Sunday, August 30, 2009

More Harding Media

Here's a map of our recent route out and back across the Harding (in red). The green line is what Jim Lokken and I skied in the 1983 Hope to Homer Wilderness Classic; the purple line the solo route in 1984; the yellow route a grad student and I skied in 2005. There've been other trips, too: Jon Underwood, Paul Adkins, Chris Flowers and I took mountain bikes and packrafts across and on to Homer in 1995, but there're already too many lines on the map to include that one, the multi-sport route with Peggy, Vern Tejas, Nora Tobin, Bob Kaufman, and Dave Hooper, or the big circle trip with the kids.

Of course I made a video of last week's trip. You Tube stripped my choice of music: Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean" from the Houses of the Holy album. Todd Tumolo, who's 24, likes Led Zep and the music seemed to capture for me the feel of the place.

Here it is:

Friday, August 28, 2009

100 Miles on the Harding

APU student Todd Tumolo and I are just back from a hundred miles of skiing back and forth across the Harding Icefield, one of the most amazing places in all of Alaska. I guess counting a crossing as once across, and an out-and-back as twice across, these would be like my 10th and 11th crossings since 1983. This trip was collecting iceworms for a genetic study that might shed light on how iceworms disperse from glacier to glacier.

What makes the Harding Icefield so amazing is the play of light and weather on the assortment of nunataks and the expanse of ice and snow. So vast and disorienting can the Icefield be, that in the the pre-GPS days it was a terrifying crossing!

I once skied from Skilak to Chernof solo during a Wilderness Classic and was afraid of getting lost and/or being hit by a storm. I had nothing but a pin-on compass and a bivy sack. Cody Roman (then 14), Jazz (then 12) and I did a big week long loop in 2001 when we were hit by a storm of ferocious winds and rain. There's simply no way to dig into the hardpacked firn and with such a long fetch, the wind speeds are tent-flattening. I had to put on a face of total calmness while inside my head I feared the tent would be ripped apart and we soaked in freezing rain at 50 miles an hour.

But now with GPS, my familiarity with all of its glaciers and peaks, and a good kit I feel comfortable up there.

My favorite way to cross it is north to south, skiing into the warm sun. One May we skied from Exit to Nuka and I never put on gaiters or gloves so warm was the ski. Skiing south one looks at the icy north faces of the nuktuks, nunataks, and mountains and they are so picturesque. Skiing north you see the barren south faces of choss-heaps. Most of the rock is schisty country rock but the nuktuks of the central Nunatak Plateau are granite and the route to the Chernof passes across the granite and schist contact. The precipitation gradient is so steep that standing above the Chernof Glacier and looking at the McCarty Glacier peaks one sees a view of mega-glacier draped mountains like the Antarctic Peninsula while looking toward Truuli Glacier you see peaks bare of snow.

The geography of the Icefield is singular. The Icefield proper stretches between the Chernof and Exit Glaciers. South of the Chernof are a series of range crossing glaciers separated by rocky ridges. These unique "saddle-passes" are broad passes from big glacier to big glacier that have steeper cols above them that cross the ridges. Late in the season, like last week, the ridge crossings have deep and nasty, roof-ripping bergschrunds, whereas the stretch from Exit Glacier to Tustumena has nothing but "guppy" sized cracks. In other words, from Exit to Tustumena is rope-free travel on a flat, flat, flat icefield with distant peaks. Whiteouts and blizzards make for what Todd calls "full-on iPod conditions". From Tustumena south to Nuka Valley is more typical mountainous terrain with steeper hills, rocky passes, and cracks.

One measure of how great a place is for adventuring is whether you'd go back or not. As we returned to Exit Glacier after six days, Redoubt's ash wearing the fishscales off my skis, I thought about what my next trip up there might be: "Ski to Sea", a ski tour across the Icefield followed by a fjord-hopping packraft paddle back to Seward.

Anyone interested?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Senator Stevens and Wilderness Recreation

Ted Stevens served as Alaska’s senator for over 40 years. While in Congress, he always held tightly to positions placing Alaska’s interests highest, which meant that he sometimes had views at odds with National-level conservationists.

In many ways it’s sad that he was the highest ranking Republican in the time of Bush and Cheney, as Stevens was tainted by those imposters. I don’t know enough to review the truly pivotal roles he played in passing the biggest AK legislation in our lives, like Statehood, ANWR, TAPAA, ANSCA, ANILCA, Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act, each on the short list of the most significant intersections of economic development and conservation in Alaska.

