Driving Past Denali to Go Pet Reindeer

750_3840After our fabulous day of hiking through the rain in Denali, we woke up for our final morning in Denali and packed up for our drive back to Wasilla. Two full days in Denali simply wasn’t enough, but we had so much else to see during our trip. Breakfast consisted of our now standard bacon, eggs, toast and coffee/milk. Brinn helped me to knock out our breakfast dishes and prep some sandwiches for our long drive ahead. We loaded down the  Sequoia and pulled away from Denali Outdoor Center for the final time, and decided that we couldn’t drive straight through without one last stop in the park.

750_3657Gary agreed to a short stop by the visitor center and decided to stay behind and rest while Brinn, Ian, and I set out for a quick hike back down to Riley Creek. We started on the McKinley Station trail again, but quickly cut down a side trail to go straight to the water. Like the day before, we passed piles and piles of moose poop everywhere. No bear threatened our quick jaunt, and we returned to the parking lot within two hours to resume our journey south.

Along the drive, we began discussing our options for the day’s entertainment. We were 750_3880travelling to Wasilla in order to break up our long drive to the Kenai peninsula, but we’d already spent some time in Wasilla on our first day in Alaska. We’d seen the places we wanted to see there, but with all the daylight, we’d have plenty of day to fit in activity. A quick shuffle through the many brochures we’d picked up earlier in the week presented some ideas, and we decided to cut over to Palmer to visit the reindeer farm. A friend of Brinn’s had told us about visiting this farm with his wife on their trip to Alaska, so it seemed like a solid choice.

750_3881To reach The Reindeer Farm, we drove through south on Alaska 3, then jumped on Alaska 1. It was a bit different to have so few highways that all had such low numbers, but it sure did make directions easy. Like everywhere else we traveled, the views on the drive were stunning. Once we reached Palmer, we drove past the Alaska State Fairground. We continued driving through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and decided this is an area we could easily see ourselves living in. Cell signal was strong here, there were plenty of shopping/dining options, the mountain views were spectacular, and the weather seemed ideal.  The fair ground could provide regular entertainment along with the many outdoor options.

 

Pulling in at the reindeer farm, we quickly discovered many other animals in residence. 750_3836Some cute quarter horses stood patiently in their pens munching on hay while waiting for trail riders to rent them out. Ian didn’t immediately discover the rabbit in his hutch, but he sure did spot the chicken coop. We fly all the way to Alaska, drove thousands of miles to see native animals and stunning landscapes, and Ian showed more enthusiasm to snuggle with a chicken than anything else. 750_3850At least he’s consistent… We paid our $40 admission fee for the four of us, then we began our tour with the many skulls on display. After an anatomy lesson and some background information about the farm, our guide took us out into the reindeer pen where we were quickly badgered by quivering lips for the grain we received with our admission.

The farm keeps the reindeer in a large paddock together and allow guests to come right 750_3861inside with the deer. We learned all about the cycle of horn growth including velvet, hardening, and shedding. All the deer were in velvet as we were there in early July, and they were extremely touchy about their antlers. I assumed that they would be itchy as they shed their velvet, but our guide explained that in fact the shedding velvet actually made the horns very sensitive. All the deer were still shedding out their shaggy winter coats, and loved back scratches. Ian had trouble escaping some hungry deer as he was right at their level for grain thieving. Understandably, he preferred hanging out with the babies.

750_3902After we hung out with the deer and fed out all of our goodies, the tour moved us next to meet Rocky the moose. Rocky was a rescue that the Department of Fish and Game had rehomed with the reindeer farm as a baby. We got to meet him during his lanky “teenager” phase. The farm provided us with fresh-cut tree branches to feed Rocky, and Ian soon found himself in a tug of war match with a Moose who easily outweighed him about 15 times over.

After chatting with Rocky, we moved on down to meet some elk. They also enjoyed 750_3918stripping the leaves off of tree branches, and eagerly crowded the fence to snatch bites. We weren’t allowed inside the pens with the moose and elk like we were with the reindeer, but we were still able to get some pats and scratches through the fencing.  Once we finished with the elk, our tour was over, and we were allowed to wander around the farm at our leisure. This is when Ian found the chicken coop and quickly gained permission to enter it and sneak in some chicken cuddles. He tried to cuddle with the rabbit a bit, but he wasn’t quite as enthused as the chickens were.

750_3924Once we pulled Ian out of the chicken coop and we all had a good scrub, we loaded back up into the Sequoia in search of food. After a quick google survey of our options, we ended up at the Noisy Goose Cafe. I loved this place! I’m not sure that my dad was quite taken with it, but I also ordered a bit more simply than he did. He and Brinn ordered fish most places we went, which I get (when in Rome…), but as a non-fish eater, I tended to order whatever I was feeling for the day. On this day I

Pie

Image taken from foursquare.com

went with a bowl of chili and split a piece of chocolate pie with Ian. The pie case at this place bowled me over. So many options! Brinn enjoyed a giant slice of pecan pie, his favorite, while my dad dug into a big wedge of strawberry rhubarb. Rhubarb seems to be the plant of choice in Alaska. We encountered rhubarb pie many places. After cramming down as much pie as we cold, we finally drug ourselves back outside to backtrack to Wasilla, our final destination for the evening. So once again, we wrapped up another incredibly long day filled with multiple destinations and experiences.

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Hiking Through Denali

750_3553After our peaceful float past Denali on the Nenana River, DOC delivered us back to our cabin at the Otto Lake outpost. We all took a hot shower and changed into some warm clothes and prepared to enjoy another ridiculously long day. We hit the Three Bears grocery store in Healy where we stocked up on all the items we needed to cook our own meals for the next two and a half days.

