Tsirku Dreams

“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.

 

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Hooligan

Since I was a teenager, I have been enthralled by the far north. Epic stories of high adventure on Alaska’s queen Denali filled my young mind in the readings of early accounts of her ascent. To me, the very notion of Alaska was something of a mysterious and rare prize that few had conjured the gumption to explore for themselves’s. Of course this was far from the truth… Alaska’s history has unfolded in countless ways, spanning multiple races and generations. From the crossing of the Bering Straights untold thousands years back, to the gold rush bonanzas and oil field exploitations of modern memory, the Alaska frontier has always bee a place of not only fascination, but one of an inexplicable location for far fetched dreams and far fetched exploration. And when I first came here in 2011, having ridden my  bicycle from the “outside” into her glorious womb, I then felt, as I do now, that Alaska and the untold prevailing of the Yukon and Northern B.C., were to beheld as nothing short of treasures. The first time crossing into the Alaskan frontier, I felt I had somehow stumbled across some great and archaic secret: something that the rest of white society had either forgotten, ignored, or simply knew nothing about. To me, it was a sensation of unfounded beauty and treasure. One that I still do not take lightly or for granted to this day.

Alaska is a place of mystery to most; and understandably. The ways of life here are not of the ordinary… even by un-ordinary standards. There exists a faction that demands one’s attention to detail regarding everyday life, to the omnipotent realization that nature is not only your absolute friend, but your foe at times as well. This balance is what defines this place; a place where you must have a kinship with surroundings and be capable of a transformative resolution on a daily basis. In a nutshell, the ebb and flow of the natural world is always at hand, and one must be not only willing, but ecstatic about it’s rapture and grace.

Every year, in the spring, the salt water inlets of Southeast Alaska are coming alive with life. The seasonal shift from a potentially long and harsh winter begin to unfold into something greater. The river’s break up, the ice floats to the sea, and life in the form of all animals and plants begin to explode in a monstrous display of grandeur.

One of the earliest signs of this magnificent occurrence comes in the form of the early spring smelt runs… At first it is the Herring, then a short time passes and the massive swarms of the Hooligan, also known as eulachon or candlefish, called so due to their high oil content, and once dried, can be lit on fire, begin to run into the omnipotent rivers of the upper Lynn Canal: The Chilkoot and the Chilkat. These precious Hooligan fish have been a staple of nutrition, culture, and economics for the native Tlingit nation for untold hundreds of generations. The fish are small, perhaps six inches long or so, and contain within them, essential fatty oils that are not only prized for there taste and nutritional value, but for their ancient economic value among the historic peoples of the Alaska panhandle and the ability to trade these wonderful gifts from nature to the southern Tutchone and Tagish peoples of the southern Yukon. Hence, the trade routes between the Chilkat Valley in modern day Alaska and the broad valleys and lake districts of the southern Yukon and northern B.C. have become known as the historic “Grease Trails” where the Tlingit natives of the coastal valleys of the Lynn Canal traded with northern interior peoples for such commodities as furs and other goods. These fish are regarded as gold by many, and not only signifies the coming of the summer ahead, but also the fact that the life giving runs of Salmon are not far behind. This is a time of celebration and thanks the the Earth that another time has passed and another will ensue.

I begin to hear the birds at first; the ocean Gulls swarming and squawking, then the Eagles, chirping in their usual ways, but at this time of year, it is somehow greater, as if something is about to explode. I hear these sounds early in the spring Alaska mornings as the light from the rising sun shines itself upon the northern landscape and gracing the land with light at about 3:30 am… something is happening. The North is coming alive; the Bears are awakening, and the fish are beginning to run the rivers on their yearly migration to spawn and dye as they have been born to do for untold eons.

This day opens and I head out to the Chilkoot river, the first of this year’s Hooligan run to inspect. Upon pulling into the narrow river valley, I spy hoards of Gulls and Eagles: A sure sign that the run has started. I peer to the river and notice immediately that is is black with fish. Untold thousands of these Hooligans have entered the river from the Sea and are finishing their life cycle in the form of spawning and dying. There are Brown Bear prints about and the entire river corridor is coming alive.

