Jan 27 2011

Lower Angel Creek Trail

It has been two years since the last time I had laid tracks on the Lower Angel Creek trail, that was an incredible introduction to this amazing place. Since that time I have hiked a small portion of the Chena Dome trail that begins at the same trailhead and rapidly rises up along the eastern skyline of the Angel Creek valley. I have spent two days backpacking the entire 32 mile Chena Dome trail all the while the Angel Creek valley was in sight and during the summer the sun can be seen reflecting off the waters of the creek itself.
I’ve ran the Upper Angel Creek Trail, a multi-use trail that had been under construction for three years and travels just above the valley floor, climbing and descending along the east side of the valley and passes along beautiful groves of birch trees, artesian wells and marvelous spruce tree forests.

The lower trail is only accessible by foot, or ski in the winter time, the rest of the year it is a bog of water, tussocks and mud. In the winter it is magical and very unique, a trail that is smooth with very little variation and can be quite fast and enjoyable.
The last time I was here with my ski’s it was later in the season so more people had accessed the trail leaving ruts and grooves along the trail and made it a very long day of trying to control the directions my ski’s tracked, all in all not the best of days. Don’t misunderstand me, I still loved being on the trail and experiencing the wilderness in this magical place. I was just frustrated by the conditions of the trail itself and the over use of it late in the season.
This time was much different and much more special since I didn’t expect that there had been very much traffic on the trail this soon in the year. I was right, the temperature was about -10 degrees F and the sun was shining without obstruction making me jumpy and excited to be off on the untracked trail.
Since the trail was untracked and there was a thin layer of fresh snow about an inch or two thick, the skiing would be a bit slower because of the cool air, the snow crystals had not been compacted or even slightly melted. The snow in the interior of Alaska has very little water content so this dry snow develops a great deal of friction when ski’s travel on top of it.
Today I didn’t care, I even began the day early expecting slow snow conditions and very happy when I was proven right. After skiing the first quarter of a mile to gain the trail proper I was pleasantly surprised to see that a snow machine had been on the trail recently and that meant the trail would be faster than I had thought.
The first mile was wonderful as I ski’s along the sun was a constant witness watching my every move, my every stop and I welcomed the sun with glances over my shoulder to catch the rays on my face. Equinox was running free and he took full advantage of it jumping into the powder, flashing down the trail only stopping now and then to smell the occasional markings.
After the first mile ironically the snow machine broke off to the left on its own trail leaving me to ski the trail untracked. Right at the same time the sun dipped behind the hills to the west never to be felt again and bringing the air temperature down easily another 10 degrees to a cozy -20 degrees F. The trail wasn’t at all bad having been broken out some time ago, I can tell by the two inches of untouched snow that nobody had traveled on the trail in atleast a month since that was the last time there was a significant snowfall.
Skiing along it all felt like I’ve been here a dozen times in the past as I ski along I look up along the ridgeline recalling traveling along the top in the summer two years ago, or the upper Angel Creek trail and regaling the amazing six mile run I had along it last summer turning back at a wonderful artesian well. There is much more snow here in the valley than in the valley my cabin resides in, and I feel somewhat jealous at the thought of it.
The trees are rich here and grow full and wonderful without any clustering or competition from other species, no alders to be seen in site and the birch trees have their favorite spots while the spruce tree grows where ever it chooses.
I’ve arrived at the gentle climb that I remembered from my previous trip, a slow ascent up through a small grove of birch trees that constrict the trail enough to make you feel as if you were traveling through a tunnel.
It’s energizing when I exit the trees an descend the other side of the climb, it’s almost as if I had wandered into some portal that delivered me to someplace different and new but at the same time similar to the previous land. All the open land dotted with spread out spruce trees is now full of a thick woods of spruce and the occasional birch tree.
Just up trail is the public use cabin located at about the four mile point. It is a lovely cabin that can hold maybe six people easily and more in an emergency. The cabin made for a nice rest stop before heading on along this pristine trail, a mile or so later I was brought to an interesting decision. The trail finally crosses Angel Creek for the first time, and the overflow ice was like a wave flowing over the trail, but very soft, I can see water welling up from the weight of my dog stepping on the ice.
I was not in the mood to step out of my skis, walk across the ice then sit down and pick ice out of my boots to clear them so I could get back into the ski’s bindings, so we called it a day there. I turned back and ski’d up to a point on a small rise to hook Equinox up on the tow line and we skijored back, making the distance back to the cabin in wonderful time. We stopped there to let him rest for a bit but the cool air was beginning to take a toll on my sweat soaked layers of clothes and their insulation qualities were diminishing rapidly, so I sent Equinox on his way pulling as he could to close the gap of distance and time and still enjoy the view.
Eventually we came back on the portion of trail with fresh snow machine tracks and thus improved our speed, and not a moment too soon as Equinox had faded to a gentle trot, so we just worked our way home to the trail head and the car.
Magical, mind bending, eye opening, everything that I could imagine a trail to be this trail lifted me up to see the world around me in a fresh light and as always this is the only of my world I want.

