Total critter count for a rainy day today exploring the beautiful and vast sub alpine areas surrounding Donnelly Dome south of Delta, Alaska today… two bull Caribou, one Bull Moose, one cow Moose, three Northern Hawk Owls, two Hoary Marmots, about a dozen Arctic Hares and five wild Bison. While stomping back to the truck through the brush and coming to an open and muddy clearing, a fresh set of Grizzly tracks reveal themselves, heading deeper into the bush. I love this part of Alaska…
…Coming up in the near future: Tales of mountaineering in Alaska’s far eastern Alaska Range, aka the Delta Mountains, featuring success, failure, and all things in between, including some nifty photography… stay tuned.
It’s been good landing in Fairbanks for a spell and visiting my friend Sven, helping out around his hostel in town and dog mushing business north of town. Cutting trees, working on a new hostel sign, fixing old bicycles, and generally goofing off have occupied most of my time here. Riding the bike around the outskirts of town and out on the wonderful dirt trails of the University of Alaska campus has also been a source of fond memories and joy. Sven’s crew this year consists of mostly Swiss folks over to visit Alaska for the summer and it has been good to converse with all of them regarding exploration and adventure, art and creativity, travel and culture. Working hard is also a daily routine with running the hostel and caring for 30 tour dogs and the various construction projects that always seems so present.
After a long (and hot week, Sven suggests we all go for a nice semi strenuous hike about an hour drive from Fairbanks. So, the following day we pile into a couple of vehicles and head out the Chena Hot Springs road toward the Angel Rocks trailhead after dropping one of the cars at Chena Hot Springs. The idea is to hike to Angel Rocks, up the nearby tundra covered hills, along a high ridge, then down into the forest to Chena; a hike of about nine miles and consisting of a multi varied terrain and ecosystem, ranging from flat trail to steep rocky hill climbing to vast open tundra.
We take off and travel the Chena River corridor for a mile before the trail climbs sharply to the granite masses of Angel Rocks it self. After climbing to the top of a rocky summit or two, we descend to the trail and climb to the top of a beautiful and open tundra covered ridge overlooking the Eastern Alaska dome country, exposed ridges, and granite tors. The foothills of the Alaska Range coming in as the clouds part just slightly, and the alpine hills to the north showing themselves.
The next section consisting of an outstanding and pleasant stomp across the high tundra and taiga of the ridge top leads further down to the forest where a state shelter cabin sits; we proceed to build a fire, roast sausages, and drink wine for a pleasant and fun afternoon rest. Suddenly, the clouds burst open and thunder cracks over head; we stamp out the fire and hit the trail again. Soon we are descending once again into the depths of the Birch and White Spruce where swampy conditions reveal and Chena Hot Springs comes into view. After guzzling much needed water, we hit the road back to Fairbanks for supper and sleep…
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.
Getting on the road by 10:00 am or so following town chores and paying bills, I am happily cruising up the Haines highway and northbound for the Yukon and beyond. I approach the Eagle Preserve at 20 mile and the engine alternator idiot light comes on… funny, never saw that before on this truck. I pull off the road and pop the hood for an inspection. Using a volt meter, I check voltages of the battery with both with the engine running and not running. A nominal voltage of 12.4 with the engine running indicates that the alternator is not doing it’s job. In fact, it has shit the bed… Reluctantly, I turn around and baby the 30 year old Toyota back to town to re-group. Pulling into the parts store, I am amazed that they have one in stock. 142 bucks and two hours later, I have the alternator installed and the last bolt tightened and I am on the pavement rolling north once again.
