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From Healy to Homer: An Alaskan Ramble

All About Healy, Hitchhiking Tips and Tricks, The Journey South, Don't Mess With The Eagles

semi-overcast 65 °F

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Four hundred sixty miles is a long way to travel in one day, except by a jet airplane or high-speed train. My plan was to hitchhike this distance, starting from the outskirts of Denali National Park and ending on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in the town of Homer, Alaska. It was an ambitious goal, but I felt good about my chances. Alaska is a hitchhiking friendly state-a fact I put to use two weeks before when I hitched from Anchorage to Denali National Park (240 miles) in six hours.


I spent the day before I left preparing for the trip. I spread all of my gear out on the deck of the shack, packing it away according to a hitchhiker’s necessity. I buried my slackline and sandals deep, but I kept my raingear and coffee cup accessible. Along with packing, I made a giant hitchhiker’s thumb out of cardboard. I copied the design of a Frenchman that I had met at a coffee shop. He had recently arrived in Denali after hitchhiking his way across Canada. It is useful to have a sign, and if you can incorporate a bit of humor, it can definitely help in catching that ride.

With my packing finished, I joined my nephew who was already four bars deep into a Denali pub crawl. Luckily, he had wanted to go ten miles north to Healy, to tag three of their establishments and I joined the cause. Healy is a small Alaskan town. It is the kind of place where the police department, the medical clinic, the insurance agent, and the bank are all in the same building. In late May, the sun never really sets here, and the golden light lasts for hours on end. These long evening hours make the surrounding mountains and spruce forests glow, and I felt as if I was living in a postcard of “scenic Alaska.” It’s bizarre. At midnight, it feels like it is seven p.m.
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At one of the bars, I met a local man by the name of Moe. Moe was an elderly gentleman, his slim body toughened by years of hard work and play. He had silver hair with a light beard. Moe’s face had character. It was deeply tanned with light wrinkles around his eyes. He was a tempered Alaskan, beaten and smoothed down by hundreds of adventures over his lifetime. He drank Budweiser out of the bottle, and talked with a quiet, slightly western accent. While my nephew and his entourage shot pool, I talked with this seasoned old man.

It was time well spent. We talked mostly of his life in Alaska, and some of the scrapes he had been in. “The second time I jumped on the back of a deer from out of a tree, I fell off. When the deer recovered, he looked at me a second, then charged. It was all I could do to get out of his reach by climbing a tree. He was down below me, standing on his hind legs beating on the trunk with his front hooves. I stayed up in that tree for over an hour before he went away. Yeah, I wouldn’t advise jumping on the back of a deer to anyone, not anymore.” When I told him of my plans, he nodded his approval. “You should be all right.” This was a man who had been around, and his confidence gave me hope.

I caught a ride back to the shack with a friend, and wandered off to bed. I had plans to get up early so I could be on the road by seven a.m. At three thirty in the morning, I awoke to the stomping revelry of a drunken dance party taking place on the porch. I heard my nephew’s voice in the din, and I knew they were having fun. I sighed, then smiled. What can you do? I tossed and turned the rest of the night. I finally fell asleep again at five a.m. when the party had ended.

I awoke suddenly from a dream in which a younger version of a friend of mine yelled at me to “Wake up!” I looked at my clock and it read eight a.m. I was “late,” but it didn’t matter. I jumped out of bed, and packed away my final items. I hefted my packs as quietly as I could, and stepped outside. I didn’t feel that well. I was sleepy, slightly hung over, and wishing for a cup of coffee.

The weather looked favorable. It was dry, and the sky was white with high overcast clouds. I pulled on my backpacks, first my expedition pack onto my back. Then I adjusted my smaller daypack across my chest. Fully loaded, I waddled down to the highway. Instead of immediately starting to hitchhike, I followed the roadside bike trail across the Nenano River. I don’t like crossing bridges on busy highways because there is no escape. I felt much safer crossing the river on the trail. Once across, I walked back to the highway. I put on my giant thumb, and started hitching.

I had to walk about a mile before I caught my first ride. It took me thirty miles south to the scattered village of Cantwell. It always feels good to catch that first ride. It gave me a chance to wake up, and get my thoughts in order. My driver dropped me off at a gas station, the only business that was open along the highway. I went in to buy myself a cup of coffee. When I took my first sip of the “black gold” out on the highway, I felt like a new man.
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Thus revived, I took a good look at my surroundings. I remembered this stretch of highway; it followed an open valley surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped mountains of the Alaskan Range. Closer to the highway, stands of black spruce broke up the low wetland areas and open tundra. It was a beautiful Alaskan landscape. I smiled that old familiar smile of a man who is supremely happy. I was footloose and carefree, taking on a unique challenge through a magnificent landscape. I was in my element.
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It took awhile to catch the next ride. Many people waved and smiled at me, but nobody pulled over to give me a ride. By the look of travelers, they didn’t have a lot of room left in their vehicles for a hitchhiker bearing two bags. When hitchhiking, the less gear you bring with you the better. Drivers might have room for a guy with a small backpack, but asking them to haul you and your kitchen sink generally turns potential rides away.
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I didn’t mind. I had fun singing sea shanties aloud as I walked along the road. I was on the look out for wildlife, hoping to see a herd of caribou, or a moose. Finally, after about an hour, a van braked to a stop a hundred yards up the highway. I tried running to catch up to him, but under the weight of my packs, the best I could manage was a hurried plod. I caught up with the van, saying hello, then tossing my burdens into his back seat.
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I learned that my new companion was driving all the way down to Anchorage. I was ecstatic. In two rides, I would be covering half the distance to Homer. It was early yet, but I began to get the feeling that my goal might be possible. We passed the afternoon by swapping travel stories, and comparing notes on our Alaskan travels. I gave him what advice I could, let him use my phone, and tried to be a good companion. We stopped at the roadside park that offered a view of Denali. We also stopped at Wal-Mikes, a beauty of a tourist trap found in the small village of Trapper Creek. It was jammed full of tasteful Alaskan mementos, anything from a wolf’s head hat, to a life size cardboard cutout of “the rock star.”
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Peter gave me some good insight into the mind of a driver looking at a potential hitchhiker. “Y’know, the reason I stopped was because you reminded me of my son.” I had pulled at his heartstrings by smiling, dressing decently, and looking the part of a young guy on the adventure of a lifetime.

