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Adventures On The Great Sand Dunes

Visions of Sand, When Adventure Starts, Moonlight Dune Climb

sunny 94 °F

Sand Lands
The View From My First Campsite.
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Velvet Buck.
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Pine Meadow.
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Prairie Sun Flower.
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Self Portrait.
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Sex.
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The Edge of the Dunes.
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Sand and Pine.
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“Ha ha ha…. Wheeeeeeeeeeee! What a Predicament… ha ha ha…”
It was hot. The sun blazed overhead turning the dune landscape into a sandy broiler. I felt like a twice baked potato. Temperatures on the sand of Great Sand Dunes National Park can reach up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit during midday. The park service warns against walking on the dunes during this time, but there I was, padding along in the deep sand just after noon (a mistake). I began to feel woozy. I stopped to take another swig from my water bottle. I still had enough water, but the next creek was three miles further along the trail. I had long way to go to get there, if I got there.

My pack felt exceptionally heavy. I chose my food and equipment poorly for this trek. The problem was that I had made the plan to hike deep into the mountains after I had gone shopping the day before. Therefore, I was stuck with too many heavy food items. I love my new pack, but the weight dug into my shoulders and drove the load down my legs and into my feet, which sunk into the dune a good four inches. I could feel a moving pocket of sand inside both of my hiking boots. It was annoying, but that was the least of my problems.
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My left leg began to hurt. With each step in the sand, my left hip ached. Then I began to feel an aching knot in my calves as well. I rarely feel any soreness in my body. When I do, I know I am straining my body too hard. I kept going, though I was noticeably slower than when I started this trek. The sand was going to be my downfall. Thinking back to my planning in the Visitor’s Center, I remember the ranger didn’t mention the first ten miles was through sand. He must have assumed I’d know. At the time, I felt good about my chances of hiking ten miles on the first day. Out on the sand, I laughed aloud at my stupidity.
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On the trail in front of me, were fresh footprints of a black bear. The bear seemed to be following the trail. I had first noticed its huge prints in the mud near the last creek I crossed. I had not yet seen the bear, but I sang out once in awhile to avoid a surprise encounter. Bears don’t like surprises, and I don’t like surprising bears. Sure, it’s exciting, but the outcome in never certain.

An ominous roll of thunder sounded off to the west. The hazy bluish clouds of the front were building on the far side of the valley and moving east. The thunder was a subtle reminder of the power of a storm. The park service also warns hikers that “lightning can kill.” They go on to recommend leaving the dunes area immediately upon seeing signs of a storm. I looked at my GPS again. The elevation read just over 9,000 feet, which meant I was nearing the high point of this section of trail. Damn.

I took another twenty steps along the sandy trail before I stopped again. I was panting, and I bent over to rest my hands on my knees. I felt lightheaded. I took another swig of water, and realized that there was no way in hell I was getting to the Sand Creek campground. It was still six miles away, and I was feeling like crap. I had to get out of the sun. Ahead of me were some pine trees that offered a bit of shade. I left the path, and crossed two hundred yards of sage covered flatland to the pines. I dropped my pack in the sand, dug out my other water bottle and sat down in the shade with a plop. I was beat.

Now I had to decide what to do. I grabbed some food, and while I munched I took stock of my situation: I was five miles out on the edge of the dunes. I was showing signs of heat exhaustion. My left leg hurt a lot. I was following a bear. The nearest water was a mile and a half back down the trail, or three miles ahead of me. There was a thunderstorm approaching from the west. And I was fairly exposed high on top of the dune. Mulling this, I decided that, “Yes, this was a good one.” I had not been up against adversity in awhile, and this was a pretty good pickle.

