The Traverse: Part II

Persevering through the Eastern Alaska Range

I gave them an out. It had rained all night long and, as I shivered through the endless grey summer night curled up under the upper half of my old down sleeping bag—the lower half, a soggy ball of feathers leftover from an ill-managed river crossing the day before, slowly leaking its contents onto the floor of my tent—I knew my trek was over. By morning I’d convinced myself that we all might be better off to call it quits. Our team of eight was cut in half. Senior of its remnants was Peter Winsor, a UAF professor of oceanography, climber of serious note, long-distance hiker, and, in his apparently not-so-distant youth, a member of Sweden’s Special Forces. Next in line, Steven Miley, was a 32-year-old engineer-turned-professional-wilderness photographer who alone among us had previously visited—on his own—much of the terrain that had to date seriously challenged our team. And finally, carrying the heavy bulk of our drone videography and battery charging gear, the Brothers Wilson, Philip and Grant, at 23 and 18 years old respectively, were technologically gifted throwbacks to a time when men were men in Alaska. Of these four remaining stalwarts the youngest was gimpy. Grant’s recently sprained ankle fared well, but the accompanying knee for some reason was seriously bothering him. They had little reason to think that the rain and fog that had pursued us for seven days would lift any time soon. And it was getting noticeably colder. I caught glimpses of new snow dusting the impossibly distant slopes that somehow still seemed to hang over us. Close by but still a safe couple hundred yards away, the East Fork of the Little Delta roared flood-stage warning to any who would approach; crossing that was a consideration only for the suicidal.

I caught glimpses of new snow dusting the impossibly distant slopes that somehow still seemed to hang over us. Close by but still a safe couple hundred yards away, the East Fork of the Little Delta roared flood-stage warning to any who would approach; crossing that was a consideration only for the suicidal.

I was the titular head of this ambitious exploratory expedition setting out to assess the feasibility of a thru-hike route in the Eastern Alaska Range, from Black Rapids to an exit somewhere along the Parks Highway in the vicinity of the Denali Park entrance. But I had long ago ceded operative authority to the younger, stronger hearts of my trail partners. So when I weakly suggested maybe we should end the “thru” part of the hike here, set up a base camp and spend the five-day depot supply of stashed food and fuel exploring up the Gillam Glacier and visiting the seldom seen ramparts of Mountains Hess and Deborah, it wasn’t a directive. In my fanciful imagination I had secretly hoped at the start of the thru-hike to be able to pause at this point in the hike to do just that. Mt. Deborah boasts the largest vertical face—7000’—in North America and though we can see its shadow from Fairbanks, few have ever seen it up close…

My teammates acted like they didn’t even hear me and I can now, in retrospect, thank them for their grace and kindness in simply ignoring me. There was no hesitation in the four men who saddled up in the rain and fog and confidently disappeared up river into terrain I had long imagined, but have yet to see.

Eighty miles of rugged Eastern Alaska Range backpacking awaited them if they could find a way across the massive outpouring of rock and ice that is Gillam Glacier. Stepping over a Dall sheep skull on a game trail, not one mile from the one easy way out, was a bony reminder that not all who traveled these parts survived. As the team approached the glacier’s terminal snout, they realized the relatively narrow but raging river outflow channel they’d followed upstream was fed by a wide lake in a vast outwash plain.

Skirting that lake they mounted the rock-covered ice of the glacier’s southern edge. The rain intensified as they once again labored up and down the hilly morass of tippy, terminal moraine, seeking to bypass the glacial lake outflow and gain the northern valley shore. Alas, the glacier gods were not quite done with them and a very wide, slowly moving stream of muddy grey, ice-cold glacier water soon blocked the final passage to the valley slopes and their intended route. Giant chunks of collapsed glacier ice floating by in the gloom did not deter Peter’s exploratory pokes with hiking poles of the stream’s murky depths; he briefly breasted chest-deep water before retreating and finding an alternate water route he could safely navigate.

The remaining crew was not assured. Philip was less than 24 hours removed from an earlier dunking with me during a much smaller stream crossing after following in Peter’s confident footsteps. So the three seriously considered winding their way farther up the glacier, seeking to cross above the outflow’s source. But in the foggy murk of the ever-present rain, the thought of uncertain miles of challenging moraine steeled their resolve and bolstered their confidence in Peter’s lead. He now stood hypothermic on a shore too far away to hear his chattering encouragement. Steven entered the freezing torrent first and when the river reached his upper thighs and he felt the full force of the current he second-guessed that brave choice. A simple misstep in his sideways shuffle could spell disaster and wash him downstream; aide would be impossible and death, if not inevitable, at least uncomfortably close. But at that critical moment of doubt, the glacier gods smiled; his next step found the stream floor closer to the surface and soon he moved easily towards his shivering teammate and the far shore.

The Brothers Wilson seriously considered turning back. Grant had a ready excuse with his bum knee and Philip already had one brush with watery catastrophe. But boys never really outgrow peer pressure and they soon found themselves happily on the far shore, thighs stinging and feet frozen.

