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.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Silence in the Clearwater

Mark and Sky descend a mountain pass in the Clearwater Mountains

We finally settled down and started to cook dinner around 1 am under the dim twilight. It was noticeable that the nights were gradually getting darker as time slowly slid away from summer solstice. The two of us perched ourselves on a cushion of tundra overlooking a glassy alpine lake as we devoured our warm meals from the self contained aluminum bags.

Mark was the first one to notice it. I had sensed that something was different but no conscious thought had surfaced until he pointed out the obvious. It was completely silent...dead still. There were no birds, not a single movement of air to rustle the miniature leaves on the surrounding sedges -- but this place was void of something more prominent. Bugs! There was no incessant buzzing of mosquitoes. We had been so accustomed to a constant hum in the atmosphere this summer that the lack of sound felt strangely discomforting.

This was our last trip together before Mark heads back to his home high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and tends to more important things like high school and cross country running. Mark was eager to do a multi-sport trip which would combine hiking, boating, and cycling. We decided to explore the Clearwater Mountains: an accessible subrange in the greater Alaska Range along the Denali Highway. A very well maintained road and network of 4-wheeler trails lead to the tundra in the Valdez Creek mining area. We followed one of these paths until it spit us into the alpine. From there we hiked about 18 miles to Clearwater Creek, dropped our packrafts in the water and floated 15 miles to the Denali Highway, and then biked 35 miles back to the truck. A complete 70 mile loop which can easily be completed in a 3-day weekend.

We scrambled up a pass above Grogg Lake en route to our put-in on Clearwater Creek.

A dense population of caribou in this area have developed a well worn web of trails through the lower elevation brush. This made for easy walking as we dropped down into the Clearwater Creek drainage.

We put in on Clearwater Creek at the confluence with a tributary which contributed enough water sufficient for floating.

The creek was almost entirely Class I water with a short stretch of rocky...non butt dragging...Class II riffles with some boulders to dodge.

The take out at Milepost 55 Denali Highway. I was skeptical about floating this river when I saw the low volume of water flowing under the bridge. The trip was surprisingly nice with plenty of water to keep the boats afloat.

Heading west on the Denali Highway and back to the truck.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Whitewater on Windy Creek

Ben and Tyler take a ride down Windy Creek

Windy Creek is often used as an approach to access the Sanctuary River in Denali National Park. This clear boulder strewn ribbon of water also makes for a superb day trip. When I first walked up this drainage en route to the Sanctuary River via Windy Pass I was so focussed on my final destination that I somehow overlooked its amusement park ride-like floating potential. Fortunately a fellow packrafter pointed out the obvious in a post on the internet.

A well worn 4-wheeler trail branches northwest from the community of Cantwell and crosses a low divide before narrowing down to a single track where it descends into the Windy Creek drainage. We hiked about 5 miles along this path from Cantwell to an undefined spot that looked like a great starting point. This was followed by a 9 mile float down Windy Creek and the Jack River -- eventually pulling out where the Jack spills into the Nenana River. A short portage through the brush brought us back to the road. From there its a pleasant 8-mile bike ride or run back to the vehicle in Cantwell. The ideal car shuttle required.

Mark gazes down at the others clambering on all fours as they climb a steep bluff along Windy Creek.

The upper part of Windy Creek is very fun and steady class II water with lots of small drops and standing waves. The volume is relatively low so there are no big hydraulics or unmanageable holes to contend with. Its a confidence boosting intro paddle for newbies to whitewater packrafting. The lower river is a mellow class I "chill out" and soak up the scenery float.

Tyler prepares to re-enter the river after one of our numerous stops to dump water out of the boats.

Videography from Windy Creek

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hot Springs Double Header

Melozi Hot Springs - the abandoned wilderness paradise... (Rozell photo)

I stood there completely naked as the cascade of hot water splashed over my head and ran down my back. Several large grayling suspended in the crystalline water that was lapping at my knees effortlessly maneuvered between the cobbles lining the bottom of the creek. A lone dipper glided across the blue summer sky as it skipped from rock to rock in search of food. This is absolutely unreal I thought to myself. Does this place exist? ...or is this some fantasy that I conjured up in my mind? But I am really this remote valley deep within Alaska's interior.

The hot springs double header - this trip was conceived while soaking in the steaming water of Horner Hot Springs over 7 months ago on winter solstice. Dan and I had skied from the village of Ruby to these springs that rest on the northern flank of the Yukon River. Now we were here again in the heat of the mid-summer sunshine retracing our steps - but this time by boat and foot.

On this return trip we were accompanied by my 15-year old nephew and friends Ned and Jim. The plan was to complete a full 360 degree traverse that would hit two remote geothermal springs: Horner and the mystery shrouded Melozi. This entire circuit would incorporate a 25-mile boat ride up the Yukon River, 25-miles of ridge hiking over the Kokrines Hills, and over 70-miles of packrafting the Melozi River.

