Sunday, May 30, 2010

Rendezvous at Kilo Hot Springs

Soaking in one of the pools at Kilo Hot Springs

We were about four miles from the springs when my ear captured the muted buzz of a plane as it skirted over a distant ridge. The small aircraft passed just overhead and continued west before disappearing between the building cumulus clouds. I felt a sudden pulse of excitement and relief surge through my body. And as I glanced over at Dan and Ann I could see that they shared the same sensation. We knew within a few hours we would be lounging in the hot springs, sipping the bitter sweet combination of gin and tonic, satiated from a warm meal, all in the company of our friends.

At this point, we had been moving almost constantly across the rugged terrain of the Ray Mountains for the past two days with only a few hours of sleep. The plane was our quick exit back to civilization. It would carry us effortlessly over the deep and thickly vegetated valleys, rocky scree slopes, ankle twisting tussocks, and endless stretches of mosquitoes. There were a number of reasons that could have prevented our aerial transport from reaching our prearranged rendezvous point though; foul weather, mechanical problems, illness...and these thoughts lingered silently in the back of my mind for the duration of our trip.

Kilo Hot Springs is situated in a broad valley on the marge of a crystal clear stream that drains north from the Ray Mountains. The nearest road or community is more than 40 miles away. Access to the area is difficult since there is no airstrip or trails. A well drained tundra ridge about 5 miles from the springs serves as makeshift landing spot. We began our journey to Kilo from the Yukon River bridge along the Dalton Hwy. Paddling 20 miles down the mighty Yukon to an undefined ridge, we packed up our boats and climbed steeply into the high country of the Ray Mountains, traversing about 45 miles on foot to reach the springs.

Smoke from early season wildfires settles into the Yukon River valley as we paddled 20 miles to our take-out point. The Yukon River narrows considerably below the Dalton Highway as it approaches a pinch point know as the Rampart Canyon. This narrow neck was once considered a feasible site for the hydroelectric producing Rampart Dam, which was estimated to flood an area the size of Lake Erie.

We pulled our packrafts out of the Yukon at an unassuming ridge that would provide us with direct access the treeless high country.

The steep ascent quickly provided us with a panoramic view of the Yukon River far below.

Crossing sweeping carpets of tundra pockmarked with treacherous, ankle twisting tussocks en route to Kilo Hot Springs.

The muggy heat forced us to dip for water in even the slimiest of tundra ponds.

Furry willow catkin's and new spring leaves absorb the late evening sunlight.

Some of the granite tors jutting from the tundra resembled giant prehistoric creatures grazing on the distant hillsides.

Our friends flew in from the Dalton Highway, hiked five miles down from the plane, and met us for a night of soaking in Kilo Hot Springs.

Dea and Ben sit around the campfire and listen to our stories about the exhausting trek to the springs from the highway -- a grizzly bear encounter, cracks of thunder and strong winds on the Yukon, torn up feet, falling rocks, never-ending ascents and descents, spongy tundra, expansive views, untouched wilderness...

The springs are home to an abandoned homestead. Three cabins remain just upstream from the main hot springs. At least one of these cabins was situated adjacent to the springs but was relocated to it's present location a few years back.

The closest place to land a small plane is on a firm ridge about five miles from the springs. It was a 30 minute flight back to the highway.

Above is a video account from the trip to Kilo Hot Springs.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Northern Alaska Packrafts, LLC

A packraft rental shop has been born in Alaska's interior. Northern Alaska Packrafts is now open for business, serving up packrafts to those with an appetite for adventure.

Unfortunately, this blog has been severely neglected due to the consumption of time from other endeavors - but it has not been totally forgotten. New trip postings, thoughts, and experiences coming soon...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Day Trippin' the Middle Fork Chena River

Eager packrafters head towards the Middle Fork Chena River.

A winters worth of ice has flushed out of local rivers, the snow has melted, and the packrafts have reappeared after 8 months in hibernation. We headed to the hills east of Fairbanks for the first packraft excursion of the season. This was a pleasant day-trip right in our backyard playground known as the Chena River State Recreation Area.