Since Peter didn’t have any time constraints to his day, I asked him to drop me off on the southern outskirts of Anchorage along the side of the busy Seward Highway. It is almost impossible to catch a ride in large cities, especially on busy highways. Having Peter drop me off on the outside of town saved me several hours of walking, or the cost of a cab ride. From where he dropped me off, I had two hundred eleven miles to go. No problem.
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My next ride took me down to Girdwood. We followed the narrow and twisting highway along Turnagain Arm, a long stretch of water that reached deep into the surrounding Chugach Mountains. My companions were friendly and comfortable. They had a new puppy that licked my hand every three seconds. Then it collapsed with a sleepy sigh into a puppy nap. They were a sweet old couple, and I smiled when the husband asked his wife, “Can I get you anything, my love?” when we stopped at the Girdwood gas station.
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In Girdwood, I caught my best ride of the day with an Alaskan rambler by the name of Greg. We were kindred spirits, and the conversation flowed easily. For fun, he and his buddies spent their time searching for old ghost towns, panning for gold, camping out, and cracking open rocks. He showed me some rocks that he had split open with a hammer that had fossils etched into it. “We hauled ‘em up to the college, and they said they were 65 million years old. Hell, we don’t even know what we are doin’. We just go down to the creek and crack ‘em open.”
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Earlier in the day, I found a full roll of duct tape lying in the grass. I picked it up, shoving it into my pack knowing how useful it was. I forgot all about it, until it reappeared while I was riding with Greg. I gave it to him, because he seemed like a guy who would use it. I like to think that it will help him out of a jam sometime, somewhere down the road.
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It wasn’t long before I caught my first glimpse of the famous Kenai River. When July comes around the Kenai is jammed full of anglers. There are so many of them, that they are almost elbow to elbow jockeying for position to catch big Salmon that are running up the river to spawn. The river was empty of fishermen on our visit. I enjoyed the chuckling sound of the river over the rocks, surrounded by high foothills covered in springtime greenery.

Greg took me all the way to Soldotna, dropping me off on the western outskirts of town. Greg had hitched before, and knew all about “moon walking”- walking backwards for miles through a town- unable to catch a ride. It was seven twenty in the evening, meaning the sun was still high in the sky. I was getting tired, having traveled well over three hundred miles already. I thought about quitting for the day, knowing I could sleep at the city park campground or even splurge and get a hotel. However, I didn’t want to give up. I would try for another hour and a half to catch a ride. If that failed, then I would hole up for the night.

My persistence paid off, and I caught my final ride of the day. I asked him, “How far are you going? “ “I’m going all the way to Homer, “he replied. I felt a tingle of happiness in my belly. I was going to make it in one day! While we drove, he said that he saw me in Girdwood, and had planned to pick me up after he fueled his truck at the gas station. When he pulled back onto the highway, I was already gone. Luckily, I had stayed ahead of him.
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Chris was a good man. He gave me some advice on what to do in Homer, where to eat, good hiking trails, and the like. This stretch of highway travels along the western coast of the Kenai Peninsula. As we drove along, I caught quick glimpses of the ocean and distant mountain range on the far side of the inlet. It was gorgeous. Chris noticed my cameras and asked if I would like to go down to see the ocean at Anchor Point. Since I didn’t have to worry about a ride, I agreed. It would be good to see the ocean again.

What happened next was something I have never seen before.
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While we were enjoying the evening views of the ocean, a seagull that was standing near a group of four bald eagles on the beach flew away. One of the eagles began to chase it, and a high speed aerial acrobatics display ensued. Despite its tight turns and evasive maneuvers, the eagle easily kept up with the gull.
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Chris and I watched in amazement as another eagle joined the first, intensifying the harassment of the gull. The birds zipped around right in front of us, not more than a hundred twenty feet away. Two more eagles joined the chase, and the seagull was soon knocked down into the ocean. The eagles continued to strafe the unlucky gull, snaring it in their razor sharp talons. The gull was hurt, and it was all it could do to dive away from the eagles when they came close.
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At one point, one of the eagles landed on the hapless gull. The gull rolled, and the eagle ended up in the water. After a few jabs with its talons, that eagle began slowly swimming to shore while the others continued to harass the gull. I saw one of the eagles pick up the bird and carry it a short distance before letting go, tumbling it into the water once again.
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We didn’t stay to watch the end, but we knew the outcome. I may not have much, but I do have timing.

Chris and I continued south to Homer. I had sent a message to my friend letting her know that I was close. We planned a rendezvous at Subway, where I happily piled out of the truck. I hugged my friend, and said, “Hello.” I grabbed my gear, thanking Chris for the ride. My friends took me back to their home, made me a delicious three-course dinner of fresh salad, a giant hamburger, with a glass of red wine from a mason jar. I inhaled my food. I had not eaten much that day, and I was a proud member of the clean plate club. I took a shower, and for the second time that day, I felt like a new man.
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My last thought before I passed out, was that I had done it. I had hitchhiked almost five hundred miles in eleven and a half hours, by far my best day of hitchhiking ever. It would not have been possible without the help of Matt, Peter, Duncan, Greg and Chris. Thank you.

Hitchhiking at its basic element is simply one person helping another person in need. I went to sleep feeling good about my fellow men.

Posted by Rhombus 11:47 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds roads alaska oceans denali eagles hitchhiking kenai Comments (0)

A Day Hike In Denali

Hiking to Impress, Polychrome Mountain, Denali Mountain Dance, Clearing Skies, and Night Life

semi-overcast 54 °F

When I stepped outside of the dark plywood shack, it started to rain. I didn’t even get my boots on yet. My plan was to hike over to the WAC, and catch a bus into the park to enjoy a little day hike. My time in Denali was running short, and I wanted one more excursion into the park before it was time to go.

