A Great Alaskan Adventure (shame about the weather) Part 1

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August 6th 2007
Published: August 18th 2007
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The final leg of my journey, Phoenix then Alaska... then home.

I can remember booking my flight all those months ago and basically picking a day at random to come back. It seemed hard to believe it had actually come. I remember the first couple of weeks of my trip down in Argentina seemed to last forever (for the right reasons!) and thinking back then that how on Earth would I survive 5 months out.

Well in the end it was surprising how quickly time passed by.

Anyway, I arrived in Phoenix and was quickly whisked back by Richie in his swanky new Roozermobile, and ended up staying up till the sun rose chatting about this and that. I'd done most of Phoenix already, so we had a chilled day or two in unusually cool weather (only 95) getting ready for Alaska with a visit to that institution Lee's Sandwiches in lower Chandler, and of course Chandler Fashion Mall. We also did Salt River Tubing along with lots of beer swilling americans.

The trip started badly. The taxi never showed - thanks AAA Taxis. And that left no choice but to go by car and bite the bullet on the long stay parking fees at the airport. Then we got the wrong terminal and had to race across the airport to finally just make the plane. But things soon got better. By the time we were in Anchorage we'd got chatting to a newbie air hostess and suddenly were getting a lift into town with her roommates, also air hostesses in the back of a pick-up.

Ok, so the trip had been planned with military precision by Richie (except that he'd stored all the details on his PalmPilot which subsequently went belly-up and left us in the lurch):
1) Anchorage to Denali, spend 4 nights there
2) Anchorage to Cordova, via Whittier, 3 nights there
3) Anchorage to Seward, last 3 nights there
with a couple of nights in between in Anchorage where we patronised Humpy's Bar (humpy being an affectionate term for one variety of breeding salmon) till the early hours, drinking Alaskan Amber and Moose's Tooth IPA.

The First Bit
Via a granny bus (the amazing contradiction - Alaska wonderful outdoor place, perfect for young outdoorsy types, but so prohibitively expensive that only ageing cruise ship cronies can afford it). Stopped briefly at Talkeetna, took a photo of a plane by accident, then on to the park. Arrived late at park, pitched tent at entrance campsite. Next day get bear canisters and backcountry pass, plus a briefing and video on backcountry safety showing what to do in the event of a bear encounter and how to cross rivers (the latter which proved very useful) from office and away we go via the green park buses (excellent value 14 day pass).

We ended up getting a permit for an area near the Toklat river and the Polychrome mountain (Google Maps). With dramatic fingerwaving we'd shown the park ranger our plan to cross a couple of mountain ridges and camp on a distant peak and return to the park road the following day. However we soon realised that backcountry hiking really wasn't so easy. Hiking through waist-high brush, whilst yodelling 'Hello, Goodbye' by the Beatles to warn bears of our presence, really wasn't lending itself to speeds of anything more than 1 mile per hour at best. Soon we realised we'd be struggling to even reach the boundary of the area we were allowed to camp in, and those little hills on the map, turned out to be fully-fledged mountains with sheer scree-ridden cliffs. Plus there were the 40 pound packs to be lugged. Still the hike was an amazing experience. Once we'd reached higher ground the hiking was a lot easier, plus safely out of bear territory we could drop the singing/mindless prattle (though I coaxed a few extra Orville impressions out of Richie man of 1000 tongues). Up top, a secondary peak of the Polychrome mountain, we saw loads of Dall sheep from only a few metres away. Then, on the way down, we had an adrenaline pumping experience with what we thought was a bear. As Richie was struggling with his new water filter in a stream, I, on bear watch, caught sight of a rock that moved high above us. On closer inspection via a superzoom photo it had distinct ears, eyes, mouth and furry haunches. Well we weren't going to hang around, but the weight of evidence now suggests it was a (killer) marmot (we'd heard strange whistling noises earlier - seems most bears don't whistle). Yes yes I can still hear the ridicule I got from our swiss friends Regula and Lisa who we met later in the trip. And how quickly the worm turned - suddenly that at-the-time-panic-stricken Richie is declaring how he never believed me. But I remember well how thereafter every rock on the way down was suddenly a potential bear.

Speaking of which, our final hike up to the ridge that was to be our campsite for the night, turned into a horror rocky scramble. The ridge we'd chosen didn't connect directly to where we'd wanted to go, except via a 50 degree scree-strewn traverse. Eventually we found a route across, but not before Richie had slid on his ass down about 10m cutting his hands in the process. So finally we hit a spot to camp; 10pm but still clear daylight, we'd travelled only 5 miles in about 7 hours and done only about half the distance we'd been anticipating. That evening on the ridge was spectacular though - the rays of midnight sunlight playing over the distance mountains. We set up cooking, food storage and tent areas in the bear-aware triangular configuration as every longevity-aspiring backcountry hiker should do.

