Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Alaska!!!

The mosquito bites still itch, but I don't taste the DEET anymore when I lick my lips. It's hard to believe that just a few days ago, I was on a ridge overlooking Denali (aka Mt. McKinley), worried about a large black bear that seemed to think we were camped out on his berry patch.

I just returned from vacation in in Alaska with Jesper and his Dad, Ole. It was amazing.

Jesper and I have wanted to do an epic, active, outdoorsy trip with his Dad for several years. At 65, Ole is in great shape and he loves to hike and play in some pretty rugged terrain, so we were free to plan a physically rigorous trip. We selected Alaska because Ole, who has been almost everywhere on the planet, had not been there yet and Jesper and I had it on our "list" as well. We have been talking about a trip together for years and began making firm plans as early as late 2009, researching where exactly to go, then booking flights and reserving gear.

No - we did not go on a cruise. Our trip had two very active and outdoorsy phases:

1. Sea kayaking (and overnight camping) in Prince William Sound among the glaciers
2. Backpacking (and overnight camping) in Denali Sate Park just outside of Denali National Park, with views of Denali (Mt. McKinley) and the Alaska Range

Both Jesper and I (and his Dad) have done a lot of backpacking. We all felt pretty confident about what to bring and what to expect on that phase of the trip. None of us had done an overnight sea kayaking trip, especially one of several days in what could be an inhospitable and remote area. Well, I have done several overnight paddling expeditions, but in the context of adventure racing, where the objective is to go fast and not carry much. For our vacation, we were much more interested in traveling in comfort, relatively speaking. Some of our planning worked out very well; some of it not so well. Suffice it to say, we learned a lot for our next sea kayaking trip.

Jesper's parents flew to Colorado from Denmark a few days before Jesper, Ole and I needed to fly to Alaska. We spent the time introducing Vibeke, Jesper's Mom, to Strleka, our Rhodesian Ridgeback. Vibeke, who has no interest in tromping around for days with a pack on her back or paddling a kayak filled with gear, would be staying at our house watching Strelka while we were off in the wilds. We cannot thank her enough for taking such good care of our puppy and our home.

Early in the morning on Saturday, July 24th, we gave Vibeke and Strelka hugs and kisses and headed off to the airport with an enormous pile of gear. The luggage fees were going to add up on this trip. We flew directly to Anchorage and arrived to cloudy weather, just ready to spit rain. Apparently, the weather this summer in Alaska had been inordinately rainy; maybe we should have planned our trip on a Non-El Nino year.

We spent Saturday in the booming metropolis of Anchorage, enjoying fresh seafood and one of our rare nights in a hotel this trip. We awoke very early Sunday morning to make the drive to the small fishing village of Whittier on Prince William Sound. There we met up with Perry from the Prince William Kayak Center, where we rented kayaks and other essential gear we did not bring with us. A steady drizzle had begun and Perry concurred that it had been a very rainy summer. In addition to boats, paddles and PFDs, Perry and his staff provided us with additional dry bags and a big black tarp to use to help stay dry and to ward off the mosquitoes; apparently the bugs are attracted to to the tarp and not your body. Perry also outfitted us with Helly Hansen waterproof fisherman's bibs (yes - just like the kind the seafood counter guys at Whole Foods wear) and rubber boots. These items were life savers!

Finally, we had everything and we headed down to the marina to meet up with Capt. Gerry Sanger of Sound Eco Adventures. We had booked Capt. Gerry well in advance for a combination glacier/whale watching tour and water taxi out into Prince William Sound, from where we would take 3 days to paddle back to Whittier. Unfortunately, the conditions were worsening and Capt. Gerry made the call to cancel the tour part of the excursion. He was able to taxi us and our boats/gear out to a beach close to our originally selected drop off location, where he unloaded us on a rocky beach. We were bummed not to go on the tour, as it would have been a great opportunity to see some areas we would not be able to paddle to. However, we understood the priority of safety first and appreciate that he taxied us out in such bad weather.


Unloading the kayaks on a lonely stretch of beach

So, there we were on a cold, rainy beach in a remote area of Alaska, miles from civilization. We were a bit stymied as to what to do, since we were at our drop off location hours before we had intended to get there. We scoped out what looked like a decent place to set up camp and decided to stay put until the next day, hoping the weather would improve. It did not. In fact, it continuously rained hard and harder, a cold 45-ish degree rain.

We set up tents and the big tarp and then gathered 'fire wood'. Everything was saturated from the weeks of unending precipitation. I had brought along a jacket I thought was waterproof; however, it was clearly only water resistant and that was not enough for the kind of rain we were experiencing. And I had an insulating layer made of down, which was useless once wet. Big mistake; cold water soaked into the layers beneath my jacket. Wet to the skin, despite my waterproof pants, I sat under the tarp while Jesper valiantly attempted to start a fire. Jesper is very good at starting camp fires, but the sopping wet wood and the continued torrential rain proved his downfall. I would have given anything for a roaring fire....

