Alaska people like to say that when you see fireweed, fall is right around the corner. It started flowering around the end of July and pretty much was done by the end of August. It doesn’t linger long, but it is really beautiful to have around. It’s all over the sides of the road and in pretty much any ditch you see. There were some nice patches around the cannery, which is where the featured image this week was taken. It is a symbol of the ‘dog days’ of summer up here I reckon. Like summer itself in Alaska, the fireweed flush is fleeting. By this point in mid-September everything is starting to die, and leaves litter the ground everywhere. I’m starting to see some really nice colors in the trees on my journeys around town as fall ramps up into high gear.
They say that it starts snowing up here around mid-October, so I figure that’ll be when winter officially starts. I’m savoring the relatively warm weather at the moment, it’s going to get real chilly here soon. It’s been raining non-stop for weeks, but it’s not that cold yet. Every day is pretty much the same, rain off and on with highs in the mid-fifties and lows in the mid-forties. I recently invested in a bunch of additional gear to keep me dry like a quality umbrella and a waterproof backpack cover. I’ve been caught in a couple of downpours on my bike, and even with rain gear on my top and bottom I still got drenched. I’ve been taking advantage of the bus to get around town more and more as a result, it’s nice to travel without being soaked! This time of the year is the wettest, so when there is a nice day maybe once a week, seeing the sun is definitely glorious. It’s wild considering that very recently, a lot of places in the lower 48 were suffering under a heat wave, we definitely haven’t gotten any of that up here!
I just placed an order on Amazon for a bunch of snow gear I’ll need here in a month or so. I’m already down a couple hundred bucks on snow boots, a warm hat, snow pants, and good gloves. I figured I’d go ahead and get what I needed before I actually need it. I’ll need to get a good coat as well, I have a nice winter coat down in Santa Cruz but I don’t know if I can get to it before the snow falls. That’ll be another couple hundred if I have to get one. It feels good to know I’ll have quality winter gear on hand despite the cost, it’s a necessary investment. Since I’m getting my stuff ahead of the winter rush I can pay less and get exactly what I need while there’s still ample supplies available. I’m definitely feeling some trepidation about what I’m about to have to go through, but with proper gear I’ll be all right. I’m actually looking forward to maybe learning how to ski, maybe I’ll even get in some snow machine time! I’ve never lived in a place that has a real winter, I’m sure it will be an educational experience.
Much has happened since my previous post. The fishing season made it another 5 days or so after I last published. I was hoping for one last hurrah, but the season fizzled out with a whimper instead of a bang. I really didn’t do all that great financially, but I made enough to get by for a while after the season ended. I didn’t know what to do with myself there at the end, I didn’t have enough money to really do anything with. I didn’t have any place lined up to stay at, and definitely didn’t want to go back to the lower 48. One of the last nights I was at the cannery, out of the blue I got a call from Ingrid. I suppose she had heard from Thor about my situation and decided to help me out. She said that I could stay with her at her condo, she had a guest bedroom I could use. I enthusiastically agreed, and when I came back to Anchorage I moved myself in. She’s an awesome lady and I greatly appreciate her stepping up and helping me get started here in Alaska.
Things have been going really well, Ingrid and I get along fine. She’s gone a lot of the time hanging out with Thor and for her job so I have the place to myself a lot. It’s a really nice condo, and mostly old ladies live here so it’s nice and quiet. I really love the location, I’m only about a 10 minute walk from downtown and close to all the major bus routes. One of the first things I did when I got back into town is buy a bike from the local volunteer-run bike collective. I got a really good deal on it, and got a helmet and fenders thrown in for free. It’s a game changer being able to get around on some wheels, I’ve been making huge bike journeys across town and up and down the Coastal Trail. I think my record bike trip so far is around 17 miles or so in a day. I constantly recall my days in Hawaii when I got around solely by bike, it’s been 20 years since biking has been my main way to get around. I’ve been getting super fit, between salmon season and my constant exercise I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in since my early 20’s.
One of my favorite things to do out on the Coastal Trail is stop at the point where it goes under the flight path of the airport and watch the planes land/takeoff. There’s always a few people hanging out there. It’s at a good turn-around spot so I’ll watch the planes for a while before I turn around and head back.
There was an incident the other day out on the trail where a lady who was hiking was attacked by a black mama bear with cubs. She only had minor injuries fortunately, but ever since I’ve carried bear spray on me while I’m out biking. I did have a pretty close moose encounter in the same general area as the attack. I came around a bend and suddenly a massive bull moose was there only about 15 feet off the trail. It had a huge rack and was contentedly munching on some foliage. Some morons (probably tourists) had stopped and were taking pictures of it from like 10 feet away. I blazed by without stopping, thinking those people probably shouldn’t be so close to the beast. It was probably 6 feet tall at the shoulder and would make short work of a human being if it had a mind to do so. I admit that the temptation to stop and take a photo was strong, but I wasn’t about to get in the moose’s space!
I had another funny incident with a moose the other day. I was riding another trail in the Greenbelt coming back from Wal-Mart. As I’m pedaling, I see a flash of brown to my right and see a young moose chasing after a magpie. The bird must have done something to really piss off the moose, as the moose was hell-bent on trying to stomp it. The funny thing was is that the magpie would fly a few feet, wait for the moose to get close, then fly a short distance away. It was getting off on tormenting the moose! It was interesting behavior to observe between animals. I asked a few people if they’ve ever witnessed something like that and they seemed to be as surprised by this happening as I was. You’ve got to wonder what is going on with these wild animals sometimes!
I got a chance to visit the Beyond Van Gogh exhibit here in Anchorage. Bethan’s birthday happened recently, and I went with her, her mom and a couple of her friends for the occasion. I didn’t know anything about it, I purposely went in blind. I was really blown away by the show! It’s a traveling exposition that features Van Gogh’s art, hence the name of the exhibition. They set up a bunch of screens and video projectors that surrounded the audience with visual collages of paintings. On every surface, art drifted and morphed around in an amazing display. It runs in a 45 minute loop, and there was very nice music accompaning the show. It was interesting watching one presentation evolve into the next. I took photos and short video snippets, but it was really hard to capture the essence of what was going on. It was one of those ‘you have to be there’ kind of things to truly appreciate. It was a really great time for sure, I would like to see other artists (Dali is the first to spring to mind) presented by this company. It was nice to see such a fresh take on classic art, if it ever comes to your town ya’ll should definitely check it out.
The Alaska State Fair runs for three weeks from mid-August to the first week of September, and it is a pretty big deal around here (as a state fair would be.) So many people I know were talking about it, I knew I had to check it out. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a state fair, and I was interested to see what kinds of exhibits and food a place like Alaska would feature. I rode along with Bethan and her mom, and they told me while it was a really cool fair, it wasn’t as impressive as a lower 48 state fair would be. I went in with an open mind, and wow! I was really impressed! There was truly something there for everyone. Every kind of food you could think of was there, as well as so many exhibits such as arts and crafts galleries & booths, animal shows, demolition derbies, monster truck rallies, live music, helicopter & carnival rides, axe throwing, gun raffles, and tons more activities too numerous to mention. It was definitely a slice of Alaska culture!
I left Bethan in charge of what we should check out, and she planned us a slate of things to do. We went to this juggler/comedian show first. After that we went and checked out a bunch of reptiles, then went and saw a falconer show off a bunch of his birds. When that was over we checked out all the farm animals, followed by all the food, vegetable, and plant best-of-shows. Lastly we saw all the arts and crafts stuff. Probably the highlight for me was seeing the state record pumpkin that weighed in at 2147 lbs. I really enjoyed seeing the reptiles as well, in particular some alligators and bearded dragons. The whole time I was walking around the fair, I had to stop and get some good fair food. There’s nothing like eating a big ‘ol BBQ turkey leg!
Scenes from around the fair.
On the job front, I’ve been doing pretty well. Since most of my professional work experience is in cannabis cultivation, I decided to try and get a job in that field. I found out that in Alaska you have to get what is called a ‘Marijuana Handler’s Licence’ to work anywhere in the industry. To get the licence, you have to pass a background check, take an online course, and pay a fee. The course cost money as well. In addition to the Handler’s licence, most places in Anchorage require you to get a ‘Food Handler’s Licence’ which costs another ten bucks and is done online. You’ve got to jump through a lot of hoops up here to get started working in the weed business, it’s definitely something I’m not used to. There’s an incredible amount of regulations to follow at the place of employment as well. I managed to get all my ducks in a row and applied to every dispensary in town. It took about a week, but I managed to land a cultivation job at this one shop. I really liked their operation, all of their plants were super healthy and everything was really organized, clean, and pest-free.
Unfortunately the management was a bunch of ex-military dudes and there was a weird vibe about the place. I’m used to working with a hippy vibe at grow shows, so it kind of threw me off. The guys I worked with in my crew were pretty cool though. The main thing I couldn’t stand was the extremely low pay they offered. I’m used to making 20-30 bucks an hour down in Santa Cruz doing this kind of work, but these jokers were offering 14 bucks an hour pre-tax! Even at full time, it’s impossible to survive in this town on so little. I took the job just to get some money rolling in while I continued my search for better paying work.
