Week 6: July 22 – 29, 2014

Tuesday was spent recovering from the Kesugi Ridge hike.  We slept in until 10:00 AM, had breakfast and coffee before heading out to have second breakfast/lunch in Willow, while also retrieving the credit card that Dave “did not forget at the gas station.” :o)

Wednesday, we headed back into the cabin, with lots of extra food in tow in preparation for the arrival of Dave’s cousin Theresa and her husband Justin.  Dave also tested out something he has been wanting to do for a while… carrying the canoe on his own.  It went very well, surprisingly well!  Despite Dave’s wishes to carry it alone more often in order to save time, Alex did not like giving up her end of the work, or feeling like to much of a “princess.” The day went quickly, despite the load, and we were back in time to enjoy the remainder of the day, and even a rainbow!

Devils Club… nasty… but cool in bloom

We were out of bed at 6AM, on Thursday, in order to have some coffee and reading time before checking campsites and paddling  back to Tanaina, where we had parked out truck the previous day.  We arrived back to the station in time to take a shower and do laundry before Theresa and Justin arrived.  Once we geared them up with PFD’s, paddles, and dry bags, we headed back to Tanaina to begin their journey to the cabin.

On the way to the boat launch, they were lucky enough to see a moose cross the road.  Throughout the long and tiring portages and paddles, and unsavory weather (rain began at Lynx Lake and persisted for the remainder of the day), they were real troopers and made good time.   We did not see any other “large” animals, but we did see some cool crane like birds on Jacknife Lake.  The remainder of the evening was spent relaxing and settling into the cabin.

Despite the rain and cool weather on Friday, we took Justin out to fish, while Theresa stayed back at the cabin reading, relaxing, and keeping a warm fire going.  We tried our luck in Butterfly Lake, trying to save ourselves from the long, muddy portage to Buckley Lake.  We had no success, so we decided to make the portage to the sure bet; Echo Ponds.  Even in the Echo Ponds, the fish were not biting!  We were beginning to think that we might need a new plan for dinner when Justin got a bite!  No sooner did Alex get the fish in the net, Dave had a fish as well!  Things were looking up!  The going got slow again, eventually Dave caught the third fish of the day before passing the rod on to Alex, who snagged one as well.  Though we had some fish in the boat, they were not going to supply enough meat for four people!

Fortunately, after much patience, persistence, and sitting in the rain and cold, the fish really started to bite, and Justin was on a fish catching roll!  Dave and Alex began the process of cutting fillets from our bone filled friends, while Justin kept reeling them in to the boat.  Eventually, we had plenty to prepare a hearty meal, and paddled our cold tired bodies back to the cabin… 5 hours after we had left.  Theresa and Justin cooked up a delicious fish, rice and bean dinner, and Alex baked a chocolate-peanut butter cake for desert.  The weather began to clear, and it turned into a beautiful evening.  It became so nice that Theresa and Justin went out for a paddle around Butterfly Lake, while Alex and Dave sat on the dock and read.

Dave and Alex spent several hours on Saturday working on the Butterfly Lake Boat Launch project.  While we worked, Theresa and Justin paddled out to Skeetna Lake and then took a walk along the portage to the Little Susitna River, where they were mauled by ferocious mosquitoes.  Vic joined us on the boat launch project for a while, and by the time we wrapped things up for the day, we had leveled the lower portion of the launch area, created three geogrid panels (a panel consists of 9 pieces of geogrid secured together with screws), and installed the panels in the area nearest the water.  It was really rewarding to see the project finally taking shape.

All of us rejoined at the cabin; Alex and Dave took and dip in the chilly lake, and Theresa and Justin again prepared dinner.

This time, dinner was a yummy cucumber and radish salad, paired with spinach and cheese pasta.  Desert was so tasty Alex could not snap a picture before it was getting gobbled up… baked apricots and peaches topped with melted dark chocolate.

 We can really get used to having these guys around… they have taken over the dinner and clean-up process!  The rest of the night was spent enjoying a laid-back, not playing for points, game of “Qwirkle,” followed by a rousing and competitive game where we kept score.

Sunday morning, Theresa and Justin joined us in working on the boat launch… the volunteers have acquired volunteers!  Their help was awesome and made the process move with exceptional speed; so much progress was made that day, it looked like with a little work the next day, all the ground would be leveled and the remaining geogrid would be installed.

 After cleaning up our tools, we spent a few hours fishing in the Echo Ponds once again.  Once again we had a slow start, but eventually things picked up and we bringing home a big dinner!

We were having so much success that two fishermen, who had a whole box full of tackle, decided they were not too proud to ask what we were using.  Funny thing was, this is all we had….

That evening, we had another exquisite dinner thanks to our guests!

