In the spotlight on Moose Ridge

For the first time in a long while, we have a segment of the journey dominated not by the obstacles we encountered, but by the wonderful things we’ve seen. Daylight is returning to us, more and more with each passing evening. Minus 20 temperatures are fading into a fuzzy memory. Far off the highway system, we seem to be passing into more and more amazing landscapes. As we approach 9 months of travel (our original estimate for the entire trip), I feel a new inspiration for the thousand or so miles yet to come.

Not that this leg has been without obstacles, of course…

Chuitna site marshes

Chuitna Coal

Our skis make a rasping grating over the thin layer of icy snow. Our skis skitter sideways on the bumpy melt-scarred snow, breaking off the thin glassy edge of each small ripple. The bottoms of the packrafts we’re pulling as sleds start abrading away from the ice (discovered later). We walk the skis over frozen lumps of sphagnum moss blown completely free of snow. I jokingly yell to Hig over the racket of skis and sleds:

“They better not develop the Chuitna proposal – or they’ll destroy the only decent place to ski in all of Southcentral Alaska!”

Luckily, better traveling was soon to come. But Chuitna was a wonderful place to ski.

Mt Spurr from the Chuitna site

Before we reached Beluga, we knew little about the Chuitna coal proposal, other than that it was a plan by PacRim Coal to build a large strip mine in an approximately 30 square mile area encompassing several tributaties of the Chuitna (Chuit) River on west Cook Inlet. Some of the main concerns about the plan we heard about from folks in the area were the large-scale dewatering of the wetlands at the site, the effect of the daily dump of 7 million gallons of water from the mine into the Chuit River, and coal dust from the conveyor belt and barge landing sites.

These local environmental concerns are huge. And as for many proposed developments, if the first project is approved, industry’s plans for the mining “district” are far larger than the original Chuitna proposal. But stepping back from the immediate and local questions: what is the future of coal in Alaska?

Mt Spurr above the Chuitna River gorge

Some have called Alaska the “Saudi Arabia of coal” – with large deposits in the western Arctic and Cook Inlet, among other areas. With world oil supplies depleting and prices rising, the interest in developing these deposits is quickly rising. Yet, as Alaska sits on enormous coal deposits, it also sits at the crosshairs of global climate change- warming faster than the rest of the planet. Burning coal creates more of the carbon emissions that cause climate change than any other fuel. Coal fired power plants in Asia are already sending mercury and other pollutants drifting Alaska’s way – and they’re the major market for any coal mined here. In this day and age, a big coal project isn’t just an issue for the Chuit River. It seems to me like the wrong direction for the world.

Evening on the Cook Inlet flats

Lost in the Chuitna Hills

We’d been skiing back and forth on top of the hill for at least 20 minutes, drawing compass roses in the snow, passing the map back and forth with puzzled frowns.

Hig: “I think we’ve eliminated all the possibilities.”

Erin: “We can see everything from here! How is it possible we can’t figure out where we are?”

The Lone Creek marsh flats we’d skied up earlier that day, Cook Inlet, the Chugach Mountains, Mt. Spurr, Lone Ridge, and a myriad of unidentifiable small hills and gullies… We really could see everything, but as the sun was setting on our hilltop perch, we still had no better idea than that we were probably somewhere in the Chuitna proposal site.

Birch fungus

Part of our whole “ground truth trekking” idea is that we don’t want to just read about the issues and places we’re interested in. We want to tromp around in them. We make observations while we’re there, and take photographs of course… But it’s more than that. In a way that’s hard to explain, being literally surrounded by an issue, moving through it at a couple miles an hour, sounds and smells and intimate views, gives me something different. A visceral feel for a place, to add to the facts, maps, and diagrams.

The next morning, we skied off from our camp at the base of the confusing hill, headed in a compass direction that would be sure to eventually tell us where we were. It was a couple hours of skiing before we figured it out, photographing the shadows of trees as they bent across a snowy gully that was unmistakable on the map. We wound our way through gullies and marshes to the Chuit River, watching the tracks of rabbits, moose and otters. Swishing through a thin layer of powder atop a hard crust of snow, watching the tiny tips of alder brush beside me, I felt pleased to finally be in a place where winter travel was actually easier than it would be in the summer.

Mt Spurr from Moose Ridge

Flipping to “Awesome Mode”

Hop, hop, sliiiide…. Hop, hop, sliiiide… The river otter tracks crisscrossed the snowy slopes of Moose Ridge, a thousand feet above sea level, and miles from the nearest patch of open water.

Erin: “What are they doing up here? They don’t hunt rabbits, do they?”

Hig: “I don’t think so. Maybe they just come up to play in the great snow here.”

I was suspicious of the alpine “shortcut” when Hig proposed it.

Erin: “I think we should just go around in the marshes. It’s more straightforward. We don’t know what it’ll be like on the way up. Or down…”

Sunset on Moose Ridge

Hig: “But the views up there will be awesome. Look at how snowy it looks up on top. And it’s shorter… I know we’ve had a lot of difficult sections in the past couple months. But I think it’s made you too conservative. Going places like this is one of the reasons we go trekking.”

A few hours later, I paused to take the thousandth photo of Mt. Spurr in the evening light, skiing past river otter tracks in a world of sculpted snow, looking at the Cook Inlet flats stretched out below us.

Erin: “Hey Hig, I’m sorry I argued against coming up here.”