Yvon Chouinard once said that, “Adventures start when everything goes wrong.” It was safe to say, this trek wasn’t going according to plan. But what to do? I know my limits, and I’m good at recognizing bad situations (and good ones, too). To continue would be foolish. If I decided to stay where I was to avoid the heat, my water would run out, and I would be exposing myself to the thunderstorm. I knew I was close to a campground, but since it didn’t have water, I couldn’t stay there either. I decided water was the key. I needed water to stay hydrated, and the nearest source was back the way I came. I also decided that though I was very tired, that it would be in my best interest to get off the exposed dune. My leg was sore, but there was nothing to do about that. The bear would show up, or it wouldn’t. I’d deal with it if I had to. Satisfied with my rational thinking, I heaved my pack up on my shoulders and started back down the trail.

As I walked, the thunderstorm passed by me to the north. It rumbled a bit, but it didn’t rain. Nor were there any terrifying lighting bolts to dodge (as if I could). The heavy clouds blocked out the sun, and I relished the cooling change. My trek back to the creek was uneventful. I was still sore, but I would heal. I drank the last of my water before I pumped more into my bottles. I continued on to Little Medora Campground where I set up my camp. Easing into my hammock, I contemplated the day and laughed. I had just enjoyed yet another near life experience.

Starlight Dune Climb
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I looked up at the stars to check my orientation. The North Star was still off to my right, and I could still see one of the two bright stars I had been using as a guide ahead of me. Not that star navigation was necessary, the dune field was directly west of the campground. All I really needed to do was walk toward the giant blob of sand. But I like to practice navigation, and stars are an easy guide to use at night.

I chose to hike the dune at night for several reasons. It is much cooler at night than during the heat of the day. I wanted solitude, and nobody else was getting up at 3:30 in the morning to climb the dune. I wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of the dune. I wanted to photograph the dunes with good light. Finally, I figured it would be an awesome experience to hike the dune at night, then watching the day dawn over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado.
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My feet made a “Hisssssk-Hissssk” sound with each step I took on the cool sand. I couldn’t see the definition of the dune I was climbing due to the almost total darkness. The moon had set two hours ago, and the only light available was starlight. I had a flashlight, but where was the challenge in that? The dune began to climb again, and so did I. I was more or less climbing this dune by brail, only instead of using my hands, I used my feet to sense the changes of the dune.

The dune I was climbing was the highest sand dune in North America. At its highest point, it rose seven hundred and fifty feet above the valley floor. My calves began to throb with the increasing pitch of the pyramid I was climbing. This dune isn’t one giant wall of sand. It has twisting ridges, valleys and pits. Just when I reached the top of one ridge and followed to a peak, I found that I had to descend down into a pit and climb an even higher pyramid. It wasn’t easy, but it was enjoyable.
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The stillness and silence of the desert was complete. I’m not sure I have heard a silence as deep as that anywhere else on earth. It was so quiet, I swear I could almost hear the energy of the sand. It sounded like a very low hum on the lowest frequency that I can hear. Maybe I was imagining things. At any rate, I felt a strong connection to the earth and the dunes.

I started the final climb. I could only take thirty steps before I was gasping with the effort. The dry air parched my throat. After my breath settled, I took another swig of water. Then I would climb another thirty steps. There might have been easier ways to climb the dune, but I couldn’t see them. I had a sure fire way of getting to the top, which was simply to keep climbing up.

Then, with a push, I was on top. I rested my hands on my knees and let my heart and lungs slow down. Then I looked about at the expanse of the sand plateau all about me. It was amazing. I went in search of the perfect spot. My perfect spot needed to meet the following criteria: It needed a view of the dune field below me. It needed to be photographically interesting. It needed to be a good breakfast spot. After wandering another two hundred yards, I found it. Satisfied, I pulled out my breakfast (an orange and a Clif bar), and settled in to enjoy the start of the day.

