for a moment, unsure of what or how to make a move. We stagger over to the lodge, where Rich and I rent a cabin for the night and Jeff and Cam do the same. After getting the truck and dumping all of our gear, we all take much needed showers and then convene at the truck for a plan. It’s late afternoon, and we all want beer and food, but the nearest tiny store is about 40 miles up the Tok Cutoff. It has to be done so we pile in the truck and blast off for an 80 mile round trip beer run. The little store at Menstasta has the bare provisions of which we make do with and happily drive back to our cabins at Red Eagle. After too many beers and some makeshift supper, we all stagger off to bed; Cam being so drunk, I had to quite literally carry him to his cabin and put him to bed. Sometimes when I am overly exhausted I cannot sleep; it is a strange anomaly and tonight is a template for that theory, and at 3 am I stagger out to my truck and grab tent and sleeping bag. The cabin is just too stuffy and the bed too soft. Once in the tent, I fall into a coma-like state that allows me to sleep till 10 am. We drop by the lodge where Judy asks us to join them for breakfast and we all eagerly accept. It feels fantastic to sit at a table with hot food and coffee and listen to Judy and Richard’s stories about their lives in and around Alaska, their bush piloting to and from Siberia and the tales of them becoming the owners and operators of Red Eagle Lodge.

After breakfast and a casual organizing of our entire kit, we decide to head off for some R&R and sightseeing. Two years prior I had ridden my bicycle from Slana to Nebesna along the incredible and wild Nebesna Road; it is the only road access into Wrangell St Elias National park from the north, and features an assortment of mining and natural history, wildlife, stream crossings, great camping and incredible Alaskan scenery. Spending most of the day slowly traveling the road and stopping often to gawk at the incredible views of the East Face of Mt Sanford, we are amazed that the entire mountain is free and clear from any sort of cloud, mist, or storm; the summit is clearly visible. I can’t help but to think what it would have been like for us if we were up there during this weather window. That night a Jack Creek we make a camp and grill burgers, enjoying the outstanding weather and calm. In the morning I break out my packraft and we each do a quick lap on Jack Creek just for giggles. After breaking camp, we drive up the road for a hike to the historic abandoned Rambler Mine, where views out to the massive headwaters of the Nabesna River and Nabesna Glacier snake out of one of Alaska’s most intensely wild regions between the Wrangell Mountains to the south and the Mentasta Mountains to the north. A day later and we in Anchorage, and a trip to the local butcher shop to procure makings for shish kabob, a few beers, and we head off to find the Air B&B we had scored for the night. 24 hours later after dropping off my three team mates at the airport, I find myself once again within the “civilized” circle of the Anchorage and Mat-Su borough, and once again struggle to find a place to camp. I settle on heading up the Knik River to find a semi reasonable albeit makeshift camp on its sandy shores where ATV’s and fisherman are never far off.

With plans to meet Angela to climb the Yukon’s Mt Archibald in a few days, I have a little bit of time to kill, so I hit the road in the early morning and head north up the Richardson Highway towards Delta Junction, where I know of great and wild camp spots and for the first time since leaving Anchorage, I feel at peace and I’m able to properly rest. After a casual day on the Jarvis River eating, napping, and going on short walks, I pack up and drive towards Tok, where passing Yerrick Creek north of town I see that the river is far too low for paddling, so I continue down the Alaska Highway where cresting a hill in a remote area of Eastern Alaska, I pause briefly to gaze at the far, far away silhouette of of Mt Sanford, her cloak of thick glacial ice shimmering phosphorescent hues of purple and red penetrating the high altitude sub arctic air, and at that moment in time, I feel my intense and deep connection to this amazing place and the knowing that nothing can ever take that away.

Leaving The Yukon- Wrangell Dreaming

After an icy morning dunk in the Yukon River to scrub both body and clothing, I head to the RV park in Dawson to use one of their clothes dryers and then blast through town to pick up a cup of coffee and some supplies. The dirt streets of town are quiet and pleasant, with only the sound of the Yukon ferry doing it’s early morning chores on the swelling river. After my clothes have dried, I board the truck onto said boat and in moments I am easing the Toyota up the big climb out of the Yukon River drainage and up to the high forested spines of the Ridge Road, Also known more commonly as the Top of the World Highway.  I remember this grueling 8 mile climb mounted to the inexhaustible Ogre back in 2013. I found the TOTW road to be an epic ride; one massive hill climb after another, up and down, rarely flat, always challenging, and doing so for 120 miles before the final assault at the border consisting of a 12 degree climb to it’s apex, before a descent to the border crossing itself, after of which there is a long descent into the Forty Mile River region of eastern Alaska. This area has the small and interesting communities of both Chicken and Eagle, Alaska, and is an area of heavy mining activity, vast plateaus of forested wilderness, wild rivers, and the Forty Mile Caribou herd. Once past the river region beyond Chicken, the road flattens for a bit through vast and swampy Taiga valleys, followed by more endless up and down hill climbing. Eventually, one comes to see a lone peak in the distance; it is a high point in this part of Alaska called Mt Fairplay which the Taylor Highway (The TOTW Highway becomes known as the Taylor Highway once entering Alaska) skirts on it’s northerly shoulder. It is at this magnificent high point that one is treated (assuming a clear day) to glorious views of the entire Alaska Range from Mt’s Hayes and Deborah, past Denali, and all the way to the start of the Wrangell-St Elias. It is a grand view of beginnings of the greatest chain of mountains on the continent. Soon one descends slightly to the remainder of the hill climbs that signal final descent into the Tetlin Valley and the Tanana River. Once to the Tanana, the community of Tok is not far off.

I chill out in Tok for a couple of hours simply trying to get a grasp at my next move and keep my mind calm. Looking over my maps, it occurs to me that the Nabesna Road is not far away… perhaps 70 miles down the Tok Cut-Off, which I had neither ridden or driven before. So to me at this time a moment of excitement hits me as I am now prepared to explore one of the many, many areas of Alaska that I had never been. That always gets me in a good mood, and soon I am spinning down the Tok Cut-Off, a beautiful highway that essentially splits the Alaska Range from the Wrangell Mountains to the south. It follows beautiful river drainages and sports mature boreal forest galore. Tall alpine peaks adorn both sides of the path, and a dull sight is never at hand. It is getting late and I pull down a dirt road along the Little Tok River to find a wonderful camp next to a deep blue pool in the river, where Grayling are surfacing everywhere. After setting up my camp, I grab the fishing rod and commence to catching my supper. I build a fire and wrap the Grayling in tin foil with some onions and butter, whip up some tea, and proceed to shoot a time lapse of the deepening hues of the midnight sky. Sleep comes around and I dream once again of being in high peaks surrounded by wilderness and animals in the most glorious vast areas of this amazing continent.

