Discovering Devil’s Punchbowl

IMG_20180717_202659Towering above Skagway’s horizon are a pair of peaks called the Twin Dewey Peaks.  At their bases, they each nestle circular tarn lakes, which are lakes formed by a glacier.  I had never seen these lakes for myself, but I knew it wasn’t a hike to skip.

It’s a long hike, 9 1/2 miles and 3,700 feet, but I wasn’t going to wake up early on my DSCN3221precious day off!  I woke up slowly, went out to eat, then got on the trail at 10:00 a.m.  It was rainy when I started out, but my mantra for rainy days is “I’ve been wet before”   This phrase reminds me that I’ve survived discomfort and it won’t kill me, however unpleasant.  It works for pretty much any uncomfortable situation, just fill in the blank.  “I’ve been ______ before” The only words I refuse to put in the blank are ‘cold’ and ‘hungry’.  I’ve been both, but I’m not going to willingly put myself there!

 

The first section of the trail, about a 30 minute hike, leads to Lower Dewey Lake.  I have been there before, so I went right on by, turning at the fork with the sign marked ‘Devil’s Punch bowl’

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Up the trail I went, on the switchbacks, over the rocks and roots.  I had brought my phone and earbuds to listen to music, but I left it in my pack and instead enjoyed the sound of my labored breathing and the pine needles shifting beneath my feet. After an hour of hiking, I reached a bridge and a set of stairs.  Hikers before me had written their names and quotes on the railings.  My favorite was “All who wander are not lost”.

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The fog was hanging low over Upper Dewey Lake when I reached it.  I removed my shoes and dipped my toes in the lake for a minute, then looked around the two cabins that are on the bank.  The newer one has a porch on two sides and a lock on the door; you have to pay for a reservation to stay in it.  The other is a little log cabin left from gold rush days, and is free to use.  I sat inside the dark log cabin and ate my lunch of smoked jerky and granola bars.  Food never tastes so good as when you are on the trail!

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Upper Dewey Lake–the cabins are obscured by the clouds

 

I followed the trail up from Dewey into a field of boulders.  The fog closed in around me, blocking any view there might have been.  I picked my way across the rocks DSCN3272carefully.  I suppose it was good the view was obscured, because staying upright on the slippery rocks required all my attention.  I put my eye on every rock before putting my foot down, and tested the step before transferring all my weight.  I had a few close calls, but escaped unscathed.  Soon the path leveled out, leading me past solitary car-sized boulders left to the wind and weather by a glacier thousands of years ago.

 

As I made my way up the path, and the fog cleared for a moment, and I got my first glimpse of the punch bowl below me.  The tarn lake crouched at the bottom of the basin, luring me in with its tantalizingly blue water.  Large rocks rimmed the lake, as well as patches of stubby spruce trees, stunted by the harsh conditions on this forbidding terrain.  A stretch of snow, stubbornly clinging to the north facing slope, sneered down at me. The whole vista was a slap in the face of summer, and a rebellion against mild weather.

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I descended into the basin, keeping an eye on the lake.  The water was perfectly still, and the only sound was of the stream gushing from it.  The water was irresistible and inviting to my aching legs, so I waded out on a partially submerged rock.  I peered over the edge, into the deep water below. Tiny red fish darted erratically through the water, rising to the surface occasionally to nab mosquitoes, the ones that weren’t buzzing around my head in a cloud, anyway.  How’s that for an example of the food chain;)

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The hike down was harder than climbing up.  My legs, which were weary from the ascent, ached with the constant flex-and-release of the descent.  I wanted to be able to move the next day, so I took time to stretch and soak in an icy waterfall.  That combination worked like a charm, because the next day there was only a faint trace of soreness in my legs.

I completed the hike in 5 1/2 hours.  It was the longest solo hike I’ve completed to date, and one of the few that I would eagerly do again.

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V is for Victory

 

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Reunited!

