My Travel Map

My Travel Map

28 September 2013

High Sierra, California

It's sad that I've been living in California for almost three years now, but until June of this year, I hadn't been up into the High Sierra.  One of the things I loved most about Colorado was getting up into the mountains for backcountry camping, hiking, and climbing.  California has plenty to offer there too, but when you live in L.A., it's just a little less accessible compared to Boulder, Colorado.  Still, it is there.  The Sierra Nevada is a huge mountain range, and massive swaths of it are protected land or wilderness areas.  It's an interesting mountain range too... the foothills are stretched out very far to the west.  As you head east from the central valley, the land of fruit and nuts that runs down the center of the state, you enter the mountains and start climbing, slowly and steadily.  The Sierras reach their apex at their far eastern edge, a spine running north-south known as the High Sierra.  After that, there is a several thousand foot plummet to the arid Owens Valley, just one range away from Death Valley, the lowest place in North America.  The High Sierra are high too... Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states is found there, as are several other 14ers.  I was far overdue in getting in to explore those mountains, so I planned a trip with some friends and made it happen.

We decided on the Hoover Wilderness area west of Lake Mono and east of Yosemite National Park.  There is a gem up there known as 20 Lakes Basin, and our goal was some early season backcountry up there.  It was early June, and there was still plenty of snow above 10,000 feet, but the weather was near perfect... not too hot during the day and not too cold overnight.  The hike in was only a few miles from the trailhead too, with very gradual elevation gain.

This is where we settled... not too shabby.  The mountain seen here is North Peak.  At 12,242 feet, I wasn't really expecting much, but I obviously hadn't looked at a topo map in too much detail before judging it.  That is a mean looking mountain with those cliffs all around it.  North Peak is one of the dominant features in the area, and it made for a spectacular background for our campsite.

North Peak from a different angle.  They aren't lying about the 20 Lakes in the basin... there are lakes all over the place up there... its really quite beautiful.  The water was cold though and still partially frozen up at the top by our site.

Like I said though, the weather was just beautiful and the sun was warm.  The lakes offer plenty of opportunities for reflection shots too.

We ended up climbing up to the small peak seen in the left-center of this picture.  It is more of a high shoulder really from the true peak to the left of it seen here.  It was a fun climb for the most part, but the scree at the top was just that... scree.

Another view of North Peak from Steelhead Lake.  The few people that we saw up there were mostly fishermen.  Two of the guys I was with gave fishing a shot, but to no real success.  All the trout they pulled in were very, very small.  They were probably the fresh stock.

The main trail in is an old mining road.  You can see the bright patch of yellow down by the lake marking one of the old mining spots.  Being spring, there were plenty of waterfalls around too.  This one on the right here was one of my favorites... just a long, slow cascade that has turned its little chute bright green.

This view doesn't really seem to get old... here you can start to make out the epic couloirs that run up through those cliffs on North Peak... more on this to come.

Taking a hike over to Shamrock Lake and the other side of the basin offers a rocky high point with this view back into the basin.  Not too bad.  The thing I loved most was just how empty it was up there... we only saw about a half dozen people in the wilderness in 3 full days.

Another set of waterfalls.  I doubt these go all summer, probably just in the spring and early summer when the snow is still there.  So we were lucky to be there when we were.

One of my friends at the base...they were a lot bigger then they looked from further away!

And here are those North Peak couloirs seen face on.  People climb those on their way to the summit.  Very, very impressive.  

The couloirs are steep, but nowhere near as steep as those cliffs.  The best time to climb them is early morning, when the ice is hardest.  After they've had sunlight on them, the surface gets unstable and might give way, leading to an avalanche.  There were plenty of signs of recent slides, leaving nice long tracks down the couloir and big fans of ice and snow at the base.  There were also some skier tracks from what must have been pretty adrenaline pumping, efficient descents.

The view down from the way up the shoulder.  This is looking down at Steelhead Lake and Saddlebag Lake in the back left.  I was blown away by the variety of colors in the rock throughout the High Sierra.  It is a much more varied range geologically compared to the Colorado rockies.

And here are those rocks I was mentioning at the top... definitely not very friendly to weak ankles.  The views were spectacular from up there though... there was barely any sign of humanity in any direction.

Looking down the other side to the drainage valley and all the way to Lake Mono way down below... the gradient is really extreme there.  I was standing at over 11,000 feet, while Lake Mono sits  at 6,400 feet, almost a vertical mile below.

Back at camp for sunset.

