Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kenai Canyon Cold

If we weren't headed for Borneo and Tasmania soon, maybe something like this would make it to our agenda:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Borneo soon

This shelter is a Rob Bell of Mountain Laurel Designs creation, a tropical tarp to cover a Go-Lite Shangri-La nest. The idea is to hang something outside to keep rain off, yet offer up some airflow across a bug net to keep the inch long ants and terrestrial leeches off our sleeping bodies. The tent's intended for tropical rainforest camping, something we have done a bit of over the last couple decades, starting with Hawaii, passing through the Caribbean and Costa Rica, but finding its ultimate expression in Borneo, where the tropical trees are tallest and the canopy-dwelling animals wildest (IMHO).

In a few weeks we Dials will be roaming to Borneo. That's all of us -- Peggy, Jazz, Cody Rome, and me -- heading to Sabah for a couple of weeks watching wildlife, eating tropical fruit (durian!), and sweating in the equatorial heat and humidity.

We first went as a family in Dec-Jan 1995-96, when the kids were six and eight. We went to Kalimantan to visit Gunung Palung National Park (often featured in National Geographic Magazine with photos by Tim Laman). What an influential adventure that was. We flew to Singapore, then Kuching in Sarawak, then Pontianak in Indonesia. There we rode a small boat for five hours across the Kapuas River delta, biggest in Borneo. The boat dropped us in Teluk Melano, a malarial town with a never-ending stream of timber floating past. Old-growth, primary forest cut for plywood to hold concrete forms in China, Japan, and the US then thrown away.

From there we rode motor cycles on single track through cut-over jungle to a village and hired two guys in a small dugout to paddle us upstream for 12 hours to a research station rotting beneath giant dipterocarp trees. The animals and the plants and the purity of the place was remarkable. We drank from a stream flowing off Gunung Palung, the steep, wild mountain behind camp, as it flowed right past the camp. Twice daily we'd bathe in its cool refreshing waters and the kids delightedd in wading, snorkling and catching "toe-nibblers" and "needle-nose" fish that looked like they were right out of a freshwater aquarium. We watched gibbons and orangutans, caught giant millipedes and big green lizards. We saw ants as big as your finger and deer the size of your boot.

We returned the following year when I taught an APU tropical ecology class there but by then the log poachers were encroaching and the wildness was fading fast.

I've been back to Borneo many times since then, including a two month stint at Danum Valley with Roman doing a research project on canopy structure, microclimate and arthropods. Most recently, Peggy and I included Sabah and Sarawak on our round the world trip in 2008-2009. The really neat spires, the jags of limestone rearing out of the jungle, are in Mulu National Park, Sarawak. There are other sights from Tawau Hills Park, Kinabatangan River, and Danum Valley. The big spiky fruit is the stinky but oh-so-tasty durian....always a highlight of any visit.

This trip should be good, too. We are all excited as it's been 15 years and the kids are now adults strongly molded by the memories of their childhood visits to Borneo.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kimberly Australia: King Edward River, Bungle Bungles

This is a bit of a tease:

It's a fellow named Kevin Casey, a world-traveling, self-described "remote riverman" who recently replaced his inflatable kayak with a an Alpacka Raft. His first packraft trip was to Australia's far NW Kimberly for a solo jaunt that made my own solo trip look a tad tame. He recently posted on the Alpacka Rafters site that Gabon would make a good packrafting destination for the savvy wilderness traveller.

His Kimberly journey was in May, the early, cool start to the dry season, which contrasts mightily to March when Peggy and I were there and it was deadly humid and hot. Think East Coast August humidity and Phoenix, AZ August temperatures. By May, it's dry and cool, and super nice. Main problem is getting back to civilization once you reach the mangrove and crock-infested coastline. NOLS runs canoe trips down the Drysdale River in the Wet, but I think when I go back, I'm going in May. March almost killed me.

Peggy and I drove out from Darwin (3+ days drive) to see the Bungle Bungles but the park was closed so she camped at the road while I rafted down the Ord River to walk into the park. It was a strange and wonderful experience. The water was as warm as a hot springs and the air like an oven. I paddled past a pack of wild dingos resting on the bank then splashing off through the shallows; flocks of a thousand gallahs, pink colored cockatoos sqawking; and what looked like ten thousand fruit bats fussing and fighting in the tea trees with a dozen freshwater crocodiles waiting below to feed on the hapless weak ones that fell into the water. I paddled though this melee of bats and crocs then camped downstream, spooked.

As night fell, a half hour of bats (see the video below) passed overhead in the beautiful sunset. I slept restlessly for fear of crocks climbing up on the bank to get me, bivied on an air mattress under a cotton sheet. Alive in the morning, I watched the thousands of bats return.

Downstream I paddled through some fun class II rapids with crocs waiting in the pools below. Then I rolled up the boat and headed for the Bungle Bungles, an incredible landscape of domes and canyons.

On my hike there I walked on a jeep road, rutted and eroded, when I came to a nine foot snake, clearly an elapid, and judging by its size and aggression, a king brown snake. I stopped and it headed toward me. I threw a rock at it to get it to retreat but instead it checked out the rock then headed for me more directly, more quickly. This alarmed me so I retreated up the road and watched as it disappeared down a gully.

The next day I hiked into the Bungles, walking up the Piccaninny Gorge. It was hot, oh so hot, and I found another snake, and water monitor lizards, and a few birds and fish. I was all alone here as the park was closed for the wet season.

It was just too hot. The balls of my feet feet on the hard surfaces in the heat in La Sportiva Fireblades were blistering so I decided to walk at night in my crocks which, were really functioning as camp shoes.

To save batteries I walked in the dark, fearful of snakes. To save fluids I rigged my sheet for shade during the day and tried to sleep. It took two pushes to walk the 30 miles out in my crocks. The second night was trippy, as in a bad psychedelic experience. First there was the late afternoon heat. My watch thermometer read 113 degrees under the umbrella carried as a parasol. Then there were the bush fires burning, burned out, or smoldering everywhere as I entered the wooded hills.

