Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Summer 2010: The Core of Man's Spirit Comes From New Experiences – Jon Krakauer

Alaska. The dream state. Home of the tallest mountain in North America. A place where close-mindedness and unintelligence are good virtues for being Governor. Home of the Kodiak brown bear the largest bears in the world. This state is the closest place I have to call home after living there since 2008, but arriving early May of 2010, the place felt foreign. Everything was brown, it was still cold. I found myself in a coffee shop, writing in my journal, where I wrote in that same journal when I first arrived, where I researched my travels to South America, and where I prepared for my road trip out of Alaska. I loved that coffee shop, and it was that place, not Alaska, or Anchorage, or even Denali, that had the closest feeling of home or at least familiarity.

I was sadly not as psyched for this particular run in Alaska, which ended up affecting a lot of the time up there. However, despite my ill feelings to the summer, some amazingly splendid adventures were had, friendships formed or became stronger, conquered some serious records, and had more personal growth than than all the Alaska veggies in the land of the midnight sun. I hiked some grand hikes and biked some grand bikes. I climbed upon glacial erratics that had been left behind on the top of a mountain by a former glacier, and saw the elusive lynx for the first time. This was the year of wolves, and I was graced by the presence of many.

First big adventure was my epic bike ride across the entire park road, 92 miles long, from the old mine town of Kantisha to the little dorm area. I like to think that my roommate, Dorothy, and I popularized the route even though it was tradition for many to ride it on solstice overnight since it is light out the entire time. That seemed to be more for the hardcore bikers, but after Doro and I did the ride suddenly every weekend it seemed someone was planning the trip... and some didn't make it. Doro and I planned to do it in two days, not one like most, to really take it in. I had warmed up by doing some rides along the road during the day, taking the bus in with a borrowed bike, getting dropped off somewhere and biking out. I noticed that my knees were starting to give me problems and hoped it was a random occurance.

The day of the ride was June 21st, solstice. We loaded up our gear and bikes onto a later camper bus and relaxed for the five and a half hours of bus ride. We arrived at the mosquito ridden end of road, the furthest you can drive west in the USA on connected roads (You could drive there from the farthest island of the Keys in Florida where all the roads on the West coast of Alaska or in Hawaii you have to fly to). The idea was the bike through the night, after the buses have stopped running so we have full reign of the road. We would stay the night at Toklat (a rest stop along the park road and a place for some of the western park rangers) with friends who were doing the same ride but starting in a different destination. I blew my back tire around mile seven, and having only watched tubes be replaced. It was an interesting test to figure out how on the spot and to do it fast because the mosquitoes were eating me alive. The weather could not have been more perfect! Denali was out the entire time we could see it, glazed in alpenglow.

The majority of that ride was uphill and the knee problem flared like an evil monster incredibly pissed from being woken from a deep sleep. It was my left knee and it hurt when I peddled down. I had to walk part of some of the longer uphill portions because the pain became too much and I was worried I wouldn't be able to make it all the way. Our first rest stop was Eielson Visitor Center, mile 62 on the park road, and 30 miles for us coming from the end. We luckily were able to go inside for warmth to eat and rest. We were surprised to find that we had a friend there, our neighbor Sean who was out hiking and missed the last bus. It was something like 2am and he was hanging out till the buses started in the morning. It was a funny encounter and after some food sharing and stretching Dorothy went out again for the remainder of our ride, another 9 miles.

I ended up deciding to pump almost entirely with my right leg since my left leg was useless. Ah, the mental conflict I endured, trying to tell myself to keep going even though I wanted to stop. I did not want to come all this way, have perfect weather over a solstice on days I managed to line up off of work with my adventurous roomie to not finish, I had to do this, even if only on one leg! Mile 39 (mile 53 from entrance) Toklat, an amazing site. Of course our friend's cabin had to be one of the farthest back, but boy was it amazing to get there, rub some kind of balm over our sore muscles and sleep through the day.

At Toklat

We started close to 6pm the following day, leaving ourselves the opportunity to catch two or so buses leaving the park in case I found my knee pain to be too much. I was determined though, and this was going to harbor a lot of insanely fun downhill portions of the road (after conquering their insanely uphill before them). We waved at a lot of buses as they left and peddled on. Once we were at Polychrome, mile 68 for us/mile 26 on park road) Doro and I had a mini celebration because we have officially ridden the entire road in increments. We road from Polychrome to the park entrance in 2008.

Polychrome Overlook

We got home at 2:40am, with sore butts, and one bull moose napping as our only decent wildlife viewing. Stairs were my nemesis for a while, but we did it, we road the park road and I did it on one leg. And then went to work at 8am the next day.

