Anchored Down in Anchorage.

As it has been a while since the last update, this will be a long one!

Our plan for the end of last week was to meet Fairbanks Jerry back at Alyeska to watch Motor Madness – a bunch of snowmobile and snow bike races. We aren’t exactly motorheads, but we have found that it is nice to have some planned events to keep us moving because otherwise we spend a lot of time looking at each other asking, “Where do you want to go today.” “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know.”

When we left Kenai last Friday for Alyeska Sara was starting to feel the effects of some food poisoning. We made it back to Girdwood without incident about 10:00 p.m. and I found Jerry in the parking lot. As the caring husband I am, I gave Sara all the privacy she needed and went out to the bar. By the time I got back around 3:00 a.m. (I know many of you won’t believe it, but it’s true), Sara was pretty well cleaned out and asleep.

The next morning she felt considerably better so we spent the day watching various races – seeing far less carnage than I hoped for. I had made some friends of other guys in the parking lot and learned all about the oil platform they worked on in Cook Inlet. The sophistication of their rig is quite interesting. We also spent a bunch of time hanging out with KC, a friend of Jerry’s from Anchorage. She gave us a standing offer to park in her driveway and use her shower so we had a place to go for a few days.

Saturday night established that Sara was not completely better (I didn’t abandon her Saturday night), but she felt better again Sunday morning. You are probably wondering why I keep sharing this information, but it is simply to point out that life goes on, good and bad, when you are living the dream in a van. One of us being sick was one of my pre-trip fears and we weathered it fine. Not that it was pleasant or anything, but we managed. If anything we are a bit more confident in our ability to survive long periods in the van. Of course, everyone knows that it would have been a million times worse if I had gotten sick because…men, so it’s a good thing it wasn’t me!

On Sunday we went to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center just down the road from Girdwood. They house a bunch of rescued indigenous mammals and were a primary partner in reintroducing wood bison to Alaska. In addition to the wood bison we saw reindeer (including a cute 5-day old baby), wolves, black bears, moose, red fox, musk ox, elk, and, of course, brown bears. We were lucky to be watching the brown bears at feeding time so we got to see the big guy up close and personal.

Joe Boxer the big brown bear.
The bears just started getting protein added back to their diet after hibernation, but Joe preferred to lick up all the dog food he was given before eating his salmon.

Sunday night we stayed in KC’s driveway. Monday we did a couple touristy things in Anchorage and then drove partway back down Turnagain Arm for a hike. We wanted to climb part way up the very steep Bird Ridge trail to watch the famous bore tide come in. Around the full and new moons, the tidal difference is so significant that the incoming tide hits the outgoing water with such force that it generates a large wave at the head of the tide. We were lucky and Monday was only a few days after the full moon so the bore tide should still be apparent.

You can see the bore tide in the center channel below. The tide is coming from the right and pushing into the water (seawater and river runoff) still flowing out. This picture is from approx. 3 miles away and 1000′ up. I’m sure the waves are much bigger than they appear from our vantage point!

On Tuesday we decided to hike up Alaska’s most climbed peak. I’m sure it has that distinction because it is right outside Anchorage and is a fairly short hike. It is not, however, a super easy hike in late April. It was cold in Anchorage and we didn’t completely appreciate that when we went up even a thousand feet we were right back in winter. We were sufficiently dressed for the climb, but the summit ridge is steep and was very icy and we neglected to bring our micro-spikes.

We hit the saddle below the summit and the wind picked up and icy snow pellets started pelting us. We kept going without too much trouble, but about 100′ below the summit the wind picked up again and our lack of solid footing was becoming potentially dangerous. I went a little further as I thought I might make it if I could get around the next corner, but as Kenai and I hit one last small gap in the rocks I could barely see because of the blowing snow. Kenai sat in the gap staring at me, unconcernedly sitting right on a cornice dropping sharply down the other side of the ridge, and I called it a day. With micro-spikes and/or a break in the wind I’m sure we would have been fine, but this was not the time to push it. It is still so funny to me that we could be doing a [very] mini-alpine ascent on the outskirts of Anchorage. It made me feel better when one of the guys coming up the trail as we went down had an ice axe for the ascent.

Part way up with Anchorage in the background. Cold spring day down below; winter just up the hill.
Kenai never not in the lead.
But the summit is sooooo close! You can see the wind scouring the ridge in front of us.
Tanzi was not impressed with the howling wind and blowing snow, but she had climbed the icy sections like a champ!
Of course the sun comes out just a little as we head back down.

We again spent the night in KC’s driveway Tuesday night. The last week or two we keep thinking about getting in at least one more day of splitboarding so on Wednesday we decided to be the people we want to be. Peak 3 is the local Anchorage ski destination as it is just on the edge of town and the trailhead is right at the base of the peak. The Alaska Factor, the excellent guidebook for backcountry skiing in Alaska by Joe Stock, promised us “Nude skiers, beer, dog fights, crud and sunsets. It’s the all-Anchorage aprés-work ski scene.” Despite striking out on all those enticing benefits, we had an awesome day.

A nice guy in the parking lot suggested we start by riding one of the gullies on Peak 2 because he and his buddies had already gone out the evening before and skied all the lines on Peak 3 with the new snow that had blown us off Flat Top. We took his advice and had some fun tracks on down from a little below the summit of Peak 2.

Again starting in Spring.
Winter is coming. Peak 3 in the back middle; part of Peak 2 on the left.
Kenai already has a nose for ptarmigan. When Kenai chased off this one’s buddy (s)he decided we couldn’t see him/her and held tight. Silly bird.
Panorama of the gully on Peak 2. The perspective makes it look huge, but it was only about 20′ wide where we started and grew to 100′ wide.

At the bottom of the run we ended up in the same gully as Peak 3 so we switched back to hiking mode and headed up Peak 3. Another guy coming down from Peak 3 told us there was still plenty of fresh snow on the skier’s right side and that the skin track was better on that side, too. Such nice people in the Anchorage ski scene!

We hoofed it up the recommended side and, sure enough it was easier hiking and awesome riding. I was fairly concerned at one point that our skin track was just cutting across a large wind slab that had likely blown in overnight, but as I dug down a little it seemed to be bonded to the layer below. Ultimately I don’t have a good idea how much risk we were really taking, but we didn’t die so I’ll mark that one in the experience column. The side we climbed didn’t have a line to the top so we stopped just short of the rocky lines on the summit dome.

Heading up the gully to Peak 3.

The ride was great as the first half of the run was a solid foot of heavy powder. It got gradually shallower, but was still a couple inches of windblown snow on soft corn crust. Really fun conditions. So good that we decided to hike up the other side so we could ride the whole thing from the top. Of course, at that point two people who had been watching us came off the top and took the untracked line just above us, but there was still plenty of fresh for the taking.

Kenai making 11’s through my tracks all the way down!
Sara making turns!

The second run on Peak 3 was equally awesome.

Summit selfie looking back down our eventual line.
Sara just visible in the chute on the far left.
Sara riding down the very bottom of the gully back toward the van.
End of the line.

