Archive for May, 2011

Day 22 – Second Day in Denali National Park

The convenience of a tarp is its adaptability. After bushwacking the 500 meters or so to a lake at the base of the far side of the ridge for water, I rigged the tarp to block the wind from the wind side, but give us enough headroom to eat under. A good start to the day. It was rather windy trying to get the tarp down. Folding it proved difficult.

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We spent 5 hours bushwacking up the valley. It wasn’t a particularly fun time. There was a repeating choice – dense patches of bush vs mushy snow, post-holing with every step. We grew tired and decided to head up the base of the mountain to our right, to the more even snow where we could use our snowshoes. The snow was still mushy, but we had nice views of the valley. We saw the Savage River in the distance, which we hadn’t seen until now. We saw a fair bit of bushless ground along the frozen riverbanks, so we decided to head there to set up camp.

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After sliding/falling/crashing through the slide alder covered slope between us and the river, we arrived at the best terrain we had seen. A bare, flat, icy river bank. We got to work setting up camp, something that we’re getting more and more proficient at.

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It took a while to set up the tarp, and we were cold throughout dinner, though mostly out of the wind from the tarp. Flurries were on and off. After a supper of couscous with cheese and sausage, we went to bed.

Note that there is very little darkness through the night here. We go to bed in the light and wake up in the light. We figure there’s about 3 hours of darkness per day. Katie noted that it was still dusky even at midnight.

Day 21 – The Denali Highway to Denali National Park

It snowed trace amounts last night, but we were warm in our sleeping bags. Another excellent breakfast of chocolate oatmeal and coffee from the Bialetti. We had been inquiring lots about the Denali Highway up until now and had been highly warned against it by everyone. It is the most direct route to Denali National Park, bypassing the route north to Fairbanks or the route South to Anchorage. We were told that it wasn’t paved and was likely snow covered. We figured we’d take these warnings with some salt, from our experience of other people’s warnings up until now.

We headed towards the highway 135 mile highway, with the paved first 30 miles being in excellent condition. When the road became gravel, it still wasn’t bad. We occasionally passed huge heavy duty snow plows and highway grading vehicles, one worker telling us that the highway was only opened for the season last week. Lucky for us! It would have been a pain to go back out and up to Fairbanks or down to Anchorage. The highway was stunning, the most scenic we have seen up until this point. We drove through varying weather conditions, through sun and through snow flurries on high mountain passes. Katie got some excellent shots of a bald eagle.

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We made it through to Denali National Park by 2pm or so. After lunching on soup and scrambled spiced egg sandwiches, we checked in with the visitor center and the backcountry office. A condition of getting a backcountry permit is to watch a 30 minute how-to-act-in-the-wilderness video. It wasn’t terribly useful, being exclusively focussed on summer conditions. At the moment most of the park is still blanketed in snow. We learned that there are no trails in Denali National Park, and instead they pride themselves on allowing visitors to bushcrash wherever they please. We chose the Saveage River area, without much information apart from a paragraph description and an $8 USGS topo.

We planned to go for 4 days, 3 nights, packing for 4 nights. It wasn’t until 7pm that we finally departed from the viewpoint closest the the valley we were headed towards.

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We weren’t keen on bushcrashing for too long this first evening, so we were focussed on getting the requisite half mile from the highway and out of sight of the highway. It was particularly hard getting out of sight, since the highway has good vantage of a huge amount of terrain up the Savage River basin. We decided on a place after an hour or so of bushwacking just behind a ridge. I thought it would be an excellent time to test out the emergency shelter, and after suggesting the idea to Katie, she too was keen. It ended up being quite a nice shelter, if short. I figured it would be worth it to sacrifice headroom for a closer-to-the-ground and more storm proof shelter.

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No bugs, some wind, no precipitation, and an incredible view right from our sleeping bags. Not bad!

Day 20 – Crossing the Alaskan Border

Today was a driving day. We again passed lots of incredible scenery. Mountains, big lakes, and partly snow-covered landscape. We had the easiest border crossing we’ve ever had, heading across into Alaska. The border guard barely asked us any questions, even excluding the customary ones about alcohol, firearms, and fruit.

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We lunched just across the border at a picnic table by a viewpoint. Soup and sandwiches. It seems like the wind has been following us everywhere, but weren’t too cold since we bundled up. We gassed up and were pleasantly surprised to find showers, albeit lukewarm. $4 per shower has been customary.

We stopped in the early evening at a closed campground. This time it was gated, so we hesitantly parked in a ditch by the road, hoping to be able to get out in the morning. I figured it wouldn’t be a problem since we weren’t blocking any roads. Though Katie has the voice of caution, worried in this case about getting a ticket and/or not being able to get out in the morning.

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The campground had signs of animals everywhere. Lots of tracks of various shapes and various sorts of animal poo pellets. We found a nice camp spot, clear of snow and right by a running stream. Excellent! Essential for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. We hung our food in a bear cache. It would be interesting to find out how far a bear can actually reach up into the air.

