Friday, July 13, 2018

Alpine Style: Diving in.

After the long drive up from town it was 8:30PM when at last we were ready to move.  When finally we'd finished packing our bikes, when the last pre-trip poseur pics were snapped, when we'd each done a lap around and inside the truck to ensure we weren't forgetting anything, when there was positively nothing left to do but start pedaling, only then did I realize that we didn't know where we were going.


I'd gotten specific beta from Roman on micro-level routefinding in the vicinity of the White River, Lime Creek, Russell Glacier, Goat Trail, even getting down to the Chitistone -- all of which were many days away from where we currently stood.  It never occurred to me to ask how to start the trip, and in that moment of realization I quickly understood why: Most people begin by immediately heading to nearby Jack Creek, inflating their boats, then floating out into the Nabesna and down to Cooper Creek.




That had been the original, obvious plan, but with only one boat between us that plan was DOA.


Shee-it.


A glance at the maps showed 2 different possible ATV tracks heading away from Nabesna, both going roughly 90* to our preferred direction of travel.  Sub-optimal either way.  But since we weren't willing to just head off-trail into thick swamp to bushwhack right off the bat, we had to make a choice and somehow opted to head south toward the Jacksina.  Riding was decent on a grassy doubletrack but we quickly sensed that this track was gradually turning away from the direction we needed to go.  A downed plane appeared trailside and we nerded out on it for a few moments before resuming.








The trail got softer, wetter, swampier, and very quickly it became difficult to maintain forward momentum.  My three compadres are all lighter, fitter, stronger -- not to mention younger -- than I, and slowly they started to pull away.  Occasionally we'd cross a bog or knee-deep water would force us off the bikes, and if I double-timed my pace through these sections -- and kept the camera holstered -- I could usually catch back up.  In so doing I was still working harder than the others, and quickly soaked myself in sweat.  With no clouds on the horizon and the midnight sun circling above there was little reason to fear being wet through as "night" approached, yet still it felt like bad form to be working so hard so early in a multi-day endeavor.  I knew that the boys were probably unconsciously exorcising their caged-for-days demons after all the travel to get here, and figured the pace would mellow out soon enough.




Before the pace had a chance to change the trail vanished underwater and we were faced with the first of many routefinding decisions.  After hiking to a higher perch we could see that ~10 minutes of wading through slack water of indeterminate depth would bring us out to the Jacksina River plain, and once there we'd have to cross and re-cross the Jacksina as it wound it's way back and forth across gravel bars and between the walls it had incised through millennia.  Brett even waded out aways while the resident beaver repeatedly slapped in protest at the trespass, as the rest of us wrung our hands while fruitlessly scrutinizing maps that hadn't been updated in decades.


Shee-it.




Because the Jacksina route would take us yet further off our intended course toward the Nabesna, we tucked tails and began schwacking over a low ridge in the direction of the Jack/Nabesna confluence.  As we toiled our way up this ridge, stumbling shin-deep through watery tussocks while pushing aside alders and being attacked by mosquitoes, I experienced the first pings of regret at only bringing the one boat.  Had we opted for 4 we'd probably already have floated out into the Nabesna, we (well, I) wouldn't be soaked in sweat, and we certainly wouldn't be inhaling bugs by the hundreds.






In hindsight the schwack wasn't that bad.  Good to get the first one over with at any rate. 




Sometime after midnight we arrived at a small, clear section of forest with dead, dry wood, and a space big enough to set up a tent without needing to swim into it.  We'd only been on the move a little more than 4 hours but the days of travel leading up to it had us all a bit knackered even before starting.  That, and despite the long twilight our internal clocks all insisted that it was after 2AM at home, thus time to chill the eff out and get some sleep.


We erected the tent, kindled fire, then cooked and savored Ganey's salmon before passing out for 40ish winks.  It wasn't lost on me as I tucked into my bag that the dimmest part of the 'night' had already passed and the sky was brightening by the minute.  I pulled both hat and hood lower over my eyes and passed out.




A measly few hours later direct sun on my bag broasted me awake long before I was ready to be.  I'd slept out near the fire so as not to keep the others awake with my snoring, and was delighted but not surprised to see that no dew had wet my bag in the 'night'.  I packed my bivy away quietly, rekindled the fire so the others could have hot coffee without needing to use the stove, then circled the camp with camera in hand as a means for better understanding my new environment.    




