RAVENS ON THE GULKANA

By Linus Lawrence Platt

                                      

It had been over two years since the Over The Hill Expeditions gang had gotten together to hit the hills so to speak; in 2019 it was an attempt to climb and ski Mt Sanford (16,237′) the second highest peak in the Wrangell Mountains of South Central Alaska with Rich Page, Jeff Rogers, and Cameron Burns. It was trip filled with good times, friendship, and adventure regardless of our not reaching the summit. After the Sanford expedition, Rich and I conjured up a trip idea for an attempt on the East Ridge of Mt Hayes to take place the following spring, but the plandemic took shape, I lost my job, and the notion to climb Hayes pretty much went up in smoke. Disgusted with too many things about Haines, I built a custom tiny home/camper (dubbed The Raven), sold my house, and hit the road for Fairbanks to re-locate. It was later in the spring that the plan to do a packrafting trip of some sort in the summer or fall of 2021 was born.

Rich, a former Denali guide from Colorado, managed to free himself from his business, Savage Gear, in North Conway, New Hampshire, of building packs and repairing outdoor gear and bought a plane ticket to Fairbanks for the end of August. Thinking a third person would be fun, I invited my friend Chris Gavin from Baltimore to join us on an adventure. Chris and I had first met in Fairbanks in 2017, and we had remained in contact ever since. We had often discussed doing some type of backcountry trip together, and when the notion of the Hayes trip was born, Chris agreed to be a team member, but of course that expedition never saw the light of day. For 2021, Rich and I mused over several possibilities, initially considering something in the Brooks Range, but the time frame for this trip dictated something further south, and we finally settle on paddling the Gulkana River from its source near Paxson Lake in the Alaska Range all the way to its terminus at the Copper River at the foot of the Wrangell Mountains in South Central Alaska. The Gulkana River is a beautiful Class II-IV river that flows through the dense boreal forests of Central Eastern Alaska, ancestral home to the Athabascans, and a major tributary to the world famous Copper River.

After losing my job in March 2020, I spent an entire year building The Raven, remodeling the house for re-sale, and modifying and repairing both vehicles for my departure in April 2021. It was an exhausting period with little time for much else. For me, leaving Haines and relocating to the interior was no simple task; I had two trucks, a home built truck cabin, and a cargo trailer that held my carpentry tools and the bulk of my belongings. It took the last year in Haines selling, giving away, and throwing out material possessions to make this happen. In a time when most Americans are busy collecting things and spreading out, I am quite content, ecstatic in fact, to be reducing my world load and becoming as compact and efficient as possible. Even still, not one, but two trips had to be made to Fairbanks. The first would be in the Toyota truck pulling the cargo trailer and stashing both at my good friend Tony’s place in Fairbanks, then flying back to Juneau, taking the ferry back up to Haines, and repeating the process; the second time armed with the Ford F250 and The Raven, my custom made truck cabin built with Alaskan winters in mind. Of course, with Canada closing its borders to “non-essential” travel (all travel is essential, for one reason or another) this made for a tricky escape out of Southeast Alaska. Luckily, my buddy Sven wrote me up a semi-fake employment agreement, and by the skin of my teeth, I made it across the Canadian border 40 miles from Haines. When I finally got back across the Alaskan border and arrived in Tok, I literally got out of the truck and kissed the ground. Back in the Real Alaska… After arriving in Fairbanks, I got a post office box, changed my driver’s license, car insurance address, and vehicle registration. And just like that, I was now a resident of Fairbanks, ensuring the Canadian Border Robots would give me a pass on the 2nd trip. My primary concern after the fact is that they would remember me from the week prior (I have a very unique and somewhat memorable name) Alas, it was a non-issue and and before I knew it, The Raven and I were camped along the Gerstle River near the Alaska Range in one of my favorite parts of the state. All said and done the escape from Haines was literally the single most difficult task yet in my lifetime. Not long after, Angela boards a ferry with her truck bound for Whittier, and makes the drive to Fairbanks. She too had felt the need for something different than what Haines has to offer.

Haines, Alaska… well sort of Alaska; it feels a bit more like a Canadian province than a de facto Alaskan town, is a beautiful place indeed, but contrary to the arrogance of its locals, Haines does not in fact have the monopoly on “Alaskan Beauty”. In fact the Central Interior with its majestic mountains, enormous glaciers, rivers, forests, and expansive valleys are far more appealing to this soul. As are the people and the weather; I found Haines, and by a margin, the people (especially the outdoor adventure community) of Haines to be somewhat cavalier and impudent. Obviously this does not apply to everyone; there are a number of Haines-folk whom I hold in high regard and have the deepest respect for (you know who you are). The winters are heinous for the most part, where it will snow, then rain on top of snow, then freeze, then turn to ice, then repeat… all winter. I’ll take minus 20 degrees F in the semi-dry subarctic climate of the central interior over the plus 30 degrees F and 90 percent humidity of Haines any day of the week. After nearly 8 years living in Haines, I’d had enough. So back to from which I came was in order (I’d lived in Fairbanks for a stint prior to taking up in Haines).

The entire spring and summer was filled with many, many work and carpentry projects for my good friend Sven at his Hostel, converting an old cabin into a genuine public espresso shop, getting my own scene together on my friend Tony’s land at a place I now dub The Raven’s Roost, cutting firewood for the impending winter, and countless other activities regarding work and life preparation. In between all of this, I still managed a day trip to the Alaska Range, a three day fly-in trip to the Brooks Range, a two day pack rafting trip on the upper Chatanika River with Sven, another 2 day driving trip to the Brooks, and several other hikes and forays into the fantastically beautiful White Mountains just outside of Fairbanks. The Raven’s Roost is a good place to throw down for an undetermined amount of time; it sits on several acres of boreal forest, is mostly quiet and private, is close to town (3-5 miles), and on appropriate days, just down the hill from my place, one can see all the high peaks of the Central Alaska Range dominating the skyline.

By the time late August rolled around, I was deeply ready for a needed break; I had only paddled once all summer, and it was a good one. Sven and I paddled a great two-day trip down the upper Chatanika, a beautiful class II paddle on the edge of the White Mountains where we paddled for almost 11 hours straight the first day, finally landing on a good camping beach where we roasted sausages on an open fire, sipped whiskey, and had some laughs.

On August 26th Chris Gavin flies in and having a few hours to kill, we step out for Thai food at the consistently great Lemongrass Restaurant, followed by a tour of my Raven tiny home. Once Rich arrives a few hours later, it’s game on to get organized and gear together at Sven’s hostel. The next couple days are spent roaming town in search of this and that, generally followed by a steak or Sockeye Salmon BBQ from when Sven and I had dip-netted in Chitina weeks before.

August had been a typical rain-fest, and honestly the weather was downright miserable (this IS Alaska after all) in the days before we headed out for the drive down the Richardson Highway toward Paxson Lake, but as luck would have it, the clouds part the morning we start driving and one might even consider it a beautiful day. With Chris and Rich driving my Toyota pickup, and me in the lead driving my big Ford diesel, we caravan south through arguably my favorite part of the state. It is here that the Richardson passes through the Central/Eastern Alaska Range and has been the scene of many mountaineering and hiking adventures over the years. Our destination and put in is Paxson Lake, just south of Isabel Pass on the Richardson Highway about three hours south of Fairbanks.

Paxson Lake is fairly large glacially fed lake in Alaska’s interior that is about 12 miles long by about 4 miles wide, and is home to Lake Trout, Dolly Varden, Northern Pike, Burbot, two species of Whitefish, Arctic Grayling, and hoards of spawning Sockeye Salmon from June through September. There is also a King Salmon run in June. The BLM operates a campground and a boat ramp on the east side of the lake, so we opted to spend the night here and get ready for the several mile flat lake paddling tomorrow. The Gulkana River begins its life born from Summit Lake a few miles to the north, where it runs very thin down a treacherous class IV canyon before entering Paxson Lake, where it drains at the Lake’s southern end.