The Dune Field In Pictures
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"Behold, The Sands of Thom!"
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Posted by Rhombus 11:03 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes parks flowers hiking colorado adventure sunrise sand insects photography dunes Comments (1)

On Isle Royale

The Hammock Tour of 2012

semi-overcast 74 °F

June 20th, 2012
Thunder Shack #2
Moskey Basin, Isle Royale, Michigan
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The rain continues to fall unabated as it has for the last two days. I am sitting in my lean-to, a three-sided wood structure of ingenious design. Its sound quality and craftsmanship protects me from the worst of the wind and rain. A fine screen covers the front side of the building. This screen allows air to pass through, but keeps the damnable mosquitoes out. Thusly protected, I am comfortable enough and am taking time to catch up on my journal.

I arrived on the island yesterday after a lengthy and uneventful passage from the outpost of Copper Harbor, Michigan. The vessel, the Isle Royale Queen IV, makes daily passages to and from the island, and I procured my passage via telephone the day before. The cost was reasonable, some $120.00 roundtrip to this wilderness isle. The waters were calm, though the sky was building darker clouds to the northwest. I felt like it might rain, but wasn’t worried as I had the necessary rain gear to stay dry.
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Upon reaching the protected waters of Rock Harbor on the northeast corner of the island, the Captain docked the vessel, and I stepped ashore. I checked in with a park ranger, who signed off on my proposed itinerary. I secured my equipment from the deckhands, and weighed my pack on the scale at the park store. It registered at 65 lbs. It was heavy, but I took on this burden without complaint.
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With my trusted walking stick in hand, I commenced this journey at a brisk pace walking southwest along the shoreline trail towards my destination for the day, some seven miles distant. The path followed the shoreline passing through groves of spruce and birch. It twisted and climbed up and over occasional black basalt rock outcrops. The summer foliage is lush and green and many wildflowers were out in bloom including wild rose, blue bells, and bunchberry.
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After I had walked five miles, the darkening clouds finally released their load, and it began to rain. I put on my raingear and continued along the trail. I was still feeling good, though I was tiring from my efforts. I had just returned to Michigan from the wilds of Alaska, and my body had yet to adjust to the difference of the light. Because of this, I had only slept for four hours before I rose from my bed to embark on the ship.

I continued walking through the rain shower. I consulted my map, and knew I was getting close to the Daisy Farm campground where I would make camp for the night. I arrived at the campground in the late afternoon. I set down my burdens and sighed with relief. I found an unused lean-to that I have described above, and set about making a lunch of peanut butter with honey spread on a round Mexican flat bread. I ate two of them with little difficulty.

I set up my hammock outside under the eaves of the shelter and lit my pipe. It felt wonderful to free of my heavy pack for the day, and it was very pleasant to sway in my comfortable hammock. After about an hour, it began to rain much harder than before, and I had to move my enterprise inside the lean-to.

