Archive for the ‘Alaska’ Tag

Mountain Monday: Mount Drum, Alaska   4 comments

This is an old film shot of Mt. Drum in Alaska.  The Copper River, famous for its salmon runs, sparkles in the foreground.  Drum is a large volcano, part of the Wrangell Mountains in the south-central part of the state.  The mountain and surrounding area are protected within Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park, which at over 20,000 square miles is the largest national park in the United States.

Although it rises just over 12,000 feet above sea-level, hardly a great height for these parts, Drum stands up in dramatic fashion.  It rises 11,000 feet above the Copper River in about 25 miles, and the spectacular south face rises 6000 feet over the Nadina Glacier.

It is quite a young volcano, the youngest in the Wrangells in fact.  It last erupted just 250,000 years ago when a large part of the summit collapsed and a huge avalanche cascaded down the south face, covering some 80 square miles (200 sq km) of terrain.

Although it is not technically very difficult to climb, it involves a fairly major expeditionary effort because of the remoteness and the amount of glaciation and snowfall.  It was first climbed in 1954 by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer.  It wasn’t climbed again until 1968.

This was shot years ago, as a young man driving through God’s country on a beautifully crisp autumn afternoon.  It was mid-September.  I recall that evening camping on a pass and, while freezing my butt off, seeing the northern lights.  It was the only time I actually heard them, and they were also the brightest and most spectacular I’ve seen so far.  Unfortunately I didn’t think it possible to capture them on film.  Reason enough to return for a road-trip!

Mount Drum and the Copper River, Alaska

Mount Drum and the Copper River, Alaska

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Visiting Alaska   20 comments

A cabin in remote bush of Alaska.

A home in the bush:  Alaska

This is follow-up to my post last Thursday on Alaska, sort of a different take on visiting America’s most untamed state.  First a disclaimer: I’m not discounting a cruise up the Inside Passage, or an RV-based road-trip to Denali and the Kenai Peninsula.  Depending on who you are, those may be good options for your first trip, or if you happen to be elderly.  I just know what’s out there, and if I wanted to tour the state in a memorable way I would work in some more adventurous options along with more standard destinations.  So here’s my very biased take on visiting the Great Land.

Flying over a glacier in the Alaska Range.

Flying over a glacier in the Alaska Range.

When to Go

This is a fairly simple question.  If it’s your first time go in summer, which is May through September in the Southeastern Panhandle, mid-June through mid-August in the far north, and something in-between in the rest of the state.  Summer is in full swing throughout Alaska by late May.  In June come the longest days, with no real nighttime in most of the state.

You can have rain, clouds and cool weather at anytime during the summer, but it’s a little more likely late in summer into fall.  Make sure you have good rain gear.  Waterproof hiking boots are worth having as well.  Autumn, though short, is very beautiful in Alaska.  September is a time when wildlife is very active, and the tundra turns a beautiful gold and red.  The mosquitoes are mostly gone, and the few late hatches feature big and slow skeeters.

If it’s your second or third trip consider winter.  Especially if you want to see the northern lights.  I recall seeing them as early as the beginning of October.  If you ski you’ll love the later winter when days get a bit longer.  But in the southern part of the state you’ll have plenty of daylight to ski or snowshoe at any time of  year.  The world-famous Iditarod sled dog race happens in late winter.  But a more spectator-friendly race (actually a series of them) happens during Fur Rendezvous.  “Fur Rondy” is a fun winter festival in Anchorage that takes place each year in late February.  The rest of this post assumes a summertime visit.

Skiing along a creek with sculptures like this is only possible if you visit Alaska in winter.

Skiing along a creek with sculptures like this is only possible if you visit Alaska in winter.

Snowshoeing doesn't have to be a trudge, it can be as fun as you want to make it.

Snowshoeing doesn’t have to be a trudge, it can be as fun as you want to make it.

Visiting the “Real” Alaska

In order to really see Alaska you need to fly.  A helicopter obviously allows you to land in many more places than does a fixed-wing.  But it’s amazing how many unlikely landing spots exist for bush planes.  If money is truly no object, I recommend hiring a chopper and pilot for several days to a week.  If you’re like the rest of us you can probably only afford a scenic flight on a helicopter.  Some even land on glaciers, at predetermined spots.