Our hike began at the Angel Rocks trailhead. After a steady climb to the granite outcroppings that mysteriously protrude from the boreal forest, we continued the steep ascent to a tundra ridgeline on a connector trail that eventually leads to Chena Hot Springs. Just before reaching a small shelter cabin, a winter trail spurs off to the south and descends down to the Middle Fork Chena River. From there we floated back to the road where bikes can be stashed. Then its a quick 6-mile ride or run back to the vehicles. Total hiking was approximately 12 miles and the 6-mile float took us about 2 hrs.

A boardwalk elevates hikers and alleviates damage to the fragile, yet burnt, vegetation below.

The first few miles of the trail are well marked. The trail to Angel Rocks is one of the most popular in interior Alaska.

Excellent walking and views of the Tanana-Yukon Uplands and Alaska Range.

In a saddle at the eastern end of the ridge, sits a small trail shelter. A trail marked with cut-up road signs branches off to the south just before reaching the shelter. The relatively firm trail follows a ridge down to the Middle Fork Chena River.

The trail splits just before reaching the boggy wetlands around the river. One trail leads into a network of small beaver dams and flooded forest.

The put in on the Middle Fork Chena River is about 12 miles from Angel Rocks.

The Middle Fork is a casual class I float with an occasional sweeper or log jam to avoid. The take-out is at well established gravel bar and pullout at Milepost 43 Chena Hot Springs Rd. Jay pioneered this route and has some additional information HERE.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dash to Dall Hot Springs

Dan inspects one of the pools of hot water at Dall Hot Springs

I just stood there perplexed, frustrated, and on the verge of despair as I stared out at the foreboding landscape. As I spun around looking for relief, my 360 degree view was overwhelmed with jumbled, multiple layers of criss-crossed, endless slash piles of blackened spruce trees that littered the hillsides. We had been climbing around, up, through and over a twisted maze of forest destroyed by a past fire for more than 10 hours since breaking camp. The incessant minefield of jagged spears had ripped or shredded much of our clothing, gashed our flesh, and thrown us on the ground as an unseen root or branch would lash on to any loose thread. We were determined to make it to our destination though - a small flag marked on my GPS that indicated the approximate location of Dall Hot Springs.

We spent the weekend traveling overland nearly 30 miles from the Dalton Highway to reach Dall Hot Springs. About 10 miles of our path crossed decent alpine tundra and open stands of burnt spruce - BUT - during much of the remaining 20 miles we clambered across the torched landscape. We only had a short time once we finally made it to the springs because we had to begin the arduous 18 hour trek back to the truck.

A small portion of our route coincided with the Hickel Highway, which is quite a prestigious title for an abandoned winter ice road. This mostly forgotten and overgrown swath of history was cut across the boreal forest, mountains, and arctic tundra en route to explore the potential reserves of petroleum deep under Alaska's Arctic coastal plain. Governor Walter Hickel ordered the winter supply road to be bulldozed north in November 1968. The "highway" was soon ditched due the poor engineering techniques which stripped away the insulating vegetation that protected the underlying permafrost. The highway turned into an impassable mud bog as the permafrost thawed. A new environmentally sound route, the Dalton Hwy, was constructed a few years later. Although Hickel's Hwy failed, it paved the way and served as a catalyst for the exploration and development of the oil and gas fields in Alaska's Arctic.

We found an assortment of relics along the Hickel Hwy, including oil cans and numerous unidentifiable fragments of old machinery and equipment. Some random photographs during the highways construction can be found HERE. Unbeknown to us, Hickel had passed away at the ripe age of 90 the day we skimmed his defunct highway on the way to Dall Hot Springs.

Dall Hot Springs is a small oasis of warm water and lush grass tucked up against the hillside. A handful of sulfurous springs percolate to the surface and flow away into the boreal forest.

There were remnants of human activity at the springs. This pool was contained by a decaying wood frame and had a complimentary deck and collapsed supports poles for some type of primitive cover. There was also some sort of control gate to adjust the flow of water entering the tub.

