Monday, September 13, 2021

Guest Slog Blog - Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2021

Cantwell to Sheep Mountain Lodge (160 miles)

by Dmitry Surnin

Start of the "Awesome Valley" 
It’s around 4:30am and I open my eyes to what appears to be hundreds of mosquitos bunched up at the tip of the tent. Buzzing, desperately trying to get out, “are they all full and just wanna dip out?” Charlie wakes up next to me and mentions this is the worst he’s ever felt. The mosquitoes aren’t biting I thought, but the only thing that stung were my feet - I could barely move them without feeling pain. It’s the morning of our fourth day in the Kosina River Valley and we have been covering some ground since this challenge took off roughly 75 miles ago. I painfully crawl out of the shelter to see what the weather is doing, and immediately feel vertigo. I want to vomit. I’m on my knees, and elbows... just waiting to pop. The sickness passes and I begin to look around, it is absolutely beautiful - the morning fog has rolled into the valley overnight and it seemed like we’ll finally have an overcast day. I personally don’t do very well in the heat and the last three days have been insanely hot and bluebird. Today was going to be our most vertical but also our most scenic day. As good as I knew today had the potential to be, my mental and physical state at that moment was depleted. Charlie is packed up and brings up another point of his physical wellbeing, joking that he feels like he has COVID. We already had our low point the day prior at Fog Lakes when we ran out of water, but this was different. This time, we truly felt the repercussions of pushing our bodies. We slowly march towards the end of the valley to begin our climb into the alpine where we’ll experience a complete 180, the summit of our trip so to speak. Covering roughly 7,000 feet of vert and hiking 21-something miles through the most scenic and familiar-to-us terrain. Nearing the end of Kosina River Valley

Black River Valley about to come into view Black River was running high - we stayed high right and crossed up top This valley was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to do this route and participate in this adventure. The Classic has been on my mind for quite some time and after reading Luc’s Mehl’s blog post about his similar route last year, I was sold. This year drew in 18 participants, 6 will end up scratching the race mostly on day 2 and 3, near Fog Lakes. Charlie and I wanted to do the point-to-point adventure in a dynamic way, almost click-bait-ish. We hike and paddle on day 1, slog for 3 days covering a wide variety of terrain, then finish with an ATV trail to Caribou Creek for some awesome paddling. The very end was 6 miles of road, but to us that seemed like breadcrumbs after what we’ll end up doing. Every day had something unique. I’ll get to Fog Lakes in a bit, but I have to say that day #1 was quite an adventure. I’m certain that we covered the most ground on that day - 31 miles. I remember meeting everyone at the start line which was marked by red DANGER tape rolled out by Gordy; the oldest participant this year and also a Classic veteran who’s done the very first race from Hope to Homer in 82. Gordy continued to cut out small batches of the red DANGER tape and offered it to each person as a souvenir. He also had it wrapped around his head as a bandana. Gordy had a partner, Nick, who looked like he could be his son. “Nick looks fast, what an interesting mix” I thought. Everyone took a starting line photo, and the countdown began. We were off to the wilderness! There was quite a bit of chatter floating between everyone at first. Few groups sped ahead, most stayed in the middle and some fell behind as we walked on ATV trails leading up to Jack River. There was one group in particular that was way ahead of everyone - Matt’s group of three. They had a goal to finish in 4 days and maybe even get first place. I think everyone knew that Matt really wanted the top spot but maybe that was my interpretation. After numerous crossings on the Jack River, Charlie and I slowly began to be the only people within the surroundings. We did eventually run into Lee and Alan, who did it with Luc last year and I recognized their faces from Luc’s blog. “Have fun guys, you likely won’t see us again...” they said. They were right, we never did see them again. I was full of energy but kept most of it at bay, we did A LOT of river crossings and naturally my feet were soaked but perhaps what annoyed me the most were the slick round rocks I had to balance myself on during each crossing. Every time my foot slipped off the rocks underwater, it put unwanted pressure on my ankles (little did I know this would become a major problem for me later down the route). Charlie double checking the GPS in the high tundra of Jack River Valley Alpine sneak peak Literally out of nowhere, a single participant was closing in on us on the high tundra. It was Nick. “Gordy and I broke up!” He yelled. We can tell he felt pretty bad about it but explained to us that Gordy felt like a burden on Nick and offered to split up. As we hiked down to the Tsusena River with Nick, we learned a little more about him and eventually heard the story that his original Classic partner had to bail due to a positive COVID test and Nick paired up with Gordy through the email chain. Nick eventually bid his farewell and simply took off. Not like a running start but I looked down to my feet for a moment and then when I saw the horizon line, he was an ant. Impressive. Nick would end up winning the race, solo, setting a course record of 3 days, 10 hours, and 30 minutes. Nick wrote “danger” between his name on the finish sheet as he had a red DANGER tape around his head from Gordy. There are some animals out there, silent crushers as Charlie called them. People you wouldn’t necessarily know that would amaze you with these sorts of challenges and adventures. While we have Nick, a farmer and teacher living in Palmer setting the course record, on the other hand there’s California Nick. Cali Nick drove up with us since he didn't have a car and flew in on the day of us departing for Cantwell. We liked Cali Nick. He had an impressive 26lb pack, quite a contrast to our 41lb packs. Charlie was so mind-blown when he saw his tiny pack, he almost demanded Cali Nick to unload it to see what he had packed. I am in no way bashing on Cali Nick or wanting to give him a hard time, but he has a bit of an epic history with the Wilderness Classic. The first time he did the Classic, in the Brooks Range, he swam and lost his boat with gear and hiked out to the highway. The second time he attempted to finish the race was on this very route, a few years ago. His plan to cross the Susitna was to swim across. Fair to say, once he got there, he quickly realized that was not a feasible option. He scratched. This time he brought a very basic and minimal packraft for the crossing. Cali Nick was ready, but I regret to write that he ultimately had to scratch from the race. The exact reason is still unclear to me, but something had to do with him not being able to properly eat and recover due to some sort of sickness. I would love to see Cali Nick finish a course one day, the race organizers probably share that sentiment as well. Very chilly morning on the Tsusena Onto Fog Lakes - a day I’ll never forget When my friends got into packrafting I of course wanted to do the same, it was insanely fun to learn together and gain respect for whitewater and the wilderness. Due to my demanding summer work, I don’t go on packrafting trips as often as others. I always hear stories of epic bushwhacking, aka Alderon, crawling across bogs, sinking past the knee in swamps. You know - type 2 fun. I think I must be crazy because I love that shit, but I don’t do a lot of it. I actually get FOMO when people tell me they had to suffer through miles and miles of overhead alders. Something about suffering together makes me appreciate the fun things that follow after. Fog Lakes brought me up to speed and taxes were paid that day.