I seem to only sleep maybe 5 hours a night this time of year, at least for a week or so at a time, when it catches up to me and I then sleep for ten hours or more for a day or two. This morning was another early one for me, and I have the truck packed up and rolling down the Cut-Off by about 5 am. Stopping at a roadside lake, a walk to the shore reveals Swans, Geese, Moose, and literally thousands of fish swimming and visible from shore. I see what appears to be spawning colors; I grab the rod from the truck, not because I wish to eat, but because I must know what these fish are. After a couple of casts, I pull in a Grayling, and release it. Another cast, another Grayling. Finally, two more casts produce yet another Grayling. I inspect the beautiful fish; Grayling are by far the most common fish in the Alaskan interior and are easily identifiable due to the very long and undeniably prominent dorsal fin; No other freshwater fish has a dorsal like this. This is fine and good, but is still have not found the information I seek. I peer into the water hard to inspect and can only assume that these are a small variety of spawning Sockeye, or Red Salmon. The nearby Slana River flows into the Salmon infested Copper River to the southwest, and forms sloughs that feed this lake. The Copper River is famous for it’s amazing runs of Sockeye, so I must then assume that this fish I see are such.

Soon I am pulling onto the Nabesna road and park the truck in a pullout and off the road a fair bit, as It will be here for a couple days at least. My plan is to ride the Ogre to the end of the road 42 miles out and into the Wrangell’s, camp out, inspect the abandoned Rambler Gold Mine, and then pedal back to the truck; maybe three days I think.

The Nabesna Road is one of only two roads that penetrate the Wrangell Mountains in Alaska, and is the northerly of the two. Angela and I and ridden the other one to the south a few short years ago all the way to McCarthy and hiked up the Root Glacier for several miles before pedaling back out to Chitina and on to Valdez. The Nabesna however, comes in from the north and travels Taiga forest and tundra with unbelievable views of the 16,237’ Mt Sanford, the second highest volcano in the United States behind the 16,421’ Mt Bona, and also 14,163’ Mt Wrangell and the beginnings of the high glaciated plateaus that lead to the enormous centerpiece of the Wrangell’s, the 16,391’ Mt Blackburn. These peaks are nothing short of Himalayan in size, rise nearly 14,000 feet from their bases, and feature massive glaciers and ice sheets. They also support large populations of Dall Sheep, Grizzly Bear, and Moose. Lynx, Wolverine, and Caribou also grace these ephemeral mountains. It is a true rugged mountain sub arctic environment and true deep wilderness in North America. It is also an area of amazing geologic wonder, being primarily volcanic, but segments are also of a fault block uplift, and the combination produces unequalled beauty in one of the most striking set of mountains one is likely to encounter. It is also very lightly traveled by Humans. It simply is not an area tourists go, regardless of the fact that the entire region is contained within the Wrangell-St Elis National Park, the largest national park in the United States, from exploring this mighty region. The combination is what drives me… remote and largely untraveled regions of Alaska that feature gifts of wilderness, solitude, and beauty.

After casually getting my gear and bike together, the Ogre and I are rolling the Nabesna past the Slana River and onto the vast Taiga plateau that marks the beginning of the slight ascent into the high country. The beast beneath me bucks wildly for a bit till she tames down some and soon we are synchronized into a union of one pedal stroke after another. It has been quite some some since I had ridden the old girl fully loaded. It is extremely hot… 83 degrees in fact, and a hot, cloudless blue sky penetrates me and I feel sunburned already. Layer after layer of sunscreen, but sweating does me no favors. It is fairly dry in this area as well. In fact for the first 20 miles, there are no good streams for drinking from, so one must be prepared for this scenario. The first 15 or 16 miles of the Nabesna are either paved or chip seal, but soon after, the main dirt road section appears and the Ogre and I glide along it’s length silently.

Between expanses of Taiga, long stretches of tussock tundra dominate the landscape, leading for as far as the eye can witness into forays of untold peaks, valleys and wilderness. Finally a clear crystalline creek appears, jutting from a deep cleft in the barren mountainside and tumbling feverishly to the road, where it meets up with moi and I drink copious amounts and fill all of my bottles. I tend to carry many bottles on bike trips as I consume huge amounts of water in an attempt to remain hydrated, and today is definitely no exception. I find the heat to be stifling and although the Nabesna, for the first 30 miles is relatively flat, I am sweating bullets and feel deeply overheated. At 29 mile, the Sportsman’s Paradise Lodge comes around and I drop in for a root beer. I walk inside and say hello to Doug, the owner if the lodge, and grab my icy drink from the cooler. As I sit at the bar, I pop out my debit card, as I have forgotten cash… Doug says “nope”, “We got no connection for that sort of thing out here, but don’t worry, I’ll cover ya… Just make sure to send me two dollars in the mail when you get a chance. Ain’t no one ever stiffed me yet” he says. The sweetness and chill of the root beer are unbelievably refreshing, and aside from Doug’s chain smoking cigs inside the lodge, we had a pleasant conversation regarding the local wildlife, weather conditions, and the current Sockeye run at the Copper River near Slana. After finishing my beverage, I reluctantly leave the coolness of the lodge and continue pedaling the remaining 13 miles to the end of the road, the last three or four of which included some steep hill climbing and descending. At the end of the Nabesna road is an old air strip, lodge, two bed and breakfast type places, and a couple cabins, all of which are closed up or abandoned. The place is deserted. From here, an old jeep trail leads a few miles back to the Nabesna Gold Mine and the Rambler Gold Mine. I am extremely exhausted and I find no where acceptable to camp; the dirt track becoming narrower and narrower, with no water and no where to pitch a tent. Large piles of Grizzly scat appear and I start singing to myself and decide that the Bear spray belongs in my hand and not in the pannier. Eventually I decide that I am far too tired to continue and I must turn back pedal the three miles to Skookum Creek for a decent camp. I figure if I do this, I  might lose motivation to come back here in the morning, so I decide, regardless of my exhausted state, that I must hike the 500 vertical feet and 3/4 mile up to the Rambler mine. I park the steed and begin the uphill stomp. I am so tired I can barely pull it off, but as I near the mine a second wind takes me and soon I am ambling about the old buildings, sluice boxes, ore cart rails, mine shafts, and mining debris from another and forgotten era in Alaskan History. The Rambler mine was active, and abandoned in the 40’s, and now sits as an untouched monument to a short lived gold rush memory that created the settlement of Nabesna. The views from the mine are nothing short of spectacular; the Nabesna River clearly visible, it’s source, the Nabesna Glacier just out of view, but the endless deep wilderness of the region unfolds dramatically as far my eyes can take me.

