Saturday, December 22, 2018

Return to the Tors

"Being an Annotated Account of a Weekend Excursion to the Granite Tors"
at the Chena River State Recreation Area, October 5 & 6, 2018. 

Haven't been posting all that many Interior outdoor adventures as of late, especially compared to residencies in Maine, Georgia and elsewhere in the state of Alaska, mostly on account of so much more time being spent in the studio this year in particular.

But my appetite was whetted a couple week beforehand when we had done a quick little sortie for a couple miles along the Eagle Summit end of the Pinnell Mountain trail. It was there + then that I espied from about fifty miles away (as the raven flies) a conspicuous and familiar ridgeline of tors.

Above is a photograph filtered through the new thin ice that was sheeting over all the standing pools on the tundra, which lent a sort of encaustic aesthetic to the shot. Above that is a watercolor sketch of those same faraway ridges taken while looking through my backpacking binoculars. That intimate connection was reborn - one that simply looking at pictures cannot possibly ever hope to come close to accomplishing... the level of tactile engagement and observation when actively drawing a scene from life is exactly that: a life drawing.

Another big trigger for me is the scent of waterproofing: slathering Nikwax over the hiking boots will invariably get the hopes up, mind a-wanderin' and blood pulsing Besides the olfactory association (second only to Roastaroma tea) there's a meditative quality to massaging the leather, part of the process in gearing up for a trek. Rustled up the old Arc'teryx (Bora 65) pack and equally old Marmot Zenith 2-person/3-season tent (being a big guy this is in practice more like a 1-person tent, with more room than my Integral Designs Unishelter bivy setup used on most solo ventures), replaced the antique Coleman WhisperLite stove, grabbed a bag of foodstuffs and hit the trail.

On her last trip to Alaska my mom had hiked by herself one day to go and see firsthand her son’s current favorite place to explore. For several years I would accompany a dear friend who was really into free-climbing, and back then, brimming with youthful energy, we could easily blast the entire 15-mile loop in one shot, including many hours of monkeying about up on the rocks. My mom, on the other hand, could only manage to make it a couple miles up the East Trail, as far as the first viewpoint of the tors.

That's what this drawing is of: the impression one gets as you slowly ascend through the boreal forest and gradually rise in elevation. A handful of the tor clusters become visible on the opposite ridgeline, far enough off in the distance to be little more than tantalizing silhouettes, but close enough to put a little pep in your step. Also the views have changed somewhat slightly as the area is still recovering from a 2004 wildfire that opened up some of the vistas.

I do want to interject a moment of music here: since this entire hike was more or less a memorial - indelibly intertwined with some elements I'll cover in more detail shortly, there's an accompanying soundtrack. When my mom died in 1994 I drove back to Alaska alone, therapeutically expunging some grief by doing it alone in a four-and-a-half day cross-continental blitz. Right on day one I had an emotional breakdown fueled by the dual passions of traveling at a high rate of speed with Beethoven's Symphony #6 ("Pastoral") at an incredibly high volume, all the while careening across the King's Highway as it traversed the north shore coastline of Lake Superior.

It's impossible to covey the incredible, transcendent experience of hearing the first movement (titled appropriately enough "Awakening Of Happy Feelings Upon Reaching The Countryside") as it inexorably builds in rhythmic complexity, with each successive wave timed exactly to the rising and falling of the views of the massive lake; as the undulations of the road followed the score, curving up and winding down, building then cresting, all perfectly in time to the vast and ever-increasing sight of the largest freshwater lake on the planet as it gradually eclipsed everything within view.

The climax was followed shortly by my having to pull over and call my father back in New York, crying my ass off hopelessly trying to convey the sheer intensity and magnitude of what I just went through. Granted it was only a dozen miles or so, and over in about ten minutes, but considering that the majority of life-altering experiences that occur to most folks are over within a matter of scant seconds, this in comparison felt like an incredible eternity.

Pretty much the same thing happened here, although when one is trundling along with a heavy pack it tends to take a bit longer to achieve a similar cumulative, emergent effect. Also there isn't any music blasting either, the air is filled instead with that blissful emptiness (Service's "the silence that bludgeons you dumb"). But the emotional slow reveal was methodically manifesting itself with each and every step. Things began to open up, inside and out. There was that old unfamiliar hitch inside, a feeling like something is broken but not free enough yet to fall away, and so it keeps pulling at this loose thread that could potentially unravel everything.

The above image is a snapshot taken from about five miles up the East Trail, a couple thousand feet rise in elevation, looking down the valley towards the trailhead + parking lot at the North Fork of the Chena River. Also visible is about the last four miles of the end of the West Trail, over on the left side of the valley.

And even though fall is so photogenic with all its heralded colors, this is still arguably one of best times to hike in the Interior: after the leaves have fallen you can really see so much farther, and the subtle range of dominant earth tones is my favorite palette. Bonus in that one can in theory be alerted to any large animals well in advance, though I still carry bear spray just in case. In fact just a couple of years ago there was an indecent that unfortunately highlights exactly what one is not supposed to do in the event of an encounter (even more regrettable is now this individual now supposedly carries a firearm, once again proving who is by far the most dangerous animal to beware of).

It being early on a Thursday morning there wasn't much traffic at all, either on the road out (50-odd miles from Ester) or the trail itself. In fact I came across absolutely nobody for the first day - since the rock formations are for many folks the point of the hike, they tend to mostly take the West Trail as it's quicker access to the tors themselves. This was also comparatively late in the season, with an unusual lack of any snowfall, bringing me to the first sign of potential difficulty...