Our first kayaking campsite during a brief lull in the torrential rain

We decided to get dinner going under another tarp located away from our sleeping area (for bear protection). We dined on our only fresh meal of the trip; steaks that had been frozen and thawing all day, sautéed veggies and instant mashed potatoes. As all meals are when you are out in the elements, it was quite tasty.

After dinner, we crawled into what we thought would be a warm dry tent. Unfortunately, the saturated ground beneath the water proof floor of our tent (under which was a brand new tarp we had purchased from REI in Anchorage that had holes in it) was soaking up through the floor. The result was that our sleeping pads, then our sleeping bags and finally our dry clothes gradually became wetter and wetter. Note to self - do not bring down sleeping bags (all we have), or down ANYTHING on a trip to Alaska ever again. It was not a warm night, but Jesper and I zipped our bags together and managed to get some sleep.

We could hear the rain on the tent wall all night and we woke up to what had to be even worse weather than the previous day. It was raining harder, it was colder and we could hardly see anything around us; we were that socked in.

To say I was cold is such a complete understatement; it's hard to describe the intense feeling of being wet and cold to the core for hours on end, teetering on the edge (over the edge) of hypothermia. I am no wussy, but if the weather didn't improve and allow me to get some of my clothes dry, I was considering paddling straight back to Whittier. In the end, my desire not to ruin our long-planned vacation lead me to agree to paddle away from Whittier, down into Blackstone Bay. We figured the paddling might get me warm. I was hoping we would not need to use the 911 function on the SPOT as a result of our decision to go further away from the warmth of civilization.

We dismantled the tents, loaded up all our gear into the kayaks and took off paddling in a windy downpour. We were not yet into the protective waters of Blackstone Bay, so the water was rough with choppy waves and wind. Visibility was not good. Nevertheless, the padding generated body heat and I was almost warm for the first time in more than 24 hours. Harbor seals, undeterred by the weather, came close to the boats to check us out. We paddled to the location we had originally scoped out in our planning sessions for the second night and found a good spot for the tents on drier ground than the first night's campsite.

I cooked a curry dinner that I had pre-packed back in Colorado. This meal, and all the others, was one of the successes of the trip. Instant rice, dehydrated veggies, dried coconut and curry powder and prepackaged chicken. I went to bed in a damp down sleeping back with damp clothes on, hoping my body heat would dry things out. Ha! I was cold, and progressively colder. Jesper and I had our sleeping bags apart (more comfortable to move around), so I didn't have his body heat to steal. I began shivering uncontrollably. I was so cold, I could barely think straight. I finally woke Jesper up, whimpering about how cold I was. My honey took charge! He commanded me to get out of my damp clothes. He zipped our bags together. Then he laid on top of me - a human blanket - until I was warm enough for him to spoon. I was too cold for this to be sexy...

The next day was not raining! I could not believe it! I wouldn't call it sunny, but it was not raining and we had good visibility to reveal that we were in an amazingly beautiful place of steep cliffs running straight down to the milky grey-blue glacial water. The air was warm-ish so we hung out clothes to dry and they complied quickly. The previous day, we had hung our clothes under the tarp but they stayed sopping wet from all the humidity in the air. We decided to leave the campsite set up with our drying laundry and paddle down to the end of Blackstone Bay to get up close and personal with the several glaciers that terminate in the bay. It was a beautiful day to kayak; the water was a smooth as glass and it was warm enough that everyone got delightfully overheated. I didn't even where my neoprene paddling gloves!

We could see a large glacier hovering over our campsite; we knew it was there but the visibility had been so bad the day before we could not see it. As we rounded a point of land jutting out into the water, we had a clear view of the glaciers at the end of the bay. Wow Wow Wow!!

Ole and Jesper kayaking past one of the many impressive waterfalls in Blackstone Bay


As we approached the end of Blackstone Bay, we passed scores of impressive waterfalls rushing down steep cliffs into the water. Once we reached the end of the bay, paddling among the icebergs calved off the glaciers was one of the highlights of our entire trip! We saw more harbor seals as well as sea lions; a large group of them lounging on a big iceberg. See otters also checked out our boats. There were so many different kinds of birds, diving into the water to pluck small fish in their beaks. The break in the weather could not have come at a better time.

Jesper paddling among the glaciers of Blackstone Bay

We spent hours exploring this magical place; enjoying the deep blue color of the glaciers, listening to the subtle tinkling sound of the water melting in the icebergs, touching the ice, trying to get close to the marine life. Many photographs were taken!

