Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Solstice at Horner Hot Springs

Sunrise: 11:28 AM, Sunset: 3:13 PM, Total Sunlight: 3hrs 45min

The tarp-lined pool at Horner Hot Springs is a winter oasis.

We boarded the small fixed-wing aircraft fully draped in our ski clothes and boots on a flight headed about 250 miles west of Fairbanks. Dan and I were traveling out to the remote village of Ruby on the banks of the Yukon River. As with most Alaskan villages, Ruby can only be reached by plane or by a lengthy trip down the Yukon River via boat, snowmachine, dogsled, or skis. Our plan was to arrive in Ruby, strap on our skis right on the airport tarmac, and then travel up-river to spend winter solstice soaking in the warm waters which percolate to the surface at the oasis known as Horner Hot Springs.

Horner Hot Springs is located about 25 miles up-river from Ruby. Information online was sparse about this springs perched above a small creek about a mile north of the Yukon River. Back in its heyday in the early 1900's, Horner Hot Springs was a popular stop for miners, trappers, and natives traveling the Yukon River -- which during the pre-aviation era the river was essentially a superhighway bisecting Alaska.

Dan skis from the airport down into Ruby. Gold was discovered near Ruby in the early 1900's but the settlement was officially founded in 1912 and at it's peak had a population close to 3000. Red garnets in the area were confused as "rubies" and the town was mistakenly named. Ruby has remained a native village since the gold rush ended.

We worked for food during our ski to Horner Hot Springs. Sam and Tamara are building the remote Yukon River Lodge about 15 miles upriver from Ruby. We were treated like kings in their "under construction" but warm home during our trip to/from the springs. These super friendly folks hope to have it open for year-round business sometime the next year or so--please visit them!

We encountered a mixture of conditions while skiing up the Yukon River. Large sections of the channel were impassable due to vertical knife-like blades of jumbled ice which formed during freeze-up. There was a nice snowmachine trail for a portion of the trip but strong winds in this area result in deep drifts, wind scoured glare ice, and slab crust which would frequently collapse from our weight. There were also a few stretches of overflow water hiding silently under the snowpack which would wet our boots and lock up our ski bindings.

Horner Hot Springs is situated about a mile from the Yukon River on the south flanks of the mountains known as the Kokrines in the background. We broke trail through thigh deep snow to get up to the springs.

The hot water in this area seeps from the surrounding hillside. A small collection pond dug into the embankment above provides water to a pipe which feeds the springs below. The temperature was a comfortable 103F(39C)degrees. There wasn't much flat real estate adjacent to the springs but we were able to find just enough space to set up our tent.

Dan crashes at the luxury accommodations at the Ruby airport while we wait for our plane back to Fairbanks. Fortunately for us it was a warm +10F (-12C)...

Here is a link to an old photograph of Horner Hot Springs: old photo. A pipe carrying hot water from the hillside is visible behind the cabin. Notice how the the faint caption appropriately says, "A sure cure for grouch, rheumatism, and the blues." The remains of this log structure appear to have completely dissolved into the soil of the surrounding boreal forest.

Here is also a link to some fascinating historical shots from the Ruby area when it was a bustling goldrush town: Ruby in the past.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Mad props to Dea

Dea prepares for the 11-mile trudge out of Tolovana Hot Springs

The howling wind swirls millions of snowflakes around the tiny cabin. Occasional gusts make our warm refuge shudder vigorously as we anticipate fragments of the structure beginning to peel away with each successive blow. The cold and driving snow surreptitiously creep into our warm sanctuary through any available gap. This was another epic trip for some of our group out to the springs about a 100-miles north of Fairbanks.

I was accompanied by my friend Dea on this recent excursion. Dea is still patiently waiting for a kidney transplant. In the meantime she is into her third year of linking herself up to a dialysis machine which acts as a surrogate kidney that removes waste products from her blood and excess fluid from her body. If she misses even one of her tri-weekly treatments she would not be here with us today.

Dea's motivation to rise each morning and live a normal lifestyle under the difficult circumstances she is challenged with everyday is unequal to anything I can possibly imagine. She is out experiencing a life that is unfathomable to other dialysis patients. This past weekend...her passion for adventure gave her the endurance to plow through shoulder high drifts, post hole for hours through crotch deep snow, and brace herself against howling winds and subzero wind chills. Its difficult for me to express in a series of words the admiration I have for this very special person in my life.

The high-noon sun reflects from the surface of hot water

Frost feathers illuminated in the mid-day sunlight.

After the storm - a portion of trail on Tolovana Dome I effortlessly skied down which was broken by Dea and the others.

