Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dirk and Erin's Denali Adventure

Dirk and Erin’s Denali Adventure began on the 25th of May with our arrival in Anchorage. After securing our rental car we were on our way! Erin’s friends, Miranda and Brody opened their house to us and we spent the night of the 25th running some errands and just chilling out in Anchortown for the night. We met Erin’s roommate Christina and her friend Richard for dinner and returned back to Miranda and Brody’s early so we could get an early start for Fairbanks the next morning.
We woke up the next morning and after eating breakfast and getting some beer for Miranda and Brody (it’s the Wisconsin way of reciprocating hospitality) we were packed up and on the road by 10 am. However, we didn’t leave Anchorage until well after noon. Dirk’s dog, Katja, having a sore tummy from dumpster diving and feeling a little ill from the motions of the car decided to throw up…three times. We had to stop three separate times to clean up the mess and finally stopped at Fred Meyer and bought some Dramamine for her. After feeding a pill hidden in peanut butter we were once again on our way.
Apparently, the drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks takes about 6 hours. We made it in 10 due to stops in Talkeetna, Denali and frequent doggie breaks. We arrived in Fairbanks around 10 pm and easily found Pat’s house. Pat was Dirk’s teacher mentor this past year and is awesome! She opened her house up to us and was so cool about letting us come and go. We spent two nights there and prepared for our big adventure into Denali.
Dirk has a thing for trains and insisted on taking the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Denali. We had decided to board the dogs at a place called the Holy Dog Ranch. The name apparently has something to do with the introduction of horses into native cultures in Alaska. Since the majority of people then used dogs for work when the horse was introduced the natives were amazed by it’s size and called it the "holy dog". The people at the kennel also boarded horses and therefore called the ranch the Holy Dog Ranch. Since our train was early on the 28th we had to bring our four legged friends to the Ranch the night before. We woke up early on the 28th and headed to the Fairbanks Depot.
The train ride down to Denali was amazing. The scenery was beautiful. Other passengers on the train provided endless amusement. Our favorite passenger was the one who boarded the train confused as to whether she was the engineer or the passenger. She wore head to toe engineer’s stripes, an engineer’s cap, and top off the ensemble with a little red handkerchief in her back pocket. Her long blonde hair had been curled in little ringlets and hung down her back. She was traveling with a man named Mike (whom we called "The Professor" –because he looked like a professor) and halfway through the train ride approached Mike with a souvenir bubble blower/train whistle in the shape of a train. She then made him blow bubbles and try out the whistle. She was cool.
We arrived in Denali around noon and set about organizing our trip into the backcountry. We hiked down to the Backcountry information Center (BIC) to plan our trip. Denali is over 2 million acres in size and is split up into perhaps 32 or 33 "units" of varying size. When planning a backcountry trip people have to decide not only which unit they want to explore but also when they will be in said unit. After studying a binder full of descriptions and pictures of each unit and staring a ginormous wall map we had our trip planned out. We would spend that night in Unit 26, then take the bus down to Unit 7, hike into Unit 6 then take the bus back down to Unit 25.
Once we had made our itinerary we had to fill out paperwork that informed the BIC of our previous on and off trail hiking experience, the color of our clothes, packs and tent as well as emergency contract information. After the ranger approved our itinerary and our paperwork we were sent into another room to watch a backcountry safety video. The video informed us of all sorts of important things, like how to cross a stream safely, how to set up our camp, how to store our food and how to deal with a bear encounter and a bear interaction. In fact, much of the video focused on bear encounters and interactions that left us feeling a littler nervous but pretty pumped to get out there.
While we had been watching the video our handy backcountry ranger had processed all our paperwork and had printed off our backcountry permit. He handed us our Bear Resistant Food Container (BRFC) and sent us on our merry way.
Now armed with our BRFC we hiked back us to the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) and tore our packs apart in order to accommodate the BRFC. We had about 2 hours before our bus left to bring us to our first unit and spent that time rearranging our food and other supplies. After sawing the ends of our toothbrushes off we were pleased to see that we had crammed our entire food supply as well as all hygiene products into one BRFC. After we were all packed up again we called our mothers to tell them if they didn’t hear from us by June 2nd to call Denali to initiate a search and rescue mission. Erin’s mother seemed really concerned about bears but was relieved when Erin informed her that they would be carrying bear spray.