Monday morning, we all headed to the boat launch once again (yay for excited and eager volunteers to the volunteers!).  We were able to finish laying the remaining geogrid, create a stone-lined walkway to the barge area, throw down grass seed, and lay jute on the areas adjacent to the walkways in order to help protect the soon to be growing seeds.  It was a great feeling of accomplishment to see so much progress!  There is some remaining work, but the bulk of it is complete!

We returned to the cabin with the promise of a hearty lunch from Justin and Theresa, and it was fulfilled!

Sweet Potatoes and Cuban Beans over Rice 

We also were lucky to finish our work and get back to the cabin and cleaned up before rain began.  Though, this rain was a welcome sign…. it was watering the grass seed we had just spread!  We spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying their last full day at the cabin.  We were in charge of dinner that night… roasted red pepper pizza!

On a foggy Tuesday morning, we all packed up to head back to Tanaina.  We would be joining Theresa and Justin in Denali National Park through Friday, and would be on our way as soon as we returned our things to the Ranger Station.  We left ourselves plenty of time to get to the north end of the park, expecting that it may take 5 hours, but Theresa and Justin crushed the paddling and portaging this time and we made it in just over three hours!

We quickly gathered our clothes and supplies for Denali, tossed them into their rental car, and we were on our way!

July 21, 2014: Kesugi Ridge Rampage

We decided that on this return from Butterfly Lake we would use our days off to hike the Kesugi Ridge Trail in Denali State Park.

“Kesugi” is a Tanaina Indian dialect word meaning “The Ancient One” and is a fitting complement of the Tanana Indian word “Denali” which means “The High One”. Denali is the original name for Mt. McKinley. At 20,320 feet, Mt. McKinley is North America’s highest peak. It literally and figuratively towers over Southcentral Alaska from its base in Denali National Park. —Denali State Park Website

 Many people have recommended that we hike this trail, so it was on our Alaskan to-do list.  The views from the ridge are supposed to be spectacular on clear days, and if you are lucky, Mt. McKinley (aka Mysterious Mr. McKinley, M3, Magnificent Mysterious Mr. McKinley, M4… our names from the trail go on and on…) will even be visible.  We decided we would hike the trail in the recommended direction of north to south, beginning at Coal Creek Trailhead and following the trail for 29+ miles to Byers Lake.  We only had one logistical problem to solve, the fact that this was an end to end hike and we only had one car.  Vic helped us out here, and recommended we get in touch with Caleb, a Denali State Park employee who might be able to pick us up at Byers Lake Campground and drive us the 17 miles north to the Coal Creek Trailhead to begin our backpacking trip.  After getting in touch and making arrangements, we were set!  Caleb would meet us at 9:00AM the next morning.  

After our weekly grocery run to Wasilla, we organized the gear for our overnight trip.  We filled our packs with sleeping bags, sleeping pads, puff jackets, rain gear, a camp stove and a pot, sporks, a water filter, headlamps, base layers, extra socks, meals and snacks, other small gear, and a toothbrush and toothpaste…. no one wants stinky breathe!  With our pack weighing about 25 and 30 pounds each, we were thrilled with how light they felt!  We haven’t carried packs in a while that weren’t full of a weeks worth of food or for a multi-day backpacking and/or climbing trip, so this really was a treat.  The standard recommendation for this trail is 2-4 days.  Based on our own experiences and also the amount of “free time” available we figured 2 days should be sufficient, we even toyed around with the idea of ditching most of the gear and making it a day hike.  However, since we haven’t been doing a lot of hiking recently, we decided to play it safe and plan for an overnight trip.  Our goal was to get a minimum of 15 miles in on Monday, and finish the remainder on Tuesday.
We woke up at 5:45 AM on Monday,  making sure we had time to eat a good breakfast and make coffee before hitting the road at 6:45 AM.  We also wanted to stop at a store along the way and pick up some fresh donuts as a thank you for our ride…who doesn’t like donuts?  Sadly, the store wasn’t opened when we arrived.  We arrived at Byers Lake Campground shortly before 8:30 and talked with the campground host about where we could park our truck.  Caleb met us at 9:00, we loaded our packs in the bed of his truck and we headed off for Coal Creek.  We enjoyed getting to talk with Caleb on the way to the trailhead, and also saw our first bears in Alaska!  A black bear sow with two cubs made their way across the road in front of us.  Sadly, our camera was in the bed of the truck!  None the less, we enjoyed watching the cute and tumbly cubs frolic across while mom looked on.
We signed into the nicest trail register station we have ever seen, and were hitting the trail at 10:00 AM.  We began on a very nice trail, that meandered upwards.  We knew we had 3.3 miles and 2,200 feet of elevation gain along the Little Coal Creek trail in order to reach the official start of the Kesugi Ridge Trail.  The trail had a few sections we thought we steep enough to really make our muscles work, but overall we did not find the ascent to be terrible.  