Did you like this? Share it:

Jan 18 2011

What?

Slipping and sliding along the line of the trail, trees pass by moving gracefully to the rear of my vision. I see the trees pass turning my head occasionally as one branch or the shape of a certain tree catches my eye and stimulates my curiosity just to be lost to my inattentive nature of the time. Nature of the snow prevents the trail to be even, pounded relentlessly by various users mostly the sleds and dogs pulling the musher along, the sleds runners seeking purchase along the lowest point sliding to and fro’ shaping the trail and producing a personality to the way of it. 

Along the way my ski’s slide seemingly uncontrolled this way and that, yet as the way it is the trail guides my ski’s to where they’re suppose to be and not where I want them. I learned early enough not to fight the trail, that cold, hard bitch wins every time. The best I can do is allow myself to be led down the trail like a child held by the hand by mother showing me the right and wrong way of things. 

I can feel my ski’s warping and bending to the contour of the trail, dipping, hitting bumps, turning a corner, bouncing over the frozen defecation of passing sled dogs. All of a sudden I’ve entered a straight flat section of trail, neither climbing nor descending, pure and level. I start gliding longer, I begin kicking harder pushing off with my ski’s, I thrust my poles into the trail violently stabbing the snow with all I can and I am flying along the trail. Everything has gone from recognizable scenery to a tunnel of white and green, the steady forward motion and pleasure outweighs the slowly encroaching fatigue that is just waiting for my mind to consider. 

As swiftly as the high-speed run down the trail began so did the rapid end fall upon me as I change course and turn to follow a new trail with tracks left days ago after a snow. Moose are always present here, a moose cow that inhabits the area has a thing for stomping trespassers that wander into her world so I tread carefully through the next mile of thick Alders and low black spruce. 

The shadow of the hills darkens the valley floor for most of the day until the low laying sun makes its gradual appearance on the horizon and graces the surrounding land with a soft pink orange glow that sends the tops of the hills on fire in a yellow and red blaze. Cooling air from the coming night begins hardening the snow on the trail turning the ice crystals into a friction that feels like sandpaper and slows down the travel. Fresh urine markings dot the side of the trail from animal tracks that lead back into the woods, my dog turns off to follow the donor. Left alone for the time, silence again sweeps the narrow trail clean of all disturbance and falling back into a cadence I drift off in a rhythmic cycle of skiing and breathing, I’ve become more of an addition to the wilderness around me than merely another visitor, I’m more comfortable here now than I ever thought I could. 

Considering my world and the diverse land laid out for me to live out my days I’m never left to wonder what it would be like to be anywhere else…….. 

wait, what was the question? 

Did you like this? Share it:

Jan 12 2011

Not All Days Are Equal

Every day on the trail is never quite the same as a previous days experience. Not all days on the trail are filled with magic and youthful romantic thoughts of natural beauty and worldly splendor. Some days are terrible, days meant to be forgotten and gotten over with as soon as possible. It isn’t often that these days or misery come about, but about they do come. 

I remember a day some time back where I was about twelve miles from home and out in the middle of nowhere, I had just broken a pole and was slowed considerably by the absence of that pole. I thought about what it would be like if I had fallen and suffered some catastrophic injury that rendered me helpless on the trail. There I am laying in the snow, maybe slowly dying while my dog who is oblivious to the gravity of the situation bounces off to frolic and roll in the snow.

Not all days are that dreadful, but they are exhausting and I can include today’s ski out past the Fire Plug trail. I started a couple of miles closer by beginning at a road intersection that saved me about twenty minutes one way and though I really enjoy skiing the section I just excluded, I was more interested in what was further out beyond the Fire Plug trail. By the time I had gotten to the intersection at the end of the Fire Plug trail I was forty minutes ahead of my average time at this point. The snow was fast and my cross-country ski’s were squirrelly, slipping left and right and I would have loved to have had edges more than anything. The day wasn’t especially unique or wonderful just an average day actually and the weather was a bit warm being around 4 degrees F above zero.