But this isn’t the same as having control of where a chopper goes and where it lands, having the pilot wait for you or pick you up somewhere else.  That sort of freedom takes real money for someone whose work doesn’t make it necessary.  For most visitors to Alaska, I recommend saving up and budgeting for at least one trip on a bush plane.  This gives you a lot of bang for your buck.

I got to fly with an older bush pilot my first summer there.  He flew a Caribou and was well-known among pilots and long-time Alaskans.  The Caribou was a tail-loading cargo plane used heavily in Vietnam.  It had a very short take-off distance for its size.  His wings would skim the tops of spruce trees on many landings.  In the fall after the field season was over, he crashed and died in the resulting fire.  He must have been somehow trapped, unable to walk away (as many bush pilots do) when the plane caught fire.  He was mourned throughout the state.  Bush pilots:  they’re worth their own post.

Climbing in Alaska presents challenges, even for “small” mountains.

If you make the effort there are bragging rights - just remember the picture!

If you make the effort there are bragging rights – just remember the picture!

Unless you cheat and use one of these!

But you shouldn’t worry.  Given the number of flights there is no significant added hazard to flying in a bush plane compared to jets.  Just hop into one and see Alaska.  Chartering bush flights can be expensive on your own, but the cost can be mitigated by combining with other people.  Even independent travelers have the option of inquiring at the plethora of companies operating out of the sea-plane base at Lake Hood near the Anchorage Airport.  You could hook up with like-minded people to organize a charter trip.  Whether you do it off the cuff or plan ahead of time, take at least one journey into one of the state’s roadless areas.  Don’t skip it.

Views like this one of the Moose's Tooth are available flight-seeing with a bush pilot.

Views like this one of the Moose’s Tooth are available flight-seeing with a bush pilot.

A Non-Touristy Experience

If I did a trip into bush Alaska, I’d give serious consideration to the southwest.  While you’re thinking of joining all the tourists to watch bears fishing at Brooks Camp, think about other options too.  The whole region is chock full of wildlife, and because of the marine influence the mosquitoes tend not to be as abundant as the rest of the state (the interior is where mosquitoes hatch in countless numbers).

One great option for a wilderness experience in SW Alaska is to organize a fly-in camping/fishing trip to Tikchik Lakes (see image).  These are a series of lakes, elongate east-west and strung out in a north-south direction along the front of the little-known Wood River Mountains.  I worked in the region for a couple months and it was some of the wildest country I’ve ever been in.  It also had the best fishing I’ve ever done, hands down.

Tikchik Lakes in SW Alaska has some great scenery and fishing.

Tikchik Lakes in SW Alaska has some great scenery and fishing.

Camping for a week would allow you to decompress in total wilderness.  The lakes to the north of the Tikchik chain have very little tall vegetation surrounding them.  You could roam the mountains, full of wildlife, no trails necessary.  Take a can of bear spray.  Fish to your heart’s content.  Lunker lake trout oblige you anytime of day.

All it would take is a flight from Anchorage to Dillingham, then a bush plane to the lakes.  If you get a group together, hire a Beaver (largish float plane) or Otter to take your group plus camping gear & an inflatable raft.  If it’s just you and one other, maybe a Cessna would do the trick.  The pilot will drop you off and then pick you up on the appointed day.  If you want to double-down on the experience, you could paddle down the length of the lakes, connected by spectacular rivers, through huge Wood-Tikchik State Park, all the way back to Dillingham.  A few companies do guided trips if you don’t feel confident in organizing your own.

Alaska tundra in early autumn.

Alaska tundra in early autumn.

Other Ideas

There are so many places I can recommend during a visit to Alaska.  A drive along the Denali Highway is a great side-trip.  It’s not the paved road to the national park; that’s the Parks Hwy.  Denali Hwy. is a graded gravel road that takes off east of the park with stupendous views of the Alaska Range (see image at bottom).  Also a trip to McCarthy in the Wrangell Mountains is well worthwhile.  Visit the old copper mine, situated right along a glacier.