The first thing I found out was that my shuttle was free. If you buy two trips into the park, you get one free ride. I thanked the clerk, and went off to the coffee stand to purchase some coffee and pastries while I waited for my ride. I sat on the porch, sipped the surprisingly decent coffee, and ate some prepackaged danishes. Not bad.

The journey into the park was uneventful. We did not see much in terms of wildlife, and the clouds were still hanging low over the mountains. The rain had quit, but it was still cold and gray. Maybe not the best conditions for a hike, but good enough. We finally saw some dahl sheep near Polychrome Mountain. We watched them for a while, as they sat unperturbed on a nearby knoll. Then the bus broke down. The driver couldn’t get it into gear, which meant we were stuck there until the next shuttle came.

I looked up at the mountain and figured that I could start my hike here. Why not? It looked steep, but I was used to that. I got up and filed past my fellow passengers to the front of the bus where I asked the driver if I could start my hike here. She asked me which way I wanted to go. I told her, “Up.” She said, “Sure, so long as you don’t go near the sheep.”
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I grabbed my daypack, exited the bus, and started hiking up the first slope directly along side of the bus. Now, I knew I had an audience. Besides the sheep, I was the only interesting thing that was happening on that bus- the weirdo- who left the bus and was actually hiking straight up a mountain. I wanted to get away from the bus as quickly as I could, but I wanted to look good as I did so. I started at a good clip, picking my way expertly up the rocky tundra, through the willow whips, matted lichens and around the scattered brush. The first slope was about two hundred yards long, and every step took me higher than I was before by a significant amount. My legs began to burn. I began to gasp, sucking in air as if I had just been underwater for five minutes. Still, I didn’t want to take a break. I kept going. “Gasp“, step, “GASP“, step, “WHEEZE“, step. My “good clip” had slowed to a very bad clip, but I made it out of sight of the bus without stopping. Success! I celebrated, by collapsing on the tundra, and continuing my gasping. Eventually, I caught my breath, and let my wobbly leg muscles recover. As I lay there, I enjoyed imagining the envy of the other passengers. “That weirdo sure makes a lot of noise when he goes hiking.” “Say Mel, pass me a cookie.” “I wonder when the other bus is coming.” When I recovered, I smugly started up the next section, out of sight, and out of mind.
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To reach the top of the ridge, I had to climb a steep talus pile of jagged rocks that gave way with each step. I made decent progress, though with each step I slid back down a little bit, sinking up to my ankles in sharp rocks. Then I caught onto a sheep trail, and followed it up to the top of the ridge. My plan had worked, and I had reached my first goal.
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The wind was raw, and I was glad I had a good windbreaker. Not that it breaks wind (which is another term for farting) (which would be silly), but it kept me warmer than my adventure shirt would. As I walked along the ridge, scanning my surroundings for wildlife, I came across this flower. The wildflowers bloom quickly, here in Denali.
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I was among the foothills of Polychrome Mountain that loomed above me separated by several steep ridges and valleys. Since the walking was now quite easy, I decided to cross the canyon and climb up to a high point on the other side. I figured I could get some good views, and perhaps follow that ridge back to the east fork of the Toklat River, which could take me back to the park road. I didn’t know if I could, but I figured it would be a good place to start.

I descended the steep slopes of open tundra, and lichen covered rocks. I picked my way down carefully, as I didn’t want to twist an ankle out here. That would spell trouble. Once again, nobody really knew where I was, I didn’t leave a hiking plan with my nephew, as I didn’t know where I would be hiking. This is bad hiking etiquette, and I do not recommend it. I digress. At the bottom of the canyon, I stepped over a small creek, and began another ascent. This one was much easier to accomplish, as I did not have anyone to “impress.” I took my time, enjoying my thoughts, my exertions, and my day. As I neared the top, I found this feather stuck into the ground. In some cultures, feathers are thought to carry powerful energy. I handled this one carefully before returning it to where I found it. The bird that left it might not like to kindly on my handling of its feathers.
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When I gained this second ridge, it was easy enough to follow an old path up to the high point that I wanted to climb. As I neared the pyramid, the trail steepened, and the rocks grew slippery. However, it didn’t slow me down, and it wasn’t long before I was high above the surrounding countryside. Do I have to mention the view was incredible? It was.
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Inspiration struck, and I decided to do my version of a Denali Mountain Dance. I didn’t have any specific goal for the dance, as in, “make it rain” or “make it stop snowing” or “I’d like a pizza dropped from the sky,” but my spirit carried me on for the sake of the dance. I set my camera on a time lapse setting and got down with my bad self. In truth, it was all improvised, there are no steps, and you simply dance for the mountain. What fun. It was so much fun in fact, that I did two Denali Mountain Dances. That’s good stuff!
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I happily sat down out of the wind, and pulled out my lunch. It was simple food for a simple man, and I enjoyed it while I gazed out over the earthy purple, tan and gray shades of earth that make up the countryside, stretching from Polychrome Mountain as far as I could see into the Wyoming Hills.
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It was time to turn around, and make my way back to the road. I just didn’t know how I wanted to get there. I could have went east to the river and follow that back south to the road (the hard way), or I could follow the ridge I was on west to the road (the easy way). Looking at my options, I chose the hard way, after all, I am me. At the end of the ridge, I realized the hard way was going to be a lot harder than I first thought, and after a little deliberating, I decided to cancel that approach and instead hike back down the canyon and back up the other side, summiting further south from where I started. At the bottom of the canyon, I stopped to filter some water into my water bottle. I figured it is always better to fill up when you can, rather than wish you did when you cannot. From there, I started back up the canyon wall yet again. At the halfway point, I took a break. I was getting tired. This was my third ascent of the day, and the foothills and mountains of Denali are not easy. They are steep!
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When I reached the top of the ridge, I had to cross several patches of knee-deep snow. The sun still hadn’t gotten to these areas yet, but I didn’t mind. I could see a small section of the road below me, and as I descended, I realized it would make a great picture. I found an appealing perch on the tundra and decided to wait to see what happened. What happened was that the clouds that were once so thickly covered the higher peaks of the Alaska Range, were breaking up. The sun came out, and blue sky began to appear in growing patches. My Denali Mountain Dance worked!
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The following images of are among my favorites that I have from Denali. The park road was a perfect leading line into the awe-inspiring mountain landscapes. The pack of dahl sheep I had seen earlier in the day reappeared, adding yet one more element to theses photos. They are small, yet you can pick them out in the bottom of some of these photos.

