Monday, March 20, 2017

Road trip

My Canada plans necessitated a quick turnover — drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage, return the rental car, meet up with my friends, and continue to Whitehorse, Yukon the following day. It involved more than a thousand miles on winding, icy, frost-heaved roads over two days. I didn't mind. I love road trips. Especially when I'm solo — I can guzzle gas-station coffee, stop at road pullouts, and take photographs to my heart's content. 

The mountains south of Nenana in the morning.

Sunrise to the east (not south, as is the case at this latitude near the winter solstice.) I loved watching the sun come up at a not-early hour. I am a big fan of Daylight Savings Time — later sunrises, later sunsets, more daylight where it's useful. There's nothing not to like for outdoorsy night owls. People who complain about DST either have small children, are morning people, or must never travel to different time zones, because how can a measly one-hour shift ruin your whole week?

Moonset over the Parks Highway.

Sundog. The car thermometer registered temperatures as low as -37 shortly after sunrise.

The burgeoning metropolis of Healy, Alaska. The thermometer in the background reads -16F, although my car still showed -26. It felt -26, I'll tell you that much.

Besides being nose-hair-freezing cold, the wind was incredible. Spindrift raced across the road, capturing the morning light until it looked like glowing curtains, caught in a vacuum. Through the narrow corridor of the Nenana River valley, the wind was easily blowing 30mph, gusting to something much higher. At one stop, as soon as I opened the driver's-side door, a gust ripped it out of my hand with such force that I thought the entire door would break off its hinges. It did not, but as I stepped out, a equally strong gust pushed me onto my knees, bare hands slapping the icy pavement, windchill flash-freezing my face. There were several screamed swear words as I stood up to face the wind, grinning at its sinister roar. How do people ever survive going outside during the Alaska winter? A few hours in a climate-controlled vehicle is enough to let me forget.

Between plans to meet my friend Jorge in Anchorage for an early dinner (Jorge is a Colorado friend who'd recently dragged a sled 500 miles between Big Lake and Ruby as part of the Iditasport race) and meeting Jill and Morgan to load up the truck, I couldn't dawdle too much. But if the weather was clear, which it was, I'd calculated 2.5 extra hours into my itinerary to take a side trip into Denali National Park. The park road had been cleared to a picnic area ten miles from the entrance. My rental SUV was the only vehicle there for the duration of my visit, judging by tire tracks. 

This wasn't surprising, as it wasn't the nicest day to tour a national park. The temperature was -15, and the wind was still blowing fiercely. I just wanted to take a few photos, so I donned my puffy jacket, mittens, and balaclava, and set out on the Mountain Vista loop trail, which was an unsatisfying one kilometer. Although I was still wearing jeans and only a thin pair of socks in boots, I continued across the road to the Savage Alpine Trail.

The scenery was beautiful, with sparkling mist and impressive plumes of snow streaming off the mountains. In a happy daze I managed to walk two miles before I'd climbed above treeline and felt the full brunt of the wind pummel my body. Suddenly my butt and thighs were on fire. The jeans did nothing. I turned around and started jogging, but the pain only became worse. So I broke into a full run. In this direction the wind was at my face, and my legs were unhappy to say the least. It was exhilarating in its own way, though. How long does it take to frostbite legs?

This is my "I hiked too far through a -30 windchill in jeans" face. My thighs and butt were beet red, and didn't come fully back to life for another two hours. But for the most part, no worse for the wear.

Leaving Denali National Park.

The low-lying pass that allows the Parks Highway to climb over the Alaska Range.

Looking back at the crazy cold wind.

Although my butt was still numb a hundred miles later, I walked a few hundred yards into a closed rest area to catch one last glimpse of Denali.