11-miles later after arduously breaking trail and being buffeted by 50F below wind chills. Dea made it back to the car with a big smile on her frosted face. She is truly an inspiration for all of us that have the pleasure to share our lives with her...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Borealis times two

The aurora borealis dances above the Borealis cabin in the White Mtns

Silence.... I am always surprised how the complete lack of sound can be so loud. It doesn't quite make sense when I rationally contemplate the physics of it. A winters night in a cold and windless valley in Alaska radiates a silence so powerful that it is difficult to describe. A silence that makes you stand completely still and struggle to absorb some sort of distance vibration traveling through the atmosphere - a breeze rustle a branch, ice expanding on the river, an owl hooting, a jet flying miles overhead, a lone wolf howling at the moon. In the end the only conscious sound that I hear is that of the blood being pumped within my body and pulsing through my arteries and veins.

I was just reminded of the deafening sound of silence during a jaunt with Ann out into the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. Ann and I ventured 20 miles out to the Borealis cabin on the frozen shores Beaver Cr over the weekend. We were last here in May shivering in the early morning sunshine as we stumbled out of our packrafts during an overnight traverse in the endless twilight.

Ann frosted over as she radiates heat into the -20F(-30C) arctic air.

The entire forest was cloaked with a bouquet of hoar frost crystals that shimmered in the mid-day sunshine.

Two inch long crystals were delicately clinging to everything exposed to the atmosphere.

Slapping more kick-wax on my skis - grasses and sticks protruding through the snowpack quickly peeled the wax from my ski base. The low lying boggy areas still need some more snow before the tussocks are entirely covered and the trenches in between are completely filled in.

Peering out of the cabin before we ski back to civilization.

The high noon sun gradually drops closer and closer to the horizon as we head toward winter solstice and a few meager hours of sunshine each day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Back into the Whites

Dan studies a trail junction sign in the White Mtns

A whole new world opens up as winter descends upon the north and rivers, lakes, and the swampy lowlands freeze-up. Areas that were nearly impassable in the summer months are easily accessed as a blanket of snow accumulates on the landscape. This means that a whole network of winter-only trail systems come to life as dog mushers, snow machiners and skiers explore the countryside. Dan and I made our maiden voyage of the winter to a cabin on one of these trails up in the White Mountains this weekend.

Mashed potatoes by candle light in the Moose Creek cabin

Curtains of northern lights gracefully move across the sky. The aurora was quite nice when I got up to relieve myself in the middle of the night. I will forever revel in the novelty of seeing at least some auroral activity on most clear nights during the winter months.

Dan and Sky depart the Moose Creek cabin

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Blue October

An unusual scene for October with vehicles plugged in to keep them warm so they will start. This looks more like a mid-winter scene...not October. It's been unusually chilly in northern Alaska with temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit.

A lot of cool information can be extrapolated from this infrared satellite image of northern Alaska which was aquired early this morning. The darkest pixels indicate warm temperatures while the white/blue pixels are cold. The ribbon of black which is arched across the bottom of the photo is the Yukon River. The river is still mostly ice-free and quite warm relative to the cold arctic air sitting over the region.

The white dedritic fingers in the upper half of the image are the deep cold river valleys in the Brooks Range mountains. The dense cold air sinks to the valley bottoms and remains there until some sort of mechanism kicks it out (warm air, clouds, etc). There are few, if any, ground based observation sites in this area but this satellite image suggests that the coldest (blue pixels) valleys are approaching -50F (-46C) ---> and its only October! These are by far some of the coldest temperatures being experienced in the northern hemisphere today.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Scenes from Central Asia

Mir-i-Arb Medressa (active Islamic school) in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

I just returned from nearly 5 weeks of stumbling my way across the Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The abundance of scenery, ancient architecture, historical sites, and culturally diverse people along the ancient Silk Route through the heart of Asia was absolutely fascinating. I found it difficult to absorb or retain even a fraction of the history of this region which has been invaded from various directions for centuries. Irregardless of my ability to grasp the history of this area, it was a memorable trip through a very welcoming and friendly part of the world.

Here is a map of the former Soviet Republics that define central Asia

Here are some pictures from my trip: Scenes from Central Asia

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Бишкек, Кыргызстан

A exhibition of aerial photos on display in the Kyrgyz capital

Бишкек, Кыргызстан (aka: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan ) - the capital of this relatively small and mountainous central Asian country. I am here living with a Kyrgyz family and brushing up on my Russian at a language immersion school before continuing my travels through some of the former Soviet central Asian Republics.

Bishkek seems relatively uninteresting on the surface and has the feel of other post-Soviet cities I have visited with concrete block apartment monstrosities, dilapidated sidewalks, numerous kiosks on every corner selling anything from notebooks, cell phones, fresh veggies, booze, cigarettes, fresh bread, to gold watches. But just in my short time here I can sense that there is more to this city than whats readily visible at first glance.

Some of the members of my host family in Bishkek. During the summer, they cook, eat, and socialize outside in their small courtyard.

Changing of guards in front of the State Historical Museum

Traditional ak kalpak's (Kyrgyz white felt hat) are still quite fashionable and can occasionally be seen even in the urban capital.

Girls of Bishkek play on the canons in the park. The rainbow girls outfit is outrageously circa early 80's.

