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Bus ride to Denali Back-country Lodges – Day 10 (Monday)

“rangers still use dog sleds to patrol in the winter”

Our first day in Denali was focused on traveling as far as vehicles could go in the national park. We took a six hour bus ride half-way into the park until we reached mile marker 186, which said “this is the end of the road”. Before departing on the bus, we had some extra time. We spent our free time at a show that the Denali park rangers offer about huskies and the importance of dog sleds in Denali. With this extra time in our schedule, we opted to view the show and see the dogs. They were beautiful. The Alaskan husky differs from Siberian Huskies in three main ways: they are not “pure-bred”, they have longer legs for traveling through thick snow, and their paws are bred to be wider with less space between toes (this is so the dogs do not get snow and ice crammed in-between toes as easily because that can cut the dogs feet). All of these traits together make the Alaska Husky a perfect dog for any sledding team.

Before the show began, we were able to walk around and interact with the dogs who wanted as much attention as we could give. There was a chain between us and kennels that we could not cross, but if a dog desired attention it would walk from the kennel up to the chain in order to let us pet them.

The dogs were beautiful. Every coat was unique and
varying from black to brown to white. Each also had the beautiful eyes that huskies have become famous for. One kennel even had three husky pups nursing. They were cute and playful but didn’t leave their mothers side. The show began with us watching the huskies get hooked to the sled and proceeding to pull it around the track. It was very apparent that the dogs were pleased when they were allowed to run and pull the sled. The ranger who was riding stopped the sled in front of us to explain the history of dog sleds in Denali Park. My favorite was that snowmobiles do not run in the cold temperatures experienced in the park, so rangers still use dog sleds to patrol in the winter. I imagine it is quite a cool sight to be passed by a ranger on a dog sled during this day-and-age.

After the dog sled presentation, we hopped onto the bus to get to our backcountry cabin. The six-hour ride was full of excitement. The landscape had rolling hills speckled with kettle ponds carved by the Alaskan glaciers. There were mountains in the distance, and eventually Mt. McKinley (or Denali as the natives called it) came into view. The huge mountain was lost in the clouds, but it had a 30-mile long glacier extending from its peak all the way down to our roadside, a stunning sight.

In addition to the beautiful scenery, wildlife abounded in the park. There was a fox, caribou, and several moose, but the coolest animals were the two grizzly bears. The second grizzly we saw was blonde with a dark undercoat. It was young and paid no attention to us as it munched away on clumps of grass just outside my window. As the bear slowly meandered down the shoulder of the road, our driver slowly pulled the bus ahead so we could watch the beautiful animal. It was thick and looked very powerful. I was glad to have the protection of the bus around me in spite of my lifelong desire to pet a wild bear. In time, our driver sped up and began taking us once again to our destination.  When we arrived at our backcountry lodgings, we found a beautiful community of cabins along a stream. We were greeted with a superb three-course dinner that included both fish and meat options.

As soon as dinner was over, my brother and I shot out of the dining room to do our first hike of the week. We planned to take an off-trail hike to the top of the nearest peak. An elevation gain of about 800-1200 feet. After rock-hopping across the stream, we began our ascent. The brush was high and thick, but we had a blast working our way through. It was the first time my brother and I have done something like this together and we were very excited. However, the further we went up, the thicker the enfemerae of mosquitoes became. When we had completed approximately half of our ascent, the mosquitoes were so thick I would kill 3-5 per swat. I have never been in such a thick cloud of mosquitoes – even our 99% deet bug spray didn’t keep them off of us. A summit would have been possible, but the mosquitoes truly took all the fun out of the climb. We decided to turn around. Back at camp we learned that the world record of 17 mosquitoes killed in one swat was set at a lake three miles from where we were. Neither of us were surprised. We were also told that a young, weakened caribou could be killed in one night from loss of blood due to mosquito bites. Having experienced the onslaught of mosquitoes on our hike, I again was not all too surprised

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Whittier Alaska – Day 7 (Friday)

An early morning drive led us through a long tunnel to the town of Whittier. This small town, with its military bunker that has sat dormant since the Cold War ended was one ferris wheel short of looking like Cherynoble. The marina across the street, however, told a very different story. It was hopping with activity and cast a beautiful view of the green-blue waters and snowcapped mountains.

Once our boat was loaded and in the water, we began seeing one amazing sight after another. Our purpose for the trip was to explore Prince William Sound and hopefully find a bear for dinner. My friend had packed his 30-06 and gave me the .44 magnum in case I needed it at any point. Bear are extremely dangerous and we were not taking any chances.

As we glided across the frigid waters in our boat, we came across a series of cascading waterfalls that split apart and regrouped as they ran down the mountainside. There were hundreds of seagulls flying around white-speckled rocks that the waterfalls ran around. It wasn’t until we got closer that I could see everything that was really going on. Each of those hundreds of white dots on the rocks was also a seagull. It was the largest flock of birds I have ever seen it real life and it was amazing.