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Kathryn and I were able to coordinate our days off, so she flew to Skagway from Juneau to spend some time with me.  We decided to climb AB mountain, a hike of four miles.  Neither of us had hiked the trail before, so armed with directions and advice from my brother and sister-in-law, we set off.

It was cloudy and cool, which we much preferred to the 80 degrees that Skagway experienced last week!  The first part of the trail gradually climbed upward, winding across smooth granite rocks carpeted in brown pine needles, over gnarled roots and through streams.

The trail became more taxing about a mile and a half into the hike.  We shed our extra layers and guzzled water.  The vegetation closed in on the path, making it harder to maneuver around the reaching devil’s clubs, an evil, stinging plant that abounds in  Southeast Alaska.

IMG_3897   It got colder as we climbed higher.  We put our layers back on, and added our hats.  The clouds moved in, blocking the incredible view of Skagway and the Taiya Inlet that we knew was down there somewhere.  We took a break on a ledge and ate our granola bars, contemplating how far we had come.  Weary and dehydrated though we were, turning around was never an option.

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The clouds broke after we had climbed farther up, revealing the view of the ocean and the town of Skagway.

 

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One part of the trail was especially tricky, and would have been nearly impassable without the rope tied to a tree and trailing over the smooth, steeply tilted granite rock.  We counted on our Keen hiking boots to keep us upright and stable while traversing this section.  (I’m not paid to endorse Keen; but I will say that they are my go-to brand for lightweight durability and maximum traction)

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Keen Girls

We had been warned about the false summits of AB mountain that crush the spirits of disillusioned hikers, so our hopes did not rise high when we saw what appeared to be the top.  Sure enough, we still had a ways to go, over more  slippery, moss covered rocks and around devil’s clubs.

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The top was cold.

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And windy!

We stayed long enough to eat the rest of our food and snap a few photos, then began the descent on shaky legs, wishing we had brought more food and water.  We stopped to rest on a boulder, and almost fell asleep!

We completed the hike of approx. 10 miles in 4 hours, gaining 5,000 feet in elevation.

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bush babes

Stunning Southeast Alaska

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My alarm goes off at 5:50 a.m.  I unzip my sleeping bag, shuddering at the chill that crept into the tent during the night.  I swing my feet over the side of the bunk, yawning.  I am generally in an unhappy state of mind this time of the morning, but I usually can spare a good morning to Jubal, curled beneath my bunk, and my roommate on the other side of the tent.

I take a look outside before getting dressed.  Sometimes it’s so foggy I can’t see more than 100 ft, but today is stunningly clear and bright, even though the sun hasn’t yet cleared the towering granite peaks to the east.

I have been living on the Denver Glacier outside of Skagway Alaska for the past month.  The Denver Glacier is part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest in the nation.  Alaska Icefield Expeditions (AIE) the company I am working for has a permit from the forest service to run dog tours on the glacier all summer.  It takes 18 people and 240 dogs to take care of the 200+ guests we receive each day the helicopters fly.

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My friend Kathryn is working for the same company, but on the ground in Juneau, 100 miles down the coast from Skagway.  Earlier this summer, she told me they were shorthanded, and suggested that I apply.  I had already quit the summer jobs I held in Eagle, and had been toying with the idea of spending a month in Europe.  However, I nearly always choose making money over spending it, so I sent in my application to AIE. A few days later, I got a text offering me a position on the Denver Glacier.  I couldn’t pass up the chance to work on a glacier.  Ever since 10th grade earth science I have been fascinated by glaciers and their powerful influence on topography.  The way they carve a path through the mountains and reduce boulders to bits of gravel is a reminder to me that seemingly insurmountable odds can be overcome.

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I was told I could bring a dog with me, so I chose Jubal.  Besides being handsome and well-mannered, he is also crate trained, which is a necessity for the 12 hour drive between Eagle and Skagway.  I had only a week between when I was hired and when I was due to start.  I spent that week taking Jubal to the vet (280 miles one way!) for an exam and a rabies vac  and stressing over the packing list I was given.  A few of the items were:

sleeping bag rated for -20                                                                                                                      rubber rain gear                                                                                                                              polarized sunglasses                                                                                                                             chemical handwarmers                                                                                                                         headlamp                                                                                                                                                 insulated sleeping pad

The list looked more suited to a trip to the North Pole, than a rainforest 500 miles south of sub-arctic Eagle!

