Just before leaving for Alaska, I received in the mail my 1st and 2nd place age-group awards for Buffalo and Raleigh Marathon. Admittedly, I was fairly confident that I'd be getting another one in Alaska. In fact, I actually changed my flight home to ensure that I would have enough time to stick around for awards ceremony. I am REALLY glad I did change the flight time but not for that reason.
I flew into Fairbanks, arriving a little after midnight to a bright day. Yes, even at midnight there was plenty of sun that far north that close to summer solstice. I originally planned on exploring Fairbanks for the night and then sleeping while riding the train to Denali, but I quickly realized that I was going to fade quite sooner than that. So instead, I booked a hotel near the train station and headed there. It was only two miles away so I planned on walking it but a kindly airport worker just finishing her shift stopped in her Mazda Miata and gave me a ride. Which was hilarious in itself with my three bags stacked high in front of me in this little clown car. If I had bags stacked to both my sides so I couldn't see in any direction, I wouldn't have missed much. No offense to Fairbanks, but other than offering a plethora of strip clubs and malls, I didn't see much there that would make me want to go back. I didn't make it out to Chena Hot Springs which I did hear was nice but I don't think that I'd go to Fairbanks again. Even on the train ride to Denali the first three hours of the trip was boringly flat and uneventful.
|Typical scene along the ride.|
|The start of some mountains|
Note: The thing about Denali is that although it has about 6 million acres of wilderness, it only has a handful of trails in the entire park, mostly comprising of bike path-esque jaunts.
With that being said, I decided upon the trail that was described as the most challenging with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain. While I would never do this in the Whites at home, I decided also that it would be a good idea to hike in jeans and a cotton T-shirt. Luckily, the weather held out but it's those kind of sleep deprived decisions that can lead to deadly consequences. I didn't make that mistake again. This hike was a really nice one and I'd recommend it to anyone staying in the front-country. I got to where the trail ended wanting more and just continued up hiking to Mount Healy's false summit another 1,000 feet higher. The actual summit still had quite a good amount of snow on it and I decided not to be that stupid and try to hike it. As it was the descent through loose shale and scree provided me with my first introduction to the challenges of hiking in Alaska.
|Kinda reminded me of the Franconia Ridgeline|
|Where the trail ended|
|An fun descent|
The next morning, I took the Savage river bus [Editor's note: A both cool and annoying feature of Denali is that they don't allow private vehicles into the actual National Park. This is great to avoid traffic jams and keep the environment healthy but does make accessing the park(without a plane) painstakingly slow]. I had decided to do the only other front(ish) country hike that was described as strenuous which was the Savage River Alpine Trail. Supposedly it gained around 2,000 feet as well. I only say supposedly because it seemed significantly easier than the Mt Healy hike the day before. The fact that I was wearing hearing gear and was hydrating probably helped as well. Either way, when I reached the apex of the hike, instead of continuing to follow it back to the road, I decided to hike further up and trace the ridge line which I could see would eventually return to the road. The ascending was really fun but I could tell that descending(like when climbing a tree) would be substantially more challenging. As it was. After three peaks, I decided it was time to get off the ridge and started my descent back down. It started with large rocks similarly to those we encountered at Katahdin. Soon thereafter it turned into that damned scree which had me cursing not only the current terrain but also Jon Krakauer and the entire state of Alaska. I finally opted for huge brush rather than the scree as I reasoned dying from a broken ankle and starving to death was a far worse alternative to be mauled by a bear. Oh yeah, I'm not melodramatic AT ALL. As you can tell I didn't end up mauled or with a broken ankle and after many swear words and melodious curses I finally reached the road thinking that my day was finished. Apparently the bus system didn't think so though. Usually a bus will pass about every 15 minutes or so so I was thinking I'd shortly be able to jump on one and head back and soon be munching on a nice juicy cheeseburger. Just the thought of starving to death got me hungry. Instead, I ended up waiting over an hour and walking five road miles before finally getting picked up. I did run into a moose about 5 feet off the road but that didn't brighten my mood.