Cooking our own meals was a bit more work, but if you factor in the time and bother of looking up a place to eat, driving, waiting, eating, then driving back to our lodgings, the work ended up taking less time than paying someone else to cook for us. This also considerably reduced the cost of our meals, so we splurged and had ribeyes the evening of our rafting trip. Once we returned back to Otto Lake, I had to label all of our food items before placing them in the shared refrigerator and on the counters. I tossed a few potatoes in the oven, prepped a salad, and settled in with a good book on my kindle with a lakeside view to enjoy some chill time while Brinn and Ian explored the lake and fished.

750_3547Cleanup after dinner took hardly any time at all, so we were soon off to explore the campground portion of the outpost and marvel in the mountain views. To no one’s surprise, the day got away from us again and before we knew it evening was over and we were looking at 9:00 PM again, yet the sky was as bright as it was at 2:00 PM. We got Ian settled in for bed with Steele and Ferd, and headed back to the kitchen to prep some sandwiches and pack a few snacks for our next Denali adventure.

The next morning dawned a bit more drizzly, but no less beautiful than the previous two41709934_2111695022493880_5912811292342616064_n mornings, and we were up early to cook breakfast in the communal kitchen. The other family using the kitchen were up even earlier than us, so they’d already finished cooking and eating before we made it up there, so we did’t have to fight over the large skillet for frying bacon and eggs. After a big breakfast, a few dishes, and several cups of coffee for the boys, we were all dressed warmly with backpacks stuffed full of water and bear mace and rain coats thrown over our arms. We hopped in the Sequoia and headed for the Denali Visitor Center.

41741872_1974800962829191_8973303875352133632_nA quick conversation at the front desk laid our options for the day, and we quickly decided to hop on a bus bound for the kennels. On our way across the park, we saw another mama moose crossing the road with babies. The excitement of the moose was starting to wear off just a little bit… Two days earlier we got to meet some of the dogs who had competed in the Iditarod. Now we would get to meet the working dogs who provided transportation around the park during the winter months. We learned that these dogs were bred to be much bigger as power was more important than speed when hauling scientific research equipment. Indeed, these dogs were huge! They were also very personable, and we were allowed to pet several of them before watching their demonstration.

After walking through the kennels, while discouraging Ian from showing Steele to the 750_3579park dogs (he didn’t seem to grasp that Steele looked like a very desirable chew toy), we made our way through the rain to the covered seating to watch the demonstration. The drizzle waited until the presenting ranger began his speech, and then turned into a full on deluge. He laughed and soldiered on with his descriptions of the park kennel, its purpose, and functions. We learned that some areas of the park are restricted from all forms of pollution and no one is allowed to snow mobile in, even if they need to collect data for an ongoing research project. That’s where the dogs come in. We also learned that these dogs are bred with very specific traits in mind. One of those is for small feet with little webbing between their toes. Small feet move more easily across the ice crust on the top of deep snow, and webbed feet can accumulate ice pack that will hurt and slow a dog. Tight toe configuration helps prevent this. I don’t guess a sub zero dog has much need for a swimmer’s physique.

750_3602 - CopyWhen the rangers were ready to show us how they hook the dogs up to sleds, the entire kennel came awake. Dogs went from laying flat on their sides with their tongues hanging out of their mouths to jumping against the kennel doors and barking like mad. The handlers had to bring the dogs out on their back legs because otherwise, in their excitement, they are simply too strong and could knock a grown man over easily. Each dog kangaroo hopped its way to the cart it would pull, and we learned about what type of dog is needed for each position in the pulling hierarchy, 750_3570including where the novice runners would usually start at. After harnessing everyone up, the handlers then clipped the dogs to a ring in the ground the keep them stationary until the whole production was ready to roll. Once the dogs were unclipped from the rings, they were off! Like the Iditarod dogs, these showed complete enthusiasm for their job and showed pure joy as they lapped the dirt loop around the kennel area. We laughed and cheered for the furry exhibitors, then pulled our raincoats back on as we made our way to the buses that would return us to the visitor’s center.

41688129_242754476399020_1946886624914702336_nUpon our return, we hit the gift shop to pickup some souvenirs, visited the coffee shop for a hot drink to knock of the edge, then made our way back to the Sequoia to plan our afternoon. We each had a sandwich and some chips, and then we headed to the visitors’ center to tour the displays. We particularly found the map of the park and mountain range impressive, but Ian liked the pull out drawers that showed interesting science information, like what animals sleep beneath the surface of the earth, and what is below the permafrost. We wondered around for 30 minutes or so, then we set out to hit the trails.

McStationTrail-Map-556This was what I’d most looked forward to while planning our trip: hiking in Denali. We slipped out the side door of the bottom floor of the visitors’ center and quickly found ourselves faced with multiple trail options. After some deliberation, we decided to take the McKinley Station trail, which was listed as a mild 1.6 mile trail. We didn’t realize initially that this was a one way distance, nor the so many trails intersected so often. We had already topped of our water bottles, hung our bear mace on the sides of our back packs, zipped up our rain coats, made sure Steele was tucked away safe and dry in Ian’s rain coat, and headed on down the trail.

DCIM100GOPROBlack spruce and white spruce both abounded in every direction. Within a matter of minutes we had lost sight of the visitors’ center and found ourselves completely alone in the forest. A few more minutes down the trail and Ian stopped us. “Mama, Dad, do you smell that?” We all stopped and breathed deeply and failed to smell anything. Ian explained, “It just smells so fresh!” And indeed, it did. No hint of car exhaust, or food, or human waste. We simply breathed cool, fresh air. Initially the only sound we could hear came from the soft, almost silent drizzle of rain against the trees, but eventually the sound of running water became stronger. After 20 minutes of hiking and a brief descent, we came to Hines Creek. We waded out into the DCIM100GOPROcreek bed for some photos and to hunt for unique rocks. Ian enjoyed throwing rocks and watching the splash. He also enjoyed sticking his fingers in the water then holding them to the back of my neck. Here is where I discovered my combination of water proof socks and Astral loyaks make a killer combination for wet hiking. I had great traction, kept dry feet, and the drain ports in my shoes kept 41658988_904325639758768_5846653398526459904_nthem from getting super heavy. After some splashing, we followed the creek to our first water crossing where we briefly reconnected with civilization as we saw the train trestle in the distance and were able to watch a train go past. Ian volunteered to take some of the pictures so that Brinn and I could have a few with the two of us together. Great job, Ian!