Sam and his friends drop us off at the start of an overgrown trail that leads a mile back to Horner Hot Springs. Sam lives about 10 miles downriver and is building the Yukon River Lodge which should be open for business soon.

The approach to Horner Hot Springs nearly required a machete in order to bash back the thick growth of ferns and other Jurassic-like vegetation.

Jim adjusts the plumbing that feeds the small tarp-lined pool at Horner Hot Springs. Hot water seeping from the adjacent hillside is collected in a small pond above and piped into the pool.

Quaking aspen cavities (Rozell photo)

Jim climbs into the alpine tundra high above the mighty Yukon River.

Mark gazes down at an unnamed alpine lake from the crest of the Kokrines Hills. This was the first of two cirque lakes we skirted which were tucked into a dramatic amphitheater of rock that rose over 1000 feet above the waters surface.

Plotting a course across the "green" -- We had to descend from our firm carpet of tundra into a saddle riddled with thick brush, dense mosquitoes, and scraggly spruce trees. Rumor had it that a trail transected this low pass through the Kokrines en route from the Yukon River to Melozi Hot Springs. We never saw any trace of the historical path...

Becoming one with the tundra (Rozell photo)

The late evening sunlight softens the high terrain of the Kokrines. This elevated island of rugged topography along the central Yukon River was once sculpted by glaciers and lies in sharp contrast to the surrounding weathered and rounded hills. The isolated alpine ecosystem here is home to the Alaska marmot which can only be found in two other ranges in northern Alaska.

The main lodge at Melozi Hot Springs was in stellar shape. The stout roof was still intact even after more than 25 years of neglect. This was not the case with the remaining structures littered around the springs which were in varying degrees of disrepair.

The Melozi Hot Springs reservoir tub fabricated from slats of wood was too hot for soaking. It was designed to accumulate a pool of water that could be gravity fed to the various cabins.

A pipe fed an intricate network of plumbing that provided a "green" source of heat to several buildings and brought the luxury of hot running water to this isolated paradise.

Ned rotates a hand crank drill that was mounted in a dilapidated workshop. The shed was loaded with nearly every tool one could imagine. It was difficult to accept that the last residents at Melozi Hot Springs departed and left an entire lives worth of hard work to decompose in the boreal forest.

Its amazing the structure hadnt been ransacked by bears or other varmints such as squirrels or porcupines. There was still an assortment of spices on the kitchen shelves, jars partially filled with dried legumes, circa 1970's clothing hanging in the closets, file cabinets with various paperwork, and liquor bottles at the bar (empty...of course). (Rozell photo)

An old brochure describes the decadent features at Melozi Hot Springs...including the indoor swimming pool.

The indoor pool in July 2009 - collapsed and gradually being overtaken by the boreal forest and eventually erased forever.

A tattered copy of People Magazine and Cosmo resting on the table from the early 1980's shot us back to a time. The account of the passionate and later volatile love affair between Glenn Campbell and Tanya Tucker provided us with a brief flashback of pop culture from that era.

The not so grand piano rests silently under a pile of dust.

Pinups on the wall of the main Melozi lodge give a glimpse into the lives and dreams from days past.

Aug 24 1983 2:00PM +70 degrees. Beautiful, sunny, bugless day!! Light variable breeze. Melozi seems more of a natural paradise. Photographed a grizzly splashing across the river below cabin #2. Working in the garden naked - making love on a mat by the pool..then a warm swim. Grizzly running in the sparkling blue river. A rare day. (Excepts from a Melozi diary, author unknown.)

We loaded up our rafts and took to the river where the hot water free falls into the creek. We suspect this was the first packraft descent of Hot Springs Creek and maybe even the Melozi River.

Hot Springs Creek was entertaining Class I/II water with some rocks to "pinball" through and small standing waves to bob over.

Altocumulus clouds illuminated by the midnight twilight.

The gang enters the head of the Melozi River canyon. The river water was an unbelievably warm 64 degrees F (18 C)! Several hundred miles of the upper river slowly meanders across a broad interior valley and soaks up the 20+ hours of daily sunshine.

Scoping the runout of the upper rapids in the Melozi River canyon.

There are two short class III rapids in the Melozi canyon. This inhibits almost all motorized boat traffic from traveling beyond the canyon. We also heard that the local legend about the "woodsman" that haunts the forest along the Melozi also discourages visitors to this region. Thus, there is minimal sign of humans on much of the Melozi River considering its navigable size and proximity to Ruby.

We were not the only ones traveling down this river corridor.

The full circle is complete - the hot springs team back in Ruby on the way to the airport. (Rozell photo)

Plaque at Melozi Hot Springs...

Video sampler from the Hot Springs Double Header