Derek Collins and I skied from Aniak to Dillingham through Wood-Tikchik State Park (Alaska). Our route was 250 miles, and it took us 14 days. The highlight of the trip was ice skating ~50 miles of the route on nordic skates. We were stomped by a storm the entire second week.
Earlier this winter Joe Stock proposed we do a fly-in ski traverse of the Wood-Tikchik mountains in Southwest Alaska. The Wood-Tikchiks are a freshwater fjord system, big mountains to the west, U-shaped glacial valleys (the lakes), and rolling hills (moraine) to the east. I was really excited to do another trip with Joe because I can learn so much from him. After scoping the area in Google Earth, I was really impressed with the 4000-ft relief, granitic and glaciated, at the northern end of the mountains, so I proposed we fly in for steep skiing, then tour out to Dillingham. At the last minute Joe had to bail, and without him there was no funding to fly in.
I met Derek Collins a few years ago when he came to the Brooks Range for the Winter Classic. We didn’t travel together, but Thomas Bailly and Roman Dial were really impressed with him. Early in the course Roman borrowed one of Derek’s ski poles and accidentally broke it. Derek just shrugged it off. Since hearing that, I’ve invited him on a number of trips, but living in Jackson Hole with two kids, he hasn’t been able to make other trips.
Derek was particularly interested in this route because he spent 6 years growing up in Aleknagik, the village at the southern end of the Wood-Tikchik lakes, and Dillingham. We discovered an almost spooky number of similarities. Derek moved to Aleknagik at age 4, from Salmon, Idaho. I moved to McGrath (up the Kuskokwim River from Aniak) at age 4, from Missoula. He moved into Anchorage for 4th grade, I moved in for 8th. We are both quiet, a little socially awkward, and uncomfortable with the party scene. It gets even weirder… our older brothers, Dirk and Burke, are both pro videographers. Dirk was a co-founded of TGR, now sole owner of One Eyed Bird, and Burke has Things to Look At. It was fun thinking of what project they would put together… Girls Gone Wilderness?
The biggest difference between Derek and I was that Derek is a monster on nordic skis. He had to wait for me constantly. I really wanted to blame my blownout ski sidewalls and recovering from a broken hand, but man. He flew.
I was able to cover our tickets with frequent flier miles to Aniak and from Dillingham. Excluding food and gear upgrades, we spend a total of $105 on this trip (airport fees and white gas).
This winter has been so dry that we weren’t sure there would be enough snow to ski. I bombarded friends with requests for conditions… Ruby Egrass, a friend from elementary school, gave me an update from Red Devil, up river from Aniak, and put me in touch with Erich Kuball, who found us white gas in Aniak. Through (college friend) Sarah Angstman and (ski partner) Jeremy Woods’ Bethel connections, I got a message from Sarah Rice saying they had driven the river ice from Bethel to Aniak over the weekend. Alan Dick, a family friend from Lime Village, told me about the cat-track to Cripple Creek mine. Eventually a low-snow plan emerged… we’d put tech ski bindings on nordic ice skates for the Aniak River, then jump up to the cat-track once there was enough snow.
After arriving and getting white gas, we skated 30 miles in seven hours on the Aniak River. It was awesome! The skates were so easy to propel, we hardly used our poles, otherwise we’d get going too fast. We hardly noticed the packs while effortlessly gliding upriver. When the open water leads got too annoying, we hiked and skated marshes up to the cat-track.
We spent our second day walking on frozen tundra. Walking on frozen tundra is great compared to wet tundra, but having to carry everything, including skis and ski boots, was pretty brutal (~80 lbs). We tried to ski desperately thin threads of snow on day three, and were in good coverage by day four. We burned our shoes on the campfire that night. The fires were exceptional- plenty of dead black spruce that was anxious to take the chill out of the air.