After crossing over Hines Creek, we left the water for a time and wondered back away DCIM100GOPROfrom the train and people. Our phone gopro batteries began to drop, and we told ourselves to save the juice, but everything we came across looked photo worthy. Eventually we came to our second water crossing: Riley Creek. After crossing the bridge, we followed the water some ways, but eventually Ian’s little legs gave out on him. We stopped for a break overlooking the water and soldiered on, but Ian fatigued again, so Brinn hefted him 41699766_2181754212113982_5904917949906419712_nup onto his shoulders. Brinn and I continued on for another quarter mile or so, but turned around when we realized that Ian had fallen asleep! He was riding Brinn’s shoulders like a little bobble head. We took care to avoid low hanging limbs and worked our way back to the bridge over Riley Creek. We climbed under the bridge here and settled in out of the rain to all take a break and let Ian catch a short nap. Without the steady movement of Brinn’s walking, Ian’s nap didn’t last long, and he was soon ready to move on. After crossing back over the creek, we opted to follow a new trail which took us up a fairly steep climb. Ian climbed back on Brinn’s shoulder 41815241_242687426394372_8828874059447009280_nand took the easy seat for the majority of the climb. He also drained all of our water bottles dry and used the remaining battery up on both of our phones and the gopro. Here is where I learned that my Astrals are not as great for dry hiking. I always had great traction, but the thin soles that let me grip loose ground let me feel everything on hard ground. After a while, I began to feel every single rock we crossed over, and started to regret leaving my chacos behind.

41675804_512482389196628_1068464417294778368_nEventually we made our way back to the visitors’ center where we reconnected with my dad and made our way back to McKinley Park to hit the gift shops. We wondered from shop to shop, picking out cute tee shirts for ourselves and our friends, and a new Christmas ornament for Ian to bring home. We found caribou summer sausage, gourmet popcorn, donuts, and coffee. After an hour or so of shopping, we were wiped and ready to head back to our cabin. At this point the rain moved out and the sun reappeared. Figures, right? But we decided that we didn’t care. The rain actually ended up helping us have a great day:

  1. 41675003_253069618735627_4483615410830180352_nNo mosquitoes! So long as the rain kept up, the mosquitoes stayed away. We made it through our entire hike without one single winged invader interrupting our peace.
  2. No people! We only passed two other hikers the entire time we were in the woods. It really added to the whole experience to have the trails and creeks to ourselves.
  3. No heat! We didn’t overheat and sweat at all during our hike. With the lowered air temp from the rain, along with the awesome air quality, we were able to hike longer without tired legs or winded lungs. If we had not had little legs, I believe we could’ve comfortably gone all day.

41736240_261034694750875_2683673240747900928_nHiking in Denali confirmed my suspicions –this was an absolute must for our trip and I loved it every bit as much as I’d hoped I would. While there are a few things I would have planned differently had I known better, hiking Denali is not one of them. I loved the trails that we selected along with the weather and the overall experience. This particular outing is one we will repeat for sure.

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Back Stacking at Double Trouble

So I did a couple of things Sunday that I haven’t done since my pre-Ian years. The first one was absolutely amazing. For the first time in seven years, I kayaked the Ocoee with my husband. Then we locked our boats in the bed of the truck and jumped in the raft, which we intentionally flipped, something else I haven’t done since becoming a mother.

My driving force in getting through my lessons with Ace Kayaking this summer was to be able to get back onto the Ocoee consistently with Brinn. Before having Ian, we used to go out regularly. Granted, Brinn basically had to hold my hand on those trips, and I always walked around Tablesaw. Nonetheless, I was able to put in at the rails or Staging Eddy (whichever had a parking spot open) and mostly make it down the river with Brinn. I had mishaps for sure, including swims at Surprise (my most hated rapid on the entire Ocoee) and even at Powerhouse (because I’m special like that), but I was out there. After becoming pregnant, I quit paddling altogether for two years, and it was nothing like riding a bike. Not much came back to me naturally.

So here I am, seven years later, taking lessons and plaguing Brandon with the worst student of his teaching career. A few weeks ago I went back for my last lesson, and worked with Jake, another great instructor at ACE. I don’t think I gave Jake quite as much of a headache as I did Brandon, but I still found ways to amaze him with my ineptitude… like when he wanted me to leave the eddy above Moon Chute and surf across a wave to ferry over above the rapid. I left the eddy…and started to ferry onto my surf, but my bow was too high, and the current rejected me. I should’ve have gone back to my eddy and came in again, with a lower angle, but nope, I tried to plow on through, so I blew right past my surf, and then past Jake, and ran the whole thing backwards and caught an eddy below Moon Chute where I waited in chagrin for Jake to come find me.

Regardless of my mishaps with Jake, he somehow managed to cram some new information into my brain and help me build on the skills Brandon had initially installed, and now kayaking isn’t quite as scary as it has been for the last five years. But for weeks now, we’ve wanted to go rafting. I think I forgot to mention this, but we bought a new raft this year! After saving for the last few years, and sacrificing most of our tax return, we finally bought the Super Puma we’ve had our eye on for years. More about that another day. We have this awesome new raft, and we’ve only had it out two times all spring and summer long. Rafts aren’t meant to stay dry. It needed to be on the Ocoee surfing. So Brinn and I finally had a Sunday that wasn’t accounted for. I didn’t have kayaking lesson, neither of us had a rescue course, and we hadn’t scheduled to go with a group to a different river. It looked like we finally had a day we could hit the Ocoee with our tree frog green raft. Except I realized that I kind of wanted to kayak. On the Ocoee! I thought I was starting to burn out a little bit after 5 lessons and multiple trips outside of lessons. But when we started planing our day without Ian, I realized that I really wanted to get back out there again. So we decided to do both!