The rain let up long enough to boil water for drinks, lunch, and spiritual renewal before the burdened slog up a steep wall of brush and onto a broad bench overlooking Gillam Glacier. They were finally free of glacier crossings, having mastered six in seven days; the miles of unbroken tundra leading towards Buchanan Creek and Pass beckoned like a soggy green welcome mat. After several miles the tired team decided to set up camp in the ongoing drizzle rather than risk the anticipated arrival of heavier rain.

By now their nighttime ritual had become routine: set up a tent still wet from its morning packing, throw “dry” sleeping bag and pad into the tent, unpack some warm clothing and cooking gear, change into said clothing, scrounge around for dinner water, and finally settle into the tent and debate with your tentmate over whose turn it was to hunch at the entrance and cook. Sleep came soon after with the serenade of rain on the fly. Never does shelter feel more cozy than when listening to the shedding of nighttime raindrops on thin nylon. While they slept, the comforting pitter turned to the soft sighs of wet snowflakes. The misery of a long slog in still-wet boots and socks over snow-speckled tundra to Buchanan Creek and then steadily up on snow-covered stream-bed rocks to a pass somewhere in the clouds was leavened by considerations of equal measure: retreat would have meant re-crossing Gillam Glacier while advance would be rewarded by the promise of air-mailed Big Macs courtesy of the bush-pilot dad of Philip’s girlfriend, Mary. The team slogged on.

The ironman, Peter, would ultimately admit that he regretted only for that day his choice of ultra-light hiking shoes—glorified tennis shoes really. His momentary regret, however, did not prevent him from proudly displaying his shredded footgear in the terminal celebration at Healy’s 49th State Brewery.

You’d think finding their way down the other side of Buchanan Pass towards the West Fork of the Little Delta would be simple. But with the low ceiling of clouds nothing was obvious. A close look at a topo map would have warned that a slight lean to the west could redirect the team into a maze of glaciers and dead-end cirques. But the team’s Army scout, Steven Decker [see The Traverse, Part 1 in LFM May/June 2019 issue] wasn’t around with his maps so the team blindly relied on their phones.

…the chant suddenly became an insistent alarm, “HEY BEAR!” The acolytes scrambled to join their brethren and saw over their suddenly still shoulders two sizeable grizzly bear cubs less than a dozen yards away, returning their startled gaze.

In time the team came down from the clouds and descended the gently sloping, no-name creek bed that drained the pass’s northern aspect. They soon found themselves winding through bear-friendly brush. In the lead, Philip and Peter began routinely chanting the Alaskan bush mantra, “Hey, Bear,” while, like acolytes of some animalistic cult, Grant and Steven marched, heads bowed, eyes on the ground, for miles along behind until…

…the chant suddenly became an insistent alarm, “HEY BEAR!” The acolytes scrambled to join their brethren and saw over their suddenly still shoulders two sizeable grizzly bear cubs less than a dozen yards away, returning their startled gaze. All four hikers anxiously started scanning the thick surrounding brush for Mama Bear, but when she didn‘t appear in the ensuing minutes, the cubs moved off into the brush allowing the team to pass. What doesn’t kill you, makes for awesome video footage!

The way was finally clear for Ronald McDonald. Nearing the drainage’s confluence with the West Fork, the team set up on a hillside blueberry patch like kids waiting by the chimney for Santa. Steven sat patiently, watching smoke rise from the chimney of a remote hunting cabin in the valley below. But his thoughts were not on roasting chestnuts; he dreamed only of drying his sodden gear in the radiance of a woodstove.

The distant growl of the promised delivery roused him from his reveries and for a few glorious moments my rugged teammates were kids in the Ronald McDonald playhouse anticipating the clown’s arrival. They settled for four quarter pounders and twenty chicken nuggets, and a fresh batch of precious topo maps. They’d grown tired of squinting at rain-smeared smartphone screens to find their way.

It would have taken four flyovers to satisfy, but all agreed, after a second freeze-dried course, to call it dinner, and a day.

Their arrival was less than glorious as a town dog chased them away from the lure of backyard barbecues …

Morning of day nine dawned on a visibly diminished West Fork and the team hustled to break camp before she changed her mind. As they ate a hurried breakfast they watched as a bush plane landed on a handy gravel bar, discharging hunters and their gear to the aforementioned cozy cabin. When our team finally arrived at their intended river crossing, they were met by the hunting guide who asked after their waders. He could hear their laughter long after our boys made frozen footholds on the far bank.

The easy crossing in the end proved ill-advised. In their haste to cross the river the team overlooked the fact that just upstream it forked away to the north forcing them to follow that branch along its northern shore a long way up the wrong valley. Ultimately, they were able to ford that branch and return back to the main channel of the river they’d managed to cross twice!

The easy crossing in the end proved ill-advised. In their haste to cross the river the team overlooked the fact that just upstream it forked away to the north forcing them to follow that branch along its northern shore a long way up the wrong valley. Ultimately, they were able to ford that branch and return back to the main channel of the river they’d managed to cross twice!