After reaching the ridge, the amazing views of the Alaskan Range appeared.  McKinley was hiding in a veil of clouds, and we could only get foggy views of him, but the other peaks were clear.  Traversing the ridge was fantastic hiking!  We were giddy with excitement over how easy the trail was so far and how spectacular the view.  You wanted to walk with your head turned to the right to keep watching the snowy mountain peaks.  We were feeling so great in fact, that we began discussing, once again, the idea of finishing the trail that day, and even heading to Talkeetna for celebratory caribou burgers.  In our minds, we were through the worst of it (gaining the ridge), we were making good time (we passed 3 other groups of hikers), and our bodies felt great.  The only negative was that one of Alex’s hiking poles had broken, so Dave donated his to her, and he hiked with only one.  We decided we would make up our minds after we reached the trail junction with the Ermine Hill Trail, about 14 miles from our start. 

 At Ermine Hill, around 3:45 PM, we met a tired and sweaty looking backpacker who was making his way up the trail from the South.  We exchanged information about what we had seen on our sections. We told him the trail was pretty easy, would have a few steep up/down sections, but overall was great.  He told us the trail would drop a lot of elevation into tight alder, muddy ground, and mosquitoes, before regaining the ridge, but after that it was clear sailing.  We then rounded a curve in the trail, and picked out a shady area along a rock wall to make a good lunch (more than the Lara Bars, trail mix, and dried fruit we had as snacks so far) since we decided we would aim to finish the trail that day.  We also took the opportunity to give our feet a break from the boots, and change out our sweaty socks for fresh ones. 

Feeling refreshed, after filling our bellies with a homemade dehydrated Mexican Beef backpacker meal (Thanks Joel!) and letting our feet take a breather we hit the trail once again at 5:00 PM.  The trail worked its way into some interesting rock formations,  before beginning a steep descent of nearly 1000 feet to the valley bottom. This area consisted of some of our most hated trail sections through tight trails choked with alder and swampy ground.  It also was the type of area along the trail where we made sure to talk loudly or just yell out random words to make our presence known to any bears lurking in the alder. During this time Alex was questioning (in her head) the feasibility of finishing the trail today, while Dave maintained confidence that the tent would not be pitched that night since Alex had already committed to completing the trail… though maybe now burgers would be out of the picture. 
The trail curved to the end of the next ridge before beginning to ascend once again towards the Skinny Lake camp area.  This section of trail was much nicer, especially once we hit the point where it was quite obvious the trail crew had ended their previous day of work.  We were expecting to run into the Denali trail crew at Skinny Lake; Caleb had mentioned to us that they were stationed there.  Around 7:00 PM, a large blue tarp came into view that marked their camp.  There were only two people at the camp, one of which was the trail crew leader who had picked us up from the airport in Anchorage.  We stopped and talked for a few minutes, and they told us we had around 10 miles to go in order to reach Byers Lake.  They told us we would have to summit the next mountain, reaching the high point of the southern section at 2,970′ know as “The Golog” from which we would be able to see Byers Lake a few miles in the distance.  

One of the MANY rock cairns along the already well worn trail
 Skinny Lake
Despite the mileage ahead of us, now that the alder choked valley was behind us, we were, once again, both feeling confident that we would complete the trail that night, but burgers were definitely not going to happen. Reaching the Golog involved several steep drops and climbs, some which again brought us through muddy pits and choking alder, but we were quickly through each of them, so they were not that bad. When we reached to Golog, we sat down for a few minutes to have a snack.  It was quite windy here and Alex donned her rain jacket to help break the wind that was blowing against her sweaty shirt and making her cold. 
The Golog!

From our perch on the Golog, shortly before 8:30 PM, Byers Lake was a welcome site. We estimated that we should easily be to the car before midnight.  We began our descent, with the anticipation of being off our feet becoming a close reality.  Alex was able to ward off blisters for most of the day, but within about the last 6 miles she began to feel one begin, while Dave’s hardy feet were getting sore, but blister free.  The terrain was rolling alpine tundra as we eagerly watched for the Cascade Trail junction that would let us know we were within four miles of the campground.  Over every high point we eagerly hoped it or the site of the now unseen Byers Lake to appear.  We stopped to filter water, and looked at our map.  It looked as if the sought after junction should be appear on the other side of the hill top in front of us.  And it was!  
Byers Lake… not as close at it looks!
Refreshed by again having water which we had gone several miles without, and knowing the remaining mileage our demeanors perked up.  The Alaskan Range’s foot hills became visible as trail began to descend to the valley. The combination of tiredness setting in, feet beginning to ache, and the very long, slowly descending, switchbacks made this a section of trail a piece we just wanted to be done with.  The switchbacks brought us into tight alder sections and water crossings that wandered through the valley curving back and forth, working their way closer to the lake.  Again came loud talking, random words, and clanging of hiking poles to be “bear aware” as dusk began to set in.  
As we reached the sign that told us we were 1.8 miles to the campground where our truck awaited our return, we were still doing our best to keep spirits high, but Alex was falling into a sore, tired, mumbling state, in which all concern fell on making noise to keep bears away as we followed the trail through the forest.  Dave did his best of clanking a rock against the one hiking pole he carried to appease her, though at this point all he could come up with was the tunes of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,”  and “Frosty the Snowman.”  Finally, the campground came into view, and we only had to walk a short distance to the boat launch area where we parked.  Your vehicle is always the most welcome site at the end of a long day, and we were joyous when it appeared at 1:00 AM.  We were both very excited at what we had accomplished in 15 hours, with packs whose contents and weight were mostly unused, as we pulled off our boots and donned comfy flip flops.  