Denali Visions
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On my way down to the road, I saw my first marmot, which looked like a giant rock squirrel. It perched on a rock not more than 25 feet away from me, happy to be out in the sunshine again. Down on the road, it took well over an hour for a shuttle bus to pick me up. I really didn’t mind, as the glacial river valley that I was walking along was absolutely gorgeous. This was a fine day to walk in the park! Finally, a bus rounded the corner, and I flagged it down. It was time to go. However, I was well satisfied with my efforts for the day, and this day was seized.
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As a final parting gift, “the high one” came out of the clouds, and I was able to see Denali one more time.
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I capped off my day, by hiking back to the shack. There I enjoyed a “luxurious” lukewarm shower. I ate a gigantic dinner, with some good beer, and hung out with the hill people until I was able to convince one of my new friends to come over to glitter gulch for some fun. What happened was another night of Denali carousing in its most beautiful forms. We drank, we laughed, and we giggled at everyone. There was karaoke being sung (which I did not partake in, thankfully). There was some dancing, many friends hanging out and having fun. Somewhere near the end, there were a few nips of tequila. I stumbled off to bed at 3:30 a.m. (it was still light out). I smiled to myself about how good this day had been.

I am still smiling about it. Denali is awesome.

Posted by Rhombus 16:09 Archived in USA Tagged mountains parks flowers hiking roads alaska dancing photography denali Comments (2)

Denali's Backcountry

The Denali Experience, Into the Wilderness, Igloo Mountain, Mountain Grandeur, The Front Country

semi-overcast 49 °F

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Denali is a wild place. In the past week, I have spent time in Denali’s front country, the area of the park near the entrance, and two days in the wilderness that is Denali’s backcountry. While not in the park, I have been living in a hillside community of Denali workers. They are here to service the multitude of tourists that visit this park each summer. I am in a unique position, because though essentially I am a tourist, I am living with the summer community of amazing people that work in the Denali region.
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My position has allowed me to see both sides of the Denali experience. I’m free to explore the park as I will, unhampered by the need to work everyday. Because my nephew works here, I have been able to stay with him in the plywood shack that he calls home. The people that work here are a motley collection of folks from all around the world that are here to take in Denali, and make some money. When they aren’t working, they take advantage of their free time by hiking, white water rafting, going on a tour, and partying hard. Your liver gets a workout when you live up here in Denali.

The Denali Backcountry

Denali National Park is unique among our national parks because of its designation as a wilderness area. There are no trails in the backcountry. There are no easy paths to follow to your next campsite. If you choose to leave the comfort of the shuttle buses that take visitors into the park, you are on your own, and you had better know what you are doing. Denali’s backcountry is unforgiving. It is a hard land that is difficult to navigate, and people have died here.

That being said, the landscape is absolutely amazing. I am in awe, and I cannot believe that I’m finally here, ready to explore this amazing jewel of our national parks.

To gain access to the backcountry, I had to watch an informational video at the WAC (Wilderness Access Center) and fill out a free backcountry permit. Denali is broken into numbered sections, and in order to keep the park wild, the park service only allows a certain number of people into each section. As this was my first visit to the park, I didn’t really know where I wanted to go. After looking through the descriptions of the sections, I chose one to my liking. I exchanged forms with the clerk, and I was on my way. I purchased a ticket on shuttle bus into the park for the next morning, and I went back to the shack to pack for the adventure.

The next morning, I walked back to the WAC, where I would meet my shuttle into the park. I was tired, I had stayed up too late, hanging out with the hill people that I call neighbors. I yawned, sipped some coffee, and I checked my gear. I studied the topo map of the land near Igloo Mountain. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was on my way.
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The bus ride was somewhat lame. Granted, we saw some herds of caribou, a moose, a lynx (the first I had ever seen), among other animals, but the bus driver was a nitpicker for petty rules, “You HAVE to wear your seatbelt.” and my fellow passengers were pretentious, full of stupid questions, and mildly rude. I hate to be negative about my fellow men, but these were a bad lot. I was happy enough to ignore them and focus on the amazing scenery and wild animals all around me.

I saw long sweeping views of the snow capped mountains of the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range is home of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The land is a mixture of taiga, spruce forest, swampy wetlands, wide braided and rocky rivers, arctic tundra, grassy highlands, foothills, and snow capped mountains. My words and photos cannot really do this place justice. Denali provides a vivid sensory overload that left me speechless.

The bus stopped and let me off at Igloo Creek. I was happy to be free of the bus, but as it pulled away, a twang of uncertainty rippled through me. I was about to walk into the Denali wild, and not one soul on this earth knew where I was, or knew where I was going. To tell the truth, I didn’t really know either.
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Igloo Mountain towered high above me, and I knew I had to decide which way I wanted to walk around it. I decided to scramble up to a rocky overlook and take stock of the landscape. On paper, the mountain looked approachable from any direction, but in reality, a lot of it looked impassable, and I did not want to have to turn around. From the high point, I had my first breath taking view of the Cathedral Mountains, and of the Teklanika River Valley. The Teklanika is the same river that stymied Alexander Supertramp’s escape back in the early nineties. I looked over the landscape, decided to try to walk around the mountain to the east, and backtracked back down into the spruce forest.