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Day 19 – Back to Whitehorse

We drove back to Whitehorse this morning to stock up on more cheese, sausage, and bread, and get back on the internet for our first time in a week. We’ve also developed a taste for the blueberry Superstore muffins – steaming and fresh out of the oven today.

We are now in Starbucks with nothing else of note. Our plan is to head to Denali National Park and then down to Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.

Update:

We left Whitehorse and headed westbound towards Alaska. We took a side road towards a closed campground and stayed in the campground. The best part – no fee since it was closed! It was very nice having peggable ground.

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Day 18 – Fifth Day of the Chilkoot Trail

This was our last day of the Chilkoot Trail – the hike out from Canyon City back to Dyea. I’m not sure if I explained the evolution of our breakfasts, so I’ll explain it now. We began the trip with just oatmeal and brown sugar. We bagan with the remanents of Katie’s year old bag of quick oats. They were rather slimy and Katie was rather averse to them. After finishing the bag, we bought a new bag and they were much better. We soon realized that additions to oatmeal make a big difference. I now have 1 cup of oats, a blob of brown sugar, a smattering of cranberries, a few cashews, and half-a-handful of chocolate chips. We sometime change it up with scrambled eggs with cheese and garam masala spices over bread with olive oil.

When we had 1.5 miles left to go, we got our first sight of people in five days. It was a group of three people from an Alaskan Cruise that had stopped in Skagway. They were being guided on a short rafting trip down the first couple miles of river. I was also excited to find out that the Conservatives won a majority government – the election happening on Monday and today being Friday.

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We arrived back in Dyea and drove back to Skagway, finding it the complete opposite of what we had seen on Monday. Instead of a deserted town, with everything closed, it was bustling with people, shops were open, and tourists gawking at maps abounded. We found out that it was a cruise ship day, and for today the permanent population of 800 Skagwayians was complemented with 1,900 tourists from a 2,700 person cruise.

We drove back across the border and to our campsite by Tutshi Lake? It was windy as always, but we warmed up after dinner and getting bundled up in our storm-proofed tent.

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Day 17 – Fourth Day of the Chilkoot Trail

We were awakened at sunrise, around 5am to a loud banging on the door. There was no lock on the door from the inside and I saw the door open a centimeter or so with each bang. We ignored it this first time and tried to go back to sleep. It happened soon after, and I shouted at it, thinking it was some sort of animal. I went out to check, but there was nothing there. There was a woodpecker in a tree some distance away. I figured this woodpecker was the likely culprit.

The on and off going to bed took brought us to 6:30am, when Katie and I would take turns shouting at the bird every time it began banging. Sleeping Katie’s shouting sounded more like a mooing, but it was effective nonetheless. When we couldn’t take it any more, we woke up, and Katie confirmed that it was a woodpecker. Notice the pecked out part of the door. the door would reverberate into its frame with each bang, giving the effect of a banging.

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Despite the lousy quality of wood, the stove was very neat, cleary intended for cooking. The grates on top are removable, allowing to flames to more directly heat the pot itself instead of the metal stove and then the pot.

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The hike back to Canyon City was the same as before. We made it back to Canyon City in time for a late lunch. We had soup, heated with a fine fire from excellent quality wood.

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Crossing a suspension bridge on the way back from Sheep Camp to Canyon City

We had another fine dinner of lentils with cheese and pepperoni – the same meal we had been having each night. It was excellent as always, though it was the last of our lentils. We would have to pick up more lentils and/or Quinoa and/or couscous on our next shopping trip

Day 16 – Third Day of the Chilkoot Trail

Today would be the hard day – the same number of miles as before, but with an elevation gain of nearly 3,000 feet to Chilkoot Pass. We left Sheep’s Camp and quickly lost the trail after it became covered in snow. We put on our gaiters and snowshoes and had a not-so-bad bush crash until we got above treeline – the base of the large incline up to Chilkoot Pass.

The trail follows a ravine all the way up and over the pass. So although it was somewhat socked in and foggy, we hoped to do alright in terms of navigation, also being prepared with a map and compass. The higher we ascended, the foggier it became, until visibility was very limited indeed. The trail became steeper, and we figured we were at a feature known in the Gold Rush as the Golden Steps – the steepest part of the trail.

We finally arrived at a place where we had air on three sides of us. A pass is a saddle point, where this one should have been upsloping to the east and west and downsloping on the north and south. We seemed to be high up on the east side of the saddle. With cliffs between us and the pass itself. Though it was very hard to tell. The terrain also seemed glaciated, and although there were glaciers marked around the pass, the pass itself was not supposed to be a glacier. Earlier on in the day when there was no visibility, I had judged the steepness of the hill by throwing snowballs at varying distances. If the snowball lands on the snow and is visible, one can make out the grade as far as the snowball was thrown. If the snowball disappears, this indicates a cliff.