With as many backcountry skiers hitting Peak 3 at very opportunity we know we got very lucky to have first tracks in fresh snow. In fact, as we came down our last run about 6:00 p.m. there were already at least four other people in the bowl heading up, we passed five people on the trail, and there were five more in the parking lot when we got down. Joe Stock still let us down, though, because they all had clothes on. After not being sure we would get off our bums and snowboard another day this season, we were quite pleased with the ~4500 vertical foot day. Those are the kind of people we want to be!

It was tough spending four nights in KC’s driveway: bathroom, shower, playing with her new puppy, but it’s been great to make new friends. I’m sure we will stay in touch with KC and Roam for along time!

Roam the Malamute.

We got an oil change this morning and while waiting for them to finish up we met a Ford Mustang guy named … Michael Valentine, who almost certainly served in the Air Force at the same bases/times as Sara’s dad. That’s just plain weird. I have to assume they did not know each other because I think Steve might have mentioned that when I started dating his daughter. We also made a quick stop today at Odd Man Rush Brewing in Eagle River because we learned that it is co-owned by Brian Swanson, the star of our CC hockey team in the mid-90’s!

Now we are headed north. We are currently camped at Broad Pass between Anchorage and Fairbanks just east of Denali. Unfortunately it is cloudy and we can’t see the mountain. We learned from another connection that his friends at the base of Denali have gotten 10 feet – 10 FEET – of snow in the last week. Regardless, like all the other mountains in Alaska, the smaller mountains surrounding us here are spectacular to see. I just keep thinking about the millions of lines I could snowboard here!

From where I am sitting I can see 30 more mountains like this. I couldn’t snowboard all the lines on that mountain in a whole week. If someone wants to give me a helicopter, though, I’d be happy to try!

Feeling at home in Homer.

Guess I need to go halibut fishing!

After leaving Kenai Tuesday afternoon we drove down the rest of the Kenai Peninsula to Homer. We had previously been told Homer is becoming a destination for tech money and I can see why. It is a super cool little town with an amazing view in a great protected bay. There are long beaches and plenty of parks. There are a bunch of interesting shops and it is the type of town where a lot of the businesses have hand painted signs. It immediately just feels like more of a community than other places we have been so far.

We immediately drove out the spit just to see what is out there. There is a large RV park, a stocked fishing lagoon, a lagoon with an outlet to the bay where people can apparently catch salmon, the ferry dock, a very full “small” boat harbor, and a bunch of resort condos. I called and then stopped in at a charter business to find out about winter King salmon fishing or halibut fishing and found I could get out on a charter on Thursday. That would give us a day to explore a bit and relax, though the weather was supposed to be pretty ugly Wednesday.

The first night we camped up at a city park with a nice view of the mountains. As we turned into the park, from a completely residential street, there was a moose standing on the corner. At first I thought it might be a statue in the park, but then it looked at me and walked off. Great, I hope the dogs don’t think they can make friends with a moose!

Wednesday was not too bad in Homer, though the mountains were clearly getting snow/rain and there was weather out further in the Cook Inlet making the ocean rather rough. We went down to the beach and took a long walk under the bluffs.

Doesn’t matter if it is broken up pickup on the beach, Kenai thinks he is he going for a ride!
King of the beach.
Kenai “sharing” his driftwood.

When we came back I took the windy opportunity to practice flying my kite. My cousin, Blair, is going to teach me to kite surf this summer so I need to make sure I have some basics down.

I really wondered if this eagle would attack the kite. I also wondered if someone was going to say I was harassing the ridiculously abundant bald eagles by taunting him with a kite.
Sara practicing her kite flying skills.

We also did some bird watching along a slough just behind the beach and saw some new birds. There were at least White-Fronted Geese, Widgeons, Pintails, Green-Wing Teals, Goldeneyes, and a shorebird we think was a Bar-Tailed Godwit.

In the evening we decided to park on the spit just across from the harbor as there are some campsites just off the road facing the ocean.

Pretty amazing to be able to sleep right on the spit facing the ocean.

The next morning I headed out with Keith on Ocean Hunter Charters in search of halibut. Keith was a great guide, and, although he is a Wisconsin transplant, he had a lot of good Alaskan stories and pictures to share. I was showing the boat with a grandfather, son, and two grandsons from Pennsylvania who came up specifically for halibut fishing in Homer. They had gone out with Keith on Monday and were coming for round 2.

Morning light on the small boat harbor at the end of the Homer Spit.
Heading out. Its hard to see in this photo, but the Kenai Mountains along the spit were visible most of the day.

While I was out fishing, Sara took Kenai for a run on the beach and then relaxed.

Kenai after his run…ready for more.
This is more Tanzi’s speed, curling up on the beach with Sara.

Our fishing was up and down. There is a two fish limit and one has to be under 28″. We started in nice weather as the tide came in and we had a ton of bites, but didn’t hook up on many fish. The guys from Pennsylvania caught one nice (~35 lb.) fish and I think someone caught a small one. The rest of us just kept getting bites and hauling up our line to make sure we still had our herring bait. That is no easy task when you are bottom fishing in 250′ of water!

The wind in the morning was blowing in, with the tide. As the tide went slack, the fishing was a lot easier as the current didn’t pull the line way out to the side, but the fish still weren’t hooking up well. Keith’s concern was that as the tide shifted and the current ran out with an onshore wind, the water might get really rough. The sun was already ducking behind some clouds and at times it was pretty cold.

Of course, that’s when the fish started really biting. As the tide shifted we all started catching fish. I pulled in a nice fish that was also about 35 lbs. and then one right around 28″. I think those smaller ones weigh between 5 and 10 lbs. Then one of the guys from Pennsylvania pulled up a super nice halibut – Keith estimated 60-65 lbs. They don’t really fight like some fish, but pulling up a 35 lb. – 65 lb. unwilling fish is not an easy task and we definitely felt it in our forearms hauling up the rod and reeling. In the end I think we managed 7 halibut and one ling cod. Although we didn’t reach our limit the Pennsylvania guys had already fished one day and they had plenty of fish to ship home.

Me and the guys from Pennsylvania with our catch.
Keith filleting one of my halibut on the back of the boat under the watchful eye of Sally, the resident harbor seal.
Sally the harbor seal is very friendly and essentially comes when she is called. Too bad Sally is a spoiled gourmand and will only eat salmon. She didn’t want any of the halibut or the ling cod.

I ended up with 20 lbs. of fish. We kept some to fry up here and I’m shipping the rest to my parents and a buddy in NJ who wanted a fillet. We had halibut fish and chips a few days ago in Seward and although it was not cheap merely because we are in Alaska, it was ridiculously delicious.

Halibut getting all cut and packaged for shipment to Oregon and New Jersey.

In the evening light we drove up the bluffs above Homer. The view is stunning. I’m sure it would be even more amazing when the vegetation greens up, but the land, the bay, and the mountains on the other side is a million-dollar view. I guess we should probably move here before all the silicon valley types realize that living in a place like Homer with that kind view is what the money is for!

The view of Homer, the Homer Spit, Kachemak Bay, and the Kenai mountains from the bluff above Homer.