The following day we made the 700-mile trip between Anchorage and Whitehorse. I spent most of the drive sitting in the back seat of a truck with tinted windows, so didn't take any photos. My friend Jill was towing a long wooden row boat on a trailer, for the purpose of leaving it in Canada for a while. So it was a 14-hour-long drive where we only made a couple of too-quick stops for gas and snacks. Slow and meandering is definitely the preferable way to go with these sorts of trips, even if it does result in frozen butt.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Taking flight at Angel Rocks

After our White Mountains trip, Beat decided to fly home from Fairbanks for two weeks before returning for the White Mountains 100. I'd made prior plans with friends in Canada, so I opted to stay in Alaska. On my own again Monday morning, I decided to check out a place I'd never visited — Chena Hot Springs. 

Although Chena Hot Springs is famous for Northern Lights viewing and of course a warm pool, I had no intention of going for a soak. Instead, I planned to hike through the granite formations of Angel Rocks, and if conditions were conducive, traverse 8.5 miles to Chena Hot Springs. It was a gorgeous morning — still 10 below zero at 11 a.m., but sunny and clear.

 I felt great on this day — the best I've felt all month. It's one of those random things — I haven't felt quite so wonderful since. However, this day was perfect for ridge walking. I marched along the Chena River, where the air was so still that I could hear the squeak of small animals walking along the snow. Frost swirled around my face and clung to my eyelashes and nose. The first thousand feet of climbing disappeared beneath my snowshoes in a seeming instant.

After a mile and a half, the packed trail more or less ended. From there the going wasn't quite so effortless as I punched through fragile wind crust into bottomless sugary powder. The sub-ridge was steep and relentless, and while I encountered old snowshoe tracks, they were too windblown to follow for long. By the time I reached the high point on the ridge — a 2,800-foot dome surrounded by an 360-degree ripple of mountains — my throat was on fire. You know, that feeling you get when you've been breathing hard in cold air — deep, penetrating breaths. The kind of breaths I don't often achieve these days.

Up to that point, I hadn't even decided if I'd attempt the whole traverse. But as soon as I tasted that cold fire, I started bounding down the ridge at a full run. My lungs seared as I paddled through the crusty snow, kicking up a fountain of powder. Although my breathing quickened, it didn't cause distress, so I continued at a hard jog as the ridge undulated upward. Fire-tinged oxygen flowed from lungs to heart and filled my body with vitality. It's an incredible thing — running. Why did I ever take it for granted? Why do I ever take anything for granted?

 Fearing that this energy could implode at any minute, I did eventually slow down my stride to a brisk walk. Still, this never caught up to me — the gasping listlessness that clamps down every time I push myself too hard. This time, a hard effort wasn't too hard. It felt incredible. I sauntered down to Chena Hot Springs as though I was riding on a cloud.

The resort was packed to the brim with tourists. I stopped for a coffee at the activities center (Because of the symptoms of Graves Disease, I have been trying to cut back my rather extreme coffee habit by only drinking one cup in the morning, two if I must, but no mid-day coffee allowed. But I deserved this coffee, damn it.) I probably could have asked someone leaving the hot springs for a ride, but I felt stoked about nine-mile road walk.

Clouds had moved in, along with a stiff breeze, and flurries swirled in the subzero air. It must have looked a bit dire, because about three miles down the road, a van passed and then braked hard to pull over fifty meters in front of me. I jogged toward the vehicle and found it full of 20-something Japanese men — five passengers and a driver, excitedly asking me if I was okay.

"Yes, I'm okay," I said. "I'm just hiking back to my car. It's six miles down the road. Do you mind giving me a lift?"

I had the impression that not a single word had been understood, but the driver motioned vigorously and two guys squeezed together to make room for me. Within a minute, every one of the passengers went back to staring at their phones, and the driver was bobbing his head gently to Bon Jovi on the stereo. Another Bon Jovi song came on, and I realized it wasn't the radio — these 20-something guys were listening to Bon Jovi on purpose. I caught a glimpse of the mile marker I'd been waiting for, and leaned forward to motion to the driver.

"Angel Rocks Trailhead is coming up," I said. "Can you let me off there?"

He glanced at me with a confused expression. I pointed straight and then motioned to the left. Then I saw the sign. "Over there. Angel Rocks Trailhead."