Today was nothing like the other day while I was skiing on the Cache Creek Loop, now that was amazing, gliding on an amazing trail and sharing the trail with a couple of very considerate dog mushers. That day was special and skijoring back in the indigo light was like traveling into a Salvador Dali painting, mind bending.

Today was a day of work only to include eight or so miles of fanciful exploration that was a true pleasure and the trail was a wonderful continuation of the Fire Plug Trail that made me feel as if I was never there before. But, I was there before, two years ago dragging a forty pound sled behind me and another forty five pounds on my back. The snow was deep with about a foot of fresh snow the going was slow and tedious, I ski’d until I ran into an unbroken trail just past where I had come to rest there today. The snow machine that had broken the trail for me that day had mysteriously changed course across the valley heading towards Standard creek. I was left with over a foot of unbroken snow and I was bushed. I carried on for several more miles before calling it a day and set up my tent to camp on the trail since the weather was a lovely -8 degrees F for a mid March day. That night the temperature fell to around -35 degrees F and I didn’t get any sleep, I had started my cook stove outside and then brought it inside the tent to keep from freezing to death. Fortunately I didn’t burn the tent down that night and at first light I turned tail and returned home some twenty five miles away.

The snow today felt greasy in comparison to that day, slippery and fast and covering the miles were quicker than I have ever thought I was capable of. I was beginning to fade quickly in the shadows of the remaining hills to the south of me and the trail was beginning to ice up as the air was cooling in the late afternoon. I can catch glimpses now and then of Murphy Dome behind me in the distance, the hills that the 14 mile trail follows continue to stalk me across the valley from a safe distance. I can actually see the beginning edge of the Minto Flats still miles away, and those miles are twisting, climbing and wandering making the miles stretch out into forever.

Standing in the middle of the trail on my ski’s only a mile or so from my old camp site with the casual weather amuses me with memories of the last time I was here, I turned around and put Equinox on the tow line and put him to work. Equinox pulled like a king for the next three miles, the first mile is tough with fast descents and grueling ascents constantly turning and twisting, never a flat spot on the trail so I’m being push on the left side or right side of the trail where ever the trail was at a low spot my ski’s follow and for Equinox it’s always a disturbing feeling for him to have what he’s pulling shifting the angle of his pull so erratically.

Equinox finally fell to a trot after about a mile and a half and by the time we were back at the Fire Plug Trail we had saved another five minutes and I took him off line for a well deserved break. I ski’d the Fire plug trail back letting Equinox run free and thus allowing him to recover before I threw him back on line at Saulich for the final leg of the trip. This is the way of it on the long trips, I’ll rest him as much as possible and use him to pull on the flat, straight sections to increase a sustained rate of speed, or we’ll alternate every five miles or so.

I ski’d the four miles of the Fire Plug Trail in twenty five minutes and by the time I hit Saulich I was shot, exhausted more so than I’ve experienced in a long time telling me that I was very close to passing the twenty mile mark for the day and there was about four miles left to go. 

I hooked Equinox back up, switched out my frozen hat and gloves with fresh dry ones and led off for the final leg of the day. Equinox went straight into his trot and didn’t change pace all the way back, I could tell he was tired. I kept catching frozen ruts in the snow, my own ski tracks ironically and my ski’s were trying to roll on to their sides whenever I hit the ruts causing me to start falling one way or another. I would jam the snow with my pole preventing me from falling and also tiring me further, just another long day filled with the normal tumblings. 

During one of my pole stabbing saves I managed to break one of my pole straps and making my life a little bit more complicated. I had to keep my hand gripped tightly on the grip of my pole with a thumb pressing on the top of the pole for every push. The last half mile was awful, skiing uphill with a damaged pole, a dog not able to pull any longer and ducking Alder branches bent nearly to the ground by the weight of snow on the branches. Tunnels of branches cause me to squat to my knees while sliding from one side of the trail to the other, usually the side where all the bent branches are, me rising up just long enough to squat right back down and knock branches out of the way, I was exhausted.