At Salmon River we were able to skate again, most of the way up to the Cripple Creek Mine. The gold mine dates back to 1911, with a few buildings and relics left. The only precious ore we saw was the cap that broke off my tooth while chewing a frozen shot block.
Beyond the mine we climbed out of the trees into high country. It was the most arctic landscape I’ve seen out of the arctic. We didn’t see any wildlife, but crossed tons of wolverine tracks. We reached the alpine mountain zone at Gold Lake with clear skies and spectacular views. Most of the mountains had fresh avalanche crowns, no surprise with the constant wind. The poor snow stability made us happy with our choice to traverse the valleys rather than try to ski the peaks.
At Cascade Lake, which promises views of granite towers and the most glaciated terrain, we were socked in by a storm system that never let up. We followed the Milk River (which would likely be a great packraft run) to Chikuminuk Lake. The Milk River has a very unusual feature- it erodes steeply around an isolated island of a mountain, even though there is a 1.5-mile wide glacial valley on the other side of the mountain. I’ll tag it on the attached map so that you can check it out. The Allen River also looks like good packrafting, and the glacial terraces with well-spaced white spruce made for excellent travel.
When the blizzard was at its worst we stumbled upon the Tikchik Lodge. We knew there was a lodge in the area, but since I only had the page out of the gazetteer as a map, we weren’t sure of its exact location. Visibility was less than a quarter mile. I kept trying to get Derek to pull right so that we could follow the shoreline, but he kept drifting left. We noticed a fresh snowmachine track. Derek proposed we take it right, towards the shoreline, I suggested we take it left, likely to the lodge. We went left. The caretaker, Carter, and his visiting high school friend Dan, instantly made us feel welcome. There were martin and wolverine pelts on the walls, and wood shavings all over the cabin; they were trying to build short skis inspired by russian youtube videos. They served up hot chocolate, fresh pizza with goat cheese and artichoke hearts, fresh sourdough bread, and croissants in the morning. Derek and I were running a little low on calories, so this boost was incredibly timely. After hearing about our excellent skating conditions, Carter fired up the generator to show us youtube clips of a 14-year old Russian skater in the Sochi Olympics. I am trying really hard not to make a joke about caretakers and youtubing 14-year old Russians… but these guys were so good to us.
The next days were brutal… we covered 7 miles, then 9, then 12. It snowed 18+ inches, wet snow, ending with rain. Two days later is was -30 ºF. Two days later it snowed another 12+ inches. Our intended route would have brought us back close to the mountains, but since we couldn’t see anything and were making such slow progress, we straight-lined for Aleknagik. The evening before it turned -30 ºF, I broke through the ice on a shallow creek and soaked my left boot. The next day my liner was a block of ice, and by the time I got feeling back in my foot I realized I’d frostbit my toe. Not bad, but bad enough to have to bail on the Winter Classic the following week, ending my 6-year streak.
We carried 14 days food, and ended on the 14th day. We kept expecting snowmachine tracks, which would have allowed us to travel at least 3 times faster, but due to the new snow (and wind), they hadn’t ventured out. We hit the first tracks just 4 miles from town.
We were picked up by the first truck driving between Aleknagik and Dillingham. Our first stop was the grocery store. I was craving orange juice, but the $13 price tag on a half gallon convinced me to buy a soda instead. Dietary issues in the villages are no surprise! We spent an hour unsuccessfully shopping for cheap shoes or slippers, anxious to get out of our ski boots. We found bacon cheeseburgers, then met Pete Tallman for a ride to the airport. Pete, a friend from Anchorage that has since moved to Dillingham, was a huge help on the trip, pre-trip planning, sending us weather reports, and then meeting us at the end. As usual, this trip couldn’t have been pulled off without the help of Alaska’s awesome network of recreationists.
We had to wear our boots and dirty clothes on the plane. I forgot to check my second pair of socks at the gate, so I wrapped them in paper towels and stuffed them into a sealed pocket to try to limit the stink diffusion.