On the Kenai Peninsula, do a halibut fishing trip out of Homer.  (Don’t drink too much at the Salty Dog Saloon the night before!).  A classic Alaskan experience is sea kayaking out of Seward or Cordoba.  Consider a short cruise in Prince William Sound to see the state’s incredible marine life.  The Kenai Fjord day-trip out of Seward is inexpensive.  And speaking of worthwhile tourist things to do, don’t miss a flight-seeing trip over the Alaska Range.  Drive to the small town of Talkeetna to arrange one in a small bush plane.

Hiking in Alaska is unlimited.  On the way to Denali, consider a hike into Denali State Park before you get to the (relative) tourist mayhem at the national park.  And a hike up into the mountains above Anchorage is a great way to stretch the muscles after your long flight in.  Flat-top Mountain, while extremely popular, is a great introduction to Alaska right off the plane.  It’s a short but steep climb.  There are superb hikes and climbs that take off from the highway south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm.

This remote valley in the Brooks Range may be the furthest from a road I've ever been.

This remote valley in the Brooks Range may be the furthest from a road I’ve ever been.

A Republic of Rivers

A book called A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon features poems by Robert Service (The Shooting of Dan McGrew, Call of the Wild).  I read it when I lived up there.  Reason I mention it here is that while Alaska is a land of mountains, it is even more a republic of rivers.  Before the plane, rivers were the main way to travel into remote areas of the state, and they remain so in the interior (along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers especially).  Boats in the summer, dogsleds and later snow machines in winter.  (Snow machines are called snowmobiles outside the state.)

Once I took a boat trip up the Kuskokwim River out of McGrath.  It was a totally different experience from any other I had in Alaska.  More like traveling upriver in the Amazon or Congo Basins than in the far north.  It was a very “Heart of Darkness” experience.

Mt Drum in the Wrangell Mtns. rises above the Copper River.

Mt Drum in the Wrangell Mtns. rises above the Copper River.

If you like river trips, specifically paddling downriver, Alaska has a life-time’s worth.  In the western Brooks Range, the amazingly clear Salmon is a gorgeous river.  I worked along the Salmon for a summer.  It’s one of the only places I’ve been where you could walk up to a big river, dip your hands in, and drink cold refreshing water with no worries.

In the NW Brooks Range, the Noatak River drains the largest undisturbed watershed in North America.  It’s a great river for canoes. In the central Brooks, the John, the Kilik, Hula Hula and that true gem, the Alatna, are all great arctic wilderness floats.  Research all of these and consider a guiding company; there are several.

In Lake Clark National Park in the southwestern part of Alaska, you can do combination hiking/rafting trips that will take you into wildife country with great fishing and few mosquitoes.  The hard to pronounce Tlikakila is fairly short but extremely scenic.

Hiking in Alaska is often not easy but there are plenty of pay-offs.

Hiking in Alaska is often not easy but there are plenty of pay-offs.

The old copper mine near McCarthy was once the world's largest producer.

The old copper mine near McCarthy was once the world’s largest producer.

Combining Alaska and Canada on a river trip is a fantastic idea since at least two of the world’s greatest river floats cross the boundary.  The Alsek runs through Kluane in Canada and ends in Glacier Bay, Alaska.  It is serious business, involving real skill (and $, a helicopter portage is involved).  The Firth is an extremely remote river trip that starts near Alaska’s border with the Northwest Territory in Canada.  It ends in the Beaufort Sea.

There are guided trips to all these places; do the proper research and pick a company with a good reputation.  Many of the state’s rivers (and most of the above) lack many big rapids.  They’re suitable for beginning paddlers and perfect for canoes or touring kayaks.  If you just want an easy to access but rollicking whitewater ride that does have big rapids, check out the Nenana on the way to Denali National Park.  No planning required; just stop at one of the companies along the banks and go rafting!  Aside from that there are plenty of whitewater options for kayakers and serious rafters.