We were treated to a beautiful sunset after a few very ominous looking clouds broke up.  Again, the reflections in the waters were just stunning.

It was a good first trip to the High Sierra overall.  I will definitely be back for more exploring there.

12 September 2013

Denali, Alaska

Alaska is well known for its mountains, and being a big fan of the big piles of rock, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to get out into them, despite the guarantee of lots of cold and snow.  My goal was Denali.  I had no ambition of climbing North America's highest peak, but I definitely wanted to at least see it.  We were lucky and got a couple days of clear skies the weekend before the meeting started, so we decided to rent a car and take off for the mountains.

Over 100 miles and 2 hours driving to the south of Fairbanks is the access road for Denali National Park.  This park is huge; when combined with the adjoining wilderness and preserve areas, it covers more acreage (around 6 million acres) than some states in New England!  It is a wonderland for nature enthusiasts, with plenty of healthy groups of native Alaskan animals in a natural wilderness environment that has been largely untouched by people.  The park road is the only road in the park, stretching 92 miles east to west, bisecting only around half of the park.  The road is closed only a couple miles in during the winter and much of the "shoulder seasons" in the spring and fall.

Considering the amount of snow on just about everything, it is no wonder that the park road was still closed at mile 2.  So, we decided to do some snowshoeing around the park entrance and ranger station (which was open).

One attraction that is open year round is the sled dog kennels.  If you're a fan of dogs, then you can't miss this stop.  These guys and girls make up the park's official sled team, pulling rangers around the park for patrols during half of each year when the road is closed and snow covers the park grounds.  

When they're not out pulling the sled on patrol, the dogs are at the kennels, which are open to visitors.  You can meet all of the dogs, who are very used to human contact and seem immensely patient and well trained.  The ranger was telling us that winter is their real break season, since during the summer months they are continually surrounded by the thousands of tourists that visit the park.  We had the dogs all to ourselves though, which was just awesome.  They are beautiful creatures.   This girls name is Tephra.

This is Arc.  I had no idea huskies could look like this.  His eyes were a piercingly cold ice blue, and they contrasted incredibly with his nearly all black fur.  It was so nice to be able to pet and interact with the dogs.  I was very surprised that they do this, but the ranger full on promoted it.  She said they need to be used to it to manage all the attention from tourists over the summer.

And this is Keta.  It never ceases to amaze me how some animals have adapted to survive in such extreme environments.  I mean, it was cold outside... around -15 degC during the day and much colder overnight, and the dogs were right at home.  Literally... those kennels are where they live, year round.  It's incredible how just that little shelter  is all they need to survive -40 deg and worse winter cold.  It's also amazing how their paws don't freeze.  They know to chew the ice out from between their toes and not to let it accumulate on their paws.  They will curl up and cover their nose with their tails to keep warm.  These actions keep frostbite and hypothermia at bay (when combined with a very effective coat of fur and circulatory system and what must be antifreeze in their blood!).  It really makes you wonder just how miserable some huskies, malamutes, and other cold weather breeds get when they are kept as pets in hot climates...

Our first snowshoeing trek took us up Mt. Healy trail.  This offered us some spectacular views of the surrounding wilderness and the Alaska Range of mountains.  It was views like this that I had come for. Even so close to the main road (and the sizable, seasonal community that has established itself at the park entrance), the views were mostly like this... with barely any evidence of humanity blemishing the landscape.  It was spectacular and so refreshing.

Those mountains were incredibly impressive too.  I'd never seen such a low tree line.  The highway (and the valley seen here) is only at ~1500 feet elevation, and these mountains topped out at only around 6000 feet (still very prominent, but low altitude overall).  It's a clear demonstration of just how cold it gets there in the winter... and how enormous Denali (the mountain) is...shooting up to its summit of 20,320 feet.  This epic height from such a low lying base plane makes Denali the third most prominent peak in the world.

Funny enough, you can't see Denali from the park entrance because of the surrounding peaks.  We were making for Mt. Healy, but we had spent too much time with the dogs.  We were forced to turn around considering sunset.  We only made it ~1/2 way up.

The next day, we woke up to overcast weather and reports and evidence of a heavy overnight snowfall.  Considering the drive back to Fairbanks, on which we did not want to get stuck in a snowstorm, we decided to just do a quick snowshoe down to Horseshoe Lake, very near the park entrance and adjacent to the highway. 