Bridge on the Byers Lake Trail
With Alaskan days shortening, it was now pretty dark at 1:00 AM, and we realized for the first time that the tail lights in the truck did not work.  Hoping to make it back to the station without getting pulled over, Dave would lightly hold the break peddle down to engage the break lights whenever other cars were around.  Instead of caribou burgers, we had gas station chicken fingers and Gatorade’s as we made the drive back to the station.  It was 3:00 AM when we entered the gates and parked.  Though exhausted, hot showers sounded fantastic before gingerly and clumsily crawling up to our loft to sleep.

2014 – 07 – 17 – 20 – Week 5

Week 5 seemed to go very fast for us, probably because it was the first time we took our full two days off (plus a late start on Wednesday because of the dog sledding tour).  The highlight of this week was beginning work on the Butterfly Lake Boat Launch area.  Friday, a plane flew our supplies into our lake, unfortunately the process did not go as easily as Vic and we initially anticipated; the pilot was grumpy, not all the supplies fit on the plane, and our supplies were offloaded across the cove from where we really wanted to off load them.   It took a bit of work, and a few canoe trips to move our supplies from the soggy shore, into our boat, paddle across the cove, offload them onto a barge, then carry them to our storage area.

Since all the supplies did not make it on the plane, we hiked to the 2 miles to where Vic was parked with the truck and remaining supplies.  Dave grabbed a coconut hair core log, Alex a wheel barrel full of geogrid, Vic strapped a few pieces of geogrid to his pack, and off we all went down the muddy, rutty, former ATV trail for about 2 miles.  It was an interesting walk, but now we had most of what we needed at the work site; the remaining core logs and miscellaneous tools would wait until needed.  Together, we mapped out the final plan for the boat launch area and talked over details before Vic hiked out for the evening.

We ate dinner, then spent the evening boating around the lake with one of the private property owners we had run into earlier in the day, hearing about the animal hotspots, and local info about the lakes, and mauling the biggest bag of Doritos we had ever seen… it was from Costco!
Saturday morning, we had breakfast and coffee before heading over to the boat launch area to begin work.  We spent the morning digging stumps, roots, and rocks out of the ground, and clearing brush and trees after Vic arrived with a chainsaw.  By the end of the day we had accomplished clearing most of the area, beginning to grade the ground, and installing one of the core logs to help prevent erosion of the ground where the boats will enter and exit the lake.  The goal of this project is to get all the boats stored on land in order to help protect the shoreline fish habitats.

Our paddle out on Sunday went quickly…with no rain for a change!  Just as Alex was about to comment on not seeing any big wildlife this week, we saw a bull moose on the twisty shore of Jackknife Lake.

July 16, 2014 – Dream a Dream Sled Dogs

Wednesday morning, we packed up our supplies to head back to our cabin. As we were talking to Vic, Alex asked about suggestions of where to see dog sledding (we know there is no snow). Perfect timing! His neighbor and friend owns “Dream a Dream Dog Farm“, and does tours and talks about the Iditarod. Vic’s wife was going to be there with some family and Vern, the owner, invited volunteers to come along. Attending would delay our return to the cabin by several hours, but sounded well worth it… and it was! The tour began with a great video followed by a great presentation about the Iditarod, training, the dogs, and the gear. Vern has finished the Iditarod in the top 5 three times and top 10 eight times, so he has a wealth of knowledge to share.

Next, we went on a puppy hike around the property’s trails with a litter of 12 week old puppies. They were very eager to run with us and play fetch with sticks through the woods.

After the hike, we walked around and met the sled dogs, all 50 or so of them. The dogs are arranged into A-Team through B & C Teams with the best leading dogs closet to the front where all the people see and pet them first. The arrangement helps train all of the dogs to try to earn those prized lead spots. When a sled dog retires, it gets “the run of the place” and though it still has its designated house, it gets to wander around the yard and hangout wherever it chooses, sometimes even taking treats from the other dogs. All the sled dogs were super friendly and lovable!