I pedal in a dilapidated state all the way back to the best camp on the whole road at Jack Creek, which unfortunately means I must pedal all of the hill climbs again today to reach it. I manage to do it and once to Jack Creek, I strip down to my birthday suit and fire myself into the drink. The water is ice cold and the shock hits me hard, but my body is refreshed and clean and I meander off to get my camp set. Sleep comes easily and I am awake at 4 am… pedaling back to the truck by 5, and at the truck by 11. The entire journey including hiking to the mine took only 23 hours, however it should be noted that there are more mines and many more trails to discover and explore in the area and a trip of several days would not be considered lengthy. As noted previously, like a Shark, I am on the move.

Later on, after de-rigging my vessel and loading up, I drive through Glenallen, where hoards of tourists and dip netters clog the town and highway. I am all too happy to leave it behind and mosey on up the Richardson Highway bound for my absolute favorite place in all Alaska: The Central and Eastern Alaska Range.

Zen Cairns At The Top Of The World

Old Mining Equipment On The Tundra

Top Of The World Abandoned Tanker

For The Home Team

The Little Tok River

Lake Of A Zillion Fish

Mt Sanford 16,237″

The Nabesna Road

Wrangell High Country Taiga and Tundra

One Of Several Stream Crossings

The Ogre

The Rambler Mine

Rambler Mine Ore Cart

Mine Shaft

The Nabesna Valley As Viewed From The Rambler Mine

Mine Structures

Skookum Creek

The Skookum Volcano

From The Past… To The Future

I am the Salmon… Forever swimming upstream towards the source. Swimming great and swift currents to achieve the impossible; battling great and unforeseen obstacles that bar the way to my own destiny.

am  the Bear, on top, and managing a foothold in said place, but struggling none the less. I am a protector of my family and my territory, forever destined to do so.

am the Fox, cunning and sly to achieve what is mine for the taking. I only wish for harmony.

I am the Wolf, taken into a sense of community that entrusts a commitment of not only survival, but one of love and companionship.

I am the Willow, blowing in the glacial winds that give to me a sense of animation; my roots digging deep within the soil to accomplish what so many of us desire.

am  the writer, constantly in a state of desire to express myself, for better or worse. Words are what live inside of me and I must share them, regardless.

But most of all, I am a Man, one who wishes only for love, compassion, and connection… for those around me and for the wilderness that encompasses my landscape. I am full of desire and hope, my shortcomings entangled in self doubt, but knowing that I have passion and offerings that all of us have. I wish for sincerity amongst us all, so that we all may flourish. For what is a Man that does not possess these?

As it has always been and always will be, my mind is in a constant state of desire for wilderness and exploration, both externally and from within. These forays and trips into wild places has always been what has driven me.

Included here are photographs from past adventures, not to behold them for their keepsake, but to remind me, and us all, that the flame still burns and cannot be extinguished. So many ideas, so many thoughts… the Brooks Range, the Alaska Range, the deep interiors of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, the home front of the mighty Chilkat and the ephemeral outer “lost” coast of Alaska’s vast and wild Pacific. I persevere to such notions and they dominate my thoughts and desires…


End Of The Haul Road
The end of the Haul Road Alaska 2013

Dennis Belillo on the North Coulior of North Peak, Yosemite 2012

Freeride Explorations near Moab 2008

Promised Land '00-7
The Promised Land, Half Dome Yosemite 1998

Ropeless at Wall Strret
Ropeless in Moab 1992

South Seas:P.O. '98 -1
South Seas, El Capitan 1997

Spectreman 11c, Vedawoouo
Vedauwooo Wyoimg 2000

Mt Athabasca '8601
North Face of Mt Athabasca, Alberta 1986

Native Son '01-1
Iron Hawk with Ralph Ferrara, El Capitan 1999

Angela on the Root Glacier
Angela Carter on the Root Glacier, McCarthy Alaska 2013

Angela Wheelie
Angela Carter Riding Out a Wheelie

Dalton 2013
Dempster Highway Yukon 2013

AOTE @ Keystone-6
Angela going big in Keystone Colorado 2008

Wet Denim '99-3
Wet Denim Daydream with Allan King 1999

Indian Creek '90
Indian Creek Utah 1995

Iron Hawk '99-11
Iron Hawk, El Cap 1999


Lyzz Byrnes taping up for another Vedawouoo grind fest, 1999

The Great Northern Golden Triangle: The Ogre Pulls Off Another One

After getting mentally and physically prepped for the last couple of weeks, I awake one Monday morning and decide that leaving several days early on a ride of the North’s “Golden Triangle” is in order. My boss and co-workers seem to have no issue with the notion, and off I go to take care of last minute details at home.

Some folk’s call the ride in question the ”Alaska Golden Triangle”, which is a misconception since most of the ride occurs in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The route however, starts in Alaska, crosses British Columbia, traverses about 180 miles of the Yukon’s mighty interior, crosses back into B.C., and finally ending in Alaska at Skaguay. The first few miles and the entirety of my first day pedaling consist of the Chilkat and Klehini River corridors through the beautiful Chilkat Valley, ending at the Canadian/ U.S. border and the beginning of the climb up to Haines Summit, more locally known as Chilkat Pass. This Pass separates the interior of Northern B.C. and the Yukon from the coastal and heavily glaciated Chilkat Mountains and Alaska’s ice capped Coast Range, of which temperate and maritime systems exist at their feet. It is in this coastal region that Haines, and my home exist.

