Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Upper upper Chena River

Inches of rain in our lovely Chena River basin. What to do? Highmark the river, try to get as far up as possible with a 16.5-foot canoe and pink inflatable.

Chris Carlson, Cora and I put in on Monument Creek right where it enters the North Fork of the Chena. About a mile from Chena Hot Springs resort. We scouted Monument Creek there but deemed it a bit tight for our boats (though with plenty of H20).

The route was fantastic fun. Exhilarating and terrifying, which is kind of the same thing. A few portage drags like this. Some pinballing off logs. A dump for me and Cora, who is a good swimmer even though she was under the overturned canoe for a bit. Eight miles of non-stop splashy thrill ride that Chris and I don't really need to do again.

This picture pretty much says it all:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Angel Creek 50 miler

The second annual summer ultramarathon in Interior Alaska, the Angel Creek 50 miler. I was on board this year after watching buddies run in through a tempest last year.

The course has some great hooks: coverage of almost all of the Chena River State Recreation Area, where we have boated, hiked, skied, camped and ran so many times. Traverse of some of the high country and a few rugged miles of the Chena Dome Trail, which doesn't see many footprints.

A crazily technical course featuring areas of no trail, pointy rocks, killer uphills and swampy lowlands along with a few bridge-less creek crossings.

Drew Harrington dreamed it up. He's one of the race directors and wanted a course that kept throwing obstacles at people. He succeeded. Here he is running last year's race just before a cold hurricane blew in.

This year we had a warm hurricane, with buckets of rain after the 5 a.m. start. Hail the boy scouts who camped out to create Checkpoint 1, which is 7 miles into the race.

A few hours of slow ascent followed. A few race veterans said to run the uphills early and on Angel Creek trail because a low percentage of the 50 mile course is runnable. I thought of Eric and Tom as I chugged slowly along. Their words made a difference in a few hours.

But in the early morning climb, the world was getting foggy. When the four-wheeler trail ended at the high Chena Dome trail, which is not burned in by the few footfalls it receives each year, navigation became stressful.

This is Checkpoint 3, the Chena Dome trail shelter. It could not be seen until you were 25 feet away.

Inside the Trail Shelter were my buddies Andy and Chris. Andy handed me a hot Via. Chris gave me some of his lunch. They would have their own adventure trying to depart in the cloud an hour later.

Past the trail shelter, into the cottonball. I've been up here about six times. This was the worst visibility. No trail, squinting for rock cairns and tiny red flags. Here, runners clumped up to navigate together. I caught up to Tammy Walther from Little Rock and we walked together from marker to marker. We soon found Anna Worden heading back to us. Then we three slowly made sure not to drop off the ridgetop.

Tammy from Little Rock has done a few hundred milers. She prefers to road run, but signed up for the Angel Creek 50 Miler for something totally new. She said the AC50 was harder than the Badwater 135, in which runners pad along through Death Valley on the asphalt in July and temperatures rise to 120.

As Nansen said, "Everything ends and so did this." We finally descended from the cloud and the trail headed toward upper Angel Creek and the cabin checkpoint there. This section of loose scree was not fun. Tilting, slippery rocks 30 miles into your day.

 Then, more familiar smiling faces at Upper Angel Creek Cabin. Kim and family where there, as were racers' drop bags. I changed into dry socks and got going for the runnable six miles that were ahead. Kim's husband Steve said we had about three hours to make it to Angel Rocks trailhead, where volunteers would stop us if it was after 6:30 p.m. I did the math on that 9 miles and realized at my pace beating the deadline was not a gimme.

Just before Angel Rocks, Drew leads runners not over the highway but the winter trail that parallels the road. Here's where the race course crosses Angel Creek. My friend Jen had hooked me up with Cora a few miles back as she walked into upper Angel Creek.

Pete Hjellen passed me on the winter trail and was jogging the bog so fast I couldn't catch him. He had missed the deadline the year before by three minutes. I don't carry a watch but Pete said we were ok on time when he passed.

The final lovely checkpoint and beautiful volunteers. Pete is smiling because he made the cutoff this year. So did I. Cutoff time was 6:30. I arrived at 6:26.

photo by Jeffrey Oatley, who was picking blueberries

The pressure was off, the weather was beautifying and the terrain was steepening on the Angel Rocks trail.

 Pete and his friend Dale Fiest, there to pace him on the final 8 miles. Behind are the hills from which we came.

The fantastic finish, about 17 hours after the start. Most impressive was the presence of Matias Saari, in hooded sweatshirt. He won the race eight hours earlier. No one was within an hour of him.

And the final fantastic finish at Chena Hot Springs resort, by Pete. Time for a burger and a soak.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Nenana to Tanana

Another canoe trip in the quest to paddle the entire 500-plus miles of Tanana River. This time from the village of Nenana to the village of Tanana, where the river enters the Yukon.

Trip partners Alison Beamer and Jason Clark celebrate finding a rock on one of the sand bars upon which we camped. Rocks are hard to come by on the Tanana, which flows over a basin of glacial dust.

Cora, a crowd favorite, was also in my red Bell canoe. Jason and Ali paddled Jason's 16-foot Old Town.

Celebrated the summer solstice on a nice sandbar with arctic terns and semipalmated plovers.

Sand, sand and more sand out there. Sometimes airborne. Always warm and comfy.

Putting on the brew during a stop at Old Minto, former village site and now a meeting place. Just got the Kelly Kettle. It eats only wood chips and sticks. Feeding it is recreation. Did not burn a drop of white gas.

The lord of Old Minto

A lunch break at Tolovana Roadhouse, the only standing stop from the Serum Run of 1925. 