On the way back up from the lake (which was completely frozen over under about 4 feet of snow), we came upon some fresh tracks that had not been there before.  We figured they were from a lone wolf that we must have flushed out of the area when we hiked in.  The reason why we figured they were a wolf's was because of the size (too big for a dog) and the imprints from the claws.  If they'd been from a bobcat, there shouldn't be claw marks, since cats have retractable claws.  The pad only had one lobe too, unlike the two that cats have.  This got me really, really excited.  I have a great appreciation for wolves, and to have been so close to one in the wild was just incredible.  We tracked it for a little over a mile or so, which was pretty easy considering it zig-zagged up along a different trail that went off back towards Mt. Healy.  We didn't see it in the end, but it was still a great experience.

The fleet of buses used for bringing tourists into the park in summer.  When open during the summer months, the road is limited access only past mile 15.  To get any further, you need to take a ride on the bus.  I am looking forward to coming back to Denali in the warmer months to do some backpacking, and I'll be taking one of these buses in to do so.

Back on the road on the first day, we had a lovely sunset as we drove south of the park to try and catch a glimpse of The Mountain.

The combination of the brilliantly white snow, the cold clear blue sky, and the setting sun just put on such a beautiful show.

As the sun set and went below the horizon, the mountains just kept changing.  This lighting at twilight was eerie... it was brightly cold, contrasting so much with the warmer hues from when the sun was still above the horizon.

At last, the granddaddy itself, and the very thing I had come to see: Denali.  It was huge, even at close to 80 miles away.  The mountain dwarfs everything around it, making 12,000 to 14,000 ft, highly prominent peaks look like foothills (because that's exactly what they are around Denali).  We only saw it twice, once in this lighting, with the sun setting behind it, and once the day before on the drive from Fairbanks, when we had a spot on the road where it loomed before us, over 100 miles away, like a ghostly behemoth on the horizon, deceptively large.  This is the highest mountain in North America, and it was terribly impressive, even from so far away.  It is permanently glaciated and a very technical climb, for those brave and/or crazy enough to attempt it.  Like I said, I have no ambition of climbing it, but I can definitely appreciate its grandeur, and that of the epic wilderness surrounding it.  The Alaskan wilderness cast a spell on me... I will return to spend more time in it... one of the perfect escapes from the stress and distractions of human life.

I figured I'd end this post with some more aurora shots... this was a couple clean arcs with bright spots that formed and persisted for quite some time.

At one point the southernmost of the two arcs brightened and appeared to twist... it was quite spectacular.

Eventually the two arcs broke up, as they normally tend to do.

We had some lovely reds along with the greens in some of these too.  This arc was very bright and incredibly stable.  So, whoever may call you crazy for planning a trip to Alaska in winter is just wrong.  There are plenty of things to do and the state is just as spectacular and beautiful in the winter as it must be in the summer, just in a different way.   I'll try and make my next trip to Alaska in the summer and test that theory for myself.

10 September 2013

Fairbanks, Alaska

Fairbanks in March... most people would look at you a little funny if you said those were your travel plans, but that was my plan this past March.  The reason why was a meeting focussed on space plasma physics, so a meeting place providing a good opportunity to see the aurora was too good to pass by, regardless of the temperatures.  We weren't let down.

Fairbanks is an interesting city.  It's considered the Gateway to the North in Alaska, and is no doubt the capital city of "the Interior"... basically the bulk of Alaska that is not along the coast.  Despite its isolation, Fairbanks is the 2nd largest city in the state (after Anchorage).  Before arriving, I had very little idea what to expect.  What I found interested me.  Many things reminded me a lot of smaller towns in Canada, but with a very real American heart and soul.  The Alaskan Native population was also a lot larger than I had expected.  Alcoholism plagues many up there (not just Alaskan Natives, but it is particularly evident amongst that group, as it also is with many of the First Nations in Northern Canada), and there are plenty of bars around town to support the habit.  Its a small city overall, but it sprawls, uninhibited by any significant natural barriers or other surrounding cities.  The center is easily walkable though, except for the coating of ice on the sidewalks and roads that persists for about half of the year.

The little touches around town to add some color or humor were just great.  For example, these vents from the sewers... most were painted with something fun or colorful.  This was easily my favorite... love the boots.

This is one of several colorful murals around town too.  Another thing I was not expecting was great Thai food.  Seriously... there are several Thai restaurants in town, and they are really, really good!  My favorite was Thai House on 5th St... the seafood and vegetables was just amazing.  It blew my mind that Fairbanks could have such a large Thai expat community... Fairbanks and Thailand are polar (no pun intended) opposites when it comes to climate.  Yet, there you go... great, authentic Thai food in the Alaskan interior.