My host brother Tynchtyk (which translates as "Peace" in Kyrgyz) changes the brakes of his families marshutka. A marshutka is sort of a cross between a taxi and a city bus with set routes. This mode of transportation is notoriously known to be one of the most uncomfortable rides as people cram in as tight as sardines in a can. Its an experience that I would avoid whenever possible.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

East Meets West

One of the many mosques which define the Istanbul skyline

Istanbul - what a fascinating mix of cultures in this metropolis of 14 million or so that bridges Europe to the west and Asia to the east. This is quite an amazing city that is difficult to describe in only a few words. From the haunting sounds of the pre-dawn call to prayer echoing through the streets each morning from the uncountable mosques scattered about the the myriad of boats criss-crossing the Strait of the hordes of people moving fluidly through the narrow alleys. Istanbul is a mishmash of eastern and western cultures.

Vendors sell a variety of items in the Istanbul spice market.

I am not quite sure what this is composed of or if it really works.

Topkapi Palace - giant vats which were used to prepare feasts for the sultans.

A window in Aya Sofia frames the Blue Mosque

Morning sunlight illuminates the ceramic tiled ceiling of the Blue Mosque

The 6th century Basilica Cistern underlies a portion of Istanbul. This giant subterranean structure was first built to provide water to the great palace of Constantinople and other surrounding buildings.

A busy harbor on the Strait of Bosphorus.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

German Invasion

The Panamerican traveling Germans have returned to my house. They departed Alaska for the southern tip of South America back in July in their 1952 VW Beetle. They only made it 50 miles out of Fairbanks before they spotted a pot of German gold on the side of the road partially obscured by the overgrown forest - a vintage VW van. They explained to me that this particular van had the original paint job and they must buy it.

So they drove the Beetle to San Francisco, picked up another German, and flew back up to Fairbanks. The only catch is - the van doesn't run. So they befriended my neighbor down the road who has a nice workshop and will use this space to frantically make the vehicle operational before the snow arrives in the next few weeks. Then they will hit the road and drive it down to San Francisco. I am not quite sure what to say about this craziness...except that they are German and this seems to explain a few things.

Monday, September 1, 2008

McClaren Summit to Eureka Creek Traverse

Andy and Lisa head north from McClaren Summit and into the Alaska Range.

I headed south to the Alaska Range with Lisa and Andy over the Labor Day weekend. I had heard that from and old college friend that this was a superb packrafting route (thanks Jeff). The fall colors were just about peaking and the wildlife was abundant. We saw numerous groups of caribou grazing on lichens in the open expanse of tundra. This was quite an unusual traverse in that there was very little bushwhacking and a surprising lack of wet, soggy, tussock infested tundra.

Our 45 mile traverse began along a short 4-wheeler trail at McClaren Summit on the Denali Highway. We followed the trail north a couple of miles until it petered out into a series of game trails and easy tundra walking to 7-mile Lake. From the west end of the lake we paddled about 5 miles to a cabin and climbed a divide and eventually descended to Eureka Creek. We floated most of Eureka Creek down to its confluence with the Delta River and eventually pulled out at the Richardson Highway.

We came across a nice set of stone circles. These man-made looking features are formed as repeated freezing and thawing of the soil pushes rocks up to the surface. They are characteristic of tundra areas where frost processes are active and permanently frozen ground occurs in some form.

Paddling across the crystal clear waters of 7-Mile Lake. We went about 5 miles to a small framed cabin on the north shore.

We camped near the cabin before ascending a drainage up to a pass over an unnamed mountain.

The evening light on the lake was amazing. Its hard to describe the quality of light that radiates across the northern sky...its quite spectacular.

Looking back at 7-Mile Lake as we ascend the ridgeline to the north. It was about a 2000 foot climb up to a narrow pass.

We passed a tarn lake tucked high up in a valley on the mountainside - another potentially great camping spot.

Near the pass we encountered some very curious caribou.

The view from the north side of the pass was quite expansive. We carefully descended the rocky scree slope and made our way across a high plateau to the Eureka Creek drainage in the far off distance.

The climb down was nerve racking for a few moments as loose angular rocks shifted beneath our feet.

More and more caribou. They were extremely curious and would circle us several times before running off.

Eureka Creek at last and the start of our 20 mile or so of floating. There were plenty of game trails through the brush so the walking was rather pleasant.

The upper part of Eureka Creek was narrow and a bit rocky but easily paddleable in the packrafts. As more tribs entered and the volume increased there were plenty of fun class II wave trains to bob through.

My friend Jeff had done this traverse earlier in the summer and scouted out a portion of a narrow canyon where Eureka Creek is pinched and the water becomes much more challenging. We portaged the boats for about 4 miles along the south side of the canyon to avoid the more technical water.

The flavourful Alaskan blueberries were ripe and abundant.

After about 4 miles of following bare low hills and weaving in/out of some brush we dropped back down to Eureka Creek and continued our float towards the Delta River and the Richardson Hwy.

The lower stretch of Eureka Creek was in a deep, scenic canyon with some fun boulder gardens and a few nice standing waves to break through.