It took me a while, but at last I assembled all the gear I would need.

I made good time on the trip to Skagway, stopping only at gas stations and for bathrooms breaks fro me and the dog.  Jubal took the 12 hours in the crate surprisingly well–he didn’t vomit (like on our trip to the vet!) and even entered the crate willingly towards the end.

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I stayed the first two nights in Skagway with my brother and sister-in-law before flying up to the Denver Glacier.  Jubal followed me up later that day; he was quivering with fright when he came off the chopper!  Out of the two of us I think I enjoyed my first flight in a helicopter a little more.

My position on the glacier is labeled TAPH which stands for tour attendant/photographer/handler. As a tour attendant, I unload and load guests from the helicopters and lead them to their musher.  When I play the role of photographer, I snap photos of the guests on the dogs teams, print them off, then attempt to sell them.  As a dog handler (which is my primary role) I do anything and everything for the dogs.  This includes helping out with feeding and watering, scooping poop, leveling dog houses, breaking up fights, maintaining chains, administering medicines and eye drops (some of the dogs are convinced you are trying to poke out their eyes during this procedure–it turns into a full on wrestling match to get anywhere near the dogs’ head!), and of course, harnessing and hooking the dogs into the team.

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Citation and Secretariat

Living on a glacier doesn’t feel like winter.  It looks like winter because of the snow, but that is it.  Temperature, precipitation, amount of daylight and the texture of the snow are all vastly different from the interior winters I am used to.

I have yet to see it get below freezing on the glacier, a cool night would be in the low 40s.  On a clear day it will get up to 80 degrees. The sun’s rays hit the snow on the glacier and reflect back, making it much hotter, which means sunburns all around, no matter how much sunscreen we apply!  Even the dogs get sunscreen on their noses.

It rains far more than it snows on the glacier.  Usually on the rainy days tours are canceled, and we spend the day catching up on sleep, playing games, reading or watching movies.

I  have only been up once in the middle of the night to screech at some barking dogs  (we take turns yelling at them; at least one out of the 240 decide to bark every night!), and it is a typical Alaskan summer night-not dark at all.

There is about 8 feet of snow on top of the glacial ice.  On a hot day, we will lose up to two feet of snow.  The snow on the Denver Glacier is  leftover from winter and very slushy.  Every step you take sinks in at least six inches, making it difficult to walk.  Our first camp site was a mile lower on the glacier than where we are now.  Three weeks after we moved, our old site was solid ice.  The snow will continue to melt up the glacier, and we will have to move camp again, to a location even farther up.  The weather gets progressively worse the higher we go, so we try to get in as many tours as possible on the clear days.

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Dog Powered Adventure

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I have recently discovered a passion for bikejoring.  I’ve done it in the past, but never caught on to it until this spring when I acquired a bike.  It’s an old, well used bike that I got out of a ‘free’ pile at a yard sale.  It’s nothing to look at, (unless you like florescent orange and yellow) but it is serviceable and the right size.  It needed hours of work before I could even ride it, and still, the gears can only be changed manually, but this bike sparked in me a desire to try something new and reach uncharted horizons.

Mostly what lit the desire in me was wanting to hold onto the deep bond I developed with the dogs over the winter.  I believe you are never as close with your animals as when you are working together; that’s the difference between a house pet and a working dog.  These dogs are more than pets, they are my partners as well.  In the winter, when we are out on the trail together, I depend upon them to get me home safely, and they depend upon me for food, shelter and affection.  It is a symbiotic relationship.