I actually got a interview with a rival dispensary within a couple days after I was hired. This new job paid 17 dollars an hour, which is still pretty horrible…but it’s a step in the right direction. The job was for making cannabis edibles, which is something I’ve never done professionally. I’m a great cook and I’m very knowledgeable about weed, so I figured I’d be a shoe-in for the job. The interview went great, and I have connections with the owner of the place. I wound up getting the job, and as soon as I found out I told my employer about it. They did not take it well at all! They accused me of being disloyal and untrustworthy, and wouldn’t even let me finish out the day. Oh well, screw those guys and their notion of ‘loyalty’. McDonald’s pays more than those jackals did, paying me so little for what I bring to the table is theft of my labor. Anyways, time to be the new guy yet again and learn yet another system. Hopefully I hope I can stick with this one for a while.
I finally had to bite the bullet and upgrade my blog. I ran out of storage, so I had to pay money or else find a new platform. Lord knows I didn’t want to do that after finally getting this one just the way I wanted it, so I had to splash out some cash. I got a deal on it so it wasn’t too expensive. Now I have more storage to keep me going for a while. In addition to that, I’m supposed to have eliminated ads for my readers (ya’ll let me know if you see ads on here and I’ll let WordPress know) and I have my own domain now! My new address for the blog is http://www.talesofthedogfish.com, I am free of WordPress hosting my site! My old address @ dogfishtales.wordpress.com still works, but it redirects to my new site automatically. It feels good to have my first-ever Internet domain all to myself, I feel a bit more professional! Well, that’s all for now, I’ll see ya’ll next time!
The title of this post says it all. While breakdowns and wild conditions at sea were something I expected, the steadily declining hauls we are taking in are not. That first week really set a high standard for the season, but each week since we’ve been pulling in less and less. What we caught that first week in an hour we have to grind for a whole day to catch now. There’s a lot of other salmon species getting into the mix as well, which is definitely not desirable. Reds fetch the most at 2.00 a pound, while dogs and humpies (chum and pink salmon) fetch much less. I think we only get only a quarter a pound for humpies, so seeing a bunch of those in the net isn’t great. We’ve been catching some nice silvers, I think they go for more but not as much as sockeye. It’s strange to be judging fish based on their monetary value. There’s so many fish we catch that I’d be overjoyed to catch on rod and reel, but in commercial fishing I have to look at the overall catch. I’ve got to see at least 100 fish come into the boat each trip to feel like it was a worthwhile day.
Probably the thing that gets me most excited is when we catch king salmon because they are so rare. Sportfisherman can’t keep them, but commercial fishermen can. We’ve only caught a couple in the net so far. One was on the small side, but the other was MASSIVE! I’m reeling the net up on the drum when this enormous thing rolls in over the transom. I thought it was a big log at first, but was shocked to see it was a huge king! It looked as big as the 40 lb. white sea bass I caught a few years back in the Monterey Bay. It was enormous compared to the usual size of salmon we usually catch. It was a beautiful fish, I have to say out of all the salmon the kings are the best looking. I really enjoy the shiny chrome on the silvers, but the kings are my favorite. When we got back to the dock the crew there were really excited about it. They weighed it for us. Turns out it was only 33 pounds, but it still was the biggest salmon I’ve ever seen in person. It was the biggest one Thor had caught in 5-6 years, so it’s not common at all. Catching that fish definitely made my week, that’s for sure!
The Cheryl Lynn has been having some issues lately. Everything seemed to work more or less fine at the beginning of the season, but starting with the overheating situation I talked about in the last post things have been going downhill. The engine keeps chewing up impellers, we’ve gone through 3 so far this season. The impeller is what failed initially and caused the engine to overheat, and for some reason it keeps happening. The last one Thor put in seems to be working the way it was supposed to, maybe it’ll last until the end of the season. We also had the hydraulics for the reel blow and get hydraulic fluid everywhere, and most seriously, we’ve had ongoing problems with the transmission. For whatever reason it’ll refuse to go into gear at times. One awful day we had all 3 things go wrong, that was fun.
The overheating and hydraulic issues seem to be fixed, but the transmission issue still is plaguing us. There’s something that Thor does to repressurize the lines that gets it to work, but it takes a few minutes. Out at sea in reasonable conditions this isn’t a problem, but it’s gone out on us twice now while waiting to get unloaded at the dock. The boat was at the mercy of the river’s current and we drifted helplessly into people’s boats. Both times Thor was screaming at me to get a line around any cleat on any passing boat I could, while the boat’s owners are screaming at me because we slammed into their boat. Not a good time at all. It’d be very easy for me to get crushed between boats or get knocked into the river when these kind of things happen. I’ve managed to keep the boat safe so far, but it really takes a lot out of me to do it. Now I approach dock landings with dread, as that’s when the shit usually hits the fan. There’s nothing like being exhausted after 12+ hours at sea and looking forward to having the day done, when you’re suddenly thrust into a dangerous scenario that you’ve got to be quick and precise to get out of. You can never let your guard down out here, especially not in port it seems!
To top off everything else, the weather has been giving us issues. Thor says we’ve gotten more wind than usual this season. The wind can kick up any time of day and can whip the inlet into a froth. There’s been times where it was just too much to go out in, so the fleet stayed at port. We had one day where things really got intense. Thor and I had been letting a net soak for 2-3 hours and we knew it was going to be a nice set from all the fish splashing we had seen. The waves at the time were only around 2-4 feet, no big deal. We did know that there would be a small craft advisory later on in the afternoon, but we figured we’d get our fish and get back before the swells and wind kicked in. We started hauling in the net well before the winds were to start blowing, and sure enough, it was loaded. As we got to the end of the first shackle, suddenly the wind started blowing strong out of nowhere. The swells tripled in height, and it was all we could do to stay on our feet. When you’re picking fish you don’t have anything to hold on to, so we were getting tossed around all over the place. It soon became a dangerous situation, it was the salmon version of Deadliest Catch. It just kept getting worse and worse and we didn’t bother picking the last 20 feet of net. We just left it on the deck with the fish still in it and scrambled for the cabin. I said to Thor “get us out of here Scotty,” and we made a beeline for the dock.
When the waves struck, we were in the middle of the inlet. Thor said that it should get better the closer we got to land, but it stayed the same all the way back to the river! It was an intense, white-knuckled trip back. A couple of times I got the sick feeling that the boat was about to roll, but the Cheryl Lynn is a beast and handled everything the sea threw at her. Thor designed her well. He claimed that he’d been in worse and it hadn’t rolled then. Fortunately everything worked when we needed it to, but if we would have broken down out in that slop, things might have gotten pretty dire. When we made it back to the river it was as wild as I’ve ever seen it before. It was a nerve-wracking affair getting docked, off-loaded and back to our anchor buoy. I was so high on adrenaline by the time it was all over and done with, it took all evening to mellow back out. Thor was as shell-shocked as I was, and to celebrate a good day’s catch in such rough conditions we went and had dinner at a really nice restaurant in town. All we could do is talk about what we had just made it through. One minute we were in a tempest at sea and the next we were in a nice comfortable restaurant surrounded by people who had no idea what was going on out there on the inlet. It was two different worlds existing right next to one another.
It was the most intense conditions I’ve ever been in out at sea by far. Thor said he thought we were in 12 foot seas. We caught a few waves that broke over the bridge, and I was looking out at waves higher than the windows a lot of the time. It wasn’t that much fun to be in the middle of something like that, but it was an exhilarating experience to survive nonetheless. The fact that we caught 300 fish despite the poor conditions made getting out of that situation even sweeter. Thor really complimented me on my deckhanding skills that day. It was a real trial-by-fire I guess, and I passed the test with flying colors. Here’s a video I took on our way back, sorry for the vertical filming! I wasn’t really thinking straight at the time.
The wind blew strong for the next day, keeping the fleet from going out. That night the wind died down and we were able to return to fishing the next day. It was as still as a lake out there with calm conditions. It was such a huge change, it was hard to believe that 48 hours before it had been a real washing machine out there!
So as of today (August 2nd) the season is looking like it’s pretty much over. The past few days we’ve just been out there struggling for fish. We’ll leave out the net 3 hours at a time for 20-30 fish. The season is technically open to the 15th, but I don’t see it going on for much longer. Supposedly, the Department of Fish and Game announced that they had counts of 150 fish on their indexes when they were out testing a couple days ago, but for some reason the fleet can’t seem to tap into that biomass. People are already starting to make appointments to get their boats out of the water. There definitely is a vibe in the air that the season is pretty much a done deal. If you can’t catch enough to make it worth your while, then it’s not worth going out.
I’m pretty stressed because I have made far less than I had anticipated this season. At this point I fear I’ve barely broke even on this whole thing. Of course, I didn’t expect to make what I did last year at the lodge, but not this much less! I definitely have made some good connections and gotten a lot of experience in the process however, that was my main goal for this season. It’s definitely been an adventure! Still, I can’t help but to think that this fishery is on its last legs. All the young guys are fishing over in Bristol Bay making big money. I heard they had a record breaking season over there. The run there this year was 69.7 million sockeye! It is the Super Bowl of sockeye fishing. Hopefully with the experience I have from this season I can get a spot on a boat there next year. It’s a tough fishery though, I’ve heard conditions can get pretty nasty over there during the season. I also hear about a lot of horror stories about bad things happening to fishermen over there. Thor’s son had a 47 year old deckhand on his boat suffer a heart attack this year and had to be medevaced out. I also heard a story about a boat that had its reel break off and squash a deckhand against the transom. I heard he lived, but he broke several bones (including his back) and ruptured some internal organs. I’ve never looked at a reel the same way after hearing that story!