The deciduous grove within which we'd slept had such a thick carpet of leaves that almost nothing could penetrate it from beneath.  Broadening my circle to the perimeter brought me into more moist soils and there thrived a riot of wildflowers.  I recognized lupine and skyrockets, bluebell and aven, paintbrush and forget-me-nots, as well as the ever-present fleabane and geranium.  Maybe a marigold of some sort and for sure some sort of pea -- the kind that killed McCandless?  How could I not have internalized every detail of that one?!




Eventually the others woke and we set about eating and packing to move.




A quick slog across an ankle-deep bog and over a short rise brought us out to...




...a freaking ATV trail.  It wasn't heavily used but the presence of homesteads could only mean that, had we the first effing clue about this area, we could have ridden here easily in a short time last night.  




We guessed at every spur using our internal compass of where the Nabesna lay, and quickly popped out of the trees, across a meadow, and out onto the gravel bars of the big river.






Above, JB rides the first braid with a lobe of the glacier just visible in the background, while below Doom and Brett wade the too-deep-to-pedal second braid.




After 6 or 7 braids we arrived at the main channel and could see at a glance that it was far too deep and swift to wade, so out came the boat.  




The benefit to traveling with a savvy crew is that everyone always had busy hands -- even while I was paddling Doom across on the first lap, Jon and Brett were prepping the bikes to be loaded when the boat returned.  While Doom headed back for bikes I walked to the next braid and scouted the best place for us to cross it, then headed back to catch Doom and his expensive cargo.  As he headed back for the second round of bikes I reassembled the first two, and in such manner it took us under an hour to get 4 bodies, 4 bikes, and 4 packs across the main channel.






It was already obvious that our choice of single boat was not going to be faster or more efficient in any way.  It was yet more obvious that we were in a stunning, wild place that was new to all of us, and dwelling on spilt milk wasn't going to change a thing.  Although Roman had indeed leaned hard on us to take only one boat, we're all adults and we knew on some level what we were choosing in so doing.  Although all of us would voice regret at least a few times about making this decision, I resolved to stop grumbling about it and to start enjoying the place we were in.  Pretty easy to do when the weather is good and it's this easy on the eyes.












We kept the boat inflated until it became obvious that we could wade the next few channels and pretty quickly we found ourselves on the south side of the Nabesna.  Numb feet were as prevalent as the stoke we all shared at crossing the first major hurdle of the route.




We packed away boat, paddle, and PFD's and went in search of trail.  Riverside cobbles were rideable but rough, thus moving away from them and out to where sediments had been deposited gave us smoother tread -- but also more veg.  No free lunch.  We fanned out over a ~1/4 mile wide swath, each searching for and finding our own personal path of least resistance.






There were bits of swamp to negotiate, micro creeks to cross, and no shortage of ever-evolving alpine scenery at which to gawk.






Eventually the river swung south and pinched us between a bluff and heavy current, forcing us to shoulder bikes and head up into the forest.  For the next ~90 minutes we didn't ride much through thick, swampy veg.


And then we wrapped around a knoll, stumbled through this squirrel midden, and could feel the influence of Cooper Creek in both cool air and more open lines through the veg.  




While framing the above shot it occurred to me that our slower-than-expected pace meant we probably didn't have enough food for the trip.  We'd planned for 6 days out but that now seemed hopelessly optimistic.  Next time we regrouped I broached the subject of starting to ration our calories out to at least 8 days, and everyone quickly agreed to it.




Crossing the first of many braids of the Cooper.  75+ degree temps and a creek fed by snowmelt meant that this "little" creek was raging, and it fanned out through the forest for most of a mile.




We managed to string together short rideable sections of cobbles as we ascended the reasonable gradient of the creekbed.




Where walls closed in and the braids came together we were forced to cross and recross the creek, often in suboptimal places with watermelon sized cobbles moving underfoot in thigh-deep current.


We all stumbled occasionally but I think I was the only one that lost his feet entirely to this point.  The day had been hot, and although 15 minutes later being wet through was fine, when I first went neck deep and had to struggle to regain my feet while fighting to maintain control of the bike it didn't feel like such a lark.