I crossed a creek and heard two feral bulls, the ones that are wild and never get rounded up, bellowing -- no roaring at each other, just as the tropical sun dropped, and one bull came toward me and I hurried off into the scrub to get trees between me and the beast, like you would with a pushy moose. That freaked me out, with all the poky bushes and grasses and the snakes lurking, I knew, and me barefoot in my crocks, 'cause the bulls came for me as I was trying to put my socks but no time, had to run. And that was just the beginning.

Then it got black and the hills were burning in bush fires, creepy, and silent and no wind, no night sounds, under a billion stars, all weird, except Orion in a funny place and that weird Southern Cross. Later the sideways moon rose and I could hear digeridoo music: Honest! Way out, like 20 miles from the nearest road and that road an empty thing in the Aussie Outback. I couldn't make it out to Peggy in the dark that night and I was tired from no sleep (too hot in the day fro walking or sleeping for that matter), so I camped in the dirt and woke in the morning with a centipede and a scorpion under my sheet with me.

And the next morning I walked out to the road, happy to be alive.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Another Great Modern Packrafting Adventure

Alastair Humphreys' video's professional production puts my silly little vids to shame:

An Expedition Across Iceland from Alastair Humphreys on Vimeo.

Thanks for making me look bad Alastair!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Modern Packrafting Adventures

This trip shows Tazzie as a packrafting destination. More of a classic, Alaska-style landscape adventure than a New Zealand trail hike and sport boat trip spot.

And this is more modern still: "Urbaneering" in Baltimore

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How to impress kayakers:

Luc Mehl's latest creation:

"We've heard a lot of kayakers describe the differences of being in packraft for the first time, but never get the opposite perspective.

"I took a Jackson Villain creekboat down Sixmile II and III (8.8 ft) with Matt and Toby Sunday (followed by a ski run in Turnagain, which was sweet!). My first time in a 'real' boat. It was a lot of fun, fun to be going through the rapids and nervous as hell.

"The take home message is that the little crap that we worry about in packrafts was not a concern, while some of the more subtle features, like eddy lines, require way more technique. I never had very good control of my line, but the boat pushed through everything (except staircase!). I expected everything to be harder in the kayak, but it really wasn't.

"Once I learn how to deal with eddy lines I think I'd be comfortable kayaking the same low-water runs that we packraft now.

"I loved not having to deal with inflating the boat and my 5 seat/back-rests.

"We put in at Boston Bar, so there wasn't much time to get used to the boat, I felt really unstable and kept getting turned backwards. Everyone complains about how poorly the Alpacka's track, but this boat didn't really feel any different in that regard. It is just much more of a two-dimensional problem.

"In the packraft I go in straight line segments and just turn the entire boat to change direction. The kayak carried speed with each stroke, so I had trouble timing my direction changes- travelling in curves rather than straight lines. This likely has a lot to do with my lack of technique.

"Pearly gates was no problem, but when I entered the eddy left, I flipped instantly on some eddy line I didn't even see. The roll was easy and gratifying. The rest of 2nd canyon was spent learning that I didn't need to worry about choppy waves or lateral features, etc., the kayak just punched through everything.

"I was pretty nervous entering 3rd, but I had the sense that if I could just get the boat where I wanted it, I'd get pushed through all the rapids. The problem was getting to where I wanted to be! The boat was so much more responsive to paddle strokes that I kept finding myself facing ~45 degrees off of where I was paddling toward. This put me directly over the staircase rock that Roman hit his head on, which was of course not a good place to be. I flipped, tried to roll three times but was getting pushed up against the right wall so I pulled the skirt.

"It was no problem to hold on the boat, but it was so heavy that even after I got it to shore a few times I couldn't get it out of the water. Matt and Toby were not too helpful because they swam there, too. Classic. The snow and ice on the banks didn't help.

"I had no problem with the rest of 3rd. It was a real treat to keep some of my warmth. I really liked being able to slide over rocks too. The braces put my right leg to sleep instantly, I don't know if that means the boat was too small or if I just need to adjust padding. But it made me appreciate the comfort of our inflatables.

-Luc 'Join the Darkside'"

Friday, October 29, 2010

New Map with Outdoor Data

Beside being a water hucker (both powder and liquid forms), Luc Mehl is an MIT-trained earth scientist. Recently as part of his work with ecological databases, he put together this map. I don't know enough to make the map look embedded here, where it should be, so all of you Alaskans and those planning on visiting Alaska could more readily use it, but I suggest you bookmark its location as it is super useful.

Luc has compiled real-time sensors all across the State, including web-cams and put them here in one place.

Thanks, Luc, for taking the guess work out of planning my next quick trip and for putting so much good, live data in such an easy to reach place.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

End of the season?

Tim Johnson continues to lead Luc Mehl and me down ever steepening creeks: Magic Mile, Upper Willow, and, this past weekend, Upper-Upper Bird and its handful of stout drops, namely "Walls of Jehrico", a "20 foot" waterfall.

Several interesting things occurred: first Luc wants to turn to the "hard side" -- not to give up on packrafting, but rather to improve his technique, to "paddle like Timmy and Paul and", he adds, "to go down easy rivers with my friends who are just getting started in packrafting."

Second, four of us piled on Tim's 4-wheeler to drive the four miles to Upper-Upper Bird. This seemed pretty weird, riding an ATV to go packrafting, instead of walking.

Third we worked on the first rapid, "Cave Man", like rock jocks on a boulder problem. We kept getting flipped (we being Luc and me -- not Timmy) at the cave wall at the bottom of the drop. Tony Perelli watched us closely, then took his turn and made the drop, hit he cave wall bow-on, bounced off and paddled away. Luc and I were able to replicate this technique and so move on to "Walls of Jehrico," the big drop.

After Caribou Creeks' drowned "Skyscraper Falls" this is one of the cleanest drops around. We studied it and decided that we could drop off its right side and the "horn mid way down we won't even feel." I was not so sure and planned to miss it.