Going to bed a bit late and waking casually, I dress in my normal bicycle traveler garb consisting of loose fitting nylon pants, t-shirt, Loose fitting long-sleeve shirt, and lace up cross training footwear. Onto the Ogre, I spin into town to meet with Angela and grab some coffee and breakfast before commencing to the endless highway.

After a casual time at Sarah J’s eatery in Haines, I say goodbye to Angela and begin the flat and pleasant cruise up the highway in hopes of finding a good camp near the border. Hours later, a faint path appears on the river side of the road leading through the Alder thickets and ends abruptly on the Cotton Grass flats above the Klehini River. A great camp with views of the Saksaia Glacier and fine and tasty drinking water direct from the river has me smiling on this first evening of the trip.

Many bicycle travelers it seem have a burning desire, especially in the northern tier, to seek out camping in “official” and pay campgrounds where other people gather. To my thinking, this never really made any sense, not here in the northern wilderness, where some of the best and most plentiful free range camping are to be had for the taking. Why pay to sleep when one can create their own world wherever one wishes? Many claim it is their fear of Bears. After spending more nights out in the Alaskan and Yukon bush than I can count, I believe that the Bears have far more to fear from Humans than the contrary. Of course extreme occurrences can happen, but being smart about the way one camps greatly diminishes these chances. In fact, I believe that having Bear problems are increased in public camping areas where Bears may be conditioned to Humans and their glorious trash. As far as the social thing is concerned, well, to each there own. Camping alone in these wild places allows me breathing room and a purposeful reflection towards the natural world and creates in me a great and humbling respect for it. This is where I can watch the river flow and the Falcon soar; hear the wind blow and smell the sweetness of the North in the air unencumbered by a Human world that tends to feel dominance toward all I see before me. That said, loneliness could from time to time drop in for an unexpected visit. But not tonight.

The morning sees rain pattering the rain fly of the tent and I must say I dread it, since today is a big climb up to Chilkat Pass, where I am hoping to spend more than a day hiking and bagging a peak or two if the weather cooperates, But, cooperating it is not and I pack up my little world and spin the mile up the road to the Canadian Customs gate and soon I am climbing upward into the big grind known as “Marinka’s Hill”, the primary climb up to the pass. The rain shows no sign of letting up and I don rain gear and continue, sweating as much on the inside of the clothing as the rain on the opposite. As the storm intensifies, I realize there will be no hanging around and leisurely climbing mountains, but instead, waiting the fury out tent bound. Just past Three Guardsmen Lake, in a low hollow just before the main summit, I pitch my tent and dive in. For the next 18 hours I read, eat, drink a beer or two, and sleep. The following morning the rain is continuing, but I must go on and the tent is put away wet and the pedaling continues. At the pass proper, the rain stops, clouds open, and glorious sunshine reveals itself, if only for a few minutes. Then it begins again. But heavier this time. Soon torrential downfalls of drops appear, and for a moment, even the roadway ahead is barely visible to my eyes. Although a part of the journey, especially in the North, rain can make the difference between pure suffering and pure bliss on a bicycle voyage.

Later, after the rain lets up, I cross the Yukon’s Takhanne River and set up a pleasant camp next to the water and bathe my foul clothing and myself. Snacking on my supper that evening, I watch a Hawk harass the Swallows at the entrance to their mud nests burrowed deep into the ancient riverbank. Clouds gather and then part again while the sun peeks in to cast great and colorful splashes of yellow and orange against the rocky mountainsides before me. Patches of deep blue sky swirl around the sun/cloud union like a predator in pursuit. At midnight, a Loon cries out from somewhere nearby, and the only thing stirring now is the soft and occasional breeze gently touching the tops of the Spruce and Aspen stands situated nearby camp.

To my ears, the call of the Loon is one of the most enjoyable and haunting sounds coming from the forest and lakes. It is nearly as engaging as the sound of the Wolf howling in the dark of night. And as I pedaled the next morning up a monstrous Yukon hill, one of the biggest of the trip, the Loons were creating a symphony of joyous monotony pushing me upward and over that mound and deeper into the great Yukon interior I love so much. I meet a 64 year old French man on a decrepit bicycle, heavily loaded and carrying an axe for which to chop twigs for his home made hobo stove. He has spent a great deal of his life traveling by bicycle in various parts of the planet, and travel in these parts is not alien to him. Later in the day, I take a side trip to the ancient native village of Klukshu. A side trip of about a half mile leads to the small but Salmon heavy Klukshu River, where native people have been harvesting Chinook, Sockeye, and Coho Salmon for millennia. I arrive at the bank of the tiny river; a Sockeye splashes about as it sees me, there is not a soul around but the fish and myself, lest a Bear hidden in the forest nearby. The village is deserted. There is something going on here that is unexplainable; there is an ancient sensation that I am somehow connected to that feels both like sadness and deep connected love. The air feels thick with history and community. Tears swell my eyes as I sit next to the river; this strange place I have never been feels like home. It is strange indeed. If there is such a thing as past lives, then I’m certain I was a Native North American. I pedal onward and past the equally haunting and beautiful Kathleen Lake and the beginning of the colorful and rugged Kluane Range, forefront to the overwhelmingly enormous St Elias Range and Mt Logan. Home to the second tallest peak in North America and some of the biggest and expansive ice fields and glaciers on Earth. The Yukon is a mind-blowing place indeed. Soon I am rolling into Haines Junction for a meal and some re-supply on food and luxuries.

Now I am into the thick of things. The Alaska Highway is traffic heavy compared to the mellow Haines Highway, where trucks shipping supplies from Canada to Alaska whiz by at maximum speed and clueless tourons barely in control of bloated recreational homes-on-wheels as big as my house meander down the pavement, gawking at the scenery and not watching the road, too lazy or disinterested to actually stop and explore beyond their steering wheel, most of these southern travelers never really see much at all.