Late that night, from a deep slumber within my tent, I hear Chris outside trying to wake us as the Aurora Borealis is out and wildly going off. I dress quickly and scamper out; the sky is ablaze with one of the true gifts from the north. Chris and I decide to take a walk to the lake shore to catch the show, and seeing the brilliance dancing above the peaks of the Central and Eastern Alaska Range reminded me of why I live in such a beautiful, challenging, and sometimes inhospitable place. Alaska is a genuine treasure 12 months out of the year, and calling its interior my home is something I am extremely happy about and proud of. After the show fizzles down, we walk back to camp and hit the rack.

The morning of September 1st, Chris and I do our truck shuttle to Sourdough Camp further south down the Richardson Highway; luckily we have two trucks so this is an easy operation, save for one minor detail. When Sven and I had gone to Chitina to dip net for Sockeye weeks earlier, there was and still is a major road re-construction of the Richardson, with multiple delays along a 20 mile stretch. I had completely forgotten about this fact when Chris and I rallied south, but ultimately it only added about an hour to the task.

Back at Paxson, Rich has everything laid out and we pack the boats, inflate, and hit the water.
It feels good to paddle and luck is on our side with no headwind. After a couple of hours on the lake, we reach the beginning of the Gulkana where hundreds of Sockeye are spotted in the depths beneath our rafts. This clearly a spawning bed, with as many dead fish as alive. We pull off to a bear trampled area and have a welcomed lunch.

The next section is the real beginning of the Gulkana proper with long, fast and fun sections of class II waves and rollers. After a spell, an old trappers cabin from the late 19th century gold rush era appears and adorning a nice flat and grassy camp spot. We pull off and settle in for the night. The weather is now certifiably glorious and watching the sun set behind the Taiga sees me happily drifting to sleep. Later in the evening, a Cow Moose and Calf zip right past my tent and fjord the river. More Alaska wonderment that makes everything seem all the more special.

The morning brings ethereal mist and mesmerizing light over the enchanted Alaska landscape, and later in the morning we see more Moose both in the river and in the woods on shore. The critters are out and about. This next section is fairly slow and twisty as the river makes its way through the thick taiga of the upper Copper River Basin; an immense area that once held the enormous prehistoric Lake Atna that formed during the Wisconsin Glaciation period more than 40,000 years ago. The lake was formed when what is now the Childs Glacier grew and subsequently dammed what is now the Copper River. After the glaciation period ended, the glacier receded, draining the lake. The Lake Atna basin is fairly flat and covered in Boreal forest with several remnant lakes remaining, one of the largest of these being Lake Louise, a popular fishing and camping destination for Alaskans during both summer and winter. Later, a few splashy sections follow here and there just to make sure one is paying attention, which we must do in order to spot the take out for the upcoming Gulkana Canyon portage. I had been eager to get to this place in order to scout the Gulkana’s biggest rapids in hopes of running them, but after close inspection, I decide that it is better to portage and live to paddle another day. These class III/IV boilers and pour offs looked dangerous to me, and being at least 40 trail-less miles from the highway means be fucking careful.

This section of the river at the canyon was a special place for sure; the roar of the rapids, the granite walls and boulders, the Bear trails, fishing holes, and great camping spots impose upon us the idea of doing no paddling at all the following day and instead do some hiking, fishing, and relaxing.

A nice late sleep in the morning followed by a lengthy round of coffee finds us wandering Bear trails up river to have a good hard look at the Class III/IV chaos in the main canyon. The roar is deafening in spots and there are good side trails leading to the waters edge for close inspection of the drops and hydraulics. I had it in my mind that I might reconsider running the canyon rapids today. One very noticeably absent feature of this canyon is any trace of a real eddy line. On the contrary, there is a significant undercut that looks difficult to avoid. I stick to my decision not to run it, and Chris, who also had notions of running it today, decided to duck out as well in the interest of group safety being this far out from rescue or medical attention. Rich did bring along his Garmin InReach GPS communicator for emergencies, but regardless, pushing the envelope seemed a bit reckless to me. It might have been different if I had been paddling a ton all summer, but sadly this was simply not the case. Upon returning to camp, Rich surprises us by whipping up a batch of Cinnamon rolls on the MSR stove, complete with sweet frosting and hot coffee. We sit with our treats and listen to the roar of the river and I watch as a pair of mated Ravens chase one another through the treetops, each one changing the conversation between them frequently with yet another sequence from their extended vocabulary. The Ravens always have a special place in this world to my thinking and Ravens on the Gulkana that much more so.

A bit later, Chris and I decide to hike up to Canyon Lake, for which there is actually a trail, which in most parts of the Alaska backcountry is pretty much unheard of. The “trail” as it turns out is a muddy, rutted Moose path complete with anticipated bushwhacking. We reach the tiny little lake and being somewhat underwhelmed by it’s size and presence, we turn back and head back to camp. Later, we glance at the map, and Canyon Lake is a much, much bigger body of water no more than 5 minutes further past the pond we visited. Ah well…

Next, we decide to partake in an effort to catch some fish for an anticipated fish taco feast later in the evening. Chris and I grab rod and reel and head downstream to a hole we had spotted earlier on our hike. The very first cast I nab a 17″ Rainbow Trout, and over the course of about 10 minutes, had another smaller Rainbow, and two nice Graylings. All caught using spinning gear with a small sized spoon. Four fish is plenty to feed the three of us for supper I reckon. After cleaning the fish, I build up an existing campfire ring with more river rocks to create a nice oven-like enclosure. Next, a trip up the hillside to a stash of firewood I had spotted earlier, and we were ready. I crank up the fire, wrap the fish in aluminum foil, sprinkle with olive oil and salt, and crack open the bottle of whiskey for a round of shots between us as we feed the fire and wait for the ensuing coals to develop. Soon we are munching delicious fish tacos and feeling quite content. Later, Rich, in his usual Denali mountain guide style, puts together a grand cheesecake adorned with fresh blueberries picked on site, and serves it up adorning his fake hillbilly halloween teeth set. A good laugh was had by all and as darkness set upon us, we hit the sack. At 2 am I hear Chris outside rummaging around and rapping about the explosion in the sky. I’m out of the tent in a flash and setting up camera and gawking at the miracle above. The Aurora was out and taunting us again, this time spread across the sky in a dazzling display of brilliance and color from horizon to horizon.

In the early morning hours, I wake to the pitter patter of a steady rain on the tent, shrug it off, and roll back asleep. At 9 am, still in the tent, the rain seems to be letting up, but the silence in camp is tell tale; no one in camp is eager to get up and pack things up wet. As many hundreds of nights I’ve spent in the wilderness and packing it in wet, the task eventually becomes routine, yet is never enjoyable no matter the level of efficiency. After a damp round of coffee and breakfast, we pack it in and hit the water. The rain has all but stopped, but there is a chill in the air that has mostly been absent so far on this journey. For the first time, I’m wearing gloves and beanie, and under my drysuit are layered clothing. The river is outstanding today… loads and loads of twisty rapids, beautiful scenery, and the ever present sensation of being deep into an Alaska back country adventure.

In looking for a camp spot on rivers, I like the sort of gravel beach that meets certain criteria; the size of the gravel need be small, not too many fist sized rocks, but a good mix of gravel, a little sand, and possibly a few larger rocks for a wind break if a fire is desired, and I always look for stashes of driftwood to make said fire. Additionally, I look for ones that are elevated a bit from river level… not much, perhaps only a foot or two to keep a potentially fluctuating water level at bay. Of course it must also afford flat areas for pitching tents and such. Luckily, the Gulkana is graced with many of these aforementioned bivouacs. On this day, it seemed we had been paddling for a very long time; it wasn’t any longer than the other days, but we were all feeling a bit exhausted and felt accordingly, so when an ideal camp appears meeting the above requirements, we pull off, set up tents, and build a nice fire, mostly just for the psychological comfort a camp fire can provide. The nearby river line is dotted with extremely large King Salmon skeletons and skulls, remnants from the run many weeks earlier. A Grizzly Bear track or two lets us know we share this beach with others. The sun sets and a brilliant display of color paints the sky over a vast section of taiga adjacent to our camp as I crawl into my nylon cocoon and sleep like the dead.