Once we started our ungodly early drive to the Ocoee, which was even earlier than planned because someone mistakenly set his alarm for 4:00 AM…, my nerves started to build and make themselves evident. I won’t say I regretted asking Brinn if we could kayak first, but I was starting to worry a bit going out for my first post-Ian non-lesson trip down the Ocoee. Then I received a response text from our beloved Mrs. Anderson who completely changed my perspective on the situation. I hope she doesn’t mind that I’m sharing her words: “Don’t worry. You will have a wonderful day. What a blessing to paddle with your husband.” I immediately shared her text with Brinn, who drove in silence for a bit as we both thought about Dr. Anderson for a few miles and how much we miss him. And how much more Anne must miss him every day, especially when we beg her to join us on the rivers that she paddled frequently with him for years. Anne was right. I’m extremely blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to paddle with my husband anytime that I want, and I should absolutely take that opportunity whenever it presents itself. So I went to the river stronger and more thankful.

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People often wonder why I am so reluctant to go boating without Brinn. I mean, I managed to paddle for months before I met him, so why couldn’t I do it now? Because I’m a dunderhead without him. I had offered to let Brinn put in at the ramp with Jeremy so they could both run Grumpy’s and meet me at the rails, but Brinn valiantly declined and insisted that he wanted to paddle with me. It’s a good thing, too, since I got to the bottom of the stairs and went to screw my drainplug in, and found it missing! It had been attached the evening before when I loaded this exact boat into the bed of the truck. How did it just up and disappear? Fortunately I had MacGuyver #1 and MacGuyver #2 with me for the day. After Brinn failed to find my drain plug in the truck or the raft, he yanked his out of his boat, and screwed it into my boat while Jeremy hunted for an appropriately sized stick. Brinn pulled out tape and a lighter, and somehow sealed up the drain hole on his boat, and we were river worthy and finally able to put on while Tabitha drove down to Goforth Creek to pick us up.

Because we were going to raft as well, Brinn suggested that we only kayak a half lap so that we wouldn’t get too worn out. This sounded like a great idea to me, except Brinn wanted to do the top half of the run, which has always intimidated me more. Usually when we did a half lap, it was from Goforth down. But here we were, running the scarier half of the river, with conservative lines at Broken Nose and Double Suck, and we ended up having a fantastic day. The drain plug ended up being the only mishap, and we had an amazing trip down the river with Jeremy, who I didn’t even run over. No surfers were harmed by my refusal to look where I was going on this trip.

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After our kayak lap, we said a quick hi to Rick Ford, then piled humans and boats back into the truck and drove back to the top to unload the raft. And guess what we found? My drain plug! It was safely wedged into the raft, so at least it don’t blow or bounce out. Now it is safely screwed back into a hard boat. Brinn dumped the raft and gear out by the ranger’s stand and he and Jeremy left to park both vehicles down at bottom and to pick up Mrs. Anderson who was joining us for our raft lap.

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This is the day we hit every eddy we came across.

Tabitha and I are still working on getting comfortable in the Super Puma. The higher rocker really helps it punch through holes and over waves, but it also makes it a bit harder for the front paddlers to brace in as we keep sliding back. It didn’t matter, either way, as Brinn wants to test the limits of this boat every time we take it out so we will be fully prepared for winter creeking in it, and to avoid mishaps for trips with Ian. On the last trip, Brinn and I R2ed and he wanted to see how many eddies we could catch in this boat…including the teeny tiny kayak eddies. We only managed to catch one eddy through Tablesaw, to his disappointment, but we did catch the eddy directly behind Diamond Splitter rock that day. On Sunday, rather than catching eddies and making hard ferries, Brinn wanted to test to stability and weight distribution of the raft. Actually, he really just wanted to flip it, but he built compelling evidence for the need to flip it. So after Hell’s Half Mile, he moved me back beside him, and Tabitha and Anne directly in front of us. We went through the first big wave, and caught some air, but the bow settled back down. We went through the second big wave, and thought we were clear, but then the stern of the boat (with all of our added weight) did exactly what kayakers try to never do: lean upstream.

Double Trouble

As soon as the stern buried in the current the bow climbed again and inertia did its job. Hydrology and physics worked together to take us over spectacularly. We didn’t just dump truck. We flopped the whole thing right over on top of us. Seeing the carnage coming, I settled back and grabbed hold of the chicken strap in anticipation. After we completed our flip, I reached up to feel the raft over the top of me, and used the chicken strap to pull myself out from under the boat and I popped up right behind it, still hanging on. But then Brinn shoved his paddle at me and said “here, hold this.” He grabbed the boat, so I floated away from it and started looking for my eddy. Brinn struggled with the boat, so I swam into the river right eddy directly across the current from Jump Rock. Funny, I just spent half my summer ferrying back and forth between these two eddies. After watching Brinn go deeper in the eddy and still not flipping the boat, I resigned myself to the fact that he probably wasn’t going to be ferrying back across to pick me up. Tabitha was even further down in the current and Jeremy was helping her swim for the bottom of the eddy. Anne waited right behind Jump Rock, where I should have gone. I waited for a few kayakers to go past, then left the eddy high, but lemme tell ya, that current was a lot pushier without the benefit of a double blade and a boat. I swam, and swam, and then swam some more. Finally I got near the eddy and Jeremy darted over to grab the paddles from me so I could finish my swim on my back, because my muscles were done.

Brinn got the raft back right side up and we discussed tactics for flipping it next time. Ultimately we agreed that he should’ve shoved me on top to flip it because his shoulder chose to disagree with climbing on board. I’m thinking hitting the Green Narrows less than a year after major surgery may have been a bit too much for him this year. We all climbed in and laughed about our experience. Even Tabitha showed good humor at her unrequested bath. Jeremy delivered our paddles to us, so we were able to head back down river.