Eventually we arrived at a constriction too fast and deep to wade, and out came the boat again.  So deep and fast was it, with no obvious eddy on the far side, that we concluded that two people on the first lap was probably not a great idea.  I probed it and basically ended up rolling out of the boat and onto the far shore because there was no place to stop and because the rolling cobbles precluded the simple act of just standing up.  My exit was ugly but effective -- story of my life -- and the others could clearly see it as such.  Fortunately we'd brought some 8mm p-cord, and found a use for it here in penduluming the boat back and forth with packs and bikes.  Once cargo was across I again pendulumed the boat back over with paddle and PFD and everyone got their chance to paddle through the firehose and attempt to better my ugly exit.




We rode and pushed a bit further, all cognizant that it was getting late and we'd need to find a camp spot soon.  Nothing obvious presented itself so we just kept moving.  Soon we came to another sketchy crossing -- too deep, fast, and steep for an easy wade.  Yet we were all tired -- it was after 11PM already -- and none of us really relished another hour+ of diddling with the single boat to get across, when we might have to do it again (and again?) just around the next corner.  Doom found a spot to wade that looked sketchy to me -- it was fine, maybe just over the knees to within 10' of the far bank -- but then obviously deepened against the bank.  Who knew how deep.  He's light on his feet and overall a gifted athlete, and although he stumbled mightily and was wet to the chest he managed to emerge out the other side upright.  He gave us a relieved thumbs up as the roar of the water precluded any sort of verbal contact.


I went next, entering a bit lower and angling downstream as I moved.  The current was powerful, the cobbles shifted and moved even without my feet touching them, and I stumbled and caught myself repeatedly as the current pushed me downstream.  At some point it became obvious that my trajectory wasn't my own -- the river was in control now.  My feet quickly went numb and as they did my movements became yet sloppier.  In a micro-second of trying to slow my harried movements I allowed my front wheel to drop by an inch and the current wasted no time in pulling it away from me.  I lost my balance, lost my feet, and bounded twice, thrice while trying to regain control of the bike.  I have no clear idea how I didn't end up swimming.  My guess is that adrenaline took over and powered me across the rest of the way without much thought.  Damn.  Damn.


Jon came next.  Having seen both Doom and I struggle and stumble his body language was pure apprehension.  Had I watched what he just did I wouldn't want anything to do with this crossing either.  He gamely tiptoed out into the current and then, shin-deep, he made a fateful decision.  No doubt seeing my bike get pulled nearly from my grip influenced his choice to put his bike up and over his head, resting the weight of it on his shoulders far from where the water can grab it.  Roman espouses this technique and although I've seen him use it on less precarious crossings I'm not sure it was the best idea here.  Both Doom and I frantically screamed and motioned for Jon to NOT come further in this manner, but the roar of the river and his laser focus on it meant that Jon never heard nor saw us.  He stumbled once then caught himself.  Stumbled again, then again, and on the fourth slip lost his feet and the weight of the bike pushed him completely underwater.  Things happened fast as he got trundled downstream with us so near and yet so unable to help.  His head popped up, he got a breath, then the current pushed both Jon and the bike back down again.


Through sheer force of will (aided by endorphins no doubt) Jon managed to stand -- I think he'd released the bike at this point -- and catch himself.  As both Doom and I had he then charged toward shore but again the current swept his feet and we could see him getting dragged and banged along the bottom by the heedless torrent.  When finally he emerged breathless onto the bank, Jon was scared, shivering, and limping.  He pulled on a rain shell to ward off the evening chill while Brett gingerly and uneventfully made his way over.  




We got moving again within moments, largely to help Jon rebuild some core heat.  Within 10 minutes we'd rooted out something good enough to call camp for the night -- flat enough and with abundant dry wood -- and by the time fire was kindled Jon had changed into his dry sleep kit and the shivers had stopped.  Good thing, because he needed steady hands to apply ointment to all of his fresh bumps and scrapes.




Dinner was a fairly quiet affair as we watched a nearby peak turn pink in the alpenglow, and we all drifted off with the sound of the seemingly pissed off creek reverberating in our subconscious.





All that and we were just past 24 hours into the trip.


Thanks for checkin' in.


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