Monday, February 17, 2014

Going deep.

The Interior.  While coastal Alaska is big and bold and virile--all pumped up and ready to kill you with beauty and violence--the Interior is kind of the opposite.  It's also big and bold but in much more subtle ways, more amped to kill you softly, slowly: with distance, solitude, time, climatic harshness.

It starts slowly--leaving McGrath you have a marked and maintained trail for a few hours over to Takotna.  And while this ~20 miles seems unremarkable when mapgeeking, the fact is that it offers some of the best views and best riding within a few hundred miles.  A big, rideable climb up Porcupine  Ridge gifts the views, then the descent to the Takotna River provides the speed, air, and overall riding thrills.  

Leaving Takotna you sense that you're starting to get out there a bit.  No tracks on the trail since a snowfall ~3 days previous.  Gulp.

Once you've passed through the ghost town of Ophir you're well and truly 'out there', at least by Alaskan standards, with stunning views of what's to come.

I can remember many years ago hearing complaints from some of the old time trail 'purists' when the BLM proposed building shelter cabins along this stretch of trail.  I can remember being one of those complaining--with the rationale that this was the most 'out there' stretch of trail left, and to make it feel any less remote would be to somehow diminish what was special about it.

And now, years later, I shoveled a drift away from the door of one of these cabins, walked in, started a fire, cooked a meal, then settled in for a comfortable night of sleep.  The wind raged outside, the temps fell to -38º, while inside I shuffled around in stocking feet and shirtsleeves while preparing both dinner and breakfast.

Not sure how to feel about that now, other than sheepish and thankful.

Countless times over the past decade I'd read tales of the South Route, how it was devoid of scenery, featureless and windswept, 'miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles'.  Largely because of these reports I had come to see it as a necessary evil, a ~200+ mile section of trail to be merely endured.

I was flat floored to get stunning alpine views the further I progressed.  Perhaps the reports I had read were written on years when the storms raged hard enough as to prevent all views?  Dunno.

What I *do* know is that the scenery on the South Route was a delight.  Far better, more engaging than anything I've seen on my 4 trips up the North Route.

A BLM trail crew was somewhere out ahead of me, installing new tripods to mark the route, as well as signs pointing the way to the obvious.  Progress comes in many ways.

Crisp, clear, cold.

No longer used relic of the past, slowly being reclaimed by the earth even as the storms hasten it's demise.

Firm trail courtesy of the BLM trail crew.

The friendly trail surface can be traced directly to the simple design of a Siglin sled.  While enjoying the smooth, fast trail and easy riding it afforded, I vowed to hug the man responsible for it if I ever caught up to him.

Hours later I got that chance, but upon meeting him (a fur-clad Danish trapper whose powerful stink somehow overwhelmed my own) decided that a firm handshake would do just fine.

Crossing this creek the low-angle light caught the surface hoar in just such a way that I was compelled to stop, drop, and get some macros from a belly-on-ice position.  Otherwise this one creek crossing of many would never have stuck in my head.  Days later I was able to recall it clearly as the temps skyrocketed, prompting reports that those traveling the trail behind were forced to wade balls-deep or even swim across it.

Name that critter.

Swoopy, if soft.

Fluffed up trail.  Although it looks rideable it was emphatically not--the surface having been churned and fluffed like so much merengue.  Even at 2psi my 5" tires sunk deep and dug themselves deeper, forcing me to walk for hours and hours.  Such is life on this trail.

I filled those hours with motion, with appreciation for the chance to be out here, away from the world at large, immersed in something bigger and more meaningful than my everyday.

And then the light got warm, and warmer.  Idle, grateful thoughts were replaced with motion--of hands to camera bag, camera to eye, finger to shutter.

Mere moments after the last golden light slid from the sky I rounded a bend, crested a short rise, and looked down a slough at a single lightbulb illuminating a dilapidated cabin, with two hunched figures shuffling around inside...