Last night we stayed back up near Kenai at a dry camp owned by Kaley and Fred. Fred is a high school friend of Sara who moved to Alaska many years ago and has worked all over the State. He now works for NOAA fisheries and lives down in Ketchikan, but they still have the camp on the Kenai Peninsula. They generously offered to let us stay all summer, and we haven’t left the area yet, so …………….

Spring cleaning to reorganize. We probably don’t need all nine snowboards ready for action now.



Two last days at Alyeska and then on to the Kenai Peninsula.

After our last backcountry trip to Hatcher Pass we decided to come back down to Alyeska as it was forecast to get up to 15″ of snow on the final weekend it was open. The forecast did not quite come true, but it did get some new snow up at the top of the mountain.

We woke up Saturday morning to steady rain, which was predicted for the base. The real question was whether the top of the mountain was getting snow. I was super lazy about checking it out, but Sara finally geared up and headed out. As the snow report said the mountain only got a couple inches I was suspect that the new snow would just be piled on some nasty ice so I convinced her to call me when she got to the top and checked out the conditions.

The top was snow, not rain, and it was actually still warm enough that the layer under the heavy new snow was rather slushy, so I headed up to meet her. We had fun playing in the new snow and we focused on riding switch (the opposite foot forward from your natural stance on a snowboard) all afternoon. It was really good practice and a good way to spend the last resort time we will get this season.

A bit different view toward Turnagain Arm than we had before.
This was as sunny as it got. Most of the time it was slushing – literally snowing instant mashed potatoes.

Sunday was more of the same, but it snowed about 7″ so we had plenty of fresh turns. If the Sierra gets Sierra Cement and the Cascades get Cascade Concrete, I think it is fair to call what we got Alaska Asphalt. The 7″ was essentially pure, heavy slush that just crush down into instant mashed potatoes. It was very fun, though, and well worth sticking it out in the stormy weather. I finally got up the nerve to jump a couple times off a small cliff I had been eyeing and the soft landing was helpful. (Let’s just call my landing something between a clean landing and a crash. It was kind of a butt plant from which I could stand up and keep going.) Despite not getting the 15″ we hoped, the two last days at Alyeska was a great way to finish the resort season. With our late start on the season we still got in 22 days on our Max Passes (plus 7 at non-Max Pass resorts) so we won’t complain too much.

On Sunday afternoon we went back to Anchorage for a quick shopping trip and then headed down to Seward. We drove out as far along Resurrection Bay as the road goes before heading back to town for a $10 town camp site right on the bay. Sea otters, seals, and sea lions all swam by; Bald Eagles perched in the trees right next to the van, and the weather lifted just enough to see the amazing mountains still surrounding the bay. Monday morning we visited the Alaskan Sea Life Center to get up close with a bunch of the local marine life. There was not a bay/fjord/marine tour we could get that day, but we may stop on our way back for a tour of Resurrection Bay.

This accommodating sea otter swam right next to the road as we drove along the bay.
Otters spend an inordinate amount of time grooming, which is largely how they manage to maintain their body temperature in freezing waters. They also eat up to 25% of their body weight every day! Rolling in the water both helps them clean and traps air bubbles in their ridiculously thick fur (1,000,000 hairs per square inch).

Everyone always thinks otters are so cute, and they are, but they are also related to wolverines and badgers so I should probably not follow my usual habit of trying to touch one.

Monday morning was practically sunny in Seward. After the huge earthquake in 1964 the waterfront was condemned so now this amazing waterfront is a large park. I can’t imagine how crowded it must be in the summer tourist season.
How cool is this King Eider swimming around at the Sea Life Center? He has feather spoiler fins!
I already looked as grizzled as a bear. I might as well start learning to catch fish like one.

Sara watching the seals at the Sea Life Center.

Monday afternoon we drove over the peninsula to Kenai. As many of you know, Sara was touring Alaska with her brother in 2010 when we got Kenai (the golden retriever) and I asked her to be on the lookout for good dog names. Too many Denalis and Yukons so we settled on Kenai. Now that we are here, Kenai has been able to visit his eponymous peninsula, lake, river, town, laundromat/shower, and numerous other local businesses!

The Seward side of Kenai Lake. With much of the glacial lake still iced up it looks like even the ice is turquoise.
Kenai swimming in the other end of his lake.
The swans have started making it to their eventual breeding grounds. We were at Swan Haven in the Yukon a few weeks ago and only a few had made it there. In the last few weeks they have obviously made it there and continued on the additional 1000 miles or so to places here in Alaska.
A pretty pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye.
The male’s head is actually purple, but it is rather hard to get a good picture of the color.

We camped Monday night next to the beach right down at the mouth of the Kenai River. Though it is permitted, I didn’t dare drive the Hund out on the beach as I’m pretty darn sure it would have gotten stuck in the soft sand before we could even get to the firmer sand. I doubt AAA covers that tow!

Kenai standing in his river.

Sara took the dogs for a walk while I made dinner, and during her walk she met Kim, a scientist with NOAA who is studying the Beluga whales that live in Cook Inlet. These whales are a distinct subspecies of Beluga as they don’t migrate out of the inlet. She told Sara there is a pod of whales that swim up the Kenai River essentially every rising tide and swim back down as the tide goes out. Part of her research is to monitor this population as it is not entirely understood how and why they use the river. The river is tidal for roughly 12 miles and the Belugas have been seen up nearly that far.

Unfortunately, this conversation led to an early Tuesday morning as we had to get up before 7:00 a.m. (super early for us) to see if we could spot the whales heading up the river as the tide started coming in. We missed them. They either went well before or, more likely, well after the absolute low tide. So we went back to the van and took a nap. As the high tide approached we drove a few miles to the park where Kim told Sara we could see the whales coming back down. Kim pulled in at the same time we did so we had expert commentary as the whales started coming down. Only four came by, but they milled around a bit and we had a great time listening to them and watching them slowly come up for air. It was quite an idyllic scene with light coming through the storm clouds and the Kenai Mountains in the background. There were also some seals hanging out in front of the park and plenty of birds so we had a good time watching the various marine life and chatting with Kim.

Beluga surfacing in the Kenai River with the Kenai Mountains in the distance.
Cute seal watching us watch him and the Belugas.

On Tuesday afternoon (earlier today as I write this) we drove on down to the Homer, AK at the tip of the peninsula in a ferocious rain. It is the halibut capital of the world and I haven’t been fishing in the ocean in ages so I’ve booked a halibut fishing charter for Thursday. Hopefully it is not as stormy on Thursday. So, tomorrow we will just hang out and explore this cool little town and do some bird-watching on Kachemak Bay.


Back to Hatcher Pass

With no particular destination in mind after our snowboard tour outside Eagle River yesterday we headed back up to nearby Hatcher Pass for the night. We weren’t entirely sure we would hike and ride yesterday, but it was a beautiful day. We spent most of the morning chatting with people in the parking lot, including a woman who went to high school in Waterville Valley to ski, a woman whose husband is distantly related to Sara, and a guy who lives in Maine but has a House here in Palmer so he comes to Alaska as often as he can. Such a small world. By early afternoon we finally decided to get out and stretch some tired legs.