Glaciers and Icebergs

Finally we decided it was time to head back to camp. We planned to dismantle it and paddle some more to our next location. Good thing for the LONG daylight in Alaska in the summer! We ate a late lunch and, loaded up with all our gear again, paddled back out and across Blackstone Bay. We saw bald eagles, more sea otters and seals and what I think were Dall Porpoises and reached our final kayaking campsite at Decision Point hungry and tired, but still thrilled from the beauty of the day's exploration.

Snack time on the way to Decision Point - starburst and Danish licorice!

The Decision Point campsite was built up with sleeping platforms and elevated walkways over the wet ground of this rain forest area. There was even an outhouse! Ordinarily, I would eschew such man-made amenities on a camping trip, but after the overly wet conditions we had experienced for two days, I was thrilled with the prospect of a guaranteed dry night in my tent! We enjoyed a nice meal of pesto tuna on the beach and went to bed under a very late night twilight.


Outhouse in the mossy woods of Decision Point


Ole filtering water at Decision Point on our last foggy morning paddling

The next morning it was socked in again with clouds and drizzle. We felt lucky to have gotten a break the day before for tour among the glaciers. We dismantled camp and loaded the kayaks back up with our gear. At this point, we were back in the main channel into Whittier and we started to see a fair bit of commercial boat traffic. Around 3:00 pm, we paddled into the harbor we had left 4 days before, met back up again with Perry and unloaded/washed all our gear. Then, with dry clothes on, we sat down for the finest fried fish meal I have ever enjoyed; fresh Rock Fish caught earlier that very day, excellent salty french fries and a quenching Alaska White wheat beer. Simply delicious!

We had originally planned to drive straight to the Denali area and start backpacking into the wilderness that night, but we decided to make a stop in Anchorage, which we had to go through anyway, and stay overnight in a hotel. That way, we could wash and, more importantly, dry our very stinky clothes. We could also stop at REI in Anchorage and get me a jacket that was truly waterproof, as well as another layer of fleece I would save for campsite use only. In hindsight, I don't know what we were thinking when we planned to go straight to the backpacking leg from the kayaking leg.

Thursday morning after breakfast, we got back in the car for the 2.5 hour drive from Anchorage to Denali We were doing a point-to-point trip, so we had to figure out a way to get the car to point B and get us to Point A with our gear. We opted to drop Ole off at Point A, the Little Coal Creek Trailhead, upon which Jesper and I drove down to Point B, the Byers lake Campgound and then hitched a ride back up to Ole. It was Thursday afternoon and we finally began our hike of the Kesugi Ridge in the 325,240 acre Denali State Park, which lies to the southeast of and adjacent to Denali National Park. The hike along Kesugi Ridge provides impressive views of 20,320 foot high Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range.

Not that we could see any of the bigger mountains in the Alaska Range at the time; fog still hung low, obscuring the tops of the tall peaks. But the rain had abated and we were optimistic about getting some views of "The High One". We had originally planned to hike for 5 days (3 full days with two partial days on either end), but made changes to our intended mileage to accommodate the hotel stay prior and a hotel stay the last night. Although this cut out a full day of hiking, we felt confident we could make it up by hiking half days each on Thursday and Sunday and full days on Friday and Saturday.

We hiked up and up onto the ridge until we came to a large bowl area with relatively flat ground and somewhat out of the wind; this would be our first night's campsite. We dined quickly on Mulligatawny, as it was chilly out. I luxuriated in my warm fleecies and my dry tent that night.

The next morning was once again socked in with fog and a slight drizzle. Boo! We were up upon the ridge now and anxious for some views of Denali! As we hiked, it slowly began to clear, finally affording glimpses of more and more of the big mountains to the east. It was glorious!!! We still couldn't see the top of "The High One" yet, but we were hopeful.

Jesper and Ole hiking along the Kesugi Ridge

The hiking was fairly easy up on the ridge. I felt great and must say that running an insane amount of miles every week is excellent training for backpacking! Poor Jesper was suffering already from the bane of his hiking existence - blisters! He was such a trooper, as they would only get worse and worse.

Denali trying to show her face to two weary hikers

The trail rolled up and down along the ridge above the tree line. I LOVE the tundra and find it to be one of the most beautiful of landscapes. Rugged rocks thrown here and there. Teeny tiny miniature flowers. Brilliant green and yellow lichen. All intersected by stream crossings and waterfalls.

Lichen and tundra shrubs

There were also a shit ton of low, scrubby berry shrubs everywhere. This place was one gigantic berry patch! Soon we had our first bear sighting. A very large brown bear was sauntering along to the south of us, parallel to our trail. He was about 125 yards away and didn't seem to notice us. Did I mention he was very large? We were thrilled to see him but happy he didn't get any closer. We saw another bear, this one a black bear a bit further away, later that day.

