Thursday, May 13, 2010

A HIKE ACROSS ALASKA or HOW I STAY YOUNG

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: http://www.mcbphotos.com/

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: http://www.andrewskurka.com/AK10/index.php


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!

4 comments:

Rebecca said...

This is so cool Ralph. You know the most interesting people! Thanks for sharing.

sbt said...

I love reading about all your adventures Ralph! You do the neatest things!

Should Fish More said...

When you lived up in Alaska did you ever meet Ray Genet, or was that before you got there? I was friends with the family that has the house next to the store/gas station, with the pine trees in the yard. I heard lots of stories about Ray at the Fairview, it was rumored that during his time many of the children born in Talkeetna bore a striking resemblence to Ray.

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