Monday, June 16, 2008

Gillette Pass Traverse

Dan splashes through one of the many creeks on the way up to Gillette Pass in the Alaska Range

Dan, Sky and I spent the weekend exploring the eastern Alaska Range south of Tok. Neither one of us had ever done any hiking down in this area so we were eager to blaze a trail through this unfamiliar country. We were fortunate to see an abundance of wildlife including moose, bear, porcupine, caribou, and bald eagles.

Our 85 mile traverse took us up the the Tok and Dry Tok Rivers toward Gillette Pass. From the pass we descended into the Slana River drainage and eventually back to the highway where we ditched our bikes in the woods. The plan was to make a complete loop which included three modes of transportation: foot, packraft, and bike.

Walking along the gravel bars was great at times but involved hundreds of stream crossings which kept our feet soaked. The heavily silt laden glacial water was cold and continually filled our shoes with course debris which chewed away at our feet.

The riverbanks were generally brush free and provided easy walking - they were obviously corridors for animals of all sorts by the number of prints we stumbled across. Grizzly bear tracks of all sizes were abundant.

This couple lives in a remote location about 20 miles away from the highway. When the water in the river is low they can drive a monstrous army truck right up the riverbed to reach their home. In the winter they can snowmachine out to civilization. They told us we were the first hikers they had seen in several years and were excited to feed us coffee cake and tell us about the wolves they have adopted.

Orchids in Alaska - this is a delicate ladies slipper standing alone in the woods.

Dan and I were trying to travel relatively light so we didn't bring a traditional camping stove and accompanying bottle of fossil fuel. Instead we carried the wood burning "bush buddy" stove. It only takes a small pile of sticks and about 10 minutes patience to boil a liter of water.

We also decided to bring the ultralight tee pee shelter sans tent pole - instead we improvised and used one of our packrafting paddles to support the structure.

Gillette Pass is underlain by the Denali fault and was rocked hard during the November 2002 magnitude 7.9 earthquake. The area was scarred with numerous rock slides as the earthquake ripped gaping holes into the mountain sides. This red pile of rubble originated high up on the flanks of the precipice in the background.

A porcupine spreads its quills in self defense.

Dan spots a bear across the river valley foraging in the tundra.

Dan hikes up his shorts to cross the chilly Slana River.

The plan was to hike down the Slana River until it was deep enough to drop our packrafts in the water. Unfortunately the level was a bit low and the river was quite braided - so we continued to walk until we reached consistently deep water for floating.

After 60 miles of pounding our feet against the rocks we finally reach a point where the braids end and the river narrows into one deep channel. Dan quickly fills his raft so we can get in the river and effortlessly travel forward.

10 pm and we finally get to set sail and rest our feet.

Sailor Dan poses in front of his boat.

The relatively gently braided waters of the Slana River quickly transitioned into solid Class II rapids with occasional Class III waves and holes right after we dropped our boats into the silty water. We were completely drenched as waves broke over our heads and water washed through the gaps in our spray skirts. The river was a great rush...

The lower section of the Slana was much more mellow as the gradient decreased. Sky unwilling hitched a ride for a little while....she much preferred running along the riverbank and swimming.

As we went to retrieve the bikes from the woods I realized I left the key to the bike lock in the truck - dope! So we hiked several miles up the road like vagabonds to the nearest store and ended up getting a ride back to the truck.


ned rozell said...

Ed, Ed, Ed!!!!

Stef said...

Awesome pictures, Ed! Dan told me a lot of stories from your weekend...looks like you guys had yet another successful adventure!

Christopher Reichert said...

I saw socks in those pix. Aren't those "luxury items?" HeHe.

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