Since I was counting on having a lot more money at the end of the season, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do next. I’m totally overwhelmed with debt, don’t have a place to live, no job lined up yet, and my truck is thousands of miles away. I’ve got some ideas on what to do next but none of them are good options. I’m waiting to see how things turn out and talk to some people before I make a solid plan to proceed. I’m not really looking forward to what lies ahead of me, I feel like I’m in between a rock and a hard place for sure. The best thing is that I’m somewhere where I want to be, now I’ve just got to figure out a plan to stay up here. With winter right around the corner I don’t have much time to get things squared away one way or another. I’m hoping things work out for the best. I’m doing all I can at the moment to make that as likely as possible. Well, I’ll be seeing what the future has in store for me very soon I suppose.
Well, much has happened since the last time I’ve posted. I got to witness what I call the ‘Great Dandelion Detonation’ in Anchorage. Of course, anywhere there are dandelions growing there’s always that time of year when you’ve got some fluff in the air. In Anchorage however, the fluff is like a snowstorm! You actually have drifts of fluff in people’s yards and alongside the roads. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The fuzzy was all over the place!
On a day when the fluff was thickest, I was walking to the Carr’s (Alaskan Safeway) from the house I was staying at in Anchorage. The streets leading to the grocery store wound though a bunch of suburban neighborhoods in the middle of town, so running into wildlife was the last thing I was expecting. I was walking down the sidewalk through the fluff drifts, as I was fiddling around with my phone. When I looked up from my screen, out of a side street to my left came a moose the size of a horse that was jogging in my direction! It was about only about a hundred feet away from me, it was the closest I’ve been to a moose that can actually get at me. I did an immediate 180 degree turn and started walking away from it. After I walked a short distance, I turned around to see what the moose was up to.
Fortunately, it was heading in the other direction down the street. It all happened so fast that I didn’t get a picture, although I tried. Since the way I had to go was the direction the moose had ran, I cautiously continued my walk. I think the moose ducked out in a creek bed that intersected the street a ways down, as I never saw it again. I figure it was a young male moose out wandering around looking for ladies or something. The moose you really have to look out for are the mamas with babies, although any moose could mess you up if you got on its bad/crazy side. This goes to show that you never know what you’ll run into outdoors in Alaska! The moment you step outside you could encounter any kind of critter, even in the middle of a densely populated area.
I went with Bethan and her mom to go check out the local botanical garden on one of my last Anchorage visits. I used to work at one when I lived in Hot Springs, so I was interested in checking out what they had here in Anchorage. It was small, but what it lacked in size, it gained in just the sheer variety of plant species. There were so many different kinds of native ground mosses, flowers and berries on display. Over the course of the summer different kinds of flowers bloom at different times. At the time we visited most of the early season varieties had already bloomed, and the late summer flowers had yet to produce, so the garden was in a bit of a lull. There were still plenty of flowers blooming however, so there was still much to see.
This was a pretty interesting display. I didn’t see any mushrooms on this shroomy bus, but it seems like a work in progress.
Some pictures from around the garden.
The major thing going on lately is that ‘The Big Show’ is well underway around here. That’s the general term for the fleet kicking off the salmon season. It’s kind of like Burning Man for the fisher folk. Over time, more and more people started showing up around the cannery. Around the end of June is when it really got hopping. Fortunately, Thor and I had the boat ready to go long before most of our fellow fishermen did, so we got to sit back and watch everyone else go crazy getting their boats in the water.
It’s now a couple of weeks into the season, and I have a few thoughts on the experience so far. The first thing is that commercial fishing in Alaska is a whole different beast than fishing for fun anywhere else. There’s only special days when we can go fishing, and sometimes they run consecutively. This means that you have to go fishing whenever you are allowed to, or you’re leaving money on the table. No matter if you’re injured, or sleep deprived, you’ve got to go. Injuries are really bad, because if you hurt yourself in a small way it never has a chance to heal properly. Then it keeps getting worse and worse, and you’ve got to figure ways to treat it (or keep it from getting worse at least.) This job is hell on the hands, fingers and wrists. I’m constantly popping Advil, icing and bandaging wounds. I’m used to getting injured fishing, it comes with the territory. Getting wounded and working through it is something I’m having to get used to. Fortunately it’s made me a lot more safety-minded and I’m learning how to not get injured in the first place. Still, some things just come out of nowhere and there’s nothing you can do about it. I just try and cultivate situational awareness as much as I can.
Another thing that has been a challenge is learning how to properly tie up our big boat when the river current is flowing strongly. Depending on the tide, the Kenai River can really get rolling. This really becomes an issue when tying up. There’s only so much force I can haul on a line in those kind of currents with that big of a boat. We had issues the other night when I tied off the Cheryl Lynn to the dock for our off-load. Right after I tied up, I noticed that the dock cleat I had just looped the line around started to lean over to the side facing our boat. The heavy current was putting enormous strain on the cleat, while Thor had the boat in gear to try and counteract the force of the water. Obviously, the cleat was rotten and couldn’t take the strain. There were people around besides me, we all ran for cover because when that thing eventually blasted off the dock it was going to go with lethal force. I couldn’t untie the boat because of the dangerous situation, so Thor gunned the boat and ripped the whole thing out. It came out like a bullet and slammed into the hull like a slingshot. That would have crushed a body part for sure.
Right after this happened, we tied up to another cleat and while I was unloading the fish, our engine started to overheat. We managed to make it back to our anchor buoy before a little bit of steam turned into huge clouds, filling the cabin. One of the skiff drivers came over to us, he thought we were on fire! Luckily, Thor managed to fix the problem the next day without calling in a mechanic, so we’re all good now. It was such a stressful off-load after a 20 hour day, things tend to go to shit when you’re least prepared to deal with them out here. As ya’ll can see, the whole docking aspect of this job can be really challenging. There’s just so much that can go wrong when you’ve got big boats crashing up into docks.
The ocean is wildly unpredictible around here. The tides rule everything, since they have a huge range. It’ll swing over 20 feet in 6 hours, and the access to the river is only possible when the water is high enough. We’ve had to wait out at sea for enough water to fill in the river mouth before we could enter. As for being out at sea, it’s generally pretty rough and choppy. Four to six foot swells are normal to work in. Occasionally it is nice and flat, but those times are few and far between. You have to really be careful on deck when things get rough, as it’d be so easy to get thrown overboard by wave action. Today as I write this (July 18) the entire fleet had to turn around due to really nasty conditions. It’s a shame because it’s such a nice sunny day, too bad it was unfishable out there. Swells were rolling 8-10 feet, it was rough. We all headed out to sea in a pack, and one by one boats peeled off to return to port. Thor went out a good ways to see if the waves would lay down some, but it was just too much to safely be on deck. It was a wild ride from inside the cabin though!
As far as the fishing itself is concerned, we’ve been doing pretty well. We’ve caught between 1000 to 3500 lbs of sockeye every time we’ve gone out. Salmon is going for 2 dollars a pound at the cannery, so we get a few thousand a trip. Captain Thor has been impressed by my deckhanding skills and has told me he’s going to give me 20% of the total, which is the experienced deckhand wage. This means I can make a pretty good amount of money for a good day’s fishing. For instance, if we catch 3000 lbs that’s 6,000 dollars. My 20% of that would be 1200 bucks, pretty nice! You can see why everyone is pushing as hard as they can to fish. Our fishing periods are Monday and Thursday, and we can fish from 7 AM to 7 PM. The Department of Fish & Game can add days depending on their daily sampling of the total fish population. This week every day but Tuesday was a fishing day.
I must say that while it is impressive catching so many fish, I really miss having that connection with the fish you get while regular sport fishing. When sport fishing, I feel that every fish has a story attached to it. Some fight while others come up without struggle. Others are smart enough to spit the hook or do something to get themselves unhooked. You’ve got to find the proper bait selection, depth, location and things like that. When you have a good fight with a fish and win, it’s just the best feeling in the world. With gillnetting, you put out your net, reel it in after a certain interval, remove the fish, and chuck them into the hold. No fish has a story, it’s like assembly line work. Sometimes when I catch a big fish I like to comment on the size of it, or how nice its colors are. In a way I feel it gives a little bit of dignity to the fish. There’s no thrill to it like the way it is when I’m fishing kings with my boys back in the Monterey Bay. It is what it is though. I’m glad to have the opportunity to do this work, but I can’t wait until I can get a rod and reel in hand to fish the proper way again.
Our fishing days run really long. Typically I’ll wake up at 3:30 and leave the dock at 4. It’s usually 1-3 hours to get to the fishing grounds out in the inlet, and that same amount of time to get back. Then with the off-load taking 1-3 hours, you’ve got quite a long day. Most of our days average 18-20 hours. It takes me a full day to recuperate if I’m lucky enough to have a day off. If the fishing is open the next day, you get a couple hours sleep and you’re back at it. You’ve just got to get by with cat naps here and there. There is a lot of down time letting the net soak, but when it is time to pull it in and get the fish out it’s a lot of work. When the boat is pitching around it gets wild!