At the Canadian the border, there is a length of vehicles waiting I have never seen here before. After an hour wait, I am flagged in and questioned. I am asked to exit the vehicle and wait inside while my car is searched, which the Canadian border cops do with abandon. Again, I have never experienced this before. Another hour and I am free to go after they come to terms with the fact that I have nothing to hide. Two hours to get into Canada. I am beyond happy to have the Chilkat Valley behind me. Driving over the Haines Summit and into the high country sees me smiling and as the Yukon border comes ’round. I am washed over by an array of mixed feelings; most of me is extremely happy to be on the road and rolling away from Haines, but part of me dreads the inevitable slash of loneliness that will undoubtedly come in short order. In fact, as I near the Tahkini River, the dreaded sensation enters me, invades my space and riddles my ravaged heart with bullet holes. I shuffle this back to a place of inner strength that is there for survival reserves and continue. Â I get to the Tahkini and make a fine camp there; it was a familiar camp as I had spent time there on past trips. The evening colors around 1 am filter the sky orange and pink and patches and fills my heart and soul with much needed color and softens the dramatic episodes within me. I sleep.
I awake to the warmth of sunshine and something splashing in the river. I pack up and pull out onto the Alaska Highway again heading towards Whitehorse. These feelings I cannot seem to shake and I hope that once past Carmacks or Dawson, they will fade. In Whitehorse waiting for the Fireweed Bookstore to open, I am accosted by a pair of drunks jabbering nonsense at me. Soon, my maps and food are purchased and I am driving the wide open spaces of the North Klondike Highway bound for Carmacks. A torrential rain storm ensues. The roadway becoming a slab of dangerous water; I slow down but other traffic does not. I won’t be bullied by these vehicles and I pull off when I can, but it is up to them to pass if they wish to drive at unsafe speeds. Camping that night in the Taiga forests among Aspen and Willow, tiny yellow birds flutter my camp and a Red Squirrel chirps in the forest nearby. These trips, when I am by myself, which is 95 percent of the time, tend to promote moving along, bound for a destination and goal. It is sometimes difficult to just set back, especially these past weeks, as the creeping dreaded sensations that have filled me lately prevail when I have come to a stop. So I simply keep moving. Regret is futile, and yearning for an undeniably uncertain future is equally so. I have no past, and working toward the future like some kind of mystic jewel seems pointless; I simply am. My heart and desire are too big for this world and most cannot deal with my intensity and passion… the heart is the only guiding force. Chalk it all up to a lifetime of amazing experiences. I am the wind…
The morning sees me drifting closer to Dawson City; nearing the Klondike river at the entrance to the mind bogglingly beautiful Dempster Highway, I spot a pair of bright blond Grizzlies grazing the grass on the side of the highway. So beautiful these magnificent creatures; I often wonder what attracts them to the highway like this… is there something that grows only near the road that they find edible and tasty? I pass the Dempster and head to Dawson for fuel and a snoop around and maybe a nice espresso drink. It had been 4 years since I had been to Dawson, and not much had changed. That is a good thing. Dawson is a gem in the far north to me; it is a place of historical significance, color and interest. I get an Americano at the lovely Alchemy Cafe and soon I am back down the highway the 25 miles to the start of the Dempster. My plan is to hike into Grizzly Lake in the Tombstone Mountains and spend the night there, taking photographs and shooting video. But when I get to the trailhead, there is a notice that the trail is closed. This is the second time that this happened… I was here in 2013 to not only hike to Grizzly Lake, but to also ride the Ogre all the way to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Neither happened on that trip. After pedaling for three days, the road was washed out north of the Ogilvie River, and I was forced by the road crews to turn back. The Grizzly Lake Trail was closed due to high Bear activity in the area at that time; this time it was closed due to heavy snow still on the ground. So in 2013, I stashed my backpack under a rotting Spruce log and continued my bike trip up to Deadhorse and beyond. But today I was in my truck, bound for who knew where. I walk into the forest and immediately locate the pack I had stashed 4 years prior, and skedattled up the gravel Dempster to my favorite section. It is a place where the second of three continental divide crossing occur on the Dempster. A place north of the Blackstone River in the Taiga Range; birth home to Engineer