The sun was bright, but the temps were cooler than last time we were here as the temp at midday was only about 34 deg. We figured the north(ish) facing slopes would still be quite firm and stable, but might soften up a bit with the sun. Our goal was a face we saw last time we were here on the long ridge from the parking lot up to Hatch Peak. The face had an existing skin track so we figured it would be an easy climb.

We were wrong. The track was set out on a sunny section of the slope and not exactly where we would descend. It was quite steep and not set very deep in many places. Worse, it was on an icy crust and on the splitboards it was tough to get an edge in so when we did slip off the track we quickly started sliding down the steep slope. Let’s just say it was a good experience in our nascent splitboarding career.

Sara traversing the difficult leg of the skin track.
Kenai wondering why Sara didn’t run up as quickly as he did.
A 180 degree view looking south into “The Valley of Sin” and north into the Hatcher Pass road, which is not named in our guidebook.

We had great cell coverage on top of the ridge so I did a video chat with a couple buddies in New Jersey.

His and her matching Jones Solution snowboards reassembled and ready to ride.

The difficult hike proved well worth it for the awesome descent on just a very slightly different aspect where the snow was still surprisingly soft. I was worried we would still hit a significant crust as it was still right about freezing, but the line we descended was just shaded enough and just enough of a gully to still hold some great sort snow. After a few tentative turns it was fun to let it go on the bottom. Had the skin track not been so terrible we definitely would have headed up again for a second run.

Video of Sara and Kenai on the descent.

Watching Kenai chase Sara down the mountain is pure joy. Out of Eagle River Sara went first and I got to watch the view from behind as he tore pell mell straight down the hill. Here I got to watch from below. He is always sooooo happy when he catches us at the bottom.

Michael’s line, Sara’s line, and Kenai’s [straight] line.
At the bottom we debated calling it a day, but Sara rallied us so we hiked up the other ridge of Hatch Peak to where we could see into the bowl beyond. We hoped we might climb high enough to see Denali over the ridge to the north, but it was not high enough. On the descent we were again lucky to find a more protected section of soft snow, which always makes the hike worth it!

Kenai chasing Michael on the second run.

Sara on her second run.

We rode out the valley on the side of the creek where all the snowmobiles run and with the combination of snowmobile tracks, ski tracks, snowmelt, and crust it was an interesting ride. Fortunately it was sunny enough on this section that when we got caught in the ruts and fell it was mostly soft.

Looking back up along the closed section of road toward the true summit of Hatcher Pass.
Poor puppy is beat, but I know he’ll be excited to run again in the morning.

As we still have no place to be, because we have no jobs and currently live in a van in Alaska, we spent another night up here at Hatcher Pass. The sunset view across the Matanuska Valley was gorgeous so we drove about a mile down the road to get the best view of the sunset down the canyon.

Good thing we had such a good time up here because this was what we woke up to this morning.

The view from the top of the parking lot. Nearly the same view of the Matanuska Valley should be visible over the top of the small lodge.

Should be a fun drive down the mountain, although some people in the parking lot told us it is rain just a little ways down the road and only cloudy in the valley. Before heading out, Sara and the dogs went for an adventurous XC ski in the whiteout. Sara was glad the groomed trail is marked with tall blue stakes, though it was still hard to tell which side to ski on with the 3 inches of fresh snow on crust.

Who knows where we will go next!

Whittier, Turnagain, Anchorage Front Range

After Alyeska Spring Carnival we stuck around the area Sunday night planning a hike the next morning. Monday morning was a dedicated dog day so explored the Winner Creek Trail, which in the summer has a cool hand tram across a river. Unfortunately the hand tram is not open in the winter so in order to get the longer end of the hike we went back to the Alyeska Hotel and started our hike from there. Sara read somewhere that this area is America’s northernmost rain forest and at times it definitely felt like it. The hike out to the closed hand tram was about 5 miles round trip.

Nice sunny morning for a hike with an air temp in the high 30’s to low 40’s. The trail was all snow and ice so we were fortunate to have our micro-spikes with us.
About 2 miles out the trail crosses this super narrow gorge.
Bridge across the gorge.
Inspecting the hand tram and looking at the river canyon it crosses.
In the icy stream the first chance he got.

After our hike we wanted to go visit Whittier. Whittier is in the Prince William Sound and was previously a very important port for off-loading military supplies and soldiers. They would travel to Anchorage by rail through a 2.5 mile tunnel. About 20 years ago they decided to rebuild the tunnel so that cars could also drive through. It is a one-lane tunnel and the cars drive over the tracks. It is open one way for 15 minutes, then closed for 15 minutes to make sure all the cars exit, then open the other direction for 15 minutes. Sometime they also let trains through. The tunnel has a fascinating history you can read here.

This is the view heading into the tunnel on the return from Whittier.
One lane with some pullouts for emergency safe rooms.

Whittier itself is just a small port but it has an amazing view as it is completely surrounded by mountains or the ocean.

Panorama of the small boat harbor and the mountains behind.
Across the bay is a Kiitiwake Rookery with thousands of birds on the water, the cliffs, and in the air. A Kittiwake is just a slightly more interesting sea gull.
We found a small park where the creek leads down to the ocean and we could enjoy the amazing view.

Monday evening we drove out officially onto the Kenai Peninsula and up Turnagain Pass.

It’s almost like Kenai has come home!

Our plan was to just look around at the pass and find a place to camp. Then if we felt like hiking in the morning we would find a place to go.

The next morning was not nearly as warm as the previous days but it was the last day down that way before some more serious weather was forecast to come in so we decided to hike in our snowshoes and carry our snowboards. Turnagain Pass is apparently the single most popular backcountry ski destination in AK due to its huge snowfall and close proximity to Anchorage, but in mid-April there were only a couple other cars at our chosen hiking spot called Tincan Trees.

Kenai waiting patiently for Sara.
Still going up.
Geared up and ready to head back down.

In the parking lot and then at the top of ridge where we turned around we met a woman skiing with another guy. We ended up coming down pretty much together as we didn’t know any particular route down so we just kind of followed along near where they came down. They had two dogs so Kenai was in heaven having someone else to chase. The conditions were … sub-optimal, but we had fun anyway. I would describe it as edgeable crust. At least it was not so icy that we could not make turns. Still, we ended up in pretty dense, steep trees a couple of times so we had to just slide through the openings until we came to a place sufficiently open to make careful turns.

We continue to find ourselves enjoying the hiking and backcountry touring, which for me at least is a little surprise as I am much more interested in the turns coming down. I don’t know if it is the scenery or getting in slightly better shape but even the climbs have been completely enjoyable. To that end we had decided to take advantage of the local sales and buy our own splitboards. The day we rented them at Hatcher Pass was a lot of fun and, although the hike in Turnagain on snowshoes was completely fine because the crust was so solid, further backcountry touring on snowshoes was not going to cut it.

When we got to the bottom of our run that day (yesterday, whatever day that is) the woman, Jackye, said she and the guy, David, were headed back out in the front range around Anchorage the next day and invited us to come. That was perfect timing if we could get our splitboard setups by then.