The next day, this time I return with a bucket, one I have drilled holes in to let the water escape as I scoop the Hooligan. The common method for capturing a harvest of these fantastic creatures is by means of a long handled dip net, but I do not possess one. Instead, my bucket will do… I have not a desire for more than I need, and my needs are small. I dip the bucket into the blackened mass of a million fish, but they scatter as  the motion of the bucket rifles the water. Each scoop manages a few scant Hooligan, but after an hour or so, I have what I need. I thank the Earth for this treasure and I return home with my earnings. After inspection of the harvest, it is revealed that I have taken exactly what I need: enough to fill my little smoker and just a tad bit more for the evening’s supper.

After, I look out over the Chilkat Inlet, the scene of the next Hooligan run in a week or so, and revel at how blessed I am to live in such a world.

 

Resurrection

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.Easter RideEaster Ride-12

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The Ogre Lives
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The Glaciers And Peaks of The Mighty Chilkat

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Kicking Horse

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     Adjacent to the tiny village of Haines, Alaska, and across the emerald saltwaters of the Chilkat Inlet, lie the deceptively remote and jagged peaks of the Chilkat Mountains. These peaks are of a particularly steep and heavily glaciated nature and include the enormous mass of the Cathedral group that includes the mighty Mt Emmerich, clearly visible from town. Emmerich is the visual centerpiece of this group and rises out of the Kicking Horse River valley just east of it’s convoluted mass. The Kicking Horse River is a river born of the ice; it’s scant origins flowing from the snout of the Garrison Glacier situated at the northeastern end of the range, where it flows for a relatively short distance to it’s confluence with the heavily braided and Salmon infested Chilkat River. At the point where this confluence occurs, the Chilkat narrows to perhaps a half mile across, and on this 9th day of February 2017, winter temperatures has frozen the Chilkat solidly enough to allow crossing on foot.

     This winter in Haines has been one of mostly consistently cold temps, with snow on the ground for the entirety of the winter season so far; only once or twice has rain been allowed passage to our winter Alaskan landscape. This is the way I like it and having the rivers frozen over has gained me the chance to explore the “far side” of the Chilkat several times this season. The far, or wilderness side of the river gains access to the peaks of the Chilkat and home to a wolf pack twenty strong. Once, last fall, I had the ultimate pleasure of viewing, with binoculars, several wolves attempting to take down two separate Moose. Ultimately, both moose escaped with lives intact. The visual experience left a deep impression on me and the deep wilderness just across the river has been enchanting me ever since.

     Earlier in the winter, I had the pleasure of wandering across the river in other places; once at 10 mile and across to the dense Alder thickets of the Tahkin River, and another time near to 8 mile where once across and beyond the barrier of Cottonwoods lining the shore, I found open snow covered meadows full of Moose, Wolf, Lynx, and Rabbit tracks a plenty. For me though, these were just to test the waters of crossing the Chilkat and the ultimate goal was to reach the confluence of the Kicking Horse River. While there are other, more remote rivers that flow from the Cathedrals, the Kicking Horse to me was one that had a special interest. It was more accessible and equally as wild. So today it was to be…

     Parking on the Haines Highway at the state fish and game run fish wheels, I meander out onto the ice and instantly feel the bitterness of the biting wind. The surface is a mixture of crystal clear ice several inches thick and more opaque sections requiring more care in regard to judging the thickness. As I walk the slippery clear sections, I look to see the bottom of the river a few feet below and imagine the thousands of Salmon swimming upstream as they do every year as they have for thousands. Chinook, Chum, Pink, Sockeye, and Coho all run in these waters. Soon I am near the other side and the frozen Kicking Horse is a mere 300 feet ahead. However, there is a channel of open and running river water just in front of me, blocking access to my destination. Further east, I can see that the channel slides under the winter ice pack and disappears. How thick is this newer ice I ask myself? I walk further downstream to where the ice re-appears and gingerly step into this new zone. I can see immediately that is is very thick and soon I am completely across the Chilkat and standing on the gravel shores of the braided Kicking Horse confluence.