We hiked about 9 or 10 miles on Friday and stopped when we arrived at a magnificent site for the night. It was high on a prominence overlooking the ever-clearing view of the Alaska Range. It had ample flat areas for placing the tents. It had a babbling stream running nearby for filtering water. The temps had warmed up all day into the comfortable realm and we had stopped early enough to enjoy a relaxing dinner of chicken polenta with wild mushrooms, along with some wine and beer. As we dined and moved onto dessert of biscottii and whiskey, the summit of Mt. McKinley finally showed her face (Jesper and Ole got some nice pics)! It was the perfect backpacking evening!

The next morning was somewhat cloudy again - dang! But we were happy to have had our little window of opportunity the previous day and especially the evening's unveiling of "The High One". We hiked up high for a bit and then finally arrived at a trail intersection with a sign, revealing we had gone a mile or two less than we had thought. We would have a LONG day of hiking on Saturday, since we wanted to be back to the car on Sunday by 3:00 pm.

Finally, after mostly hiking on the ridge, we began to go downhill into a large drainage area. We had entered an overground, boggy, spooky land with spiky Devil's Club plants and slippery steep slopes. It was NOT my favorite place to hike.

Overgrown bottom lands

Because of the difficult terrain, it took us a long time to make our way through this area back to the other side where we finally hiked back up to our beloved tundra. During this time, Jesper's blisters and raw spots really began to hurt him. Although the rest of his body was able to hike at a brisk pace, his feet rendered his pace to a shuffle as the long day of hiking continued. We were all happy to be back up above tree line again.

Jesper tending to his blistered feet

At about eight o'clock, we finally felt like we had made it far enough to call it a day. We were beat. Jesper's feet were chum. We set up camp on the summit of a prominence with good views of the Alaska Range if the clouds would go away. I went down to a nearby lake to pump water while Jesper and Ole set up the tents. As I prepared dinner (corn chowder with smoked salmon) a good distance from the tents, we observed our third bear, another black one and made note that there sure were a lot of berry shrubs in the area.

The next morning we actually set the alarm to ensure that we got going early, however our plans for a quick camp tear down were somewhat derailed by another visit from a black bear. It may have been the same bear from the night before. This time, he was approaching closer and closer and he most definitely knew we were there. His presence and direction of travel prevented me from pumping the water we would need for the rest of the trip, so we waited and waited. After half an hour or so, he finally ran off in the opposite direction. Like I said at the beginning, I'm pretty sure we were in his berry patch.

Last bit of Tundra before heading down to the car at Byers Lake

The trail planners for Alaska do not get the concept of switchbacking! Steep stuff!

We only had 5 or so miles to hike but we wanted to be done in time to make it back down to Anchorage before REI closed at 6:00 so we could return the bear canisters we had rented. So we pushed it. We hiked along the tundra until the ridge line dipped back down into a drainage area that lead to Byers Lake where our car was parked. It seemed to take forever, even though Jesper was setting a very good pace despite his blisters. It paid off and we arrived to back at the car around 2:00 pm, early enough to celebrate with the one beer left in the car and to stop for sandwiches in Trapper Creek on the way back to Anchorage.


After we dropped off the canisters at REI, we cleaned up in our hotel room and then enjoyed another fine meal of fried salmon, halibut and cod, all fantastically fresh and washed down by a cold beer. I must say, I have never eaten so much fried fish in my life, but Alaska does fried fish right!

The next day was filled with three flights back home. It was a long day but we were happy to have a day of rest.

This was a great vacation, despite the rains, but clearly not something everyone would appreciate. We most definitely plan to return to Alaska! We learned so much on our first overnight kayaking/camping trip; we know we can make the trip more comfortable next time. For the next Alaska visit, we plan to ski the Chugatch for several days and then kayak/camp for several days in the Prince William Sound Area. Sometime in late May, which should allow us to catch the start of the whale migration. I think we'll plan it during a non-El Nino year!

I will post more pics to my Picasa site soon. Here is Jesper's first post of our trip.


2 comments:

each day an adventure in alaska said...

enjoyed your post. had a rainy one in whittier myself we paddled from the glacier to whittier in one day to get out of the rain. you should consider doing harriman fjord your next paddle. sleep with a different glacier every night. happy you enjoyed your alaskan trip, despite some inclement weather.

PWS Kayak Man said...

There are a few tricks for staying dry and comfortable in the rain. Tarping your tent is one along with keeping your tent on the gravel for drainage, rather than up in the muskeg. Rubberized raingear is a must! Down still works if you keep your shelter dry! Extra fuel so you can turn your tent into a dry place if wet. Good rainhat while paddling. Hot water thermos in the kayak. Dry clothes for tent use ONLY! Umbrella's are nice to have for walking around or taking pictures. Listen to the advice of your outfitter.