Thursday, May 13, 2010


My friend Forrest called this spring, "Ralph, how would you like to help me and Michael. We are flying in to meet Andrew Skurka who is hiking across Alaska, and we need a ride."

My friend Forrest and wife Amy live in Teton Village, Wyoming, and they are first-class folks. Amy tended the bar at Moose Entreprises for a dozen years, was Assistant Director at the Murie Center, worked in finance, and is now the director of the Teton Raptor Center. And I can't keep up ith her on a hike... Forrest is a bundle of energy, a former Exum mountain guide, Alpine Ascents guide, and now director of the Winter Wildlands Alliance. He always has a great project going. The two of them are some of my best friends ever. So, Forrest knew Andrew, who knew National Geographic, who hired Michael. Michael is a National Geographic photographer on assignment to photograph Andrew. And Forrest asked me to drive them to Talkeetna. That's how I got involved.

Forrest fuels up

Forrest arrived in town, and mi casa es su casa for both of us. I love having Forrest visit; he imparts a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm that gets me out and going. At the Bear Tooth Grille he regaled me with stories of his recent adventures and the work of the Alliance. The next day we met Michael at the Sheraton and loaded his ton of photographic gear in the trusty Subaru. Michael, originally from the Skagit Valley, Washington, has a masters degree from Ohio University in Visual Arts and a bag-full of cameras. He is spending a year in China living out of a van and documenting the changing way of life there. But National Geographic called and pulled him off his project for a few months to follow Andrew. You can check out Michael's exquisite photos at:

We were off: picked up camera batteries and headed to Talkeetna, the hub for mountain climbers going up Mount McKinley. Paul, the owner of Talkeetna Air Taxi would fly them across the Alaska Range, drop them at a deserted airstrip in hopes that Andrew would arrive there after skiing about 500 miles south from Kotzebue, the Inupiat village above the Arctic Circle.

Michael downloads photos on the back of the Subaru

I had heard of Andrew many times and of his ultra-marathon hiking adventures. Among the 23,000 miles he has hiked in the past 8 years, his projects include a 6,875-mile Great Western Loop linking the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico, then back up the Continental Divide trail back to Canada. And the 7,778-mile Sea-to-Sea route from Cape Gaspe, Quebec, to Cape Alava, Washington. National Geographic named him "Adventurer of the Year". Besides his hiking, he raced the "Leadville 100" for a lark and came in second. You can check out his bio and hikes at:

Andrew models his new duds

The two of them were all energy and enthusiasm, so after paying my respects to the wonderful women at Talkeetna Air Taxi, I headed home, my work done. A few days later I got a phone call from the Satellite Phone. Boot problems! They were flying back and need me to find new ski boots for both of them. Bummer!!! For a wild two days, we shopped every ski store and Thrift Shop and found only only one pair of boots for Michael. So, we bought a hunk of steel, and I set about making a new steel toe for Forrest's boots in my shop. They worked beautifully in the shop, but I worried about their trail-worthiness. Back to Talkeetna we went for Paul to deposit them at Wonder Lake to meet Andrew and go with him over Anderson Pass and the middle of the Alaska Range.

A week later the phone rang: they were in Cantwell, 210 miles north, and needed a pick-up. I hopped in the mighty Subaru and headed out, finding them with Andrew at the post office, opening packages full of food, shelter, and clothing for the next leg of the trip. I offered fresh bananas and a dozen donuts, welcome food after the freeze-dried meals they had been eating.

The Crew lounging in front of the Cantwell Post Office

Snow patches lingered in the shade, but the valley bottom was mostly snow-free, so Andrew changed into his new gear: thin nylon pants, shirt, and running shoes. He repacked all the gear his parents had sent to the Cantwell PO, organized all the food into a waterproof bag, stuffed the new sleeping bag and stove. He checked his itinerary, neatly printed out in the map folder; he has scheduled the entire year-long trip by the day into 30-mile segments. Then he sat down with his new cell phone and called home, reassuring his folks that he was on schedule and doing well. We headed to Tsesyu cafe, talked with the new owner who cooked great Mexican cuisine in the tiny village of about 100 folks. The hikers wolfed down the chow and wanted more!
Andrew unpacks his mail & regroups for the next leg

Andrew started walking north. Forrest, Michael, and I hopped into the Subaru and headed south, Michael to Talkeetna for aerial photos, Forrest and I to Anchorage. Now the energy of the group was split, but continued at high speed like a split atom. The next day Forrest suggested we grab Brad and climb up to the top of Hatcher Pass. The day was sunny and warm, so we climbed a peak and skied the creamy spring corn snow back to the car. The whole way Forrest talked with Brad about the current management plan for the area, irrepressible in his enthusiasm and ideas. When we got home, Forrest began planning a float trip down the wild Six-Mile Creek for the next day with Roman. I needed a day of rest!