The next day, we anticipate making it to Sourdough where the truck is, and within a few hours, it comes around, and after deflating packrafts and peeling off drysuits, we pack the truck loosely, pile in, and head to Glennallen about 35 miles down the Richardson. After picking up dinner supplies, diesel fuel, and beer, we drive back north to Sourdough and setup a fine truck camp and have a feast of New York Strip, baked potatoes, and a much welcomed salad. Anything but the usual backcountry food and freeze dried meals we normally carry was a treat to the tastebuds and body.

After breakfast and coffee, we decide to keep paddling to at least the Gulkana River bridge near the native village of Gulkana, where the Richardson Highway passes over the river. Many of the accounts we had read spoke only of the section of river north of Sourdough, as the BLM designates that section as “wild and scenic”, which is really nonsense, since the entire river certainly meets that description. To our absolute delight, the section of river south of the “scenic and wild” designation, and the section that few people paddle, turns out to be possibly the best section of the entire 85 miles of river. The river at this point is twisty, fast flowing, and full of many, many class II/III splashy sections. Furthermore, the beauty of this portion is really outstanding, with countless 300 foot high cut banks displaying the colorful geology of the area. Additionally, the fall colors are mesmerizing. Mother nature has painted the landscape all measures of gold and orange hues. The river is big here as well, with hidden boulders and pour offs difficult to see from upriver, commanding one pay close attention. Another long day ends at a good beach camp with a striking view of Mt Drum (12,010′) gracing the horizon.

The following day, we arrive at the Gulkana Bridge, where we ponder the options of either stopping here and hitching to the truck, or continue on to the Copper River and paddle down it a day or so to the community of Copperville. For whatever reason, there was some tension developing between us, and after some poorly concocted discussion, we decide to keep going, which pleased me as I really want to paddle the Gulkana in its entirety. After a couple hours, I see the big, open drainage containing the mighty Copper River, and soon the Gulkana’s crystal clear water slices into the glacial silt of the Copper, creating an often seen phenomena in Alaska when two rivers of different origins merge. Both the Copper and the Gulkana are born of the ice, so it might make one wonder why the Gulkana is clear and the Copper is silty, and as far as my thinking takes me, it is because the Gulkana passes through Paxson Lake near it’s headwaters where the glacial silt is filtered, where as the Copper is a wild and raging specimen shooting directly from glacier to sea.

The Copper River is a beast of a river, born straight from the monolithic mass of Mt Sanford, and known for its treachery, volume, and history, both modern and ancient. It is also known for being festooned with one of the worlds largest Sockeye Salmon runs, As soon as I hit the main Copper channel, everything feels like it went up a notch or three. I suddenly feel intimidated as the sheer size and volume of this mighty river is a whole different experience compared to the little Gulkana. Several days earlier, at a Bear print covered beach where we ate lunch, I managed to paddle off, leaving my PFD behind, and it wasn’t noticed for at least an hour downstream. Now here, on the Copper River, without a PFD, and Rich’s rental packraft, an old school Alpacka boat with a leaky spray deck taking on water, we pull off onto an island in the middle of the river to contemplate the situation.

The main channel we must take looks a tad uncivilized for both Rich and I with our said equipment disabilities. Chris was the only one in the group currently equipment-rich, but we all decide to ponder the possibility of escape. The issue is the main channel that separates us from the highway side of the river. The water is fast and cold. I am suddenly thrown into a psychological battle with myself as a similar scenario last summer on the Klehini River with Angela arises in my thoughts. We decide that the best way is to start a Hairy Ferry (paddling upstream in order to make a crossing) at the most upstream point on the island. Chris goes first, with Rich and I downstream with throw lines in hand ready for a rescue if needed. I see Chris paddle as hard as he can, fighting the current in an attempt to keep the boat pointed upstream. If the not done correctly, the bow will catch the current and turn downstream. If that happens, our plan will fail, and a commitment to the raging channel will ensue, putting us in a much more dire situation. Chris makes the next island, where he pulls boat up on gravel and pulls out throw bag for the next participant, which is me. I paddle like my life depends on it (it does) as adrenaline carries me to the second island. Once again, Chris and I are in rescue mode as Rich makes the third crossing. Since we are on yet another island, we must duplicate these maneuvers one more time, this time matters most as wave train in the main channel could grab us if we are not extremely careful. After another adrenaline fueled crossing, we are on the western bank of the Copper River, and an unknown number of miles from the highway. Had we continued down river to Copperville, we would have been all set to simply hitch hike to the truck at Sourdough, but here, we are at the confluence of the Gulkana and Copper Rivers essentially in the wilderness, unwilling to paddle further, with an unknown and trail-less escape to the highway, which we have no idea it’s distance.

We shortline the boats up a sizable embankment utilizing our rescue ropes and find a pretty nice flat section overlooking the river in which to make a camp. We are all in good spirits since the escape incident went without harm or injury, and we polish off the last of the whiskey, eat a quiet supper and get some sleep. In the wee hours of the morning, it rains solidly, and thus, coercing the three of us to sleep late as per normal during the wet spells. After packing up everything into packs, we shoulder the monster loads, and follow a faint Bear trail north, where we turn west when a drainage appears. Soon we are soaked to the bone from bushwhacking in the wet taiga, but soon it appears we are on track and heading due west toward the Richardson Highway. After an hour or so, I hear trucks on the highway, and without further adieu, we stand on the shoulder of the pavement, feeling pretty ragged and worn. I toss down my bloated pack and begin to stomp north with my thumb out as Rich and Chris guard our packs.

After two separate rides, the first being a couple of Native folks from Gakona, and the second, a Native man from Slana, I’m at Sourdough and walk the quarter mile to the truck. Soon I’m back with Rich and Chris, where we decide to drive to Glennallen for supplies and afterward make the drive back north to Paxson Lake where the other truck is. The next morning a nice
late start sees us happily entering the Denali Highway, 135 miles of glorious dirt road traversing the Central Alaska Range. It had been a few years since I had been out here and was shocked at the sheer number of hunters. Dozens upon dozens of hunting towns of RV’s and 4-wheelers are scattered about the landscape, making it clear there are literally thousands of people out here for the Caribou hunt.

Over a decade ago I rode my bicycle to Alaska starting in my home of 21 years in Moab, and after 3800 miles of pedaling, I found myself on the Denali Highway on a hilltop camp over looking the giants of Mt Hayes and Mt Deborah, the Clearwater Mountains, and the headwaters of the mighty Susitna River. It was at this exact hilltop camp, found by pushing my bicycle up old ATV and game trails, that I fell in love with Alaska and it was at that very moment I vowed to make it my home forever. It was mesmerizing to see this exact place again years later and even more so with the fall colors of the Willow, Blueberry, and Tundra on fire… I named this place Revelation Hill and without a doubt in every way it changed my life forever.

That nigh, camped at Brushkana Creek near the western end of the road, we witnessed yet another spectacular showing of the Northern Lights. Time after time, it never fails to remind me of what a gift the far north is to me. Late that afternoon, we roll back into Fairbanks, where I drop off Chris and Rich at Sven’s and I head home to The Raven to sleep in my own bed for the first time in 12 days. In all, we paddled over 85 miles and spent 8 days on the river including the rest day at the Gulkana Canyon.

A couple days later, the three of us embark the final paddling adventure of the season and hit the Upper Chatanika and repeat the trip Sven and I had had done back in June. Once again, the fall colors are off the hook, and the water levels are surprisingly high, making for an outstanding paddle. That said, the night time temps are dropping and I can feel Old Man Winter poking his head in the door. A couple days later, Rich and Chris board airplanes bound for home and I head home to Raven’s Roost, a hot cup of tea, and a ponder of the coming winter.

Upper Lynn Canal Panorama

Upper Lynn Canal featuring the tiny town of Haines, Alaska below. Panorama taken from just below Mt Ripinski’s summit utilizing 4 separate 6K RAW images from Sony a6300 with 16-50mm kit lens stitched together in Adobe LR…

 

Chilkat Peninsula Panorama

The Chilkoot Backcountry

As mentioned here before, for me, the primary reason for living in Haines is its close proximity and access to the incredible Yukon Territory. I could care less for the Sea and it’s subsequent maritime weather and inherent jungle. Instead, I prefer the deep interior with its immediate access to the alpine, it’s well defined and cold winters, its clear, crisp winter nights, its commonly seen Aurora Borealis, and its plethora of wild animals. I care not for cruise ships, inflated prices, and difficult access to the alpine landscape. Consequently, I tend to spend the bulk of my spare time on the north side of Chilkat Pass aka Haines Summit.

For Angela’s birthday we decide that a juant to the Yukon is in order, but an issue with a forgotten passport once on the road sees us turning the truck around in search of an alpine adventure within the confines of the narrow strip of land in the area surrounding the upper Lynn Canal. My good friend and workmate Tully has spent a great deal of time in the alpine areas above and beyond Chilkoot Lake and has expressed nothing but gratitude that this area exists. After showing me a photo of a small alpine lake sitting on the very edge of steepening mountain sides and overlooking the Chilkoot region and surrounding ranges, Angela and I decide that a closer look is in order. Tully had described the approach to me some time back to this place he calls Wolverine Lake, but my memory is foggy and we figure on finding said place regardless.

Driving in to Chilkoot is nothing short of chaotic. Fishermen, RV’s, tourists, tour busses, Bear watchers, campers, boaters, and riffraff clutter this overused area; its one of the finest examples of a Salmon filled Alaskan river with the ability to witness Bears fishing all through the summer. There are so many people here during July and August that I generally stay clear of this place. Once past the jumbling madness of the roadside river and boat ramp at lake’s shore, we find ourselves paddling packrafts across the lake a short distance to access the forest and the steep approach to Wolverine lake. We find a good place to stash the boats and ExtraTuffs upon a fallen Spruce, repack our bags, and begin trudging up the ever steepening hillside studded with the usual artifacts that a  temperate rainforest has to offer. Soon it becomes very steep and in places requires both hands and feet to clamber up and over rotting logs, granite boulders, and dense thickets. It is tiring hiking for sure, but still relatively easy comparitively.

A vertical granite cliff of a couple hundred feet appears and we decide to skirt it on its left where a right leaning ramp leads to a boulder strewn sub-alpine valley. We think that Wolverine Lake is up at the top of this valley and pursue a jaunt of boulder hopping, which after the steep and cluttered hike down low, feels a welcome relief. Nothing makles me happier than to be on bare rock and boulders for travel. Up higher, the boulder field ends in another dense forest where we begin to doubt the location of the lake. It occurs to me that we are perhaps in the wrong drainage all together. We are exhausted and it is getting late; we decide that we must make our way up and over the ridge to our left to get to the proper drainage, but the means of navigating this requires some serious and painful bushwacking. An hour or so of battling some of the most heinous Devil’s Club and Alder thrashing I have yet to encounter puts us on a traverse into another boulder fiels in what we hope is the correct drainage. Boulder jumping once again upward sees us gaining altitude quickly. A young Black Bear darts from the Alder thicket just ahead and dashes across the tundra into another thicket. A group of 8-10 Mountain Goats are on a high bench off to our left. We are thirsty, tired, and in need of a camp.

After topping out the last of the hikeable terrain, we find no Wolverine Lake but instead a beautiful but dry alpine cirque surrounded by high granite walls. We can hear water and begin descending into the bowl where we are thankful to find find a massive snow bank and small alpine pond – we have water. Setting up the tent on a ridge of tundra just as dusk hits, we dive in and spend the evening eating, drinking wine, talking, and listening to the rain come down, which it does for the entire night. 

After coffee and breakfast the rain slows and we pack up camp and begin the slippery descent. Steep rock slabs must be negotiated before entering the forest and the ensuing bushwacking can begin. A thrash of epic proportions concludes us arriving at our boats torn to shreds. My arms looke like I was in a knife fight in an Anchorage bar, and Devil’s Club thorns embedded in hands, legs, and thighs. Exhausted, we paddle the short distance to the truck and call it another epic 30 hour Alaska adventure… In retrospect, had we stayed in the original drainage before bushwacking over the ridge, we would have run smack dab into our destination. Chalk it all up to adventure exploration in SE Alaska…

Wolverine Lake Attempt-1Wolverine Lake Attempt-2Wolverine Lake Attempt-3Wolverine Lake Attempt-4Wolverine Lake Attempt-6Wolverine Lake Attempt-5Wolverine Lake Attempt-7Wolverine Lake Attempt-8Wolverine Lake Attempt-9Wolverine Lake Attempt-10Wolverine Lake Attempt-11Wolverine Lake Attempt-13Ang BreakfastWolverine Lake Attempt-14Wolverine Lake Attempt-15

The Parton River: A Weekend Packraft Adventure

Living in Haines for the past six years has given me great thirst for the remote and mysterious Takshanuk and Alsek Ranges on the SE fringes of the St Elias mountains. This is an area of smaller peaks and moderately sized glaciers that give way to the monster peaks and glaciation of the the bigger icefields to the west all the way to the remote outer coast at the Gulf of Alaska. The areas between the Kelsall Valley to the east and the St Elias Range to the west are riddled with remote valleys, seldom seen rivers, and rarely climbed or even seen peaks. It is an extremely convoluted area that sparks my imagination and love for this magnificent landscape. One of the easier to access areas that involves a variety of travel on both land, glacier, and river is the Samuel Glacier region that gives birth to the short but spectacular Parton River. Access via the Chuck Creek trail is straightforward, scenic, and enjoyable.

On July 5th 2019, Angela, Tully, and myself set out on foot armed with hiking, camping, and packrafting gear to explore this area with the intention of camping in the glaciated upper valleys of the Parton River and packrafting back to the truck at Horse Camp on the Tatshenshini River the following day.

Immediately after leaving the trailhead, the bugs and heat are overwhelming; it is downright hot and the Black Flies and Horse Flies are swarming in droves around our sweaty bodies. But the landscape is dreamy and the smoke from the forest fires further north seem to be clearing somewhat. The wildflowers are blooming in full force and the stream crossings managable. We see a few people along the trail, but for the most part, it is quiet. After about 5 miles, the trail dissipates and cross country travel on the tundra leads to an overlook into the headwaters of the O’Connor River and the southern arm of the Samuel Glacier. It is here we must turn north and travel high tundra benches to gain the central arm oif the Samuel Glacier, cross over its flanks, and drop into the upper Parton River region, where, after 13 miles of travel, we find a spectacular camp along the shores of a great glacial tarn with close views of flowing glaciers and jagged peaks.

Before we reach the glacier however, a 500 foot slope of steep and loose glacial moraine must be descended to the ice; it is a bit dicey, but soon Tully and I are at glaciers edge. Angela is still about half way through the ordeal when a thunder shower of epic proportions descends upon our weary and unprepared selves. The weather forcast called for no rain, and since it was a short trip, I opted to leave rain gear behind, and soon, the torrent has us totally soaked and doesn’t seem to be stopping; Tully and I huddle under the lip of the ice in hopes of staying drier, but it is futile. Angela emerges from the mist a soaked and muddy mess and the rain continues to thrash us. The possibility of hypothermia is very real and I’m getting genuinely concerned. Suddenly the drops become somewhat lesser, so we shoulder our packs, hop onto the ice, and start hoofing it. The rain stops completely and soon we are dry and happy and admiring the notion of crossing this sizeable glacier at it’s toe in July in running shoes. There are no crevasses to speak of so it is a safe passage all the way to the headwaters were were set up camp next to a large granite boulder. We see another party camped about a mile down valley and want to give everyone space, so we call this lovely spot home for the evening. The weather is grand once again, and I even sleep outside under the northern sky where I can eyeball the peaks and glaciers of this incredible and spiritual place. I would have to say it it is one of the finest camp sites of my life. The blue of the ice and the starkness of the granite are mezmerizing to me.