Second bike ride of the summer was the elaborately planned Old Denali Highway 136 miles long. Four people, four bikes, two caches, two cars, great weather = victory. Two boys, John and Malcom, drove to the entrance of Old Denali Highway (ODH), parked their car and headed on bikes to the other end. Dorothy and I drove Doro's car all the way to the other end dropping off two caches (food, tents, gear) under predetermined bridges on our way out for all four of us. We park the car at the other end and start biking towards Cantwell where the boys started. The plan was we would meet the boys after the first day and camp together where one of the caches were left. They were doing this in two days, but Doro and I were doing it in three. They were going to drive out Doro's car picking up one of the caches on the way and we would take the boys' car when we got to the other end.

The ride went insanely well despite so many possibilities of things going wrong. I had knee problems again, and again used my right leg to pull through. Our butts became sore almost immediately so starting after a break was the worst part. We stopped at a bed and breakfast of sorts where we heard there was free coffee. We were dreaming of bacon as we walked into it, discovered food would not be served, but we enjoyed coffee, lemonade, a flush-able toilet and running water, and the kind company of local Alaskan folk. Dorothy always road ahead of me so we saw different things. On the first ride she saw a wolf dart off the road, but on this ride I saw a black red tail fox cross the road. They are all called red tailed foxes, but some of them are darker in color. I was in a daze when I saw him saunter out because my head was thinking “black cat” until I came to and thought “why would a cat be out in the middle of the Alaska wilderness? He looked at me coming toward him, didn't like the idea I was moving and quickly exited the road. The picture featured is another fox I saw a different day. I also watched a porcupine cross the road, scratch himself, and waddle away. Here's the video I took of him:

Finding our second cache was a cinch, slept well again, dumped EVERYTHING on our bikes for the last and easiest leg. I had saddle bags on my bike and I was so happy to get them off. I was flying without all that weight! We got to John's car, drove back for the last cache and went home triumphant from another successful ride. However, I learned with sadness that my knee problem is chronic and the pain was pretty excruciating the whole way. I realized I would never be able to do a tour on a bike.

Glaciers in the distance, a view from the Old Denali Highway.

The last ride of the summer was the most epic of all. But before that epic ride I had managed to complete a few awesome hikes. My favorite hike of the summer was a seven hour odyssey, that was actually a mistake. I thought it was hike people had done before, alas, I was wrong and found ourselves in some sticky situations that I loved so much, but my hiking buddy did not. We walked straight up a creek to the top of a mountain and the plan was to walk the ridge line to another mountain and go down an established trail. We planned for four hours. Whoops.

I also hiked up to the erratics visible from the entrance of the park. Some parts of that hike I felt like I was in Ireland, there were fine green ferns everywhere. My buddy ate bad blueberries and threw them up, but soldiered on. It was whole days worth of hiking, but playing around those massive massive boulders was worth it. The picture below are the glacial erratics with me between them. You may have to squint and find the red dot that is me.

I saw my first lynx too! On top of that I was wowed once again by the red fall tundra that turns the park into something equivalent to a bed of roses.

Top of Divide Mountain looking out at Denali

“There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and the music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more.”
- Lord Byron

By now most people know the movie and the book Into the Wild. It's about a guy, Chris McCandless who dreamed of surviving by his own wits in Alaska wilderness and ultimately died in a bus. The popular book and movie brought attention to that bus, known to some as the Magic Bus, and people have been going out to it to pay their respects, or just to feel cool about being in a place someone died. Sadly the bus isn't in the state Chris left it in, and countless people had to be rescued in their attempts due to a treacherous river crossing. Just a month before we went a girl drowned because she tied herself to a rope set up by someone else and tried to cross, slipped, and got sucked under the current. Sounds like a challenge and I accept.

This time around I borrowed a different bike that was WAY to big for me, but grateful to have a bike nonetheless. There were four of us again: Dorothy, Justin, John from the ODH ride, and myself. Another perfect day. So it seems as I blog we have nothing but great days in the interior, but I assure you it rained a ridiculous amount that summer. I was just super lucky all my epic events were accompanied by great clear days. We could see the mountain from where we were at certain times it was amazing.

The Magic Bus lays along the Stampede trail which lays in a nook not deemed part of the National Park. It is a trail meant for hunters on four wheelers. No other kind of vehicle can go past the Teklanika river, and we were attempting this crazy terrain on bicycles. This was as close to mountain biking I have ever been on. The trail was rugged and pitted with huge pools of water knee deep and up to 50 feet long. We would gain momentum to hit the pools to try to have enough inertia to get across without stopping. We would sometimes hit rocks we couldn't see and would then have to walk the rest of the way. I believe the round trip mileage for this adventure was around 40 miles, but because of the terrain and some terrifying river crossing, we estimated it to be a 10 hour round trip ride.

First river crossing was Savage. It was a bit swift, but low and not intimidating. Justin comically attempted to ride across and I laughed as he failed and fell over. It wasn't long before we were at the river of our nightmares: The Teklanika. The river that Chris failed to cross when he tried to leave the bus and come home which ultimately led to his death. The river the French girl drowned in a month earlier. I am the shortest of the four, Justin was the tallest. He crossed at the first point the trail hit the river, we watched him struggle a bit with the bike over his shoulder and swift water pushing past him, rising to his waist. The three of us who wanted to live decided to look for a better, safer spot to cross.