Beat-up and tired, but exhilarated from an arduous trek and time out in the wilderness, we made it back to the road and quickly headed south to our materialistic comforts back in Fairbanks.

Here is the video version from our 60-mile, 48 hour push to Dall Hot Springs....

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

100 Miles through the White Mountains

50 athletes leave the start line of the inaugural White Mountains 100-mile race

At the count of one, I sucked in a deep breath of the cold March air and blew into the plastic red whistle. A puttering squeal shot through the air and a wall of racers surged forward. I stood precariously balanced on the trailer hitch feeling hungover from several sleepless nights and peered down as 50 people on bikes, skis and foot funneled into the narrow slot in the trees. They were just starting their race and for me, my race was over. From an idea that was conceived 9 months earlier while packrafting through this country in the warm sunshine, the White Mountains 100 became a reality. Skiing the 100-mile course was going to be a cool down or decompression of sorts, and time to watch the race unfold before me.

Thanks to all the volunteers, athletes, and supporters that made this a successful race.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Kite Skiing in the Alaskan Arctic

Dan heads west along the wind-swept tundra of the Arctic coastal plain.

He spent hours hunched over his sewing machine, stitching together the slippery material that would one day pull him across the frozen tundra. Dan mastered his sewing skills as he created from scratch several different sized kites. Each individual kite was designed for a particular meteorological condition; the largest would scoop up enough air in a light wind regime and accelerate Dan forward, while the smallest would be utilized in stronger winds where a large surface area of fabric was not necessary for propulsion.

I drove Dan north to Alaska's Arctic coastal plain where he was to make a test run of "kite" assisted travel for a few days. This is a harsh environment where wintertime temperatures seldom climb above zero degrees Fahrenheit, the sun remains below the horizon for nearly two months, and strong winds accompanied by zero visibility in blowing snow can persist unabated for days. His plan was to ski across the tundra to the village of Nuiqsut and work out any bugs with his system before venturing off on a more comprehensive journey across Alaska.

Loading up the hand-crafted sled and bag with a weeks worth of gear to survive in sub-zero temperatures and mind numbing wind chills.

Bundles of lithium batteries for a headlamp, gps, and SPOT messenger.

Ensuring the kite lines are untangled prior to departure.

All geared up and ready to launch the kite. First stop: Nuiqsut, Alaska.

Vlogging from the drop-off point 15 miles south of the Arctic Ocean.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Growing Older at Caribou Bluff

Curtains of northern lights dance above Caribou Bluff cabin

I stood at the edge of the bluff in front of the small log cabin. Even though I have seen the northern lights illuminate the sky an uncountable number of times in my life, I am still mesmerized by the silent beauty of every display. Each time it's a different performance; sometimes turning into an explosion of colors shooting quickly across the sky, and other times a shy green streak that dimly fades away into the starlight.

On this night I remained deathly still as I attempted to visually contemplate which direction and with what intensity the next wave of light would pursue. The green arc eventually faded and the show was over. But I remained standing at my perch on the bluff, a bit disappointed that there was no grand finale. I was suddenly aware of the warm glow emanating from the cabin window, the swirl of smoke rising from the chimney, and the muffled laughter of my friends inside. I was overwhelmingly happy to be here to celebrate the beginning of another year in my life...

This was a quick weekend trip into the White Mountains. Six of us traveled by skis, and one on a bike with fatty tires. We propelled ourselves 30 miles out to the Caribou Bluff cabin and then an additional 30+ miles back to the road.

This was an especially special trip. It has been nearly a year since Dea received her kidney transplant. After many months of building up her endurance, she was able to join us on this this vigorous ski traverse. Not too long ago, I could only fondly imagine a time when I could see Dea out enjoying a dialysis-free lifestyle. Now it's become a reality.