One problem I hadn't anticipated was how all of the previously dependable water sources began to disappear the higher up in elevation I hiked. By the time I leveled out on the plateau, everything was pretty much frozen up, so no easy way to replenish what I had packed in. Fortunately there was some brackish, scummy pockets underneath a sheath of ice that I was able to boil for cooking (mmmboy) which in turn meant I could keep swigging off one of the two bottles on hand so as to stave off dehydration. Always an odd feeling to be cold but still sweating.

It was arduous for a couple reasons, the foremost being how out of shape my sorry ass was, and so the legs started to cramp up in all sorts of new and interesting places. Made it to approximately the half-way point, 7 miles or so in as many hours, then bushwhacked a final grueling mile off trail, through exfoliating alder thickets & across semi-frozen boggy tundra to reach my destination of a special satellite grouping of tors (see map posted up above).

Despite running out of time as far as available light, I kept pausing every twenty feet or so to take in the astonishing alpenglow. Talk about irresistible force meeting immovable object: I was so completely tapped out and so tired but, like having to piss in the middle of a sermon, when ya gotta go...

Speaking of sweeping, panoramic views, a brief note here on how I'm still so sad and angry over the decision to put up a shelter up there. I actually avoided this hike for many years on account of being so filled with disappointment and bitterness about it. It's basically an open sore, this dilapidated crack-house that disrupts the view with an element of artificiality.

Literally turning the other cheek and facing the other way I caught the sunset behind the "Plain of Monuments." It's a primal interplay between light + stone... an ethereal ambience versus the monolithic presence. As I've alluded to already, the symbolism and sense of place extends far beyond the view for me personally.

Twenty-four years ago my mom died at age 50 (from a stroke while canoeing) while I was out here… hiking at the very same place that as it turned out she wanted her ashes scattered. Discovering that upon reading her will was a pretty powerful moment of poignancy, and was also at the core of 2012’s 24-hour comic “Elegy” which a page from is excerpted here.

7pm and after unthawing frozen boot laces and shucking off the pack it was at last time to set up camp at my customary spot when I’m solo: a sweet little recessed area under a tree that affords some degree of shelter from prevailing winds. Also this picture illustrates how big of a difference it can make to have some element of reference so as to better impart a sense of scale.

Also I believe that’s Mount Prindle on the horizon line behind the tor. This incidentally marked the trinity of high points surrounding Fairbanks that I visited in the past month: Wickersham Dome, Pinnell Mountain and the Granite Tors. Being able to visually connect the dots as it were while taking in the views from such a sweeping range of points across the Interior's high country is such a rare and exceptional privilege, seldom appreciated in the shadow of more famous and photogenic scenes like Denali. And that's just fine with many local residents who avoid the herds and head off to the hills to appreciate the quieter, more subtle aspects of our home.

For a couple hours in the early morning the first rays of sunrise hit the tors at the perfect angle … deep, blissful peace + quiet while being bathed in this gorgeous light. I reassessed my plans to make for site #2, a short few miles away back off of the main trail, making the excursion a three day/2 night trip instead. Having reached the target, from here on out I was in no hurry whatsoever anymore. That would change (shit happens). One escalating concern was the sudden spells of flurries that began to increase throughout the day. While it was far better than rain, it did present a sobering reminder of how cold I had gotten the night before even fully ensconced in the mummy sack (reminiscent of the God Emperor) with all of my warm fuzzies on. That precarious existence on thin ice - literally - might be an added bonus of experiencing the great outdoors, but I've already earned enough awareness when it comes to the fragility of life, and began to hedge my bets accordingly.

Wildlife: Saw the usual assortment of ravens, chickadees and willow ptarmigan (already mostly turned white), and the occasional heart-attack inducing explosion of Spruce grouse. But by far the most amazing moment was while crossing a ridgeline thicket and seeing a cast shadow on the ground before looking up at a Northern goshawk silently glide right overhead, not more than ten feet above my gawking head.

Also, from this same spot from where the picture above was taken, late the previous evening and right before dark, just few hundred yards away from my campsite, I was completely freaked out by some loud, unearthly grunting that I thought must have been a bear. Scrambling out of the tent with the bearspray, I spotted a HUGE bull moose with a enormous, beautiful rack and two cows. Having never actually heard a rutting moose (listen here at the .18 mark for EXACTLY what it sounded like) in person, this was quite the shot of adrenaline before trying to go to sleep.

One final bookend to the trip: it had been twenty years ago (1998) for my BFA thesis exhibition at UAF, which was comprised of drawings, woodcuts, lithographs and field sketches all on the subject matter of granite tors. And it all started here, almost three decades ago, while accompanying that friend to do some day climbing. Even after over a decade of being away from this magical place these primal landforms still had the power to transfix & amaze.

Best laid plans: And then a goddamn temporary tooth + its supporting bridge fell out during lunch: I blame the semifrozen hunk of cheese. So that upended everything and I bailed out, switching into exit mode, singlemindedly focused purely on marching out that same day. The quad-busting descent down the West side (pioneer trail designers in Alaska hadn't yet incorporated the concept of switchbacks yet) added insult to injury as far as completely wiping me out... approximately seventeen miles in two days made for a few day of wincing recovery.

Did met some folks on Saturday, including a park ranger on patrol + few pairs of day-trippers + a trio of fellow campers. I must have looked like quite the caricature of the sourdough (playing up the new gap-toothed grin certainly added a touch of hilarious authenticity) with my old-fashioned wooded hiking stick - as opposed to the high-tech carbon fiber poles in vogue these days, clad in woolen clothing - quite drab compared to the brightly colored Lycra/Spandexed hipster set, and evidently the only person actually hauling enough gear to ensure emergency survival should conditions suddenly change. Humbling to have the knowledge that just a few thousand feet away it was an entirely different world awaiting them.

And that is part and parcel of what it's all about.

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