We found a point where the river widened out a bit more and there was an island in the middle meaning we would get a rest between two attempts to get all the way across. I didn't say anything but inside I was freaking out. I wasn't sure I could balance in this water on top of carrying a heavy bike over my shoulder. I didn't want to think about it and just wanted to go. Dorothy had the same idea and started her trek to the island. She was almost across when she stumbled over a rock and went down. Both her and the bike swept away with amazing speed down the river and John and I followed from the bank. We watched to see if she would find her footing and get up. I heard gurgling of water as her head dipped below the surface, but she managed to sand up, right next the wall of the island. She threw up her bike and got out of the water. Later she told me she refused to let go of the bike which is why it took a while to stand up. Her knees looked like someone took a bat to them and she was shaken up something fierce. Dorothy, the ballsiest female I know who I only aspire to match half her awesomeness was shaken up. Well crap.

Luckily Justin and John helped get the bikes across so I didn't need to carry it when I crossed to the island. I got the part that Dorothy lost her footing in, it got a bit deeper. It's not like you're just walking across rocks as swift moving water pushes against you, my feet were never stable on those rocks, they would slide across the tops of them. It was like walking with wheels on your shoes that spun on their own accord and you had to walk into wind. I wasn't sure which I wanted to do more, crap myself or pass out just before conquering the second leg of that stupid river. I crossed singing to myself, feeling my feet glide across the tops of the rocks as I maneuvered step by step across the river. Once on the other side, no joy was felt, for we all knew we had to do the same thing on the way back only more tired than we were now. The river crossing drained all our happy energy out of us, and we trudged on simply because that's what we were there to do. We were only half way to the bus.

The rest of the trek wasn't easy either, biking over big boulders, up and down rugged terrain. I lost my balance a lot because the bike was so big and my back hurt because I wasn't long enough for the bike and road it like superman flies. We came upon the bus like it was just a stop in the road, “oh. There it is.” No one went in right away, we sat down and munched on food. After some waiting we slowly began to explore. Inside the bus was pretty bare. There was a sheet on the bed that looked clean, obviously not the sheet Chris died on. The inner shell of the bus was wallpapered with names and dates people scratched in after visiting. Someone stole the dashboard and sold it on Ebay a few years ago, there was a folding chair for a driver's seat. Chris' suitcase was there though, and had notebooks left by Jon Krakauer himself. He had visited the bus twice, once with Chris' sister Carine who had also wrote some poems in the notebooks along with pictures from their childhood. It was a very cool experience but I never felt moved by the location like I thought I would. Maybe I was too tired and scared by the river crossing to let myself go in the moment. We got our standard pictures in front of the bus mimic the famous one Chris took in '92 and I got a head-start going back because I wanted to walk through some of the rougher patches.

I mentioned that the trek out of the back-country in Yosemite was the most famished I'd ever been, but I lied. The return trek from the Magic Bus was. We were racing the sun, which we knew we wouldn't beat. We got to the Tek before sunset though and the boys carried the bikes across for us ladies again, and John paired up with me to cross the first second in twos. It was so much easier. The second part, the part Dorothy lost her footing, was debated over for a long time. We found rope at the bus and decided to take it. We took turns holding the road at either end as someone crossed. I was the last to cross and was scared because the water in this particular spot would go very high on my short body. It pushed up to my belly button with so much force I caused a lot of slack in the rope that was only being held onto by humans, not trees with thick roots, but I made it. Ah, there is that joy I was anticipating! It's easy riding form here! Oh wait, no it's not. The sun is almost gone and we still have a long way to go and it's difficult riding!

The light went away fast and the temperature dropped just as fast, leaving us to motivate continuous moving just to keep warm. Being dry was never an option as those huge pools spotted the trail all the way to where we parked the car. I walked most of the way back by the light of my dim headlamp. The few times I tried to ride I would hit a rock and barely catch myself from falling. It was cold and I couldn't use my fingers to change gears anymore. I could see my breath in the air and I was drenched head to toe. We were all spaced out on the way back, but I managed to catch up with Dorothy and Justin who had stopped for some reason with their headlamps off. I courteously turned mine off to not blind them when I realized they were staring at the sky. The Northern Lights had decided to make an appearance. This was one of the best viewings of the lights I've ever seen. Part of the sky just had a dull green glow that didn't move much, but another part show cased the curtain type of Northern Lights that move and wiggle across the sky. I thought about taking a picture but decided I was too damn cold and it was too much trouble. This had to remain a memory.

Our 10 hour round trip ended up being 14 hours, and I wasted no time stripping out of my wet clothes into dry ones as soon as I got to the car. At home in my bed, in my half sleep, I kept dreaming I was biking into those pools and felt the sensation of hitting the water and slowing. A few times I woke up to myself grabbing the bed after having the sensation of falling. That was most definitely the most epic adventure I have had.

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