Back on route the four cruised easily on the graveled shoreline for several miles before turning up their intended side-valley portal to the Wood River Valley. The clouds parted as they made their way up this beautiful nameless drainage and they made camp between two pristine mountain-side creeks. In sunshine for the first time in nine days of backpacking, Philip and Grant were finally able to charge cameras and the drone with the heavy solar panels and charging unit they’d lugged from Black Rapids. A skittish herd of young caribou left them and that side of the valley to their task.

With the sky clear of its insulating cloud cover, that night was the coldest of the expedition. Peter’s frozen tenny runners thawed the next morning only as the sun rose and he scrambled his way up a steep scree slope leading to a pastel pass overlooking the Wood River Valley. A few browsing Dall sheep watched the rest of the team’s approach, and a golden eagle cruised low over their arrival.

Fresh bear scat welcomed the boys to a well-trodden game trail leading down to a charming creek. They waded through canyon pinch points as they leisurely followed the stream for miles to its confluence with the Wood River.

The sun came out and the team settled down for a lazy lunch staring at the distant glaciers and peaks at the river’s headwaters. To the west, the Wood River seem to stretch forever … for maybe 10 miles before it bore right to the north.

The long hike down the Wood River alternated between gravel bar and riverside brush but the team maintained a fast pace buoyed by the sunshine and famous scenery—which included several plane wrecks—stopping finally to set up camp as the light turned golden at sunset. For the first time during the trek the team was able to build a campfire of handy driftwood and dry out boots and stream-washed clothing. Talk turned briefly to the anticipated culinary delights of our second supply depot near the historic Wood River Lodge. But the day had been long and night soon found our tired trekkers sound asleep.

The next morning, after a few more miles of gravel bar and brush, the boys feasted on the unintentional generosity of two absent members of the expedition. Two of the original eight had planned only to trek to our first depot and there, fly out. A third, John Hildebrand, had learned his aging father was on in critical shape in Washington and so opted to exit there as well, as did I. So the second food depot that greeted the remaining four members had supplies for six!

After poking around the vacant facilities of the Wood River Lodge, the team continued downriver about a mile through a muddy forest until a braided section of the river afforded them a crossing. On the far side they gained a horse trail and made great time to Cody Creek. Its gravel bar was fairly wide and provided ready passage upstream—with only a few creek crossings at pinch points, but Cody Pass and the long descent towards Healy would have to wait for the morrow.

Leaving camp the next morning, with Healy—and the 49th State Brewery—solidly in their sights, the crew no longer noticed the full-boot soakings that accompanied the occasional icy creek crossings. Being wet and cold was just … well, morning. On their determined way to civilization the team passed the first signs of human habitation, tents and horses beside the creek, and soon found themselves on a well-traveled horse trail up and over Cody Pass. With the sun and wind at their backs they flew down the backside and onto what appeared to be the set of “Into the Wild!” Chris McCandless was long dead and buried; in his place, a pair of hunters rested with their packhorses near an iconic weathered green bus that read “McKinley National Park.” The boys soon learned that this bus and a similar one on the Stampede Trail, McCandless’s actual final resting place, had been laboriously dragged decades ago—when Alaska’s alpine jewel was still named after some guy from Ohio—to their final resting places as handy hunting shelters.

The hunting party was heading back to Healy with a lame horse so the boys joined the cavalcade for a time. When they came upon a pickup truck parked along the creek, they knew the end of the trail was near. The sight was greeted with mixed emotions. 49th State Brewery boasts some amazing beer … but its ready promise now dulled the wilderness vibe that had electrified every moment of their previous 12 days afoot. They bedded down for their final night on the trail in the shelter of some brush.

But in a fitting farewell, later that night a strong wind gust caught hold of Peter’s tent and snapped one of the poles. You gotta love Mother Nature’s none-too-subtle reminder that we all only survive such a passage with her good graces and permission, and as Peter taped up the pole, a rainbow appeared upstream as storm clouds brewed over the mountains.

Their final day on the Traverse dawned gloomy as the four hiked the remaining half-dozen miles or so of dirt road leading past “Suntrana” to Healy. But the sun and hard, hot macadam confirmed their final approach as the boys sweated for several hot-footed miles on the Healy Spur Road with laughing river rafters floating leisurely past. Their arrival was less than glorious as a town dog chased them away from the lure of backyard barbecues … but on to the entrance to the famed brewery!

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I arrived to transport half of our remaining team back to Fairbanks; Mary had the Wilson brothers covered. But the cold drafts of 49th State Brewery washed the taste of sour grapes out of my mouth and I was soon being pleasantly regaled with amazing photo after photo of what I had missed.

In humidified farewell, it rained hard the entire drive back to Fairbanks. But by that point nothing could have dampened the enthusiasm we all now carry inside for a truly magical route through the hidden heart of Alaska.

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