Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Treeline Traverse

Over the last five years or so, I've been studying treeline advance in the Brooks Range, leading me to assemble a route that I call "Walking Treeline" that pieces together a series of interesting segments between Canada and the Chukchi Sea. It's not a "through hike", but rather where my last several years of scientific research using very high resolution satellite imagery and ecological modeling, experiences hiking and packrafting in the Brooks Range spanning portions of six decades (70s, 80s, 90s, 00's, 10s, 20s), and airstrip locations have suggested where my companions, field workers, students, and I best see the advance of treeline in America's northernmost mountains. 

This summer, rather than connect the Arrigetch Peaks with the upper Noatak drainage via the Triple A ( or Arctic Circle ( routes, which cross some sketchy passes (in my opinion), and because I wanted to see how treeline was advancing in an area that seems very climate responsive, I checked out a new route shown here.

Also I'm sensitive now more than ever to giving route advice to people who take it---see "No Place for Novices" in the print quarterly Adventure Journal 21.

Along those lines, the creek/river crossings of Arrigetch Creek (slimey granite boulders), Awlinyak (wide, potentially high volume but not bouldery), the unnamed creek leading to Akabluak Pass (potentially high volume) and the unnamed stream leading up to the pass just south of Gull Pass (a lot of criss-cross, re-cross, cross and an un-hikeable gorge but with a great bear trail along its river left rim), as well as the hillside route-finding at the lower end of Lucky Six Creek are all difficult enough that this is not a route for novices. That is, if you think that hiking from Circle Lake to Arrigetch Valley is one of your more challenging days of hiking you have mustered, then this route may not yet be comfortably/safely within your ability. 

Nevertheless, I liked it a lot and this summer found it to be one of my favorite segments between the Hunt Fork of John River and Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Book we've all been waiting for....The Packraft Handbook by Luc Mehl and Sarah Glaser

It’s difficult to imagine a better pair of people to put together a packrafting handbook than author Luc Mehl and illustrator Sarah Glaser. Both were raised in Alaska—prime packraft habitat—with wilderness literally out their backdoors. Each epitomizes the multisport, super-safe, modern adventurer who is self-propelled and self-reliant, good-natured, with broad smiles and welcoming, all-inclusive dispositions that come across clearly in this delightful and informative book.

While I have only a passing personal acquaintance with Sarah, I truly admire her work. My serious packrafting bias aside, this handbook looks like it presents her best, most extensive, and most important work so far, because much of it concerns safety and technique on moving water. MIT-educated Mehl writes brilliantly and thoroughly about the science of modern wilderness adventure. Of course, he’s also a terrific photographer, and so in the vein of a classic William Nealy cartoon text like Kayak, the book you wil certainly soon be reading brings life to packrafting “how-to” through its collaboration of word and image.

A mutual friend introduced Luc and me during the summer of 2009 when the three of us rode our mountain bikes loaded with skis, ropes, and ice-axes on an overnight science trip to a local glacier. Of course, Luc’s strength, speed, and endurance impressed me as did his revelation that he’d just that year won the obscure ski race I’d founded 20 years before. Charmed by his enthusiasm, and knowing that winning an Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic put him in a certain class of adventurer, I liked him instantly.

That summer, Luc and I collided again, this time as competitors in the summer Wilderness Classic across a 180-mile route through the Alaska Range. For those unfamiliar with the event, it’s a carry-all-your-gear-and-food-needed-to-cross-a-wild-landscape full of mountains, rivers, bogs, brush, boulders, and bears, with no roads, no motors, no pack animals, nor outside assistance allowed, while going as fast as you want or can. The only required gear is a satellite phone. But, truth is, without a packraft it’s pretty tough to finish.

While Luc and I only traveled a short distance together, he again demonstrated his positive attitude and persistence. It was clear that Luc’s endurance and skills would make him a valuable partner worth inviting along sometime. But skiing glaciers and racing the Classic, while important interests in my 20s, were no longer the priority that testing the limits of whitewater packrafting had become to me in my 40s.

