Saturday, March 20, 2010

Into the Interior

Well, I made it to Fairbanks. It's a beautiful first day of spring, sunny and warm - 33 degrees. Downright tropical in this part of the world. I haven't been to this region of Alaska in nearly seven years; I'm actually surprised how much of it feels familiar to me. We had a great trip up, traveling overland - the only way to travel. We took the ferry to Skagway and chugged up White Pass in my friend Bjorn's old Subaru (crossing our fingers the entire way). We visited friends in Whitehorse and continued north on the Alaska Highway to Kluane Lake, where we geared up for an overnight "ski" trip (I was on snowshoes) in the frigid mountains of the Yukon.

We started up Sheep Mountain on the grade of an old mining road. The surface was knee-to-thigh deep sugar snow with occasional - and often completely invisible until you punched through and twisted a knee - thin-frozen crust. It felt like wading through a bottomless bucket of sand. Strenuous and slow going. Bjorn broke trail most of the way. I tried to forge ahead to do my share, but I could scarcely keep up with him. I'm not used to hoisting 25 pounds of winter gear on my back, and he had that ski advantage (although, really, it hardly looked like an advantage in these conditions.)

We trudged upward for nearly five hours, barely making five miles during that time, and we were nowhere near where we had hoped to be - somewhere closer to the ridge of Sheep Mountain or at least in the alpine bowl. We did see some Dall sheep, however, not to mention a veritable highway of wolf and coyote tracks. But, sunset was well on its way and we decided we wanted to be closer to the car for the Friday drive to Fairbanks, so we started down. The worst part about the snow is it didn't even pack down, so we basically had to break trail through sugar going downhill as well. Bjorn didn't get to do much skiing at all. I actually felt like snowshoes were an advantage, since I could at least pick up my feet while he had to shuffle through the sand. He did manage to slide a little, though, even with skins on.

The part about the ski trip that I was really excited about was the camping. We set up the tent on the shoreline of the Slim River, donned down coats and fired up the stove to melt snow. Winds were light and dusk temperatures were about 15 degrees - really mild for the Yukon in March. We were able to sit outside around our "campfire" of a stove, drinking hot water (we both forgot to bring tea) and eating frozen turkey sandwiches and Snickers bars. There was no wind, and if we stopped talking, the valley was so quiet that we could hear animal sounds in the far distance - small creatures running, coyotes yipping, wolves howling. It was really quite special. We settled into our Arctic bags and fell asleep to the ranging silence. The overnight temperature dropped below zero and I got one of the best nights of sleep I have had in a long time.

The ski out on the Slim River was pretty mellow, which helped make up for our afternoon of wallowing the day before. It's certainly questionable whether I should have participated in a ~11-hour overnight hike just a couple of days before my bike race, but in this case, as in many cases, it was exactly what I needed. Things here in Fairbanks have been kind of stressful - as they should be, I guess, since I am gearing up for this 100-mile bike race. Trail conditions and weather both look to be good. I'm enamored with this harsh Interior landscape and I can't wait to get out on the trail. The race begins at 8 a.m. Sunday. I'll be carrying my SPOT unit along the way, so you can track my progress (or possible lack thereof) at this link: My Shared Page.

Race updates here.

Wish me luck!