We could. After getting everything set up (boards, bindings, and climbing skins) and shoved in the van (technically that makes nine snowboards in the van) we headed out to Eagle River and the Upper South Fork Eagle River Trailhead. Jackye and David and previously scoped out a line they wanted to ski. It was a super fun ride, but a fair hike to get there so I suspect they were taking it easy on us on the hike. I don’t know the names of anything in the area (I’m not sure they even knew the name) so I can’t further describe where it was, but we were on the ridge between the South Fork of the Eagle River and Ship Creek.

Starting up the South Fork of the Eagle River valley.

I forgot to take any more pictures on the way up the bowl we hiked.

Once we gained the ridge there were patches of windblown/melted like this.
Discussing the objective in the distance along the mildly corniced ridge.

Heading out the ridge. Our goal was the snowy face just left of the peak in the distance.
The cornices were bizarre. One section would be facing one way and then the next would be switched 180 degrees. None of them were too large so we were able to walk the ridge and cross over the cornices to the other side when necessary.

As I said above, the view from the top was amazing.

Admittedly it doesn’t come out so well on an iPhone picture, but that is Denaii some 150 miles north. Even though we were under clouds, the entire Alaska range was bathed in sunlight and we could easily see Denali, Hunter, and Foraker. One more check off the AK-trip bucket list.
Getting ready for the descent.

The ride down was surprisingly good because it was not sunny and not too warm so it was not corned up at all. The slope was a mix of windblown and an edgeable crust with a couple of inches on top. In a few places it was just the crust, but overall it was a decent ride down.

Sara making turns.

The snow back in the valley is quite melted out so there was some bushwacking and riding over mossy ground to get to the bottom.

This was still the easy stuff.
So Sara leaves her phone in the van. Walking up does she ask for my phone to take a picture of me? No. Walking out the ridge does she ask for my phone to take a picture of me? No. Riding down does she ask for my phone to take a picture of me? No. Catch one edge and fall backwards into a bunch of alders…”Give me your phone.”
Our line was down the face to the left of the bare ridge in the middle of the bowl, then down through the moss, trees, grass, and bushes. Almost made me feel like I was backcountry skiing in New England.

So now we are in the parking lot at Fred Meyer to get some groceries and catch up on the blog. I’m pretty tired, Sara is pretty tired, and Kenai is sound asleep. Even Tanzi, who slept on our bed all day because the hike would have been too much for her is asleep. I’m not sure how much more of this #vanlife we can take!

Three Days at Alyeska

Once again I have fallen behind on the blogging so I’m going to add two posts in short order.

My last post was made from the top of Hatcher Pass as we awaited a second showing of Northern Lights. They did not appear. It seems we may have misread the forecast – actually the web site admitted the data was a bit off – and what we thought was a prediction for good lights was actually a graph of what happened the night before. Anyway, there were no more aurora borealises (auroras borealis?) to be seen.

The next morning we didn’t much feel like hiking with our snowshoes so we went for a XC ski up to an old mine at the top of Hatcher Pass. There is a lodge nearby that grooms a ski trail so Sara had some fun dragging the whole family out on skis. Tanzi was an amazing trooper and ran as fast as she has ever run trying to keep up.

Climbing down about 4′ of snow to read the interpretative signs.
Truckin’ Tanzi.

In the afternoon we drove back down past Anchorage to Girdwood and Alyeska Resort. Alyeska was forecast for sunny skies and warm weather so the weekend Spring Carnival was well timed. There is also a laundromat with showers (and a cannabis shop and a hair salon and a Thai restaurant) in Girdwood so we could get all cleaned up.

Friday was nice and sunny and we were on the slopes at the crack of 11:30. That was a mistake. First, we didn’t realize the lifts do not even open until 11:00 as the resort runs from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Moreover, the sun is not directly overhead until about 2:00 p.m. This all means the slopes did not really soften up at all in the morning. We explored a bit, came back to the van for lunch, and when we headed out again about 2:30 everything was nice and slushy – perfect spring skiing.

The view down the mountain and across Turnagain Arm at 12:43 p.m.
The view at 5:11 p.m.

Alyeska is a very cool mountain, but it is an odd layout. A tram goes up the north side from the hotel and two lifts go up from the west side from a day lodge. The second lift to the top is really the only lift worth riding if the tram terrain is not good, which in this case it was not because it is shaded nearly all day. Alyeska calls their north face the longest double-black run in the world and it might be true – it is a long steep run and if the conditions are not good it is off limits. This leaves only the large bowl served by the top lift. Fortunately the bowl is quite large and has a lot of fun gully and ridges to explore, but it might get old after a while. (This from a guy who grew up on an 800 vertical foot, single-lift ski are with a total of 16 runs. My how times change.)

Friday night was the start of the Spring Carnival so we hit the bar to see who would get entries into the pond skimming event – Slush Cup. Everyone who wants to enter comes in costume and the judges and crowd pick the best. It was pretty serious stuff in the small village of Girdwood.

While the band was playing that night Sara looked over at a guy sitting next to us and noticed he was wearing a Wallowa Avalanche Center sweatshirt and hat so we started chatting with him and his group. His name was Sonny and we had actually run into him in La Grande at a WAC run raiser after the Warren Miller movie in November. He and a friend from Stanley, ID were up in AK ski/snowboard touring and they ran into some more friends with WAC connections of some sort so we spent a long time chatting with them about the Wallowas, central Idaho, their touring, and our experiences in AK so far. Odd and fun how many of these wild coincidences seem to be happening on this trip.

Saturday we did it right and lazed around even longer so we didn’t hit the mountain until after 1:00. We got in a few runs before the heading down to watch Slush Cup. A few years ago I did a pond skimming event at Jay Peak. That was completely tame by comparison. The Alyeska Slush Cup, sponsored by Alaska Airlines and lots of other big names, seems to draw the entire village of Girdwood and a fair bit of Anchorage. The “pond” is actually two ponds. The first is about 30 feet, then there is a sharp jump, and then an 80 foot pond. Last year it was 70 and apparently too many people made it to the end so they lengthened it. I don’t know how anyone made it because the lip on the jump is so sharp that people have learned the only way to have a chance to make the whole thing is to do a back flip off the jump. This preserves enough forward momentum, if you land successfully, to continue skimming. Let’s just say most people can’t do a backflip on skis in the middle of a pond so it was quite entertaining.

This guy is riding a cardboard bear. He made it across the first pond but didn’t make it very far off the jump.

This is how it is done! Video of one of the most successful entrants. 

Saturday evening as we explored the bar/music we again ran into Fairbanks Jerry, who had come down for the event, so we hung out with him and some friends. Fairbanks Jerry is clearly our AK connection so at some point on this trip we are going to have to visit him in Fairbanks and get the rest of the AK tour.

Sunday was the dummy downhill – unmanned contraptions sent down a steep hill and over a large jump – and the tug of war, both of which we watched between slushy ski runs. The best dummy downhill entry was the first one, made by kids from one of the local ski clubs. It was a cardboard mockup of a Piper Cub airplane, complete with flares for smoke. It had a spectacular jump and then crashed into the fence right in front of us. The best part was that the flares continued burning and it started to light the whole thing on fire. Fortunately the ski patrol came down and pulled it apart before it completely went up in flames.