I’ve come a long way in the two weeks we’ve been going out. I think I’ve got the fish picking part down, that was the hardest thing to learn how to do. The gillnet is about 13 feet deep, and when you bring it up on the boat it’s compressed into about a 3 foot swath of net. The salmon are all tangled up in there and it takes a lot of practice getting them out. We use these little metal picks to get the netting off of the fish, they are like tiny gaffs. They are also good at hooking the fish in the head in order to get a better grip on them. Sometimes the fish are small enough to just pull through once you get the head clear, but most are snarled up in there. It took me a few trips to really get the hang of it, and now I can get all but the most tangled up fish out of the net. Thor says that I picked it up faster than most people he’s seen, so I take that as a great compliment.
There’s a neat little community of fishermen down here at the cannery. Everyone knows each other from years of fishing together. People are divided into what is known as groups. Groups all fish together and share information with each other at sea. Our group has a code system so if one guy finds the fish, he can announce it to everyone over the radio in code so non-group members won’t get in on it. We’ve got a good group full of some interesting characters. Occasionally some of the crew will cook up a whole bunch of food and we’ll all get together and socialize. A lot of these guys are from Washington and Oregon, they fish down there and up here commercially. I just love sitting around with these salty dogs and hearing their stories. It’s a real good scene here of mostly older people. Everybody helps everyone out with whatever they need, as we’re all in this together.
Our very first voyage was 4 days at sea to start off the season. The plan was to head out on the 4th of July and make our way down to Snug Harbor on the other side of the inlet. It’s 52 miles away from Kenai and takes about 3 hours to get down there. Historically, all the fishermen went down there to party on the holiday, I heard it was a quite a scene down there on that day. We were going to fish the area down by Chisik Island (where Snug Harbor is located) and overnight in the calm waters of Snug. I’ve been hearing about this place for a while from different people, and seen it in some of Thor’s artwork. Thor’s girlfriend Ingrid had taken off work for the week and she was going to join us on our trip. Thor was excited to show us the place that meant so much to him, and I was definitely stoked to experience the wilderness on the other side of the strait.
We made our way down there and fished all day. There was a tender (boat that collects fish) from our cannery at the anchorage in Snug, so in the evening we brought our first haul in and off-loaded it there. I was blown away by how beautiful this place was. I’d say that it is probably the most scenic spot I’ve seen in Alaska so far. The waters were turquoise in color, rather than the grey cloudy glacial water that is seen coming out of the rivers of the Kenai penninsula. It was surrounded by lush green mountains and in the background many snowy white peaks of the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve loomed. It is home to an old cannery that is still in operation as a bed and breakfast. A handful of houses dot the shorelines, but other than that it’s undeveloped. We dropped anchor across from the cannery and went to bed around 10 o’clock. Around midnight when the sky started to get dark, some people at the cannery launched a round of fireworks from the beach. It freaked me out at first, but I soon realized what was happening. It didn’t even bother me that they woke me up, I’m glad I got to see some 4th of July fireworks!
The next day was a day not scheduled for fishing, so we just spent the day going over to other fishermen’s boats to see what they were up to. We’d tie up alongside and just sit around to shoot the breeze. The big party I was told would happen never materialized, I was all ready for some barbecue, bonfires and beers. Oh well, at least I had a lot of beautiful scenery to feast my eyes on. It was a bluebird kind of day, nothing but sun and clear blue skies. Every direction looked like something you could see on a postcard. We lounged around all day, and in the afternoon we got the news that the following day was a fishing day. So we went out and fished that day and the next, returning to Snug at night at the end of each day.
It was nice to visit there, but I got really poor sleep on the day bed in the cabin. All I could think about it my nice bed in my camper back at the cannery. When we got back I crashed for a couple of days, it was wonderful. That trip was the longest I’ve ever been out at sea. While I really liked the adventure of it all, it’s not something I want to do again for a while. Maybe if the boat was bigger and I had a more comfortable place to sleep it would be different, but my back and hips got really screwed up from sleeping on plywood with a thin layer of foam on top. Being middle-aged sucks, I miss the days when I didn’t have to contend with constant daily pains throughout my body. I try to do what I can to avoid it in the first place, that’s my only defense.
A collection of photos of yours truly and of Snug Harbor.
There is so much activity going on right now here in Kenai related to fishing. It’s as if the whole population has turned out to fish for reds on the river. You’ve got us in the gillnet fleet, dipnetters on the beach, and above us on the river are the set net folks. Dipnetters camp out on the beach, and spend all day in the water in their waders. They have giant hoop nets out in the current, occasionally a red will swim into them. They do pretty well from what I hear. Whole families turn out and fish together, heads of households can keep 25 and each family member can keep 20. A good day of fishing will stock up the family freezer for a whole winter, but the fishery is only open to Alaska residents. Then you have the set netters, who anchor their nets and go out in their skiffs occasionally to retrieve the fish. I don’t know much about set net operations, I tried to look up their limits but can’t find anything online. Like us, they can only fish on certain days of the week.
So that’s pretty much what’s happening around here. There’s so many things going on daily, this fishing life is pretty dynamic. If I were to try and tell ya’ll about everything that has gone down I’d be writing this post forever. Suffice to say that Alaska is a pretty extreme place. This makes the highs really high and the lows pretty low. Things turn on a dime, you never know what is coming at you. I like that uncertainty, it’s so much more my speed than the boring and predictable lower 48. Anyways, I’ll try and update the blog more often. It’s hard to find time to write though. Either I’m fishing, getting ready to fish, or recuperating from fishing. I still can’t believe I’m getting paid to fish! It’s been a life-long dream for me. Ok, see ya’ll next time!
I’ve finally had to get back to business this past week. I had a nice 3 week idyll in Anchorage hanging out doing nothing, but it was time to get to work down in Kenai. Thor and I have moved into our trailers on the grounds of Pacific Star Seafoods, a cannery right on the Kenai River. We’re only about a mile away from the river mouth, so the commute will be pretty reasonable once the season starts! This week’s featured image was taken from the banks of the Kenai River around Old Town, looking back at our cannery’s docks from a couple of miles away. The cannery itself is only about half a mile from town, and I get good internet speeds there with my AT&T data plan. These two things have made my work experience completely different this year compared to working at Yes Bay, it’s a game-changer. I also have my own trailer, it is fantastic to have my own space! Over in Thor’s trailer is a fridge and microwave, so we’ve got the food preparation aspect of our camp covered.
The only negative thing I have to say about my accomodations is our finicky power situation. There’s too much load on the outlet that we are having to use to power both of our trailers. It’s fine as long as we keep our heaters off, but with them on (along with the fridge and whatever else Thor and I have powered on at the time) we trip the breaker. Unfortunately Kenai is very cold at night. It’s a lot colder here than in Anchorage, there’s always a chilly wind blowing. My trailer is super drafty, so without a heater going it gets pretty frigid. I’ve got to wear a couple layers of clothes and a knit hat under a couple of blankets to stay warm. It’s kinda crazy that it’s the beginning of June and I’ve got to bundle up like it was the middle of winter down south! That’s Alaska for you!
Work has been going well so far. These past few days have been spent patching, stripping and hanging nets on Thor’s boat, named the Cheryl Lynn. The way nets work on a drift boat is there are sections of the net (called shackles) that are around 100 yards long. Three or four of these shackles are wound around a huge roller that looks just like a conventional fishing reel. Our first project of the season was to take off all the nets and inspect them. Depending on the severity of holes in the net, our options were to mend the damage or just scrap the whole thing and tie on a new one. The first shackle wasn’t too bad. Thor showed me how to patch a basic hole, which took a surprising amount of effort for me to get right. I’m pretty good with tying knots, but it takes a bit of practice to translate that skill into repairing nets. After a day or so, I was pretty competent at doing basic square holes. I worked on the small ones while Thor took care of the really big rips.
We got the first one done, and wound it back up on the reel. The other three shackles were too damaged to attempt repairing, so Thor showed me how to go about cutting out the old net from the ropes that hold it together. There’s a top rope with floats called the cork line and a bottom rope with a lead core called the lead line. Stripping a shackle requires taking a permanent marker and marking where the knots holding the net are located on the cork and lead lines, then slicing off the knots. Reattaching the net requires a simple stitch that is endlessly repeated. Stripping and hanging is very monotonous, but I actually really enjoyed it. It was a lot like trimming weed, I just popped in my earbuds and listened to my favorite podcast while I stitched away.
Other than starting to get our boat & gear seaworthy the past week or so, Thor has been busy getting ready for his art show at the Kenai Art Center. He and his father are big names in the Kenai art scene, actually Thor’s mom and dad were founding members of the center. Unfortunately, they both passed last year, but Thor is keeping his family’s art alive. Along with his art, Thor included a few of his dad’s pieces he thought people would like to see. I helped him move a lot of his canvases from Anchorage down here for the show, but there were a few at his family’s homestead outside of Kenai he wanted to bring as well. I’ve heard about the old family homestead a lot, so I was stoked to go check it out when Thor asked me if I wanted to go over there with him.