Creek, Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bears, and Caribou. I am looking for a peak to climb in the area, and a ridge leaving the pass right from the road directly on the continental divide leads to an un-named summit of perhaps 6,000-7,000 feet. I decide on it, but first I wish to continue north and do it on the way back. A couple miles down the road is a beautiful alpine canyon situated directly at tree line with the headwaters of Engineer Creek flowing through it’s guts. I find a wonderful camp and set down upon it happily. Glassing the slopes nearby, I spot a heard of a dozen strong Mountain Goats, including several babies who seem to be happy to be jumping around and playing wildly amidst the high and treacherous slopes they are perched. This area north of the Blackstone in the continental divide country is by far my favorite part of the Dempster experience. Late that night, perhaps around 1 am, I awake with a yearning to leave the tent and go on a “night” stomp. I exit the tent and walk across the road and disappear into the muskeg and Taiga. Tussock tundra appears and I run as fast as I can towards a barren hillside, where Willow Ptarmigan scatter. Being spontaneous is what sometimes drives me, for better or worse. It is simply fun, and nothing beats the sensation of just making a snap decision and going for it. I look out over the alpine valley I am in and it occurs to me that every Human on this planet is going through some form of struggle largely unknown to the rest of us. I am not alone…
With my cup of Green Tea in the morning, I make a toast to the South, East, West, and of course, the North in thanks and offering of gratitude. I drive north again, this time paralleling the Ogilvie River at at point further that I got on my bicycle in 2013. A Grizzly slowly walk across the road in front of me a couple hundred meters off and disappears into the Taiga, and more Ptarmigan flutter about at road’s edge.
Many miles after leaving the high country, the road drops into river valley’s and enters First Nation native hunting lands. The Dempster at this point climbs to a high point on Ogilvie Ridge, where unobstructed views of the Ogilvie and far, far off, the Peel River, heading to the great und vast McKenzie River flowing to the Arctic Ocean. The road continues along this high Taiga bench for many, many miles. It is dry up here. And exposed. And monotonous… till finally Eagle Plains comes around where I gas up the Toyota and continue on. Soon the Arctic Circle appears and beyond are the rounded tundra summits of the Richardson Mountains, which, in essence are an extension of the British Mountains in the Yukon which are an extension of the Brooks Range in Alaska. The Richardson’s are unique in three ways; They are the final continental divide crossing on the Dempster, dumping all water from them on the northeastern side into the Arctic Ocean, they form the border of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and they are the last formidable geologic uplift barrier between the interior and the arctic plains of the Canadian “north slope”. Beyond which lie the extremely remote communities of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. The road travels directly north along the western escarpment of the Richardson’s for many miles, traversing some of the most incredible Arctic scenery I have ever seen; in fact it equals the Brooks Range in beauty and remoteness. Although it is not nearly as big as the Brooks, it is even more remote really. Soon the road turn east and climbs over Wright pass at the final continental divide and crosses into the Northwest Territories. This place is absolute magic. It is quite chilly here, this far north at the continental divide. The last time I was in a similar place was in 2013 on the summit of Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range on The solstice at midnight. It was cold then too… The road continues through the Richardson Mountains, revealing tundra, high peaks, wild flowers, and wild rivers. After descending the last great decline out of these magnificent mountains, the Canadian Arctic slope appears in the distance, extending for hundreds of miles to the McKenzie Delta. I pull off the road, some 30 kilometers into the Northwest Territories and notice the immense trail of numerous Grizzly prints decorating each side of the road. At night these massive creatures must use this road as a path. There are more Grizzly prints here than I have ever seen anywhere in my life.
Finally, after saying farewell to the NWT’s and wishing to continue on to the Arctic slope, but becoming increasingly paranoid about the 30 year old Toyota Truck’s engine with a quarter million miles on it, I turn back and drive back to from which I came. Passing once again the Arctic Circle and gassing up in Eagle Plains again, a few hours later I am back in my favorite and stunning alpine valley north of the Blackstone River. I am exhausted and plan on a peak climb in the morning. In the tent, I sleep like a dead man.