We were quite surprised to enter Charlie's Slough outside Manley Hot Springs and see two dozen kids playing on a sandbar. Charlotte and Dean gave us a nice tour of their well-hidden Bible Camp. Good black coffee in the mess hall, a basketball court of treated plywood. Hot showers.

Also stopped at the ghost town of Cos Jacket. Known on the gps as Coskakat and to Tanana residents as Cross Jacket. Many bugs reside there.

Even though we were looking for moose, as I explain here, Jason loves to fish. We pulled into every tributary and casted Daredevils with steel leaders. Sometimes we got pike. After a while, we hoped for sheefish (because they are the lobster of the North). Here Ali shows one she caught in the Zitziana River. 

Hot weather = moose flies

After a week, we ran out of Tanana River and into the Yukon. Twice as big but way smoother. Took 15 minutes to ferry across the river to the village of Tanana.

Back to the world of people and planes. Sam saw me and Cora floating in. He was on the bank watching his four kids swim in the Yukon. "I can give you a ride to town if you need it." What I needed more was a kennel, so Cora could fly back to Fairbanks. Sam looked at his watch. "I don't have a kennel but I know where to look. We have 20 minutes before the plane comes in."

Cora and I hopped in Sam's truck. We saw a kennel in the yard Sam was thinking of. A girl came out and dumped some chicken poop out of it. I gave her and her sister a tip for the loan of the kennel. Sam took me to the Yukon to wash it out. With it cleaned, Cora and me and Jason and Ali were on the plane to Fairbanks. 

Jason and Ali just retrieved our canoes from Nenana, where they rode on a barge from Tanana. Trip complete. Another fine trip on my home river. The Hudson used to be, but I've lived here longer.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Birch Creek River Log

May 25- June 1, 2016

Put-in: Mile 94 Steese Highway, about 105 miles from Fairbanks.

Take-out: Mile 140 Steese Highway.

Distance: 106 river miles

River rating: a Class 1 river with many Class I-II riffles and four Class III rapids

Party: Garrett Jones and Brenda Murphy (canoe). Becky, Cameron and Skylar Baird (12-foot raft and packraft). Jennifer Wenrick, Andy Sterns, Salak Crowe and Olive (canoe). Kristen Rozell (inflatable kayak). Ned and Anna Rozell, Cora (canoe).

Trip summary: This large group ran upper Birch Creek's first 100 miles over the Memorial Day holiday and then some, with seven days on the river and seven campouts. Despite such a party size, there was always room on gravel bars for everyone to have plenty of space.

We put in on Eagle Creek (between 12-mile and Eagle Summits on the Steese Highway) at a BLM gravel lot also good for camping (and it has a nice outhouse, just like the takeout). It's the same spot a few of us have caught the Yukon Quest trail in February for a ski to Chena Hot Springs road.

The 10 miles of Eagle Creek to where it intersects the Harrington Fork of Birch Creek had plenty of water. The Bairds, both former river guides in Haines, never got the raft stuck. Eagle Creek is fun and splashy with lots of S-turns and many sweepers. Garrett removed a few of those for us.

There's not much room to maneuver in this section. We tipped the inflatable kayak and lost a paddle and dumped one of the canoes right before we camped, losing another paddle. If you found any paddles on Birch Creek . . .

The water from Harrington Fork made the river much bigger about 10 miles into the trip:

We all got to see this guy, who tolerated the whole flotilla:

We hit three sections of rapids (in quick succession) between Clum's Fork and Thomas Creek. The first showed up at a big bend to the left just after McLean Creek.

Garrett and Brenda run the first rapid in their 16-foot green canoe. They ran all the whitewater in great style. They are expert canoeists and wilderness guides.

Shotgun Rapids is the final frothy water. Cameron splashed through with his packraft. G and B slid through with grace. We portaged one canoe and ran the inflatable kayak and another through just the second part of the rapid after lining the boats through the upper part. All the girls got on Becky's raft:

Helpers stayed downstream with throw ropes that weren't needed by humans. But Cora jumped in behind Kristen. Becky and Garrett saw her get "Maytagged" in a hydraulic. She's a good swimmer so it was kind of funny. Her head is the black dot about to get pulled under for a good washin':

The water mellowed after Thomas Creek, but it featured enough sharp turns and wave trains to remain extremely fun and keep us awake. And, my favorite part, there were wolf tracks on every bar.

About 3/4 into the trip, the South Fork of Birch Creek enters river right. It dumps a lot of water in (looks like a fun packraft out from Big Windy Hot Springs 8 miles up). There is also magnificent camping here at a high bank sheltered with 200-year old spruce.

South Fork collides with Main Fork, Birch Creek

Skylar found a hammer. Most useful for tent stakes

Girls pitched the tent themselves! A new era.

The weather continued to fantastic up as we boated out of the hills and into the flats between the South Fork and the takeout.

Still batting 1.000

Drifting into the flats, crescent bar after crescent bar . . . And here the water slowed a bit, to a 3 mph drift when upriver it was 5 mph.

A few of the party saw black bears. We all saw moose. Singing birds were a constant pleasure, with Wilson's snipes, Swainson's thrushes, water thrushes, yellow warblers, kingfishers and other favorites. A regal trumpeter swan let us all float close.

The takeout was a mudpit we had marked on our GPS devices. It was extra buggy to help us pack up fast. 

We had a nice clean run on Birch Creek except for the lost paddles. It was a great wilderness float. The only man-sign was a few coals at obvious campsites and a blue bucket and few other pieces of plastic. And there were wolf tracks on every bar.