I checked my pocket watch for the last time at six pm, and laid down on my bedroll intending only to stretch out for a few minutes before preparing dinner. I awoke to the booming of thunder, many hours later. The sky was darkening in the east, and I presumed it to be near eleven o’clock at night. I rose briefly to attend to my nightly personal affairs and went back to my bedroll. There was no dinner this night. The thunderstorms continued all night. The lightning hit with such intensity that the thunderclap shook my lean-to with its force. The rain intensified, and it sounded as if the drummers of Scotland were beating on my roof. I slept.
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Upon waking up, I felt completely refreshed. I think my slumber lasted well over twelve hours, a luxury I rarely get to enjoy. The day was still dark and gloomy, but I happily made breakfast of oatmeal and tea inside my shack away from the rain. I pumped water from the lake into my canteens, repacked my equipment and donned my raingear. I was ready to continue my trek. I had not hiked very far before the trail was covered in several inches of water. Indeed, it looked much like a spring creek, with water happily chuckling over the rocks. This was to be a trying day. My boots are durable and mostly waterproof, but the amount of water I was walking through eventually overcame their protection, and soon I was walking in sopping wet footwear. It began to rain again, and the mosquitoes tapped into me with annoying regularity. I was sweating in my raingear, and the rock outcrops I crossed were slick with all the water. I was moving slow.
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I stopped briefly to take a rest on an outcrop. As I sat there, I noticed a hare several yards up the trail. I kept quiet. Then, it came hopping down the very path I was walking. It stopped three feet away from where I sat, and I had a good look at it. It looked pitiful. Its hair was matted and soaked through, clinging to its body. Its large black eyes looked at me as if to ask, “Oh dear, oh dear, what has happened? Where has all this water come from? My home is flooded.” It bounded off down the path, looking for an answer. I saw three more rabbits that day. I think their warrens were flooded, and they had no place to go.
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It is just under four miles from Daisy Farm to Moskey Basin. I planned to stay at Moskey Basin for two nights. I passed one moose that was munching leaves just off the trail. Beleaguered as I was, I didn’t even stop to look at it. I simply talked to it, letting it know I was passing by. Moose are quite plentiful on this island, and I was happy to see one.
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I finally made it the head of Moskey Basin in time for a brief lull in between rainsqualls. I was soaked through, tired and sweating. I found this shelter in reasonable condition and set about making it more comfortable. I hung a clothesline under the eaves, and hung up my wet effects. I went down to the shore and dunked myself twice in the chilly water of Lake Superior. I returned to my shelter, changed into dry clothes and set about making lunch. That is where you find me right now, lounging comfortably in my hammock. I’m content to nap through the afternoon, as my old tomcat would on rainy days. I’m enjoying the graffiti written on the walls of the shelter from past tours. It seems I’m not the only hiker who has spent rainy afternoons in this lean-to. “I love Isle Royale, but I don’t love mosquitoes and rain.” “I miss my pizza.” “Berry Girl Aug 2009.” Below that, her partner wrote, “a.k.a. the snail” meaning she spent her time picking berries instead of hiking.

6 O’clock - Still raining.
8 O’clock - Rain and thunder.
9 O’clock - Rainy, going to bed.

June 21st, 2012
Thunder and Sunshine Shack #2
Moskey Basin, Isle Royale, Michigan
~Summer Solstice~
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What a difference a day makes! Today dawned clear and bright without a cloud in the sky. If it weren’t for the slippery mud on the campground trails, I would almost believe it hadn’t rained at all. I spent my morning at ease, content to sit quietly on the rock ledges and watch the wildlife around me. I find that sitting quietly is the best way to witness wildlife in their element. For instance, I saw a raft of otter swim by, some 100 yards distant. There were five or six in the group, grunting amongst themselves as they swam towards the head of the bay. There are several types of fowl that live here in the bay. I saw several golden eye ducks, some red headed mergansers, and heard the haunting summer call of the common loon. While I sat on my rock, a dragonfly on patrol flew out to a golden eye paddling in the water. I’m not sure if its intent was to land on the duck or not, but it flew too close. The duck looked up and snapped the dragonfly in its beak, shaking its head and munching the unfortunate fly for a late breakfast snack.
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I swam in the lake around midday. The water is still quite cold, but very refreshing. After drying off, I made lunch and took a nap. I love my days of leisure.
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Towards evening, the rumble of distant thunder rolled over the basin. I looked at the sky and a large dark gray cloud rolled overhead. It began to sprinkle, but only for a short while before the cloud past and the sun returned. The waters of the bay had flattened, almost to a perfect mirror finish. The clouds above reflected below made for a beautiful scene that I enjoyed. I had a feeling there was going to be a rainbow. I ran out to a rocky tip with my camera. A beautiful spectrum of color rose from just above the treetops in the eastern sky. At first, it was dull, but as the sun cleared the clouds, the more intense the colors became. The nearby pines glowed in the golden light from the sun. It was truly magnificent. Nature knows how to put on a good show.
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I finished the evening by sipping tea and watching the sun set over the island. The clouds glowed orange as if lit by fire. The solstice is our longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. This one was spectacular from dawn to dusk.
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June 22, 2013
Three Mile Campground
Isle Royale, Michigan

Today was as bright and clear as yesterday was, and I spent the day hiking eight miles along the lakeside trail back to Three Mile campground. The hike was uneventful. The trails were in better condition than they were on the 20th. They had dried out from the last two days of sunshine. I enjoyed the trek and made good time down the path. I slipped on a rock at one point and landed with all of the combined weight of the pack and myself right on my left kneecap. Evidently, I’m made of some stern stuff, as it didn’t affect me at all.

