Monday, June 25, 2012

Pics: Early Alaska Treks

Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve

     As a by-product of the last move, I unearthed a repository of photographs from back in the nineties when I was constantly on hiking blitzes across much of Alaska. They are slowly being added to the "Alaskana" Picasa web-album, but here's a handful of teaser shots in the meantime.

Dixie Pass/Wrangell-St. Elias

     What's funny is that while scanning and retouching these shots I realized how cool and old-school they look, since it's all the rage these days to utilize Hipstamatic app filters on photographs. My secret technique for achieving these results was from packing classic Kodak "single-use" (ie "disposable") box cameras along on my hikes. This definitely curtailed the range of conditions one could take pictures in, but as far as weight and affordability they were better than hauling around an expensive rig. Regrettably I can't seem to locate the best images from this series, but what I dug up in storage is a decent sampling from locations like the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to the Pinnell Mountain Trail to the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, and a few miscellaneous adventures along the way. I have truly been afforded the experiences of a lifetime on these treks, and hope you can get a sense of the insane rawness and overwhelming scale of beauty that is the Alaskan wilderness.

Wrangell-St. Elias
     Also here's a bonus article that was printed in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's "Outdoors" section, I believe sometime in the fall of 2000. The newspaper had been running random write-ups I did which documented some of my more favorite hike. Some others that year were from some climbs up around the Castner Glacier area, and my annual (for six consecutive seasons) Denali State Park hike across the Kesugi Ridge Trail. This particular article featured a grueling "off-season" solo traverse of the White Mountains, from the Elliott Highway (Colorado Creek) to the Steese Highway (Nome Creek).
     More below the fold...