     It feels downright sublime to be standing here and looking up the Kicking Horse for the first time; gravel bars and Alder thickets lead to a narrowing of the river before it disappears into the bowels of the wilderness. I walk these frozen river banks, occasionally crossing thinly veiled ice sheets over rocky surface, boots crunching loudly and the stiff breeze from earlier dissipating. A long stretch of snow leads to the forest where hundreds of Wolf tracks appear. At least part of the pack has traveled through here recently. I look around and see more Wolf tracks than I have ever seen and realize that the Kicking Horse must be some sort of Wolf highway; a passage leading from the wilderness of the Cathedrals to the shores of the Chilkat herself.

     I travel further into the corridor till passage is barred by river ice with a couple inches of running water. Here, the forest at river’s edge are many dead Cottonwoods stripped of their bark and treetops. They stand like monuments guarding the inner access to the wildness beyond, Mt Emmerich towers over head, displaying intricate ridge lines, towers, gendarmes, and gullys. This is the closest I have ever been to this peak and I am awestruck by it size and complexity.

     This is my turning around point and it is getting late and the temperature is dropping, so back through the Adler thickets and gravel bars and the multitudes of Wolf tracks to the frozen Chilkat, where an easy stomp back to the highway is in order.

     The Kicking Horse has always held a great deal of fascination for me and today was a teaser that strengthened that notion.

     I will return …

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Home Sweet Home

After 43 long months of not seeing my family in California, it was time to head south out of the Great Alaskan Empire, and into the realm of family and old friends not forgotten. It was a strenuous voyage of ferrys and plane rides, airports and freeways, but eventually I was home to catch up with my Mom, Sister, Nephew, Pop, brother-in-law Dutch and old time friends not seen in quite some time. Catching up with John Boyer of Edible Pedal in Sacramento, and Debra Banks of Rivet Cycle Works was a joy. My old friend and climbing partner Dennis even drove up from the Bay Area so the two of up could discuss our plans for an Alaska Range climbing trip this coming August. Ten days later finding myself looking back with fondness of my visit upon an Alaska  Marine Vessel  heading north from Juneau, I am once again in awe of the magnitude of the Upper Lynn Canal and it’s mountains, waterways, and glaciers. Two days in Juneau prior to being aboard this vessel, I had the pleasure of catching up with another old friend not seen in many years. Amelia was in Juneau visiting her boyfriend James and the three of us celebrated with beers and lunch along Juneau’s waterfront.

Now in the waters of southeast Alaska once again, I am getting the fond sensation of being home. The Alaskan air is crisp and cold, but I spend a great deal of the boat ride home outside perched on the vessels decks gazing at the scene unfolding. It is breathtaking to see it again. Back in my crib later, I sift through mile after mile of unseen footage and unfortunately few photos. For some reason I had been so preoccupied with shooting video to make a living with I had neglected much in the way of photos or even snapshots of my family. This makes me feel deeply sad, and I vow to not let that happen next time.

The next couple days are spent not only in front of the computer editing and working, but getting out a bit exploring, shooting video with friends Gene and Michele, shooting photos  and stomping around the hills.

It has been two or three years since we have had a “real” winter here in Haines, and this winter is a real treat and a joy for me to call it such: Winter! The temps have been, more or less, consistently cold, and there has been snow on the ground for many weeks. The resulting ice at Picture Point along thee Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Estuary beaches has been extraordinary.

Going back to work next week after three solid weeks off will be another challenge upcoming. I keep reminding myself of the upcoming adventures to be had that need paying for to drive me back. The Lost Coast in May, and the Alaska Range trip with Dennis in August I look forward to immensely.

In the meantime, I have ice…

 

 

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Chilkat Spindrift Sunset

Out on the Chikat River ice after work today sees the sun dipping behind the omnipotent peaks of the mighty Chilkat Range and spindfift blasting from it’s summits. The wind must have been over 60 mph up there. Out there on the frozen river, the temps were close to zero with the windchill. Alaska in winter is spectacular to say the least…