My name is Krishna Dayanidhi and I’ve gone on two trips with Skurka — one in the Yosemite high country and the most recent this past June in the Eastern Alaska Range. Both trips were out-of-this-world. Fantastic. If you haven’t signed up for any of his trips, drop what you are doing, including reading this and go look at his schedule. I was explaining to a friend how the two trips were world class, yet completely different, e.g. you aren’t catered to, and you have to work your butt off, and that, along with my perspective on Alaska itself, is the genesis of this post.
I would describe Alaska as wild and wonderful — but those two adjectives are still lacking… you also need wet and unpredictable, with wild and unpredictable being the cornerstones of the Alaska experience.
Alaska is wild. Alaska is wild in a way that’s hard to grasp at first. At some point, it hits you: there are parts of where we’re walking that probably haven’t changed much in the last 2000 to 5000 years. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it is the closest you’ll ever come to feeling what the pioneers and great explorers must have felt.
In our 7 days, we saw three signs of human presence: a stone ring, horse droppings, and a frame built to dry fish. We didn’t see any people. Also, mildly surprising, was the relative lack of animals. They’re around but don’t expect to keep bumping into them. We saw one bear, a few caribou, a herd of sheep, moose and some beavers.
Travel in the wilderness of Alaska, where signage and maintained trails don’t really exist, requires solid skills with a map and compass — but don’t expect them to bail you out of a talus and scree field, or a large swath of willow and alder (that was most of the brush we encountered in the Eastern Alaska Range). You will need knowledge of geology, botany, and wildlife behaviour. You’re always trying to find the “the path of least resistance” and it is a function of all these factors.
Travelling above 3800 feet means you will be in the alpine tundra with mainly steep talus fields, snow, and ice. Travelling below 3200 feet, means you will have to walk through horribly dense brush and spongy ground. Travelling around 3500 feet, you might get very lucky and encounter nice hard grassy plateau’s to walk on. Carry an altimeter along with your map and compass.
One of the quickest ways to find the path of least resistance is to follow game trails. Wildlife have similar needs: cover distance, walk (relatively) comfortably, rest, rinse, repeat. And this is one of the amazing things about hiking in Alaska: finding a game trail and following it. When you are trying to find a game trail and it disappears suddenly, you need to think like an animal. While Andrew tapped into his “inner caribou” very effectively some time ago, the rest of us at least started to get the hang of it by Day 3. Invariably, the game trails lead to less bushwhacking, less side hilling, and less climbing over rocks — what they don’t do is keep your feet dry!
Here’s one thing you need to know about Alaska: your feet will get wet and most likely stay wet.
The longest we managed to keep our feet dry after starting from camp every morning was probably 15 minutes. If you manage to avoid a really wet patch of sponga and haven’t yet forded across an icy cold creek or a stream, you’re probably about 2 minutes away from wet, muddy game trails where each step brings anaerobic bacteria up to the surface and transports moose and caribou droppings into your shoes. After about 10 minutes of this, you can’t wait to cross that cold creek. Remember to carry extra socks and keep them dry. Also, carry a little jar of Bonnie’s Balm and use it religiously when you get into your sleeping bag and when you get up. Getting back into wet socks and wet shoes is not as bad when you’ve had a nice 8 to 9 hours of warm, dry feet.
With all of the wild and wet, the unpredictable aspect is hardly surprising. You never know what’s coming your way.
We started with one of the latest Springs in modern history, with record cold and record late ice break on the Nenana River. Then it switched gears and headed into the warmest summer in years. Nome, AK reached 90F a few days before our hike started. Our plan was to hike up the Yanert and float down from the mouth of the glacier. The previous group did exactly that just five days ago. In our case, the extra few days of heat caused the Yanert to reach near historic levels. It looked like a giant lake. There were supposed to be sand braids that we could walk to launch into the river. No such luck for us — all we could see was fast rushing water straight onto the other bank.
Alaska teaches you to be flexible. Be prepared to change the plans that you made six months ago. We decided not to hike up to the mouth of the glacier with its faster, higher water and instead, waited half a day till the water level went down sufficiently to let us put in. If the water level had not gone down sufficiently, we would have either waited longer, or decided to walk out instead of floating the river. As a wise person on our trip said, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Being patient and flexible in Alaska is much more important than in the lower 48 as there is little to no room for error.
Andrew uses the term, “World Class Views” in many of his posts, and we saw it — and heard his whoops of approval — firsthand during our Yosemite trip. He certainly knows what he’s talking about. And most of us think we know what he’s talking about.
But Alaska is its own category.
You will see giant valleys which stretch for miles, fault lines cutting through the land. Those sort of valleys, if they exist in the lower 48, contain highways and little towns, but not so in AK. Think unblemished. You see U shaped valleys carved by glaciers which are now getting cut by the rivers into V shaped valleys — it’s like getting a few years of remedial geography in one week.
You will quite easily forget about the mile and a half of bushwhacking and the last mile of talus slipping when you get up to the tops of the passes. The views are that incredible. Plus, you get the feeling of being the first person ever to see that view. That is very unlikely, but the feeling exists anyway.
Overall, having wet feet, bushwhacking through brush, and paying attention all the time, is taxing — but that price of admission is absolutely worth the show. Alaska is awesome in the truest sense of the word. It fills you with immense awe.