Next, we got ready for a summer “sledding” run. The dogs were very excited when they saw the harnesses come out, all having that “Pick Me, Pick Me” demeanor. Vern picked 14 various dogs who had not been out for a run yet that day. A “summer” run involved the dogs harnessed up “pulling” an ATV. There excitement level and desire to pull and work together was incredible. We rode in a van to the 1/2 way point of their short trail, where the groups would switch and we would get on the ATV. We jumped in to help give the dogs their water dishes, since this was also a break for them.

Our trail took us through deep water which caused some mechanical difficulties, which the dogs wanted to ignore and pull through :-) When we arrived back at the farm, we also jumped in to help give more water and chunks of frozen salmon to each of the dogs.

We played with the sled dogs for a while before heading to the pen of 5 week old puppies. These lil guys would be joining an Iditarod pack for a musher who was training with Vern.

Dream a Dream Dog Farm was a great place to visit. The presentation and tour were amazing, and the huskies were very well taken care of and loved. It was already 4:30 PM when we left to head back to the station, we still needed to get dropped off at the canoe trailhead and paddle about 3 hours to our cabin…but the late start was worth it!

July 14 – 15, 2014 – Talkeetna and other day off activities

Rainbow(s) over the ranger station
On this front country return, we spent some time taking care of clerical business (like Alex working on her online course) and post office runs before heading out for some fun.  Between errands on Monday, we stopped by the Krazy Moose in Wasilla for lunch.  We shared a yummy 20” Italian hoagie and a delicious (still warm inside) chocolate chip cookie. The historic building that houses the deli is all decked out in a moose themed decor and was fun to check out.
Later that evening, after all tasks were complete, we decided to ride the ranger station’s resident bikes (abandoned…. err… donated by former volunteers??) to Willow for some ice cream from the same gas station (the same gas station we previously waited an hour for burgers).  We rode the 3.5 miles on the trail that parallels the road on our bikes as the roughly shifted gears over the mostly flat to rolling terrain.  A set of trails parallels the highway, one for bikes/pedestrians, and another for ATV’s. After devouring our huge ice creams, which the server seemed just excited at giving to us as we were to eat them, we headed back towards the station.  Since it was so nice out yet, we decided to pedal a mile or two further past the station before turning back and heading for bed. 

Tuesday morning, we hopped into our truck (yes, it is still running like a champ), and headed to Talkeetna, about 46 miles to the north.  Talkeetna is an interesting little town that is part tourist attraction, part base town for Denali climbers.  We heard good things about the Talkeetna Roadhouse, so we took a seat at one of the family style tables with some older folks who were on vacation.  We chatted with them and threw jabs around about our home state college football teams while we waited for our breakfast.  We had decided the two of us would share a full order of biscuits and gravy, a pancake (of giant proportions) topped with mixed berries, and a reindeer sausage link.  The food looked amazing, it tasted amazing as well, and we thoroughly cleaned our plates!

We walked around town for a bit checking out the gift shops and artwork before heading over to K2 Aviation.  We heard from other volunteers that they offer discounted flights for state park volunteers if willing to fly standby (not knowing if and when an empty seat will be available on the 8 person planes).  We waited patiently for several hours, hearing the “ooohs and aaahs” of returning fliers, and the eager discussions of fliers anticipating if the cloudy weather would permit a glacier landing. 
As the day crept on, we hoped we would be able to fly, and both set in our minds that if only one seat opened up, we would give it to the other.  Fortunately for us, we were both able to get on a flight, and it was even the same one!  Despite the dropping cloud ceiling, we had amazing, beautiful views, that pictures don’t do justice.  The path of the glaciers, the details of the crevasses, the stunning blue of the frozen water, and the granite walls were breathtaking. Poor weather kept us from having a glacier landing, but even still, the flight was worth the 6+ hours we waited.

 

Our pilot, Chip, was great and very informative.  We had the opportunity to talk to him for a while before we knew we would be getting on a flight.  We talked about Alaska, being a pilot, his other work as a trainer for wilderness EMT and wilderness first responder, and what we were doing as volunteers.  After having those great conversations, we were excited to be on his flight.

After landing, we realized how hungry we were, so we headed over to the West Rib, for dinner.  Dave (easily) talked Alex into ordering the giant 4 pound burger and pound of fries (Sewards Folly).  Not only was it huge, but it was also delicious!  We finished the “top half,” put the remainder in a box and headed back to Nancy Lake.     

Week 4 – July 8 – 13, 2014

This week, we spent a lot of our time clearing portages of brush, downed trees, and trees leaning perilously over the trail.  Initially we would have the conversation, “Such and such a portage shouldn’t take long too long… it’s pretty clear” and then several hours later we would realize how much time actually passed since we started. 
The worst instance of this, thus far, occurred on Saturday.  We planned on paddling up through Lynx Lake, spreading our backcountry host presence through the park.  We figured we would also work on the portage to Little Frasier for sure, and perhaps a portage or two after it depending on how things went.  “I think we can just take the loppers… I don’t think we really have anything big to clear,” said Alex.  Dave suggested the bow saw might as well come along anyways, and we were glad that it did.  20+ fallen, falling, or dead trees later, the bow saw was greatly used that day.    