But I really admired him. He was the only Republican I ever voted for (other than Sarah in the Republican primary for Governor), and I voted for him every time I could. He was, and likely remains, a man of principle, rather than of partisanship. He refused to vote in favor of impeaching Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, for instance. He always flew coach, unlike his counterpart Murkowski, who as Governor, went around the Legislature to get himself a private jet.

Stevens is a short man of great stature in my humble, if liberal opinion.

In 1979 I visited his office in DC. I was 19 years old and ANILCA was soon to pass and I wanted to be sure that mountain climbers would have air access to newly formed National Parks and Wilderness Areas. He assured me they would.

In 1984, The US Fish and Wildlife Service threatened to halt the third Wilderness Classic across the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge because the Service claimed the race inconsistent with the goals of the Refuge. Stevens stepped in, wrote a letter and the race went on. It has continued ever since.

And most importantly (to me), Senator Ted Stevens answered my simple question written him on the back of a pre-paid postcard I found on a flight to Seattle: “Are mountain bikes allowed in ANILCA Wilderness Areas?”

There were three postcards there. They were meant for another issue, roadlessness in the Tongass National Forest, but I re-appropriated them on a whim. Stuck in the seat pocket, pre-addressed and pre-stamped, they were ready to help find the answer to a question I'd had for nearly 10 years. I wrote the same question on all three, one of to each of Alaska’s delegation: Young, Murkowski, and Stevens.

Only Stevens responded and here’s what he said (CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO READ THEM):

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hellbiking Lives!

Over at Cpt Swallowtail's Confessions is a link to a recent bike & boat trip. Bike & boat trips are also making their way onto the Alpacka forum.

Recently looking under the house for old tax records, I came across an October 1989 Mountain Bike Magazine with my "Live to Ride, Ride to Die Mountain Bikes from Hell!" story. It's a little embarrassing to read my hyperbole now, but like the Wilderness Classics before it, this was a rich full-bodied trip. It was a trip that really opened our eyes to the possibilities of mountain bikes in wilderness, centered on the packraft. As far as I know, it was likely the first bike & boat trip in Alaska (by bike & boat I mean we carried the boat on the bike and vice-versa).

On our trip we carried only one raft, a Sherpa Packraft. Our bikes had no suspension, as there were not even front forks with suspension!

Anyway, some of you might enjoy the read. I did. But then I guess at my age, reminiscing is becoming an increasingly popular pastime.

(To read any page just click on it.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Local Creeks

Brad and I met Nathan Shoutis, one of the best pure (i.e., no other boating experience) packrafters out there, at Nathan's "local" creek, Little Susitna (see photo above of my own 2003 harrowing solo run in an early "condom-style" skirt). Nate'd run it twice over the last couple days, and it was running 800 cfs when we did it yesterday, pretty much a non-stop whitewater run. It was cushy but not too pushy. In some ways much more satisfying/exciting than the bony run that Brad and I made last fall. We met some hardcore kayak kids, complete with short boats and attitudes to match. But we had fun, too, in big waves and bigger drops, flushing holes and smooth granite boulders washed in sun-lit, glacier-tinted water.

Anyway, it got me thinking about boaters' local runs: Little Su for Nathan, S. Fork Eagle River for Brad, Ship Cr for me, Willow Creek in Wyoming for Forrest. These are the creeks that ultimately kill boaters, they say. Maybe we get complacent through familiarity and don't pay attention, then fall out of our boats, foot trapped and drowned -- at least that's what I learned in my swiftwater rescue course: "Complacency kills."

So as Cody Roman says, "Stay frosty." Focus in the white stuff, relax in the calm.

....My sabbatical functionally ends this week, meaning I wont have as much time for "creative and scholarly activities" to make these silly music videos and slide shows, like this one, of the ten days I spent in Wyoming last July.

2009 Wilderness Classic: Official Results

Tim Mowry of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner wrote this story about Steve Taylor and Forrest Karr. Worth a read.

If you want to do the Classic, I'd suggest that you put in at least as many miles as the race is long within three weeks of doing it, and preferably within one month. Think: Lance Mackey's dogs, the Quest and the Iditarod.

