Thursday, July 26, 2012

Interlude: Talkeetnas

Uploaded a couple dozen highlights from a splendid hike in the backyard: was dropped off at the Reed Lakes trailhead off Archangel Road (up Hatcher Pass Road about half-way to Independence Mine State Park), and spent four days exploring both that popular route and a little bonus side-trek up into Snowbird Mine and further on up to Glacier Pass.

Also managed to officially kill the camera: time to say goodbye to the indomitable Canon Power Shot S3, which after slowly dying from a dreaded "lens error" finally just locked up. It had also been showing signs of losing it's digital mind by inexplicably and mysteriously reverting to taking only thumbnail-sized resolution images, which is all understandable given how much it had been bashed about Acadia and back and forth across America. So these pictures are a both a bonus and great post-script.

Random notes excerpted from the field-journal after the jump...

About halfway up Hatcher Pass Road to the Independence Mine State Park, there’s a turn-off called Archangel (or alternately Fern Mine) Road. Two miles down that dirt road is a trailhead to one of the more popular access routes into the Talkeetnas, the Reed Lakes trail. I was dropped off at about 8:30pm with heavily overcast skies and low-lying clouds blanketing the area. One of the coolest things about this entire trip was getting a bonus second round while hiking out, as I had absolutely no idea where I was or what I was in the middle of while heading in. It’s a surreal experience to trudge for hours through gathering dusk and thick, shifting mist – one gets an impression of being surrounded by mountains without actually seeing them, just a feeling like a tangible weight from something out there. Tantalizing peeks at shady, massive monoliths play hide-and-seek as the footpath weaves across the tundra, through boulder fields, across talus and scree, all with about a hundred feet of visibility in virtual silence. 

I came with a half mile of my initial destination, Upped Reed Lake, before conditions merited turning back, retracing the last half-mile and pitching camp. I had punched through the snow along the stream and soaked one foot, and in the process snapping off the end of my hiking stick. Being worn out, with a chilling headwind springing up and now near-darkness added up to TAKE A HINT and turn around. So after doubling back and fording the stream above one of two waterfalls above Lower Reed Lake, I set up the one-person tent in 12-minutes flat and settled in by 1:30am.

Of paramount importance is the double-bagged core of warm fuzzies buried deep in the backpack: fleece jacket, long pants, ski hat, gloves and wool socks. Regardless of how drenched I get during the day, long as I have this crucial getup to change into and get ensconced in mummy bag, I can survive anything. Even so, there was a brief bout of the shakes from the damp cold and exhaustion, and I mulled over the miracle of maintaining such a tenuous toehold on the conditions needed for survival, and my own intelligence mortality.

As it turned out the tent location was advantageous not only because of it serving as a buffer-zone masking the excited monkey-noise from the party of eleven (Outward/Upward Bound type of organization) encamped below, but also on account of the splendid view it afforded me the next morning. At one point I woke to a cloud ceiling settling in just a few hundred feet above, while simultaneously a mass of low-laying cloud boiled up from the pass below, which began to pool and gradually fill in the lower pockets of land. Eventually it turned into a complete “gray-out” like being swaddled in the middle of a cloud with accompanying drizzle. Back to sleep.

Hours later the veil was finally pulled back, and it became apparent that not only my perch in the current upper valley, but also half of the hike in during the previous evening had in fact been cradled in spectacular, craggy peaks. There’s a subtle quality to these mountains that is different from the neighboring Chugach Range, and even from the Alaska, the Brooks and the Wrangell Ranges. The peaks just seem more condensed, tighter, more intense… the contrast of such imposing rawness thrust up from the rich lushness of the valleys… intimate and yet forbidding.

Day two (Tuesday) and an attempt to explore the upper reaches of the valley around Upper Reed Lake. More than the Lower lake, it mostly covered in ice, but for a little open lead around the shoreline. Then it was off to scrambling over a vast boulder field and onto steeper talus slopes and bare tundra. The higher the climb in elevation the more of a change in the ratio of snow-to-ground, to the point where more than half the time I’m shuffling across some pretty deep and wide deposits. Mid-July and winter has yet to relinquish its grip here, still extending long fingers of snow down from the ridges and peaks.

This was supposed to be at an overlook to Bomber Glacier on the Lynx Peak ridge, but, as usual, I somehow wound up somewhere else instead. Almost made it all the way to the very top, but turned back after spooking myself during the climb – being solo on such excursions tends to (somewhat) limit the crazy shit. Anyways, I have absolutely no problem turning back right before reaching any destination’s goal, as with life, that’s never the point of any trip anyways.

Still, this was the third time in as many attempts
(earlier in the season I bailed on Gold Mint Trail to Montana Peak, and then more recently McRoberts Creek to Matanuska Peak) at reaching a high point but as is often the case, it was a good call in retrospect. The weather took a turn for the worst and a heavy, cold rain began to fall – fortunately after the tricky decent on rocks, so I felt more than a little fortunate to have spared myself some potential trouble.

A couple more showers over the night, spent more time huddled in the tent plotting possibilities and routes. The morning sun finally hit the campsite so as to handily dry everything off before packing it all up and heading down the trail to the next valley.