Morning time is coffee time and sitting on the shores of this glass smooth glacial tarn is spent talking and joking about nearly getting into a bad situation in the previous afternoon’s thunder shower. We sip our cold coffee (we did not bring a stove) and look about this incredible little valley with it’s six glaciers, numerous peaks, and two lakes. I vow to back here and climb at least one of these glaciated granite peaks. We pack up and head down valley, where we are greeted by the party ahead; turns out it is Dan Humphreys, Gina St Clair, and several others from Haines. They are not here to packraft, but to hike up the valley above and cross over the mountains by way of West Nadahini Creek back to the Haines Highway in a 4 day through hike. 

After scouting out the upper Parton where it leaves this tarn, we descend slightly and make a dicey river crossing on foot, where we then walk the troubling looking class IV territory as the tumbling torrent finagles it’s way through the terminal moraine of a long gone ancient glacier. perhaps 2 or 3 miles down river from Dan and Gina’s camp, we find a good spot to stop and inflate the boats. Up ahead, there is some fun looking terrain consisting of some class II rollers. We roll through only to find several miles of flat, unintersting terrain riddled with bouts of butt dragging and boat hauling through shallow braided channels. I am becoming frustrated with the lack of actual paddling and the Horse Flies are increasing their intensity. I’m feeling ornery, but the thin braids finally give way to a single channel deep enough for real paddling. The river however is flat in dull… up ahead, we can see the river entering the canyon and losing altitude. The roar of the rapids ahead has us thinking. We pull over to grab some lunch and watch as a large Bull Moose crosses the channel and thrashes about with the irritating Horse Flies. Soon he is gone and so are we, paddling almost immediately into enjoyable class II/III waves and rollers. This is what we came for! This river is steep, and the intensity does not let up nor are there many places to eddy out. It becomes more and more intense and it occurs to me that during this record heat and afternoon thunder storms, the river is much bigger than “normal”. This torrent is really pushing hard. The river is running so strong and fast, there are very few boulders sticking out of the water; instead it becomes a twisting set of massive hydraulics, deep holes, and monster waves with substantial consequences at every hit. I had been told this river maxes out at about class III, but it definetely feels more like class IV to me. This is BIG water today.

Finally, and eddy appears and I pull off while Tully and Angela appear coming around upstream; they are wild eyed and some concerns about the river ahead are voiced. The roar of the rapids is defeaning. We must continue on… a quick thumbs up and the battle through the hydraulics begins again. One giant wave sends me into a big hole with a boulder sticking out of it; invisible from above. I nearly flip the boat but manage to swing it around. Things are getting hairy to say the least. I pull off again just slightly and let Angela and Tully pass and give them both some room figuring I’ll pull up the rear. Back into it, it is becoming more and more intense and soon it commands ALL attention. Catching air off of giant hydraulics increases my speed substantially and soon I am within sight of two empty boats ahead of me with both Angela and Tully swimming for their lives. There is nothing I can do for either of them and keep paddling another half mile where it mellows to class II and and eddy appears on river right. I get my boat to shore and out of the corner of my eye I see Tully’s boat coming right at me. I lunge for it and touch it, but but am knocked off my feet. After barely making it onto the shore once again, I see it far down stream, heading for Dry Bay and the Gulf of Alaska. I see angela’s boat next… this time in the middle off the torrent. Instinctively, I dive into the water and swim after it, and for a split second, I regret the move, but I grab hold of the boat and struggle for a quarter mile to get it to shore. Breathing as hard as I ever have in my life, I ditch the boats and begin stomping through the boreal spruce forest enroute upstream to find my companions. I spot Tully with Angela not far behind thrashing through the willow thickets up ahead. We are all together and safe, but now minus two paddles and one boat, our only option is to hike out to the highway where the truck is parked perhaps 4 or 5 long bushwhacking miles away. 

Poor Angela and Tully – a harrowing experience and a close call for them both. Angela lost only a paddle, but Tully lost everything; a packraft, a backpack full of camping gear, his phone, an expensive camera, etc. We are a sullen group now and begin the arduous bushwhack to the road via Bear trails next the river bank. We all keep an eye out for Tully’s boat, hoping it might have snagged itself on a strainer or somehow managed to eddy out. Exhaustion is taking its toll on all of us, but we continue on, shouting out every 30 seconds or so “Hey Bear!” in an attempt not to startle one. After a couple of miles, the river turns NW and flattens out, sending water into several shallow braids that makes for traveling in-water feasable; I find it easier to simply wade through the shallower braids of the river than to attempt to navigate the heainous willow thickets shore-wise. Tully and Angela are back behind me a ways, so they do not see what I see down river just yet. Its Tully’s boat, backpack and all, hung up on a shallow gravel bar. I swim toward it and rescue it as fast as I can in fear of it somehow sprouting fins and swimming away from me. It is full of water and is going nowhere. After getting it to shore, I see the others up river. I wave and shout to them and suddenly we are all full of joy.

Somehow, I had it in my head that the truck was parked just past the confluence with the Tatashenshini River, so when we arrived at the Tat, Angela and I swim across, while tully navigates his vessel and we continue further down stream. Tully questions my notions that the truck is down stream, and I assure him that it is. Tully’s instincts were spot on, and after another hour of thrashing, we realize that the truck is nowhere near where we are or where we are heading. We are so exhausted that each step is becoming an excercise in agony; the willow thickets becoming more and more challenging with each minute. We come back to the Tatshenshini and head north along it’s shores, seeing several Beaver along the way and swatting their tails at us each time. I pass a Moose skull and suddenly spot the truck not far off. Days later I realized from inspecting the map the err of my judgment. There is an old faint dirt road heading to the river crossing at Horse Camp and the truck, but in our exhasted state of mind, must have walked right past it. Lesson learned. Somehow, I had not completed my homework…

The drive home was a real challenge due to exhaustion, but looking back, we had one helluva fine 36 hours of real northern adventure. I totally and completely live for this stuff, and sometimes the pain and discomfort of fatigue and stress are what makes a trip more than a trip in a tense and potentially dangerous situation. Yet it is this philosophy that keeps me meandering this wilderness time after time to experience the spirit of The North and all her glorious treasures, wether it be mountaineering and alpinism, skiing, packrafting, or just simply going on a pleasant and simple day hike. It all counts and adds value to my life here. In the end, we walked almost 20 miles, paddle some 10-12 miles of river including some stuff at the boundaries of my paddling ability, endured intense heat, terrible insects, powerful thunder storms, saw wildlife and good friends, camped in one of the most spectacular places in The North, had great adventure, and lost two paddles, one hat, and a pair of cheap sunglasses.

I’ll take it…

Parton River-1Parton River-2Parton River-3Parton River-4Parton River-5Parton River-6Parton River-7Parton River-8Parton River-9Parton River-10Parton River-11Parton River-12Parton River-13Parton River-14Parton River-15Parton River-16Parton River-17Parton River-18Parton River-19Parton River-20Parton River-21Parton River-22Parton River-23Parton River-24Parton River-25Parton River-26Parton River-27Parton River-28Parton River-29Parton River-30Parton River-31Parton River-32Parton River-33Parton River-34Parton River-35Parton River-36Parton River-37

 

 

 

 

Mt Sanford 2019

This year’s Over The Hill Expeditions trip to Mt Sanford was a success!

We as a group became great friends, enjoyed ourselves and the mountain, experienced good weather and extremely bad weather, saw endless beauty, had a ton of laughs, and even talked a little about the future.

That said, we did not reach the summit, but all involved felt the journey was a successful one none the less…

Check back for a full trip report and many photographs!

Mt Sanford 2019 1Mt Sanford 2019 2Mt Sanford 2019 3Mt Sanford 2019 4Mt Sanford 2019 5

Rime And Reason On Mt Ripinski

These last weeks have flown by so fast in preparation for the upcoming Over The Hill Expeditions trip to climb and ski Mt Sanford in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains, that I barely noticed that the departure date is just next week! Gear is together, money is (well, mostly) together, and fitness, well… ahem, uh, well…

So… the last Saturday before I leave to drive up north to pick up Rich, Cam, and Jeff in Anchorage, I decide that a jaunt up Mt Ripinski is in order; Angela also wants to go, so that is even better. Ripinski is a coastal, non-glaciated peak sitting directly on the waters edge of the mighty Lynn Canal; it’s summit clearly seen from most anywhere near or in Haines. It’s summit is a 3600′ rocky point amidst small rolling hollows of tundra and outcroppings, where Mountain Goat, Wolf, and Grizzly Bear all roam. 