After crossing a short bit of tundra in the morning, I begin climbing up the class 1-2 talus of the ridge line to where it nearly flattens out but continues in a westerly stretch for about a half mile before the final summit pyramid rises abruptly and ends. After 4 hours from the truck, I stand on the unknown summit and marvel at the other peaks around me and the strange and unknown alpine valley’s that separate them. I decide to descend a different route in order to walk out one of these valleys following a creek where I hope to see signs of animals. The decent was treacherous; some of the loosest scree and talus I have ever encountered kept my attention level extremely high and after considerable time and effort, I find myself at the head of this glorious alpine valley, flowing within it the beautiful little creek mentioned. On the way down valley, I see no animal prints of any kind, but spot a pair of caribou antlers lying in the tussock. The are from a small and possibly younger animal, with part of the skull still attached; taken down by wolves I imagine. After a bit I am back at the truck and I blast off again, this time bound south for Dawson, where contrary to my intentions to keep this an alcohol free trip, I decide to duck into a tavern and have a beer. I order my beer and when I go to pay for the beverage in U.S. dollars, the First Nation’s woman in the chair next to me starts ridiculing me for being an American. She proceeds to stick her finger in her mouth indicating forced vomiting, therefore expressing her displeasure. I tell her, “I’m not American, I’m Alaskan”; she was not pleased and continued the harassment. After a bit, I told her she didn’t know me and that she was a no good judgmental SOB (as it were). I left my lone beer sitting there on the bar and left. All I wish for is friendship, love, and understanding – hard resources to find on this here planet. Later, at a makeshift camp, the cops show up to kick me out, but tell me where I might go for a low profile and free bivy.
That night, I toss and turn and sleep eludes me nearly completely. Tomorrow I will ferry across the Yukon River and drive the Top of the World road (AKA the Ridge Road) and into the deep interior of Alaska. I had ridden this road on my bicycle a few years ago and found it to be one of the toughest rides in the north. I’m happy that the old ‘Yota and me will be traversing this together this time.
“The Less I Have, The More I gain… Off The Beaten Path I Reign…”
After a day outing to explore the possibilities of a foot journey into the upper Tsirku River region of northern Southeast Alaska, and scouring maps and extensively discussing the area of the upper Tsirku River with Dan Egolf in Haines, I decide that a trip up into it’s innards was in order. It is springtime and the river is still somewhat low, but will be rising fast due to the onset of summertime temperatures.
The area I wish to see is an area of historical significance in regards to local area mining operations regarding primarily Gold, but also Tungsten and Silver; these prospects date as far back as the 1890’s, and continue to be a source of local mining activity. Last year, while flying back from Alaska’s ephemeral Outer Coast in a friend’s DeHavilland Beaver, I spotted a magnificent peak with a thin, serpent-like glacier flowing from it’s summit and into the Tahkin River valley. It is a beautiful and mysterious mountain to me; I do not know even if it has been climbed, but I wish to. Having given much thought on how to approach such a mountain, I figure that bushwacking up the dense Tahkin River corridor was completely out of the question. Seems landing a bush plane anywhere near by is also problematic. After looking at the map, I see that the source for the Tahkin River is the Tahkin Glacier, which is separated by a narrow, ancient moraine from the Le Blondeau Glacier, one of the Tsirku River’s sources; it’s main source being the Tsirku Glacier many miles further up stream; a massive example of a meticulous icefield glacier with many forks, lobes, and peripherals. Along the way to the Tsirku Glacier, one will find several other un-named valley glaciers spilling from the high peaks and into the Tsirku Valley, adding more and more water.
But today, I merely wanted to see if I could somehow make it up to the Le Blondeau and see if it might be possible to cross over the moraine in question in order to gain access to the upper Tahkin River. I figure that if it is possible, a packraft will be necessary to descend from the valley after climbing the beautiful Serpentine Peak.
These past weeks have presented me with challenges and inquiry regarding matters of the heart that reflect within me the ultimate need to express myself, to find truth, and to seek happiness on this mysterious planet. Wilderness has always been the major component in my existence here; without it, I feel lost and empty. And today, with a heavy heart, I walk into her, seeking the nurturing convalesce of her Earth womb. To even maybe capture visual glimpses of the other wild creatures within.