Having lived and worked in northern Minnesota for many years, I was quite comfortable walking through a boggy spruce forest. It was still a lot of hard work, as my heavy pack seemed to catch on the stiff branches of the brush. I worked my way around the mountain, eventually finding and following a moose trail. Moose, like elk, know where to walk. It made my hike a lot easier.
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As it turned out, I had chosen wisely, a long grassy taiga covered ridge led up a long ridge onto Igloo Mountain. Since I was only going for one night, I wanted to find a place that wasn’t too far into the wilderness. This ridge looked ideal. I wanted a good view, and I wanted a good campsite. I began to climb up the spongy taiga and loose gravel that took me higher and higher up onto the mountain.
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Eventually I made my way to the top of the ridge, and found a few promising campsites. I set down my pack, and grabbed my camera. The high ridge was dotted with pockets of beautiful wildflowers, and the view of the distant mountains was incredible. I did not expect wildflowers to be out this early in the mountain season, but I wasn’t complaining. I found three varieties, and I had fun putting them into focus.
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After eating lunch, I put on my rain gear and laid down on the dry spongy taiga. I was very comfortable, and I grew sleepy. The moss was perfect, and it wasn’t long before I passed out. I awoke to the gentle patter of rain on my rain gear. I sat up, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and decided to have an early dinner. I walked to where I was keeping my food in the black bear proof container some distance from my campsite. I made a sandwich of peanut butter and honey, crunched some almonds, and ate the last of my beef jerky with a couple nips of red wine. I ate this wonderful meal, sitting on the bear barrel, as another rain squall passed over me. I was glad I had good rain gear.
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Mountain Grandeur
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After dinner, I started hiking up a ridge that looked like it would take me to the top of the mountain. I took only my small camera that fit easily into my pocket. The ridge was easy to follow, though it was steep, made up of loose scree, and wet from the rain. I was feeling good, energetic and moving fast. Then I found myself atop a twenty-foot high rock tower. It was made of very sharp rock, loose, and untrustworthy. I decided to climb down it instead of backtracking and finding a way around it. It wasn’t the smartest thing I have ever done, but using basic climbing techniques, and double checking my holds on the wet rock, I made my way down safely.
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From there, it was an easy trek. I followed the ridge higher and higher onto the shoulder of the mountain. Then I followed a Dahl sheep track across a steep open talus slope to the top of the mountain ridge. The rain had quit, and I had stripped down to my hiking gear. The thick clouds weakened and broke open in spots allowing the sun to shine through. The white light highlighted the mountains, and low clouds near the breaks. It was some of the most breathtaking mountain grandeur I had ever seen.
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To get to the very highest point, I had to walk a knife-edge of sharp rock. If I slipped, I would have fallen thirty feet on either side, before sliding down the mountain. This was a badass hike if I had ever seen one. I climbed the last twenty feet up a slippery rock face covered in wet grass, loose rock and mud.
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I summited. I sat down, and I soaked up the mountain views all around me. “My God,” I said aloud, then, waving my arms around me in every direction, “This IS my God.”
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I looked down on the pale ribbon of the Denali Park Road that wound through the zebra striped mountains of brown and white. It looked tiny in comparison to the immense landscape around it.

I was in awe. I keep saying this, but I was. The following poem came to mind, written by Chia Tao

Searching For the Hermit In Vain

The master has gone alone.
Herb picking, somewhere on the mount.
Cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown.

I love the last line. And that is exactly where I was.
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On my way down, I retraced my steps back down to the ridge. Instead of following it, I decided to put on my rain gear and try sliding down a snow slope that would take me down to my campsite. After one gentle push with my arms, I began to slide easily on the snow. Then, I began to slip faster and faster, more or less rocketing down this slope. I giggled, whooped and dug in my heels trying to slow down. I laughed all the way to bottom, where my weight caused me to dig into the soft wet snow near the edge of where snow met the grass.
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I thought about climbing up again for another ride, but instead walked back down to my camp. Another rainbow appeared, the third of the day. That’s when I named the ridge I was camped on, “Rainbow Ridge.”
I sat in the rain and enjoyed the rainbow. The clouds moved in, and it rained harder. I laughed. I drank the rest of my box of wine, and went to bed.

Front Country Scenes

The Denali front country has been very good to me as well. From visiting sled dogs, to shooting pool with my nephew and talking philosophy under an old railroad bridge, and long hikes up into the mountains. Denali has been amazing. These are just a few scenes from my first week.
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Posted by Rhombus 18:57 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes mountains snow parks flowers hiking alaska family denali poetry Comments (2)

Hitchhiking to Denali

Repacking at REI, The Generosity of Alaskans, and a Great Day of Hitchhiking.

sunny 62 °F

It had been over a decade since I had attempted to hitchhike. Back in college, a friend and I decided to hold a hitchhiking race to a distant town and back to our starting points, a distance of about seventy miles. The winner earned a free lunch. I don’t remember much about those happy times, but it was a lot of fun. I know I lost that race, but only by minutes.

On the advice of my nephew, I decided to attempt to hitchhike from Anchorage, Alaska up to Denali National Park, a distance of about 240 miles. As I packed my bags as compactly as possible the night before, I thought about the day ahead of me. I would fly from Sitka on the 6 am flight up to Anchorage. After a brief stop at REI, I would catch a cab out of town and begin hitchhiking north. It sounded reasonable.

My alarm went off at 4 am. My body revolted, but my mind carried me through, getting me into my clothes and down the stairs in time to catch my shuttle to the airport. The flights were smooth, and I landed in Anchorage at about 9am. As I attempted to put on my enormously heavy expedition backpack, the shoulder strap snapped and my pack fell to the floor with a resounding “BOOM!”

It was a good thing I had plans of going to REI. I took a cab there, told the cashier my predicament, and went in search of another backpack. On such short notice, I didn’t have time to do much research, but I found one to my liking. After making the purchase, I asked if I could repack everything in their back hallway. They were very helpful, and had no problem with me piling my crap all over their floor.
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After that, I called another cab, and took a ride outside of Eagle River. The cab driver let me out, and I walked across and interchange to the on ramp of the freeway. I set down my bags, pulled out my “DENALI” sign that I had made, and smiled. I was putting myself out in the stream of the universe, putting all of my trust into the hands of complete strangers. It was going to be a good day.

As I stood there, I decided to give my brother a call. I wanted to share my adventure, and he is a good guy to talk with. As I described to him where I was, a guy in a pickup truck pulled along side. I said goodbye to my brother, and hung up. The guy in the truck said, “I’m going up to Peter’s Creek, if you want a ride.” Success! I had only waited about two minutes and I already had my first ride. I heaved my weighty pack into his truck bed and hopped into the front seat. I was on my way.