From the end of Young Road in Haines, at an approximate elevation of 400′, the trail climbs rapidly to it’s summit 4.5 miles and 3200′ later. It is considered a local classic and the views from the summit encompass the Chilkat Range, the Lynn Canal, the Chilkat Inlet, the Chilkoot Inlet and lake, the Alaska Coast Range, Skagway, and many of the area’s surrounding glaciers. It’s the best bang for your buck view-wise around.

Leaving Mountain Market at about 9:30 am, we head for the trail and begin to stomp up the muddy, root infested path to snow line, where we swap running shoes for mountain boots and snowshoes. The forest is becoming increasingly engulfed in a mystical dream state of fog; the trees appear tortured from they’re entombment in rime ice; an indication of the severity of the wind coming off the Pacific waters of the icy Lynn Canal below.

Soon we are lost and grappling with creating a zigzagging,  weaving line through the struggling stunted alpine Spruce at timber-line; the snow very deep and the steepness increasing to the point I would gladly trade in my snowshoes for an ice axe and a set of ‘pons. Alas, we stumbe into the second meadow, where we lose the trail again, but finally find “The Overlook”, a place on the edge of a great chasm overlooking town when the weather is clear. Not today however, as visibility has been reduced now to about 10 meters, and the wind, now picking up velocity and numbing my fingers severely. 

We somehow manage, after me considering bailing several times, to find the final summit climb up a spiny, rocky ridge.  On top, visibility is basically zero, and the wind raging. I put the camera away and go into survival mode, donning all layers and with special attention to my hands, which now are useless chunks of lumber somehow attached to my arms. We aren’t even sure we are on the summit, so we blindly stagger further, where I slip off a steep edge of snow that is completely invisible to my eyes in this torrential whiteout. No harm done and we scramble back in the direction from which we came, ponder for a moment at the highest rocky point, and then skedaddle. The whiteout seems to be increasing, but the further we descend, the warmer my hands become, and soon we find our tracks near the overlook and enter the trees below.

Back in the forest below the snow line, I’m too tired to put my running shoes back on and finish up the stomp in my expedtion boots back to the truck. Angela looks tired, but happy, and I feel the same.  Just another semi-epic day-adventure in Alaska…

Up next: Mt Sanford departure in T-Minus 7 days.

Stay tuned!

Winter Ripinski-1
Down low below the springtime snow line

Winter Ripinski-2
And so it begins

Winter Ripinski-3
Donning boots and snowshoes

Winter Ripinski-4Winter Ripinski-5

Winter Ripinski-6
Tortured trees

Winter Ripinski-7
A silent rime forest

Winter Ripinski-8

Winter Ripinski-9
The final summit climb

Winter Ripinski-10
Mt Ripinski from Main St downtown Haines

Haines Pass Spring Skiing

Mt Sanford practice run this weekend… 2 day ski tour out by Copper Butte… glorious views from our camp, followed by skiing some 25 degree ice and windslab in mountaineering boots and a full pack… Get some!

March Overnight Ski Tour
Angela hucks her snowshoes across the creek… spring touring at it’s finest!

March Overnight Ski Tour-2

March Overnight Ski Tour-8
Takshanuk/Alsek Range

March Overnight Ski Tour-3March Overnight Ski Tour-6

March Overnight Ski Tour-5
Fine tuning the ghetto…

March Overnight Ski Tour-4
Calm…

March Overnight Ski Tour-7
Getting chilly!

March Overnight Ski Tour-4 copyMarch Overnight Ski Tour-9March Overnight Ski Tour-10

Over The Hill Expeditions: Mt Sanford 2019

Over The Hill Mr Natural II

2019 marks the first year of trips by the newly formed Over The Hill Expeditions. This years objective, primarily to get the ball rolling, get to know one another, and become organized both as a team and entity, will be Alaska’s Mt Sanford, which is the 6th highest peak in Alaska and thus the United States. The first week of May 2019,  we will be leaving Chistochina, Alaska via bush plane to the foot of the Sheep Glacier at around 5500′ of elevation. Our plan is to ski up, then down the 11,000′ of glacier bagging Sanford’s 16,237′ summit in the process. This years team will consist of Rich Page, Cameron Burns, Jeff Rogers, and Linus Platt. Our ages range from 26 to 61 and we plan on being on the mountain for approximately 2 weeks. Cam Burns, a noted writer of climbing, skiing, and adventure, will be compiling a story of the trip for Senior Hiker Magazine, while Linus Platt will be shooting as many photographs and video he can to document the expedition.  Our statement at Over The Hill Expeditions is to set forth the concept that over 50 years of age is synonymous with alpine mountaineering, exploration of Earth’s wild places, and high adventure, while utilizing our experience to navigate safely the challenges these trips afford us; retirement age people in the U.S. are a distinct and formidable denominator in our population, and we aim to demonstrate that youth is not the only factor in goal oriented physical accomplishments. We encourage and seek like minded climbers, mountaineers, and adventurers to share in our forays and also seek acknowledgment and support from the outdoor industry that we are a capable and enduring team.

Mt Sanford From East
Mt Sanford’s East Face with the beautiful and skiable Sheep Glacier route following the right skyline…

 

Kicking Horse Re-Visited

Winter is a great time of year for exploring local wilderness generally too out of reach during summer months. Some of the local watersheds and glacial valleys become severely overgrown with dense thickets of Alder and Devil’s Club, essentially turning these locations into Alaskan Jungles

I’ve been up the Kicking Horse River on several occasions during the  winter months in past years and this year is no exception… The Chilkat River is covered in anywhere from 4-10 inches of solid ice, making acces to the confluence of the Kicking Horse a simple matter. In summertime, a packraft or other vessel is neccesary to cross the raging highwater torrent. Not today; an easy (if slippery) stroll to the other side from 7 mile Haines Highway sees Angela and I snowshoeing up the Kicking Horse (also mostly frozen, making for easy travel) and all the way to the base of Mt Emmerich. 

One day before winter ends, I would like very much to ski or snowshoe all the way to the Garrison Glacier for an overnighter.

Today is an exemplary day; crystal clear blue skies, plenty of snow on the ground, and temps in the mid 20’s beckons a long day out. Once reaching the Sitka Spruce at the base of The Cathedrals and Mt Emmerich, we eat a snack, take in this special and not often visited place, and happily agree to come back for a closer look before the snow melts.

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-1
Frozen Chilkat

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-2
Mt Emmerich and The Cathedrals

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-3

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-4
The Skeleton Forest

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-5

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-6
Crystals

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-7

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-8
Angela doing some “snowshoeing” across an open spot on the Kicking Horse River

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-9
Entering the upper valley

Kicking Horse Snowshoe-10

Parton Me

 As one drives north over and beyond Chilkat Pass, a broad and beautiful alpine valley is entered; the beginnings of the White and Black Spruce, Aspen, and high Tundra dominate the landscape here. Once past Kelsall Lake, the road climbs up and over an ancient moraine and drops to an expansive river filled valley; the birthplace of the fantastic Tatshenshini River at Goat Creek and the terminus of the short but spectacular Parton River. Fitness training and gear testing for an upcoming alpine adventure sees me driving up near the Yukon border for a solo ski into the Parton River region. I wish to scout the take out of the Parton River area for a future summer packrafting trip trip and get a layout of the landscape.

For me, the primary reason as an American to live in Haines is the access to the great and mighty Yukon Territory; a land full of wilderness, mountains, rivers, glaciers, and animals. Similar to the interior of Alaska, it too offers a lifetime of exploring, climbing, and packrafting that beckons me as often as I can muster.