Though it is work that leaves you sweaty, tired and sore at the end of the day, it is rewarding to see the progress we are making.
Temporary fix for a muddy mess…. that mud is DEEP!
Week 4 also brought an increase in animal sightings… really good animal sightings! 
On our way in from the front country on Tuesday, we saw a bald eagle in the trees along the curvy Jacknife Lake.  We thought this was an awesome sighting until later in the week we had the opportunity to watch a bald perched majestically near our portage off Butterfly Lake.  He was much closer than the eagle on Jacknife and hopefully would provide better photos than the blurry results from Tuesday’s encounter.  We were able to take some pretty good pictures (if we do say so ourselves) as we floated near the shore for about 20 minutes before he took flight.
The moose were also out this week!  On Wednesday, as we were sitting in the cabin reading, Dave excitedly exclaims “There is a moose swimming in the lake!”  Sure enough, there was a big moose head and ears floating determinedly towards our shore.  Sadly, it did not choose to exit the water at our boat landing area, but in the woods adjacent to it.

Friday’s moose sighting all happened thanks to a mistake.  Tiredly paddling across Charr Lake after clearing the three portages between Lynx Lake and James Lake, Alex says “I wonder where that water way goes?”  Dave responds with “Probably to another part of the lake.”  Profound… yes.  We round a corner expecting to see our portage, but instead see a young bull moose on the shore.  We excitedly, yet calmly, slow our canoe and scurry for the camera, sure that the moose will run.  Instead, the moose provided us with 30 minutes of viewing pleasure.  Every so often it would pause from its grazing of plants to make sure we were keeping a reasonable distance, and then continue on eating.  

Later, in Lynx Lake, a loon let us paddle amazingly close to it, providing us with yet more fantastic viewing and photo taking opportunities.   
Friday, also happened to be Dave’s 30thbirthday, so all these animal sightings were of course thoughtfully arranged by Alex as his present! :o)  In addition to the animals, Alex also made Dave a “chocolate vinegar cake” with a peanut butter swirl.  It is an interesting recipe (who puts vinegar in a cake???) but quite tasty!  
Getting every scrap of cake batter… no worries… no eggs! 

Here is the recipe in case you would like to give it a try:
Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup warm water
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
Peanut butter
Directions:
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Mix dry ingredients together to lighten the flour—no need to sift.  Make a well in dry ingredients and add wet ingredients. Mix well. If the batter isn’t very loose add just a bit more warm water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you get a thin batter. This will make a very moist cake.
  3. Pour into an 8- or 9-inch square pan.
  4. Place a few dollops of peanut butter on the top of the batter, then run a knife through several times in each direction to distribute.
  5. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. 

A few other highlights of the week included finishing our puzzle (at one point we were perched on top of the table like owls working on it… sadly there are no pictures of that scene), spotting several large groups of grouse, and baking more chocolate peanut butter goodness.

July 7, 2014 – Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine

Monday morning we realized we would not be camping or backpacking because our warmer sleeping bags, puff jackets, and water filter were still at the Butterfly Lake Cabin.  Instead, we would head to Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine State Historical Park to day hike.  Before having some fun, however, we would need to make a stop at the DMV to tie up the loose ends of our new vehicle.  DMV’s are notoriously terrible, but surprisingly, this went pretty smoothly and efficiently! Wooho!

After leaving the DMV in Wasilla, we drove north towards Hatcher Pass.  We stopped first at Independence Mine, which is a historical site, preserving the history of the early days of gold mining in Southern Alaska

Next, we continued on through to Hatcher Pass’s dirt road.  We knew this was the most direct route to return to the ranger’s station, and the most scenic, but also a “very bumpy dirt road.” Apparently all the heinous dirt “roads” that we have taken cars on before (the kind that require all passengers and gear to get out of the car or the kind that require large rocks to be moved) have given us a “different” view of what a rough road is, so we found this to be pretty nice.

Along the way, we stopped to hike April Bowl Trail.  This was nice little hike along a ridgeline to the top of Hatch Peak with beautiful views all around.

 

After coming of the ridge, we headed back towards Nancy Lake, but not before stopping for a cheeseburger in paradise.  Previously, the trail crew guys from Denali spoke of a pretty good cheeseburger for $7.00, but the only catch was it might take an hour to make and serve.  It took the hour to make and serve and it was a tasty treat, along with fantastic people watching.

Week 3: June 30 – July 7, 2014

Bunny outside the ranger station

Monday was spent at the station as a day off, getting caught up on the blog, various necessary clerical issues of the “real world,” and searching Craigslist for a cheap but reliable vehicle to get us around Alaska sites more easily (ideally from a seller that fits the “non-sketchy folks” category).  Tuesday morning, we got a ride to the Tanaina Boat launch from the trail crew, and headed out to begin another week of “work.”