The tug of war was unexpectedly fun as they had a huge kids division. I don’t care how warm it is, I don’t want to get pulled into a pool of water in the snow, but these kids didn’t seem to mind getting pulled in. Half of them jumped or dove in once their team lost. I found it rather amusing watching little kids get dragged into the icy water! The adult competition was much stiffer as apparently every rugby team in the Anchorage area entered a team.

After all the festivities we headed back up the hill for some last slushy runs. We stopped at the 7 Glaciers bar at the top of the tram for the much-touted but off-menu Fizz, made by only one of the bartenders. It was delicious and a great way to wrap up the trip. We started chatting with a couple guys next to us and found that one of them was good friends with the star of our CC hockey team while we were there. Now we get to visit the guy’s bar in Eagle River, AK. I wonder if he has any CC jerseys on the wall! Again, such a small world that we could be thousands of miles and 20 years removed from CC, but  in a bar at the top of a ski resort we run into the guy’s buddy.

Not a bad view for the bar tenders and patrons of 7 Glaciers.

We spent Sunday night again in the parking lot at Alyeska, but in the interest of blog economy, that’s it for now. I’ll add what we have been up to for the last couple days to the next post.



We have seen the light!

The Northern Lights, that is. Aurora Borealis. Ionized solar wind and magnetospheric plasma. Back on the Canada/US border we saw a few wispy strands of light. Last night we saw the real thing.

As yesterday was a rainy down day we moped around Turnagain Arm before deciding to rent split boards and head to sunny Hatcher Pass. We didn’t get to the parking lot until pretty late and shortly after we arrived we noticed the glow in the sky. Most of the time the lights were fairly subtle, but a few times the whole sky had a curtain effect and we could see the lights rippling, strengthening and fading in bands across the sky.

I grabbed my camera and started playing around with some long exposure times. Apparently it is pretty easy to take cool aurora photos because I got some good ones on my first try. Make sure your screen brightness is turned up well to see these. They are all 30-second exposures somewhere between 18mm and 35mm.

Sara admiring the view.

Seeing the Northern Lights was part of our original bucket list for this trip, though we had low expectations. Now we are so excited to have seen them and we are hoping for more. The aurora forecast for tonight is also strong so we are back on the pass hoping to see them again.

Today we got out on our rented splitboards for some more touring. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, someone figured out you could literally cut a snowboard in half and use the two halves like skis for touring. The boards use a special binding that converts between sitting sideways on the board for riding down, or turning on the “skis” for touring. It works remarkably well.

Hatcher Pass is just outside Palmer, AK a short drive from Anchorage. It sits on the south side of the Talkeetna Mountains. As with all the AK mountains, the peaks, bowls, gullies, and chutes are endless. You could spend all season here and ride a different amazing line every day. As this was our first real trip on splitboards we were just taking it easy. Also, it has been really warm the last couple days and the danger of wet slide avalanches is fairly high. We didn’t get a very early start on the hike up and by the time we got to the top we weren’t too happy to have spent so long on the south facing slope. Fortunately, our goal was to ride a west facing slope and it was still plenty firm despite the warm day and bright sun.

Sara hiking up with more of the terrain visible in the background.
Me higher on the ridge with a view of the valley in the background.
Switching our boards from walk to ride at the top.
Me visible riding down in the distance.
Kenai closely watching me ride down.
Kenai was still quite a ways behind Sara as he came down as fast as he could.
Poor boy was seriously tired!

We came back down to the van for a quick lunch and then decided to go back for another short run on some lower angle slopes where we knew we could safely play in the slush. We also had to get the boards back to Anchorage so we couldn’t take the time to hike back too high.

Sara starting off on our slushy run.

It was a really fun day, but of course now we each need another whole snowboard setup!

So tonight with the likelihood of more good Northern Lights we are back at Hatcher Pass. We are in a slightly higher parking lot where I hoped the view would be even better, but unfortunately there is an old abandoned mine, now a tourist site in the summer, with a light on in the middle of our viewing spot. It won’t matter for us watching, but I’m not sure what will happen with pictures. We shall see.

[Tailgate] Alaska! (Part 2)

(As I neglected my blogging responsibilities for too long I broke this post into two segments. If you are only catching up on the latest blog don’t miss out on the previous one. This is still going to be a long one!)

So Fairbanks Jerry, the guy we met at Liard Hot Springs, told us Tailgate Alaska was the place to be for aspiring backcountry enthusiasts so we headed for Thompson Pass near Valdez, AK. We arrived on Thursday late afternoon and found our camping spot in the parking lot. Then it was just a matter of wandering around and chatting with people to understand what was going on.

The Hund parked with Gully 1, Little Matterhorn, Gully 2, and the Berlin wall in the background from right to left.

Tailgate describes themselves as “a community of backcountry enthusiasts who gather for a 10 day event to ride the world’s most famous mountains” and I’d say that’s about right. I’m quite sure most of my friends, many of the loyal readers of this blog, might see the rv-filled parking lot as a bunch of dirtbag snowboarders, but you would be wrong. Among the many people there we met business owners, IT professionals, teachers, nurses, professional snowmobilers, and a pharmaceutical engineer. Allegedly there was also a former prosecutor and teacher who quit on embraced life there. Earlier in the week there was at least one pro snowboarder as well. There was a couple from Australia, three guys from Austria, and a couple of guys from France. There were people from at least AK, BC, QC, VT, MA, NJ, PA, CA, AB, OR, WY, MI and MN.

I guess it should have come as no surprise when I quit my job and moved in to a van to snowboard that I would end up listening to electronic dance music with laser effects in a quonset hut at the top of Thompson Pass, AK.

And while the participants are cool, the mountains are epic. Thompson Pass lies at 2800′ in the Chugach Mountains and is surrounded by glaciers and peaks rising to over 6000′ so it is “easy” to get runs of 3000 vertical feet if you want to hike for it. The terrain is essentially all alpine and you can climb/ski nearly anything in sight. For us that was somewhat of a problem because although I had hoped to have splitboards for touring this winter, our late start made us abandon that plan and focus solely on resort riding. We have snowshoes, but hiking much in snowshoes is miserable. And all of this is wrapped up by the fact that I’m not in any reasonable shape to hike thousands of vertical feet in the snow.

This brings me to the next aspect of Tailgate, which I was not completely anticipating. Snowmobiles a/k/a snow machines a/k/a sleds are a staple of backcountry riding here. Whether it is for access deeper/higher in the mountains from which to tour or to use as a much faster and more fun chairlift, snowmobiles are a huge part of the backcountry experience here. I suppose I have mixed feelings about this as there is a purity to human-powered touring, but the reason I am interested in touring is to get to epic lines or deep snow. My current goal is not to get out in the wilderness without any trace of another human – I still want to make as many awesome turns as possible. Snowmobiles are fast, effective, and fun as hell.

I also don’t have one or know how to ride one in the mountains. The sleds here were nothing like their trail-oriented relatives I’ve ridden before. The folks here aren’t doing trail rides from the gas stations to the diners to the ice fishing shack on a groomed trail. They are climbing super steep faces, gullies, and chutes along cliffs and glaciers. It is amazing to watch. (Occasionally they are also getting a bit carried away.)