Parking the truck on the shoulder of the Haines Highway, a short one mile ski down a dirt road leads to the first of three put-ins for the Tatshenshini known as Bear Camp. Here, the Tat is frozen and I ski across happily and pick up the faint and snow covered old mining road beyond; shortly after, I come to the frozen Parton River and once again ski across and beyond into the fields of stunted arctic Willow and deep snow. Someone else has been in the area recently, and at first I begin to follow a relatively fresh set of snowshoe tracks, but soon veer off course to find my own way.  I spot Arctic Hare tracks and soon spot Wolf, Lynx, and  Ptarmigan tracks… A couple of miles skiing in and out of the Willow thickets and up and over several creeks finds me entering the White Spruce of the Parton River corridor where it enters a canyon to the south and it’s headwaters lie. 

A quick snack and a few clicks of the camera see me skiing back to the Parton River, this time further upstream to inspect the river herself. Always fun skiing down frozen rivers this time of year… easy skinning with no obstructions gives me the opporotunity to inspect the area for log jams, debris, and other future packrafting concerns. 

With the sun getting low, I head back down stream,  cross the Tatshenshini, and skin back to the truck just in time to see the beginning evening Alpenglow.

Till next time…

Parton River Ski
Someone’s been this way…

Parton River Ski-2
Arctic Hare…

Parton River Ski-6
The Parton River…

Parton River Ski-3
White Spruce Landscape…

Parton River Ski-4

Parton River Ski-5
Where the Parton River enters the wilderness…

Kwatini Creek

An early winter stomp up in Northern BC at Kwatini Creek in search of skiable snow produces little snow but a great hike up Kwatini Canyon past the old cabin there and into the alpine… complete with a mountaineering finish. A perfect day marred only by me pretty much destroying my brand spanking new (first time wearing) Arcteryx bibs…😫😢

 

Northern BC Canyon-2
Grizz prints on the Haines highway near the BC border

Northern BC Canyon-3
The old cabin at Kwatini Creek

Northern BC Canyon-5
Willow-whacking

Northern BC Canyon-4
Angela busts a sane move crossing in ice bridge sans crampons

Northern BC Canyon-6
Ice is nice!

Northern BC Canyon-7
Ice blobules

Northern BC Canyon-8
Angie bringing up the rear on the “mountaineering finish”

Northern BC Canyon-9
Nearing the top of the gully leading to the sub-arctic plateau above

Northern BC Canyon

Yukon Gold

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn” – John Muir, 1901.

Golden Yukon-1
Klehini River near the AK/BC Border

Golden Yukon-2
Ghost Forest

Golden Yukon-3
Firefall Tundra and Swirling Mist

Golden Yukon-4
Autumn Colors at Rainy Hollow BC

Golden Yukon-5
Late Run Sockeye at Klukshu, Yukon

Golden Yukon-7
Mush Lake Trail

Golden Yukon-8
Autumn Colorizing and Yukon Mountains

Golden Yukon-9
Yukon Gold

Golden Yukon-10
Stoked to Be…

Golden Yukon-14
Deep Forest

Golden Yukon-12
A Serene and Peaceful Scenario…

Golden Yukon-13
Glorious Yukon Light and Weather

Golden Yukon-11
Fall Aspens…

Golden Yukon-15
Razor Sharpness and Crisp Colors

Kelsall Lake

Looking for a bit of fun and adventure finds Angela and I heading north out of town and up into the high country to parts unknown. We packed the truck with bicycles, packrafts, hiking paraphernalia and some snacks. About halfway up Marinka’s Hill, we stop to gawk at the Northern Takhinsha/Southern Alsek’s baring their blue and stoney ice in the spectacular late summer light. I have never seen these peaks so devoid of the previous winter’s snow. The result is visually striking; the glaciers are on full display and the rocky summits piercing the deep blue hue above. Once past Three Guardsmen, it is decided a paddle across the mystical Kelsall Lake is in order, and soon we are bouncing the truck down the 4WD track to it’s shores.

Once in the water, a pleasant paddle two or three miles to the inlet stream that feeds the lake comes around and we stop for lunch and a swim on the sandy beach below the glacier of Kelsall Peak. Back in the boats, a great wind swells up and we fight the lateral rollers all the way back to the truck and happily scurry back over The Pass and head back home.

Kelsall Lake-1
Takhinsh/Alsek Range

Kelsall Lake-2
Bare Ice

Kelsall Lake-3
Happy To Call This Place My Home…

Kelsall Lake-4
Mountain Hemlock

Kelsall Lake-5

Kelsall Lake-6
Getting Boats Prepped

Kelsall Lake-7
The Enchanting Kelsall Lake

Kelsall Lake-8
Kelsall Peak and Glacier

Kelsall Lake-9Kelsall Lake-10Kelsall Lake-11Kelsall Lake-12Kelsall Lake-13

Kelsall Lake-14
Angela Fires Down A Burrito

Kelsall Lake-15Kelsall Lake-17Kelsall Lake-19

Kelsall Lake-20
Brrrrr…

Heartbreak Ridge: Takhin River, Alaska

Since moving to Haines from Fairbanks nearly 5 years ago, I have been fascinated by a local piece of wilderness called the Takhin River Valley; a river born of the Takhin Glacier high at the western end of the Takhinsha Mountains at the far northern most tip of Southeast Alaska. The nearby Tsirku River is born from the Tsirku Glacier far into the western reaches of the range where massive ice sheets dominate the landscape. Further down stream a Tsirku feeder, the Le Blondeau Glacier, comes very close to the Takhin Headwaters and is separated from it by a 500 foot high, two mile wide swath of an ancient moraine covered in Alder thickets and Devil’s Club, and is know locally as Heartbreak Ridge.  I had heard many folks talk of the Tsirku… it is of fairly easy access by bush plane, or by foot, is big enough for a full size raft at spring and summer water levels, and is fairly tame overall. But I never ever heard anyone speak of it’s sister, the Takhin. After asking around about it, I discovered that there is a locally operated bush airstrip about 3/4 the way up the Takhin Valley known as the Fox Airstrip, but it seemed there was no way to gain plane access to the headwaters at the Takhin Glacier itself.

Last year I decided that the best way to investigate was to hike up the Tsirku on foot from the Devil’s Elbow, where one can park a vehicle, and attempt to get to the Le Blondeau and have a look at Heartbreak Ridge. At the time, I had no packraft, and made many dicey river crossings on foot until deep snow, and high water blocked passage about a mile and a half from the landing strip near the Le Blondeau. After spending a night in the upper Tsirku watching and listening to a pair of Wolves, I packed out, vowing to return better equipped.

This year, Angela and I, armed with packrafts, hired Drake Olsen and his Super Cub to get us landed on the tiny gravel air strip near the Le Blondeau near what is locally known as Horse Camp, a group of seasonal tin cabins from which hunting and guided Tsirku River trips begin.  It’s from this place we could easily hike to Heartbreak Ridge, and begin it’s Alder thrashing, which more than one person had guessed would be “extreme”.

The tiny Super Cub plane holds one pilot, one passenger, and a wee bit of gear. That’s it… so Drake takes Angela in first; it is about a 20-25 minute flight in and I wait by the Haines landing strip for his return, eagerly anticipating viewing the Takhin from the air to inspect for any obstacles we may encounter. The Super Cub re-appears, and in minutes gear is loaded and we are airborne and slicing through the crystalline sky along the lower reaches of the Takhin. Drake flies as low as possible so we can look for log jambs, wildlife, gravel bars, and any other thing of interest on the ground. We pass the fantastic Bertha Glacier and her giant iceberg filled tarn; the lake is still partially frozen over. It is May 17th 2018…

After Drake drops me off,  Angela and I watch as he hits the air and disappears over the ridge and is gone. We shoulder packs and begin walking the Gravel bars of the Tsirku in search of a supposed trail leading through the forest to Horse Camp. After a bit of wandering and doubling back, we find the trail and find ourselves deep within the confines of the bush. A large Moose antler is found on the ground, likely dropped the previous Winter. The cabins of Horse Camp are dilapidated and run down… animals have had their way with them and are in pretty bad shape. The tarn of the Le Blondeau Glacier is partially frozen over, and great slabs of icebergs are float here and there. The views of the glacier and peaks are amazing… one peak, known as Tomahawk, has gorgeous plumes and flutings descending from its jagged and corniced summit. Not all mountain ranges have these flutings, but are common in Alaska, The Andes, and Himalaya. Truly a signature of deeply glaciated peaks and severe weather.