Jeremy was the major MVP of the day. We left the ramp with five paddles, and we arrived at the takeout with all five paddles! Not a single loss on Jeremy’s watch. I bought him a beer that evening.

By the time we made it down to Flipper just a few rapids later, Brinn didn’t even ask if we were up for surfing. I think he knew that we were all exhausted from swimming. I decided then and there that I would be visiting the campus pool a lot this winter to swim with a paddle. I obviously need to get stronger and more efficient with a single and double-bladed paddle because, well, swimmers are going to swim.

Going through the Doldrums, Tabitha motioned toward her husband and mouthed for me to flip him. Jeremy had decided to ride down in my Nomad for his second lap of the day. I knew I couldn’t be stealthy enough to pull it off from inside the raft, so I motioned for Brinn to swim over and grab his boat. Unfortunately Brinn telegraphed his intent all too clearly and Jeremy saw it coming. I launched out of the boat to grab the bow while Brinn shoved the boat over. Despite his unsealed skirt, Jeremy refused to swim. Even when Brinn flipped the boat over, Jeremy came up and held a brace against Brinn flipping him again and through clenched teeth he yelled “WILL.NOT.SWIM!” Somehow Anne came out of the raft after I did, so Tabitha and Jeremy ended up being the only two to not swim here.

After Jeremy drained about 600 gallons of Ocoee water out of the Nomad, he jumped back in and we floated on downstream. Our second mishap of the day came at Tablesaw. Brinn wanted to try for the top eddy on river left, and called for Tabitha and I to paddle hard as we crashed over the top wave. The bow rode up so high that we struggled to get our paddles in the water, and we blew past the eddy. As Brinn regrouped and aimed for the next eddy, Tabitha went bonkers and started yelling about her foot. With her T grip waving around in my face, I quit paddling as well  and stared at her. The side of her foot had locked up in a giant cramp, and it refused to relax. I grabbed her foot to mash my hand into the Charlie horse, and she came unglued. She yanked her chaco off and threw it in the floor of the boat while hopping around in her seat. Brinn thought we were both possessed and yelled at us for not paddling. Tab’s moment finally passed and she was able to put her shoe back on. Neither of us remember anything about going through the rapid.

We completed the rest of our trip smoothly with no additional mishaps. I think Brinn would’ve liked to back stack at Hell Hole, but I didn’t have it in me to swim for another eddy. I would’ve just floated to the takeout… So instead he had Tab and I scoot back just one thwart so we could brace in a bit more securely, and we had no issues plowing right through both waves, then floating over Powerhouse. We arrived at the takeout both tired and hungry, but every bit of the exhaustion was worth it. It’s been a hard summer of ferrying and eddy hopping, but I finally feel like I’m back!

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Rafting Past Denali

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After all the adventures we’d already encountered –hiking at Peter’s Creek, the transportation museum, the Iditarod Museum and a ride behind sled dogs, a flight around Denali with a glacier landing, and chilling in the cool town of Talkeetna, it’s hard to believe that we’d only spent one full day in Alaska. I’m not joking when I say that it was the longest day of our lives.

After waking earlier than desired on day 2, we took in the lay of the land and became acquainted with Otto Lake. We made a mid morning drive out to Healy to eat at Rose’s Cafe. The locals insisted that this place was fabulous, and recommended that we absolutely had to go. I’m pretty sure my entire family will agree that this was our worst food stop of the entire trip, and it inspired us to do some grocery shopping that afternoon and cook for the rest of our stay in Healy.

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After our slow, expensive, and overdone breakfast, we returned to our cabin at Otto Lake to begin prepping for our whitewater expedition. While Denali Outdoor Center provided drysuits, booties, PFDs, and helmets, we figured that the 35 degree water probably called for a bit more warmth than blue jeans and tee shirts afforded, so dug through our bags and pulled out our beloved hydroskins. I grabbed some gloves, our cameras, and we were off to catch our bus headed to the satellite outpost.

Our driver delivered us to McKinley Park, the hustling section of Healy with restaurants,

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lodges, souvenir shops, and outfitters. At this outpost, our guides suited us up in Kokatat suits (it was a bit weird with no double tunnel), and we waited for the rest of the customers on our trip to arrive, so Ian and I were able to lay down on benches and catch a quick nap. Once the remaining trip members arrived, we all clambered onto a new bus and headed upstream to jump on the Nenana River. Because of Ian’s age, our options were limited to “the Scenic Wilderness” run. According to Denali Outdoor Center‘s website:

Scenic Wilderness

A 2 Hour (11 mile) Alaska raft adventure for all. This Nenana rafting adventure features mild whitewater with class II and one easy class III rapid (minimum age 5 years old). Float the boundary of Denali National Park in search of wildlife with breathtaking views of The Alaska Range.

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Our guide, Kaitlin, explained to us early in the trip that everything about the Nenana resulted from glacier movement. The path of a moving glacier carved out the river bed and the giant rocks and boulders which formed rapids were left behind from melting glaciers as they flowed down the mountain. Other rocks fell into the water from cliffs due to glacier movement. The water we were rafting through came from glacier melt. Glaciers, glaciers, glaciers. It was all about the glaciers. Because of the glaciers, the water was very different from what we’re used to in the southeast. The closest way I can relate it is to brown water after a hard rain, but even that’s not completely accurate. Brown water is a solid color that prevents you from looking for green water to see good deep lines, similar to the grey glacier melt that also prevents you from seeing green water. That’s where the similarity ends.

Glacier melt was the color of soupy concrete. It was also absolutely frigid. The water

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averaged 33-36 degrees, so hypothermia was a very real danger despite the July heat wave Healy was experiencing. Because of this very real concern, the guides had a very different set of priorities than we do on the southeast rivers. On the Ocoee, guides try to prevent their customers from swimming in areas with undercuts or foot entrapment hazards. Alaskan guides had to avoid all the fun holes and surfs that Ocoee guides would have thrown themselves into for body surfing or back stacked a boat to take advantage of some fluffy carnage.