We met our bus and rode it out to Savage River. Since it was late in the afternoon we had decided that we would hike in a short ways and set up camp, make dinner and get a good night’s sleep so we would be rested our the big hike the next day. Since it had started raining/snowing out the going was a little slow. We were also dismayed to find out that our plan was being foiled by steep terrain. After hiking for a couple of hours we decided to climb up the slope to see if we could find some flat ground to set up camp. On the way up we encountered a local who informed us as best he could that flat ground at that elevation was pretty much nonexistent. We eventually found what looked like a good place as any to set up camp and once the tent was up we made dinner. Since we were both cold and wet dinner was an exciting process. It delayed however when Dirk decided to go the bathroom and knocked over our stove, pan, and all the boiling water. Eventually our first meal, veggie lasagna was cooked and we crawled into the tent tired and excited by the upcoming adventure.
The night was long. Not only was it a little chilly but also we each woke up about a million times to crawl out of the bottom of the tent and to find a place to wedge ourselves in at the top of the tent. Once settled, we would drift off to sleep only to awaken to find ourselves at the bottom of the tent a short time later. This delightful process continued throughout the evening, which resulted in very little sleep for either one of us.
The next morning we had a quick breakfast of oatmeal, packed up camp and hiked back to the road to meet our bus. Our bus driver’s name that day was Sam and Sam was very cool. After showing him the map of where we wanted to go he dropped us off at a little ranger cabin on the East Fork of the Toklat River. We hiked down to the cabin as snowflakes began to fall. We decided to eat a quick lunch and set up on the tiny little porch in back of the ranger cabin. We watched, as the snowflakes quickly became a mini snowstorm, which dumped about an inch of snow in about 15 minutes. After lunch Erin went off to use the little out house that was near the cabin. When she emerged a short time later Dirk was standing there and excitedly pointed up the trail a little way. There, about a hundred yards away was a much larger cabin with a much larger, cleaner, and well-covered porch. A short distance away from that, he explained excitedly, was a "pimp daddy privy". Erin, not believing him went to investigate and sure enough, there was a much nicer out house than the one she had just used.
We had decided to follow the East Fork up to the head of the drainage to see if we could see some glaciers that were back there. The hike up the braided riverbed was amazing. We had a few small streams to cross and there was plenty of ice still remaining that we had to cross carefully. At one point Dirk stopped in the trail and pointed at some bushes and said something was moving in there. After seeing a flash of brown we both froze and whispered. "BEAR!" The flash of brown turned out to be caribou and we stood quietly as we watched about 15 caribou cross the ice pack. Once most of the caribou were out of the way we continued walking. A few stragglers were still hanging around and a few circled back around to check us out.
After the caribou encounter we continued our†hike on the riverbed. The rocks were quite large and eventually our feet began to feel sore from walking on such uneven ground. We started looking around for a place to make camp that night and agreed that the first flat spot we found would be our stopping point. One of the backcountry rules is that you can camp anywhere as long as you are at least a half-mile away from and out of sight of the road. Since Denali is largely tundra and quite open it is much harder to be out of sight of the road than one would think. Although we had hiked about 4 or 5 miles by that point we could still see the road off in the distance. We spotted what looked to be a nice spot of tundra a little ways ahead and found to our delight that not only was it flat but we were tucked out of sight of the road as well. We quickly set up camp. Dirk was putting his sleeping bag in the tent and Erin was eating a Clif bar when Erin looked up and saw a fox right in front of her. Unable to communicate due to the large amount of granola in her mouth she proceeded to get his attention by kicking him directly in the ass with her hiking boot. He quickly whipped around ready to retaliate only to see Erin, mouth full, trying not to laugh, pointing at something in front of her. It was a nice fox.
After dinner we hiked further up the riverbed to investigate Pendleton Glacier. As soon as we set out another snowstorm set in and it lasted the entire hike. It was nice to walk without our packs on. Although the rocks still hurt our feet we covered quite a bit of ground before turning around to head back to camp.
That night was bliss. We were lying flat on a soft bed of tundra. We slept well and when we awoke the next morning we were greeted by a clear sky and bright sunshine. We made breakfast, filtered some more water and planned our venture from Unit 7 into Unit 6.
To move from Unit 7 to Unit 6 we had to walk around the backside of Cathedral Mountain and cross some low ridges. We crossed the riverbed once more and started our ascent. The open landscape of Denali makes judging distances difficult at times. From looking at the map the distance between Unit 7 and Unit 6 didn’t seemed feasible However, once we were on the ridge line and looked across to see snowfield after snowfield we knew we would have our work cut out for us that day.
