Talkeetna Mountains traverse: Eureka to Talkeetna, pushing the limits of tennis shoes


As I started looking closer at the maps and seeing the weather forecast for Southcentral Alaska ("first storm moving away from southcentral with a more powerful second storm on the way"), the doubts over our trip started creeping in.  Sherrie and I planned to hike from the Eureka Roadhouse on the Glenn Highway, 60 miles overland to the headwaters of the Talkeetna River.  From the small roadside town, we'd walk for 2.5 days (most off-trail wilderness travel), over a 4800' and 6000' pass, before rafting 40 miles of the Talkeetna River.  At the confluence with Prairie Creek, we would meet friends who'd flown in with a cataraft and raft the famous class IV Talkeetna River canyon ("the longest stretch of continuous whitewater in Alaska" and one of the state's most classic river trips) to the town of Talkeenta.

As I really started thinking about the logistics, the thoughts of all that could go wrong rushed in with a vengeance.  I haven't been nervous for a trip in awhile, but I have to admit in many ways it felt good to try something I wasn't sure I could do.  We made contingency bailout plans for the inability to cross high passes due to weather, packed a little extra food in case we had to hike out without the cataraft to travel the high-volume canyon, and left a good communication plan in case we didn't make it out. 

Leaving the road at 5:30 pm, we made it to Caribou Creek and camped along its banks. 

Starting out with termination dust on Gunsight Mountain behind us . . . all smiles for the journey ahead!
Surprised and ecstatic, our first full day of hiking up Caribou Creek was graced with sunshine!!  Given the multiple thigh-deep river crossings of this glacial stream, and blessed with peak fall colors, the bright skies made our day super enjoyable as we covered ground.

Did I mention that we were thankful for the sun?  Sherrie shares her joy!

Sherrie making progress toward Chitna Creek confluence with Caribou Creek, one of the day's major milestones

Me headed into the upper Caribou drainage - foreboding skies ahead, but sunny for now!

Me loving the tank top weather and peak fall colors - all the gorgeous mountains made us want to come back with more time to scramble up them!

Caribou Creek shrinking as we neared the headwaters - just upstream is it's super dramatic canyon
We made it to our goal of a lake just below the final climb to our first big pass, arriving at camp in a mix of rain and snow.  We awoke to a white world, and a super cold morning, but were thankful that the conditions still looked okay for travel.

Awaking to a snowy morning at camp 2 . . . brr!!

My shoes were so frozen after all the river crossings the day prior that I had to use pliers to get the laces free . . . I finally thawed them in the icy cold river to be able to get my feet in - now there's a way to start a morning!

 We hiked out of the Caribou Creek drainage and over a gentle pass to the high country in the upper Oshetna River valley.  Opting to "cut the corner," we walked the caribou trails of the grassy hills instead of travelling the creek, rewarded with panoramic mountain views and serene lakes to walk by. 
Heading into the high country - leaving the final trickle of Caribou Creek

Rounding the corner into the upper Oshetna River valley
Me passing one of three lakes as we traveled to the Oshetna River . . . peaceful and stunning country
Sherrie adds a splash of color to the Talkeetnas!

Making progress - our route was just around the backside of the peak in the foreground . . . caribou trails made our travels so nice!!

Caribou kept us company much of the morning . . . should we have brought skis?!?
We had great travel conditions for the morning, the frozen ground creating a nice walking surface, cushioned with a covering of snow . . . greeted by caribou, beautiful lakes, and changing scenery, we were super stoked!  Lurking in the back of my mind, however, was a wonder of what we'd find as we approached the pass - the mountains around us were pretty snow-covered and the wind was picking up - thoughts of avalanches started creeping into my mind.  As a skier, I should know better than to get caught in a windslab, and we had approximately zero appropriate tools (i.e. shovel!) to respond if we did.  But, you never know til you go, so on we went, knowing that we could always come back and raft out Caribou Creek if we had to.  One thing was readily apparent: we were definitely going to be pushing the limits of tennis shoes!!!

Our first pass at 4800' finally in view . . . what's next?

Headed up the pass, looking down to the Oshetna . . .

The landscape got stark, but no less beautiful
On the backside of pass #1, with 6000' pass #2 around the corner - starting to look more like a headwall than a pass!