Thor and his family first came up to Kenai back in the late 50’s. Back then, it was at the height of people coming up to Alaska to stake their claim on property. You were entitled to 160 acres if you lived on the land, built a residence, and farmed at least 10% of it within 5 years of your initial claim. Thor’s dad brought his family up from Iowa and they came up to Alaska looking for a fresh start (like pretty much all of us then and now). He found this piece of land that was out on a isthmus between a couple of lakes and figured that was the best place to set up shop. It is a pretty place indeed. I’ve included pictures of the house and the views from either side of the driveway. These days, Thor’s son has taken operational control of the house and offers it up on Airb&b for rent. The day Thor and I went up there to get the art, a Hawaiian family was there getting their party on. They were good island folk, and didn’t mind Thor and I invading their privacy to get some canvases off the walls. The property still has about 90 percent of the initial land claim given to it. Thor’s parents broke off about 20 acres to the town for a senior center to be built, which actually they wound up spending the last days of their lives in. The Evensons were (and are) such pillars of the Kenai community, it’s nice learning about their history in this town.
A couple of days ago the art show went down, and it was a great success for Thor! He sold some pieces and the opening day went really well for him. He’s done interviews for the local paper and radio station, so word got out and quite a few people showed up. Everyone I met at the gallery has a lot of respect for him and his family, and it was really cool to be on the inside of such a cool local artistic shindig.
A selection of my favorite pieces. Thor had quite the variety of art to show, there was something for everyone.
I attended the opening for a bit, then I broke away and wandered around town to take some pics. I just love the vibe down in Kenai, there’s just so much history around old town. Next door there was a bunch of old cabins that were all restored, and there was a nice lady posted up there that took me on a tour to tell me all about their history. It was a great open-air exhibit, there were historical cabins outfitted as close as possible to how they were in the past. There were cabins staged as a school, grocery, residence, and shacks for fishing and trapping. Alaska is such a relatively new place that history doesn’t have to be that old to be noteworthy, as a hundred years is about as far back as it goes. With the harsh winters here, you really have to try to preserve history around here if you want to keep it around. Kenai is doing a pretty good job of it as far as I can see.
I wasn’t far away from where the old Russian Orthodox church was, so I walked on over there. I’ve been meaning to get some shots of the church, as well as some other old cabins located nearby.
I really like how the blue of the steeple matches the sky.I’m no fan of organized religion, but I know a beautiful building when I see it.
My favorite historical cabin in Kenai.
This past weekend I decided to change up my living situation. Thor and I have been headed back to Anchorage on the weekends, and I’ve been staying with him at his place up to this point. Bethan’s aunt is down in the lower 48 for an extended period of time, so I was given the opportunity to stay at her vacant house when I’m in town. It’s a super nice 2 story house in the suburbs of south Anchorage, it feels like I’m staying at an Airb&b. All Bethan and her mom ask of me is to water all the plants in and outside the house whenever I stay there. It’s a great deal for me and them, it was nice to have so much room and a really comfortable firm bed to sleep on. Staying there will really help me recharge during my weekend downtime this season. It’s walking distance to a couple grocery stores and right across the street from some great hiking trails, so it’s got everything I need right close by.
At last, today (Monday the 6th) we got the final net hung and on the boat. It was very satisfying rolling the last length on the net drum, I feel like I just loaded a spool of fresh line on my favorite reel! It took a couple of weeks, but Thor says we’re still ahead of schedule. The fishermen are starting to stream into the cannery boatyard to work on their boats and get their nets ready for the season. I’ve already met some interesting characters, fishing always attracts a motley crew! Thor’s been fishing with most of these guys for decades, he’s constantly telling me stories about his fellow fishermen and their boats. I talked to this one younger guy today, he just came up from Seward where he put 70,000 lbs of reds (sockeye) on his boat in the past week and a half or so. He seems to think such a large haul bodes well for our season over here in Kenai. I sure hope so! Thor says he thinks this will be his last season, so it’d be good for him to cap off a 60 year fishing career with one big last hurrah. Of course it would be good for my finances as well! Now that we got the nets done, it’s time to get working on the boat itself. Hopefully (knock on wood) we won’t have any major mechanical issues with the Cheryl Lynn and it’s smooth sailing to opening day here in a couple of weeks. I’m ready to get out on the water and get my fish on!
Down in the lower 48, spring lasts a good 3 months or so in most places. Here, one week it’s winter, the next week the snow is melted and it’s t-shirt weather! When I got here back at the beginning of the month, there was still a lot of snow on the ground. I usually would wear 2-3 layers in my strolls around town. Within a week’s time however, all the snow piles were gone and trees everywhere all simultaneously burst out in green. The past couple of days I’ve been walking around in short sleeves and have been completely comfortable. It’s in the upper 60’s and the breeze is refreshing walking around in the warm sunshine.
I’ve pretty much hiked every trail within a 5 mile radius of Thor’s apartment, and everywhere else in the town I can easily walk to. According to my Google Timeline Insights, I have walked a total of 65 miles this month! I usually hike 3-5 miles a day, it’s becoming an addiction! I had major phone issues the second week I was here (I had to switch from T-Mobile to AT&T, what a nightmare that was!) and ventured down to the midtown area for the first time to try and remedy my communication problems. It’s kind of scuzzy down there with all the bums, but I discovered a great Hawaiian restaurant in the process.
There’s quite a few homeless here in Anchorage, but there are great mobs of them congregating everywhere the closer you get to midtown. I was hiking a trail down there the other day and the whole forest along a major multi-use trail was populated by homeless camps. One twacked-out fellow came up to me asking if I had seen some big dude on a bike, probably his dealer or something. Other than that I’ve had no issues, but some places around town give me a sketchy vibe. Not hard to avoid those spots though.
A couple of weekends ago, Bethan suggested that we get out of Anchorage and go down south about 40 miles to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Bethan and her mom packed a picnic lunch and we all headed down there to check it out. Bethan wanted to stop at this little nursery along the way and buy some flowers, so we made a detour and checked it out. It was at someone’s private residence, which was pretty cool. There was a lady selling her art out front and the place was happening! It was Mother’s Day and it seemed like that was the place to be. It was a beautiful garden, well maintained and stocked with any plant you could desire.
After Bethan adopted a few new plant friends, we made our way down to the center. It’s a pretty big place, they’ve got lots of space for their animals. It’s a conservation center, so the animals that are there can’t survive in the wild for whatever reason. They’ve got all kinds of animals, like wood bison, wolves, musk ox, moose, reindeer, and black and brown bears. The black bears put on a show, but we never saw the grizzlies. They have the largest enclosure full of hiding spots, so it is probably not surprising we didn’t see any. The Conservation Center is in a really beautiful valley outside the turnoff to Portage, and is a nice place to spend an hour or two.
A few of the critters we saw at the center.
After we got our fill of walking around the Conservation Center, we got back in the car and make the short drive over to Portage Lake. Bethan and I came up here last year in early June, and the lake was almost ice-free then. There was more snow on the mountains than last year around this time, and there were still sheets of ice floating around on the surface. When the wind blew, the sheets started grinding against each other, piling up big ridges of ice crystals everywhere. It made a rather pleasing sound as the sheets crashed into each other, like glass shattering into shards. We got out our picnic spread and enjoyed the view while we ate our snacks. The wind coming off of the mountains was a bit chilly, so after we got done we didn’t linger for very long. While it was pretty warm down in town, winter was still lingering around the lake!
Last weekend, Thor told me that his friend Amy had some yard work she could use some help with. I leapt at the chance, as I definitely needed some positive cash flow. Amy is a cool lady, she works for the park service up at Denali National Park. I guess she helps pick fish on Thor’s boat when he needs the help, so we’ll probably be working together at some point during the summer. In the course of my workday I had to go pick up some supplies from the Home Depot. She let me take her Toyota Tacoma to run the errand. When I got back I told her how much I liked driving it. It was a stick shift, and I really miss driving a vehicle with a manual transmission. She then told me I could borrow it and go road tripping if I wished!
Her suggestion was that I should take it up to Talkeetna (where she is from) and check out the town. There’s great views of Denali to see from there as well. While I was up there, she also said I should stop by and visit her brother at their family’s old homestead. After a call to see if it was ok to stop by, I was informed that her bro could use some help moving some things around on the property. Just like that, I had a working vacation set up! I thanked her for her kindness, and promised her I’d take care of her baby as if it were my own.
The next day, I got up early and hit the road. After a couple weeks of only having my feet to get around on, it was awesome having some wheels. I headed up Highway 3 into Mat-Su Valley. The road went through Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, which is probably the most boring and bland Alaskan town I’ve yet been to. They have a Sonic and Raising Cane’s there though, so that took my appreciation of the town up a notch. After Wasilla there’s not much in the way of civilization. There’s a few houses sprinkled along the highway and a gas station or two, but other than that it’s just empty land for the most part.
After almost 3 hours on the road I pulled into the village of Talkeetna. Now this was the small town Alaska experience I was looking for! The place had quite a bit of character. There were throngs of tourists everywhere, I guess this is a popular place to visit on the road to Denali. I was pretty hungry, so I stopped at Shirley’s Burger Barn for a caribou green chilie cheeseburger. It was pretty tasty, it was like eating a burger made from lean hamburger meat.
After I ate, I walked down the main drag to a park that was located at the end of the street. There was a lot of snow on the ground still up here, and it was a bit colder than down south. The Susitna River was still full of ice, breakup was in full swing. Denali stood in full view to the north, and for the first time I got to see this monster of a mountain. You can actually just barely make it out on the horizon in Anchorage about 225 miles away, in Talkeetna it dominates the skyline and it’s still 150 miles away. It’s the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen by far! It was incredible to be so close to the roof of North America.