A video story from Caribou Bluff.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

White Mountains 100

An idea...that morphed into some scribblings on a sheet of paper...and now may become a reality. So simply named but packed with an uncountable number of challenges to push the human body to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. The White Mountains 100 - a 100-mile human powered winter bike, ski and running race. Coming to interior Alaska in March 2010.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Packrafting in Technicolor

Vibrant colors illuminate the East Fork Susitna River basin

The wide spectrum of light sent me into a visual overload. It seemed like my brain was confused at how to process the incredible array of wavelengths entering my eyes. My vision had previously adjusted to the washed out colors brought on by a rather cloudy and wet, monochromatic August. But as September and autumn rolled in, summer-like weather decided to throw one last performance with bright, warm sunshine lighting up a chromatic display of fall foliage.

We headed into the Alaska Range south of Fairbanks for our final packrafting trip of the season. My nephew and I had traversed the Clearwater Mountain area earlier in the summer, and I was excited to return and explore more of this countryside. I was intrigued by the easy access to the open tundra, shimmering alpine lakes, sweeping valleys, and dramatic views of glaciated peaks looming above the horizon. All of this is within easy reach of our limited Alaska road system.

We started our trek near the end of the Valdez Creek mine road, at which point a dendritic network of mining trails branch out into the surrounding mountains. These trails provide easy access to the high country. Our traverse led us up one of these paths for about 6 miles, at which point we veered off and paraded across the tundra for an additional 20 miles of cross country walking. Our destination was the East Fork Susitna River a few miles from its start at the terminus of the glacier with the same name. From there we floated 32 miles back to the Denali Highway bridge where we stashed bikes and running shoes for the 11 mile trip back up to the truck. The walking was superb with firm tundra, minimal bushwhacking, excellent alpine lake swimming, easy floating and portaging, plentiful wildlife viewing, along with classic Alaska scenery.

We had to cross Valdez Creek a handful of times as we worked our way up the drainage. A well established 4-wheeler trail provided easy access to the alpine and eliminated the need to fight our way through the chest high dwarf birch.

A classic example of solifluction lobes are draped along the hillside. These features resemble oozing tongues of molasses. They are created as the first meter or so of frozen soil, also known as the active layer, thaws during the summertime. Gravity takes its toll on this water saturated active layer of permafrost and it slowly slips downhill along the interface with the permanently frozen ground below.

Curious caribou are prevalent in this part of the Alaska Range.

The tundra grasses and sedges had transitioned into a soft yellow carpet with the onset of fall. In July my nephew and I had strolled down this valley through fields of wildflowers on our way to float Clearwater Creek. For this trip we just skimmed the upper edge of the drainage on our way to a rock strewn pass.

The vertical face of Mt Deborah towers over Ben and Heather.

The fall foliage reflects from one of the many unnamed alpine lakes.

Dea and Heather enjoy the unbelievably stellar walking across the firm tundra and brush free landscape.

Ben approaches yet another beautiful, crystal clear lake. We swam in nearly every pool of water we encountered along our route.

Our progress was slowed by the bountiful supply of plump blueberries which weighed down the bright red bushes.

A choir of cotton grass stands proudly along the edge of another nameless alpine lake.

Ben hesitantly walks through the bright red-leafed blueberry bushes as he makes the final descent to the East Fork Susitna River.

A carpet of tundra and game trails led us right down to our put-in on the silty waters of the East Fork Susitna River.

The East Fork Susitna River was mostly easy class I water, except for a 1.5 mile stretch of rapids just above the confluence with the main stem of the Sustina River. At the water levels we encountered, the rapids were generally class II, with a very short class III rocky drop which required some quick maneuvering.

Portaging around any portion of the rapids on the East Fork Susitna was easy due to a well worn game trail along the south bank of the river.

A portion of the 1.5 mile stretch of rapids on the East Fork Susitna River. A very short class III bouldery section is just up river from this point.

The glaciated peaks of the Alaska Range dominate the skyline above the main stem of the Susitna River. We dragged and powered our way through a few miles of very shallow, braided channels on the Susitna River. Otherwise, the entire traverse was an awesome way to close out the 2009 packrafting season.