Most of the day was spent walking across three ridgelines intermittently covered with snow. We had to walk lightly across the snowfields because breaking through the snow meant crawling out of hip deep snow to try to find solid footing again. Although it was irritating to continuously sink into hip deep snow we had a lot of fun playing around. Dirk threw snowball after snowball at Erin and thought he was quite funny. Erin didn’t think so. After negotiating across some partially frozen streams we found ourselves at the top of the final ridge and the Teklanika Riverbed was below us.
Getting down to the riverbed was trickier than we thought. As we walked down we had to navigate around many small lakes and observed some magnificent architectural feats by the local beaver population. We also found a kick ass caribou rack in the tundra.
Once down into the riverbed we started to hike down it. After hiking for a couple of miles we stopped to make camp and once again were excited to be sleeping on flat ground. Dinner that evening was Turkey Tetrazzini and both Dirk and Erin gave it two thumbs up. It was by far the best meal we had the entire week. Since both of us were exhausted we crawled into our sleeping bags early and then tried to remember how to play card games. Our conversation that night went something like this…
"Do you know how to play Kings Around the Corner?"
"Hmmm…I don’t really remember how to play either."
"Do you know how to play Cutback?"
"Let me think. I can’t remember how to play."
It was stimulating. So stimulating that we put the cards away early and went to sleep.
The next morning the sun was shining again and we tenderly touched our sun burnt faces and asked each other how we looked. After assuring each other that we looked stunning (as always) sporting our summer looks we cleaned up camp and headed out for another day.
Our plan for the day was to hike up the Teklanika River and then cut across through the woods. Dirk was pumped because we had some pretty decent sized river crossings to deal with that day. Dirk likes water…just in case there is someone out there who doesn’t know that. The entire time we were out there Dirk would walk by rivers and stare at the water and then look at me and say, "I bet there are some fish in there." It was quite charming actually.
After walking for a little while and getting our feet wet we came to our last big obstacle…the tundra!!
Dirk became excited by the prospect of bushwhacking out way back to the road. He took out his compass and after looking at the map we decided our course and with a few yells of "Hey bear", we began our trek to the road.
After awhile Dirk offered a quick orienteering course to Erin and in a few shakes of a lamb’s tail Erin was leading the way. Dirk had told Erin to pick a point off in the distance, walk to that point and then to use the compass to find another point and walk to that one. It was quite a simple process. However, since Erin has an attention span of a gnat the simple process was complicated by the fact that she kept losing her reference point. She would pick one out and as they began walking towards it she would forget which tree was her reference point. Instead of stopping and taking another point of reference (which would have been the smart thing to do) Erin just pretended she knew where she was going. When she felt she had walked in the general direction for long enough she would stop and then find another reference point. Then, once on the right track again she would begin to walk towards the next reference point. She would then promptly lose the reference point. This lasted about an hour or so and when Erin got tired of compassing she handed it back off to Dirk who did a much better and more accurate job of leading the way.
After walking for a little while more we finally hit a trail and we knew we were close to the road. We followed the trail around until we came to a stream. We could see Igloo Campground on the other side and as we looked at the rushing water Dirk immediately began to develop an intricate plan as to how we would cross this body of water. It was Erin who pointed out that since there was an established trail on the shore opposite of the campground that there must be a footbridge or path across the stream. Sure enough, after walking about another hundred feet upstream Dirk and Erin came to a nice bridge.
As we climbed up towards the bridge it was a bittersweet moment for we knew our Denali adventure was almost over. The sun was shining bright and as we lay down in the grass to rest and soak up some sun it was almost impossible to imagine that we had been in a snowstorm only two nights earlier. We ate some lunch in the presence of some Michiganders and just talked (as if we hadn’t done enough of that in the last few days). We slowly packed up out lunch and walked down to the road to meet our bus back to the WAC.
After getting on the bus we sat where our body odor would cause the least amount of distress to those around us. We finally got to see a moose from the bus window. We had decided earlier to not stay in the backcountry for one more night. Instead we rode the bus to the BIC, turned in our bear canister and caught another shuttle to the Riley Creek Campground. After setting up camp we walked to the mercantile and bought some beer and ice cream and sat outside in the sun eating and drinking and doing some more talking. Erin carried the heavy load of firewood back to the campground. And after she unloaded her burden the two of them enjoyed eating dinner by the fire and drank yet another beer or two. The fire died out quickly and afterwards we walked down to check out Riley Creek.
We finally figured out some card games that night and spent some time in the tent talking some more and playing cards. We got the maps out (something that had become a nightly ritual) and instead of planning our route for the next day we looked at where we had been. We also got the camera out and looked at our pictures from that day (another nightly ritual). After a little while we drifted off to sleep, anxious to see our dogs the next day, amazed at how much fun we just had and already thinking about our next adventure.