Thursday, July 19, 2018

Alpine Style: Minds blown.

Morning dawned bright, early, and quickly got hot.  I don't often associate a need for shade with any of my Alaska trips, but I was conscious of where the sun was and kept my back to it while breakfasting, mending gear, and packing up this morning.

A few miles of engaging gravel grinding brought us to Cross Creek, which featured heavy downstream winds whipping dust all about us, some remnant sheets of aufeis, and on the far side some curious markings that led us to an ATV trail.

As soft, soupy, boggy as this trail was it seemed more likely that it was a sledneck route.  You could certainly get through on an ATV but with snow filling in the holes and everything frozen it'd feel like a superhighway.  Reminded me a lot of the trail north of Rohn on the Iditarod.

The not-quite-earth we rode atop and within required so much energy output that I pretty quickly determined it wasn't worth it.  The downs were marginally acceptable but anything uphill or even level was just maxing me out to creep and slosh along at ~1.5mph, so I hopped off and walked next to the bike, with fairly low output, at 2mph.

Much easier to spectate the local scenery when walking, too.

This section was short-lived -- maybe 20 minutes? -- and then we popped out at the edge of the Chisana.  A cold, cold breeze blew downstream at us and likely influenced our decision to not just wade willy nilly across the first wide but slack channel we saw.  Instead we rode and pushed bear trail upstream aways.

The pervasive cold wind became more of a factor as we popped out of the woods and the shelves of ice increased.  The "heat" of the morning's camp was long forgotten as we ascended into the remnants of winter.

After 30 minutes or so of paralleling the river we arrived at what we all thought of as the least worst crossing we could find.  The water was colder than the air, but only just, and Doom and I were damn chilled after ferrying all the loads across the main channel.

We kept the boat inflated across this big shelf while secretly hoping the next channel would be wadeable.

There was one big channel and several smaller ones left to cross.  I volunteered to probe the big'n, angling downstream toward a point on the far shore.  Maybe 150 yards across in total, wading this one meant fully numb feet way before the halfway point.  I was within 30 yards of the far bank when I let my guard down -- took one big step instead of another small shuffle -- and that happened to be right where the bottom dropped out.  Without warning I was swimming.  I'd had the presence of mind to keep the bike downstream of me and with its big buoyant tires it floated unassisted.  I kicked and stroked a time or three while being pushed by the current, then felt the bottom coming back up and hauled myself out.  I was soaked to the neck but at least I was across.  I motioned to the others to try a higher line then wrung out my clothes while doing jumping jacks.

They all succeeded in crossing without swimming, but their chosen lines also put all of them at least chest deep at some point.  You simply can't be sure of what you're reading when the water is this opaque.  Doom -- oddly -- struggled the most when he found some bottomless silt that sucked him in over the knees.  Glacial rivers are awesomely, unpredictably weird like that.

30 minutes later we broiled in the sun next to one of many landing strips in the community of Chisana.

This place saw a gold rush in 1913 and then withered away within a decade.  Refurbished summer-use cabins and trails from the miners still exist.  We rode along a second runway on our way through "town", then took a brief break in the shade of a small cabin for lunch.

Maybe 100' away from where we sat a small plane was parked.  After ~20 minutes of sitting there eating and talking Doom noticed that there were feet dangling out the door.  Swinging in the breeze.  I thought it odd that someone would sit so close and not at least throw up a wave of greeting.  But then not everyone that lives in the bush cares to be social.  As we packed to resume riding the feet clomped down to the ground and carried their owner over to ask about our route.  He looked our bikes over in detail, asked how we'd crossed the Nabesna and Chisana, then after I answered he said "Those Alpacka's are awesome little boats".  With that he turned on his heels and jogged toward his aircraft.  

I yelled after him, "But wait -- you didn't tell us anything about you!  What are you doing out here!?"

Without breaking stride he chuckled over his shoulder, "There's a *phone system* out here and it needed repairing!"

90 seconds later he was a quickly disappearing drone to the north.

We wove our way through the rest of Chisana on ATV trail.  A lone lynx glided silently across ahead of us then disappeared between two cabins.

Eventually the trail blended into the gravel bars of Geohenda Creek and we got back into the headspace of finding the cleanest line as we ascended this drainage.

Creative route finding was the rule here: Often we'd wade upstream, plowing into the current as the water piled over our waists, reaching a hand out to steady ourselves on cut banks or rock walls, as doing so meant we could stay on one side of the river (no need to cross then recross) for another mile or more.

In the middle reaches of Geohenda we emerged from behind a bluff to find the scenery changing in a hurry.  Icefield capped peaks drew us ever upward on what turned out to be some of the most engaging riding of the trip.  With all senses firing you could ride complicated and dynamic lines across the cobbles while observing animal tracks, pondering ski lines, and recognizing that the immediate terrain was about to change and it might be time to move laterally to keep the riding flowing.

One of the tidbits that Roman shared with us before leaving was simply: "If it sucks, do something else".

We'd come to understand this to mean that there was almost always decent if not good riding available.  Putting your head down and plowing forward heedless was a good way to miss it -- you had to stay engaged.  I was never not amazed that *just* as the cobbles got unmanageable or the creek pinched us between its raging self and a wall, poking your nose up onto a bench would reveal a quality, rideable piece of trail.  The local animals travel (you could even say "maintain") these trails year-round and so it shouldn't have been a surprise that there was always a better route when things got unruly.  These trails ranged from faint depressions in the grass to full-blown and heavily used u-shaped singletrack.

As with on Cooper Creek it was relieving to arrive at the upper reaches where most tributaries were below us and the creek was but a trickle.  When necessary we could simply ride across it instead of slugging it out with bikes on shoulders.

Below, note trail ascending the hillside beyond the snow bridge.  This is where *it* started.  We didn't know it yet, but this is where our minds began to be blown.

Between that snow bridge and the Solo Mountain Cabin lay some of the sweetest alpine skinny I've ever had the pleasure to roll tires across.  Lined with flowers, mellowly graded, buff without feeling man-made, we rode for miles, for hours, gliding along with very little output even though we were still ascending.

We crossed several false summits on our ascent, each serving to frame the unfolding scenery in such a way as to say "Savor *this* moment, dammit!"

Boy did we.

Note two riders, below, climbing away from a creek crossing and back onto the good stuff.

My thought from the previous day -- about these trails being at least as good as any section of the Colorado Trail -- came rushing back to me here.  And the simple truth is that I'd take this trail -- even with all of the attendant hazards and difficulties -- 9 times out of 10 over the CT.  This was so much sweeter in it's wild remoteness, it's vast emptiness, it's mandate that you engage with the place while working to earn the sweet rewards.  

And the tenth of those ten times?  I'd flip a coin.

Almost as if in response to my musings the trail vanished -- reminding me of exactly where I was -- and we found ourselves hopscotching across tussocks for the last ~mile to the cabin.

The lack of trail here seemed like a gift, too, in that it allowed us to spot this fox and watch her work the ground for prey.  That search culminated in a cock-eared pause, an arch of her back, and then an acrobatic pounce from which she emerged with something wriggling in her mouth and then subsequently disappeared behind a knoll.  A magic moment, then -- poof -- gone.

The last creamy light faded as we rolled up to the cabin, spent but glowing, and settled in for the night.

Thanks for checkin' in.


  1. Live to ride; Ride to die; Fatties from hell!

  2. Beautiful photos. Looks like a great place for a ride

  3. Damn I miss the north so often. I think this set of posts reminds me how much it felt like a different and engaging world every time I stepped outside. Lived there far too short a time but the value of that time is priceless.