I arrived at Three Mile just after noon, and happily threw my pack down. The sixty-five pounds were starting to get to me. My shoulders were getting sore from carrying the load, and I longed for a massage from a sweet lady I know. Alas, it was not to be. I jumped in the lake once again, and dried off on the hot black rocks that make up this island. I looked at my remaining camp food with disinterest. I had nothing that looked appetizing anymore, and so ate more rolled up peanut butter flat bread.

I set up my hammock in the shade, and read for a while. I am reading “Black Elk Speaks” by John Neihardt. I wrote in my journal, and took a brief nap.
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I passed the afternoon away, enjoying views of the lake, and watching the trees sway in the breeze. The campground red fox trotted past me along the trail to my camp. It paused briefly to inspect my wares. I had my sweaty clothes drying on the picnic table, and moved on. It had a beautiful rich coat of auburn, its tail full and fluffy. Its eyes were yellowish green, and it looked at me and said, “Hey amigo, Que pasa?” in a sly, quiet way foxes have.

I started craving pizza about the time I was watching the noodles boil for my dinner. I was starving, and while I waited, I began to imagine the particulars of the post trek celebratory pizza. [Cue Harps]. It would be a large, pepperoni, green pepper and onion pizza from Jim’s in Calumet. The cheese would be perfectly cooked, almost molten. The crust would have a satisfying crunch... After daydreaming for several minutes about it, I popped back into reality and looked at my pot of bubbling noodles. I laughed. My dream dinner would have to wait, and I finished preparing my dinner of macaroni and cheese with tuna and shallots. It was good, but a starving man will eat most anything and call it delicious.
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For dessert, I made a cup of tea and ate the last of my chocolate. I sipped my tea along the shore, and took in one last sunset over the island. I couldn’t see the actual sunset because of the island’s trees. The setting sun lit up the clouds over Rock Harbor and they reflected into a collage of oily colors on the flat surface of the bay.

June 23rd, 2012
Isle Royal Queen IV
Lake Superior

I’m on my way back to the mainland of the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan. The vessel is running true, and the waters calm, despite a stiff breeze out of the south. The only event worth mentioning is that we passed the ore freighter Arthur M. Anderson. The Anderson is one of the more famous ships in the great lakes fleet. The Anderson was traveling ten miles behind the Edmund Fitzgerald the night the Fitz went down back in November of 1975. It was the Anderson that witnessed the Fitz disappear on its radar.
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As a mariner, I look at ships all the time on our vessel’s radar. To see a ship the size of an ore carrier disappear off the screen would be very intense. It is one of every seaman’s worst nightmares. I can’t imagine the surge of adrenaline that went through the bridge of the Anderson, not to mention the uncertainty of their own survival in seas that treacherous.
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I stepped ashore safe and sound and keenly aware of my proximity to the pizza I craved. And let me tell you, it was as good as I imagined it to be.

Author’s Note: The ranger in Rock Harbor informed me that it rained three inches on the island during the first two days of my stay. The city of Duluth, MN received seven inches from the same band of storms. The resulting flash floods caused remarkable damage to the city.

