Leaving The Yukon- Wrangell Dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOW-Nabesna-FB-00638

Zen Cairns At The Top Of The World

TOW-Nabesna-FB-00659

Old Mining Equipment On The Tundra

TOW-Nabesna-FB-01286

Top Of The World Abandoned Tanker

TOW-Nabesna-FB-01689

For The Home Team

TOW-Nabesna-FB-01699

The Little Tok River

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02696

Lake Of A Zillion Fish

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02732

Mt Sanford 16,237″

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02740

The Nabesna Road

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02742

Wrangell High Country Taiga and Tundra

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02743

One Of Several Stream Crossings

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02745

The Ogre

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02747

The Rambler Mine

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02760

Rambler Mine Ore Cart

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02764

Mine Shaft

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02766

The Nabesna Valley As Viewed From The Rambler Mine

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02771

Mine Structures

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02787

Skookum Creek

TOW-Nabesna-FB-02796

The Skookum Volcano

Advertisements

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

I first fell in love with Alaska when I was 15. Those early high school years were spent dreaming and executing all acts of climbing and mountaineering. I even tried to start a climbing club in high school; not a single taker. Climbing was off the map in the mid eighties, at least among high school students. In the evenings, I would often engage in as much climbing literature as I could stomach; Habeler and Messner’s’ “The Lonely Victory”, Doug Scott’s “Big Wall Climbing” and Art Davidson’s “Minus 148” were books that took me to far away places with far away ideas. It was “Minus 148” that took it’s toll on me and gave me an ironed-in impression of Denali and Alaska. Now, stomping around in this wild place, the memories of that book have come alive and they are hunting me down.

After leaving the Paxson Lodge that rainy afternoon, the Denali Highway still fresh in our hearts, we pedal onward, in search of a flat and comfortable spot to call our own for the night. When I look for a camp, I try as I must to fulfill the rules I have created for myself.  An excellent camp must have at least two or three of the following:  It must be flat, have water nearby, have a view, be protected from the wind, and be as far off the road as possible. A camp spot rarely has all of these attributes, but if there are a couple, then it’s usually deemed acceptable. Angela and I pedal down the Richardson about 15 miles or so and find a fine gravel pit that meets a couple of the criteria and we throw down our scene. A Loon cries out from nearby Paxson Lake, and makes the spot that much better even.

We awake the following morning to outstanding weather and an earlier than usual start sends us 55 miles down the Richardson Highway to the Gulkana river and an early camp for an afternoon of bathing and river laundry. It feels so good to be in the river, the sun overhead and our clothing, now clean, drying on the clothesline I have set up. Unfortunately, the river camp is very moist, and our clothing does not dry till nearly 1 o’clock the following day, which puts us on the road late and provides for a short pedaling day. It all works out for the best, because weeks prior I had scoped out a camp for us when Sven, Bill, and I were on a dip netting mission, out at Chitina. Now, on this afternoon, Angela and I roll into this fine camp. It is extraordinary to say the least; it consists of perfect, flat forest right next to a steep 300 foot cliff/embankment that drops to the mighty Copper River below; infested with Salmon and running strong. It also sports unobstructed view of Mt’s Sanford, Drum, Wrangell, and the enormous Mt Blackburn, all encased in glacial ice, and piercing the deep blue, cloudless sky. To me, it is a camp site to behold.

The Wrangell Mountains are a special place to me; they are nearly as mighty as the Denali area of the Alaska Range, but are connected to the monster of the St Elias Range further to the east. They are also more remote, and, according to some bush pilots I spoke with, the most beautiful place in all Alaska. That makes it pretty damn special indeed.

We continue onward, down the Richardson, and turn in on the old Elliott cutoff; a dirt track leading, for ten miles, to the hamlet of Kenny Lake, an area of rare Alaskan agriculture featuring pastures, Pigs, Yaks, and Chickens. We stock up on a thing or two here at the tiny store, and continue down the Elliott, enroute to Chitina, one of my favorite spots in Alaska. On the last hill into town, the headwinds are so strong, we must pedal hard to go downhill. We roll on through, eager to get ourselves established onto the dirt and gravel of the McCarthy Road, and away from the troublesome traffic. Crossing the Copper River Bridge, one is greeted with a fine, Alaskan sight; the confluence of the Copper and Chitina River’s, the Chugach Mountains to the south and the Wrangells to the North, and the dip netter’s, still pulling late season Red’s from the icy waters’. True Alaska. We roll across the bridge and turn into the free campground there, the only one we were to stay at on this trip.

Some time back, I had an interest in scoping out the Kuskalana Glacier Trail, aka the Nugget Trail, which lies off of the McCarthy Road to the north and in from the western end by about 15 miles or so. The trail, built by miners near the turn of the century, ends at the Kuskalana Glacier and a tiny cabin there. Angela and I decide to pedal down the side road leading to the trails start and check it out for future adventure, as this time around we were a wee bit shy on time. The trailhead begins about 4 miles back, and requires one to cross Native Land and pay a fee, as we found out. Perhaps another time..  Back out to the McCarthy Road, I catch fine glimpses of the awesome Mt Blackburn, 16,000+’, which I believe is the fourth or fifth highest in Alaska. As we travel the road we are traversing it’s western, southern, and southeastern sides, and every time it appears from the road, it is as if Blackburn herself is mounted to a giant lazy suzan, rotating around me, not the other way around, showing off her  best.