Fog Lakes was on Day 2 and pretty much unavoidable if you were to do this whole route. We knew it would suck and we even heard someone at the very beginning say: “you can thank John for Fog Lakes” (John being the one who proposed the route). At the end of the day, Fog Lakes is not that terrible. There were, however, a few factors that came into play - hot sun and minimal water sources. On Day 2 we finished paddling the Tsusena, which was enjoyable. Then, came 3 or 4 miles of minimal bog and brush to the Susitna River. That was not bad at all we thought. After filling up on water and crossing the Su, we climbed up a relatively lovely animal trail to the flat mix of bog/brush of Fog Lakes, which was several miles out from us. Our plan was to cross between the two Fog Lakes and make some way up to the tundra. I believe it was about 5 miles to Fog Creek and maybe a few more and we’re away from the bog. It took us over 4 hours to get to Fog Creek if I remember correctly. It’s pretty difficult for me to describe this type of terrain because while there were patches of brush that held you on your feet you would then still have to cross legit bog fields where you at times are knee deep, moving extremely slow. Sometimes the wet punchy soft moss would give in and you’d sink past the ankle but then the surface would vibrate back to you like some sort of sick twisted trampoline park. “Ah, Fog Lakes” I kept repeating in my head. It wasn’t a straight line either, 5 miles sounds good on paper but when you actually navigate your way around, you end up doing a lot more than 5 miles.  Charlie mentioned something funny while we were bogging through the shit - “Imagine if you could make a hologram of yourself right now and display it on something flat like Chester Creek trail and just watch yourself...you probably wouldn’t believe what you’ll see, a drunk version of yourself trying to stay upright”. We ran out of water once we approached the little pass between the two lakes. It felt like 80 degrees and I swear I'd had the same swarm of bugs and one particular fly circling my head since we crossed the Su. The bugs were gaining some miles just staying with me. This was actually miserable, and I was becoming a bit delusional. I wanted to drink out of Fog Lake, but the nasty water made me reconsider. The last bit of water I chugged down was warm, like almost 5 minutes from being let off the gas. I felt pretty bad for Charlie because the poor guy had lost his 1L water bottle on the Tsusena and it was his only method of drinking potable water. Luckily, I brought an additional water filter pack that you can drink from. It was only a 0.6L soft bottle, but still Charlie had less water than me. At this point we are desperately hoping we would find water along our route. Charlie kept saying that Fog Creek was near and we’d be good but for some reason I was convinced that the creek was dry, and we’d have to consider other options. Another hour goes by and my mouth is completely dry. Charlie and I aren’t exchanging any dialogue. Suddenly, Charlie says: “I hear water!” and we picked up our pace. I was still skeptical, not sure why, but I had a sick thought in my head that what if someone had placed speakers down below to emit a water running sound to lure people in. Thankfully, and screaming “Thank fucking God” we arrived at Fog Creek and spent an hour eating and drinking water, at times almost falling asleep. 