Later in the day, we came upon beautiful glaciers. As we navigated our boat between ice-floats to get a better view, we noticed the rocks on the ice-floats in the distance were moving. Upon closer inspection, we found that those “moving rocks” were actually dozens of sea otters playing around on the ice and surrounding water. Soon enough, they began popping up closer to our boat and inspecting us with curious eyes. They were quite a sight to see.

The glaciers, which looked like a massive rush of water frozen in time between the mountains, glowed with a bright blue hue. They were massive and seemed timeless. We were weary of getting too close to them for they were dangerous and were were already needing to navigate rather large ice floats. We couldn’t believe the beauty of this secluded place. It is amazing how beauty exists that is so rarely viewed by man.

Once we left the ice floats for safer waters, we beached the boat for lunch. After we ate, we explored and found a sea otter den whose entrance was littered with broken shells. It was a beautiful view from where we stood, and we enjoyed it before working our way back down towards the beach.

As we continued our search for a bear, we motored in-and-out of various coves until we found an old ferry which had washed up on shore years ago. It was rusting out and little more than a skeleton remained in some places. Sensing adventure, we began to explore the damaged hull, being careful where we placed each step. The carcass of the old fairy was filled with mystery, but knowing we needed to get the boat back off the beach before the tide would leave it high-and–dry, we discontinued out investigations and headed back home.

We didn’t get the bear so we went home and cooked moose-hotdogs from last season’s kill. They were very tasty and reminded the others of their successful moose-hunt a little while previous.

 
 

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Bald Eagles Everywhere – Alaska Day 2 (Sunday)

When we awoke, we ate a delicious breakfast of crepes before jumping into the pickup to take our kayaks to Cooper Lake. The road was gravel and eventually proved impossible to pass. The snow was very deep in places and without cell phone coverage we did not want to try to plow through. Instead, we hiked down a stream until we reached the lake. The view was superb. We stayed on that shore for some time, enjoying the view while skipping stones into the lake.

A while later, we drove to the Russian River Trail and walked about two miles down a gravel path to see a large Class V rapid. The rapid was quite impressive and made up for the uninteresting trail. We didn’t want to return the same way we had come, so we opted to take the alternative trail back. The trail was noted as un-kept and “not passable in areas.” We quickly found out just what that meant.

The trail followed the river, which had unseasonably high waters. The river was so high, in fact, that much of the trail was submerged and therefore nonexistent. We were going to have to bush-whack our way back to a road. We fought our way through branches and thorn bushes, traversed rock faces over the river, and kept a keen eye out for bear. We had seen scat and plenty of prints along the few usable sections of trail. One print was estimated to be six or seven inches wide! Though there were bear in the area, we were not too concerned because we were in a group of three and had a .44 magnum revolver at the ready.

After getting many scratches and scrapes, and with quite tired bodies, we finally found the road. We were glad to be finished, but had also enjoyed every step we had taken. It was a wonderful day, spent mostly off-trail in the Alaskan mountains. We drove the 100-mile stretch of road back to my friend’s home and enjoyed the beauty of the ride. There were two moose grazing in a marsh on the inland side of the road and on the bay-side were more bald eagles than I had ever imagined could be seen in one place. The tide was low and the eagles landed on the newly uncovered sediment and rocks along the bay. I stopped after counting 15 Bald Eagles  in five minutes of driving. Alaska is so natural and wild. It is a place unlike any other I have ever visited.

 
 

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Where The Sun Never Set – Alaska Day 1 (Saturday)

A carving I made for my then soon-to-be Fiance

26 May 2012

Alaska had a long winter this year. Many of the mountains are still covered in snow, with avalanche shoots running down to the large lakes of snow run-off. Some roads are still unusable due to the depths of the snow covering them, but the main roads are clear and the weather is moderately warm. The mountainsides are covered with splashes of dark green from the evergreens and lighter greens from the new growth.

My first morning began with a trip to REI where I found a camping stove on the discount rack. It was a returned item but functioned very well and had a price that couldn’t be turned down. After REI, we went to do yard-work (I was staying with a friend from school, and I was helping him with his summer day-job while I was up there) for the remainder of the morning. At the last house, a moose crossed the street behind us as we parked the car. I was excited, but quickly found out they are common in Alaska, like deer in Michigan.

After the yard-work, we left town to spend the night in a cabin. The 100-mile drive to the cabin was described as one of the most beautiful drives in America. To our left were train-tracks and a mountain side that was truncated by the clouds; to our right was a bay with snow-covered mountains beyond them. I couldn’t believe the beauty before me. I saw a second moose on the way to this drive and watched as locals used dip-nets to fish for the hooligan that were running.

