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. 


  1. What a treat to see you have two great post up after my grind of a week working in the cities! Thanks for sharing your stories and pictures as they help fill my empty space of connecting with tides me over till I can get "out there". Which I should be in Alaska next month but it will not be for long enough.
    It is great day when mind and body flow together, the awareness of the environs, like you say, the sensation of fire in your throat from the cold dry air ripping moisture with each breath. The sounds and sights....well, your able to really capture that in words that resonate with joy.
    The "Hard Love" post was very moving and joyful. How could one not feel melancholy when a deep feeling of time and place brings such inner peace, leaving can only be sweet sadness as part of ourselves is bound to the meaning and connection experienced. There is a sadness/joy (the dichotomy of existence) knowing that we can never have that same exact era.....we can only create new ones! Life is Good!

  2. "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."


    Laurie in MN


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