We’ve discovered that on an expedition, we exist in one of two modes: “Oppression mode” and “Awesome mode.” In “oppression mode”, obstacle follows obstacle, in a seemingly never-ending chain. We approach each new spot with more than a little trepidation: Will the next pass be impassable? Or just nearly so? Will we run out of food? Will we have to turn back? Walk the highway? Beautiful moments still happen, but they seem mere flashes of relief between the difficulties. Problem solving has its own attraction, but when you’re always in that mode, the attraction slowly wears thinner and thinner.

Morning camp chores

In “awesome mode” we move from one amazing and unexpected experience to the next. Map miles move by, and we feel the flow of moving through country. Obstacles pop up, but each seems finite, surmountable, even amusing… The spice of the journey. We’re excited to see around each new bend.

After the difficulties of Copper Basin, the trudge of the Glenn Highway, the insurmountable obstacle of Knik Arm, it’d been a long time since we’d truly existed in awesome mode. The Chuitna site started our climb back up. Watching the sunset from the top of Moose Ridge, I realized that the switch had flipped – bringing renewed inspiration to my world.

Pizza delivery to Lake Clark Pass

Passage to Lake Clark

A pizza fell out of the sky for us in Lake Clark Pass. On the third pass of the now-familiar Lake and Peninsula airplane, a white plastic bag trailing yellow ribbons fluttered down to us where we were packing up a late morning camp near the headwaters of the Big River. Perhaps the best cold pizza breakfast I’ve ever eaten, and almost certainly the first pizza delivery to Lake Clark Pass. Thanks Lyle!

Rarely visited on foot, Lake Clark Pass is the primary corridor for air traffic to and from Anchorage in the Lake Clark/Lake Iliamna region. As we skied between the mountains lining the Big River and Tlikakila valleys, we were right in the flyway – waving to the small planes as they buzzed overhead, recognizing their colors and stripes before we’d ever seen the pilots. Shortly after our unexpected pizza delivery, John and Leon flew in and landed for a short visit, bringing both conversation and a large amount of bread and cheese. As a result of all this generosity (we were also fed by folks in Beluga, the Chuit River, and later on Lake Clark), this is the first two-week leg we’ve ever done where we finished with extra food.

Lake Clark Pass glacier

“Whoah!” Hig yelled, skis swishing at a very moderate speed down a very tiny hill to Summit Lake “That was so weird!”

Not because the slope was taxing to even our very modest skiing skills – but because even in broad daylight, we had not a clue that it was there. In the flat light of an overcast and snowy world, the sky and the ground were an identical smooth white. No texture marked the ground. Only the thin black lines of cottonwoods outlined the mountains, giving us the rough shape of the terrain. Looking at our feet was useless. It was impossible to tell if the ground in front of our skis was flat, up, down, or sideways. It was broad daylight. But with each small gully or rise, the ground surprised us.

Wrong Way to Lake Clark

Perhaps Moosepasture Pass wasn’t the wrong way to Lake Clark. But we certainly went the wrong way. Reading the river bends wrong in the low-detail topography afforded by the Lake Clark Park map (the map’s fault, I swear!), we turned what should have been a short and straightforward climb to the pass into a mile-long traverse. Through what seemed doomd to become an infinite series of gullies.

Skiing past Lake Clark Pass glacier

Deeply incised, nearly impossible to see until we were staring down into them, perhaps a dozen gullies blocked our way forward. Corniced edges dropped away before us, forcing us to climb higher and higher to find shallow crossings. I dug my heels as deeply into the snow as possible, my vertigo not allowing me to emulate Hig’s quick slides down. We trudged up the far side, straining against the weight of our packraft sleds on the vertical slopes, wondering how many of these we had left.

Flat light on Summit Lake

In the winter, everything is amplified. Fast travel is faster on skis than it ever is on foot. And slow travel is far far slower. We took until 3:30 in the afternoon to inch our way up Moosepasture Pass. And quickly flew several miles in the last few hours of daylight in the beautiful snow of the upper valley.

Wind, Water, and Ice

You wouldn’t think that a day spent entirely on a frozen lake would be complicated. But as we descended to Little Lake Clark, a warm wind blew into the region. Melting snow, thawing ice, sending the treetops whipping violently, and screaming down the lake.

Tlikakila valley

How do you travel down a sheet of glare ice with several inches of standing water on top in a strong tailwind? Easy. Just stand on your skis. How do you stop? Another matter altogether.

When we ducked into the lee behind a point, the traveling was nearly perfect. An almost effortless 5 or 6 miles an hour, pleasant except for the very soggy ski boots. When we were out in the brunt of the wind, we only wished we could go so slowly. Leaning heavily on a ski pole between my legs, ice chips flying, metal tip grating against the ice, leaving a long scratch that slowed me down hardly at all, using the other ski pole to attempt to steer into the deeper pools of water or slush (which slowed us down a bit), water planing up around the tips of the skis. I winced at the horrible grating sounds as the skis flew into patches of windblown sand.

Skiing the Tlikakila

But we made the social rounds of Lake Clark, being generously hosted by Ann and Steve, and by Bella Hammond at their wilderness homesteads. Drying my boots and socks above each warm stove, enjoying a roof and conversation… And by the time we were ready to cross to Port Alsworth, the wind had died, the ice had dried, and sun was shining on our heads. We hope for the same on the rest of our journey down the lake. :)

Tlikakila avalanche

Mountainside light patterns

Climbing gullies

Wrong way to Moosepasture Pass

Above the Tlikakila

Cottonwoods in a snowy pass

Open creek

Chokotonk River

Lake Clark pressure ridge

Bella Hammond’s house

Skiing Lake Clark