When we finally reached the cabin, I was introduced to a whole group of people that were already there enjoying their weekend away. We conversed with them for the evening and enjoyed the beautiful view while sitting around a fire. I carved a picture of the view into a piece of wood and enjoyed conversation with my new friends. The night grew late, but the sun never set. At midnight it was still just as light outside as it was at noon. I enjoyed the persistent daylight, but my body was certainly confused by it.

 

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Death is always near – Alaska Day 3 (Monday)

The day began with another trip to REI to check what new items may have found their way onto the returned-items discount rack on the last day of the big sale. Just as we arrived, a cart came out to restock the shelves. A 2-person Eno hammock for $20 was the most appealing of the bunch, but I already owned a 2-person hammock and had no need. We sifted through the surprise items but found nothing we couldn’t pass-up. We then moved on to mowing the one lawn we needed to mow before we could hike.

Me with Anchorage in the background

Our hike was an ascent of not more than 2,000 feet to the top of Flat-Top, Anchorage’s most-summited peak. It was a beautiful view but there were far too many people on the trail. Clouds were coming in quickly and the wind was only getting stronger as we went higher, so we kept a brisk pace to ensure sufficient time to summit in nice weather. The summit boasted a beautiful view of Anchorage and the bay on one side, and the mountain-range on the other. I nearly snapped a picture of a bald eagle with the mountains as a backdrop, but he flew too fast and I could not get to my camera quickly enough.

As we enjoyed the view, the cold wind began to get the better of us and we decided to head back down. The first 100 feet were a sketchy mix of ice and rock. I knew we would be fine, but there were many others around, which made me a bit nervous. Just like driving on the road, it is typically the other drivers one needs to be most worried about. After carefully picking my way down the very icy first few moves, I was perched on a small rock with my friend only inches from a 15-foot drop onto a large rock, and then down a very, very steep and long icy avalanche chute that led directly into a pile of sharp rocks a few hundred feet below. I was firmly planted in my position and am quite accustomed to situations like this where I must be very careful about my movements because a mistake can have deadly consequences. I soon realized, however, that this time was different. I was surrounded by people, rather than doing this on a remote trail where I am the only one who could make a mistake.

I crouched to lower my center of gravity, and grabbed tight to a rock in case of being bumped by one of the people coming up who we were letting pass. The very moment my hand tightened on the rock, I heard a rushing sound and felt a woman plow into me, nearly knocking me off the edge. She hadn’t waited above where she should have, but instead began climbing down towards us – where there was no room to spare. She lost her footing and slid down about ten feet before hitting me with all her force. I thanked God for the urge to take extra precaution in a situation I never had before, and I made her go down the mountain ahead of us. One close-call was enough. I sat down for a moment and pondered how close I had come to death once again. It always seems to happen when the situation is just safe enough for one to think they can let their guard down. Its a good thing I don’t let that happen.

When we reached a less sketchy section of the mountain-side, we watched as others jumped onto the icy snow and rode it down about a hundred feet before digging in their heels to stop before the snow ended and the rocks began. After multiple inexperienced people had gone down the same chute without hitting rocks or losing control, we opted to take this fun short-cut down the mountain. The ride was quite a rush, due in part to the element of danger, but we ended up just fine. Our hands and faces were numb from the snow which was so icy it reminded me of a giant snowcone, but we were having a blast.

When we finally returned to the jeep, we ate peanut M&M’s (an essential for any hike) on our way back to the house. Once there, we enjoyed a barbecue with the neighbors and heard about the mother moose and two baby moose that had come to the house while we were out. It is so cool how many animals we come in contact with here. I wonder what it used to be like in the continental 48 before the human population got out-of-check.

 

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Packing Tip: Cheap Stuff Sack Alternatives

Many of us want to try things before we buy them and see what others are using before investing our hard-earned money in a product. Others of us know what we want, but do not have the money to buy everything at once. When I began backpacking, I found myself in both of these categories. I was looking to save money anywhere I could and slowly grow my collection of gear over time.

As I near the end of this process, I thought I ought to take a moment to share some knowledge and experience regarding stuff-sack alternatives. There are two similar alternatives that I have become fond of, each with its own set of advantages.

Zip-Lock Bags offer the distinct advantage of being waterproof, if sealed well. This is not likely to often be a necessity, but in the situations of a leaky dry-bag going overboard or a downpour without a pack-cover while backpacking, a 100% waterproof container for your clothes and other essentials can be a life-saver (literally).  Zip-Lock bags can be purchased in various sizes, making it easy to tailor to your specific needs for a trip. I find 2-gallon slide-lock bags to be the best for clothes. It is very easy to sit on them while closing to purge air and make the clothes pack extremely small. These bags can be found in packs of 10-12 at many one-stop-shopping style centers for $5-10 which is cheaper than a single stuff-sack or dry-bag of good quality, and these bags can often be used for multiple trips before needing to be replaced.