In the morning I woke up to a porcupine scuttling by.

The next day we set a more realistic goal - just get back to the main road via the Toklat river. Certainly things were going well at first despite a long slog across a boggy flat. By lunch we'd made the final low pass to a point overlooking the river, passing a moose couple on the way. After a mosquito-hurried lunch of Maruchan Raamen (a firm favourite throughout the trip) we headed down to the river. With all the sideways traverses around bracken clad slopes, Richies blisters were starting to bug him, so we headed straight down and across the lower lying land (that's one of the fun parts of backcountry hiking - you get to make up your own route) down a fir tree lined gully to the banks of the river.

I'd estimate the river was about half a mile wide at this point, and split into half a dozen or so separate channels. It didn't look so bad to cross, but we decided to head upstream to hit the road then cross via the bridge. Alas the best laid plans... we didn't realise that our side of the river would steadily turn into a steep sided cliff with no way of hiking over forcing us to cross the river to make the Toklat river bus stop. After quickly realising that it was going to be impossible to keep my feet dry (having only one set of shoes this wasn't exactly ideal) we stomped confidently across a couple of channels. Then came the first biggie. Lobbing a couple of stones in, we realised that it would be deep. I crossed first, step by step. As I approached the far bank the churning water level topped my knees and got to lower pant level. I felt my feet start to slide away on the rocks below with the sheer pressure of the water, and was starting to regret not packing camera, passport and wallet in slightly more waterproof locations should the worst happen. It was with some relief that the next step took me to higher ground and finally it was over. I shouted over to Richie that it was 'tougher than it looks'. He'd somehow missed my crossing whilst getting his pack ready. I think maybe he underestimated it too. At the halfway mark a look of utter concentration and fear was to be seen (see photo), and with that final step that would have brought him to safety he slipped, and in one comedy moment lunged for the bank, clawing with all his strength at the rocks on the bank as the river water threatened to overwhelm his pack.

Well at least that was that... a few hundred metres over the remaining river bed would take us to the finish of our hike at the bus stop. Or so we thought. Imagine our horror, to see another even bigger channel to cross literally 30m from our final destination. A quick scout up and down the bank revealed no obvious crossing point. Meanwhile a fair crowd of TWT visitors had gathered, cameras ready. At some point a ranger came around by car to warn us away from the bridge area where the waters were channelled together and looked even more dangerous. Thanks, but we'd learnt our lesson from the previous crossing. This time we'd cross together Richie in front, me supporting from the rear, a la the safety video at the backcountry centre. We located one possible place to cross, and decided if it got much above knee level we'd have to turn back. Well it did, but as we were one step away from the far bank we went on and made it. A round of applause from the bank would have been appreciated, but we made do with a bit of self-congratulatory whooping and general hand-slapping. In all it took about an hour and a half to cross a few hundred metres.

Well the next couple of days were less exciting than the first. We headed for Wonder Lake. Nice campground there, albeit with gazillions of mosquitoes. And we met some interesting people, like the Swiss couple who'd cycled all the way from Ushuiaia, Patagonia (and were thinking about cycling back), a Ukranian girl who was camping without a tent, and also another swiss pairing Regula and Lisa on a campervan tour of the US (we have to thank a rather grumpy bus driver - mind you i'd be miserable if i looked like Steven Seagal only less cool, not that i think Steven Seagal looks cool - for that intro since the miserable git refused to let us on the bus even though it clearly had spaces). And also there were loads of blueberry bushes around the campsite which seemed to be just coming into ripeness. We fair scoffed them back to supplement our rather meagre rations.

On the way back up the road towards the park entrance for our last night at Savage Campground we had our closest encounter with a bear, 30m or so. A great photo opportunity. It seemed oblivious as it happily munched away on soapberries. The last night in Denali was to pack quite a surprise. Imagine, in the midnight gloom, stretching out alone next to your tent (your camping partner off in toilet block) a bloody great wolf strolls up quite silently, stares at you from less than 3m away for a full 10 seconds, then scampers off. Whatsmore it came back, this time a bit further off, but i managed to get my camera out for it and snap a quick shot (hey it's not a black photo, there's definitely a wolf there). Minutes later Richie came back up the path, judging by his smily face, mind clearly still occupied by a different monsterous appearance best left to his memory alone. I, in a somewhat quivery state, related the incident, and right on cue, just as I finished we heard a spooky howl from very close, and a reply from yonder. In the morning I had to fill out an official report, since wolf encounters are rare, and even rarer at such close proximity.

The second bit

Going to continue this on a separate blog entry...

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