Sherrie with the outline of switchbacks above her . . . looks like we can probably make it over!!
Standing on the headwall - I have to admit I was hoping to see a little less white than this . . .

Travelling the moraine-from-hell . . . this kind of travel is hard enough without 6" of snow obscuring the appropriate places to step!

Uggh, the moraine goes on . . .

Finally off the rocky moraine and back into snow-covered tundra . . . a much appreciated reprieve of wondering if I was going to break an ankle every step! 

 Thankfully, Alaska let us through and we were able to safely navigate our way over the headwall (after going over it, I am no longer calling it a pass!) . . . I had hoped for a gentle slope off the backside, but instead I found myself plunge stepping into thigh deep snow down its steep flanks.  Spirits plummeted as we walked across the glacial moraine on the backside.  Comprised of rocks, their interstitial spaces filled with snow, it felt like a broken ankle (or femur!) was a threat on every step.  Sherrie characterized our friendship as "old love" as we walked in irritated silence, mentally preparing ourselves to be in snow for the duration of our overland travel.  The Talkeetna side of the mountains is the wet side, but this was more snow than we'd really expected! 

Not shockingly, we awoke to more new snow on our third morning, but with only 11 miles remaining until packrafting time, and knowing it would only get better as we lost elevation, we were off!

Another cold morning - a good chance to multitask with stretching hips, warming toes on my hot bottle, and drinking coffee all at once!!
Our river walk transitioned to a game trail as we headed away from the creek and onto a gently sloping flank to the river . . . back in peak fall colors, the tundra reds burst into our gray landscape.  As we descended, the sun came out and graced us with warmth and views of the Talkeetna Glacier and big mountains surrounding us.  As the river came into view, we were pscyched to start making progress off our feet!!

Good travel, out of the snow, making progress = happy Kellie!
Looking back at the white world we'd come from!
And looking down to the river we were headed to!
Sherrie in peak fall colors yet again, checking out the potential for rapids in the upper river


Still not sure if it was going to fully break, the clouds added surreal feel to the big open country we were in

The Talkeetna Glacier and upper river
We made it to the river just after noon and took a breather in bare feet on the sand, appreciating the moments of sunshine as we prepared for the next section of the adventure.  We had 40 river miles to cover, with beta that it started class III and then mellowed out . . . lured by the sunshine, we did not put on nearly enough layers and spent most of the day super cold until we finally gave into putting puff coats on under our drysuits!  It's been awhile since I've been this persistently cold, and I started to accept that winter is definitely on its way!! 
The upper river was splashy and fun!

So wonderful to enjoy the views off of our feet!  Packrafts and river gear are heavy and cumbersome to carry, but sooooo worth it!
By some combination of good fortune and perseverance, Sherrie and I made it 40 miles downriver in about 6.5 hours, meeting our friends according exactly to plan A.  They had flown in that morning as planned, rafted Prairie Creek, and setup a luxurious camp.  With a dutch oven, coolers, big raft, and cotton clothes our lives were about to change! 
All smiles in the morning as we headed toward the Talkeetna Canyon!
 At the ~8000 cfs level we had, the Talkeetna was considered "low," but the toilet bowl entry rapid and the 14 mile long "sluice box" were exciting all the same, and still much bigger water than I'd want with a packraft!! 
Under sunny skies, Denali and the Alaska Range greeted us in Talkeetna!!
Overall, the trip was awesome.  At no point "in the bag," the adventure continued with every step and wave along our journey.  It was definitely an experience that re-energized me for big Alaskan traverses and throwing it to the wind every now and again :-)

McCarthy exploration and the MayPohl wedding


With the upcoming Chrissy May and Ray Pohl wedding in McCarthy, Sherrie and I decided to head over a week early and spend some time exploring the area before the festivities.  Our vision was to hike up the Root Glacier and over a 5300' pass to the McCarthy glacier, from which we'd packraft McCarthy Creek the Motherlode Saloon in town . . . as it turned out, the universe had a different plan!

We arrived to higher-than-normal river levels and the first hot days of the season, causing the higher-than-average snowpack to be melting at a higher-than-average rate . . . read: super high rivers, snow-covered passes, and conditions which generally indicated we should consider a plan B.