First Tim and then Tony hit the horn and both face planted as the horn caught the boat bottoms and slowed them. Luc, going third, was intent on making a good roll in the pool below (he's been hitting his combat rolls consistently in Six Mile), but instead made a fantastic boof that cleared him of the horn, sticking the huck and sending his fist upward in glory.

Next, we came to the another waterfall, "Inside Out", which was too bony for us to run. The plunge pool was great but the entry slot was narrow and overhung. We three packrafters jumped into the pool feet first, then Tim, the kayaker, folded up his butt-boat and anounced he would be late for his date if he didn't leave. So he walked to his 4-wheeler while we finished the run, a run too bony for fun, exhausting, frustrating and slow

It wasn't just scrape-y but bang-y as we hit our paddles on the rocks in six inch of water for the next couple miles and what seemed like hours.

Luc said, "If I've learned one thing, it's always do what Timmy does: if he takes a line on a waterfall, take it. If he walks around a drop, walk around it. If he leaves the river with his boat rolled up, leave the river. He's always right."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

November 2009 to October 2010

Not since Alpacka came out with fat tubes, a big bow, and a sporty cut has there been such a big advance in packrafting as thigh straps. And Tim Johnson should get the credit for leading the way on that modification to a stock Alpacka Raft.

Thigh strap are not one of "40 add-ons" to a packraft that just make the boat heavier. They are a single addition that we in AK have seen on dozens of boats that give people control and confidence in whitewater from Class III to Class V, as well as leverage for paddling the flat and windy.

People are not getting entrapped -- yet. If a single chambered boat with extra velcro (added to keep a boat dry) were to go flat in the wrong place at the wrong time, then it does seem like being trapped in thigh straps will be bad. Indeed, besides practicing your Eskimo roll in a thigh strap equipped boat, think about letting all the air out while you are in the boat in the pool to see how you'll get out! Simply having a single chambered boat go flat under you, even without thigh straps, is a dangerous entrapment situation and one reason I find the Feathercraft Baylee so attractive. Unfortunately the Baylee is not as maneuverable or boofable as an Alpacka.

It would be nice if Alpacka made two chambered boats as durable and long and lean as the Witchcraft, and if Feathercraft made nimble boats with spraydecks that stayed up. Until then, we'll all be modifying our own boats and paddling them like this:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bird Carnage and Honey Sweet Upper Willow

It's Bird season -- low water and warmer down on the arm in the hemlocks and Sitka spruce. Took my son Roman and Todd Tumolo and Matt Johnson down to do the long version of Bird Creek. Be sure to take the second left after the wooden trail marker about 45 minutes in from the parking....not the first left after that wooden trail marker. We had sunshine and carnage at the Center Falls. Matt came up with a great name for the drop after Center Falls -- "Bird Cage" -- as anyone who's got grabbed at the stern in low water can appreciate. His video offers up good low water names for the series of rapids below Mushroom: "Bird Brain", "Chicken Wing", "Whirly Bird", Center Falls and "Bird Cage". I'd stick one more name in there for the ledges above "Whirly Bird" -- "Breast Meat"?

That canyon has become quite the packrafting scene -- there are about six or seven You Tube videos on just Bird (OK, well two are mine) and for good reason.

On Friday I tried out the BayLee 1 by FeatherCraft on Bird. It comes thigh strap ready and with two chambers feels oh-so-safe compared to a single chamber should you cut your boat and go flat midstream with thigh straps tight and four inches of velcro holding your skirt shut....anybody who wants to downsize from an inflatable kayak (IK) to a packraft will absolutely love this 9 lb (w/straps) boat. It paddles more like an IK than an Alpacka and has two chambers and solid fabric. Rafters will appreciate its conventional valves. The seat is well forward and the spray deck surprisingly dry for version 1.0, seem like. Pulls up high on the chest and actually stays there. It's like Feathecraft has been reading the Alpacka Forum and blogs like this and listening....but for me, I still prefer the nimble cut of an Alpacka Raft even if the Alpacka needs some further mods to make it suitable for Class IV.

So when Timmy J, Luc, Tony Pirelli and I went to paddle Upper Willow, I took my trusty Super Llama.

That was the best day of boating this year, with uncountable big drops and filler that felt like Little Su's main events. I emailed Brad, "If Magic Mile is Little Su on steroids, then Upper Willow is Ship Creek on crack." It was an icy day with frost on the walk-in and verglas on the boulders, but my hands stayed warm under the influence of "A", that natural high substance we all crave.

I shot some video but it doesn't do the magnificence of the canyon any justice. Nor did I capture the intensity of the drops. The boogy water is basically like Bird Creek canyon rapids and the big drops, the ones with names, are like nothing I'd ever done in Alaska -- more like a mini version of the Upper Hokitika Canyon, challenging, committing, and often sievy. The longest rapid "Sieve 57" was wild and finished with a big juiced up version of Commando Drop, twice as high and following a bunch of linked Six Mile Staircase like drops. WILD!

The Triple Drop portage on the right was an adventure. We had to get into our boats from a cliffside and I got surfed in a mini-hole, fell out and almost got pulled into a sieve there until I pushed my boat into a channel and held-on head first down a narrow slot to keep from touring Elvis' Graceland North.

Elsewhere and in other news, I feel like I learned to boof-lite (not full on, but getting there).

In 2009 Thai Verzone said of Montana Creek, "Last year, we'd never have dreamed of doing this." This year I never dreamed that I'd finish the legendary Upper Willow two weeks after Magic Mile and grinning ear to ear with Luc, who said, "I didn't think it could get better than Magic Mile -- I can't wait until next week to do this again."

Luc, Tony, and I bought Tim dinner and a tank of gas in thanks for taking us down -- we ran everything but Aqualung and Triple Drop and landed it all with big fat smiles on our faces.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Some links worth checking

Feathercraft's packraft looks like the old Sherpa Packraft on steroids (to be fair the Alpacka raft is an old Curtis Designs boat on juice, too).