I really hope you can visit this place one day and experience some of the fun and adventure I had up there.  Or if you’ve been before, I hope you can go back and see more.  Because there is always more to see.  Alaska never stops surprising you, never stops knocking your socks off.  So next spring when you hear that familiar sound and look up, when you see that V-shaped formation of geese flying, stop and think a minute.  They must know something.  Go north!

September along the Denali Hwy. provides colorful views of the eastern Alaska Range.

September along the Denali Hwy. provides colorful views of the eastern Alaska Range.

Throwback Thursday: Ode to Alaska   17 comments

Glacier flying in the Alaska Range.

Glacier flying in the Alaska Range.

Remembrance

For what a lot of folks call “Throwback Thursday”, I’m going to post a few old film shots of a place near and dear to my heart.  While I make it a policy never to apologize for any of my pictures, I will say that the camera gear I had for these pictures of the past was not up to the high quality of either that era’s best film stuff or even today’s digital.

Alaska is where I spent my twenties, not so long ago (well, okay, I lied; it was awhile back!).  After graduating college I drove the Alcan up with some buddies.  Alcan, if you don’t know, stands for the Alaska-Canada Highway, which then was still gravel-surfaced over much of the northern stretches.  I rode in a little 4×4 Subaru wagon owned by my friend and college roommate.  He was born in Alaska & had attended the Univ. of Oregon with me.

Unfortunately we were delayed when his car was nearly totaled.  We hit a bear!  I remember the horrible feeling I had when I stupidly got out and listened to the wounded bruin crashing around & roaring in the brush below the road.  I also remember the scenery getting much more spectacular when we crossed into Alaska (Kluane excepted, sorry Canada!).

Some old cabins at a mine site just west of the Denali National Park boundary.

Some old cabins at a mine site just west of the Denali National Park boundary.

Near the village of Kiana in the Brooks Range.

Near the village of Kiana in the Brooks Range.

Alaska is where I burned all that ridiculous energy of youth.  It’s where I learned the false lesson that I was invincible.  The truth is that while young we tend to get second chances.  It’s as if we’re all cats with 9 lives, at least in youth.  We use up most of those chances in our late teens and twenties.  Then when we are older, if we try to skate along the edge, we almost always get spanked hard for it.  One of the sad parts of getting older is not being able to get away with very much anymore.  I used up nearly all of my 9 lives in Alaska.

I was a geologist there, which means I got around and learned much about the land and the culture of the natives.  I remember getting into intense pickup basketball games with Inuit youths in the village of Kiana above the Arctic Circle.  Basketball is as big in bush Alaska as it is in Indiana.  I recall marveling at how impossibly cute the children were.  And how some men would drink themselves into oblivion.  And how native men would head off into the wild on a moment’s notice to hunt when we thought they had signed up to work for us.

Out of the six summers I spent up there, two were in the Brooks Range, one was in the Alaska Range, one in the southwestern part of the state, one roaming the interior, and one (the 1st) in Anchorage and various other places.  I spent one autumn in the southeastern panhandle.  Winters were mostly spent in Anchorage, learning how to ski well.  What else is there to do in the long winter besides drink?  Whichever of these you choose, you’ll have plenty of practice, and you’ll get damn good at it!

An unnamed peak my friend & I climbed and named broken-horn mtn for the dall mountain sheep we saw up there.

An unnamed peak my friend & I climbed and named Broken Horn for the dall mountain sheep we saw up there.

 

Alaska embraces extremes, the edge: its people as well as the land.  There is no halfway.  Incidentally, the book I think really gets Alaska right is Going to Extremes by Joe Mcginnis.  I’m not sure which is truer:  is it the character of the place that makes the people more extreme, or do those who move to Alaska become more extreme?  I suspect there’s a bit of both going on.  Those born there, like my college roommate, are different from the rest of us.  He would routinely sleep 12 hours in winter’s long nights.  Then in summer he would get by on 4-5 hours.

I still have affection for the place, which means I really loved it when I was there!  I remember getting a little airsick in a chopper and offering the pilot the excuse that I wanted to sample a rock formation below.  Not really fooled, he set me down and went to refuel.  After the ship’s noise faded away, I lay down and buried my face into the moist tundra.  I did what I had been wanting to do, without knowing it, for a long time.  I gave Alaska (and the Earth by extension) a big, hour-long hug.