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The Nenana borders Denali for about 40 miles, so a good portion of our rafting trip took us right alongside the edge of the park. At this point we had driven past the mountain, flown right up to it, and now we were floating past it. We pretty much covered all modes of transportation available to us, at this point. The flight was the most spectacular mode, but the float was equally as impressive, just in a different way. Apples and oranges. While rafting, we were able to see a mama moose come down to the water with her two babies. On top of the mountain, up on the glaciers, there is no wildlife to see. We were also able to see more of the flora of the area. Kaitlin explained to us that there are two types of trees in the area: the white spruce and the black spruce. The white spruces have an attractive, even growth from top to bottom. They’re the most northern growing tree on our continent, and grow incredibly fast. I fell in love with these trees and wish I had a grove of them in my backyard. The other type of spruce, the black spruce, grew a little funkier. Kaitlin showed us that we could recognize them by their “Dr. Seuss” appearance. These spruces grow more slowly, and more predominate than their white cousin. You could see them really well from the air, and their less uniform growth pattern could be seen very clearly from the river. They added some flavor to the landscape, but my eye definitely preferred the white spruce.

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Another neat feature that Kaitlin pointed out were the bright orange sections of cliffs. The bright colors were not actually there as homage to Vol visitors, but actually showed evidence of eagle nests. A certain type of lichen grows on the cliffs along the Nenana, and when it comes in contact with eagle feces, it turns orange. Eagles do not allow waste to build in their nests, as it would attract predators to their eaglets, so they remove all wastes and deposit it over bodies of water. We thought it was a neat indicator of eagle habitation.

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We were restricted to an oar frame boat because of Ian’s age, so we had the unusual experience of doing nothing on a rafting trip. Brinn struggled a bit with sitting still. Who would have guessed? But he took advantage of the opportunity to ride the bull for the first time in 20ish years, and Kaitlin also gave him a turn at the oars. I don’t know that Brinn is ready to give up his guide stick anytime soon, but he had no complaints about the way the boat handled with oars, except maybe the lack of impulsion. If we were trying to hit the bigger holes, that could have posed an issue, but alas, we skirted anything that looked fun. I enjoyed this rare option to simply look around me and spectate during our 11 mile float, as did my dad. Ian, however, couldn’t stand to remain on a thwart while his dad did cool stuff, so Kaitlin gave him a turn at the oars as well. It’s pretty safe to say that Ian became completely enamored of Ms. Kaitlin and looked for every opportunity to go say hi to her around the outpost for the duration of our stay.

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The Nenana was a very different experience than what we’re used to on the Obed or Ocoee, but provided views unlike any we’ve ever had the opportunity to see before. Hopefully when we return to Alaska, we’ll be able to take our own raft and spend a bit more time exploring more sections of this river.

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Otto Lake

20180705_190329.jpg750_3546You would think after living the longest day ever, that we would have slept for 20 hours straight, but sadly this was not the case. At 6:00 am, my dad frantically woke Brinn up (which caused me to wake up) in a complete panic that we’d slept too late. “Brinn, it’s already 10:00!” My snippy, sleep deprived response informed him that it was indeed 10:00 in the morning… “yes, in Knoxville. Go back to sleep.” I’m such a delight when I’ve been kept awake for two days.

After another earlier start than planned, we all dragged ourselves over to the bathhouse 750_3540to reluctantly start our day. But once we left our cabin and took in our surroundings, we forgot all about sleep. Otto Lake has absolutely stunning views. Hands-down, this was absolutely my most favorite place that we stayed during our 12 day trip. Denali Outdoor Center’s outpost offered a large campground as well as four small cabins. The cabins all shared one bathhouse which contained toilets, showers, and a fully stocked kitchen. Later that evening we hit the Three Bears grocery store to stock up so we could cook during our stay in Healy. This worked beautifully as dining options near the park were more limited than other areas we would visit. Surprisingly, the grocery prices weren’t all that bad, either!

750_3542Our cabin door opened right onto the large lake, which had some of the cleanest water I’ve ever seen. The lake was surrounded with all kinds of native flora, and occasionally moose would even ramble over to take a drink from the lake. Supposedly the lake was stocked, but I don’t think Brinn or Ian ever actually caught anything. Outpost guests could borrow boats to paddle out across the 750_3544lake or even swim in its chilly waters. The mountains in the background reflected off the surface. The white-capped mountains contrasted against the abundance of bright green leaves, grass, and bushes everywhere! My Tennessee eyes had trouble reconciling snow with summer foliage, but that didn’t mean that I failed to appreciate the wonder of this view.

Every morning and evening we walked around the lake to take in the mountains. Often 20180705_195446.jpgwe made this trek simply to breath. The complete lack of humidity combined with purity created the perfect atmosphere to revitalize your energy and to just feel good. My legs didn’t burn from climbing hills and I didn’t puff from exertion. Ian’s little legs didn’t fatigue quite as often, and none of our heads hurt. Sinus pressure simply didn’t exist!

When (not if!) we make it back for another visit in Alaska, we will be revisiting Healy and staying on Otto Lake. If I had one regret from this trip, it would be that we didn’t spend more time here. While everywhere we saw was amazing, I can for certain say that the Denali area was the most impressive and enjoyable for me.

 

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Gliding Through Tablesaw

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I went back to the Ocoee this past weekend for my next round of lessons. A few days before we began packing my gear I received a message from poor Brandon that I’d been reassigned from my new instructor, and would be continuing to work with Brandon instead. As excited as I was to work with a new instructor, I was still more relieved than anything to be able to continue with the instructor I was familiar with and had come to trust. You would think that I would have been grateful enough to be a model student, right?