Heading out shortly to paddle a BayLee 1 -- report to come.

Meanwhile there's been a bunch of packrafting going on with people all over the place:

Packrafters checking out a landslide on Caribou Creek, a landslide that dammed up the creek and shortened 30 foot "Skyscraper Falls" to Townhouse size. We didn't run the falls -- this time:

Next there's the Red Boat Brigade on Six Mile's three canyons, a personal favorite video of mine:

The East Fork of Chulitna from the fun-loving Fairbanks tribe of packrafters:

And finally, Forrest McCarthy posted his greatest hits vid for 2010 about the time we were just getting started up here in AK:


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Magic Mile

In the 1980s when I was a climber I hung around Andrew Embick's house in Valdez where hard men told stories about the first descents and epic kayak runs of the day: Canyon Creek, Kings Magic Mile, and Caribou Creek's Falls, among others.

Then, I was a wilderness racer and mountain traveler whose biggest whitewater experiences were limited to the likes of Class II and III on the Chitistone, Nenana, and John Rivers in an open Sherpa Raft. I never thought that I'd have the skills to paddle a kayak, much less a packraft, down the test-pieces of that golden-age era.

My, have the times changed.

This weekend several groups ran Six Mile's three canyons, Echo Bend, and Canyon Creek in packrafts -- albeit at low water -- and had a good time on those classics.

Canyon Creek is the surprise for me. When Six Mile is below 400 cfs on the USGS gauge Canyon Creek is like the new Ship Creek: lots of improbable drops (dozens), lots of fun. There is a waterfall portage, a waterfall that Embick wrote as three-tiered and "80 feet". But don't look for an 80 foot falls to portage - - it's more like 30 feet in three drops. Best to go down Canyon with someone who knows the drops and the portage as Canyon Creek is a bit more serious -- especially with its sharp rocks and mining debris -- than Six Mile. And at higher water -- when Six Mile is over 9 feet, Canyon gets back to its gnarly 1980s reputation for we butt-boaters.

Here's Timmy J running the Third and Fourth "Box Cars", a train of a half-dozen closely spaced ledge drop-rapids below Canyon Creek's only published rapid name, "Saddle Slide" ......

But the really big news is Kings Magic Mile.

Maybe it's another Embick exaggeration -- he called it 400 feet/mile -- but no matter. It is DARN STEEP and sustained! Imagine all the steepest drops in Little Su stacked back to back with Little Su's filler cut out. That's still not as steep as Magic Mile. Or maybe think of a microcosmic version of the West Coast New Zealand runs like Arahura and Hokitika. It's a steep boulder run and -- while no place for novices -- there are likely a dozen people in Anchorage with the skills to run it in packrafts at the 150-200 cfs we ran it yesterday. Make no mistake: it's the most serious, most demanding and difficult creek that we have packrafted in Alaska.

Thankfully we had Tim Johnson along to advise us with his experience and calm, reassuring, safety-minded nature.

Last year Brad Meiklejohn, Luc Mehl, I and others ran lower Kings and talked about the Mile. This past June a crack-team tried it at high water -- no, we looked at it -- at high water with Paul Schauer, Thai Verzone, and Nathan Shoutis.

But this Fall, Thai was gone, Paul was busy and Nathan, well, not sure where that nomad is currently wandering, so Luc and I convinced Tim and Brad that it was time. That the endless Indian Summer was as good a time as any to hit Magic Mile at low water. Except the Indian Summer ended this weekend and we hit the Mile in snow.

Surpassing New Zealand's West Coast, Disappointment Creek, and Maryland's Upper Yough, this was the highlight of my packrafting experiences so far, as it is a legendary run in Alaska. I missed a brace in the last rapid and got chundered, but everything else was a most satisfying challenge that I will be buzzed about all week, maybe all winter.

Luc even pulled off a combat roll in the upper third and re-ran the "Underground Railroad" in the lower third, yielding a run of every rapid. Of course, as you'll see in the video Timmy J is a master of water strokes, no matter the craft, and ran the Mile with a load in his boat and a long paddle duct taped together. And in flip-flops (I jokes about that).

We drove into the first mud-hole, started hiking at 10 AM, reached the put-in three hours later and were on the water by 1:30. It took until after 4 PM to pass the mile. We met Jule Harle at her warming fire below the Mile and she climbed into a loaner Llama (!) to run Lower Kings with us to below "Gotta Giver 'Er". We were out by 6 PM and back to the truck by 7 PM.

The sun finally came out and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes filled the autumn sky above the Matanuska. It had been a wonderful day.

And the version on Vimeo if YouTube has no music:

Magic Mile Packrafting, Kings River, Alaska from Roman Dial on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Toby Schwoerer's Review of Feathercraft's Packraft -- The Baylee

Yesterday Luc introduced me to Toby Schwoerer when we did a little Echo Bend flip -- two runs on the prettiest river in the Anchorage area -- Eagle River in the mountains. Indeed, hiking up the Eagle River Trail to the Eagle River crossing and then floating back now would make for a great girlfriend/wife/daughter/person-who-doesn't-like-packrafting-as-much-as-you-do (yet) trip. The colors are awesome, the mountains steep and big, the river manageable, and the difference in views between hiking up in the woods and floating back amazing. But best to take out just above Echo Bend with beginners.

But for intermediates Echo Bend offers a super Class III adventure worth multiple runs and with Polar Bear Peak at the end and Yukla as a backdrop at the beginning, it's as much fun to look around as it is to move nimbly between the rocks shooting slots at will.

Anyway, Toby and I got to talking and he told me that Goo Vogt had the Bailee by Feathercraft, a heavy but study packraft that Goo already put thigh straps in -- Goo's an inflatable boater going back decades -- and that Toby has posted a review of it and a comparison with his mid-oughts vintage Yak:

Check this out

But don't call Goo. I already have and he's out hunting caribou, so I have dibs on demoing the boat next week.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Monatuak Gnat Stove -- 1.6 oz

As part of Hendrik's gear pass-around I got a chance to test the "lightest [canister stove] in the world", the Monatauk Gnat. I went rafting and moose hunting and carried the 1.6 oz Ti and Al cutie around but never used it in the field.