Fortunately, for the right price (sometimes beer, but usually just some money), a kindly snowmobile owner will give you a “bump.” It can be more than a little terrifying to hold on tight to the steering column while the driver stands over you gunning it up some steep face. The skis are not on the ground half the time on the steep pitches and I was convinced we were going to wheelie over backwards at any moment. You can also get a bump from local bush pilot with his Super Cub on skis. As long as the light is right he can land on most of the tiny snow fields or glaciers in the bowls and you can hike to the ridge tops or just ride down.

Coming in for landing.
The snowy airstrip is just over the truck at the end of the parking lot.

So enough background. On Friday I signed up with the Skidoo demo guys, who brought their 2019 sleds for show/demo, for an intro to mountain riding course. I never went more than about 50 feet up the mountain, but we practiced various riding positions, how to control the sled on a sidehill, and how to ride on one ski. It was a rather humbling experience and made me appreciate why they call this type of snowmobiling a sport.

Practicing riding along the hill. It seems to be human nature to get right to the top of the arc and let off the gas, which often results in rolling sideways down the hill. We saw this happen quite a few times right outside camp as someone tried to ride up over the ridge right outside camp.
They set me up on the sled, but because I match I think I might have to get this one.

In the afternoon, Sara and I took our snowshoes and hiked up the face next to the parking lot and on up the ridge above. It was the first time I really appreciated the size of the mountains. We picked a spot we thought would be a reasonable hike, but there were about three unexpected ridges before we even got close. Finally we ended up at the base of an icy face we didn’t want to climb so we rode down from there.

Starting up. At least we could walk on all the snowmobile tracks.
Top of the first ridge.
Going higher.
It gets warm quick.
Kenai wants to go higher still.
That’s it. High enough. Let’s ride.
Coming down is the only time I can stay ahead of Kenai. He’s running as fast as he can to stay ahead of Sara in the relatively flat sections.

Friday evening was more of the dance club and “man games,” which this day consisted of jumping a snow skate over a flaming log. The only guy to really send it was the guy who helps build the snow skates!

On Saturday the sun came out and I decided to get a bump up Gully 2 across the road with Martin, the pharmaceutical engineer/snowboard instructor there with his son Oliver. Fairbanks Jerry had showed up to the party and he gave us the exciting/terrifying ride up Gully 2. When we got to the top there were the three Austrian guys looking up at the Berlin Wall – the chutes at the top of the bowl where they had just come down the most prominent chute.

[In a German accent.] “It’s not as steep as it looks.” Good, because it looks vertical.

“The snow is good for steep riding. The top was very icy so we down-climbed the top third before we started riding.” Hell, if they can do it I can do it, right?

Well, sort of. Their ascent was greatly facilitated by crampons and an ice axe, of which I had neither. I did have my touring poles with me so I shortened them down to use as leverage on the steep face. I had hoped to follow their steps, but they weren’t very deep and the wind had already filled them back in with snow in most places. As I went up I was really kicking hard with my soft snowboard boots to get steps in the crust under the one to six inches of soft snow on top. The climb was easily the most terrifying part, but I figured it was relatively low consequence as I would likely have just slid embarrassingly down the chute and out the bottom if I slipped badly. When I got to the point where I planned to stop, I realized I had no good way to get my board off my back and onto my feet. I thought there would be a slightly more level area along the rocks, but they were as steep as the chute. Fortunately down below me slightly there was a small windlip at the base of one rock so I down-climbed about 10 feet (more terrifying that climbing up) and kicked out a small shelf. I very carefully moved my pack around, got my board off, had a drink, and got my pack back on without dropping anything. The view was gorgeous.

The view from my shelf.
Looking back down the chute, onto the glacier, and then all the way back down to the parking lot below.

After the adrenaline of the climb, the run itself was almost anti-climactic as I’m sure I’ve ridden technically more difficult lines, but nothing compares to the overall feeling of being in Alaska, getting the bump to the glacier, hiking a steep chute, and laying down some awesome turns. I rode out to Martin below and said, “That’s why I quit my job!”

A screenshot from Martin’s helmet cam. If you look closely you can just see me in the middle of the chute that comes down diagonally left from the peak.
Looking back up at the line.

The ride back down Gully 2 to the base was almost as good. The scale out there is crazy so what looks from the other side like a normal ski run becomes 3000′ of a wide open, go-anywhere run. The reports from prior days were that the snow had really iced up in the gully, but with the later afternoon sun the crust had softened and it was really fun conditions bombing down.

One of the Austrians in position to film his buddies.
Martin in the main bowl of the gully.
Sara’s view from the bottom with a 400mm lens.
More perspective. The dots at the bottom of the picture are two of the Austrians and Martin and me.

On Sunday morning Sara took the same intro to mountain snowmobiling class while I slept in.

Sara practicing riding with both feet on the uphill running board.
She looks pretty badass. Maybe she should get the red one.

Sunday afternoon we took cross-country skis and skied over to Worthington Glacier, which is only about a mile up the way. It was amazing to see the thick, solid ice up close. I have to admit that despite knowing what a glacier was, I didn’t actually appreciate that it was solid, clear ice. I always think of the snowy side of a glacier that you see, but up close and looking into the cracks and crevasses it really makes you appreciate overwhelming mass of the frozen river of ice.

Inspecting one small edge of the Worthington Glacier.
Trying to get Kenai and Tanzi to taste the glacier.
Drinking a little piece of the Worthington Glacier.

So there it is. Tailgate Alaska was a party, a learning experience, and a chance for me to climb and ride the kind of amazing line I’ve dreamed about. Now we just need to find a way to get our hands on a couple snowmobiles so we can head deeper into the mountains with the rest of the crew.

Monday we drove into Valdez for a look around and a shower. Then we turned right back around and drove all the way to Anchorage and beyond along Turnagain Arm toward Alyeska. It was raining when we woke up and we are both tired from the last few days so we are taking a down day to relax and catch up.


Alaska! (Part 1)

(As I have neglected my blogging responsibilities for a while I am breaking this update into two posts so don’t forget to check both!)

After leaving Whitehorse, YT the terrain starts to become even more of what we expected on the Alaska Highway. As you approach Haines Junction the St. Elias mountains begin to appear. They are the first range of truly massive mountains with obvious glaciers and high peaks.

Just a quick snap out the window with my phone, but you can start to feel the scale of the much larger mountains.

In Haines Junction you turn north and follow the St. Elias Mountains for about 100 miles. Along the way you hit Kluane Lake, which is a huge, presumably beautiful lake when it is not frozen over. On the side of Kluane Lake is an area Dall Sheep winter. Sara and her brother stopped here in 2010 but did not see any sheep. We looked up high on the hill and immediately spotted about 50 sheep in a few groups, but they were so far away we could not get any pictures even with a telephoto. We kept going just around the corner and immediately saw three rams on the hill just above the road. As I grabbed the camera and started taking pictures, Sara realized they were essentially hanging out on Soldier Summit, a  memorial to the soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway and the location of the ribbon cutting to open the highway in 1942.

One of the rams looking up from below (with a 400mm lens).

We drove down the road and hiked up to the memorial. As we got on top we didn’t see the rams so I assumed they heard us coming and ran off, but in fact they were just over the edge of the hill below us! When they saw us they looked a little startled, but only moved very slowly away. I suspect they are pretty well habituated to humans if they hang out at the memorial.