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Saturday went well enough, but everything changed Sunday. Brandon began the day with an easy warm-up of stretches and review of basic paddle strokes (which I still can’t do) and then laid out his plan for the day. He announced that he’d thought it over the previous evening, and he’d decided it was time to step it up. I was going to do one of two rapids that we’d been putting off –both of which he felt I was ready to do, but he was only going to make me do one. All I could do was stare in horror as he continued: “Broken Nose or Tablesaw.” Ice, ice coursing through my veins and a slight buzzing noise in my ears. And Brandon went on to announce the winner for my personal fear contest: Tablesaw (cue the flying monkeys soundtrack).

Guys, from this point on I was the absolute worst student in the world. Seriously. If Ian

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had behaved this badly I would have yanked him up and taken him home after having a “come to Jesus” discussion. If I’d behaved this way in a riding lesson, any of my many instructors would have removed my stirrup irons and made me finish the rest of the day in a two-point at working trot. Ordinarily I would be mortified to see anyone behave this badly, but man, I wallowed in it. I talked back. I argued. I stalled. I whined incessantly. I negotiated. I came up with excuse after excuse. I ran over rocks. I missed eddies. And all the while Brandon, my beloved instructor who had reassured me for three days of lessons that everything we would do was challenge by choice, took a firm stand and ignored my very logical and eloquently delivered rationale for walking Tablesaw.

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I’ve never run Tablesaw in a hard boat. Ever. Broken Nose either, for that matter, but at least Broken Nose was off the table for this day. Back in the days before Ian, when Brinn would help me tiptoe down the skirt lines on the Ocoee, we always ran far, far left at Broken Nose, and I hiked around Tablesaw while everyone else ran it and waited for me below. When I signed up for lessons, I just assumed that I would continue this routine. It had been working pretty well up to this point. It’s hard to swim or hit your head on the ejector rock when you’re busy shouldering a boat across the giant table rock… Brandon has asked me several times what was my goal for lessons. And always my answer is to not be such an idiot on the water. I don’t want to be a liability for anyone else, and want to be able to control my boat better. I didn’t realize I needed to add that I wanted this control so I could hit all the portage eddies…

Saturday was a really good day on the water. I felt like we were taking off my training wheels and I was finally starting to move beyond beginner tactics. Brandon continued building on our earlier lessons to enhance rules I’d learned earlier in my paddling career, and in some cases, completely toss out those rules. I’ve consistently heard that you have to be moving faster than the water to be in control… While we didn’t address this particular adage, Brandon did teach me how to use my bow angle to speed up or slow down a ferry. A slow ferry requires more paddle strokes, but gives me a tremendous mental boost to know that I can take time to look around and consider what’s coming up next. I’ve always heard to leave the eddy high. And sometimes Brandon had us leaving high, and sometimes he had us leaving in the middle, and at Hell Hole we just slid right out the back of the Eddy. So I learned to leave the eddy high sometimes when our next move required it. But what helped more than anything was to learn that when we leave high, we don’t start high in the eddy. Brandon had me backup and start much lower in the eddy to begin paddling so as to build momentum for that ferry once I broke the eddy line. And most important of all, he was teaching me to see which situation called for which moves so I could start assessing scenarios and know what to do and how rather than just following someone else like a duckling. We paddled from the Staging Eddy to Goforth with no major mishaps and one minor mishap as I paddled clear over the top of the boulder I was supposed to slide off of sideways… Only I could botch the move I saw a 10 year old kid pull off just two weeks earlier. But overall Saturday ended as the best day ever. Brandon was the best instructor ever, and one of my most favorite people ever.

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Now as I’m sitting in the creek near the takeout on Sunday morning Brandon is looking less and less like one of my favorite people. I suggested we could drive over to the Hiwassee and he laughed it off. I offered to take us shopping at Rock Creek, my treat! He declined. I even volunteered to paddle back upstream from the lake to the commercial takeout again. No dice. We were headed up the river road and Brandon seemed to determined to do his job. He carried our boats down the steep bank to Jump Rock and we warmed up with some attempts at a one paddle stroke ferry, which I failed at, but I did get more confident in charging for the green water to initiate my

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ferry. Then we turned and followed the river downstream…bringing us ever closer to Tablesaw. All went well until we made it to Flipper where Brandon decided we weren’t going to go far, far, far right as we had previously. My negotiations and protestations began again, and he calmly waited out my temper tantrum, then waited some more on my nerves, and finally we sliced diagonally across Flipper successfully with none of the issues I’d built up in my mind. We floated on down to Goforth where we were greeted by Brinn and Rick as we got out for a break to stretch. Since complaining wasn’t working, I went to sit quietly by myself in the sun. Brinn kept asking if I was okay. He didn’t seem to support my opinion that Brandon is the meanest person in the world, but instead helped me get back in my boat when Brandon decided it was time to go.

Brandon guided us over to river right just above Tablesaw where we hopped out, parked our boats, and began hiking across the table to watch Brinn and Rick come through. Brandon pointed out visuals that I should identify early to hold my angle. He showed me how we were going to come in behind the first wave, maintain a left hand angle, and only paddle for stability and to maintain the left angle if the water dropped my bow. He insisted that this angle would push me into the gigantic friendly eddy on river left. Then we watched several boaters come straight down, and others even with a right hand angle, proving Brandon’s next point that there was a wide margin for error in this rapid. We left the water with a good plan and unfortunately the walk back didn’t take very long.

Once we reached our boats, fear completely took over my heart and mind. I don’t know if I looked as sick as I felt, but I felt pretty yucky. I kept waiting for Brandon to show one sign of weakness. Had he waivered for even a split second, I would’ve jumped all over it and used the excuse to climb out of my boat and start dragging. But he didn’t. He offered some reassuring advice, made a few jokes, and patiently waited while I shook like a leaf. Lots of stuff rolled through my head. I finally followed Brandon back into the current. I shook like a leaf and bumped every rock between our eddy and the main current. Brandon peeled out into the current with one hand on his paddle so the other hand could wave and remind me of my visual aids and show me my boat angle. I glided out behind him, and glided right down through and over the waves and into a river left eddy where Brinn was waiting for me and cheers erupted across the river.