I would have used it to start a fire a la Thai Verzone-style (think gas barbeque grill vs charcoal grill to ignite the fire) while packrafting or as a hot drink fixer while moose hunting, but the moose came down 150 yards from camp and our boating has all been warm and dry (no cold swims), so I had to settle for a test at home.

Now, I have been fortunate enough to share shelter and stove with Skurka and seen his catfood can in action. That's gotta be the lightest stove out there, for sure, but I like the convenience of a canister stove for shorter trips and don't really like messing with liquids.

The beauty of these micro canister stoves like Pocket Rocket, Soto OD-1R MicroRegulator and the like is that they fit in my "Thing" worn inside my rain jacket or drysuit while wilderness boating. The Thing I use as an internal "pack" (but I load the front mostly) to hold fire starter food and extra camera, as well as map. So these micro stoves are for starting wet wood on fire in the rain when we are cold, wet, and miserable in fall weather on a glacial river in Alaska: dumbstruck cold with hands that won't work and teeth chattering.

Liquid fuel stoves are too finicky and bulky for this application.

Currently the stove I have been carrying is the Soto (2.6 oz). I like its igniter which saves the weight of a lighter, but it has pot supports that are attached using little screws which I have had fall out! This made the stove incapable of holding a cook pot. The standard stove I have as a canister stove for family-trips is the JetBoil. Heavy though it is, it's super convenient and stable and better in the wind.

My test was these three stoves mentioned above using the system I'd have: i.e Jet boil w/100g fuel (each test used a 100 g can) and its integral pot; the other micros stoves with the Ti cook pot (about 1L).

I usually have no wind screen and if I cook usually it's inside my pyramid-style, floorless shelter: the tests were in 10 C weather, cool, calm morning on my front porch, no wind screens or other surrounding breaks.

I put 3 cups of cold tap water and a waterproof datalogger in each and then lit the stoves. The micro stoves got brand new cans of fuel. The Jet Boil had some slightly used fuel. I turned the stoves on, lit them and then turned them on full and backed down a little so they were right where the initial big "brrrrrrrrr" sound starts. My thinking was this was maximally hot hot but not wasteful and likely where I'd set it if I was heating water without using the thing as a fire starter. I then let each go until water was spitting out the lid (i.e. roaring boil).

Here are the results:

As you can see the Jet Boil was slowest and the Gnat and the Soto very close in heating rate at about 10 C/minute. The jet Boil has other nice features (stability, integrity, neoprene sleeve and cap for drinking) but the micro stoves are what I am really comparing -- the Jet Boil is just an outgroup. My dataloggers should have been set at a closer interval than 1 minute, but alas that's all I had time for. There are no replicates either and all the usual oh-wells and qualifiers that go along with gear tests like this.

I'm going to buy the little Gnat as it's cute and Ti and has no parts to fall off or fail and it's an ounce lighter. I usually have a lighter too, anyway, and I am a sucker for stoves.

Thanks Hendrick for this opportunity and Beni, sorry the stove's late on its way to you.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Videos that have caught my eye

Butt-boating, mtn hiking, and 29er biking are probably my favorite outdoor activities and here are some other folks adventures to enjoy:

Ed Plumb of Fairbanks has posted a neat Alaska Range video:

and Forrest posted several from the WInd Rivers, this being my favorite, I think:

and then there's Mike Curiak's gonzo "ne school" trail riding:

Teton Pass from lacemine29 on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Whitewater Junkies

"Ironically as they paddle more and more whitewater, their reward circuitry (for dopamine) dulls, which makes the easier runs less satisfying and drives them to still harder runs and bigger drops to compensate.They are essentially chasing the high of earlier, heavenly thrills on easier water. This is precisely what we see with chronic alcohol or substance abuse."

Yea? Well, adrenaline is a substance and I'd call this "hormone abuse".

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Comstock Stories

While in the Gates of the Arctic recently, my companions rquested I tell Chuck Comstock stories and Michael Brown shot video during a couple of them. Peggy says I do a better job when I am not being recorded...but in any event here's one about ice climbing in the Wrangells in 1987

and another about Chuck during the Wilderness Classic Nabesna to McCarthy in 1988 and 1989:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Montana Creek @ 450 cfs

Last year Paul Schauer, Thai Verzone, and I ran Montana Creek near Talkeetna at 350 cfs on the NOAA Guage. It was super fun but a bit bumpy:

Yesterday Gordy Vernon and I drove up to Talkeetna after eating lunch at Senior Taco in Wasilla (super good, authentic Mex) just to do the lower canyon on Montana Cr. The NOAA Guage was reading about 465 cfs at UTC midnight (=4 PM AK time) and the USGS read 451 cfs; both gave about 5.4 feet. This was a juicier, cushier flow but not pushy. I'd say it was pretty close to ideal.

Gordy drops "Big Sky Country":

The crux for me, besides making the far left side of "Big Sky Country" is the mini boulder garden about three drops later, below both "Big Sky" and "Chockstone" and signaled by a big central boulder that you go left around then hard right then left again. There was a wee bit of wood, but nothing to get hung up about.

Montana's lower canyon a bit like a backwards Ship Creek lower canyon in that the hardest drop is the "Big Sky" falls right off the bat. There were a total of five drops in the short run and for me it's worth the drive. If we'd got an earlier start we would've walked up the extra mile or so for the upper canyon that has another five or so good drops. Unlike Ship Creek a swim here might have consequences with all the big boulders (foot entrapment, stuffed under an undercut). The run I like to do is shorter than Ship but longer than the lower canyon on Bird Creek -- harder to flip than Bird but more satisfying in a way and doesn't need the flip, I guess.