I took in the sights of town for a while, and when I had my fill I rolled on over to Amy’s family homestead. Amy’s brother Chris was in the middle of trying to get a snowplow off the front of his truck and not having much success. As we both tried to figure out how to remove it, we got to talking. He’s an interesting fellow who works for the railroad. He’s coming off a 6 month medical leave of absence, and wasn’t able to get around that well. This being the case, I offered to help him with whatever I could while I was there. He took me up on that, so after we got the plow off of the truck we got his boat out of storage and pulled it out into the yard with his tractor. Chris is a commercial salmon guy like Thor, although Chris fishes king salmon out of anchored nets. His season is kind of crazy, they only get one day a week from 7 AM to 1 PM to catch as many fish as possible. I guess it has to be regulated like that to keep the fishery going.
Chris’s dog Winchester is a good ‘ol Alaska hound dog. I gave him a good ear scratch and he kept hounding me for more.
Chris wanted to move his broken-down snow machine into his shed, but since it weighed close to 500 lbs he wanted to wait until a friend of his got there to help move the thing. While we waited, he broke out a bottle of vodka and we got to drinkin’. He had some moose meat to cook, so I decided to make a moose sauce piquant and show him how to cook Cajun food. Eventually Chris’s girlfriend and his friend made it home (bringing more vodka) and we got our party on. While the sauce piquant was cooking, we went and manhandled the snow machine. I pulled something in my back in the process, but we got it indoors. Those things are so heavy, I don’t know how they avoid sinking in the snow! Allegedly they can even ride on water short distances when you’re going fast.
After the work was taken care of, it was time for dinner. I was stoked to try out my Alaska-Louisiana fusion creation, unfortunately the moose was so tough it was inedible. It tasted good, but it was like chewing on leather! I figure some time in a pressure cooker would take care of that problem. The sauce piquant part came out good however, we had some rice to eat with it so the dinner wasn’t a total loss. We kicked back after dinner and got pretty hammered. It was my first time hanging out in an Alaska house party situation, and it was just like hanging out with Louisiana people. Obviously it’s different, but it felt like the same down-home vibe I grew up with. Country people are the same everywhere, no matter if they live in the Deep South or the Far North. I definitely felt at home hanging out with those cats, I really enjoyed being there.
As it got dark around midnight, I felt like I needed to lay down. I vaguely remember staggering to my bed in the guest house. I slept really well, and I didn’t wake up until late morning. I needed to hit the road, so I went to the main house to tell everyone goodbye. Chris really wanted me to stay a few more days and work on some projects with him. Thor and I had plans to go down to Kenai the next day however, so I had to turn him down. He gave me some cash for helping him out the day before, and I thanked him for his hospitality. I then made the uneventful trip back to Anchorage. All in all, I highly recommend Talkeetna! The town has character, great views of Denali, and really friendly locals. I hope to spend more time there in the future.
Thor and I returned to Kenai the next day to handle some business, and to see what was going on at the cannery. We were anxious to move into our trailers and start getting the boat set up. When we got to the cannery, the foreman told us they were wrapping up the electrical work. It still would be a few more days though. We really needed to start on mending our nets, so Thor said we would come up and stay on the boat while we worked on it. I wasn’t too keen to stay on a boat in dry-dock with no power, but it was what it was. I was glad to be moving forward, regardless of accomodations.
We ran a few more errands, and then Thor took me to old town Kenai to show me where he grew up. They still have gravel roads there in that part of town on the bank of the Kenai River. It’s a very unique place, I really like it. At the center is a big Russian Orthodox Church (which I forgot to take a picture of) surrounded by old cabins built by the Russians (also forgot photos). This is the first time I’ve seen remnants of Russian Alaska, so that was cool. Thor took me to this cool little cafe called Veronica’s Cafe and Coffee House for lunch. It was also in a historic building, really cool little spot.
Well, that pretty much catches me up on everything I’ve done these past 3 weeks. I didn’t expect to have this amount of time to explore and get into things, but it worked out great. There’s nothing I love more than seeing new places, as well as meeting cool people and doing interesting things in said places. I’ve gotten a perspective on life here from the local point of view, which is how I like to roll. Once we start working, I won’t have the time to explore around, so I’m glad I was able to ease into the season this way. It’s been fun, but I’m ready to start fishing! It won’t be long now!
It’s been a while, but I’m back in action! After I got back from the desert last fall, I headed back home to Louisiana for a couple of weeks. I partied in New Orleans a bit and finally got around to moving all the stuff out of my storage unit down in Madisonville. I took it all up to Natchez, MS and moved everything into a new unit, which was quite a mission. I then spent some time with the family before returning back to Santa Cruz in early December. I had been traveling and working by that point for almost 6 months, and I hit a brick wall on my return. To finally come to a stop after all my traveling and adventures was jarring. All I wanted to do was to hop on a plane and come back to Alaska, it was hard to get back into California life. I had spent all my summer money by then so I had to find employment. There wasn’t much work available from my usual sources, so I had to get a job at the local natural food store working in the deli. I worked with great people and management, but it was just soul-destroying work. I hadn’t worked a job serving the public in many years, and I came to remember how much I loathed having to cater to the whims of entitled customers. I put my nose to the grindstone and got through it, but I feel like that’s going to be the last winter I can stand living out of my truck and working such a miserable job. I’m just so over living that way, it’s hell on my body & mental state.
It was a long and painful slog, but I got through it. A couple of weeks ago I parked The Beast up at Last Chance once again for the summer, and I hopped on a plane to journey back here to Alaska. The year didn’t feel like it started for me until early April, when me and the boys had a great opening day on the king salmon opener. I had bought a new Penn Squall reel just for the occasion and it caught not only one, but two salmon! Bear-Tits caught one on my rod, and I got the second one after a textbook takedown and retrieval. Hopefully my luck with salmon continues for fishing up here this season!
It’s great to be back here in Alaska, I feel like myself again. All the stress and anxiety that I had been feeling just melted away the second I saw those big beautiful Alaskan mountains on my approach into Anchorage. The first weekend I was here I stayed at the same Airb&b over by Bethan’s house that I rented out last year. I spent some time with Bethan and her mom, it was really nice. We did a lot of hikes and saw a few critters. It was a nice way to ease my way back into Alaska life.
On the Monday after I arrived, Captain Thor picked me up and we drove down to Kenai. During the 2 and 1/2 hour drive, we got to know each other. He’s a pretty cool fellow, we seemed to hit it off really well. Thor and I had planned to stay at his trailers on the grounds of the Pacific Star cannery in Kenai while we started getting the boat ready for the season. When we got there, the management said we couldn’t stay on the property as they needed to do some electrical work. When pressed on when we would be allowed to move in and hook up our trailers, they said it would be at least a week, possibly two. With nothing else to do, we returned to Anchorage. Thor said I could stay in his spare bedroom at his apartment located in the downtown area, so that’s where I’ve been based out of the last couple of weeks.
Every day I’ve gone out and hiked around 4-5 miles a day. His apartment is only a couple of blocks away from the coastal trail, so I’ve been out on that a bunch. There’s so many awesome restaurants within walking distance as well. There’s even a couple of Cajun restaurants downtown that serve food just as good or better than I could get in Louisiana! Anchorage is one of the most diverse cities I’ve ever visited, and there’s so many ethnic restaurants around as a result. The markets tend to have quite an Asian influence which I really like. There’s a market a few blocks away that sells all the Cajun products I love, plus things like poke and canned juice drinks from Hawaii. I’m like a kid in a candy store every time I go and get groceries, it’s almost like being back in the islands.
It’s actually been really nice to explore this part of Anchorage and get to know Thor. He’s a really cool guy, he’s an accomplished artist, sculptor and boat designer. He’s actually sketching out blueprints for his son to build his own boat, which I think is pretty cool. Thor’s a easygoing dude and we’ve been getting along great, which is a relief. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so being able to get along is huge. He’s a big reader and has a lot of cool books. One he gave me to read was written by his friend Pat and is a memoir. It’s all about commercial salmon fishing with Thor and his dad back in the 70’s and 80’s. It actually was a really good primer for me in regards to what I’m going to be doing this summer. There’s all kinds of tales in there about fishing back in the day. If this season is anything like the ones described in the book, it’s going to be an interesting time to say the least.
Thor’s introduced me to a lot of people, and I’ve been going out on hikes with his girlfriend. She’s a member of a hiking club and I’ve been going along with her. Our first hike was to the summit of Flat Top mountain, which overlooks the city. I went and bought a pair of YakTrax (chains attached to a rubber band that attaches to one’s boot) to put on my hiking boots. The trail up was still covered in snow and ice, so they were definitely needed for traction. When we got to the trailhead, half the group wanted to stay and hike the relatively easy trail around the mountain. The rest of us headed up the trail leading to the summit. At first, the trail was pretty tame. Occasionally we’d fall through the snow (known as postholing) but I never sunk in deeper than my knees.
I soon fell behind, as I’d stop and take pictures every now and then. The members of the hiking group I was with were like mountain goats and straight charged up the mountain, leaving me in the dust. I’m in decent shape, but the trail conditions started hammering me pretty hard. It was pretty much straight up, and I found myself having to stop and catch my wind pretty frequently. I was set on making the summit however, and I forged ahead. When I got to the last third of the trail, I found that it was pretty much climbing up snow mixed with some rock scrambling. I really could have used some snow poles at this point, but I felt I could accomplish it with the gear I had.
