Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Shoe shopping on the Alatna.

In January of 2012 I broke my arm while riding.  It was a stupid, low speed crash on a non-tech trail--the kind of thing you hear about but think will never happen to you.  Healing it completely took a few months, and by the time I was cleared to ride again I'd missed out on my annual AZ chunk trip, annual month-of-Idita, and several other 'annual' long weekends around the region.  I was pretty bummed to have missed all that, but became borderline despondent when I discovered that all of the usual suspects I travel with had already 'moved on' and had planned/were doing things without me.  Bastiges!

That chain of events opened the door to one of the best vacations I've ever had.

Roman and I had been batting around ideas for months, not strictly seriously, just sort of throwing stuff at the wall to see what might stick.  Every idea I pitched was met with a half-attentive yawn and a 'been there done that' from him--until I finally grasped that there was simply no way I was gonna thinker up anything he hadn't already.  Most of my ideas he'd either done or discarded twenty years ago.

So the ball was in his court, and he kept coming up with bigger, scarier, more committing ideas.  To a point I'm usually game for those sorts of trips, but that man dreams bigger and bolder than anyone I've ever traveled with, and I just wasn't mentally ready for the kind of 'out there' commitment he wanted.

For that reason and others things went sideways on our theoretical expedition and suddenly we were discussing a basecamp in the Brooks Range, using feet and buttboats to do a series of overnight exploratories fanning out around the region.  The idea was not to flog ourselves.  The plan gelled as such: We'd spend two weeks over the summer solstice leisurely setting foot and paddle to a landscape that has haunted my imagination for decades.  Perhaps coincidentally, it is a landscape utterly unsuited to bicycles of any ilk.

Roman gives all the nitty gritties and beta here.

The condensed version is right here:

We met as a group in Coldfoot, organized gear, weighed it, reorganized it, then were flown half (group + gear) at a time out to a gravel bar on the Alatna, deep within the western Brooks.

Where Dirk the pilot left us:

While Dirk went to fetch the rest of us, a council of war was held and a site for camp was chosen.  We erected tents, assembled the bear fence, organized kit, and just generally marveled at and reveled in a 75-degree (scorching!) bug-free day above the arctic circle.

Our first sojourn took us up and over a ridge, down to the Kutuk, then a mile or three up that creek.  Most of us felt a little out of sorts after all of the last-minute rushing (and not sleeping) that seems to accompany leaving the world for a few weeks.

Thus the hike was relaxed, the float was mellow, and we all spilled back into the Alatna feeling fresh and looking forward to stretching our legs and limits a bit more in the days to follow.

Breakfasts were usually cooked over stoves and somewhat more pointed as excitement grew for the plan-du-jour.  Dinners were cooked over driftwood fires and often lasted hours--lingering near the heat, the friends, the stories.

El sol circled behind the northern Brooks around midnight, giving us a "sunset" if not darkness.  It was enough of a cue to remind our bodies to sleep.

Next we hiked up the main Arrigetch valley with overnight gear, food for 3 days, and boats on backs.  An on-again-off-again use trail kept us headed in the right general direction, though that was more about fine foot placement as following the valley was straightforward.

In many ways, you could say that this was what we'd come for.

That blockish peak left of center is Xanadu, featuring the unclimbed (ahem, Doom, Vlad--snap to!) Grayling Wall varnished in black.  The fang directly above Roman's head is Ariel, and improbably but sensibly the most direct route to the Awlinkyak took us to within a few hundred feet of the peak.

Our hike turned to a scramble as we left the valley and climbed steeply up the flanks, traversing runoff streams, avalanche debris, and lots of musical schist.

Regrouping out of the wind, just below Ariel's peak.  

A steep, sometimes snowy descent led us out of the alpine and back into the forest.

We cooked and camped on the bank of Awlinyak, putting in early the next morning.

Awlinyak was a delightfully clear freestone stream.  When your attention wasn't engaged with impending riffles you could stare straight down into gin clear holes at grayling feeding in the subsurface current.  In his lyrical, inimitable way, John McPhee described this very scene as 'like looking down into a sky full of zeppelins'.

No pics of that, but it is well represented in the video above.

One of my most memorable moments came courtesy of a botched line on a 2' boof.  I hit the drop clean but the boil beneath it redirected my bow into a granite boulder.  I bounced backwards off of that, spit back into the recirculating hole, where I flipped and struggled to get out of the boat in shallow water.  Somehow while extricating myself I managed to hang onto both boat and paddle, but felt the unmistakeable sensation of losing a sneaker.  I splashed after my bobbing left shoe but it moved faster and (much) more gracefully than I, finding flow and missing eddies in a way I could never hope to duplicate.  At one point it was a solid ~100 yards ahead of me--close to catching the rest of the group, and I actually blew my rescue whistle to try to get their attention.  They never heard it over the sound of the riffles between us.  It took an anxious 10 minutes alternately wading, floating, and running before I was able to pounce on it in a streamside eddy.  Those first few minutes were borderline panicked, knowing how difficult the next 10 days would be with one bare foot.  But even amidst that panic I was able to laugh a bit at the pipedream of just stopping into a riverside shoe store to pick up a new pair of kicks.  In reality the nearest available shoe was a few hundred miles away.