The pedaling is flat and windless; miles fly by. The Ogre slithers along in silence. The endless boreal forest of the interior swallows me up and I am one with it. Arctic Ground Squirrels scurry in and out of the roadway as if attempting to throw themselves under passing vehicles. I often hear bicycle travelers complain about the sometimes endless and monotonous stretches of Alaska and the Yukon’s boreal timberland, saying that it is a dread to ride through it. Beats riding through most anywhere down south if you ask me. I connect with this forest; to me, this boreal play land is an endless supply of tranquility, animals, lakes, rivers, muskeg, swamp, taiga, streams, and beauty. There is a living breathing force here that cannot be ignored. To me, there is nothing monotonous about it. Riding through endless highway traffic and Human civilization is monotonous, dangerous, and disturbing-nowhere to camp either.

The climate and terrain is changing rapidly from a wet mountain environment, to an almost desert like boreal landscape that reminds me somewhat of western Colorado. A several mile gravel section of road appears near the Native village of Champagne, and I unknowingly watch as the last stream goes past and some 25 miles later, I am running low on water. At the 61 mile mark for the day, I emerge on the banks of Stoney Creek; a crystal clear mountain stream perfect for both drinking and bathing, and with an endless supply of ripened Raspberries growing adjacent to it’s flanks. I call this lovely place home for the evening and settle in with a sizeable grin adoring my mug, all the while snacking on raspberries for dessert.

In Whitehorse, I’m tossed into a world I have not seen in a long time. Since moving to Haines nearly three years ago, I have not left at all, except to go see an orthopedic last year when I broke my ankle at work. Haines is a quiet little Alaskan town; very little commotion at all. Whitehorse on the other hand, although quite tame by modern city standards, was abrupt, fast, and in my face a bit. I actually like Whitehorse. It is a small city of about 40,000 souls, with tons of mountain bike and hiking trails, the glorious Yukon River, and surrounded by endless wilderness. But on this day, to me here and now, I just wanted to get through it and back to my forest. Pedaling through town finds me along the Yukon River and past the hydro power dam and on the shores of Schwatka Lake, a Human made reservoir with float planes and powerboats here and there, but still a beautiful and serene place to be camped. That night, I awake about 1:00 am and noticed the first star in the northern sky since late April. Summer is slowly closing down and the days are getting a hair shorter each cycle. Before you know it, there will be some of the white stuff back on the ground, the tourists will be back in Florida, Texas and all parts south, and the Bears will be heading to their high country denning grounds to await the next round of Salmon entering the rivers in May.

Heading south on the Klondike Highway in the morning, I pedal all the way to Spirit Lake and devour a breakfast there before spinning down into Carcross (Caribou Crossing) and the beginning of what is known as the “southern lakes region” of the Yukon. In this part of the Province, there are many, many extremely long, deep, cold water lakes; meltwater remnants of the massive glaciers that covered this part of the Yukon a millennia ago. These lakes are a thing of beauty to say the least. Encased in wilderness, and rising from them mighty mountain ranges so remote, few have seen their endless and omnipotent shores outside of a powerboat. Soon, I can see the coastal mountains rising from the horizon and the beginnings of small yet prominent glaciers adorning their sides. The road now traverses the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake and around the bulk of Tutshi Lake, where this highway begins to tilt upward a bit, and the Yukon/B.C. border comes and goes. More climbing in the distance I can see, for White Pass is ahead, separating Canada from Alaska and the end of my Journey at Skaguay.

Finding no outstanding place to camp, I reluctantly pedal mile after mile, passing mediocre spots hoping the Golden Camp Spot will appear. After 76 long and exhausting miles, the fabled glory camp does not appear, and I throw down my nylon ghetto onto a deserted gravel pit and enjoy myself regardless, happy to be off the bike once and for all for the day.

Up bright and early the following morning I am sore, and there are rapidly moving clouds and wind coming through, but I feel good. It is only about 20 miles to White Pass from here according to my calculations. The road turns gently and ever so slightly upward from here and the landscape changes once again from the sub-alpine boreal forest to the higher and more colorful alpine arena of tundra, swiftly moving streams, and low lying brush and stunted Pine and Spruce. The route follows a glorious emerald river, adorned with many rapids and small waterfalls. A Bald Eagle soars overhead, and a Gull meanders behind, perhaps hoping to reap any benefits the Baldy might conjure. The wind picks up and it is a struggle to keep the Ogre upright on the hills. At timberline, the first of many low lying alpine lakes appear, and the stiff breeze grows fierce. Glaciers show themselves briefly during interludes in the cloud cover and before long they disappear once again into the thick alpine mist. Near the pass, I clamber over granite boulders to get a good look at Summit Lake and onslaught of the storm; wind and whitecaps embellish the lakes surface. A Gull scares up and hovers over me, squawking loudly that I must leave. She must be protecting a nest. I wish her well and skedaddle back to the bike and finish the last bit of the climb to the pass. At the top, a great and magnificent alpine meadow sits below and decorated with a mighty waterfall, so picturesque it is difficult to believe it real. At the pass, the weather is foul, and thoughts of espresso and a hot meal entice me. I peer at the highway ahead and it is a steep downhill for 14 miles to the sea. I had ridden up this massive hill back in 2013 when I rode from Skaguay to Deadhorse to Valdez, so I had gained a healthy respect for it’s magnitude. After tossing on my jacket and sporting hat and gloves, I fly downward and into the fantastic canyon, past more waterfalls and jagged peaks and soon there is no more. A gigantic cruise ship appears a half mile off; perched in the waters of the upper Lynn Canal, it’s passengers flooding the streets of Alaska’s biggest tourist attraction. I meander through the insanely crowded streets attempting not to hit or be hit by those not paying attention, which are many. It is a shock to the senses again. Haines will feel quiet and pristine compared to this insane asylum. Later, after a meal and some casual town observation, I board the marine vessel Le Conte for an hour ride down the canal to Haines, where a six mile ride from the ferry terminal deposits me back at my quiet little crib.

All in all, I had ridden most of this trip previously: the Alaska Highway portion back in 2011 when riding from Moab to Fairbanks, and the Klondike Highway/White Pass section in 2013 on the way to the arctic. Only the Home stretch of the Haines Highway over Chilkat Pass were new, but it is an outstanding pedal through some of the most beautiful countryside the North has to offer. I may even ride it again. Complete with a side trip to Klukshu, some exploring of random dirt roads in the forest and the pedaling in Whitehorse and looking for camp spots, I had pedaled about 385 miles over eight days. I can’t think of any reason why one would attempt to do it any faster; there would be too much to be missed, and in my opinion, far less enjoyable. These trips are not a race folks; they are to be felt and appreciated.