He was a nice guy, who talked softly and traveled with a dog named “Big Boy.” He let me out in Peter’s Creek, and I set my bags down on the next on ramp and called my brother back. I chatted with him for all of four minutes this time, before another guy pulled over, turned off his car, hopped out, and began moving stuff from the front seat to the back. I thanked him for stopping, and he offered me a piece of fruit for the ride. We talked of Denali, the cool spring weather and what roads I should take.

The country I was hitching through was gorgeous. The snow capped mountains of the Alaskan Range spread out in front of us, a panoramic of mountain grandeur. Due to some clouds, I could not see Denali itself, the highest peak in North America, but its smaller brothers were quite magnificent.

Jerry took me to Wasilla. He let me out in the center of town and I knew it was probably unlikely that I would get a ride in town. I started walking along a frontage road, cursing myself for bringing all this heavy gear in my pack. I passed Lake Wasilla, where a family was having a picnic, some long distance bikers were having lunch in the sunshine, and two kids were throwing a baseball. They were all enjoying the spring day, as I was.

As I walked along, I passed in front of an entrance to a shopping center. I heard a man call out behind me, “Hey.” I turned and he pointed to the backseat of his SUV, I walked back to him and he told me they could take me as far as Big Lake. Ha! What luck! I hopped in, introduced myself, and learned that my new friends were Sid and Terry. They turned out to be some of the sweetest people I have met. They were very genuine, very friendly, and a very cute having been married for well over forty years. “After forty years, you get to know your wife pretty good. The problem is, she knows me better.” and we all laughed at his “misfortune.” As we drove along, Sid suddenly declared with certainty. “I WANT AN ICE CREAM CONE.“ Terry, rolled her eyes and said, “I’ll stop for an ice cream, if we see a shop along the way. “ Sid replied, “There’s one right there.“ To which Terry responded, “That is not, that’s a restaurant. They don’t even sell ice cream.“ So it went, the ride was pleasant and the miles began to add up. They took me a lot further than Big Lake. They took a liking to me, and decided to drive up to the Talkeetna Junction, a long way out of their way. At the junction, they insisted on buying me lunch, to which I couldn’t refuse. Honestly, the friendly generosity of Alaskans is amazing.
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At Talkeetna, I set up on the north side of the gas station on the side of the highway. The country had a more remote feeling to it. A kind of desolation, that there was not much out there between these tiny communities. It took awhile to get a ride here. While I waited, I chatted with my brother, set up a few pictures, and thought about the concept of hitchhiking.

I don’t begrudge anyone for not giving me a ride. I have passed many hitchhikers in my day, which I didn’t stop to help. I know this is bad karma, but the nature of hitchhiking is trust, and you have to judge a book by its cover. I was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt. I looked presentable, and smiled at potential rides. I was really having fun out there. I was hitching into the unknown on a beautiful spring day through a wonderful countryside full of tall spruce trees, white mountains and clear gravel rivers. I felt carefree, I felt happy, and I was having a great day.

Many cars passed me by. I didn’t mind, I figured they just didn’t have room for another guy with a huge pack, or had their own reasons for not picking me up. Then Sarah pulled in for gas, and came out saying she could get me up to Trapper’s Creek, some 14 miles up the road. I hopped in, and off we went.

Sarah was one of those badass Alaskan women. There is something about Alaskan women that other women don’t have. It is as if they carry around with them a small invisible chip on there shoulder that tells you, “Damn right I’m Alaskan, and proud of it.” It’s not a confrontational chip, it’s just an attitude that lets you know that they can do anything they want. I think it’s kind of hot. I liked her a lot.
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She brought me to Trapper’s Creek, another small blip of a community, a centralized meeting place for locals, more or less. Once again, I had to wait awhile, before I caught my next (and best) ride. A pack of cars whipped past and I had failed to catch a ride. Then, after awhile, one of those cars came back, and the driver yelled at me, “We’re going to help you.” They pulled into the gas station. I walked over to them, and they introduced themselves as Julie and Brett. Julie was another bad ass Alaskan, and Brett was just a cool kid. Both of them were young and friendly, and kindred spirits. We talked a lot, and Julie drove up the highway as if she was being chased by demons. The pedal was to the metal. She told me of how safe a driver she was. Then she pulled out to pass an RV into oncoming traffic. Both of the other drivers pulled over onto the shoulder allowing us to make the pass. I kept saying with more urgency, “There’s a car. I see headlights. Yep, that’s a CAR!“ That was scary. Ah well, I survived.
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I caught a ride with them almost all the way to Denali. In fact, I had only thirty more miles to go, and I was confident I would make it in one day. The cars that passed were fewer and far between, and I didn’t have any luck for quite awhile. I kept thinking to myself, that I didn't want to be anywhere else than where I was. Happily sitting on side of the road in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, hitchhiking my way to Denali. I lead a charmed life. My friends Julie and Brett rolled up again and told me, “Hey man, it’s your lucky day! We’re going up to Denali, to catch a bite to eat. Hop in!” I did as I was told, and hopped in riding the rest of the way to Denali in style.
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All told, it took me about six hours to the two hundred and forty miles. They let me out at the Salmon Bake Restaurant, where I was going to meet my nephew. It turns out he was parked right out front of the Bake, sitting in his shuttle bus that he drives. I laughed and hauled my gear onto the bus. This plan couldn’t have worked out any better if I tried.

I'll be in Denali for the forseeable future. Right now, I'm living in a shack that has no running water, and no electricity. It's cold at night, the mosquitos are voracious, and the views are pleasant. There is an amazing community of groovy people that do this every summer, working for the park, or the community of restaurants and lodges that make up the Denali support system. I like what I see here, and I love this community of chilled out adults. In fact that is what summer in Denali is: Summer camp for adults. There's more to come, thanks for sharing in my adventures.