Limestone Jags/White Mountains


   Imagine; traveling an hour north of the second largest city of any state, trekking over eighty miles in twelve days, and not seeing a single person. What for many that seek such an intense wilderness experiences can only be a dream - in the Interior of Alaska we have it right here in our backyard.
   While I have plenty of experience with long-distance solo hikes around the state; in the Brooks Range, Alaska Range and the Wrangells for example, for years there has been an annoyingly large blank spot on the map to explore in my own neck of the woods. And since I prefer to hide in the cabin during the long months of winter slowly losing my mind (a secret of success for any northern cartoonist), my options were limited to a rare off-season, off-trail attempt this late July/early August.    
   With the exception of miners and hunters nibbling around the edges, the majority of activity that takes place in the White Mountains National Recreation Area happens during the winter. And it’s not just to avoid charges of false advertisement that BLM conspicuously promotes seasonal access to the area via snowmachine, mushing and skiing – it’s for a good reason. While most outdoor enthusiasts are notoriously secretive in protecting their favorite territory, I have no qualms about showing off what could be ranked in the top ten most amazingly beautiful spots in Alaska. You’d basically have to be nuts (or employed by a state agency - or both) to try hoofing it around such terrain - and that is simply the best defense in guaranteeing solitude.
   The plan was to get dropped off on a high ridgeline approximately mile 41 on the Elliott Highway (just past the Grapefruit Rocks), cross Beaver Creek, work my way up along the bottom third of the range, cut through the Limestone Gulch, then up and over Cache Mountain pass to strike out for Mount Prindle by running ridges to the Nome Creek camp-ground on the Steese side for pickup.
   The first potential barrier to this adventure was in finding a way over Beaver Creek on day three. Now where I grew up hiking in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York - if a map said “creek” that implied one could usually straddle it with a foot on each side of the bank. Up here however one discovers in this case the “creek” can also be classified as a National Wild & Scenic River. This means it’s pretty much a hit or miss on the water level, which can rise or fall several feet within a matter of hours. And as far as I could see, this particular section was both deep and wide, so I spent the night pitched on the shore psyching myself up for the inevitable swim. But walking around a bend with the morning’s mug of tea there was a surprise stretch of gravel bar where the water never rose above my knees all the way across. Now of course the significance of that little victory was shortly lost after several hours of slogging through a swamp, thoroughly soaked, while getting dumped on by an occasional shower.
   In fact, as anyone with experience walking around the Interior will attest to, the quickest way of reducing a human being to a primitive creature capable only of expressing the base emotions by incoherent swearing, babbling or crying, would be to strap on a 50lb pack and strand them in a few square miles of tussocks bordered by impenetrable alder and willow thickets. I had to laugh at a fly-over by a couple of fighter jets while thrashing about one particularly grueling patch - someone should alert the Pentagon how we could bring any standing army in the world to its knees just by luring them into one of our tundra bogs and let the mosquitoes do the mop-up. Speaking of which - by this point in the season, like many Interior residents, I had built up a hard-won relative indifference to bug bites (sometimes known as giving up). This was one of those trips, however, where the sheer biomass of the swarms began to interfere with some basic bodily functions; for instance, learning how to breathe around mouthfuls of mosquitoes and blackflies by straining air through your teeth is an adaptation surely unique to Alaska.
   In all probably less than a third of my route involved any such struggles, the rest being fairly open forest and high alpine country. It’s almost a relief exposing yourself to being hammered by sustained winds strong enough to make a 185lb guy and a full pack lurch and stagger around like an inebriate. Tim DuPont, part of the BLM team in this area, agrees that this is “tough country” and any summer hiking is “definitely a challenge, but the views are worth it.” Conditions change rapidly in any season, at any time, and the elements can place the unprepared into a survival situation without warning.
   Arguably the crown jewel of the White Mountains is in the middle section with an approximately five mile long canyon called Limestone Gulch. In the mid-80’s the Bureau designated it as a “Research Natural Area,” enacting special restrictions on access and activities in order to preserve its unique characteristics. During this portion of the hike I was privy to some of the most magnificent and spectacular views of incredible rock formations I’ve ever seen anywhere. A perceptible atmosphere of stillness lay over the valley, giving an almost reverent quality to the hours of silent observation spent just sitting and staring. It was while traversing the eastern ridge that the sudden onset of a huge storm inspired a quick bivouac half-way down into the Gulch. Supposedly this region receives the highest number of lightning strikes than anywhere else in the Interior due to its being flanked by the Tanana, Yukon  and Minto Flats - a pretty obvious target. Huddling in a tent that uses two ten-foot long aluminum poles while strikes and ten second thunder rolls are going off all around you tends to make one re-prioritize your worries about any bear encounters.  
   And the full spectrum of wildlife was in evidence - lots of random caribou, herds of Dall sheep, plenty of birds and many a moose were all sighted on this excursion. The sole run-in with a black bear was a sow with her cub - the moment of mutual surprise thankfully broken by her teaching the young one to, given a choice, run away. This allowed me the comical sight of a tiny cub bouncing away behind - a cute Disney-fied version before returning to a constant state of hyper-awareness over bumping into the 1,000 pound carnivorous reality. I was most impressed, however, by the unprecedented size of several enormous porcupines I came across. In hindsight, the funniest event occurred during a visit to one of the public-use cabins where two of these giant rodents began a border dispute under the floor lasting the whole night. If enduring the weird, unearthly sounds (imagine Muppets on LSD at a very high decibel) wasn’t enough, that evening I was introduced to the sublime, ah, discomfort of my first case of Swimmer’s itch. Not that I had even been swimming, mind you, just waded deep enough across a stream to get my shorts wet. A wonderful evening of well-earned relaxation was ahead.
   The remainder of the trip was pretty easy hiking, and towards the end near Mount Prindle, almost as spectacularly rewarding for views. Local artist Bill Brody has intimate knowledge of this area, and his portrayals of the landforms that inhabit it exemplify the raw sense of nature in its most primal state. He spoke to me of “feeling the energy of the land” as a “singularly dramatic and powerful experience” upon viewing the granite tors which are grouped about the region. Myself, I learned to next time bring a different tent, as the worst weather of the trip pinned me down in a pass for a cold, wet night of wrestling against a new surprise!) collapsible tent . In the end I also discovered how actually quite cozy those brand-new outhouses they built at the campground are for shelter, brewing up a hot cup of tea and waiting for my ride home.
Much as the difficulties were plenty - the scope and range of this neighborhood wilderness was enough to already plant new ideas on exploring other routes next season.

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