2009 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Results
Gerstle to McKinley Village (175 miles)

1) Bobby Schnell, Chris Robertson and Andrew Skurka -- 3 days, 17 hours, 54 minutes
2) Roman Dial and Forrest McCarthy, 4 days, 8 hours, 41 minutes
3) Eben Sargent and Brad Marden, 4 days, 14 hours, 11 minutes
4) Luc Mehl, 4 days, 14 hours, 41 minutes.
5) Stephen Taylor, Forrest Karr and Rob Kehrer, 7 days, 5 hours, 42 minutes
6) John Lapkass, 8 days, 22 hours, 22 minutes.

DNF -- Kyle Amstadter and Jesse Bernwald; Craig Bernard and Jordan Manley; Michael Martin and Michael Penuelas; Donna Kleck; Don Moden and Scott Wilk; Christopher Bernshoof and George Feree; Mark Ross; William and Clay Collins.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Grand Canyon

Running the "Ditch" represents one of the great backcountry/wilderness experiences of the world.

While most people run it in the comfort of big rafts, several pairs of shoes, tables, and chairs, there is now another way: packrafts.

While this may not bring us back to the level of adventure that J. W. Powell experienced, it may be the closest other than running it one-armed.

Last year my son C. Roman, Gordy Vernon, and I managed to get a permit from the NPS to run it by hiking down Hermit and running the rapids to Havasu. It took about a week and while we missed some other big rapids both upstream (Granite etc) and down (Lava), we were plenty satiated with adventure by the time we took out.

The permit was not easy to get! We benefited from the help of Glenn "LB" Rink and others of Flagstaff and around the SW in getting the NPS to let us put in somewhere other than Lee's Ferry and take out somewhere other than Diamond Creek and run it in our 5 pound Alpackas.

We did it before I'd figured out how to shoot video on the Optio W60 but here's a slide show:

Saturday, August 15, 2009

National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)

Ecology has yet to be considered as "Big Science". Big Science means big bucks and ecology has yet to have the kind of infrastructure that physics' particle accelerators, astronomy's telescopes, oceanography's research vessels has had.

That's about to change with the National Science Foundation's NEON program. This program has $400 million slated for startup funding and another $70 million/yr to keep it running. These big dollars will set up and operate a network of 20 observatories across the US reflecting an optimal sampling design to measure the continent's ecological state.

The primary goal is to observe and forecast ecological and environmental change in wildlands. Climate change, nearby land-use, spread of invasive species and infectious diseases (like the West Nile virus) will be monitored. It's a very ambitious and timely program that will include a range of organisms and processes from soil microbes to landscape and atmospheric changes.

NEON represents the coming of age of ecology and environmental science at a time of the most rapid change seen in over a millennium. I spent yesterday at a NEON meeting in Fairbanks, participating in the discussion of where and what are the most important central processes to observe in Alaska, as well as the names of people who can do the organismal sampling of birds, mosquitoes, beetles, fish, small mammals and other focal organisms.

As Alaska's environmental changes accelerate in parallel to Earth's human population growth and energy consumption, this kind of integrative and systematic observation network becomes increasingly important. It's an exciting time to be an ecologist.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Skurka's Take on the Classic

Andy Skurka posted his story about the AMWC over on the Backpackinglight site and it's a fun and thoughtful perspective on the race from one of the great walkers of the current generation.

Worth a read.

I hope he comes back next year, 'cause then it'll get me -- and maybe Forrest -- training. This years off-the-couch performance netted us little more than a you tube vid and "first loser" status. Right?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Denali NP

Denali National Park is full of tourists just like these and for good reason. The place reeks of amazing wildlife, scenery, and wilderness. I'm so glad it's a conservation area, so glad people like this get a chance to enjoy it.

Sure, they travel in a bus. They don't camp. They stumble over blueberry bushes that untie their leather boot laces on three hour morning walks that exhaust them for the rest of the day. But this park is as much theirs as the dummies who walk its length, twice or more. As much as the guy who dies in a wrecked green bus on the park border, a death by starvation, bad luck, and inexperience on a dream-quest.

They are the ones who get in a small plane and even without landing to face challenges like high winds, frost-bite, cracks and cornices, the depression of a summit un-made, fly toward the mountain and find it the best thing they ever did in their life. They get excited over bear prints in mud and caribou and even moose, if you can believe that!

