2013 Alaska (2/3): Eastern Alaska Range Traverse

Places Alaska. Eastern Alaska Range: Healy – Black Rapids (Richardson Highway)
Time & length September 2013, 16 days
Partners Katharina Sungler
Together with a friend from Austria I traversed the Eastern Alaska Range from Healy to Black Rapids. Originally we had wanted to go all the way to Tok but due to a snowstorm in mid-September we had to cut our route short and returned to Palmer after crossing the Delta River at the Richardson Highway.

In November 2012 I drove my company’s car from Vienna to Innsbruck to give a presentation (besides my studies I work part-time in the camera business). On my way back, I met Katharina: she needed a lift to Salzburg, which was on my way. We spent two hours in the car talking about various things, mostly about travelling. Later we kept in touch via Facebook and met again in spring, helping my sister’s boyfriend build a tree house . There, we decided to go on a trip together in Alaska after I’d be done working in the North Slope.

Katharina arrived in Alaska on the 3rd of September. We spent the next day shopping and organizing our gear – again I was hosted by my wonderful “Alaska Parents” Keith and Bev Earley from Palmer. The two of them have been a great help to me over the last four summers; without them I surely wouldn’t be where I am today.

The plan was to hike from Healy to the Robertson River Bridge on the Tok Cut-Off Highway next to the village of Tok in Eastern Alaska. That’s a 400 km route, separated by the Richardson Highway at “Black Rapids”. Katharina and I wanted to hike the first part (250 km) alone, then my friend Keith wanted to join us on the final stretch (Richardson Highway – Tok, 150 km). We planned on meeting him at Fielding Lake on September 19.

Katharina and I started hitchhiking from Palmer to Healy in the morning of September 5 and arrived at the trailhead in the afternoon (yes, hitchhiking with a pretty girl is easy). We hiked up to the ridgeline north of Healy River, pitched our tent and went to sleep.

The next day, heavy rain made navigation difficult, so we decided to head down towards the river and kept going eastwards. Before reaching our first pass, we found an old bus, in the middle of nowhere. It almost looked like the “Magic Bus” north of Denali and reminded me of the trip I did in that area two years ago.

Although we were struggling with fog, wind and rain, we reached the pass on September 8 at noon and made camp later in the Wood River area.

We followed several horse trails in the Wood River area. At some point I sank deep into the mud and broke one of my hiking poles; fortunately, I was able to repair it.

Crossing Wood River was relatively easy. The next stop on our route was Kansas Creek, where we enjoyed some great evening light on the camp fire on September 8.

Following Kansas Creek upstream we were fighting some brush and big boulders, but at the headwaters all struggle was rewarded with amazing scenery: I love alpine terrain in fall colors and the light of the fading day.

After two more passes and a successful crossing of the Little Delta River we pitched our tent just above the Gillan Glacier with views of Hess Mountain and Mt. Deborah. What an amazing camp side!

We later crossed the East Fork Little Delta River and followed its riverbed downstream until we turned east again and hiked uphill towards Hayes Glacier. To get there, we had to traverse some very brushy areas which was especially hard on Katharina, but all pain was forgotten once we found ourselves back on the solid ground of the alpine tundra.

Our next challenge was the Trident Glacier moraine. We could have walked around it and crossed Delta Creek, but instead I wanted to hike right over the ice. In fact, the ice was mostly covered in gravel, brush and rocks – Katharina was especially careful; also, she didn’t really appreciate the bushwhacking. Traversing the moraine took us much longer than I had expected but we kept going and arrived safely on the other side at noon on September 16.

When we reached the bluff east of Trident Glacier, the views were incredible again and I took plenty of pictures. (Well, I always do.)

Then the weather changed drastically. We now navigated through snow and dense fog; temperatures dropped below freezing point. Hiking became very difficult when we approached the Delta River which is surrounded by thick brush and forest. By the time we reached that mighty river, we were both cold and soaking wet.

Instead of crossing the Delta River on foot, we were lucky to meet a group of hunters with amphibian vehicles who were just on their way back to the highway. They kindly gave us a lift across the river, what a relief! It is certainly possible to cross the Delta River on foot: if you pick your channels wisely and with enough time to cross several streams back and forth, you can make it to the other side – at least at that time of the year, when the water level is usually low. But obviously we took the offer gratefully and ferried with the amphibian vehicles.

Well, it wasn’t as easy as everybody thought. One of the vehicles got stuck in the middle of the river and the passengers – Katharina was one of them! – had to wade through the belly deep water, pulling a rope they had strained before. After that, she was soaking wet and hypothermic; obviously, she was in critical shape. Once I reached the other side of the river (3 hours later than her) I accompanied one of the hunters who went looking for her backpack that had been washed away from the vehicle. Fortunately we found all her equipment but the hunters lost a rifle, hiking boots and some camping gear. It was a pretty bad day for everyone.

The hunters decided to drive to Delta Junction and check into a hotel. Katharina had some small frost bites on her toes so they took us with them and made sure that we had everything we needed. Meeting these people, especially Randy Berg and his family, was a real stroke of luck.

The next day was September 19 and we met Keith at the Richardson Highway close to Fielding Lake. After that much snowfall there was no way he would go for the last portion of our hike, he said. And Katharina needed to return to Palmer for recovery anyway. I personally had a very hard time deciding to go with them; I would have loved to continue! In my opinion the snow was very likely to melt in a couple of days and I probably would have been fine. But it was Katharina’s first journey to Alaska and I felt a little responsible for her – so instead of stubbornly pushing my plans through, I decided to go with them and realign at home.

Yes, it’s too bad we couldn’t continue all the way to Tok. But what we accomplished – the hike from Healy to the Richardson Highway – was already pretty amazing on its own. The diversity of terrains, challenges and emotions on this trip was quite fascinating. The same goes for the weather: except for the last two days we had a lot of sunshine which certainly added to our mood and the photography.

Only two days after our return to Palmer, Katharina and I headed towards the Wrangells and spent a week in one of the park’s Public Use Cabins.