The town has a unique character to it... it's genuinely rustic... no doubt about that.  It's not fake or plush "rustic" like so many mountain towns in the lower 48.  Fairbanks is legitimately gritty and rustic... for good reason.  

For instance this.  One of the first things I did in town was take a stroll on the river.   It was nice for me to be back in a place where large bodies of water freeze over completely in the winter.  Still, I was amazed at how thick the ice remained in March, but I guess with daytime temperatures around -20 C (-10 F), it made sense.  It was amusing too to see all the fresh snowmobile and truck tracks down on the snow (covering the river) too.

This church is worth seeking out if you're wandering around downtown.  Saint Matthew's is a log-cabin church with incredible stained glass windows.  This was definitely the first time I'd seen sled dogs or Native Alaskans in stained glass.

Snow tires.  I was shocked to see how many people ride bikes on the snow and ice around time.  Even more interesting were the tracks leading off into the wilderness and the pictures of folks "mountain biking" through snowy wilderness terrain on these things.  Pretty cool.  To protect the hands, they have special gloves (seen in the background in the upper left of this picture) that cover the entire end of the handlebar, the brake lever, and (of course) the rider's hands.  This was taken inside Beaver Sports shop, which was just fantastic.  From wandering around that shop, it was clear how important a role the great outdoors plays in the lives of many people in Fairbanks.  It was a very, very well stocked shop with some very serious gear for wilderness exploration and survival, plus plenty of extreme sports.

Speaking of sports, here is a gang of college kids enjoying the University of Alaska's terrain park on campus.  Yes, they actually have a full blown terrain park for skiers and snowboarders right on campus.  They also had an ice wall that had been fashioned out of a rock climbing tower, which they had just frozen over all three sides with a thick sheet of clean ice.  There were plenty of people ice climbing the wall, probably training for similar adventures on frozen waterfalls or glaciers elsewhere in the state.

We were also luck enough to catch the tail end of the World Ice Art Championships, which is held each March in Fairbanks.  Since it was cold as Dante's Seventh Layer of Hell there, the sculptures were all mostly in pretty good shape.  They were very, very impressive too.

The ice for the competition is harvested from a small lake across the street from the competition grounds.  It is renowned as some of the cleanest ice in the world.  "Clean" ice means it has very few imperfections, such as contaminating particulates (like twigs or rocks) and air bubbles, in a standard block.  You can tell it is very clean ice since it glows blue when sunlit.  They harvest massive blocks, which serve as the raw material for the artists.

And here we go... I was blown away by the delicacy and quality of these temporary sculptures.  Here is a depiction of Hermes or Mercury, the messenger.

And a giant locust, or grasshopper.  It is tough to tell from this picture, but the detail on this was just incredible.  It was huge too... easily 12 feet or so between the face and the tail end.  And the thing that just blew my mind were how thin the legs and antennae were!

This is one of the grasshopper's feet in detail... just beautiful.

And a giant fish.  This thing was taller than I am standing up.

Despite the weathering, this was another of my favorites... a giant bear.

It was like something supernatural, especially with that chill, glowing blue beneath the cloak of snow.

And it was a huge thing too... seemingly defying gravity in how it was lunging forward.

Speaking of defying gravity... here is a mountain goat about to jump the gap.

And another of my favorites... a hero trying to rescue a damsel in distress from a vicious, winged serpent.  The ice competition is definitely something to check out if you are in Fairbanks during the late winter... I would have loved to have seen the artists in action for the main event.  They come in from all over the world to do this.  There were a few still hanging around when I was there, and it was impressive to see them start from a massive raw block and begin hacking away with a chainsaw.  They actually get to pretty fine detail with the chainsaw before switching to more delicate tools, like chisels and blow torches.

Alright, enough ice.  Now for some wood sculptures.  These are a couple totem poles outside of the University of Alaska's awesome Museum of the North.

Totem poles are used for everything from tribal mythology to shaming debtors.  Often, the celebrate cultural beliefs and natural art.  Interestingly, they are not holy things of worship depicting gods or the like, as many early European settlers mistakenly believed.  They are quite beautiful, especially with the bright colors of a recent paint job.

You can't stop in Fairbanks without visiting the Museum of the North.  It is incredibly well done and showcases much of the natural and human history and cultures of the area and much of Alaska too.

The Museum is housed in an interesting new building too... the architecture of which is meant to resemble a massive igloo.

When you enter the permanent exhibits, you are greeted by this giant grizzly bear.  Standing around 9 feet tall, you are dwarfed by the thing and can only imagine coming across such a beast alive in the wild.