As soon as the snow began to melt from the roads, I started planning how I would use my new old bike with the dogs.  I started out just taking one dog at a time, but when I found that was too slow, I paired them up for breathtaking speed and close to zero control.  Consider this: the brakes on a bike are worthless when matched against the pulling power of two hyped up Alaskan Huskies.  If they took it into their heads to chase that loose dog in the distance, I would be out of luck and not to mention road burned;)   However, the dogs definitely know who is the Boss, and I haven’t had much trouble getting them stopped and maneuvering through the streets of Eagle.

After a few weeks of bikejoring with two dogs, I felt comfortable enough to plan an overnight trip with a pair of my pups.  Deciding which dogs to take was a challenge.  I wanted young but dependable, strong but not too fast, and good sized but not unmanageable.  That criteria ruled out every dog in the yard.  The young dogs are big and crazy fast, or unreliable for bikejoring.  The older dogs are dependable but out of shape and lacking endurance.  After trying a few different combinations, I settled on Jubal and Etta, 11 and 13 months respectively.  Very young, slightly dependable, and under 60lbs, this pair met most of my requirements.  The fact that they have only one season under their harnesses and are not yet firm on ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw’ caused me to rethink taking them, but after seeing how well they perform together, and feeling comfortable with the amount of pulling power they put out settled my decision.

Jubal and Etta are young&playful; but they are all business when they are in harness!  We started off, and they didn’t even look back to see what the extra weight was (I had a 20lb pack on my back).

Not two miles out of town we had some excitement!  Fortunately, I spotted the dark, brown rump of the moose in the willows before the dogs did and was able to stop them before we were right on top of it.  Jubal was sure he was going to kill that moose.  I held both brakes tight with my hands and dug my heels in, bracing against his lunges.  The moose stood and looked at us for a while, then sauntered off the side of the road.  My legs were shaking from holding the dogs back; they could have pulled me over if they wanted to but I talked them out of it.  (Of course I had to get a picture;)

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Every few miles I would stop and let the dogs loose to jump in the creek and relax before taking off again.  It wasn’t because my shoulders ached from the pack or I was tired at all.  Purely for the dogs sake;)

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We covered 11 miles that day, from Eagle to Gravel Gulch.  Gravel Gulch is the location of an old mining claim with a collection of cabins scattered on the bank of the creek.  It was also the first stop on the old mail route out of Eagle over 100 years ago.  The original cabin is still standing, and you can still see the trail that the sourdoughs trod so many years ago.

We had to cross the creek before we could get to the cabins.  Discovery Fork of American Creek is still mostly iced over, with channels of torrential, orange water flowing through it.  Both my feet got wet when I jumped over; I dried my boots and socks out by the fire,  losing the socks to the curious dogs.  I had an extra pair, but both would have been nice that night in the tent!

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original Gravel Gulch cabin

Dinner that evening was a sad affair; I had taken a smaller sized backpack so I wouldn’t have trouble balancing with it on the bike, but that meant I had to leave behind luxury items like enough food.  I was counting out walnuts and cutting pieces of beef jerky in half to ration enough for the next day!  The dogs ate good though, scarfing down their kibble like it was their last meal.

Jubal and Etta did a good job keeping me up almost all night!  I could hear them tearing around, growling and barking ferociously at each other.  I poked my head out the tent flap and yelled at them to make them hush up, and Jubal came charging in, with blood on his face.  That woke me up quick!  I got out of the tent and had a look around with my gun at my side, but I saw nothing.  The blood wasn’t his or Etta’s; I never found out where it came from,

My feet were cold that night, until Jubal came in an curled up with me.  The warmth he put out helped, but then I couldn’t breath because he wanted to lay on my face!  It wasn’t a terribly comfortable night.

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After I cooked breakfast over the fire in the morning, I started packing up my stuff.  gathered everything from the tent and sorted it into its appropriate pocket in my pack, then took the tent down.  It’s amazing how everything you need for one night can fit in one backpack!  It would have been nice, though, if I had room for a pillow, toilet paper, and a warmer sleeping bag!