Why I like them

  • 100% waterproof, if sealed correctly
  • Cheap
  • User able to see the contents without opening the bag
  • Easy to purge air for efficient packing
  • Multiple sizes available
  • Very lightweight
  • Pack in a rather flat, sheet-like shape rather than the impossible to pack “ball” like commercial stuff-sacks tend to

Drawbacks

  • Not breathable
  • Zippers may burst if bag is over-stuffed

 

Mattress Sheet Packaging is another great alternative to stuff sacks. They make a plastic ‘packing brick’ that easily fits into larger packs and can be used as a pillow. These typically zip-shut and are very easy to use. Because of the zipper, the bags are not entirely waterproof, but just like a typical stuff sack, everywhere but the opening is waterproof. This “mostly waterproof” attribute is sufficient in nearly every situation I have encountered, since the stuff-sack should only be a secondary protection and is primarily used for organization. I really like these for backpacking because of their box-like shape and ability to be stacked. They are also typically a throw-away part of packaging, so it is very nice to be able to repurpose these before throwing them in the recycle bin. If someone else went through the hassle of making it, I might as well get as much from it as possible.

Why I like them

  • Mostly waterproof
  • Free – assuming you, or someone you know, buys a mattress cover
  • See the contents without opening
  • Very lightweight
  • Makes boxes/cubes of things rather than the impossible to pack “ball” like commercial stuff-sacks tend to

Drawbacks

  • Not very breathable
  • Zippers may burst if bag is over-stuffed
  • Not entirely waterproof

 

Conclusion

Nearly anything can be used as a stuff-sack. I have seen harness packages, empty water bottles, and pant-legs sewn together at the wide end, all used for packing. The key is to find things that will be lightweight and serve the purpose you need (Waterproof? Breathable? See-through?). If you keep your eyes open, things that can be used should start jumping out at you. If you have any tips/tricks of your own or other alternatives gear for any outdoor sports, please comment them below! I would love to learn the tricks you have and I am sure other readers could benefit from them as well.

 

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GSI collapsable Fairshare Mug Gear Review

GSI collapsable Fairshare Mug

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Specs:

Color: Green or Blue

Material: Silicone/Polypropylene

Width: Collapsed: 7.1 x 5.4 x 1.7

Open: 10.8 x 5.5 x 4.5 inches

Weight: 7 oz

Features:

  • Collapsable mug
  • Folding handle
  • Tight-sealing lid
  • Ring to allow clipping to pack when not in use
  • Internally marked gradients (Metric and U.S.)
  • 2-position locking handle

My experience:

I was in need of a mug (to drink and eat out of) for a backcountry trip months ago and picked this up at the local store. It looked decent, and has lived up to that expectation in every way. I don’t by any means love it, but I don’t hate it either. The mug holds a perfect serving-size for a hungry me and the lid locks tight my mug to prevent spilling while I rock-hop to a better seat or throw the dirty mug in my pack to be cleaned later.

The Fairshare Mug does not receive all positive marks, however. I cracked the handle after only a month of backcountry use. The handle is my least favorite part of this contraption—It is bulky and completely ruins the packing size. I wish it had arced handles that would just fold around the top frame like some of MSR’s pots have. That would be great! I also wish it was easier to clean. The Fairshare Mug loves to hold bits of food in the ridges and keep itself covered in greasy films from food. The only way I have found to successfully clean the mug in such scenarios is to first scrub it with dirt, then clean it. This method is actually quite efficient for all backcountry cookware.

Performance:

The silicone of the Fairshare Mug is thick and (barring the handle) is quite durable, I anticipate a long life (no signs of wear after 60+ days of backcountry use). The handle, however, is weak and must be treated more carefully. You will be grateful to have the handle when the mug is scorching hot because the silicone does not insulate. The lid seals the mug very well on the Fairshare Mug and allows liquids to be shaken and the mug to flip without spilling. I was happy with most aspects of the mug, but would prefer something else for my backpacking excursions.

What I liked

  • Not terribly heavy for its size and functions
  • The lid turns on tight and stays put
  • 2-position handle
  • Has gradients marked inside the mug for measuring (Metric and U.S.)
  • Dishwasher safe (nice for post-trip cleaning)

What I didn’t 

  • Mug does not insulate at all (hot things will burn your hands if you hold it from anywhere other than the handle)
  • I cracked my plastic handle way too easily
  • Doesn’t compact as small as I would like and the handle pokes out quite a distance making it difficult to fit in my backpack
  • The ribs that fold can be a challenge to properly clean

 

Bottom line

The GSI Fairshare Mug is a good all-around mug/bowl for car-camping and some backpackers, but may be too heavy/bulky for some. I am satisfied but not thrilled with my purchase.

 

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