Posted by Rhombus 08:21 Archived in USA Tagged birds islands parks flowers rainbows backpacking photography trails Comments (0)

Haines, Alaska

The Last Stop of My Springtime Alaskan Adventure

semi-overcast 64 °F


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Have you ever been to Haines, Alaska? Haines was never on my Alaskan places to see list. I had seen it on a map, but breezed over it for sexier locations like Denali, the Kenai, Glacier Bay, and Tracy Arm to name a few. Fortunately, I have friends in Haines. And these friends who have collectively said, “Come visit us. We have a place for you to stay.” While I was figuring out the end game for this Alaskan adventure, I decided to go and visit my friends, which is how I ended up in Haines.
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Haines isn’t an easy town to get to. There is only one highway into town, highway seven, that cuts south off the Alaskan Highway in the Yukon Territory. Alternatively, a ferry runs from either Skagway, or Juneau. I rode the ferry from Juneau, and recommend this option. Finally, you could take a small plane in from Juneau. Bank robbers aren’t making a fast get away from this outpost.
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Haines carries a small town atmosphere. It is a refreshing change from the tourist ridden, knick-knackeries of Juneau and Skagway. On my first walk through downtown, I was struck by the modest appearance of its shops and services. There’s no flash to Haines, and to me that is its greatest allure. When I stepped into the nicely appointed shops and restaurants, the shopkeepers looked up with a smile and a genuine, “Hello. How are you?” The owners of the establishments were generally hard at work in the kitchen, stocking shelves, or running the till. They were an active part of the service, not hiding in an office somewhere or teeing off at the ninth hole (though after work you might find them at the local disc golf course).

The Alaskan pioneer is still alive and well in Haines. Many folks are living off the grid. They live far enough out of town where they don’t have running water, or electricity they didn’t make themselves. Some have to plan their day around the tides-meaning they can only get to town at low tide. They live this way by choice, and continue the pioneering spirit that has made Alaska what it is. Granted, modern conveniences have made homesteading “easier” than in times past, but they are still over coming hardships that most of us wouldn’t even consider. Compared to the overweight, red-bull powered, television worshipping couch potatoes that we Americans are (prove me wrong!), these folks are our equivalent of modern pioneers. I applaud their spirit.

The days are long in the early part of June. Daylight lasted for just over eighteen hours on my visit. Summer is the busy season, when everyone wants to cram as much work and play into their day as they can. Summer is a big deal to the residents of Haines, especially after surviving last winter. This past winter broke many spirits all around Alaska. There were records broken, or nearly broken all around the state and year round residents of Haines had their hands full all winter long.
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“I stood on the top of this totem pole,” my good friend Kathy told me, “that’s how much snow there was.” This was coming from someone who as of March 2010 had never seen snow before. She survived this past winter, and lived to tell the tale. She’s seen more snow this past winter than most people have seen in the last ten. Girdwood, located just south of Anchorage, received eighty feet of snow this year. Eighty feet! That’s incredible.
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That’s why summer is so important to Alaskan residents. It gives them a chance to breathe a collective sigh of relief-no more snow shoveling for another five months or so.

Throughout my week, my friend Kathy introduced me to most of the town. “Hey Kathy, we saw you walking Frankie (her dog) and noticed you were walking with someone we didn’t know. We thought we’d see who it was.” I’d laugh, and Kathy would introduce me to someone new. In my line of recreation, I meet many people. The problem is, I’m terrible with names. So please forgive me if I remember your face, but can’t quite make the connection.
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As you might imagine, I spent a lot of time outside during my week in Haines. I love the lushness of summer in Alaska. Though the summer season may be short, every plant, wildflower, shrub and tree makes the most of it by blooming to its fullest. The pure green of the lowlands meshed beautifully with the pale blue sky and snow covered mountains. Add in some wildlife, such as a humpback whale in the canal, or Brown Bears munching grasses on the shore, and you have yourself another gorgeous Alaskan view.
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Highlights of Haines

Mt. Ripinsky
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Though I didn’t reach the summit of Mt. Ripinsky, I hiked to the top of its ridge three times. One of the trailheads was one hundred yards from my house. I went up for a hike with some friends on a summit bid. On top of the ridge, the heavy snow pack made the trail hard to find, and slowed us down. We bush whacked our way around the backside of the mountain eventually finding the main trail which took us back to where we began.
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On two other occasions, I went up to enjoy the eagle eye view of the town and surrounding mountains and valleys. I also found a mossy clearing where I set up my slack line.