He took the hint that I wanted to pull over, and did so. As soon as he stopped, he turned to me with a bewildered look on his face.

"I'll get out here," I said. "I can walk down to my car."

"Out here?" he asked with a tone of concern.

"I have a car down there," I said, pointing down a narrow, snow-covered driveway that wound into the thick woods.

"A car?" he asked with similar bewilderment.

It was quite clear he didn't want me to leave the safety of his warm vehicle. So I said a quick, "Thank you. Thanks so much for the ride!" and hopped out before he could lock the doors. The van continued to linger at the pullout as I walked down the road and out of sight.

Ten minutes later, as I drove out in my rental vehicle, the van was gone. Now I wonder what those chivalrous young men thought about this strange American woman who appeared and then disappeared into a scary, frozen wilderness.

I hoped that maybe the incident inspired them to look up from their phones to the world outside. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hard love

What love is this that beckons us into these burned hills, where matchstick spruce crouch away from a subarctic wind? How do we love these capricious trails, even after miles of clumped sugar snow swallows our momentum like an endless runaway truck ramp? How can we adore every steep climb? Every thirteen-hour slog just to reach a place to sleep? Or the ice particles stuck to our faces at twenty below? What is this love?

It was inevitable that Beat and I would end up in the White Mountains. With Beat fresh off his Iditarod effort and me wanting "easy as possible" to best manage my thyroid symptoms, we looked into available cabins. March is a popular month in this recreation area. Even during the mid-week, we only found openings at the cabin furthest from the road system (Windy Gap) and another off route up a mile-long wall (Eleazar's). It would amount to 80 miles of hilly trails, with Beat pulling a sled and me riding a bike. We'd already heard recent reports of slow trail conditions, so I figured the bike would allow me to travel 1.5 times Beat's speed, at best. But that was enough time for longer rests. Beat justified the 80-mile hike by reasoning that he was already back in training. He recently secured a spot in the White Mountains 100, which is happening in two weeks.

The weather was forecasted to warm up on Wednesday, but temperatures plummeted again on Tuesday night. We hedged our bets with a later start on the 40-mile day. Our car's thermometer registered 36 below as we drove past the low-lying Chatanika River. The hilltop trailhead was -8, but the warmth was relatively short-lived. After six miles of rolling along a broad ridge, the route plummets into another low-lying area, Wickersham Creek, where temps were still in the -20s. Descending the "Wickersham Wall" at these temperatures feels like plunging into a glacier lake, ice-cream headache and all. My body was all over the map with thermoregulation. I would sweat while wearing minimal layers, then suddenly feel a chill and continue to shiver after I bundled up. Then the heat would suddenly return. After a few costume changes I decided that as long as my feet and hands felt warm, I'd just ignore the chills and go with the lighter option. 

Running hot and cold should have been an early indicator that this wasn't going to be a great day for me. I've had plenty of "bad" days this winter that I attributed to allergy shots, altitude, or mild illness. But as I learn more about Graves Disease, I think I do have days when my hormones are more out of whack than others. This wasn't a good day to be off balance. I had dozens of miles to travel, and the sugary trail wasn't giving up a millimeter of momentum. Riding felt like churning through wet cement. My heart pumped as though my blood was full of sludge. My breathing worsened, so I took more breaks. A few times I leaned the bike against a tree and sat directly in the snow until my butt went numb. I thought about taking a beta blocker pill to shut down the adrenaline and calm my heart, but worried that I wouldn't be able to continue riding afterward. I wanted to ease up the effort, but it seemed impossible to move any more slowly.

All of these solutions were overcompensating, of course. It's not like I was having a heart attack. But I was overdoing it. I know that. I do well with two-to-four-hour efforts. Even my endocrinologist said exercising shouldn't be an issue as long as I take care not to push myself, and as long as I avoid stressors. A few seconds of road rage would be worse for me than days of pleasant biking. But these long efforts — especially the kind that are challenging no matter what I do — need to be deferred until I'm healthy. 