When we finally got to the car and pulled our harnesses off, dropped my day pack and recovered a bit I was able to breathe and think of the day and the warm cabin waiting for me down the road. No not everyday is a magical trip to wonderland but the land is still extraordinary and the events of each day are still an education, an experience to be remembered and treasured.

Did you like this? Share it:

Jan 6 2011

Remembering Where I Am

I am exhausted, my arms feel like wet noodles and my legs are wobbling as I stand still. As the sun begins to set I can feel the air begin to cool and my sweat soaked layers of clothing begin to freeze. Standing there I get colder and colder with every minute I’m idle, but I need to rest for a minute I’ve got quite a bit left to go.

The trail is darkening and the trees and woods become more mysterious, each stretched out shadow could be a sinister creature ready to devour me if I wanted to let my imagination have it’s way with me. I’m on the Fire Plug Trail about ten miles from home and somehow I managed to ski out twenty minutes faster than I ever have in the past. With the extra effort put in to the fast travel time I’ve left myself overly fatigued for the trip back, but as I stand there at the intersection of the Fire Plug Trail and a dog mushing trail I get a moment to consider my place in things. Staring down the dog mushing trail I get to let my mind wander and think about how this trail leads another twenty two miles to the edge of the Minto Flats and the great Tanana River. Just down this trail is Nenana fifty miles southwest, and the Tolovana Roadhouse once in heavy use by river goers traveling up and down the river during the gold rush. Dog mushers delivering mail would run the trail out of Nenana and run through dropping mail to villages along the way, stopping at the roadhouse to rest the dogs before the next journey to Manley Hot springs another fifty miles away. From there the musher would travel what became known as the mail route to the village of Tanana and then lead out to Nome five hundred miles away from here. This trail is now known as the Iditarod dog mushing trail and the annual race is the biggest attraction on the trail.

For me on this day, this is as far as I go, there won’t be any exploring for me as I put on my ski poles and try to shake some warmth into my arms. Heading home I can barely believe how beautiful this trail is, how it is in a constant state of change and motion without ever moving. The land changes continuously as I go from a forest of black spruce trees and then suddenly thrust into a grove of massive birch trees.

Traveling under the trees creates a little problem as a results of warm weather that passed through the area recently. The warm weather caused all the snow to melt out of the trees and the water to fall on the trail. This transition causes ice to form on the trail with the texture of a cheese grader and every time I ski under a tree there is the experience of a rough grinding sound and I’m nearly brought to an immediate stop but I continue to push through thus tiring me more each time. You learn to use a technique to reduce hitting the ice by lifting one ski or the other to avoid the ice and it helps a bit. The trail has very few straight portions and is predominantly a constant twisting, turning, rising and falling wonderland and a vigilant eye will keep you from flying off trial into deep snow and even possibly an impact with a firm tree. Equinox gallops ahead of me and keeps an eye on me, not letting me get to far back as each mile wears on me at an exhausting rate.

After a couple more miles I get to the gorge, a thirty foot deep miniature canyon created by the Goldstream creek over the years. The gorge is about a thousand feet long and usually is farely easy to transition through but occasionally overflow ice and cracks can impede travel through this feature. Dropping in and exiting out of the gorge is and can be an exhilarating experience, and being only a half mile from Saulich, a lovely end to the Fire Plug Trail adventure.

In Saulich it’s a five mile ski on the Dunbar Trail back to the cabin and had become dark enough for me to turn on my headlamp. I was so tired after skiing the last fifteen miles and including all the climbing involved with heading out on the Fire Plug trail I was definitely feeling it so I hooked Equinox up on the toe line and let Equinox help get me home.

I had not let him do any pulling so far to save his strength for just this reason, I was bushed. Equinox started out just as he usually does taking off like a bat out of hell for the next half of a mile and after a fashion faded back down to his typical stroll. With Equinox picking up the slack for me when I miss a pole plant or have a slight climb here or there I was able to conserve some strength and actually recover a bit.

I thought about the days events on the trail and the joy I feel with being so far out away from everything and a world that I can’t get enough of. The final five miles reminded me that this was where I am meant to be, the sun just falling behind the horizon, leaving an orange hue along the tops of the hills and a crisp glow in the air above my head. I fall back from time to time believing that I sacrificed so many other opportunities to live here, jobs, comfort, love. A day on the trail away from the rest of my world opens my mind and reminds me of what is important and that there is no sacrifice when it comes to some one or some place you really love.

Did you like this? Share it:

Translation form - Translate your comment!