The museum also showcases some of Alaska's former residents during the Pleistocene epoch.

Some of the animals from the Arctic North.  There are plenty of giant bears in Alaska, that's for sure.

And, some of the gear that Native Alaskans used to survive in their harsh environment.  The parka is made from seal skin, which was a miracle material for the natives.  It is water tight and could be used to seal the opening on a kayak, keeping the deadly cold waters out and the hunters legs and body warm.

If you're planning a trip to Alaska, make sure you aren't offended by artwork and decoration fashioned from dead animals.

There is plenty of native art at the Museum too, which is quite beautiful with its basic colors and symmetry.

The Chatanika Lodge.  This is way up the Steese Highway outside of Fairbanks.  The reason we stopped here was for dinner and drinks before spending a night watching aurora up at the nearby Poker Flat rocket range and research facility.  The food was good here, and the beer was cold and delicious.  The lodge itself is fun to wander around too, taking in all the random bric a brac and zoo of trophy animal kills that decorate the place.  It's nice a warm too; a good place to stop and calm the nerves a bit after a potentially hair raising drive through the mountains on icy roads.  In all, Chatanika is definitely worth a stop if you find yourself way up there for whatever reason.

Fairbanks sits pretty much directly under the average location of the auroral oval.  However, because of the city lights and the fact that Fairbanks is often shrouded in low lying clouds because it sits in an inversion layer due to the local geography, the best places to watch aurora are outside of the city.  Our journey up to Poker Flat allowed us a perfect platform to watch the Northern Lights, one which is closed to most since it is a government research station.  The aurora viewing station sits on top of one of the low, rounded mountains in the area with an uninterrupted view of the sky overhead and an especially clear view of the northern horizon.  We ended up at Poker on several nights, and we were treated to a spectacular show.

The Inuit believed that the lights were spirits in the sky, playing games or guiding souls to the afterlife.  Early prospectors hoped they were the gleam reflected from some massive load of gold or gems.  Some people still think you can hear the aurora or control it by whistling.  We know now that the lights result from energetic particles from Earth's magnetosphere precipitating into the atmosphere, ionizing atmospheric gases that then emit different shades of light as they recombine, much the same as how a neon light works.  However, the magnetosphere is a complex and massive system, and thus the lights can put on one hell of complex and beautiful show.  Some people describe its motion as like a dance or tai-chi.  Auroral activity reminds me sometimes of the complex and chaotic dance of a flame, but at other times it can appear as just a bright, fixed spot or arc across the sky.

The aurora can be seen in both the northern and southern polar regions, but it is easiest to get to the typical ovals in the northern hemisphere.  Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Northern Scandinavia are all good places for aurora watching.  Of course, you need to go when there is a decent amount of night.  Good times are near the equinoxes, when the solar wind is particularly effective at generating magnetospheric activity.  The really neat thing about the research station were the various pieces of equipment and buildings that served as excellent additions to spruce up the photos.

The buildings also give a nice sense for scale... the aurora took up massive swaths of sky.  Different atmospheric elements yield different colors in the aurora.  Oxygen gives off green and sometimes red colors, while Nitrogen gives off blue and red.

Like looking into the Eye of God.  This picture was taken looking straight up during a substorm, which are events in which auroral activity peaks.  During this substorm, the motion of different structures and forms was incredibly fast, and there were often random bursts of light, like explosions of neon.  It was easily one of the most spectacular and beautiful things I had ever seen.  At first, the group I was with were all cheering and hooting, but a few minutes into the explosive show, we were all silent, dumbfounded by nature's grandeur and complexity.

The aurora are really a three-dimensional feature, though since we see them as a projection on the night sky, we suffer from a stacking effect that makes them look smeared and 2-dimensional.  However, when you see them from the right angle, you get the sense that they are extended in height (as they are in reality).  Aurora like this are often referred to as curtains.

This is one of my favorites... it looks like the radar dome is ejecting this massive blob of plasma, and I love the glow on the horizon.  Actually, the word Aurora is Latin for "sunrise".  Aurora very low on the horizon can definitely appear to be the early glow from the sun, but for auroral forms like the one above...  I haven't seen a sunrise that can do that yet.

Anyway, long story short is that Fairbanks was a very neat place to visit.  It was particularly rewarding being there in March, when the temperature was bearably frigid, there were nearly normal (by lower latitude standards) amounts of daylight hours, and there were plenty of opportunities to view the Northern Lights.