"Chockstone" often has wood but this time it was in a safe place:

Anyway, this info might be useful to some....Mark Oathout ran the creek in his IK, too, at a juicy flow last month.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Skurka Video Compilation

On my way to Fairbanks to meet Skurka and his NGS crew I bumped into Katmai and Erin McKittrick passing through security with me. They were waiting on Hig who was out running last minute errands before their family trip from Point Lisburne to Kotzebue. She was five months pregnant and passed on a video message to Skurka. It's possible though improbable that the two sets of mega-trekkers will meet in Kotz, as the Ground Truth Twitter says the fam is still up by Kivalina and Skurka's chomping at the bit to finish, maybe, tomorrow?

Anyway, here's pretty much the best video I have from the trips I did with Skurka and the National Geographic crew.

Hope it offers an honest flavor of that grand trip of his.

Vimeo version for Euros:

Andrew Skurka's Alaska Yukon Expedition: two legs from Roman Dial on Vimeo.

Michael C. Brown

Mike Brown is my favorite photographer and he too chased Skurka in the Brooks Range:

Dan Koeppel

Dan Koeppel is a writer and editor whose path crossed mine walking with Andrew Skurka last week. He's in the mountain bike hall of fame, too! (how do I get in?)

He's a soon-to-be dad, an avid walker of urban routes, a former editor of Mtn Bike Magazine for Rodale Press back in the day when I wrote hellbiking pieces about wild rides with Carl Tobin and Jon Underwood across Alaska's wilderness, and an awesomely quick witted but slow walking guy, born in New York, transplanted to LA.

He's written a wonderful book on bananas and one on his father, a world class birder who was among to see the most of 10,000 species of birds in the world or so. Anyway I don't think I've laughed so long and hard as I did during the four day walk to Anaktuvuk from the Haul Road.

Here's the vid:

Dan Koeppel (writer) and Andrew Skurka (walker) hiking in the Brooks Range from Roman Dial on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Skurka Video

Recently back from 300 miles and two weeks with Andrew Skurka. Here are some clips:

On top of Ariel Peak in the Arrigetch Peaks. This is a great summit, easy too, as well as spectacular.

An awesome Grizzly Bear trail that went on for at least a mile and a half:

And a gang of kids swarm us in Anaktuvuk Pass.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"Triple A"-- a route that visits many of the scenic highlights of the central Brooks Range as it crosses the seven million acre Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The route is best done during August (3-6 weeks), when bugs are sparse, days are long, and colors intensifying, with food drops at Anaktuvuk Pass (Post Office), Circle/Kutuk Lakes (bear barrels) and Pingo Lake (bear barrels). Bring a sat phone.

Anaktuvuk, Arrigetch, Ambler are three touchstones of the central Brooks Range from east to west, and as a packrafting trip in the Brooks Range it's hard to beat these 400 miles. The route passes through the best mountain sections, including the Doonerak region, Arrigetch Peaks and front range of Igikpak. It floats North Fork of Koyukuk to Ernie Creek, John River to Wolverine Creek, Pingaluk to Alatna, the Noatak to Lake Matcherak, and all of the Ambler River. It follows game trails and excellent creek and river bars and avoids more tussocks and brush than you'd believe.

Drive up the Dalton Highway to a little turn-off to the west, just before the pipeline road leaves the Dietrich valley bottom and just downstream of Nutirwik Creek. It's about sixty miles north of Coldfoot (you could fly to Coldfoot from Fairbanks on Arctic Air for $250). Hike up Koyuktuvuk, Trembley, Blarney Creeks and over Kinnorutin Pass to descend Amawk Creek and paddle N. Fork Koyukuk (PR 3 -- PR 4 at high water). Climb Doonerak via a scramble up its south ridge, if you like heights and broad views.

From the junction of North Fork Koyukuk and Ernie Creek there is a bit of tussocks to the Valley of the Precipices. Unbelievably, this should be one of only two tussock stretches, if you read your landscapes well en route to Ambler. Bar-hop on mature willow bars or follow well-drained tundra ridges and noses to Graylime and Anaktuvuk Creek. If you are travelling light (i.e. have a food cache in Anaktuvuk mailed to the PO there) these creeks are mostly paddleable, except for some braids on the lower Anaktuvuk, where you can pick up an ATV trail and follow to Anaktuvuk Pass, a friendly village IMO. Peggy and I took a week to Anaktuvuk in one boat in 1986; I walked from Anatuvuk to the road in a day and a half in 2006. Plan for four-five days, three days if you have Wilderness Classic experience.

From Anaktuvuk to Takahula/Circle/Kutuk Lakes is another 4-7 days. Pick up food in Anaktuvuk that you have mailed ahead; although it may be possible to buy what you need at the Nunamiut Store. There are about five flights a day to Fairbanks, and sometimes to Coldfoot, so you can bail out if you need to, or hike up a pass beyond "Giant Creek" and float the Tinayguk (PR 3) back out toward Wiseman.

Eventually you will see the river start to drop around Kollutuk Creek into rock gardens of PR3. This is fun and splashy and easy with rain gear, no PFD, a Sawyer Paddle, and neoprene socks, even in the rain, if you wear a puffy jacket under your rain gear. Just pull up the sleeves to keep from soaking the arm insulation and rest your elbows on your knees. When the steep bit ends, three creeks (Ekokpuk, Masu, and Kolluturak) unite and come in from river right, doubling the flow of the John, making it feel like a small river instead of a creek. There are cottonwoods here. The river cruises nicely to Till Creek where raids begin again up to PR3, ending a couple miles above Publituk Creek, where the first spruce appear (yeh!).

When the Hunt Fork comes into the John, the river gets big but the gradient has lessened. Three hours below Hunt Fork, take out at Wolverine Creek (pic) and barhop and game trail follow west to its headwater pass. The travel is among the fastest and best westward walking on the Triple A route. White boulders make the upper stretch scenic and fun.