Pan frying fresh Russian River red with lots of butter and onion - rough life!! 
We decided to head up the Root Glacier and scramble up Donoho Peak in favor of the river trip, so off we went!  The glacier travel was spectacular, straightforward, and scenic - we were stoked, arriving at camp after 2 leisurely hours of wandering up glacier.  The colors were awesome and the daylight plentiful, so we decided to explore the moraine we were camped on, and to check out the local waterfall (which was cranking!)
Jumbo Creek . . . running bigger than normal, but the rivers just got bigger as the week went on!
Sunshine and tennis shoes on glacier . . . good times :-)
Me headed up the Root Glacier, Donoho Peak on the looker's left
Me and Mt. Blackburn :-)
Root Glacier and its moraine
Raging falls . . . big snowmelt while we were there!!
The views from the falls overlook did not suck . . . Root Glacier below
The next morning we got going at a reasonable hour and took off in search of Donoho Lakes and Donoho Peak . . . we thought there should be a trail, but we actually didn't find it until we got to the lake, so did some unecessary bushwhacking!!  Unfortunately we lost it again as we were heading onto the peak itself, so we figure we added about an hour to the approach - oh well, I suppose!
It was on this schwack that I declared that I give up bushwhacking forever!  Not sure if I've recovered enough to try again :-)
We made good time kicking steps into the snow-filled couloir, appreciating the in/out overcast skies to keep the temps cool and the snow consolidated.  We had 2 pretty sketchy sections of climbing through the waterfall/creek (which is it when it's not-that-much-water flowing down a 45 deg slope?) but managed to make it back to the upper snowfield where the steps were good again to the ridge!  From there, we scrambled up the last section of scree and tagged the peak!  We arrived to rain, but then the skies broke open and revealed the views we'd come hoping to find!!
Sherrie and I on the peak - all types of weather - had been raining about 30 seconds earlier!
Views of the glacier headed toward Blackburn - big country!!
Sherrie and clearing skies over McCarthy
Eerie Lake from the summit of Donoho - the view we'd come for!!
Unfortunately, as we were descending the upper snowfield, I was plunge stepping in the soft snow and managed to find a buried ice lense, slipping and beginning to slide the upper slope.  Thankfully I was able to self arrest by digging my poles into the ground and kicking in my feet, but the sacrifice was a bunch of skin on my fingers . . .

Ouch!  Thankful to have my favorite nurse-friend along!!

Thankfully, Sherrie is a NICU nurse who travels prepared, and before the shock had worn off, she had me cleaned up, taped up, and ready to descend the peak (she even promised to help with the bushwhacking but that was thankfully not necessary!).  We managed to tennis-shoe-ski down the coolie and made it back to the bushes, this time finding the trail right though, and then connecting it to the main trail for a pretty quick and straightforward return to camp!

Since our original plan to raft the following day was thwarted by my now-inability to hold a paddle, we decided to spend some additional time out near Donoho and enjoy the stunning scenery, bug-free living with the nice glacial breezes, and act like we were on vacation - it was lovely :-)  The next day dawned super blue and made for a wonderful walk back to Kennicott . . . 

Hooray for sunshine!!!
A happy Sherrie that summer has arrived!
These lovely glacier streams were awesome for cleaning my hands in a manner that also numbed the pain!!
Sherrie told me we earned a beer at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge! 
View of the Kennicott Mill from our roamings
 Sherrie headed back to Anchorage just as the wedding festivities were cue-ing up . . . Cmay and Ray's family and friends took over the Kennicott Glacier Lodge and it was a bustle of comings-and-goings of guests out exploring the local mine ruins, ice caves, bike rides, and mill area.  The rehearsal dinner was a festive barbecue on the lawn, and the ceremony was lovely . . . delivered by Holly Brooks, it was non-traditional and awesome . . . exactly like our favorite Chrissy May!!

Waiting for the bride :-)
Daddy Don giving Cmay away!  I loved her dress, especially the back!
and they're hitched!
The MayPohl :-)

A raging dance party, and we called it a wrap!  Somehow Chrissy managed to fit her wedding right in the 5 days of summer!  The day we left had weather roll in, which made driving home just a bit easier!!

Thanks again to Sherrie for taking care of me, and to Chrissy and Ray for a great excuse to hang out in McCarthy!!