He was a little shocked to look up and see us above him.
They quickly got back to business eating lichen melting out on the south facing slopes.
The view from the ridge back down to the road and Kluane Lake.
“Hello National Geographic. Why yes, I am available for assignment.”

After getting side tracked with sheep pictures, it was dusk as we approached the border. We couldn’t decide where we were likely to find the best roadside camping spots, but just as we approached the border we found a nice pullout on the Canada side. We are probably on some Homeland Security video somewhere as we were within a few hundred yards of the actual border.

That night Sara set her alarm so we could look out and check for the Northern Lights. We originally thought it would be unlikely we could see them on this trip because of the time of year, but Sara had done some more research and realized we had a good chance. Sure enough when her alarm sounded there was some light streaking in the northern sky. At first we just looked through the back windows of the van, but after the first round faded and we took a little nap, we saw them a second time so we went out to stand in the icy cold air. It was about 2:45 a.m. and hovering somewhere south of -7 deg. so my memory is a little fuzzy, but we definitely saw the Northern Lights. They were not a super green or colorful show (Sara thought she saw more green than I did), but we could definitely see the streaks slowly bending and shifting across the horizon. It was incredibly exciting to see, tempered slightly by having to wake up in the middle of the night and stand outside trying not to freeze to death.

During the night we were wondering if our heater was having problems because it was not as warm as usual. It was still completely comfortable, but not quite toasty. When we woke up (at the crack of 9:00 a..m. or so) it was still -7 deg. Well, that might explain it. Fortunately our water was still functional so perhaps our water system improvements did actually help.

We took the dogs for a short walk out a snowmobile trail and it was the quietest, most profoundly still feeling I have ever experienced. The sun was still low on the horizon, there was not a breath of wind, and it was very cold. I could very clearly hear sound, the cold snow crunching, the dogs running, the one or two cars driving along the road, but in between the sound was such a pure silence that my ears were ringing as if struggling to accept that there was no sound to register. It is definitely a unique sensation I will remember from that morning.

After breakfast we drove down the road the short distance to the border and took our celebration photo. We made it!

Powderhunds are in AK!
The 141st Meridian.

Beyond the border the mountains continued getting larger as the St. Elias mountains gave way to the Wrangells.

One of the early views of the Wrangells many miles away across the black spruce forest.
Just beyond the northern edge of the Wrangells are some rather massive volcanoes. 16,237′ Mount Sanford on the left and 12,010′ Mount Drum on the right.

The Alaska Highway was beautiful and an amazing drive, but seeing the massive mountains rising out of the huge spruce forests really made us feel like we had made it to Alaska.

After learning about Tailgate Alaska from Jerry, the guy in Liard Hot Springs, Thompson Pass was our goal for the day. We had to go see the party and jump right in to the Alaska backcountry snowboarding scene. Stay tuned for Part 2!

We’ve reached the Yukon.

After our questionable start on the AK Highway, our trip to Whitehorse, YK (and more A&W WiFi) has been thankfully uneventful. We hoped to make it to Liard River Hot Springs Monday night after the heater repair but we didn’t quite make it as the travel was, well, what one would expect driving north of the 60th parallel in early April.

Driving down from Summit Pass, the highest point on the AK Highway at 4250′.

We made it to Muncho Lake before deciding to call it a night. We found a turnout with a very nice expended plowed area where we could duck back in the trees. The heater fired up fine and kept as warm at roughly 10 deg.

The view of Muncho Lake from our rest stop in the morning. 

Before we hit Liard River Hot Springs we stopped at a pullout where you can take a short walk to an overlook where the Trout River has carved through the glacial dust to form hoodoo banks where the animals come to lick the salt. Unfortunately, we seem to be a little early as there were not even any tracks to suggest the animals have come up here yet.

The nice view of the river valley made the short hike worth it anyway.

We were less than 30 minutes from Liard River Hot Springs so that was our first stop. On a Tuesday morning in early April with an air temp. of 10 deg. we had the place to ourselves for a little while.

Cold and windy walk to the hot springs.
It still looks cold!
Super clear and wonderfully warm.
Hot springs selfie.

The water feeding the springs is quite hot, but it is moderated by snow melting in all around. It was fascinating to feel the difference as the hot water rose to the top and you could feel a major temperature difference between the top and bottom. I would be the water is far more uniform when a bunch of people are splashing around, but then the water is likely not so crystal clear.

There is a second pool below that is slightly cooler and it winds way back up a creek bed, but it is still warm enough to explore.

The warm(ish) water stays a few feet deep as it winds about 75′ back up the creek.

We spent a couple hours hanging out, not wanting to get out in the cold air. A guy from Fairbanks came along and we chatted about his 6 week ski trip through the lower 48 and about the happenings in Alaska we needed to see. Hopefully we will make it in time for Tailgate, a huge backcountry party on Thompson Pass, and/or Arctic Man, the self-proclaimed opposite of Burning Man, which appears to be a serious motorhead event. One of the events include a ski race where a skier is towed (at speeds up to 86 mph) behind a snowmobile. It looks like we are getting to AK just in time!

Our one disappointment for the drive has been the dearth of animals. Signs everywhere warn of stone sheep, bison, caribou, and moose, but we had seen nothing. Finally, after miles of bison poop along the side of the road, we came on a bison herd.

Around 50 bison just wandering down the side of the road.
These guys gave us a little show but their quarrel did not appear too serious.

The guy from Fairbanks suggested we stop in Watson Lake to check out the Sign Forest and it was worth it. The forest had its origin when the road was being built and workers and soldiers posted a sign with the distance to their hometown. Apparently the signpost in Watson Lake is the only original one left and people started adding on with their own signs. The info kiosk says that as of 2004 there were 55,000 signs! We were not prepared to add our own, but if we come back through we will be ready.

One of dozens of rows of signs. For those of you we know are reading, we found license plates from NH, ME, OR, a K-State Wildcats sign, multiple signs from New Zealand, and a lot of other familiar places.

Late yesterday evening we finally got lucky and saw two caribou crossing the road, but they went into the trees quickly.

Pretty good camouflage.
Yes, I think I took a picture of a peeing caribou, but that was the only time he stood in an opening.

Last night we pulled off to spend the night at the Squanga Lake airstrip – one of the many airstrips used in the early 1940’s by the military to supply Alaska and then to build the AK Highway. Again the heater worked fine, which continues to be important because the highest temperature we have seen for the last two days was 18 deg.

Just before Whitehorse this morning we stopped at Swan Haven Interpretative Center on Marsh Lake – essentially the start of the Yukon River – to see migrating Trumpeter and/or Tundra Swans. For some reason there are only three places with open water and the right conditions this time of year for migrating swans. With the extended cold right now there was only a thin strip of open water far from shore, but with binoculars and a big lens we could see some swans.

Bet you didn’t know that. We didn’t!
Sara counted 37 swans. They were a loooong ways away.

Whitehorse looks like a cool place to explore, but other than the inside of this A&W it will have to wait for the next trip as we are back on the road so we can get to Alaska. Only 708 miles to go to Anchorage.