Seward Pub Crawl

The day looked grim, just like the day before. Cold, dank, miserable. But I have a little house, and the four of us were stuffed inside with a huge pile of mountain climbing gear piled several feet high covering the living room floor. We had to get out. Looking south, the clouds seemed to be lifting, so I asked the guys if they would like to go to Seward, the tiny sea port 130 miles SE of Anchorage.

A quick detour up to Flattop to check out the panorama of the Alaska Range: Denali and Foraker in the north; and the start of the Ring of Fire down the Alaska Peninsula: the giant volcanoes Mt. Spurr, Redoubt, and Iliamna in the west. Still a lot of snow!

Chad One phones Gina; Mike is all grins

My guests were two disabled veterans and an out-of-work photojournalist, in Anchorage for a few days before flying into the Ruth Glacier to climb the dreaded Moose's Tooth, a massive granite monolith in the foreground of Mount McKinley. Chad One had lost his leg after an IED explosion in Iraq; Chad Two, had lost his leg in a car accident. Mike was a bundle of energy photographing everything his eyes landed on.

Ralph, Chad One, Chad Two, Mike
Girdwood, Alaska

The drive south along Turnagain Arm is one of the most awe-inspiring journeys in Alaska. The massive tide was emptying the basin, so the crew wanted to stop and watch it flow past. Above us thirty Dall sheep sat lazily on the mountainside in the sun. Six eyes rubber-necked on the endless mountains as I kept my eyes on the road and rocketed south in the little Subaru. We stopped for lunch in Girdwood, where our Russian waiter, an amateur photographer, bonded instantly with Mike who had him take a photo of us with his huge Nikon professional camera.

Seward, a little jewel at the head of Resurrection Bay. Steep cliffs line the bay as far as the eye can see. Nary a tourist in sight. A stiff cool breeze blew across the water, but we drove to the end of the road, hopped out of the car and the crew boulder-hopped down to the water's edge while the gulls screeched and swarmed overhead, trying to steal a loon's catch.

A brew sounded good, so we walked the street and found the Seward Alehouse where, joy of joys, they had Moose's Tooth IPA on tap. The bartender's thick Welsh brogue got us talking, and soon we were a close happy bunch.

Mike, Chad & Chad with the Welshman

However they didn't serve dinner, so we wandered out and checked the menus of the restaurants on the block. Holy Shit!! They were all way overpriced; I couldn't believe someone could charge $28 for halibut fish and chips. I had often eaten at Christo's Palace, also overpriced, but likely the best pizza in town, so I took the group there.

Christo's Palace, Seward, Alaska

Walking in from the dead cold spring to the warmth of At the back of the restaurant, a full-width bar built in 1890's and brought up from San Francisco in the 1980's covers the back of the restaurant. Made of mahogany and cherry, it was originally painted with black lacquer.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, the restaurant was destroyed by fire ten years ago, but the bar was saved. It now sits restored with new mirrors and original wood finish. Complementing the scene was Amber, a local woman with the perfect personality for our embarrassing quartet.

Amber at the bar

I noticed the wine bottles in the rack were covered in dust. Either it is only for looks, or no one in Seward drinks wine, just beer and whiskey. Likely the latter.

The cherry lion's head keystone in the bar

Carved wooden salmon adorn the south wall

Chad, Chad, and Mike enjoying a brew

I was the designated driver and took the time to take a number of photos. No tourists at this time of year, and business was slow, so we got to know Amber, the joy of the evening.

Mike is in love; Amber is a good sport!

The clam chowder, calamari, and shrimp covered Ceasar salad were excellent and within budget for the mountain climbers. We wandered onto the street in desperate need of exercise. Mike raced around town photographing Chad Two along the beach, in the street, by storefronts...

Mikes snaps Chad snapping Resurrection Bay

Seward is the start of the Iditarod Trail, where the serum run of 1924 began. A dogsled marks the spot on the south beach. Mountains rise in the distance and I dream of skiing them.

Mile 0 of the Iditarod trail

Finally I realize we need to head home. A two and a half hour ride to go, and it's 9:00pm already. As we pass Portage, a cow moose leads her calf into the swamp in search of something green
A cow moose leads her calf to safety

A serious sunset caused us to stop constantly along Turnagain Arm. Mike must have taken a thousand shots. Even I, the driver, nearly filled my SD card with sunsets.

The brilliant sunset at 11:00 pm
Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet