Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Final trip of the year

We exceeded our expectations for our Fairbanks holiday training week by squeezing in a third overnight trip, this time into the Colorado Creek Cabin on the western edge of the White Mountains Recreation Area. Our friends warned us that this trail was "boring" compared to other routes in the Whites, but it was new ground for us, and was also one of the only cabins available at the last minute during the New Year's weekend. So we booked Sunday night and set out for our solo trip, just the two of us. We're both pretty good at the winter travel thing, but relatively new to cabin living — gathering deadfall, chopping wood, stoking a wood stove, melting snow, cooking a real dinner that isn't just candy bars. I was honestly more nervous about managing this aspect than I was about the fourteen-mile trek in. 

The temperature at the low-lying trailhead, milepost 57 of the Elliot Highway, was a balmy 5 degrees above zero. Someone asked me about this the other day, and yes, I am still referring to the Fahrenheit temperature scale (So -15˚C). It's interesting when you arrive to the cold shock of 39 below zero (-39.4˚C) and freeze your toes during a drive to the store — the internal heat gauge almost instantly resets and suddenly anything warmer kinda feels "warm," whether you're from Interior Alaska or coastal California. We were so toasty that I set out with my minimal layers of a shell coat, single fleece, thin hat, no gloves and the pole pogies pushed down to allow me to vent heat through my bare hands. 

The Colorado Creek Trail gradually climbed through a wide valley that had burned somewhat recently — there was a lot of deadfall and nothing green poking out of the minimal snow cover. The trail had likely been broken only a few days prior and was still quite soft. Travel was slow and tough despite the lack of steep hills.

I am getting better at the sled dragging, though — stronger. I actually wish I could drag a sled as a workout more often. I enjoy the mindless but hard effort, it makes me strong like bull, and it actually accomplishes a useful goal of hauling necessary supplies into incredible winter landscapes. And even though I would likely become an even slower runner than I already am, well ... Alaska doesn't much care if I can run fast or not. No one can outrun a stampeding moose or a grizzly bear.

After about ten miles of slogging through the burned forest, the trail climbed up onto a ridge with our first views of the limestone peaks of the Whites. It was beautiful up there, the kind of spot where I really would have loved to have the time, strength, and opportunity to keep traveling deeper into the mountains. This high valley was also a funnel for a powerful wind, blasting at our side. Single digits with no wind is like summer. Single digits with harsh windchill had my underdressed body well chilled within minutes. It was one of those situations where we were less than two miles from the cabin and I had naively buried my best wind layers in my sled. I had to weigh my reluctance not to stop with how cold I'd become before I reached the cabin if I didn't put on a balaclava and gloves. I waited until I couldn't feel my nose and my numb hands were no longer effective at thawing my cheeks, and stopped to dig around in my sled. Then I took the time to document the moment of frigidity. This photo sure looks cold to me.

Colorado Creek Cabin — our oasis in the valley of The Wind. We started a fire with the meager icy branches left behind by the last cabin user, along with a bunch of Beat's Esbit cubes. Beat set to the task of gathering and chopping wood while I started working on making water. The first batch of snow I gathered had floaties, so I pressed deeper into the woods to look for a clean patch. While I was fiddling with the pot on the stove, I noticed a strange burnt-hair kind of smell, followed by a snowstorm of white feathers. Ahhh! I'd brushed the sleeve of Beat's big down coat against the stove pipe and burned a hole into the sleeve. It happened so fast it was surreal. I took the coat off and darted around the cabin, trying to collect the feathers before they fell on the ground. This was the coat that got Beat through the Iditarod last year, and although he's acquired an even better one since then, I was shaken and upset by what I'd done to this much-appreciated piece of gear. Beat took it well and said he could fix the coat (and in fact, already has), but the mishap did cast a dark cloud over my cabin experience. Cabin living — sometimes it seems easier to just not stop.

The rest of the night went smoothly, though. I made better water and fried up sausage and couscous for dinner, followed by hot chocolate and dulce de leche ice cream for dessert. I wrote a rambling entry in the cabin log about the hilarity of two Californians melting snow and chopping wood in the Alaskan backcountry. Although temperatures were still in the single digits when we arrived, the south wind carried some amazingly warm air; temperatures rose as high as 27 degrees (-2.7˚C) and quickly dropped back to single digits whenever the wind calmed for more than a few minutes. Crazy weather. After ice cream, we went out for a moonlight stroll on the ridge, postholing in big drifts as we marched toward a high point that always seemed right there on the horizon, but the open slope only continued to climb.

The next day was New Year's Eve, and our last full day in Fairbanks, a reality that bummed me out a little. I wasn't ready to leave just yet, not ready at all. In fact, the idea of returning to full yellow sunshine, dry dirt, green redwood forests, and 60-degree temperatures made me feel melancholy. I enjoy my life in California, a lot. Everything is close by if I want it, including mountains and snow. But there's something about Alaska, every part of Alaska, that needles its way into my soul, every time.

We descended back into the burned forest. I didn't even realize how much elevation we'd gained the day before; the trail out was almost runnable, and we moved well. Although I was sad about leaving, I savored the hike out. Winter sled dragging is just my kind of thing. Tough enough to keep me on the edge, but mindless enough to let me turn inward, consistently beautiful, and functional in its own way. Four hours and fourteen miles is just enough effort to leave me satisfactorily knackered, which is perfect because that's all the daylight we have to work with in Fairbanks' December.

Beat was able to squeeze in more gear testing, trying out his lightweight ice creepers on frozen overflow.

The final sunset of the year gave a fitting sendoff for a great trip. Happy New Year. 


  1. Alaska is a uniquely beautiful and captivating place. I'm proud to call it my place of birth - and I'm always pleased to return for a visit.

    With elderly parents to tend to and spoil while I'm there, I don't get out into the beauty of the wild places in these recent years. Thanks for sharing your visit, and for the beautiful photos.

    *Also glad it wasn't your own hair that was burning!

    All the best in the New Year -

  2. I laughed because my cabin's sole source of heat is wood. Feel free to come up and help me fell trees, chop split etc. However it is not as cold for as long as Alaska. Sounds like a great trip.

  3. Herron Park is pretty good for sled dragging now that it sees more use and there is more packed trail. I need some sled dragging training but it's hard to tear myself from skiing :p

    Beautiful photos.

  4. Mary, my life plan used to include buying a small dry cabin in Fairbanks where I could live and work in the winter, and spending most of my summers mobile. Maintaining a place like that is definitely an endurance sport in itself. Would be fun, though, in its own way. Especially when I learn how to not burn my stuff on the wood stove. :-)

  5. hey Jill its Chris D. Great post and pics. glad to hear you are back in Alaska for a bit. I'm housesitting at Geoff and Libby's. Skiing seems to be getting better and better here. We miss you here in Juneau. Sean's bday tonight at sandy beach. take care and would be great to see you sooner than later!


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