So today I lift a light 35 pound pack and begin the stomp up the Tsiku’s gravel bars and alluvial river flats; these glacial rivers can often times be heavily braided, wide, and treacherous. The Tsirku is a good example of this. Back some 20 or 30 years, a prospector walked a front end loader from the Devil’s Elbow all the way to Cottonwood and Nugget Creeks, forming a sort of road in places, but in others, not so much. The river has re-claimed much of it, and not only is much impassible when the water is anything but at it’s lowest, the channels themselves have changed a great deal and are continually evolving. At first I am able to follow faint ATV tracks leading away from the Devil’s Elbow, a point at which the Tsirku makes a dramatic near U-turn before opening itself into a massive river delta at it’s junction to the mother Chilkat.
The first three miles are straightforward: river flats, ATV tracks, and high gravel bars with only a few scant stream crossings to navigate, and I am soon far from the truck and at the entrance to the real wilderness. The first real river crossing is at a place the Tsirku is starting to gain momentum and takes a hard S-turn across the valley. Dense Alaskan jungle and steep cliff’s come direct to waters edge and one is forced into the water to fjord it’s icy current. The water looks deep, fast, and strong. I donn my water shoes, strip down to my birthday suit, shoulder the pack, and gingerly step into the ice coldness of the raging river. Soon I am in crotch deep water moving at a swift 4-6 knots. I am barely able to maintain a footing, but am now fully committed. My 190 pound frame is suddenly knocked from it’s foundation and I go down fast. The ski pole I am holding in one hand struggles for penetration among the bowling ball sized river rocks. My body and my pack plunge into the Tsirku, but only for a mere second as I am able to miraculously get back on my feet. Somehow, I am able to get to shallower ground and and eventually haul myself ashore. I am shaking wildly from adrenaline and the freezing water. After drying off and inspecting the pack and determining no real damage, I ponder the possibility of what I am trying to accomplish. If there are more of these crossings, and if the temperature increases and the water rises even slightly, I might be trapped back in the Upper Tsirku River drainage. Or worse, come into serious injury or peril if attempting overcome such obstacles.
Another crossing about a mile past, this time much easier, brings me to a place where the massive glaciers of the Takhinsha Range come into view and their razor sharp prickly summits penetrates the endless sky. The striking sight propels me to continue scrambling among the softball sized rocks and endless gravel bars, in search of… something. Wolf tracks appear, many of them in fact. A sure sign that I am getting deeper in. Another river crossing, this time treacherous, but I manage, just barely. It occurs to me that I must re-cross these on the way back out tomorrow, the next day, or the day after that. If the water rises any, I will be in peril.
I look closely at the map, and guess that I have come about 10 miles or so; looking up valley to the base of the mighty peaks, I clearly see the Le Blondeau Glacier… both her forks, and the imposing icefall looming above one of them. I can just barely make out her tongue peeping out from around the low moraine separating the Tsirku from the Tahkin. The glacier has definitely shrunk according to the map, but not as much as I had expected. At least it was visible from this point in the river valley.
I come to another river crossing; this one is moving much faster that the previous braids, and appears to be deep. I have come more than ten miles, all of it essentially off trail and have fjorded 4 major river crossings and countless smaller ones. I am exhausted and cannot even consider attempting this in my state. So I pitch my tent, savor the salami, green beans, cheese and chocolate, and lay in my sleeping bag. I am not paying attention to my surroundings, and thoughts of the previous week continue to voilate my headspace. I grab my binoculars and scan the upper river flats ahead of my camp. Way off, I spot two Wolves. They are in a solid trot, but the lead turns and runs back to tackle the follow. They play fight for a moment before all eyes and ears are at full attention to whatever creaks in the woods nearby, and soon they are gone. A mated pair I assume, roaming this homeland valley of theirs.
“…And The Earth Becomes My Throne, I Adapt To The Unknown. Under Wandering Stars I’ve Grown. By myself, But Not Alone. I Ask No One.”