Beach Barbeque at Mud Bay
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One day, the sun came out and my jaw dropped. Where once was a misty mountainous landscape obscured by clouds, there was now a brilliant mountain scene of blue sky and snow capped peaks. Then, the wind died down, and it became a perfect night for a barbeque. On the last day of shrimp season, a local fisherman gave Kathy a two-pound bag of Southeast Alaskan Coon Striped Shrimp that he had caught that day. We took them out to the head of Mud Bay, and after considerable effort, Kathy’s boyfriend started a fire using rain soaked wood. When the coals glowed orange, we pulled across a cast iron table over the flames and spread the shrimp on the grill. While they cooked, we watched the sunset, sipped PBR from a can (the Alaskan cheap beer of choice), and marveled at the beauty all around us. We pulled the shrimp off the flames with our fingers, yelping as we peeled off the hot shells. They were delicious! These freshly caught shrimp were some of the best shrimp I have eaten.
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The Chilkoot River
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The Chilkoot River is a beautiful river that runs from Chilkoot Lake a short distance to the ocean. Anglers of the skinny two-legged kind and the massive four-legged kind frequent the river. Somehow, they get along, but I think the four-legged anglers are in charge. The Chilkoot is a very picturesque river. Wildflowers grow abundantly along its bank, as do spruce, and other shrubs. A high mountain ridge forms the backdrop, and skinny waterfalls tumble down its side. I liked the rivers boulders. They had character. Some even provided homes to small Zen pines, which reminded me of Chinese gardens that I have visited (see Sleep Deprived in Portland, Oct 2011).

Rafting the Chilkat River
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Through the power of couch surfing (www.couch surfing.org), I made a connection with a local raft guide who invited me for a float trip down the Chilkat river. The Chilkat runs through a beautiful plain surrounded by lush forests and mountain peaks. It runs several miles through an eagle preserve, and we had several great views of these magnificent birds. At one point, we saw an eagle sitting on a log. Our guide asked us to be quiet. We slipped slowly past within twenty feet of this bird! It was awesome! I’m still get excited by eagles, no matter how many I see.
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I enjoyed the trip, and I was glad I reached out to the couch surfing network.

It’s safe to say, I enjoyed my visit to Haines. A week wasn’t long enough, but it was time to move on. I wanted to head south back down to the lower forty-eight for a while to take in some warmer temperatures, and work on my suntan. I’ll be back in Alaska in August, so I won’t be gone for long.

I took the evening ferry from Haines back down to Juneau arriving just after eleven o’clock at night. My flight was leaving at eight in the morning, and I didn’t have a place to stay for the night. I didn’t want to spend money on a hotel, not for that short of time, and the hostel closed its doors at eleven. I decided to see if I could spend the night at either the Juneau ferry terminal or airport. As it turns out, sleeping at the terminal is common, though their doors close from 11 pm to 3 am. As I set up my bunk on the concrete, I talked to some of the other folks who would be sleeping out, waiting for their ferry the next morning. I wished them happy travels, and tucked into my sleeping bag.
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Author’s Note:
Chilkoot means “basket of fish” in the Tlingit language.
Chilkat means “bigger basket of fish.”

Haines concluded my Alaskan adventure for now, and I’ve just returned from a five day backpacking trek on Isle Royale National Park. In two days, I’m heading to Colorado for three weeks in the mountains. As you can see, not only am I trying to catch up on my writing and photography, but I’m also trying to make plans for Colorado and points beyond at the same time. So this week I will be putting out two entries to catch up on my adventures. Thank you again for your continued support. It makes me smile to think of all the good people out there cheering me on, and inviting me into their lives.

Posted by Rhombus 11:03 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats rivers flowers hiking towns alaska oceans rafting photography Comments (1)

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)

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