The park belongs to them as much as to us and when a sow and her teeny blonde cubs walk so near that any closer you'd be scared, when you follow a bitch wuff trottin' sideways down the road at 10 yards for 10 mins, then watch as she dives into the willows to nab a vole -- but misses and cocks her head quizzically, then you know that all the miles and all the scares and all the years under your feet don't make any difference between you and them and that's what this park is meant for.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Adrian Crane: AMWC 1986, Mentasta to McKinley

From November 1986 issue of Ultrarunning:

"In our last issue we carried a report on the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic...200-250 miles through the Alaska backcountry, carry all your food and gear....[a race that] has always struck us as about the toughest race around. Adrian Crane and Tom Possert ran together and finished in a bit over 6 days, barely losing to some equally tough and talented Alaskans.

"After this competitive event was over, Adrian Crane's conclusion was rather surprising:

Is this the longest, toughest, roughest or hardest? The beauty of it is that at the finish no one knew or cared. Every competitor was left with indelible experiences, challenges accepted and honestly won or lost. Each had started with a clean slate and had accomplished every step in the wilderness through their own efforts."

Little has changed in the intervening 20 years but the pace of the racers.

Seven Lessons I learned on This Year’s Classic

The Wilderness Classic is a notorious teacher/taskmaster. It’s possible to learn more about wilderness travel and needed gear during three days of wilderness racing than three weeks of normal wilderness travel. Indeed, if I could, I'd have all my adventure partners do at least one race and take a swiftwater rescue training to get them into the same frame of reference.

This year’s race, my 14th participation in a summertime event, was no exception. Besides determining that I still like packrafts; that straps are more functional than p-cord; that an altimeter watch is good and that 1:250,000 scale maps are best for AMWC races; that a dry-bag-carrying, harness-style pack is best for me; as are big bars of Cadbury chocolate and fun-sized bags of Doritos and potato chips; and that wool hoodies and the lightest weight shell gear I can suffer are the way to go, I learned a few new things:

(1) It was great to have three pairs of socks: one wool pair kept virginal for sleeping only; a second wool pair I wore the first day; and a pair of lined neoprene socks (not Seal Skinz). I also experimented with insoles in and out as I’ve been hiking without insoles for the last 15 years, only recently using them again. Because I was unable to put the scale of distance on my tootsies the month before the race like Skurka could, I was unsure what would blow out. Having the selection of socks and insoles to experiment was helpful to keeping my blister load to two toe ones on my right foot, hot spots that tape can’t help in a wet-footed, fast-paced race.

(2) A single trekking pole with a basket works well for me; basket-free poles do not. Basket-free poles get stab-stuck in tundra and rocks, expending more energy in extraction than in their added swing weight, IMHO.

(3) For me -- long past my vision-quest years and salaried, commercial adventure racing days -- substantial sleep is necessary for flushing dreams from my head and pain from my body. We enjoyed 28 hours of camp time (18 hours of it actual sleep time) spread over 4 nights. Did it cost us the race? No, it gave us a finish. Our 11 hour camp next to the Hayes Glacier toe took a race-quitting turned ankle to a manageable limp. Without rest and long sleeps we’d have limped even slower, longer, and more painfully that we did. Sleep heals and we were hurt. Indeed, if you reading this should ever find yourself in a race wanting to quit: don’t quit until after you’ve given yourself a mandatory twelve-hour lay-over. Then revaluate and decide. You’ll be amazed by what twelve hours will do.

(4) While sleep is necessary (for me), quilts/sleeping bags/tents/tarps/bivy-sacks/space-blankets/foam-pads seem not to be. To sleep well requires warmth and dry feet, which for us meant a fire during our camp and dry socks. At camp we quickly collected a pile of dry wood broken into 1-2 foot long pieces. We started the fire and I’d dry my day clothes over it, slipping into a dry pair of thin long underwear bottoms, and dry socks, then putting back on the day clothes and slipping into my insulated jacket. I then positioned myself between the wood pile and the fire and slept, waking when chilled by the dieing fire which I then fed a stick or two for another hour or two of sleep. Fortunately, it did not rain. If it had…..hmmmm, the sleeps would’ve been colder and wetter under the raft and without a fire, I suppose.

(5) A small titanium pot for warm freeze-dried before sleep and hot coffee afterward made sleep comfortable and got us jumpstarted in the morning. The fire heated water quickly and seemed to cost us little time in the long run. I guess we tried to be hour-wise, not minute-foolish.

(6) For this route, a single two-person boat was a time saver. We may have lost an hour on the Wood River using it, but we saved more than that by nearly halving our raft loads. We used the boat in a variety of ways and each time we got in it, it boosted morale and rested our feet.