Posted by Rhombus 00:10 Archived in USA Tagged mountains roads alaska friends denali hitchhiking Comments (4)

4000 Miles in 30 Days: A Love Affair and The End

On West Virginia, Climbing, Bluegrass, White Water Rafting, Cooper's Rock, and The End Game

semi-overcast 63 °F

I’ve fallen in love again. It was a brief affair, only three days, but it left me with that wonderful feeling of love. My symptoms are acute, and easy to diagnose. I feel the lighthearted tapping of butterfly wings in the hollow of my stomach, a rush of warmth to my head when I think of her. My heart is beating a little faster at the sound of her name, and I turn abruptly to the southeast convinced she is calling for me. These are but the whispers of my imagination, figments of my memories. However, the loving siren call of West Virginia is real and I am in love with her.
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Last Friday, my friend Luke and I drove down to the New River Gorge. We flew down the freeway, whistling through the warm morning sun, and rolling high into the green grandeur that is West Virginia’s Appalachia. We turned south on Highway 19, drove Luke’s Honda past Summerville, and began to recognize features from last years adventure (See From Alaska to West Virginia, May 2011). We crossed over the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest arched bridge in the western hemisphere, and turned off in the small town of Fayetteville.
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As we drove through the main street of its downtown, I took stock of what it had to offer. They had a solid outdoor gear store (Waterstone) , a yoga studio, a theatre with a full season of plays and performances, the usual public service buildings, a bakery, several funky shops (The Hobbit Hole), and many appealing restaurants including Pies and Pints, The Secret Sandwich Society, and The Vandalian, to name a few. I liked what I saw. It had small town charm, friendly people, great food, and soul. That was the deciding factor for me. Fayetteville has soul.
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We drove a mile out of town, and pulled into Cantrell’s Ultimate Rafting headquarters, and met up with our trip leader, and lodging staff to get settled in for the afternoon. The good folks at Cantrell’s welcomed us by name, gave a brief rundown on where to find everything, and let us know that a good bluegrass band was going to be playing at the bar that night. We thanked them, drove down to our little cabin to stow our gear, stretch, and eat a quick lunch. Our main objective for the afternoon was to rock climb down in the gorge.
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Springtime in West Virginia is akin to playing in the Garden of Eden. The forest was vibrantly green, glowing in the sunlight. Happy creeks tumbled down the steep sides of the gorge, often forming beautiful waterfalls of clear water. The birds chirped all around us, and large butterflies flapped in chaotic patterns, stopping to land in the blooming rhododendrons. It was warm in the sunlight, a perfect backdrop for any outdoor activity.
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The New River Gorge is a rock climber’s dream, and a Mecca to most climbers on the east coast. The rock is primarily sandstone, with lots of grip, and many routes. Most of the routes are set up to top rope, though there is quite a bit of trad (traditional route climbing) as well. There is plenty of bouldering, down in the Hawk’s nest boulders. In short, no matter what style of climbing you prefer, you can find good rock in the New River gorge.
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We set up our anchors on top of The Bridge Buttress, which is located underneath the north side of the New River Gorge Bridge. It had been awhile since I had climbed, and we took our time making sure our anchors were secure. When we were satisfied, we spent the rest of the afternoon climbing high up on the rock face. We didn’t have a care in the world, simply enjoying the feel of the rock on our hands and feet focusing on the climbing problems presented to us. I kept saying to Luke, “I can’t believe how amazing this place is.”

That evening as we drove back to Cantrell’s we demolished a bag of potato chips between us. We were starving after our exertions on the rock. We learned that another large group had showed up in our absence, and had their dates wrong. Instead of turning them back, they decided to move us to another campground and into another cabin. We really didn’t mind. We knew we would have a place to sleep. We drove a mile south on highway 19 to the campground. We found the caretaker who gave us a key to our cabin. The cabin was great, and step up in comfort. It was made of old rough hewn logs, with plaster chinking in between. It had a fireplace, a full bathroom, a small kitchen area, bunk beds, a queen size bed, and a spacious back porch. It was a palace.
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We cracked some beers and sat on the front porch enjoying the cool liquid in the dark of the evening. We were satisfied with our efforts of the day. The bluegrass band was going to be starting up soon, so we headed on back to Cantrell’s to see the show.

We walked into the saloon, ordered some beers and took a seat. The band was just starting up, the cigarette smoke hung low. The place was full of people, an easygoing group of West Virginians. We talked with some locals, hung out, commented on how lucky we were and how good life is. After awhile, and several brews later, we meandered over to where the band was playing. Johnson Crossing is from Asheville, North Carolina and tours around the country. I would describe their brand of music as a soulful bluegrass. It was a four-piece band, with a good lead singer and solid backup. It was a good show.

When I came out of the bathroom, I saw that Luke had wandered off onto the dance floor. “I can’t help it, bro. When I get that beat in me, I have to get out there.” I was feeling fantastic, so I stepped onto the square tile of the dance floor and began getting in my own groove. Just then, the dobro player picked up his banjo, and began to tune it. Everybody in the place knew he was about to go off, and it brought more people out to the dance floor. The band began to wind up, starting with the banjo player on a lead of “The Cuckoo.” The banjo rang true. The guitar, mandolin, and bass all followed suit. The rhythm of that song had the entire dance floor out of their minds. WE LOVED IT! We danced hard, we howled for more, we clapped in unison, we laughed, we smiled. The sweat poured off us, but the band played on. I gave out that southern tradition of a giant, “Yeeee-haawww.” That song was the best song I’ve ever heard live. It is a song that normally takes two minutes to play, but the band fed off our enthusiasm and played that sucker for what felt like fifteen minutes. It was an amazing moment. I remember looking at the lead singer and seeing his satisfaction at the power of his music. I cannot imagine how good that must feel.

The bouncer gave us a ride to our cabin for being such good sports. It began to rain, hard. I fell asleep under a hand made quilt listening to the rain hammer on our roof. My last thoughts were of how damn lucky I am. I thought back to my day full of climbing in paradise, potato chips for dinner, getting drunk and dancing all night. I almost forgot that we were here to go white water rafting.

Author’s Note: This section contains some mild cursing not suitable for younger folks. It’s harmless, and I included it because it reflects the speech and mannerisms of the region I was in.