There must have been a dozen times I wanted to quit, as I was running out of energy. The summit was right there though, and I knew if I wimped out I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself. The last 30 feet I was climbing the snow like a ladder. Finally, I made the summit! It was exhilarating, and the views were just spectacular. I finally get why people climb mountains now, it’s just the most rewarding experience. The feeling of accomplishment is like being high on a drug or something.
Incredible views off of the summit.
Unfortunately, what goes up must come down. It seems that the hikers ahead of me had slid down the mountain for their descent. After walking around the summit for a bit, I realized that I either follow their lead or go back down the way I came up. I took one look at the drop that went for a mile downslope and realized that if I didn’t slide properly, I’d just tumble all the way down…possibly breaking every bone in my body in the process. Since there was no one with me to show me the proper technique of sliding down the mountain, I decided I’d have to go back the way I came. I got myself together and eased my way over the lip of the summit doing a kind of crabwalk. My main goal was to inch my way down and not get into an uncontrollable slide. It went well at first and it seemed I would be able to control my descent.
Alas, soon gravity took over and I felt myself beginning to slide. Suddenly, I was off like a rocket! My backpack and water bottle was ripped loose and slid down with me. Snow filled my pants and shirt as I careened down the mountain. A whole bunch of snow was sliding down with me and for a moment I thought I was going to start my own personal avalanche. As I shot straight down the mountain, I found that I could kind of steer with my legs and was able to make my way over into a bunch of snow that was broken up by footprints. The rough snow finally stopped my slide and I came to a halt. About this time my phone rings and it is Thor’s girlfriend, Ingrid. It seems everyone else had made it down and she was wondering where I was at. I told her I was on my way back and I was busy sliding down the mountain at the moment, I’d be back to the parking lot momentarily.
I was pretty shaken up by the experience, but it was pretty exhilarating at the same time! I seemed to be all right at the moment, but as I made my way back down and the adrenaline wore off I started feeling some bad pain in my right forearm. I peeled back my sleeve and saw that I had a major scrape. I must have tore it up on a rock or something on my way down. I could have messed myself up far worse, so I counted myself lucky. The rest of my descent was without incident, although I got off the trail close to the bottom and got my leg stuck in the snow for a few minutes before I could dig it out. It’s amazing how the snow can harden like concrete once you’re stuck in a drift. I can definitely see how doomed someone would be if they got stuck inside an avalanche. If there ain’t someone around to dig you out if that happens, you’re pretty screwed.
So that’s pretty much the goings-on of my first week. I’ve done a lot more things around here since, but I figured I’d save that for next time and split this into two parts. Stay tuned for further Dogfish Tales coming at you from the Great White (well, green now) North!
Last night it got pretty crowded up here on the mountain. Folks kept coming in until dark. I had a happy family set up about two hundred yards away from me, it sounded like they were having a real good time. I didn’t stress about it like I usually would, as I was in a pretty good mood and had good sleep at the Sidewinder Camp. I got packed up and left around 9 o’clock.
The first order of the day was to go to the Visitor Center in Furnace Creek to get a park pass. When I rolled into town, I could see that there was a lot going on. Not only were there throngs of tourists everywhere, but there were a few booths set up selling goods. I’ve been here in the hottest days of summer and it was a ghost town then, so to see it so busy was quite a trip! I got out and checked out what was going on. It seemed that the whole month of November they have what is called “49er Days”, which I guess celebrates the legacy of the pioneers that gave the valley its name. There were some really nice blankets and jewellery on hand. There’s nothing that I need here, so I got back in The Beast and headed over to the visitor center.
Of course the visitor center was mobbed like I expected it to be. The only other time I’ve seen it like this is when I came up for the first time back in ’15 to see the desert superbloom. I got my pass and bought a postcard for Bethan. I was told that to mail it I’d have to go a quarter mile down the road and post it at this place called ‘The Ranch’. I rolled down the road and the place was easy to find. It’s basically the downtown area of Furnace Creek. I’d been here before to go to the restaurant and bar, and there has been a huge facelift on the place in the meantime. I almost didn’t recognize it! It’s set up to be an adobe desert village, I really like their choice in architecture.
I found the little post office there and sent off my postcard. So the plan for the day was to hit a couple of places that I missed on my previous trip, then cut over back to the east side of the park. I was then going to head down to the trail I wanted to go on in the southern part of Death Valley. There’s a lot of cool spots to go to around Furnace Creek like Artist’s Palette, Zabriskie Point and Badwater, but I’ve been to those places before. I was interested in checking out the 20 Mule Canyon and Dante’s Point, as I’d missed these places on my first trip here.
Dante’s Point is the highest point in the park and is where they filmed a scene in the original Star Wars. It is the scene where Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobe are looking down at Mos Eisley and Obi-Wan says his famous “scum and villany” line. Yes, Death Valley is Tatooine! A lot of scenes from that movie were filmed here. I was stoked to see such an iconic view, so I headed off down the highway.
Along the way I arrived at 20 Mule Canyon. It’s a little detour off the main road that runs through a little side canyon. It took maybe 20 minutes to drive through. There were some pretty sharp corners to make in restricted driving space, but I managed all right. There was a lot of cool geology to see (like pretty much everywhere else) and it was worth making the little detour.
After I had made the loop, I set my sights on Dante’s Peak. It was about 8 miles off the main road. I had heard that it was a really steep ascent, especially in the last quarter mile. It’s paved all the way, not any kind of crazy off-road, so I figured it would be fine. I headed out that way, and the road wasn’t a problem. It did get very steep at the end, that part was true. I shifted down to first gear and The Beast didn’t have any issues with it. I arrived at the top, and the view was just unbelievable! I got a little bit of vertigo looking at it.
From Dante’s Peak, you can see the whole of Death Valley laid out before you. The sign said that on a clear day, you can see a mountain that is 100 miles away. I can see George Lucas going up here and saying, “Yup, I need a shot of this in my movie!” Wise decision indeed. It was easy to find the exact view when I got up there. Luke and Obi-Wan saw what my featured image was for this blog post. After an Internet query, I saw that Furnace Creek stood in for Mos Eisley. What a thrill it was to be standing at the place of such a key scene in one of my all time favorite movies!
I was completely blown away by the view. I can’t believe I didn’t hit it up the first time I was here! It was around 5000 ft., so it was a bit chilly. It’s probably the first time I’ve been cold in the daytime here. I lingered up there for a while, soaking up the view. When I had my fill, I made my way back down to the bottom of the mountain.
I wanted to head in the direction of Shoshone to get some fuel, then head down to the Exit Road. I saw on my map that there was a couple of ways to get there. One was the way I came in on, and the other was a dirt road that went almost directly there. It was a 26 mile stretch of trail that went down through Greenwater Valley. It looked like way more of an adventure than the sterile highway, so I decided to take the route. It started right at the base of the mountain I was on, so it was really convenient for me. I found the trail and it was in real good shape. I locked the hubs, deflated the tires and set upon it.
I really enjoyed my journey through Greenwater Valley. The road was great, the views were spectacular, and there was 0 traffic. Everywhere I had been to the park by this point had been chock-a-block with tourists, now there were no people whatsoever. The vast majority of tourists stick to the paved roads, it seems. As soon as you hit the gravel, everyone vanishes. It was pretty cool.
As I got to around 13-14 miles in (roughly the halfway point) I started looking for a place to spend the night. Around this point, the valley opened up and it was just beautiful. I had to stop somewhere around here! I spied a flat rocky spot right off the road, and I stopped to check it out. It seemed as good of a place as any, so I decided to park and set up camp.
Right away, I felt I had made a very wise choice in camping spots. It had the most solitude of any place I had camped so far in this expedition. There was no noise at all. No cars, no voices, no birds or bugs, and planes flew far away so you couldn’t hear them. It was like I was in a vaccum! I was 14 miles from a road and I saw only one car pass the whole afternoon/evening. At first, it kind of tripped me out. I love solitude, but not having people constantly interrupting that state is a strange feeling. As much as I loved it, I found it a bit odd.
Not having to mentally compensate for people entering my space was weird in a way I can’t describe. The last time I had been in a place so remote is when I camped in the middle of Mojave National Preserve 3 years ago. The people flying in the planes I could see off in the distance were probably closer to me than the next human being. It just blew my mind! As I got settled in however, I started feeling liberated from civilization. The feeling of freedom was intoxicating!
I had finally located the place I was looking for on this journey. I’ve camped in so many different places on this trip. Some were better than others, but I never was really alone in any of those places. This spot was remote, and off the beaten path. It was a Friday in peak seaon, and no one seemed to travel this route. I don’t know why, it is beautiful and the road is easily navigable. It was a great spot to stumble into.
I had a stash of wine left and that tri-tip still to cook, so I poured some vino and started a fire in my grill. It’s not allowed to start fires where I was, but I really wanted to cook my tri-tip over open flame. I had a couple bundles of firewood (plus three nice chunks of hardwood I found alongside the road outside of Baker) that I was tired of packing in and out of the camper as well. After thinking about it, I decided to start up the fire. I had set up in an area with nothing flammable in a 15 foot radius, and there was no wind. I had my extinguisher at hand as well. I felt that I had all the necessary precautions to do it safely so I went ahead. At the first bit of wind, I had no problems with putting it out. I don’t want to set the desert on fire!