The place where I crossed the creek the day before was swollen to the point of being impassable, so I had to bushwhack downstream for half a mile until I found a place that was still solidly iced over.  Once I got up to the road, I left my backpack in the ditch and walked up to where my bike was.  I hooked the dogs up, and we climbed three miles up to the top of American Summit.

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It was a cold day on the summit!  Freezing rain fell from the sky and the wind gusted heavily.  The dogs, in their fur coats, were impervious to the wind, but it blew right through my thin windbreaker.

I let the dogs loose at the top and turned around, plunging back down the road we had just climbed.  I let the dogs loose because I knew they couldn’t run the speed that my bike would go down the hill.  I kept well ahead of them to watch for oncoming traffic, then stopped at the bottom to wait for them.  I hooked them back up and we trekked home, stopping to eat and rest along the way.

Biking with your dogs is a great way to bond with them and uphold the rapport during the summer.  I look forward to more trips with Jubal and Etta and the others during this season.

Here’s to another dog powered adventure!

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my petners

Breakup!

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The ice on the Yukon started moving May seventh, and yesterday, on the eighth it began flowing for real.  We have been having a slow spring, so breakup this year is fairly mild.    The problem happens when temperatures rise drastically and suddenly, causing the snow melt to raise the level of the river, break up even the thick ice and causing ice jams up and down the river.

before/after

Breakup happens every year without fail; still, it is considered an exciting event by the locals who gather at the river to watch!

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Rite of Passage

 

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Beaver Pond cabin

This weekend, my brother and I mushed to a trapping cabin 16 miles from Eagle that my dad orchestrated the building of about ten years ago.  It is a familiar cabin that my family would visit on winter weekends.  Kathryn and her brother followed us out on snowmachines, pulling all our gear and food.

We mushed five dogs each; smaller teams than we are used to, but doable.  It was warm and cloudy the day we left; it took us 2 hours and 40 minutes to cover the 16 miles.     Stellar, Sirius & Hayze ran along with us!   They kept up with the teams, and they weren’t even tired at the end!  They are approaching their 6 month birthday, and they are in great shape.  This trip was their rite of passage–a long run, and their first night on the trail!  They were spectacular; I’m proud of them!

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Stellar<3
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The dogs relaxing on the picket line

There was a mile long stretch of ice on the river by the cabin.  We had brought our skates, and we were followed by an entourage of dogs (Jubal, Etta, Hayze, Sirius & Stellar) as we skated up and down.  The puppies played together on the ice, trying to trip us up!  I put a harness on Jubal, and he turned all business.  He pulled me all over the ice, not even losing focus with the other four pups running around.

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group photo!

We left for home later that afternoon.  The puppies seemed a little more subdued on the way back–meaning they weren’t getting tangled in our lines and pestering the adult dogs!  We made it home 35 minutes faster than it took to go out, traveling the same trail.  The dogs have a spring in their step when they know where they’re going!  We all have a spring in our step this time of year!

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I love this shot of Hayze, Stellar, Etta and Jubal!

 

Welcome, March!

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My mom, running Etta, Zulu, Pyka, Sahara & Sherpa

February slipped away, followed by March and the superb weather it always brings.  I get the feeling that if the whole winter was like March, Alaska would be overpopulated!  The weather in March is usually mild; it may drop to -20 at night, but as soon as the sun breaches the horizon, the temperatures climb steadily, occasionally reaching into the 20s and 30s.  With these temperatures and the long hours of daylight, the month of March brings the ideal weather for mushing, and any outdoor activity.  It’s also great for taking pictures!

This weekend, my mom and I went mushing together in the gorgeous March weather.  It was about 15 above, a little warm for the dogs to operate at full speed, but they kept up a good pace and had a fantastic time rolling in the snow when we stopped.

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~Jubal & Etta are 8 and 10 months respectively–they are profitable additions to our kennel~

The sun shone brilliantly and directly.  I had brought a pair of sunglasses, but my sun starved eyes begged to be left uncovered!

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I love shadow pictures:)

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