Butterfly Lake at sunset

Week 3 brought with it a busy holiday weekend and many people out enjoying the lakes on canoes, kayaks, motorboats, barges, water skis, boards and floats.  The weather was fantastic pretty much everyday.  Temperatures even rose to the 80’s on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  Animal sightings both large and small have been more frequent.  We have spotted two more moose; one walking behind our cabin to get water from the lake and another in the woods as we were crossing a portage from Buckley Lake to Candlestick Lake.

Butterfly Lake

Alaskan Wood Frog
Grouse

Aside from paddling around the lakes, checkin on PUC’s, campsites, and being a general “backcountry host” presence, we finished up a few projects.   With more TimberLoks, we were able to finish securing the remaining boards on the portage between Lynx Lake and Echo Ponds.  This is a portage that we use very frequently, so WE are also very happy to have it in great condition!

 Skeetna Lake

We were also able to finish clearing the remaining fallen trees from the portage to the Little Susitna River from Skeetna Lake.  This portage has probably consumed over 24 man hours of work.  We are thrilled to see it looking clear of ALL the fallen trees, including the large birch that had fallen near the end of the trail.

On the “relaxation” side of things, we started a 2000 piece puzzle which we realized was too large for our tables, so we were prompted to make a “puzzle board” for it.  We have also been cranking away at reading books, and have found our dock is a perfect location on a nice day.

Puzzles and “from skratch” hot chocolate

Fishing continues to go well, we pretty much fish until we decide we have enough, otherwise it seems like an endless supply.  We have decided the fish bite so quickly that we should only use one rod at a time, which keeps the other person free to man the net.   We take turns with the rod, every time we catch a fish we switch roles.  One day this week we caught eight 12-16″ pike that cooked up into a tasty dinner.

Today, Sunday, was the worst weather of the week.  It was cooler and rained allllll day.   We pretty much got rained on the entire time we were paddling to Tanaina for our pick-up.  Thank goodness for rain gear!  Despite the rainy weather, there was no wind, but LOTS of mosquitos.  They were out with a vengeance.

After returning to the station and becoming fit to return to the civilized world, we waited for a park truck to be available so we could head to Wasilla for our weekly re-supply of food.  We also made plans to meet with a guy selling his 1983 F150.  Fortunately for us, the truck was in good shape for its age, the seller seemed like a legitimately nice guy who was moving to Colorado and took our offer.  So we are now looking like real Alaskans with our “hoopty” as Ranger Drew called it.  After taking care of the paperwork tomorrow, we plan on heading to Hatcher Pass for some camping and hiking.

Week 2: June 23 – 29, 2014

Monday, June 23rd

After waking up and taking advantage of the availability of a shower again, we packed our clean clothes and supplies into our dry bags.  We were dropped off at Tanaina Lake, the same place we were picked up the previous day.  We knew our bags were very heavy, weighed down with 15 cans of veggies, various bags of dry foods, and fresh fruit and veggies, in addition to clothes, fishing gear, and tools, so we decided we would walk the bags through the portages first, then carry the canoe through.  This meant three times the walking, but in the end we were happy with our choice.  The weather was also in our favor, with just a light breeze, which kept the lakes calm.

As we made our way through the last couple of lakes and ponds before our cabin, we kept an eye on the water looking for fish.  We saw many northern pike, including a couple that looked close to three feet long.  We would never catch one of those… but even a smaller one would provide a great meal.  Northern pike are an invasive species in this part of Alaska, wreaking havoc on the trout and salmon populations, so if you catch one you do not want, you are supposed to kill it before throwing it back in deep water.

Excited at the fishing prospects we saw in the Echo Ponds and Candlestick Lake, we decided to save ourselves some portaging by locking up the canoe between Candlestick and Buckley Lakes.  We would walk our packs along the Butterfly Lake trail to our cabin, eat a late lunch, unpack, get the fishing gear ready then walk back out to fish.  Great plan, but wow… that trail felt a lot longer with the awkward, heavy, packs.

Sadly, a storm rolled in that didn’t seem to want to let up.  Around 6:00PM it was still raining, so we decided we would just put our plans on hold until the morning.  Later in the evening, after an impromptu nap, Dave suggested we get ready to go to bed, and was heading outside to use the “facilities.”  Somehow, this turned into putting on his muck boots, and grabbing a fishing rod… Sadly, the end result was only a lost lure and a few new mosquito bites.

Tuesday, June 24th

After what has become our normal morning routine, breakfast, coffee, and reading, we headed out with our fishing gear to retrieve the canoe and hopefully catch a fish or two.