Fall 2009 we bumped into one another as members of a big group on splashy Bird Creek, a local whitewater creek with lots of fun little falls. Ever since 2003 when Alpacka Raft first began putting effort into making boats whitewater-worthy, my paddling partners Thai Verzone, Brad Meiklejohn, Tim Johnson (author of our local whitewater guidebook), Paul Schauer (all of whom appear in the book's pages) and I had pushed packrafting into regular runs of low-water Class IV creeks in small stubby boats that most kayakers derided as “sh**ty little Iks that only pussies paddle.”

While Luc has become the familiar face of Alaskan packrafting, Brad Meiklejohn has been the true silent force behind the modern packrafting movement. He'd suggested that we run the epic Talkeetna River, a real river (not a low water creek) and a wilderness fly-in one at that. All of us on Bird Creek who’d be going to the Talkeetna the following weekend were impressed by Luc’s gung-ho attitude and perma-grin, especially after overheating in his brand-new red drysuit, when he cliff-jumped into a deep pool and swam to the other side to cool off. I asked Brad what he thought about Luc coming along. Given the go-ahead, I invited Luc to join us. In some ways, that trip brought Luc into the Alaskan whitewater packrafting fold.

It was a superlative weekend, with great weather (if frosty), great rapids, and great friends, like JT Lindholm Tony Perelli, and Becky King. At one point in the Talkeetna's Canyon, Brad commented, “We really need to roll these things like a kayak. That’ll take us to another level.”

Not a week later, I sold Tim Johnson my son’s old Alpacka. Tim promptly glued thigh-straps into the blue boat and as soon as the glue had dried, he took it out into an ice-encrusted stream and rolled it!

And that was it. We all glued thigh straps into our boats and went to the pool to learn our rolls. Thus began the Bronze Age of packrafting with Luc there from the beginning, taking what we’d been doing and following Tim Johnson to the next level of packrafting, just as Brad had predicted.

Over the following three years Tim and Paul Schauer, natural-born boaters, led Luc and the rest of us down southcentral Alaska’s classic runs pioneered by Andrew Embick as “Class V”, as well as the modern test-pieces of their generationand the one right before Tim and Paul (e.g., Montana Creek, Tin Can, Upper Willow, Upper Bird, Disappointment, East Fork Iron Creek, Ingram).

While the excitement of whitewater seemed necessary for Luc, it was certainly not sufficient. In a string of unprecedented adventures over three consecutive years (2011, 2012, and 2013), he assembled teams of eager participants to combine skis, boats, and even bikes for grand traverses across North America’s three tallest mountains using modified Wilderness Classic rules. Leaving the road, Luc lead his groups into, up, over, and down Alaska's Denali, Canada's Logan, and Mexico's Orizaba, in each case exiting back to near sea level via packraft.

This book, with its emphasis on a culture of safety and vigilance informed by a decade of experience during the steepest growth of whitewater packrafting development, marks the sport's entry into its true Golden Age. We are lucky that Luc pushed pause on hsi data science career to guide the packrafters of the world to yet another level.

So, read this great book, stare at the fantastic illustrations, and enjoy the writing, the art, the stories, the advice, and feel secure in the knowledge that Luc and Sarah have engaged over a dozen of the best packrafters and kayakers in Alaska to contribute and vette content that captures a wealth of knowledge and experience in simple prose, awesome call-outs, beautiful photography, and clear illustrations.

It’s the book we’ve all been waiting for.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Alaskan Wilderness Travel Dial-style as of 15 years ago...but not too outdated!

 Powerpoint from 2005, when I tried to impress Ned Rozell with my semi-quantitative ideas for Alaskan wilderness travel based on concepts from ecology and mathematical models...didn't really work, but some of you might be interested in what I said about river crossings in Alaska, finindg and holding game trails, vegetation patterns relative to travel, and a mathematical model for how far can you go fastest (previous to Arctic1000) all based on forty years and about 12,000 miles back then.

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