As the sun drifts behind the peaks and the shadows grow ever longer, the temperature drops and evasive thoughts enter me again. I feel fortunate and alive to be here, but silmutaneously alone and empty. The boundary between sanity and madness splits my heart in two, and a quiet desolation drifts over the Tsirku River valley and pierces deep within me. I am wide open, my heart is the sky. My body, a vessel. Hours pass without sleep, and the haunting echo of rockfall rattles the valley. It is dark for a brief time, then light begins to fill the peaks again; the morning alpenglow paints the summits and accentuates the seracs in a kaleidoscopic array of color and light. I manage to drift into sleep for a period, but soon I am awake again and realize that I am cold, so I decide to get up and inspect the world. Crawling out of the tent, I look at the dicey river crossing I am confronted with… a walk up and down the shore, reveals no place better in which to cross. If I could manage this crux of a crossing, would I be able to reverse it coming back? The thought penetrated me while I packed the tent and sleeping bag. I shouldered the pack, and in an instant, decided the risk was a foolish one. I turn to the Le Blondeau and and wish her farewell; The adjacent peaks beginning now to come alive with color.
On the way back out, I decide to attempt to find a better route, but in the process, make it worse and I encounter even more full sized river crossings, one of which swept me completely off my feet and dunked me into it’s icy depths. A close call by any standards, I am becoming fearful of the next and last of the crossings about a mile further down valley; it is the one that first knocked me from my feet in order to let me know who is in charge. I try not to think of it and traverse a willow flat with some of the largest Grizzly prints I have ever seen upon it. There is something very big roaming around here.
Soon I am at the dreaded crossing, and a look around reveals a shallower fjording upstream a bit. It was still nerve-wracking, but I managed it with out getting swept away, and a few hours later, I was stumbling across the final sandy river bottom to the truck. On the drive home traveling the swamps and wetlands of the Little Salmon River corridor, a young Black Bear ambles across the road, A cow Moose and yearling graze the willow thickets near the junction of the Porcupine Road, and me, being so tired I can barely drive, head home to grab some shut-eye.
Easter Sunday… fine spring weather in the northern panhandle is gracing the Chilkat Valley, and after a bout of home chores, I dig out the sleepy Surly Ogre from her months long nap for a kick up the Haines Highway to see what I can see. She snorts and growls, but soon is bucking wildly and fully resurrected. We spin down to Mountain Market for a cup of mud and then the highway is ours.
The sun is shining and it is a glorious day to be onboard the Ogre and spinning north. The high peaks of the Chilkat Range are spilling their sizable glaciers into magnificent sunlight, sending a deep chill down into me that strikes me every time I see it. I look to the north, into the mountains of British Columbia where friends are enjoying some spring backcountry skiing and I wish for them the same fine weather I am experiencing down here in the valley.
Coming into view at six mile of the Haines Highway is a small pond where two Swans float about grooming and obviously enjoying the beautiful day as well. Further past, the usual herd of Mountain Goats are clinging wildly to the flanks of Peak 3920, their white shapes ever so clear against the grey and rocky slopes they are suspended upon. I bet they too are happy that spring has finally arrived in Alaska.
It feels good to be on the Ogre again, sliding silently along while the beauty of the valley unfolds. The springtime is always a special time here; life is unfolding everywhere and the glaciers shine as bright as ever. The weather, such as days like this, seem to prevail. Not always of course, but often times the case.
At the 15 mile mark, I turn the beast around and we pedal home, stopping once more to speak with the Swans from earlier. At home later, I make some adjustment to the steed and vow to get aboard more often during this fine spring event.