We had to make a decision of whether to try to navigate the cliffs in the whiteout, turn back, or make camp there on the pass by making large snow sidewalls to protect ourselves from the wind. We were over half way to Happy Camp in terms of distance, and probably three quarters in terms of time, since it was all a gentle downhill from the pass to Happy Camp. However, we decided to turn back, since we could follow our footprints back. If we waited out the night, our footprints back to Sheep’s Camp would disappear and it would be harder to find our way back.

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We made it back to Sheep’s Camp after an 8 hour day, promptly got a fire going, made dinner, and fell asleep. We had enough food to attempt the pass again the next day if the weather were clear. Otherwise we would return to Canyon City, and then to Dyea.

Day 15 – Second Day of the Chilkoot Trail

We had another roaring fire this morning. Excellent – no white-gas needed to power our cook stove! We first headed to the Canon City ruins, a scattering of century old remanents of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. We took a suspension bridge to get there.

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The trail to Sheep’s Camp was nice. There were occasional patches of ice and snow on the trail, but it was pretty clear. The scenery was nice and we even saw a coyote.

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Sheep’s Camp wasn’t quite so developed as the Canyon City camp. There wasn’t enough wood stocked, but there was an axe. I got to work chopping the uncovered wood, that had been sitting outside for the preceding fall, winter, and now spring. It wasn’t rotten, but it was far from perfectly dry. Our fires at Sheep’s Camp lived, but always struggled.

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Sheep’s Camp is also right by the river, giving us an easy source of water. We again set up the tent in the cabin to get away from the mosquitos.

Day 14 – First Day of the Chilkoot Trail

Waking up at Upper Dewey Lake, we had breakfast, broke camp and got ready to go. The snow was still rather soft, with the occasional post-hole. At one point I went to kiss Katie. One moment I was standing at face level, the next, I found myself plumetting through the snow as it gave way and I found myself staring at her feet. It was rather humourous.

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Katie after falling off path into a tree-well. She bounded up cheerily

We arrived back in Skagway, had lunch at a quiet picnic site, and went to the ranger station for information about the 50km Chilkoot trail. It was still very early season and the ranger told us that it wasn’t done this time of year and we would be the first people to do it for the year if we made it. He told us that the trail wasn’t maintained yet, there would be no low-visibility-flag-poles in the alpine section, and there would be no $50 registration fee nor $50 charge to take the train back to Skagway (since the train wouldn’t begin operating until May 22nd). We decided to give it a go and leave ourselves 6 days, to be on the safe side.

After a shower at the Skagway rec-center, and a while spent individually bagging food for each day, we drove the 10 miles to Dyea and began the trail around 5pm. We made it as far as Canyon City and found a beautiful cabin, with 4 bunk beds, light and dry kindling, a whole box filled with chopped wood, and even fire starter. There was also an outhouse a short distance away, and the river a few seconds from the doorstep. Perfect! We had a fine night, though ended up setting up the tent inside the cabin to get away from the mosquitos. It was too warm to get fully inside our sleeping bags, but to buggy to leave any exposed skin. Dilema resolved!

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Day 13 – Skagway and Upper Dewey Lake

It was a windy night, but with the fly guyed close to the ground, we were warm. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs along with coffee, we headed for Skagway. It was a beautiful drive with clear skies, clear roads, and surrounded by snow-covered mountains.

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Our breakfast view

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The road to Skagway

We crossed the border with slightly more hassle than normal. Issue 1 – Since my Canadian passport was being renewed, I crossed as a UK citizen, resident of Vancouver, driving a car registered in New York. I had to pay a $6 international border crossing fee since I was neither Canadian nor American. Issue 2 – We had apples in the car – a restricted fruit. I presented the offending apples to an immigration officer and they, along with me, were cleared for entry. Issue 3 – We had a bottle of Amaretto in the back and the border guard questioned me rather thoroughly about Katie being under the legal drinking age of the US. I assured him that it was mine and that Katie would have no business with any alcoholic beverage while visiting the US.

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After lunch in Skagway and a brief tour of the small and deserted town, we decided to hike to Upper Dewey Lake, on the advice of the hardware store man. Leaving around 4pm or so from Skagway, we realized that this was Skagway’s equivalent of the Grouse Grind. We ascended at the same general rate, with views of Skagway every so often. We eventually put on snowshoes, since we were postholing with every step. Even with the snowshoes, I was postholing occasionally with my mum’s rather small MSR snowshoes.

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The bottom of the trail to the Dewey Lake Trails

We were happy to arrive at the lake around 7pm and found a locked, private cabin by the lake. There was also a very fancy outhouse with a rotating lock, skylights, and a cedar-finished toilet seat and trim.

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The world’s most posh outhouse

We quickly set up camp, had a hot dinner, and went to bed. It turned out I was slightly on the uphill side – giving Katie a start as my sleeping body rolled into her.