It's difficult not to be greedy, though — to long for the limestone spires that rise above Fossil Creek, which you can only see if you're willing to venture thirty-plus miles away from the nearest road, which itself stands alone in an expansive and often inhospitable wilderness.

It's difficult not to be greedy for that sensation when, after 12-plus hours of slogging until a crushing darkness arrives, you arrive at a cabin. It's small and simple, but it's a place where you can spread your sleeping bag across a wooden bench, lie down, and breathe the rhythm of satisfaction and relief.

It's difficult not to be greedy about ice cream cones, carried for twelve hours and deep-frozen by the air outside. I barely had time to start a fire and hang up my gear before Beat arrived at Windy Gap, about 40 minutes after me. He put in a hard effort, and looked ragged. We barely got the ice cream down before we both passed out.

Ice cream, Mountain House, Fireball hot chocolate, and a full night of sleep did wonders. The following day, I felt a lot better. Just like that. The weather had turned gloomy, and flurries of snow fell through a thick haze. Since we established that my riding pace was about the same as Beat's walking pace, we agreed to meet up after 15 miles to drink hot chocolate in the brisk wind.

Although I felt markedly better, I didn't want to push my luck. So I walked the hills and otherwise puttered along at an enjoyable pace. Sucker holes revealed hints of blue, and a "sundog" rainbow arced through the sky.

A calmer heart and better breathing made a world of difference. I felt relaxed and full of joy. There was no place in the world I'd rather be. Friends have suggested that it would be better for healing if I'd spent this month lying on a beach. They're probably not wrong. But if it was a crowded beach, I'd become stressed. If it was warm, I'd be sweaty and miserable. We all have the places we go to feel alive. Places where the air tastes like cinnamon and mountains stretch beyond the horizon. I love the White Mountains. I know they do not love me back, that I'm surrounded by a thousand things that could kill me, and that my body isn't well enough for this place. But a life without White Mountains is not a life I want. So what do I do?

The final mile to Eleazar's was a grunt, ascending 600 feet on soft trail. My meditative joy had faded, and I was ready to be done. Just like that. My shoulders burned as I pushed the bike, and I invented games to avoid staring at my GPS the entire time. My iPod was playing, so I vowed that after one song, I could look at the distance. One-tenth of a mile. Damn it. Another song finished, and only another tenth had passed. After three-tenths of a mile, I tried to focus on being more present. Spruce trees looked like little dogs begging for treats. Hare tracks mottled the snow. The last hints of daylight turned the sky violet and gold. "I even love this climb," I told myself.

Eleazar's was a nice cabin — stocked with firewood, matches, and propane for a brand-new lantern. The cabin sits on a bluff high above Wickersham Creek, but sadly it was still too cloudy for aurora viewing. I started a fire, moved armfuls of firewood inside, gathered fresh snow for melting, arranged my meager belongings, and waited for Beat to arrive. After a day mostly traveling alone, it was a spirited reunion — Beat ranted about the crappy trail. I quietly insisted that if a hiker thinks it's bad, imagine how a biker feels. Beat lamented his poor training. I lamented my crappy body. Beat asked me if I saw the sundog. I asked him if he saw the 7-year-old girl driving a snowmachine. We shared kisses and ice cream cones, then fell asleep on hard benches. I'm definitely not of the school that believes all good adventures need to be shared, but I was grateful Beat came back from the Iditarod Trail early this year. 

By morning the sky had cleared, and it was warm — 8 above. I wanted to stay at Eleazar's all week, doing all those mundane tasks again and again. But it was time to return to Fairbanks.

We only had 12 miles to travel, and though it took four hours, time went by quickly. Physically I felt good and the weather was beautiful, yet I was still a little melancholy. I didn't know why. Disappointment about my limitations? Guilt about taking this trip? Wistfulness about leaving? Lately my emotions haven't made as much sense as they used to, so I cling to what I know. I love the White Mountains. And I'm grateful for every chance to come back.