I only have a couple pictures from this day and the next because I lost my phone charger so I was trying to conserve batteries. I took a lot more pictures of the animals and McKinley both with my real camera that my sister let me borrow. Unfortunately, my technological capabilities are pretty much limited to using this blog so I haven't yet figured out how to now get those pictures from the camera to the computer. Kind of reminds me of Zoolander:
|The best part of the descent|
|The start of the loose scree|
|More of the loose scree|
|My last mile in the woods was hopping river rock to river rock|
|Hello Mr. Moose|
In fact, I was so annoyed with this day's hike that I wrote a whole blog while sitting at the Salmon Bake's bar that evening(which I walked another 2 miles each way to get to) [Editor's note: If going to Denali either a) rent a car or b) buy a bike but do not really on public transportation]. Suffice it to say the write-up was pretty negative. Luckily, I didn't have access to a computer so it stayed where it belonged: in my head.
I struggled out of my tent the next morning very stiff and sore. I had booked a bus ride all the way to Eileson which was 66 miles into the park. I had looked at the topo map and it looked like there would be a cool hike that I could do if I made it out there. As I mentioned above, the negative about the park is that you had to ride a bus. I think if I did it again, I'd probably rent a bike instead and ride the road because the bus goes soooooo slow. Granted it was cool when we stopped for Grizzlies, caribou, and dall sheep, but ground squirrels? Really? I guess somewhere it the world there may be no squirrels but I think there were plenty of them at the campground that we didn't need to stop for photos along the way. A two hour trip(at most) ended up taking 4 hours which only made me stiffer and sorer by the time we got to Eileson. And this is the transition from the walking trip to the sitting trip. Nevertheless, the trip was made worth while just by the view that was afforded to me of Mt McKinley and the surrounding peaks.
The hike up Mt Eileson also got me in a better mood and the return trip(another four hours) was far more enjoyable.
|Not the only selfie I took:)|
|The summit of Eileson|
The next morning, I packed up, walked another 4-6 miles to see a dog sled demonstration, have lunch and catch a bus ride to Anchorage. The mileage from Denali is 237 miles so should take about four hours(if you drive 5 miles under the speed limit) but our bus trip managed to make it a six hour trip which couldn't be used to sleep because of the near constant swerving into the rumble strip. This long ride did afford me the opportunity to get to know my bus mates who included a native Alaskan(the only one I met the whole trip), guys from California and New Zealand who had just summitted McKinley and a guy from Washington who spent the last week just roaming around and exploring. It was nice to see alternatives to the people who I encountered in the campground who pretty much just RV'd themselves from place to place, snapping a couple pictures and crossing off another sight from their lists. To me that's not experiencing a place and in all honesty their pictures are probably going to be no better than the ones you can find on the internet. I finally made it to the Anchorage airport where I picked up my rental car and drove(at or above the speed limit) down the Turnagain Arm to the town of Seward. You may have heard of Seward and his "folly". He was the guy who "overpaid" the Russians a few million dollars for all of Alaska. At the time Americans viewed it as a huge waste of public funds but soon thereafter gold and other minerals and then oil was discovered and it turned out to be not so bad. I wish all follies turned out that good. Maybe if you wait long enough they do.
Anyway, if I were to do an Alaska trip again, I'd probably either dedicate myself to a full backcountry wilderness trip in Denali or avoid it altogether and stay in Anchorage and Seward. There so many awesome peaks and things to do so close that you would have to spend very little time in the car and instead be outside and enjoy your time. In addition to lots of good seafood, the town of Seward is home to Mt Marathon and Kenai Fjords National Park which was created to protect the Harding Icefield. Sidenote: The musician Jewel's grandfather was on the first expedition to cross the hundred's of miles of the icefield.