The Ogre pulls off another one.


Klehini River Camp


Chilkat Pass Climb

Haines Summit AKA Chilkat Pass

Stickered Sign

Alpine Tundra Landscape

The Green Hut Emergency Shelter Near The Pass

White Spruce And B.C. Glacier

Norther British Columbia

Takhanne River Yukon

Takhanne Camp

Apen Stands

Entering The Native Village Of Klukshu

Moose Antlers And Satellite Dish

Cabin and Fish Drying Hut

Cache and Fish Hut

Aspen Groves

Mountains Near Kathleen Lake


The New Grocery Store In Haines Junction

Alaska Highway Gravel Near Champagne

Takhini River Area Yukon Interior

Good Snacks

Wild Rasberries At Stoney Creek

Takhini Bridge Graffiti

Love These!


Tagish Lake

Historic Abandoned Mining Structure Along Windy Arm

Summit Lake

Summit Creek

White Pass Area

Looking Down From White Pass

White Pass

Moore Creek Near Skaguay




A Weekend in British Columbia – The Samuel Glacier

Let’s see now: I moved to Haines on November 3rd 2013 and it is now June 8th 2016. Now mind you, other than going to Juneau twice to see quack doctors about my broken ankle (I am not a fan of going to Juneau), and once heading up to Haines Junction in the Yukon with my Mom and Angela  for a day trip, I have not really left Haines since that chilly day rolling down from Fairbanks in November more than 31 months back.

Seems my attitude has been at an all time low and a need for adventure has been halted due to my buying a house that I really cannot afford. Seems I have no time or money to enjoy the very reason I live here in Alaska. Things have been difficult for me at work as a result and finally, something had to give. Summer has finally arrived in Alaska, with temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s and daylight exceeding 22 hours now, I decide to break free for a weekend and head up to the Haines Summit area of  British Columbia for a couple days of exploring and such. “The Pass” as it is locally known, is the dividing factor in separating the temperate maritime environment of the Chilkat Valley and Peninsula from the rugged alpine interior of B.C. and the Yukon. The Canadian border being 40 miles from Haines leads to the climb up Three Guardsmen Pass, and finally the higher Haines Summit being another 10 miles beyond. One Enters B.C., climbs the pass, then another 25 or 30 miles brings one to the mighty Yukon. The area around the pass is an area of high peaks, alpine tundra, glaciers, rivers, Ptarmigan, Marmot, Wolf, and Grizzly Bear. It is my kinda place to say the least.

After a quick visit with my buddy Gene on his sailboat in the Haines Harbor, I fire up the truck and head north. After a quick stop at Canadian Customs where I am grilled by the always grouchy Canadian Border Patrol, I am soon spinning the vehicle up the majestic landscape higher and higher to the land of rock and ice.

That evening I camp near the outlet of Kelsall Lake along side the mysterious Kelsall River. The mosquitos are thick, but the calls of the Loon and of the distant Coyote’s lull me to sleep. At 4am I pack up and continue north, into the Yukon just because I can. Being in the Yukon again is a fulfilling and sensational feeling once again. I really love the Yukon; there really is no place like it. It has a very distinct and isolated, yet remarkable feeling about it. It’s being up in the interior again that is putting wind in my sails…

After a bit, I turn the truck around and head back south towards the trailhead for the Samuel Glacier, where and old mining road, after disappearing 4 or 5 kilometers in and turning into a true back country wilderness experience, leads to the wonderful Samuel Glacier, some 10 or 11 kilometers from the highway.

After finishing a breakfast of eggs and tortillas grilled over the trusty MSR, I pack up the backpack as light as I can to help make up for the fact that I will be carrying my Sony X70 video camera. I have currently my Canon DSLR listed on eBay, so decide not to bring it in fear of damaging it before a critical sale. The unfortunate reality of this particular photographic situation, is that my only photo option for this trip is the ever stupid iPhone! Man that camera sucks. But it’s what I’ve got for this adventure and after a brief packing session, I am on the trail.

The trail consists of an old mining road that is very easy to follow and is in exceptionally good condition. The trail wanders slightly uphill into a high alpine valley surrounded by streams, rivers and peaks. Groundhogs and Marmots seem to be everywhere; Ptarmigans scare up out of the low lying brushy tundra around every corner. The place is alive! I keep my eyes peeled for Grizzly Bears and Wolves, and soon I come to the first stream crossing that I must remove shoes for. The water is bitterly cold, but is refreshing to hot feet. After a couple more kilometers, the trail disappears under a vast snowfield hundreds of meters wide. I figure this is where my feet get wet permanently and dive in. Across the snowfield, the trail is no where in sight. I spy a river below and bushwhack to it’s shores, where another full blown crossing is in order. The trail re-appears briefly and I follow it till it once again dives beneath snow and tundra bogs. Gaining a high ridge, I spy a trail of in the distance, following the fast moving river I had just crossed. Had I gone the wrong way? It occurs to me at this point that I am here a bit too early in the year. July or August would be best I reckon. I trudge onward.

Soon, there is no sign of trail nor of human travel of any kind. It is just me and my running shoes, the snowfields and tundra tussocks, the mudbogs and river crossing, the Marmots and Ptarmigans. It is now genuine wilderness and I begin to feel at home. At every river crossing I come to, I simply charge right in, shoes and all and accept the fact that I now have wet feet. Traveling the valleys and ridges of pure trail-less tundra tussocks and mudbogs is fatiguing to say the least. I am nearing what I see is the end of my journey: The highland I am traveling suddenly stop up ahead another kilometer or so and what lies beyond can only be one thing: Glacier.

The tundra gives way to an alluvial plane of gravel and glacial deposits, with braid after braid of swift and dangerous stream crossings. At the edge of the plane, where it meets up with the endless tundra, lies a snowbank fitted with a long string of animal tracks. Getting closer, I see that the tracks in question are one of Wolf. A big one too. The tracks could be no more than an hour old as they appear fresh and crisp and un- molested by the exceedingly hot midday sun. I marvel at them and spin my head around in anticipation of seeing the animal, but I am alone. I cross the alluvial gravel bed and once agin climb onto the steepening tundra for a rather quick jaunt to it’s edge where the magnificent Samuel Glacier comes into view. I decide to drop down the other side of the tundra ridge and camp on a small hummocked shelf just a couple hundred meters above creaking ice. I am exhausted and once in the tent, I sleep a fitful sleep as the overhead sun is blazing hot in this barren and endless alpine tundra land.