 

So many emotions. Too many emotions to feel them all individually, and they completely overwhelmed me. Had I known how many friends had stopped to wait on me, I may have ended up chickening out. I had no idea that multiple good Samaritans had hopped out of their boats with ropes and cameras at the ready for me. Shane, Krystal, and Michelle, along with their friends and family, parked their raft and waited for my first go at this rapid with the camera rolling. Rick filmed from the other side of the river. His friend, Charles, who I had just met minutes earlier waited as well. Brinn stayed parked in the higher of the two eddies to be ready to go after me or give me a focal point to paddle towards. Brandon swung in and waited for me as well, and the first emotion I could actually identify was overwhelming gratitude for this amazing group of river family to cheer me on in my success. I threw my arms up and tried not to cry as I felt the fear sneak away and warmth replace it. Adrenaline coursed, and I continued to shake all over, but no longer in fear. Brandon reminded me that it would still be pretty scary next time, and probably the time after that, but it won’t be as scary.

 

Still jittery, and now distracted by it, we left Tablesaw and meandered down through Diamond Splitter (my most favorite Ocoee rapid) to eddy on the left before Dixie Drive for Brandon to issue the next set of instructions. I had to ask him to repeat himself about 10 times, and apologize repeatedly for listening to only half of what he said. I now have a greater appreciation for how hard Brinn has to work to listen through his ADD. Finally I digested the bulk of my directions and we headed back downstream, where I proceeded to miss eddies, fail to hit surfs, and blow ferries as well. At some point it became clear that we weren’t finished and Brandon wasn’t going to let me jump out at Torpedo or at the bridge, so there would be another first to add to my plate: Hell Hole. Hell Hole scares me because it’s big, it’s fast, it’s incredibly pushy, and I’ve never ran it in a hard boat. But I’ve swam it, so I guess I’ve already experienced the worst that could happen. I like to think that I didn’t protest running this one quite as vehemently as I did Tablesaw, as I’d pretty much resigned myself to going through it. And Brandon helped to set an angle through this one that helped me punch straight through and into the eddy on river right. And it was absolutely fantastic! Now all that was left between me and a swim-free day was my old nemesis…Powerhouse. Rather than get in the pushy current that goes straight for the junk over on river left, Brandon helped me sneak right out the backside of our eddy and paddle straight over the river right side of Powerhouse. I’m ashamed to say that it was much smaller than I had remembered it, and there was no risk of falling over backwards this time.

 

So I did it. Over the course of two days I managed to creep down the Ocoee from the Staging Eddy to the takeout without carrying around anything. We ran conservative lines on most everything above Goforth, but I didn’t have to bushwack and shoulder a boat. And Brandon is once again the best instructor ever and one of my favorite people again.

I can’t even possibly begin to thank everyone involved in helping me add this to my paddling portfolio. My mom kept Ian all weekend so Brinn could come out and watch me achieve new things. Brandon worked overtime to protect me from myself and help me work through some tough moments. Brinn cheered harder than any husband has ever cheered on a wife. Rick and Krystal documented my achievement so I could relive it over and over. And so many more people were responsible for getting me to this point. Hopefully an opportunity will arise where I have a chance to give back to them just a little of what they have done for me. Until then, I’ll try to pay it forward as best I can, because the river is not just a waterway filled with spills and thrills, it’s a community –one whose membership floods me with gratitude.

“Bad coaches make their students dependent. Good coaches make themselves redundant.” -Paul Strikwerda

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Ending the Longest Day Ever in Healy

750_3536Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.Evan Hardin

After we wrapped up our amazing aerial tour and glacier landing, we were starving, soTalkeetna we were off to find some local grub. Downtown Talkeetna, here we come. While it was 9:30 in the evening, Main Street looked like it was maybe 6:00 or 7:00 PM. People were just sitting down to eat at the many places we drove past, and parking was almost nonexistent. Brinn identified a spot right in front of the Denali Brewing Company, so that’s where we pulled in to eat. This probably ended up being my favorite eatery during the entire trip. I had the ribeye sandwich and it was pretty amazing. The place had a cool vibe, and the energy was fun and festive. This little town reminded me so much of Boone, NC. A little touristy and a lot earthy.

brewWe wrapped up an enjoyable dinner on the deck by recounting our amazement with flying through the mountains and walking on a glacier in sight of Denali. We all passed our phones around the table to ooh and ahh over the images we were able to snap from the air. Ian hugged on Steele, munched on a few fries, half a grilled cheese, and began melting into a puddle of tired little boy. So we jumped back in the Sequoia and began our trek to Healy to continue along the longest day of our lives.

My driving directions indicated that we should expect the drive from Talkeetna to Healy750_3499 to take about 2ish hours. Ha! We probably got back on the Healy Spur around 11:00 PM. Keep in mind that it is still looks like 7:00ish PM by Tennessee standards. At this point we have been awake since 5:00 AM, and have failed to experience darkness yet. My research promised that there would only by 22 hours of daylight, so we must be getting close to dark, right? Again, just kidding! By 22 hours of daylight, my sources must have meant full-sun daylight, because it never seemed to get any darker than twilight.

750_3505We drove and drove, and drove some more. Mount Denali loomed in front of us, then eventually to the side of us. For hours we drove, bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t have stayed in Talkeetna. Wouldn’t that have been a great idea? Except I’d already made reservations in Healy for that night and rafting reservations for the next morning. So we soldiered on to our destination. The shadows grew a little longer, and eventually I had to set the font size a little larger to read my kindle comfortably, but full darkness never arrived. We drove past the most breathtaking scenery of my life, but around 1:00 AM I just lost the energy to care. And then we drove some more.

Finally we arrived to our cabin on Otto Lake. We trudged into our cabin, located beds,750_3539 crawled under covers and crashed. The last thing I remember saying was “the only person allowed to wake me up is Ian. We are not getting up with Eastern or Central Time zones.” So finally, the longest day of our lives ended. It’s just too bad Gary continued to function on Eastern Time…

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