The next morning, we awoke to my alarm, and the sound of rain lashing at the windows. One of our guides picked us up in a giant van. We learned the river was up about six and a half feet and rising. “The river is going to be in fine shape,” he told us. We ate breakfast, served military style from their cookhouse. We drank strong black coffee, and dug into the homemade biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and fruit. It was delicious. We signed our lives away, rented some wet suits, and geared up. We grabbed a life jacket, helmet, and paddle. We filed onto the old school bus, driven by an elderly gentleman who knew how to handle an old clutch on the steep, twisting, single lane roads of the gorge. The bus had that sour smell that buses carry around; a combination of old vinyl, moldy river funk, and the musky scent of lots of bodies in spongy wet suits. It wasn’t long before the windows became foggy, leaving us blind to the passing countryside.

We rode for forty minutes in that old bus, finally stopping at a place called Stone Cliff. Everyone piled out of the bus, and into the rain. The rain was still falling hard, intent to soak us before we ever made it to the river. I could see the river was rising higher on the bank, pooling around several trees that were normally dry. We met our guide, Randy, and our fellow raft mates. We each grabbed the strap of our sixteen-foot raft and hauled it on down to the river. We set it in the swollen river and jumped in.

We didn’t do much for the first three hours. Mostly, we chatted with our guide, who cracked us up with his Appalachian ways and stories of a river guide. The river was running so fast, that we put in upstream to where they normally would have, just to take up some time. It was a relaxed affair, and we passed harmlessly through some class I, II, and III rapids. This was my first taste of white water rafting, and I liked my first nibble. The rain continued to fall, and the river rose a little higher. I was freezing. I shivered in my wet suit, as we rode along. The water seeping deep into my long johns I wore underneath. Eventually we stopped for lunch, just before the halfway point of our ride. We ate sandwiches, chips, cookies, and drank water in the pouring rain. I tried to find shelter under a likeable tree, but instead of small drops, I had large bumblebee sized droplets hitting me off the leaves. It was hopeless.

We packed up, and got the rafts launched back on the river. From here on out, we were heading into the heart of the gorge, and with all the rainfall causing the river to rise, we were going to have one hell of a ride.

Now our guide Randy was awesome. He did not work us to death, and he told us what he wanted us to do when he wanted it. “Now, when I say, Forward Heavy, I want you to paddle with all you got. We need to get over to the left, other whys we are going to get beeyitch slapped and you don’t want that. If we get stuck on the right side, this river is gonna beeyitch slap us the whole length of these rapids.” His accent, mannerisms, and speech were deeply Appalachian. It was like having my brother Eric as our guide. He was hilarious, very charismatic, and I will never forget him.

We entered the first rapid, and it was a big one. Easily class V, and required some technical maneuvering to get through it safely. Just as we passed over the first big wave, and into the chaos, our raft went vertical, we heard the call of “FORWARD HEAVY!”, and we all began to row as hard as we could. It was hard to paddle, being bucked around like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. It was harder still to see anything but the river coming at me in all directions. “C’MON LAYDIEES! PULLL! PULLLLL! GIMMEE ALL YEW GOT!” Randy yelled at us, his thick accent easily heard over the roar of the water. We pulled like the ladies we were, and got over to the left side before we were bitch slapped into submission.

We whooped, we laughed, and we were thrilled by this wonderful river. Randy was ecstatic. “Great Job Guys! That was AWESOME! WHOOOOO-EEEEEE!” His enthusiastic approval was reward enough for us. We paddled on through several more big rapids, each of them requiring us to pull hard, but none of them were as tough as that first one. I had a blast, my smile widening every time our speed increased as we were sucked into the maelstrom of the chaotic rapids. No longer was I cold. I began to warm up with my adrenaline, paired perfectly with my excitement, as I pulled hard on my paddle.

All told, we had rafted fourteen miles of the New River, passing over at least twenty rapids. When we hauled out under the big bridge, we were soaked through, and very happy. It was a great day. We rode the bus back on up to the top of the gorge and back to Cantrell’s. We stepped out of our funky smelling wetsuits and handed back our gear. Luke and I rode back to our cabin to get showers, and get warm. After my shower, I laid down on my bed, to stretch out for a minute. That minute turned into two hours, and I passed out solidly for a long afternoon nap. I have had some great days in my life recently, and this one was one to remember.
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The next day, Luke and I checked out of our cabin, went out for a delicious homemade breakfast at The Vandalian, and decided to drive north up to Cooper’s Rock to do some more rock climbing. All of the rock in the gorge was still wet from all of the rain, and we figured to at the very least explore the area and find where to climb. It was a solid plan and it worked out beautifully. Not only did we find another gorgeous West Virginia forest to play in, but it was also dry. We spent the afternoon top roping on the giant sandstone slabs that make up the Cooper’s Rock climbing scene.
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I love climbing, and we had fun working problems on the route and exhausting our bodies. We took turns on the rock, one person climbing with the other person belaying them. We chatted amiably with some local climbers and compared notes on places we had climbed. We were the last climbers out on the rock, and we cleaned our gear from the rock as the sun was setting.
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I marveled at the trip. It had been awesome from start to finish. We drove west in the night stopping for a burrito in Morgantown before continuing on to Bellaire, Ohio where Luke lived. It was midnight when I finally pulled the blankets up to my chin on his couch. I reflected on my fortunes. I had just finished yet another amazing chapter of this journey.

The next day, I drove eight hundred fifty miles to northern Michigan. It took me over 15 hours to make the journey, after only 5 hours of sleep. I was exhausted and road weary when I parked my van outside of my brother’s house in Hancock, Michigan. I was in a hurry because the next day I had to catch a plane to Seattle to celebrate my birthday with my birthday twin. From Seattle, I am going north to Sitka, Alaska and then onto Denali National Park. Thom’s whirlwind tour keeps right on trucking along.

End Game: I drove 4,402 miles since leaving Spokane, Washington on April 9th. That makes a solid four weeks on the road, and let me tell you it was an amazing trip. Thanks for reading, thanks for all of the support, and thank you to all who let me stay on their couches, and hung out with me. The following are some of my favorite pictures of the trip which did not make the original posts. Happy Travels, Fair Winds, and I’ll see you in Alaska!
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Posted by Rhombus 09:06 Archived in USA Tagged rivers flowers river new dancing climbing rafting photography rockclimbing westvirginia roadtrips bluegrass Comments (7)

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