One aspect of hiking through and around places like this is the complete, deep satisfaction in simply sitting and looking at the scenery for hours on end: the tundra was absolutely blanketed with alpine flowers in full bloom. Typically I’ll spend most of any given day basically just farting around, frequently stopping to sit and stare at the view (not unlike what I used to do in Acadia). There’s a never-ending stream of sights and sounds, especially watching and listening to the birds - like the omnipresent magpies, snow buntings and even a bonus hummingbird – plus the usual pissed-off picas and marmots. They in particular set up an amusing little chorus of squeaky-toys surrounding each camp, and to this day I’ve still never seen such seriously plump rodents on any hike. Which in turn always reminds me to keep the pepper spray handy. 

Speaking of eating, my diet consisted of all ready-to-eat items that don’t require any preparation like heating. Probably half the time I opt to carry a stove and enjoy tea and soups, but it’s also fast and cheap to go minimalist sometimes. A typical day’s fare would consist of:

Bfast – apple, Clif bar, pop-tart style pastry.
Lunch – couple fig-newtons, a granola bar, some carrots.
Dinner – few handfuls of trail mix, couple more fig-newtons, a Harvest bar.

This menu means you’re kinda like a shark in that it becomes necessary to maintain movement to generate heat: fortunately I’m packing around no small backup of caloric storage to fuel my reserves. And I drink plenty of water throughout the day, refilling wherever possible. Giardia fears aside (I’ve only had it once while in the Adirondacks and will never forget the misery), there’s a stubborn part of me that wants to believe that there’s still someplace left in the world...

...where one can drink from a stream without filtering or fear. My private hunch is that the bulk of incidences from folks who claim to contract a bug by drinking untreated water in the wilderness are instead the result of a weakened immune system. This is similar to the paradox of viruses running rampant because we’ve instead made ourselves more susceptible to them through a culture of obsessive sterilization. Perhaps after a childhood from playing in back alleys to barnyards has resulted in a metabolism that can take the hard stuff. Besides, pica shit is doubtlessly better for you than most of what passes for "food" these days anyways.

All of which to say that the water issue really came in use on this trip when the skies completely cleared up and temperatures soared into the upper seventies. This meant the sun become a factor of concern with increased risk of dehydration – at one point while laboring up into a hanging valley to reach the ruins of Snowbird Mine I got hit with dizziness and chills from heat exhaustion. Or maybe it was the grandeur and majesty of being in such an incredible place. Either way, about another half-mile later I established a base camp and took a serious nap.


Even with over 20-hours of (theoretically) visible daylight, there’s not much of a window for the daylight when hemmed in by such tall peaks. So I set out in the late afternoon to hopefully catch the magic hour and reach Glacier Pass. This time I was much better prepared after doing the Transformer thing on the backpack and used the fanny-pack option with raingear, topo-maps, compass + snacks.

This entailed hours of meticulously picking my way up the back of the valley, prospecting for the path amidst
rock and tundra: one thing that I really enjoy is finding a route that is partially buried, ghost imprints from another solitary trekker earlier in the week, picking out faint traces of a footpath, an occasional small cairn or old, muddy boot tread plus some basic guesswork on which way to go - or if even to follow any path at all and strike out on your own, find your own way.

After all the aforementioned bail-outs, it was refreshing and inspiring to eventually, actually get a magnificent view of the surrounding area – the proverbial big picture. Like another world… but it’s ours: just a different, humbling perspective, and
at the 5,100 foot summit my problems don’t really add up to much worth worrying about. Except on the matter of getting the hell down.  

Funny how careful and meticulous I was about walking across areas of snow on the way up, when coming down I glissade with impunity. That carelessness led to me leaving behind my faithful companion over many hikes – a walking stick was left behind somewhere at some rest spot. I actually had separation anxiety over losing it (not enough to backtrack and retrieve it) since it had become quite the subconscious extension after countless miles of trekking. It was one of a pair I had brought back from a few years of fly-in trips to the Brooks Range (one named Saint Elias, the other Wrangell) their well-worn shafts smooth from spending many so many months in a sweaty grip.

Being back in the ruins, surrounded by collapsed structures, empty, rusted 50-gallon drums and piles of empty cans, sheets corrugated steel siding, piping. Not to romanticize it, as it was basically camping out in a post-apocalyptic trash heap. High up on the slope above me are the vacant holes of the two abandoned mine shafts staring out, a silent reminder of the previous inhabitants of this valley. My petty complaints with sore muscles and sunburn don't seem that much in the face of what hardships the pioneer miners must have endured. Then again, I didn't leave any perceptible trace behind.

Throughout my explorations I've been guided in part by “A Walk-About Guide to Alaska: Volume Three – Palmer Area and Hatcher Pass” (2001) by
Shawn Lyons. In the decade since the author wrote the book, much has changed, mostly from the impact of so many hikers – there are clear trails where there wasn’t before, and a network of braided pathways now crisscrossed with ruts and ever-widening areas of trampled tundra. I am reminded of half-a-dozen successive years hiking a trail in Denali State Park (Kesugi Ridge) and observing firsthand the erosion and degradation from so much foot-traffic.

One key aspect that sets this area off against others in Alaska is the constant screaming of fighter jets and bombers overhead originating from Elmendorf AFB. Time in the wilderness can sometimes have a peculiar effect on one’s sense of personal space, and, on a scale greater than any insignificant cloud of mosquitoes, this annoyance would qualify as an invasion of my little no-fly zone. Sort of like the rude talking of other patrons in a movie theater, such disruptions take you out of the moment, the connection is lost, and you realize this is largely a futile, fantasy attempt at solitude. Would that the majority of people ever be afforded the opportunity to indulge in such escapism, instead of constant immersion into the sound & fury of society.  

Some more snapshots + descriptions here in the Picasa web-album.

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