In the time I was in Seward, I hiked Mt Marathon(which I find very impressive that people run up it), hiked to Exit Glacier and went on a cruise in Resurrection Bay. The best way I can describe Mt. Marathon is to envision the pitch and length of Tripyramid and then instead of having nice steady granite dump loose and wet gravel on it. I was backsliding the whole way up. When I got to Race Point(which wasn't the summit of the mountain just where the race heads back down) I decided I had had enough of the scree and opted for a different descent. However, my path ended up not being any better as I went through a good amount of scree anyway and just added pricker bushes and wet slippery grass to the equation. Again, luckily no broken ankles. Although it was a crazy hike, it was worth it for the views of the bay and it made having dinner in town far more enjoyable when I could look up at the mountain and know I had just climbed(albeit not conquered) it.
|Mt Marathon. Doesn't look like much until you realize you gain as much elevation as hiking up Lafayette|
|Exit Glacier from a distance|
|The hike to Exit Glacier|
|Another selfie- this time at the base of Exit Glacier|
|Boy it was cold|
|The water spout of the humpback whale|
It was a great last evening in Seward.
|My campground at 1am-still pretty light out|
|My little hut at Miller's Landing|
|Notice Travis gave me his helmet. Last time we climbed together, I didn't even get a harness but instead used a daisy chain. Age makes you kinder. haha|
After the climb, we headed down to Girdwood which in addition to having the only ski area in the area had a gold mine which conveniently, Travis' friend caretakes for. We spent the evening lounging by the campfire.
The next morning, I awoke the least sore I had been all week, still thinking that I would be capable of running a fast marathon. Even at the start of the race, I speculatively looked around and figured a top five finish to be in my future. As the gun went off and I started running a felt a little fatigued but was in the top 5-10 runners. I went through the mile in 7:45 and just assumed that it was a long mile. The next one was 7:05, then 7:25 and as I kept going I realized, I was no longer in the top 5 or 10 but slowly fading further back in the pack. It was as if I was running in mud while everyone else had found a dry path. The fact was I was running in mud but so was everyone else so I know that wasn't the reason. I made it through the first 10 miles averaging 7:30's and feeling like I typically do at mile 20. Another mile later and I decided I would quit. To be fair, I was actually kind of hoping that I'd roll my ankle in one of the potholes along the way, be mauled by a bear or have severe stomach issues that I could use as an excuse. Whether fortunate or not, none of those occurred and I was just left with myself wondering what exactly was slowing me down. The trouble was there wasn't one thing doing it, more like everything. I just felt tired and spent and no longer wanted to be running. At the half marathon mark which I went through in 1:39, I really made a concerted effort to quit even asking an official how best I could get home. And he pointed me in the direction of the runners ahead of me. Apparently where I was there was only one way to get out of the woods and that was through them. And this is when the trip turned back to the walking trip: at mile 15, I did my first mile of walking only doing a 17 minute mile. I came across a bike medic at mile 17 who asked if I wanted aid to which I replied, yes in the form of a ride back my car. She laughed and then went on alone. Damn her!
Let me tell you: 11 miles of walking takes a long time! Every once in a while I'd come across someone who'd be struggling and I'd motivate them to keep moving sometimes by offering words of encouragement and other times just by running alongside them until they got back into their rhythm at which point they'd go off and I'd resume my walk. It actually became quite fun seeing how many people I could make sure would beat me. I came across an Army guy who had calf cramps and I run alongside him for about 2 miles. They weren't fast miles but they were fun ones. I met several runners out here doing their first marathons. All in all although it took me nearly 3 hours to cover those last 13 miles, it was far more fun than the first 13 when I was concerned about time and placing. No awards for me and since I didn't go sub-three, I guess I'll have to come back and try it again;) Not such a bad thing.
And now I'm done my marathon season until September when I'll be going out west with my dad and doing the Jackson Hole Marathon.
Amber's in peak training mode now herself and is gearing up for her next race which will be the Lake Placid Ironman in July. She is going to crush it!