Like every other stream we floated, the Awlinyak merged into the Alatna which took us back to camp.

Good god the days were long!  We filled them with walking, paddling, napping, birding, flowering, listening, fishing, rooting, storytelling, and lots of eating.

Somehow a week had intervened since our arrival here, and with an impending shift change (3 were leaving as 3 others arrived) we spent the day 'close to home', hiking up and running Arrigetch creek.  Which is to say that I hiked and spectated as Joe, Toby, and Roman eddy hopped their way down this gorgeous canyon.  

Every vantage point I got (which was not many) told me that I had no business in there.  It was steep, sharp, often blind, and just a level beyond what I'd yet experienced in a boat.  I'd hike along the edge, poke my head out from above whenever I could, shooting stills and video as the boys hooted and hollered below.  But the current moved them faster than I could 'shwack, and we regrouped at camp where they told wide-eyed, breathless stories of 'the best mile of packrafting' they might have ever seen.

With freshies (people *and* food!) in camp the scene was lively, and we stayed up way too late talking story and plotting the morrow.

The morrow found us hiking north and west, up the Kutuk then up, up and along the high ridge dividing it from the Unakserak.  It felt like the height of summer with warm daytime temps, light breezes, and abundant blooming flora.

Camp for this night was the cluster of tents lower left center.  Incredible spot, if a little on the dry side.

Gyrfalcons-eye-view of the Unakserak drainage.

Confluence of Unakserak and Alatna.

Arriving back at basecamp the mood was light but the feeling was that our trip was quickly coming to a close.

Roman had talked often, at length, and in hushed tones about the smooth granite boulder gardens in the lower canyon of the Pingaluk.  We drifted down the Alatna a few miles then humped up a ridge to have a look.

From up high it looked like there wasn't much water.  Joe and Kim opted to head back to base camp while the rest of us dropped in for a closer look.

There wasn't enough water.  Hopscotching and crisscrossing what was left of the flow convinced us that we'd missed it by about 2 days.  Gah.  We made the most of it by hiking further up canyon--just to see it--then left a food cache for some of the group that would be extending their trip by hiking out this valley a few days hence.

The return to base camp was a steep grunt to get out of the willows, which then opened into what felt like the best views of the trip.  Not as in-your-grill as the main Arrigetch, but far more expansive and approachable.

Base camp as seen from on high to the north.

Dinner was dinner that night, but with the added seasoning of a hard day afoot Gordy's te-key-la lime pie and Toby's brownies seemed heaven sent.

We packed up basecamp and hoisted overnight packs for one last exploration.  A third hike up the main Arrigetch valley brought us to an eastern saddle that dropped into the Aiyagomahala.

The sun had gone, replaced by steady drizzle and the near-mythical mosquitoes of Alaska.  At least we wished they were mythical--or in some other way less real.

Upper Aiyagomahala 'park and huck'.  We all ran this low-skill/low-consequence plop and drop 3 or 4 times--yeehaw!

"Roman, are you really gonna run that?"


Well, unless these guys talk me out of it."

Thai had climbed up ostensibly to "scout it" with Roman, but mumbled something under his breath about going up 'to be the voice of Peggy'.

Our only bear encounter of the trip happened later that night, when a curious black crossed the creek and followed its' nose up the bank to our camp.  Joe had just stepped away from the cook fire and caught sight of it before it got too close, and we all jumped and hollered and watched as it turned and scooted.

What we knew of the Aiyagomahala made me think I probably shouldn't paddle it.  Sections of steep gradient, decent flow from recent rain, and a decided lack of skill or experience on my part made it an easy choice--once I saw enough to confirm.  Kim, Stefan and I hiked a high line above the river with great views of the action below.

We spent one last night camped on the Alatna just above the mouth of the Aiyagomahala.  The bugs were bad, my feet hurt, it drizzled off and on, and I was sick of the freeze dried food I'd unimaginatively packed for myself a few weeks back.  It felt like time to go home.

But not everyone saw it that way.  Toby, Stefan, Gordy, Thai, and Cliff had bigger plans--their collective trip was just about halfway done. 

We ferried the Ambitious 5 across the river then watched them work their way up the Alatna until the riverside brush swallowed them up.  Then it was a few hours of eating the dregs from our packs and relaxing in the sun until Dirk arrived to take the Not So Ambitious 4 home.

The words "life changing" seem to get thrown around a lot these days.  I'm proud to say that this trip was anything but.  Two words that ring truer are life affirming.  What I mean by that is that I must have done something *really* right to end up in that place with that group.  They were as bush-savvy as any collective I've traveled with, yet there wasn't a shred of ego or arrogance among them.  They were gracious, humble, patient, tolerant, as willing to teach as to learn, and above all willing to meet the land on her terms, accepting whatever she had to give.    

Since then I have aspired to learn more--about boating, bushcraft, navigation, routefinding, humility--so that I might find myself in their company in some wild place again.

I've also aspired to break fewer bones when riding non-tech trails.

So far so good--on all of the above.

Thanks for checking in.