Adjacent to the tiny village of Haines, Alaska, and across the emerald saltwaters of the Chilkat Inlet, lie the deceptively remote and jagged peaks of the Chilkat Mountains. These peaks are of a particularly steep and heavily glaciated nature and include the enormous mass of the Cathedral group that includes the mighty Mt Emmerich, clearly visible from town. Emmerich is the visual centerpiece of this group and rises out of the Kicking Horse River valley just east of it’s convoluted mass. The Kicking Horse River is a river born of the ice; it’s scant origins flowing from the snout of the Garrison Glacier situated at the northeastern end of the range, where it flows for a relatively short distance to it’s confluence with the heavily braided and Salmon infested Chilkat River. At the point where this confluence occurs, the Chilkat narrows to perhaps a half mile across, and on this 9th day of February 2017, winter temperatures has frozen the Chilkat solidly enough to allow crossing on foot.
This winter in Haines has been one of mostly consistently cold temps, with snow on the ground for the entirety of the winter season so far; only once or twice has rain been allowed passage to our winter Alaskan landscape. This is the way I like it and having the rivers frozen over has gained me the chance to explore the “far side” of the Chilkat several times this season. The far, or wilderness side of the river gains access to the peaks of the Chilkat and home to a wolf pack twenty strong. Once, last fall, I had the ultimate pleasure of viewing, with binoculars, several wolves attempting to take down two separate Moose. Ultimately, both moose escaped with lives intact. The visual experience left a deep impression on me and the deep wilderness just across the river has been enchanting me ever since.
Earlier in the winter, I had the pleasure of wandering across the river in other places; once at 10 mile and across to the dense Alder thickets of the Tahkin River, and another time near to 8 mile where once across and beyond the barrier of Cottonwoods lining the shore, I found open snow covered meadows full of Moose, Wolf, Lynx, and Rabbit tracks a plenty. For me though, these were just to test the waters of crossing the Chilkat and the ultimate goal was to reach the confluence of the Kicking Horse River. While there are other, more remote rivers that flow from the Cathedrals, the Kicking Horse to me was one that had a special interest. It was more accessible and equally as wild. So today it was to be…
Parking on the Haines Highway at the state fish and game run fish wheels, I meander out onto the ice and instantly feel the bitterness of the biting wind. The surface is a mixture of crystal clear ice several inches thick and more opaque sections requiring more care in regard to judging the thickness. As I walk the slippery clear sections, I look to see the bottom of the river a few feet below and imagine the thousands of Salmon swimming upstream as they do every year as they have for thousands. Chinook, Chum, Pink, Sockeye, and Coho all run in these waters. Soon I am near the other side and the frozen Kicking Horse is a mere 300 feet ahead. However, there is a channel of open and running river water just in front of me, blocking access to my destination. Further east, I can see that the channel slides under the winter ice pack and disappears. How thick is this newer ice I ask myself? I walk further downstream to where the ice re-appears and gingerly step into this new zone. I can see immediately that is is very thick and soon I am completely across the Chilkat and standing on the gravel shores of the braided Kicking Horse confluence.
It feels downright sublime to be standing here and looking up the Kicking Horse for the first time; gravel bars and Alder thickets lead to a narrowing of the river before it disappears into the bowels of the wilderness. I walk these frozen river banks, occasionally crossing thinly veiled ice sheets over rocky surface, boots crunching loudly and the stiff breeze from earlier dissipating. A long stretch of snow leads to the forest where hundreds of Wolf tracks appear. At least part of the pack has traveled through here recently. I look around and see more Wolf tracks than I have ever seen and realize that the Kicking Horse must be some sort of Wolf highway; a passage leading from the wilderness of the Cathedrals to the shores of the Chilkat herself.
I travel further into the corridor till passage is barred by river ice with a couple inches of running water. Here, the forest at river’s edge are many dead Cottonwoods stripped of their bark and treetops. They stand like monuments guarding the inner access to the wildness beyond, Mt Emmerich towers over head, displaying intricate ridge lines, towers, gendarmes, and gullys. This is the closest I have ever been to this peak and I am awestruck by it size and complexity.
This is my turning around point and it is getting late and the temperature is dropping, so back through the Adler thickets and gravel bars and the multitudes of Wolf tracks to the frozen Chilkat, where an easy stomp back to the highway is in order.
The Kicking Horse has always held a great deal of fascination for me and today was a teaser that strengthened that notion.