Caribou in the Brooks Range.

Caribou in the Brooks Range.

You may think, given how I love the “Great Land”, that I would visit often.  But other than a couple trips in the 90s I have moved on.  Part of me regrets this.  I’ve never been anywhere that I felt matched me as well as good ole AK.  I really love the Pacific Northwest, but it really isn’t the same.  Alaska seemed to know it had my number.  I still wonder how I was able to leave all those years ago.

But I did leave.  I can still see those fall colors along the Copper River in the Wrangell Mountains, dusted over with termination dust (season’s first snow).  Autumn, that season of change when I get itchy feet, was the only time it was possible to leave.  After seeing a stupendous display of northern lights on a freezing night at Thompson Pass (the only time I actually heard them), I drove away for good.

To be young and full of piss and vinegar again!

To be young and full of piss and vinegar again!

It really is time to go back for a visit.  But both Alaska and I have changed so much.  I am worried I will be disappointed.  I don’t want to be a tourist there, despite knowing a bunch of ways to get off the beaten track.  Of course it would be interesting to see the effects of climate change, which are quite obvious in a high-latitude place like Alaska.  Especially for someone who once knew it well and has been away so long.  But I have my doubts about going back now.

Well, that’s enough reminiscing.  I sure hope there’s such a thing as reincarnation, because I really really want to do that young & strong thing again!  Stay tuned for another post on Alaska, this time giving some advice for a visit that hits some good sights off the beaten tourist track.  Thanks so much for reading!

An early winter's sunset over Cook Inlet as viewed from the Chugach Mtns. just above Anchorage.

An early winter’s sunset over Cook Inlet as viewed from the Chugach Mtns. just above Anchorage.

Friday Foto Talk: Missing   9 comments

I wrote a full post for today’s Friday Foto Talk, but could not get it illustrated because of problems with my wonderful high-priced Sony computer, the very last product from that company that I will ever buy.  In the meantime, enjoy this image from the (ancient) film archives, a time when I was young and full of fire, prowling the wilds of Alaska.  I may be out of touch for awhile because of this.  Have a great weekend.

Susitna River Valley & eastern Alaska Range, Alaska.

Moose Pasture:  Susitna River Valley & eastern Alaska Range, Alaska.

I Love Mountains I   14 comments

The world's highest mountain, Everest (Sagarmatha).  I finally made it here on a trek in Nepal, but did not climb it.

The world’s highest mountain, Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepali). I finally made it here on a trek in Nepal, but did not climb it.

I’m taking a break from the mind-bending stuff to post on one of my favorite subjects: mountains.  It’s inspired by a post on Ailsa’s blog.  The theme is mountains.  I’ve been a climber for quite a long time.  I have had such joyful experiences in the mountains.  Some have been scary, some miserable even, but all have made me feel more alive.  For that I am sincerely grateful.  I think mountains are the most spectacular aspect of Earth’s surface.

The mountain closest to home for me, Oregon's highest, Mt Hood.

The mountain closest to home for me, Oregon’s highest, Mt Hood.

First I’ll give kudos to the mountains nearest home in Oregon.  These are the Cascades.  Mount Hood, which I’ve climbed about 10 times, is closest.  But Mount St Helens, the famous volcano that exploded in 1980, is close-by too.  And Rainier, the iconic Washington mountain I’ve climbed twice, is only a few hour’s drive from home.  Mt Adams, also in Washington, is even closer.

Mount St Helens in Washington is clearly visible from the Portland, Oregon area.

Mount St Helens in Washington is clearly visible from the Portland, Oregon area.

A rare flat stretch while climbing in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest.

A rare flat stretch while climbing in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest.  Mt Adams and Mt Rainier are visible.