A while later, I emerge from the tent, sun still high, and walk to nearby stream for water and photographs and some video shots. I see the Samuel Glacier and it adjoining glacial arm like tentacles from an icy giant protruding from the massive fault block pyramids of the Alsek Ranges that extend into the largest glacially active non-polar area of our planet, and home to the largest unspoiled wilderness on earth. I am fulfilled with great and massive appreciation for this place and I am happy to call it my home; Haines is a mere 80 miles away.

Back to the tent for supper and more sleep, I awake the following morning at 3:30 am to a gathering storm. I pack quickly and soon I am again bounding over tundra and listening to the rushes of the strangely human-like squawking of the Rock Ptarmigans. The first time I ever heard these creatures talking was in the Tombstone Mountains in the high Yukon back in 2013.  The sounds they make are vaguely human and sound like a babbling insane person speaking nonsense. The first time I heard them was in the middle of the arctic “night”, and it disturbed me so much, I thought I was being stalked by a maniacal stranger hell bent on harming me. Then I peered from my nylon domicile and spotted the strange bird making these sounds, Since then, I have come to listen for their cries in anticipation.

Eventually, I come to where I have to make a choice and decide to follow the “trail” along the river back to the vast snowfield. I cross the river back and forth a dozen times or more and soon come to the snow and then the real trail beyond. I am back at the truck by 9 am and happily changing into dry socks and shoes.

A slow and pleasant drive south via the magnificent Haines Highway finds me back at home by mid morning, where a shower, hot cup of coffee, and a reflection of a successful weekend are in order.


Lush Alpine Vegetation

One of Many Alpine Rivers to be Crossed

Lone Wolf Tracks

Tundra Overlooking the Samuel Glacier

Samuel Glacier and Alsek Ranges Panorama

Alpine Camp Spot

Supper with a View

A.K.A. the Samuel Glacier Trail

The Good Trail Across the Tundra

Easy Trail

My Mobile Ghetto

The Kelsall River

Kelsall Panorama

Another River Crossing

Alsek Ranges and Tundra

Glacier Point (Big Waves in a Little Boat)

Fine spring weather and a weekend off urges me to pack up the skiff for a first -time-this-year-sailing. The 12 foot Lund has some leaky rivets, and the 39 year old Johnson 9.9 horse motor is about as decrepit as they come. Still, it was time to get out across the water and explore. I pack the boat and call Angela to roust her from whatever she was planning for the day, and soon we are humming along in dead calm ocean water; headed for the opposite side of the Chilkat Inlet to explore the Davidson Glacier and the areas around Glacier Point. We spot River Otters, Sea Lions, and Humpback Whales along the way. The weather is the sort you dream of in Haines: sunny and partly cloudy skies, warm temperatures, and not even a wisp of wind. Soon we are beached on the shores of Glacier Point, and before we can get camera gear into backpacks for a trek up to the glacier, we spot a Humpback whale surfacing and spouting it’s blow hole. Within seconds the creature is back in the depths and without notice, the Humpy has breached the water and is airborne. Our jaws drop, and we expect it to end there. Over the next 5 minutes or so, the Humpback breaches and spins and tail swats airborne style at least 10 more times, causing great and rewarding splashes. We are in awe of the spectacle we have just witnessed. I have never seen anything like it, not even close. I was so riveted by the performance, I refused to grab the camera for some action video. My dinky 105mm lens likely would have produced unsavory results anyhow. As it was, I’m certain I got much more out of the experience with out the camera in my hand. As much as I want so bad that great shot, I want the experience even more.

Soon we are trudging up the dirt access road to the Davidson Glacier where we marvel at the beauty of the magnificent and engaging ice, as well as admiring spectacular views of Mt Sinclair and Mt Elba and the bulk of the heavily glaciated Alaskan Coast Range visible north of Juneau. On the way back we find a flock of twenty strong Snow Geese nestled into the coastal grasses of the surf plane, catching up on some well earned rest.

That night, the wind picks up and we are thankful we had decided to pitch the tent after all. In the morning, we see the storm clouds a brewing and the wind picking up even further. A quick escape is in order, and soon the boat is packed and we struggle to get the tiny skiff past the swelling surf and into deeper water where we can fire her up. Soon the motor is running and we hightail it back up the inlet, punching the small vessel through the two to three foot swells. This feels like survival boating and Angela is wearing the only life preserver we have. For fear of capsizing the boat, I stay on the decaying throttle to keep the craft moving directy into the oncoming surf. I am white knuckled, cold, and concerned. After a bit, Letnikof Cove appears and soon we are pulling up to the boat ramp and loading the truck. The storm never actually took foot, but it sure made for some big waves in a little boat.

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A paragraph from the book I just can’t seem to actually finish… maybe that is the point; maybe it is not supposed  to be finished…

“Just south of the lodge known as Bell II, I look through a clearing in the forest and see for the first time Canada’s great and glaciated Coast Range. Craggy peaks engulfed in ice and nary a road any where near them, I feel a washing aesthetic come over me, similar to seeing for the first time in many years the Canadian Rockies weeks earlier. I am coming home to a place I have never been, and a heartache for all things wild and free develops within, and a budding sense of realism penetrates all that this pedal north is becoming. Thoughts of my past life in Moab are becoming a distant memory, with visions of the North encompassing all of me and all I will become. This place, the Cassiar, her mighty rivers and expansive forest, begin to feel oddly familiar. There is a vague yet noticeable tinge of something ancient in these forests; something unexplainable that has catapult me into a womb of wilderness and animals. I see a Black Bear, then another, then another. The concepts of the modern world drifting from my heart; the destruction I feel I have left behind, the crying of a world gone mad, and the never ending forest are all I see now. In retrospect, I am quite certain that it was at this point my life changed forever. Never again could I be satisfied or feel safe in a world full of madness and decay. Here, my heart lost in a sea of timber and mountains, I see nothing but balance and I could never again return to what I had left behind. I was still a long way from Alaska, and if what I was experiencing here was only a precursor, I felt I might simply explode when I arrived in what the Athabascan’s call, “The Great Land”.”