(7) The cast of characters in this event offers up a distillation of everything I like about Alaska. I guess this is not a new lesson, but actually my favorite one, learned time and time again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

2009 Classic: More Unofficial Results

By six o’clock on Saturday Rob Kehrer of Anchorage/Eagle River (perhaps?) finished with Steve Taylor and Forrest Karr, both of Fairbanks. Besides the first eight finishers, everyone else but John Lapkass had dropped out, most by the first checkpoint at Donnelly.

I’ve heard from a reliable source that this was considered the hardest course in years, despite the fact that the stretch from Donnelly to McKinley Village was its own course from 1994-1996, with 100% finish rate in 1995, the first and only time in the 27 year history of the race. This year’s prelude of 40 or so miles -- whether covered on ATV trails and roads north of Granite Mountain, over Granite itself, or through the tundra and gravel bars of the Gerstle-St Anthony Pass route – sucked the life out of a dozen starters. The rest, save Andrew Skurka, hobbled to the finish. Skurka finished with feet as good as when he started -- that's what 700 miles of walking in June and July through SC AK will do for you, I guess.

Yesterday, nine full days after the start, John Lapkass limped into McKinley Village on feet he said were the worst they’ve ever been (this after completing 17 Classics), having run out of food, fallen prey to the morass of willows and alders that is the east fork of Dick Creek, inadvertently swum the Wood River, and had the only rain cloud in miles “surgically strike” his drying gear with rain.

It sounds like this was his toughest race in years, too. But something tells me we'll all be back again next year. That's the nature of the event: it hurts so good.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

6 Million Words on the Wilderness Classic

My Optio W60 shoots 30 frames per second. If a picture's worth a thousand words, then this 3.5 minute vid of the Wilderness Classic offers up a lot of verbage.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

AMWC 2009 Start Photo

There are 28 people here, 29 if you count Britney, held tenderly by Chunk, Bobby, and Forrest.

Alas, she made it no farther than this.

Wilderness Classic Report – unofficial results

There were 28 starters, or maybe 29, hard to say as people showed up within minutes of the start on Sunday morning near the Gerstle River south of Delta Jct. They flew off in all directions, all combinations, all ages.

Forrest McCarthy of Jackson Hole, WY, hot off the couch and on his vacation left with me.

We took a rather straight line (green on the map); others took more circuitous but faster routes (red lines). The winners, PJs Chris Robertson and Bobby Schnell teamed up with pro-hiker Andy Skurka, and finished in 3 days and 18 hours at 4 AM on Thursday.

Forrest and I limped in later that night, 7 PM, for a finish time of 4 days, 9 hours. Our route is about 170-175 miles.

Six hours later (4 days 15 hours) Brad Marden and his Vermont partner Eben Sargent beat Luc Mehl who finished solo, by about 30 minutes. They’d been trading places for days, suffering, like we did, across the soft "sponga" and hard glacial moraines of the north side of the Hayes Range, and enjoying the fast floats on the flooding waters of the Wood and Yanert Rivers.

The weather had been hot and dry, thankfully, as none of these finishers carried sleeping bags, bivy sacks, or shelters of any knd save for some who carried one-use space blankets. We slept around fires ourselves in dry socks and the clothes we'd hiked in

At least a dozen racers dropped out after the initial 40 mile prelude to Donnely. One team, Craig “Chunk” Barnard and his partner Jordan of eastern Oregon, dropped out at the unlikely point of the Denali Hwy’s Susitna River Bridge. The duo had walked up the Black Rapids Glacier, dodging the continuing rock fall of the 2005 earthquake slides there, then crossed over to the East Fork Susitna Glacier, trading crampons for packrafts as they paddled down the ever steepening East Fork. At one point they both piled into a big hole in Class IV waters, Jordan bumping Chunk out of the hole. Unfortunately Jordan, on his second-ever packraftng experience, lost his boat, his paddle, and his right shoe, thirty miles from the road. He said his PFD saved his life in the river and his foot on the tundra, as he made a makeshift shoe from the PFD's foam.

Using his mandatory sat phone Chunk called his girlfriend to say they were OK, but heading out to the highway. Walking downstream Chunk spotted the raft in an eddy, retrieved it and in the process found Jordan’s paddle, too. They floated down to the Denali Hwy and called it quits there.

Just another day of the adventure in the Classic. It will be interesting to hear what else went on out there.

More as I find out.

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