The aptly named Reflection Lakes in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

The aptly named Reflection Lakes in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Mountains don’t have to be high to be awesome.  Though I have climbed mountains up to 22,000 feet in elevation, the hardest one I ever climbed is just over 6000 feet.  It’s called Pioneer Peak, and is located in Alaska.  It took us 22 hours non-stop to climb this peak’s toughest face.  You start at about 10 feet above sea level.  Only two of the three of us made it to the top.  The only one of us with a wife and kid ultimately lost his nerve and froze just before the final pitch.  We picked him up on the way down.  The descent was hairy.  We slid down waterfalls, getting soaked.  We came upon cliffs we didn’t know were there and had to rappel.  Near the end, we bushwacked for hours, going over invisible droppoffs in the thick brush, grabbing at alder branches to soften the landing.

This is a typical climb in Alaska.  No trail, hellish approach, and just plain difficult after that.

This is a typical climb in Alaska. No trail, hellish approach, and just plain difficult after that.

To approach this part of the Alaska Range, you need to cross an enormous swampy river valley full of moose and grizzly bears, maybe a wolf pack.

To approach this part of the Alaska Range, you need to cross an enormous swampy river valley full of moose and grizzly bears, maybe a wolf pack.

This is the best way to "cheat" while climbing a mountain, taken just west of Denali on older film camera.

This is the best way to “cheat” while climbing a mountain, taken just west of Denali on older film camera.

A winter climb in Alaska.

A winter climb in Alaska.

One of Alaska's idyllic places to fly in, pitch camp, and catch dinner, the Wood-Tikchik Lakes in the Wood River Mountains.

One of Alaska’s idyllic places to fly in, pitch camp, and catch dinner, the Wood-Tikchik Lakes in the Wood River Mountains.

Sometimes river crossings on the approach to mountains are much more dangerous than the climb.  One time in Oregon’s Wallowas I was swept away and just barely escaped drowning by grabbing hold of a branch.  In Alaska on the return from a peak we got separated in the dark.  I had a bear following me for awhile, trying to cross a stream.  I kept going upstream and he (on the opposite bank) kept following me.  My friend Bob got swept downstream and ended up dragging himself out.  He was so cold he lay down and was about to fall asleep when he heard our shouts searching for him.  He hadn’t showed up at the truck.

One of North America's most beautiful range of mountains, the Grand Tetons.

One of North America’s most beautiful range of mountains, the Grand Tetons.

My favorites are mountains that aren’t at all planned, and whose name I don’t know.  One time in Northern California’s Marble Mountains we were camped, enjoying some whiskey.  Half-lit, the pair of us decided to climb the peak across the lake from us.  We named it Irish Peak, and it was so fun!  By the time we got to the hard stuff we had sobered up enough.  Ascending a ridge, it looked like we would have to turn around because of sheer cliffs.  We didn’t have a rope.  But we found a natural tunnel through the ridge that took us to the other side, which was easier and covered with an ice-field.  I had to go #2 very badly, and ended up squatting and dropping the bomb down a deep crevasse.

Prayer flags fly beneath Taboche in Nepal.

Prayer flags fly beneath Taboche in Nepal.

I would love one day to live right in the mountains, though I think my attitude towards them would be different in some ways.  It would be more mature, more intimate, less like they’re my playground.  I think my respect for their power would inevitably deepen.  Many people across the world, but especially Asia, have a spiritual connection with mountains.  They simply could not conceive of living anywhere else.  Perhaps I would grow to be like this if I lived in such places.

Tangboche, a buddhist monastery in the Himalaya, is a magical place to be at dawn when the deep bell calling monks to prayer echoes off the peaks.

Tangboche, a buddhist monastery in the Himalaya, is a magical place to be at dawn when the deep bell calling monks to prayer echoes off the peaks.

Mountains feed rich farmland in river valleys the world over, including here at Mt Hood.

Mountains feed rich farmland in river valleys the world over, as here at Mt Hood.

Tune in for the second part of this tomorrow.  By the way, if you are interested in any of these images, whether for a web use or just to hang on your wall, let me know and I’ll make sure you get the higher resolution versions.  These versions are much to small to use, and are copyrighted.  Thanks for your interest and cooperation.

The Tetons appear to be catching fire beneath a gorgeous sunset.

The Tetons appear to be catching fire beneath a gorgeous sunset.

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