The McCarthy Road seems blessed with many small creeks and rivers’, all crystal clears specimens, born of the ice and flowing to the Sea. There are fewer lakes, however. Angela feels at peace when she is swimming in a lake, so we are always keeping our eyes peeled for an opportunity to do so. We pass Moose Lake and pull in for a spell, but decide to push on to another lake further up called “Long Lake”. The lake turned out to be a little farther than expected, but soon it appeares and Angela declares the place her spiritual home. She fell in love with Long Lake. Unfortunately, we find no spot to camp on it’s shores, but a site within it’s view were to be had; again, with the best Loon calls I have ever heard that evening. Even Salmon enter the lake to spawn and the resulting Bears can often be seen catching their lunch. The next day was a fine one, with perfect weather and a short pedal to McCarthy, we were rolling through town by noon. About a half mile before reaching the tiny village, one is greeted by a mountainous site that can hardly be called simply “a nice view”. That will not do. In front of us lithe Kennicott Glacier and the Root Glacier, both giants and flowing from towering peaks, smaller peaks nearing the flanks of the grand centerpiece of Mt Blackburn. As the ice river rises up to it’s birth place, an enormous ice falls shows itself, the “Staircase Icefall” as it is known is a sea of jumbled and towering blocks and seracs, all destined to crumbled downward and become a pat of the valley glacier below.

We find McCarthy more than pleasing; a tiny little town full of laid back folks, tourists, flight seers, bush pilots, and mountain folk. We buy a few groceries at the happily unexpected grocery, and chat with a few folks before departing to find a camp of our own. A local tells us of a trail that leads to the toe of the Kennicott Glacier.. We head out and after getting temporarily lost, we find our way and are rewarded by a great field of gravel ind ice and water. The Kennicott’s tarn, the size of an Alaskan air strip, is under constant barrage from it’s gravel covered ice source just above, and great splashes can be heard very so often. We camp near the shores of the tarn and admire the unbelievable glacial view from our camp. Later, we hike out, away from the tent, at dusk, to inspect bear prints Angels had spotted earlier.

A day off of the bikes is in order and we decide to ride up the road 4 miles to the historic Kennicott Copper Mine, once the largest copper mining operation in North America. After passing through the mine area, we continue on a deterorating trail that soon requires the the bikes be parked behind a boulder and on foot we continue. We hike four, five six miles? up the valley, paralleling the Root Glacier, and high above it’s flanks. Eventually, we find a place that looks reasonable to descend, and down we go; crawling across the gravel covered ice hills to reach the main body of ice. Angela has never been on a glacier before, and it had been a while since I had last been on one this size. We cross out onto the flat ice, well below the firn line, and small, but open crevasses appear. A giant Mullion, the central body of exposed glacial water, is flowing wildly upon the giants back and we drink freely from it’s source. We ascend back up the loose scree to the trail and skedattle down valley to our bikes. A fast blast back to McCarthy takes only minutes and soon we are in camp once again. Our “rest” day consisted of riding ten or twelve miles and hike maybe thirteen or fourteen; we are spent. That night, very late, I got up and a bare twinge of the Aurora Borealis was beginning to appear. Summer was coming to an end.

The day following was Angela’s birthday, and it was raining badly. We take cover in the local coffee and burrito house and put off getting into the mud till past noon. The day was spent mostly in soaking wet conditions and endless amounts of mud. This signaled the impending end to my bottom bracket, rear hub, and drivetrain. We manage the day however; in the late afternoon, when we are ready to camp, an RV with two Europeans pull up and ask us about the road conditions to McCarthy. I tell them that the road is fine and they should have no problems with the road surface. As we were about to push on, the driver asks “Is it worth? I assumed that he meant is it worth the drive to visit a place such as McCarthy; I was taken aback and did not know what to say. Every where in Alaska (except Wasilla) “Is worth” in my opinion. The question of worth versus value is a question that I am constantly on the lookout for; everyones values are different, it seems. So that said, if one values what a place like McCarthy has to offer, then certainly “it is worth”. So I tell him: ‘ Look, if you are looking for 5 star accommodations, fine dining, a nightclub to attend to, or a theater, or a McDonalds, or a Walmart, then it is “not worth”, BUT, if you are looking to witness and experience some of the finest mountain scenery to be found on the planet, and have a great appreciation of all things wild and free, then sir, I promise you “It IS worth”!

The next morning we were back on pavement and headed back out to the Richardson Highway, in search of the next “worthy” wilderness.

McCarthy Roadrado Peak_1 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_2 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_3 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_4 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_5 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_6 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_7 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_8 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_9 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_10 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_11 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_12 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_13 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_14 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_15 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_16 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_17 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_18 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_19 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_20 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_21 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_22 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_23 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_24 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_25 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_26 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_27 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_28 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_29 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_30 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_31 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_32 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_33 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_34 McCarthy Roadrado Peak_35 McCarthy Roadrado Peak