It was not the winter many in Bristol Bay expected, or hoped for. But one pair of savvy wilderness travelers was not to be deterred by the rather poor snow conditions.
In March, Luc Mehl, 35, and Derek Collins, 40, completed a two-week, 250-mile backcountry traverse from the village of Aniak on the Kuskokwim River to Dillingham on the shores of Bristol Bay. The trip took them across the high alpine tundra north of the Wood River Mountains, then straight through the heart of the Wood-Tikchik State Park. Their only human encounter was with one lodge caretaker in the park, and -- a bit to their dismay -- they didn't find a trail to follow until they were four miles shy of Dillingham.
In other words, it was almost exactly the quiet, challenging backcountry trip seasoned skiers imagine experiencing in remote southwest Alaska.
Mehl is from Anchorage, and Collins from Jackson Hole, Wyo. Though the two had not done a trip like this together before, each knew well of the other's skills and "cred" for such an endeavor.
"I met Derek in the Brooks Range two years ago," said Mehl. "I was really impressed with the way he carried himself. It was obvious he was really strong and humble." Those traits make for good dynamics on long trips. "No matter what the conditions, you'll just laugh, joke, and tease each other," said Mehl.
These are not your average Sunday skiers or weekend downhill junkies. Mehl and Collins are the type who look for the biggest terrain across the largest expanses that the globe has to offer, then set about finding creative human-powered means to travel it. Take one example: Mehl and a handful of buddies didn't just climb Mt. McKinley in 2011; they biked to the mountain from Healy, climbed up and over from the north side, skied down to the Tokositna River, then packrafted out to Talkeetna. A 200-mile journey in 25 days, bagging North America's tallest peak along the way. The continent's next two tallest peaks, Logan and Pico de Orizaba, were tackled in similar style.
Southwest Alaska is certainly charming, but let's be honest, it's no Denali. What drew these two to this trip?
"It's an area of the state I haven't explored," said Mehl. "My familiarity comes mostly from pictures of fishermen in the fall, standing in beautiful rivers with the mountains behind them. But as I studied the possible routes on Google Earth, I was seeing some really nice alpine terrain north in the park. Like 5,000-foot peaks and a lot of granite, vertical faces, and a couple of small glaciers. Very alpine, very Alaska Range look to it, which I thought would be so cool coming out of the tundra. Skiing into that isolated, anomalous terrain really appealed to me."
During the trip, both men discovered they have similar ties to the region. Mehl's family moved to McGrath when he was four, and Collins' family moved to Aleknagik when he was four. Both later moved back to Anchorage. Neither had been back to western Alaska much, if at all, since then.
The Aniak to Dillingham trip would take them about two weeks, depending on the weather and snowpack. Mehl says they frantically called anyone and everyone who could give an update on the snow and ice conditions in the region. In the end, a friend said the Aniak River was glare ice, and they flew to the village with a unique idea in mind.
"We decided we could start the trip on ice skates," said Mehl. Not the kind collecting dust in your closet, but a Nordic skate designed to clip into ski boots. "On the first day we covered 30 miles in seven hours, just cruising up the river on those skates. It was awesome, so much fun, and definitely the highlight of the trip."
On day two, they switched to tennis shoes, and hiked for another 20 or 30 miles across the tundra. The tussocks were bare but frozen, and well suited to foot travel. It wasn't until the third or fourth day that the pair finally strapped on their skis.
"Originally we were going to bring big skis in and do some of the steeper mountain skiing," said Mehl. "But based on the low snowpack, which generally means unstable snow and avalanche concerns, we changed our plans to just do a cross country trip, sticking to the valley floors and low slopes so there wouldn't be any hazard."
The weather changed just as they entered the Wood-Tikchik State Park. In fact it changed pretty drastically. "This storm blew up. All of a sudden our visibility dropped to a quarter mile, the temperature was falling fast, and the snow was piling up," said Mehl. They stumbled, literally, into the Tikchik Narrows Lodge, where the caretaker graciously hosted them for a night, serving homemade pizzas that night and fresh croissants in the morning.
"That was so welcome," said Mehl. "The temperature was something like 30 below that night. We hadn't eaten anything decent in a week. The warmth, the calories, and the company went a long way."
What didn't go a long way was their daily progress after they left the lodge. That storm, the only decent one in March, dumped over a foot of wet, heavy, clumpy snow up through the park. Used to traveling 20 miles a day through jagged alpine terrain, the two were struggling to log seven miles through the flat valleys.
"That's why I bring an iPod," said Mehl, laughing. "It was pretty rough, about as rough as it gets. I put on some tunes and we just went to work."
The quick blizzard passed but left overcast conditions in its wake. "We didn't get to see the Wood-Tikchik State Park at all," Mehl said, calling it the low point of the trip. "I'll stay a little bitter about that."
Coming down through the east side of the park, the pair found no sign of the snow-go trails they had heard existed, and typically do when the weather allows better travel.
"Not until we were four miles from Dillingham did we find a snow-go trail," said Mehl with a grin in his voice. "In those wet, heavy snow conditions … what we would have given to find one sooner."
In the video produced after the trip, Collins ribs the "Aleknagik Snow Go Club", applauding their "environmental work" by staying close to home and preserving fossil fuels.
They skied into Dillingham on their 14th day and headed straight to the grocery store; Mehl says they balked at the price of orange juice in Dillingham and settled for a soda instead. They also balked at the price of cheap slippers and flew home instead in their smelly ski boots and dirty clothes.
Because they booked their airfare with frequent flier miles, the total cost for the two-week trip was $105.
Mehl and Collins have decades of experience between them, but this wasn't a trip that required it. Actually, they hope to see others give it a try.
"It's an easy skill set," said Mehl. "You start small. Ski a bit in the afternoons, ski to the post office, ski to work. Then take a tent and sleeping bag with you one night, and come back the next day. After that there's no reason you can't ski to the next village, and the next year, ski to the next region."
Being able to travel through the wilderness has always been a "village skill set," he said. "But now people in the villages have built up an amazing competency with motors. They can travel the most challenging terrain by boat and snow go, and can fix anything in a pinch. But it seems that's happened at the expense of some of the human-powered skill set to the point that people we talked to after the trip were shocked we'd skied from Aniak. 'You did that without a snowmachine? Is that even possible?' they asked. Of course it's possible, people have been doing it for thousands of years."
He said you just strap on your skis, set a course, and go.
See all of Luc and Derek's photos, video, and trip notes at the website www.thingstolucat.com.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.