Cross into the upper Iniakuk drainage (see pic left) below Nahtiuk Mountain and drop down and climb again over a second pass leading into the upper Nahtuk drainage. The upper Nahtuk also has an awesome network of game trails (mostly BMWs = bear/moose/wolf trails) but be sure to cut over to the Pingaluk at the lowest, most obvious pass, as the lower Nahtuk is the worst walking I have encountered in the Brooks Range.

The three hours along the upper Pingaluk's eastern tributary isn't much better thank the lower Nahtuk (shown right and typical -- brush on the right side, tussocks, humocks, sponga on the left and a nasty sharp rock canyon near the bottom), but when the main Pingaluk River is reached, awesome BMWs lead downstream to where a couple of canyons offer up spicy PR 3 (first canyon) and PR4+ (second canyon). These are easily portaged on moose trails that go high on river right. If you lose the trails, no problem: the woods are open and the ground relatively firm and dry. The lower Pingaluk is easy PR2 (for its sweepers and wood) and leads to the Alatna.

Nasty walking upstream to Circle Lake or Kutuk lakes along the base of the river right hillsides includes bad brush and tussocks. Longer but better travel wanders out onto the old bars and sloughs and open forest of the Alatna and heads upstream that way. I have done both and am not sure which I prefer. But there is NO good trail along the base of the hills to Arrigetch Creek from Circle Lake or Pingaluk River mouth.

Pick up a food drop if you can at Circle lake or Kutuk Lake, or even Takahula, then head up Arrigetch Creek's "use trail", which is on river right on the first canyon's rim. The use trail ends below the "Elephant's Tooth" at the forks of Aquarius and Arrigetch Creeks, where it's best to cross to the river left bank of the main Arrigetch Creek and follow caribou trails relatively high up-valley to below Ariel Peak.
Arrigetch Peaks from the use trail. The use trail has some remarkable campsites, but is a boggy, soggy, brushy route that is worse than most of the game trails in other valleys. It's still the best way into the main Arrigetch Valley.

Camp at the Forks in Arrigetch Valley. There is wood here and some signs of use, but it's clean and you'll feel compelled to keep it that way. The Aquarius Valley (up the left fork) makes for a good day trip and the big north walls of the Maidens and Badille are spectacular.

I used these Salomon shoes and like their aggressive grip. Mike didn't get enough support, but I find these my favorite shoes (Speed Cross, I think). They need some beefing up with glue-goo on the toe seems before leaving or you'll find yourself sewing.

The unclimbed Grayling Wall on Xanadu. If you look closely you can see the big dorsal fin of a grayling outlined on this wall. It's about 2000-2500 feet tall, I think.

The disappearing glacier on Melting Tower. Older photos show the glacier extending all along the ledge to the right. I saw it that way last time I was here in this valley in 1994. I wish I had all my slides scanned so I could post that image.

Looking down Arrigetch Creek with the Elephant's Tooth on the right and Nahtuk Mountain far off on the horizon. "Triple A" goes along the base of both mountains. The views from here are worth the hike, even from Kutuk Lake. Ariel is a surprisingly easy climb, no harder than Flattop in the Anchorage area.

Caliban, the highest peak in the Arrigetch. Ryan Hokanson climbed Caliban a couple years back with Sam Johnson. They called their route the "Pillar Arete", 5.10, Grade V, 16 pitches via a long and complex ridge route.

At the base of Ariel, looking back at the main Arrigetch Peaks. This meadow is a good palce to get a drink and eat before pushing up talus to the ridge and on to the summit.

Make your way to the backside of Ariel and follow its north ridge (chossy but doable with fifty pounds on your back) to where the long chossy shards change to a firm rotten granite that looks like sandstone. Drop your packs here and continue on the third class scramble to tag the summit and grab a fantastic view. Back to the packs follow the loose scree between slabs to talus below and take a break at the small lake shown on the 1:250,000 maps (but not shown on the 1:63,360).

Ariel is airy! But remarkably stable. Stay close to the ridge on the long shards of chossy rock.

Granite spine on Ariel -- leave your packs at the base and tag the summit. The chossy shards end at the base of this rib. Follow it to the summit but climb back down to make your way off the backside of Ariel.

Good, safe footing -- just don't stumble. In the background is the initial spine. This is the final summit ridge. You need your hands in a few places.

Summit Ridge of Ariel.

Looking off the overhanging summit of Ariel. The summit is small and very much overhung.

Wichman's Tower (left) and Xanadu's Grayling Wall. Easy views to get and worth the 4500 feet of climbing from the Forks of Arrigetch and Aquarius.

Disneyland (l), Badille (c) and Shot Tower (r), peaks I climbed as a teenager in 1979. The expedition was rainy and thick with conflict. We still managed some neat climbs and I learned a lot -- mostly that I needed some new climbing partners.

Arthur Emmons (l), Pyramid (c) and Wichman's Tower -- peaks I tried solo. Nearly made it up Wichmans Tower in 1986 but verglas turned me back. That was pretty much the last climb I did.

Summit photographers.

Working between slabs on way down. If we'd left our packs at the granite rib we wouldn't have them here.

Working the scree descent off Ariel's backside.

Looking up the backside of Ariel. The summit is that pointy finger.

Looking at Xanadu on edge from far base of Ariel. This talus is big and loose.

From here descend to the Awlinyak (see Arctic Circle route for how), bailing out by floating down that bouldery PR3+ stream back to the Alatna if you've had enough mountains, as there are more rocks and passes to come. These are the last spruce until the Ambler or you choose to leave the high country.

Walls above the creek coming down from east fork of Awlinyak and Deception Pass.

Crossing the east fork of Awlinyak Creek. The creek gorges out downstream of here.

Heading to Awlinyak on a wonderful game trail on the crest of this old moraine. This avoids the gorge to its right and gives a good view of the West Fork Awlinyak trib across the valley.

Awlinyak Creek -- float this back to Alatna if you want to shorten your trip. Dave Weimer has an engaging story on his blog about paddling it.