59 Degrees North

Even before moving from Fairbanks to Haines last November, then as now, Google Earth has been a friend to me insofar as giving me an opportunity to seek out  many of Haines’ lesser known treasures. I remember the evenings in the cabin up on Himalaya Road, north of Fairbanks 30 miles or so, after my chores tending to the sled dogs were over for the day; I would skim the earth utilizing this amazing piece of technology to familiarize myself with the place I knew would become my home.

Last April, after the bulk of the winter’s snow had become a molecular part of the heavens’ above, I decided to drive out to explore an area I had “discovered” by means of the previously mentioned technology. But after getting out there, I became confused with what road was what, and not wanting to get tangled into someone’s property, I abandoned ship and opted for a hike across Mud Bay proper and over it’s adjoining ridge through the area’s old growth forests.

This morning looked reasonable, weather-wise, so I decided to let the Ogre out of the corral and saddle up. It was chilly out, but at least it wasn’t raining, and the cool wind felt downright invigorating. Spinning softly along the shores of the Chilkat inlet, I whizz past Letnikof Cove and the small harbor there, past the old cannery, through the Community of Mud Bay, past the road to Chilkat State Park, and on the the seemingly dead end of Mud Bay Road itself. This where I had been deterred before, but was determined to find what I was looking for.

The Chilkat Penninsula, at just over 59 degrees north latitude,  holds 2 or 3 tiny lakes on the flanks of it’s forested hills overlooking the Lynn Canal and it’s various arms. The most commonly known lake is Lilly Lake, which also serves as the drinking water supply for our little town. One other tiny lake, more remote than Lilly, called Rustabach Lake was what I wanted to see.

The Ogre seems to have a third eye for this sort of thing, so I shrug my shoulders and hang on for a steep climb up the narrow dirt track leading upward. Shifting into the wee tiny gears of the upper end finds us at a pull out about a mile up. I stop and can see that there is a well traveled trail leading from the pull out and decide that a short hike is in order. Not far into the old growth forest, the trail is smooth and I figure must lead to someone’s cabin. After a short bit, there is the Lake! Rustabach! It appears smaller than Lilly Lake and perhaps a shallow one at that, but it is a peaceful place surrounded by magnificent forest and some of the thickest, greenest moss forest carpet I have ever seen. I walk back to the bike and we continue on up the road and finally come to someone’s beautiful cabin homestead, complete with a big green peace symbol on it’s woodshed. Not wanting to disrupt, we turn around for a fast and fun blast down the road to the saltwater, where big views of Alaska’s great Coast Mountains and her mighty glaciers are visible. Also visible, is a storm quickly approaching from the open waters of Icy Strait, not far south. The peaks are quickly engulfed and the Ogre and I head back to from where we came…

Rustabach Lake_1 Rustabach Lake_2 Rustabach Lake_3 Rustabach Lake_4 Rustabach Lake

Rustabach Lake

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Bear Beach

Living in Haines, in particular, the Chilkat Peninsula, and being surrounded by salt water and rivers’ galore, the concept of having a boat, in all of it’s magnificent access abilities, seems as important a vehicle as any. The vessel available to us at time’s being is a Lund 12′ craft of the skiff variety, which sports a small 10hp Johnson motor. Other craft’s would be a pleasure to captain as well, such as a canoe or sea kayak, but the Lundy is what we’ve got and a day out to explore the fabulous waterways of our home is in order. Forgoing the “event of the year” in Haines, the annual Southeast Alaska State Fair, we opt to load the boat into the truck (sans trailer) and head out to Chilkoot lake for a looksie.Chilkoot Lake is a spectacle to behold for sure: a milestone of a lake it is situated at the bosom of the Takahshini Mountains, is fed by the world famous Salmon fed Chilkoot River, and is surrounded by peaks, waterfalls, glaciers, and Bears. The lake’s out feed river, the Lower Chilkoot, is only 1 mile long before dumping itself into the mighty sea by means of the Lutak Inlet. This stretch of river sports one of the mightiest Sockeye Salmon runs in the state, and is usually adorned with fisherman from abroad, hoping to land a fish. Above said stream, is Chilkoot Lake and above the pond lie one of Southeast Alaska’s mighty wilderness rivers’: The Upper Chilkoot. Where the Upper Chilkoot enters the lake, a great sandy stretch of freshwater coastline angls off to form what is affectionately known as “Bear Beach”.We drive out past the hoards of Fair goers onto the Lutak Road and sneak up the Chilkoot road to it’s end and set the boat, and ourselves adrift. A cruise up lake reveals a new vantage and we are rewarded by hidden glaciers and more eye dropping waterfalls. About 3 miles out we come to the lake’s end and we find our selves moored upon the beach head known as “Bear Beach”. Immediately upon abandoning ship, Brown Bear prints are seen and we come to realize the nature of it’s given name. Angela scrambles off to follow the prints and soon is fiording the raging Chikoot River in an attempt to continue following the Bear’s path. Soon the water is higher than the Extra Tuffs that adorn her feet, and she then sheds boots and clothing alike for a true Alaskan river crossing. Not being so bold, I decide to stick to the adjecent shore in hopes of joining her further up river. I too come to my own adventure shortly thereafter, and soon find myself deep in Alder thickets and Sedge grass waist deep, with Bear trails criss crossing the landscape. I begin my chanting of bear talk in an attempt to warn the large, furry critter’s of my presence. Bear beds and more prints scatter the shoreline and soon I see Angela attempting to wade back across to a lagoon that might access the previous shoreline. Soon she is wading thigh deep, naked as the day she came with  Extra Tuff’s in hand and the most serious set of Bear trails I have seen swirling around us. A quick stomp through the Alder thickets and Devil’s Club singing bear songs, brings us back to the beach where we ponder the situation. Back in the boat and headed back from where we came, a few more stops at small creeks and inlets rewards us with spawning Salmon, more beautiful forest and waterfalls, and another fine day in Alaska.

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The Last Leg of Summer

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!

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The Road to McCarthy – aka, “Is It Worth?”

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.

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The Denali Highway

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…

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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.

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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.