We stomp around the east side of the lake all the way to just shy of the ice and right up against the mountain where we believe the easiest passage through the two miles of Alders might be. After having spoke with some people who had seen it, and seeing it from the air myself, I estimated it would take us about 4 hours to get through it, over Heartbreak Ridge, and to the toe of the Takhin Glacier.  Soon, we cannot go any further and so we dive into the Alders to our left and begin the extreme thrashing. The paddles sticking out the tops of our packs make the going much worse.  Alders are notoriously bad for this sort of bushwhacking and this is no exception. We gain a lateral snowfield and follow it, postholing in knee deep snow to ankle breaking downed Alders beneath.  Two hours later we come to a stream where we break for snacks and water before committing to more thrashing. Occasionally, we find old avalanche chutes to traverse up, then down, up, then down, avoiding short sections of thickets. It is time consuming and exhausting to say the least. Hours later, we are at the base of the final climb up Heartbreak Ridge proper. It’s nothing short of a heinous and evil Alder thrash. Did I mention Devil’s Club? We gots that too folks. Lots of it. We emerge on top, bloody, sweating, exhausted… and ornery.  The Alder thrashing we did last year on the approach to Mt Archibald in the Yukon was actually worse, but this was sustained.  It had kicked our ass, but we did it. In fact, I do not believe any one in recent memory (or ever) has gone over Heartbreak Ridge during the non-winter months (skis, snowmachines, etc) The view down to the Takhin Glacier is breathtaking and the descent looks steep and dangerous. After the initial loose and steep drop in, it is easy going and soon we are on the rubble covered glacier and boulder hopping to the toe to find our camp.

After reaching the snout of the Takhin Glacier, a gaping ice cave appears and the very utmost of the Takhin River is born, emerging as a rapid and icy tongue from it’s innards. We thought since the goal of this trip was to packraft the entire Takhin from it’s beginning, it would be especially cool to start from inside the ice cave and emerge in true fashion. However, it looks dicey so we decline, stumbling off to find a camp spot. We pitch the awesome Hyperlight Mountain Gear Ultamid 4 that was loaned to us by the company for testing and inspecting; I find it extremely light, easy to setup, and bombproof. Many thanks to HMG for this shelter. After camp is constructed and I lay in my sleeping bag, it occurs to me that it took us over ten hours to get from the landing strip on the Tsirku to the Takhin Glacier; I severely underestimated Heartbreak Ridge.

The morning sees the weather in fine shape with early morning light splattering the fluted ridges high above us. We walk for about a half mile downstream on the gravel bars in search of water deep enough to put the boats in.  Since it is morning and the temps still chilly, the water has not yet come up, but we finally find adequate water and we inflate the rafts. A pleasant float downstream on class I-II, puts us in a forested area, where log jams and shallow water force us once again on foot. Another paddling section begins and a mishap with a strainer and a missing paddle ensues. We thought that the paddle had floated away, but was in fact stuck underwater in the submerged thicket. We were soaked and needed to dry out. Luckily it was hot out… too hot in fact and we were both getting somewhat sunburned. back in the water, we paddle through another alluvial fan and spot a large Mountain Goat about 200 meters off walking right towards us. We eddy out and watch silently; the Goat stops and finally takes notice to us. We stare back and forth and the Goat decides these strange creatures near by are best not to get tangled with and starts trotting south and away from us. What a magnificent animal…

Back on foot again to avoid low water levels, we decide the best way to travel is to mount the inflated rafts to the tops of our backpack and hanging down with the bottom of the boat facing behind you; doing this makes one look like a giant alien Beetle. We walk through the open forest like this for a spell and I spot a Grizzly 100 meters away (close!) staring us down. I freeze, Angela freezes. It appears to be a lone male Grizzly, not giant, but not small either. We stare at each other for several seconds and the Bear flips 180 and bolts the opposite direction. After that, I decide that the Bear spray will go in one pocket, and the Colt 1911 .45 in the other.

Eventually, we begin paddling again, and even though the water is low, we are able to float big sections and simply drag the boats through the shallow areas and then jump back in. Soon we come to end of the big braided section of the Takhin near where the Fox Airstrip is, and realize that it is getting late and that we are very tired. We pitch the ‘Mid on a sandbar riddled with Grizzly prints and attempt to sleep. Soon however, a great wind pick up and after a bit, blows a steady 30 knots, showering us with sand and dust. It was miserable, but we hunkered into our bags deeper and got through it. Eventually it died off and we drifted into needed slumber.

Another fine morning of gorgeous weather finds us paddling immediately and entering the “Boulder Field” we had heard about from one person who claims to have jet boated up the Takhin. The river slices through the tight forest here and turns into a different animal than we had previously seen.  Small rapids appear… class II-III; twists and turns and rocks and holes all become the experience. The paddling is excellent; this is what we came for.  One nasty looking class III section with a big rock at it’s bottom that would surely flip you we decide to portage around. Following that, the Takhin turns into one set of glorious Class II-III rollers after another for several miles. It is an instant classic Alaskan paddle in my mind. We pass the Dickinson, Willard, and Bertha Glaciers, and into the final twists of the river a few mile before it’s confluence with the Chilkat River, where enormous log jams bar passage and force us out of the boats. We drag the rafts through the sand past Wolf and Bear prints and back into the water where more Class II rollers and some technical navigation around strainers and timber force a keen and sharp attention. Angela has a mishap with a pesky log and flips the boat, but all is well. We stop for a breather and laugh about the incident as we pour the water from our Extra-Tuffs and wring out our wool socks.

Back in the water and around the next bend in the river, we can now see the peaks of the Tahshanuk, indicating that we were extremely close to the Chilkat. We ponder for a moment if we should spend another night, or just simply paddle down the Chilkat back to the Haines airport where the truck is parked. After reaching the mother Chilkat, a great wind picks up and it is decided instantly that paddling home is the ticket; three days and 35 miles of bushwhacking and paddling behind us, our weather window had closed, and it was time to end this adventure and begin looking forward to the next…

 

Takhin River 2018-1

Takhin River 2018-2
First views of he Takhin from the air

Takhin River 2018-3
Bertha Glacier

Takhin River 2018-4
Tsirku landing strip

Takhin River 2018-5Takhin River 2018-6Takhin River 2018-7

Takhin River 2018-8
Horse Camp

Takhin River 2018-9

Takhin River 2018-10
Angela stomping around the Le Blondeau tarn

Takhin River 2018-11Takhin River 2018-12Takhin River 2018-13

Takhin River 2018-14
Le Blondeau Glacier

Takhin River 2018-15

Takhin River 2018-16
The bushwhacking and traversing begins

Takhin River 2018-17Takhin River 2018-18

Takhin River 2018-19
Final climb up Heartbreak Ridge

Takhin River 2018-20
First view of the Takhin Glacier

Takhin River 2018-21Takhin River 2018-22

Takhin River 2018-23
The true headwaters of the Takhin River via the ice cave

Takhin River 2018-24

Takhin River 2018-25
Camp at the Takhin Glacier snout

Takhin River 2018-26Takhin River 2018-27Takhin River 2018-28Takhin River 2018-29Takhin River 2018-30Takhin River 2018-31Takhin River 2018-32Takhin River 2018-33Takhin River 2018-34Takhin River 2018-35Takhin River 2018-36Takhin River 2018-37Takhin River 2018-38

Takhin River 2018-39
The Grizzly was spotted moments after this picture was taken

Takhin River 2018-40Takhin River 2018-41Takhin River 2018-42

Takhin River 2018-43
HMG Ultamid 4 and Grizzly prints

Takhin River 2018-44Takhin River 2018-45Takhin River 2018-46Takhin River 2018-47Takhin River 2018-48Takhin River 2018-49

Takhin River 2018-50
Angela re-aquainting herself with handgun use

Takhin River 2018-51

Takhin River 2018-52
Paddling

Takhin River 2018-53

Takhin River 2018-54
Just Rolling By

Takhin River 2018-55

Takhin River 2018-56