Loons

We didn’t see much until we got into Echo Pond #2.  Pretty quickly Dave had a bite by about a 14″ pike that got away with one of the “little trout” lures.  After retying another lure and casting again, Dave was going to clear some plants that got caught of the lure, but spied two pike near the boat, so instead, he just pulled his line near the boat.  BAM!  A BIG pike took it.  Alex missed him with the net at first pass, but managed to get him on the second, while being very thankful that the line or rod did not snap.  Not only did the pike snatch up the lure, but it also had another fish in its mouth!  The other fish was about 2 feet long!  Alex struggled to get the fish in the boat, but finally succeeded, though in the process is let go of the smaller fish.

Giddy with excitement, we headed to shore with a slimey, 3 foot pike.  What were we going to do with such a big fish???  Once on shore, Dave gutted the fish, while Alex made lots noise to deter any wildlife that might want to take our dinner.

 

 Once back at camp, we prepped out fish for cooking, and had a very filling and delicious meal.  We relaxed for the rest of the day, and went to sleep that night laughing over and reliving the day’s fishing adventure.

 

Wednesday, June 25th

We woke up to a very dreary and rainy day.  During a lull in the rain, we decided we would head out to continue working on the very messy portage between Skeetna Lake and the Little Su.  After well over three hours of clearing what seemed like endless fallen spruce trees, we finally arrived at the river!  Soaked, cold, hungry, and tired, we hung some flagging to make the take out more obvious to boaters on the river, before heading back to the cabin with dreams of food, dry clothes, and a warm fire.  We did get to see our lake loons and a bald eagle before getting back to the cabin.

Thursday, June 26th

The day brought nothing but steady, heavy rain.  So we stayed inside and enjoyed a day filled with coffee, reading, tea, reading, and warm fires throughout.

Friday, June 27th

Though it was still raining, we wanted to paddle around and check on all the PUC’s today.  We waited for the rain to lighten before heading out.  The work went quickly and easily… portaging was getting easier and faster!  Since we were done so quickly, we decided to check out the last unexplored area of the canoe trail, James Lake to Javit Lake to Lynx Creek to Lynx Lake.  This also made Dave happy because it cut out a large portion of paddling on Lynx Lake that he often did not like.

James Lake to Javit Lake was pretty easy, thought the trail definitely needs some clearing.  After paddling across Javit Lake, the trail to Lynx Creek was very pretty, but turned very messy and slick, which caused Alex to slip and slide to the point of her boot getting stuck in between two roots.  Once to Lynx Creek, things looked promising, even though we had to paddle upstream.  However, the creek became very shallow at times, so we were often in and out of the boat to get it though shallow areas and beaver dams.  We headed back to the cabin having had a simple day that turned into a fun adventure!

Alex ready to beat any beavers that cause us trouble.

Lots of baby ducks! 

Saturday, June 28th

We enjoyed a delicious breakfast, coffee, and logic puzzles, before paddling to meet Vic at the Lynx Lake Boat Launch.  He was bringing us supplies we needed to fix the portage between Lynx Lake and Echo Ponds.  The portage currently had many loose boards floating on water, and a few missing or submerged boards.  Along the way, we saw something making big splashes in the water.  It turned out to be a beaver swimming and playing along the shore of Lynx Lake!  We stopped and watched for a while before continuing on.

After gathering our supplies from Vic, and filling our canoe with ten 8′ pressure treated boardwalk planks, and three 4×4’s, we slowly made our way back down the lake.

We worked for several hours, in the beautiful weather (we hadn’t seen the sun in days because of all the rain!), until we ran out of fasteners.  In the end the portage was much better than it was before, but more work would be needed once we had more fasteners.  We enjoyed the day of work and also getting to see a few groups of people utilize the area.  Most stopped to chat for a bit and one offered to take our picture.

 No more missing boards!
Since we had so much material to take back to the cabin for other projects, we were glad to see that all the heavy rain had made a nearby usually impassible floating portage open again, cutting our portages for the day down to two.  With so much material, we would have to take several trips carrying materials across each portage before we could carry the boat across.  As we made our way across the Echo Ponds, the sky was turning stormy, so we decided that we would stash our materials in the woods between Buckley Lake and Butterfly Lake, and make the final portage with materials tomorrow morning.  Exhausted from the days work, we slept well that night.
Sunday, June 29th

We woke up and retrieved the materials we stashed yesterday before we had breakfast.  It was tiring work, since the portage between Buckley and Butterfly is long, muddy, and messy, but it felt good to have the work taken care of.  After breakfast we packed up to head to Tanaina Lake to be picked up and brought back to the ranger station for a day or so.  We checked and cleaned up campsites along the way and still made great time.. under 3 hours!  As we were nearing the edge of Tanaina Lake, we had the awesome experience of having a loon swim fairly close to us, and when it dove under water, it swam underneath our boat, it was so cool to see!  After getting back to the station, we had showers, did laundry, and headed to Wasilla to resupply for the week.