Honestly there are too many highlights to write about from this trip - hiking with a caribou herd, seeing incredible alpine terrain, paddling upper Caribou Creek and seeing the landslide, so many things. I still can't put it into words how much terrain we covered each day. It’s so simple: wake up, have some snacks, and just walk until it’s time to have a proper breakfast somewhere really cool, either in a pass or on a river. The one big thing that constantly blew my mind was how vast the terrain was. Forget sitting at your computer on CalTopo mapping out which valley you’re going to cross. When I approached a bench overlooking the Kosina River Valley, it was so overwhelmingly vast I just stood still for a few moments trying to figure out where I needed to end up. No photo did it justice either. I think this is by far the hardest thing I’ve done - mentally or physically. By day 3 I developed some sort of gnarly tendonitis on my left ankle and could barely walk at times. I remembered that those slick rocks on Jack River took my ankles for a ride and now I’m paying the price while inevitably being on my feet. We were trying to cover 30 miles a day and could not afford an extra day, we could if we rationed our food but were already getting through most of it. I brought about 3500 calories per day for 5 days. Downhills were the hardest for me, it had to do with a particular angle of the ankle that just destroyed them. Surprisingly I did well on the climbs and actually felt relatively good. But man, when it came time for the flat slog, I really had to get into my head and make myself walk those miles. That’s where emotions were running the highest. I would find myself coming up with motivations, some from my upbringing and some just simply visualizing the finish where Hannah, friends and family were waiting for me, telling me to push it. On one particular stretch to No Where Creek, the limping became too much and I could barely put any weight on my left foot. Charlie, being a good doctor that he is, had some pain meds for situations like these and I caved in. I kept saying to myself that I’m going to finish this thing. Our second to last day included paddling upper Caribou from Mazuma Creek but I had a feeling that we might not make it past the class III+ section of the canyon before nightfall. Charlie and I were actively paddling through surprisingly fun features up top, but it became apparent that we simply didn’t have enough time to go through the canyon in a safe manner since there is a waterfall portage within the canyon. We discussed our possibilities and decided to make camp and sleep in for a final insignificant 14-mile push. We haven’t seen bears all trip - well, at least I haven’t. And what do you know, as soon as we make camp, standing near the tent to pee I notice a furry Mama Bear with two cubs peeking their head out around her sides and staring right at me. Immediately I loudly but calmly start greeting the bear and telling Charlie, who is trying to sleep inside the tent to hand me bear spray. I take off the safety pin and continue projecting my voice towards the animals. They realize what is happening and run the other way. Caribou Creek Waterfall (portaged)

Paddling the lower canyon of Caribou Creek for the first time was exciting with the healthy flow of water it had. Charlie had a pretty good idea of where the portage spot was and it was actually pretty obvious once we came up on it. Walking on loose rocks for the last time was a good reminder of how fucked my feet were. All in all, this was an incredible experience and while we definitely pushed ourselves - we enjoyed every minute of it. Except Fog Lakes...

There are a few things I would do differently next time, like maybe consider bringing a sleeping bag. But, the one major oversight I had was in the shoes I decided to bring. Next time I’ll opt for trail shoes vs hiking boots. I’ve never had my feet blister and swell as bad as they did. I couldn’t really walk for a few days after. 

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