Get high on the river right side of the unnamed Awlinyak trib coming in from the west to follow awesome caribou trails through Class III brush. Stay high for the next couple miles until the brush ends, sticking to the trails and resisting the ones that lead down to the horrible cobblestone bar.

The good trails stay high on the left. Do not get sucked down unless you enjoy cobble-hobbling.

Looking back at the lower West Fork Awlinyak trib and its brush with the Arrigetch behind, notably the big square block summit of Xanadu. Its right hand (W) ridge was climbed by Jon Krakauer in the 1970s.

Steve Hackett named these peaks the Little Arrigetch back in the early 1980s. It's a good name.

There is a sweet caribou trail leading up between the split West Fork Awlinyak trib, as you can see here.

Once in the tundra, follow the nose between the split tribs, veer right to scamble talus to a high meadow, then climb 500 feet over Talus Top Pass. The descent is done best by dropping straight down the other side. Bears use this pass and that's simply amazing. Follow meadows and rock hop to the left side of Skinny Bou Pass and follow more rocks to the tundra and slabs at the top of Kaluluktok.

The West Fork Finger of Fate rising above a hiker on the caribou trail on the moraine that splits the West Fork Awlinyak tributary.
Lichen and moss on boulders near a spring. The orange lichen is associated with high nitrogen levels where birds often perch.

Looking down the West Fork of the Awlinyak Creek toward the Arrigetch.

Descending Talus Top Pass is slow and laborious -- be careful, too.

Between Talus Top and Skinny Bou are dry meadows with good camping but no willows.

Rocks with green crustose lichen tend to be more stable than the rocks with the black leafy lichen.

The approach from the east is pretty easy and gentle.

Looking back up at the pass from the west side.

At the pass.


Looking back at Skinny Bou Pass teh talus is extensive. If you are good at rock hopping and have the right shoes and a light pack this goes pretty quickly.

Igikpak is the highest peak in the western Brooks Range and forms a glacial and snow source for the Noatak. It's twin peaked top has been climbed only a handful of times and is quite a dramatic summit.

The alpine country in the Arrigetch and Little Arrigetch have these nice tarns that invite swimming on hot days.

There are solid boulders among the talus and even bedrock that makes for great walking.

The bad thing about these high routes is the big talus, that stands at a steeper angle of repose than more southern stuff. Remarkably large rocks shift and tip and are quite startling. Thoughts of Arron Ralston frequently float into your head and psyche you out. The black lichen is slick as greased rubber in the rain and fog, so try to go light and pack the trekking poles away -- or if you have a grippy handle flip the pole upside down and use the grip for balance.

Between big piles of talus are strips and fields of tundra, sometimes grassy, other times filled with heather and lichen like this. The lichen gets slick in the rain as it has no roots and comes free. It's quite crunchy in the dry and makes for good fire starter.

This is Akabluak Pass, probably the best way to get to the Kobuk or Noatak drainages from the Alatna, via an unnamed valley just NW of Awlinyak. The caribou trails leading up to it are amazing, like rutted double track. That route would be the fastest but would be less interesting than the Arrigetch/Little Arrigetch route.

Looking down at Kaluluktok Creek, an upper trib of the Kobuk. About a thousand feet below here there is spruce, but just below here a few hundred feet is willow.

The biggest wall I have seen in the Little Arrigetch is this thousand foot monolith. In 1986 I walked over a pass just to its west, but getting to that pass required another pass that is not very good.

A nice tundra climb leads up to Mystery Pass over to the Noatak. The pass itself is full of big rocks and small, but these will be the last of the traverse, thankfully for sore feet.

The mystery spot, so named because it seems as if the water is flowing the wrong direction. Several travelers through here have commented on this optical illusion. The views are good, but the rocks to come are bad, if short -- the last ones, really.

Looking up at the pass to the Noatak. The pass is the saddle below the peak in the background. The best route drops into the gut here and scrambles over the rock glaciers debris. These are big, loose boulders.

Big, loose rocks. They required a lot of effort to maneuver around. Any bigger and we'd have been doing lead climbs.

Tupik Tower near Igikpak.

Looking back at Mystery Spot Pass from the Noatak side.

Descend to the Noatak and bar hop through mature willow bars as far as the big unnamed glacial creek coming in from Igigpak's east face on river left. The walking is great. If the water is high enjoy PR 3+ boulder gardens that are NZ-stle down to Lucky Six Creek. If the water is low, enjoy bar hopping and awesome game trails down to Lucky Six. Even at low water from here down is easy boating.

This is good PR3+ when water is high -- at low water, it doesn't go.

Hiking to runnable flow on a low water Noatak.

Igikpak in the clouds -- on the Noatak above Portage Creek.

"Siwash" -- a sourdough-style bivouac.

Fly out from any of a number of lakes near Portage Creek ("Pingo" or "Nelson Walker" or "12-mile Slough") or pick up additional food for the final, easy 100 miles to Ambler.

Paddling the "Sloatak" -- Noatak low.

At low water several parties find the "Sloatak" painful and instead walk on the dry mature bars as far as Nushralutak River opposite Lake Matcherak. Curiously there grizzly bears fish for chums on Kugruk River Katmai-style. Good bar-hopping and tundra with caribou trails leads to Nakmaktuak Pass. Stay on the rim on the left side until you can make your way through a brea in the limestone and descend to the upper Ambler. The views of the upper Ambler are beautiful and forested. Say good-bye to the tundra Arctic and hello to the Kobuk watershed.

Good walking leads to the first big gravel beds of the Ambler. Put in here for splashy PR 3 down to Ulaneak Creek or walk, your choice. Below the Ulaneak the river slows and then braids and really slows on its way to Ambler.

Fly out to Kotzebue or buy food and continue down the Kobuk River, restocked at Ambler and visit Onion Portage, Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, and maybe a side trip into Kobuk National Park's Salmon River, made famous in McPhee's book, Coming Into the Country.

You have just completed a trip twice as long as the John Muir Trail, longer than VT Long Trail, and just a bit shorter than the Colorado Trail. Perhaps the Brooks Range classic.

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