Thursday, September 3, 2020

Gulkana River - June 2020

For my birthday the last couple of years Mary has given the present of a car shuttle. Last year she drove the Subie from Coldfoot back to Fairbanks, and this year she agreed to meet us at Sourdough for the shuttle up to Paxson Lake. 

First we had to get there. After working Thursday we rushed to load the car, pick up Zahalial's canoe, load the canoe, and reload the canoe. Then Emily drove as my non-weight bearing left foot still couldn't operate the clutch pedal - thanks Emily! Around 1:00 AM we rolled into the campground, found Mary's tent, and curled up in the solstice light.

In the morning Mary made cinnamon-chocolate chip-buckwheat-birthday pancakes and four humans and four dogs loaded up for the shuttle north.

The loons were calling on the lake as we loaded up the boats and pushed into the calm gray waters reflecting the cloudy skies.  

The paddle across the lake wasn't actually the slog I'd expected and before long we were sliding into the accelerating current of the river. We stopped at the old trapper's cabin for little prospecting and fishing. 

Eventually the bugs drove us back to the safety of the river. Downstream of the huge settling basin that is Paxson Lake, the clear waters of the Gulkana are so different than the glacial gray slurry of many Alaskan rivers in summertime. It was fun to experience the solstice in a different way.

At a lazy bend we pulled off to soak in the afternoon sun.

Across the way two large, fluffy, and dumb-looking chickens provided supervision.

Meanwhile their mother supervised them:

Apparently these feather bags can't fly until 9 or 10 weeks. It was pretty fun to watch them flopping and flapping around on the bank.

While I was distracted by the owls, Alex noticed a little wood frog hopping around behind us. Its amazing how these little guys freeze solid through winter. As winter arrives, they pump most water out of their cells replacing it with glucose to make a sugary antifreeze. Their blood freezes, hearts stop beating, and muscle movements cease. Their eyes even turn white because they freeze! 

Satisfied with our trip to the zoo, we paddled towards the canyon. At high water I thought that the main rapid was Class 4- or maybe 4, and snuck it in my packraft while Alex and Emily portaged the canoe.

Below the canyon we pulled out to camp for the night. Next to us was a family who'd even brought their battery-powered chainsaw. Also present were oh so many mosquitoes. Sitting there trying to eat more mountain house than mosquitoes, I suddenly remembered where my headnet was stashed away at home. 

Saturday morning arrived with the pitter-patter of rain on the tents. We have a history of late starts; and the rain did not help to buck this habit. It was past noon by the time the canoe had been lined through the rapids and we were on the river. 

Like the day before there were birds everywhere. We startled a family of owls snoozing on the bank who flapped up into the trees and watched us float under.

Between navigating boulders and dumping water out of the old canoe, Alex caught hungry grayling as we floated down the river.

At 8:00 PM with grumbling stomachs and tired backs we pulled over on a gravel bar for the night. Clambering onto terra firma, we found intertwined wolf and moose tracks. It was dinner time for the beavers too:

The sight of the beaver family brought back memories of a sleepless (and cold) night on the Tokositna when a beaver spent the ENTIRE night slapping the water next to our tents. Fortunately this time the dog-sized water rats were less territorial.

Sunday morning dawned sunny, calm, and gorgeous. We didn't have far to go, so took our time to enjoy the morning before breaking camp. 

The lower river brought more motors and people headed king fishing. We didn't try for any kings, but talked to one group who'd caught one.

Before long the bridge signaled our take out. I don't know how people turn this into a week long trip, but I guess bringing a chainsaw is a great place to start.

May and June were a blurry cave of pain and opiates for me. It meant the world to get out of town on an adventure with old friends. So many thanks to Alex, Emily, and Mary for making this possible.

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