After I made a bunch of coals, I set up the rack and threw on my tri-tip. As I waited for it to cook, I did some stargazing. I started seeing some nice meteors zip through the atmosphere. Some burned for several seconds! I consulted my meteor shower app and found that I was smack dab in the Leonid shower! It’s one of the better meteor showers, according to the app. I believed it! I saw one about every five minutes or so. The shooting stars were amazing, but the whole night sky was beautiful as well. Death Valley is isolated enough so the light pollution is at a minimum. The stars were bright and filling up the sky. I have night mode on my phone and tried to take a few pictures. The results weren’t bad for a camera phone. I saw more stars in the picture than I could see with the naked eye.
It took a while, but my tri-tip finally got cooked and I tore it up! It was oh-so-good. I hated to break the rules and build a fire, but it was worth it to get that flame-broiled taste. If I’d had to cook it in a skillet, it wouldn’t have been anywhere as good. I was responsible with the fire and kept it in a container so it wouldn’t scorch the ground. I felt I did my best to keep it low impact.
All in all, it was a hum-dinger of a day. It was good to finally arrive at the ultimate spot for desert solitude. The whole trip led up to this day. I’m glad I decided to take the long way and experience this grand place. I might even stay an extra night, it’s pretty comfortable here! I’ll see how I feel tomorrow, I might just hang around.
Wine causes the worst hangovers, and I had a doozy. I woke up around 8 when the sun got hot and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I couldn’t really do anything else, so I popped on some The Man in the High Castle and just chilled out. It was around 9:30 when I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. There hadn’t been anyone by since sunset the previous evening, and that was the only person that had rolled through. Curious, I peek out the window and see it is a ranger truck. He passed by, but I see him come to a stop a few feet down the trail. “Uh-oh,” I think. “This is not good.” He backed up and parked across from me on the road. He got out and started to walk around my camp. I figured it’d be best to go out and meet him before he started banging on my camper, so I stepped out to see what he wanted.
He was a younger guy, maybe late 20’s to early 30’s. The dude seemed friendly enough, like most rangers I’ve met. He says, “Ok, there are two things here I’d like to discuss. One, you camped in a virgin spot, your tire tracks are the only ones I see here. Camping is technically allowed here but we only want you to camp in spots that have been used before. Secondly, fires aren’t allowed here. I see that you built a fire. I do give you credit in that you did build it in a metal container so it wouldn’t scorch the ground though.”
I just pled ignorance and he seemed to be cool about it. I understood that what I did was wrong, and he was right. I shouldn’t have built the fire. The parking situation was something that I had no idea about however. Well, now I know! I think that because I had my park permit and I kept the fire off the ground, he just gave me a warning. After running my ID and seeing that I was a law-abiding citizen he let me go. I had told him that the reason I was camped out here in the middle of nowhere was that I was on an expedition to experience desert solitude. When he left he said, “Enjoy your solitude out here!” What a cool ranger, he didn’t even make me move or give me a ticket.
I was glad that went well. The rest of the day was spent watching shows on my phone. I was in no shape to go anywhere. It was good to have one last blowout night out here on the trail, despite the hangover. From here on out, I would be trying to maximize miles instead of lounging around in places I found desirable. It was a good place to spend my last down day of the expedition. Tomorrow I want to head over to Pahrump, NV and get cheap gas & some other items. Also, it was the closest place I’d have 5G so I could upload my blog. After that, I was going to finally start on this Exit Road. It was going to be a full day.
I got an early start and left Solitude Camp around 9. The remainder of the 13 miles out of Greenwater Valley went smoothly. I swiched back to 2 wheel drive and re-inflated the tires when I got back to the highway. First, I wanted to head to Shoshone and put a little gas in the tank. I was at a quarter full and I wanted to have a bit more before I headed over to Nevada. When I got to Shoshone, I saw that the gas there was almost 6 dollars a gallon! I had to have it, so I put in 40 bucks and it gave me a quarter tank.
While I was pumping gas & throwing away garbage, the lady on the other side of the pump backed up with the hose still in the gas tank and it popped off at the breakaway! I’ve never seen that happen in real life before. Fortunately, no gas sprayed anywhere. The woman was super embarassed and had to go take it inside to the attendant. At least she owned up to it though!
The road to Pahrump was just outside Shoshone. The sign said that it was 30 miles distant, so that wasn’t too bad. The road was pretty much straight as an arrow, and around 45 minutes later I arrived in Pahrump. I’ve been there before, it wasn’t my first time. I think the town’s main claim to fame is that this is where Art Bell lived and broadcasted Coast to Coast AM back in the day.
As I started getting into the outskirts of Pahrump, I spied a gas station. Gas was 3.29 here! It was 5.69 only 30 miles away, gotta love Nevada! After I filled up, I realized I was famished, so I looked to see what what they had to eat in town. I was craving pizza, so I went over to Pizza Hut. There’s a lot of pizza options out there, but there’s something about that pan crust they have at Pizza Hut that I’ve always loved. When I get there, I see that it is closed for some reason. Trying to think of an alternative to pizza, I recalled hearing the McRib was back at McDonald’s. I went over to the local Golden Arches to see if they had it. Lo and behold, they did! I got a combo meal and took it back to my truck to eat it. I haven’t had one in like 3 years, and it was good as I remember. McDonald’s is crap, but that McRib is just divine!
As I was eating the McRib, I got a call from Captain Pack Rat. I had told him I’d swing by and see him and Party Wolf on my way back. He wanted to see if I still was going to roll by. I told him I had a couple days left in Death Valley and I wouldn’t be able to make it this trip. I’d come up and visit after I got back from Louisiana. We chatted for a bit, it was good to catch up with my ol’ lodge buddy.
I hit up Big 5 sporting goods and Home Depot for some supplies, then hit the road back over the state line to Death Valley. With a tank full of cheap gas and a McRib in my belly I was ready to tackle some trail! I got back to Shoshone and drove about another 45 minutes south. I finally reached the Exit Route trailhead, and switched the truck to off-road mode. I plotted my waypoints on my OnX app, and set off down the trail.
There was a little side-trail leading to what was called ‘Saratoga Springs’ on the map, so I wanted to check that out. It was hard to imagine a spring out here in the desert, that’s something I had to see. So the Exit Trail was a really great piece of road, you can tell it is constantly graded to keep it clear. Unfortunately, as a result of the grading, sand is heaped along the sides of the road 3-4 feet high. There’s no way that you can turn off and park. As I rode along to Saratoga Springs, I began to feel uneasy. There were a lot of ‘No Camping’ signs everywhere. I had counted on finding a camping spot along the route. As it was getting along in the afternoon, I started to worry about finding a landing spot for the night.
I put that out of my mind for the moment. I had this spring to check out first! I found the turnoff and headed towards the spring. As I got towards the end of the road, I started noticing all the tall grass growing profusely all over. There was definitely a little oasis here! I saw that there was a trail going in the direction of the spring, so I went to see if it got closer to the water. I ran into a couple of groups of hikers who told me the trail got close enough to check things out.
I walked down the trail that seemed to go towards the back of the spring. Along the way, I read a plaque that talked about how this was an important water source for all the overland traffic back in the old days. There was what was left of a old stone house on the way down, I wonder if someone lived in that or what? I could hear frogs croaking and see ducks swimming around, it’s amazing to see this out in the desert! It’s pretty neat how springs will flow in the middle of such inhospitable terrain.
I would have liked to hike around the springs more, but I was wanting to get back on the road and make tracks. It was getting close to 3 o’clock and I hadn’t seen any spot to pull off and camp whatsoever on the road so far. I got back on the Exit Road and continued on my way. As the miles ticked by and the sun got lower, I really started to think that it was going to be impossible to find a spot for the night. There were little small pullouts, but they were deep in sand and I wasn’t about to turn my truck into that. Finally at around a half hour before sunset, I found a little turnout that looked promising. The ground there was very rough but stable. There was just enough room to back my truck in off the road, which I did. Thankfully I had found a spot before dark. It wasn’t the best spot, but not a single person passed by the whole time I was there! I set up camp and ate leftover red beans and rice, which were better the second time as they always are.
It wasn’t a bad camp for something I found at the last minute. It was just as isolated and peaceful as the last camp I had. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be there or not, but I planned to be out as soon as I could in the morning before the rangers rolled up. I did some writing and retired early, as I wanted to get an early start in the morning.
Altitude: -226 ft. Stoke level: 8.5 Temperature: 87-57 degrees Conditions: partly cloudy, moderate-strong wind early, calm late
I got a good start this morning and rolled out around 9. The day before I had almost finished the Exit Route, so I finished up the last two miles and hit the highway. That had been a nice journey and the road had been in great shape, but the lack of good camping spots was a little disappointing. I liked the direction I was heading, and according to my maps I could continue my journey on the ‘West Side Road’. This road is the back road going up the west side of Death Valley. There were many off-roads heading into the Panamint Mountains that branched off this trail, so it looked like a great way to spend my last day of explorations in the valley.
The West Side Road was in even better shape than the Exit Route. I decided I was going to take one of the side routes going up Butte Valley. There was an old abandoned talc mine up there, plus some old mine buildings to check out. The road was rated easy until about halfway, so it seemed to be a good destination to check out.
I saw the turnoff for Butte Valley, and I took a left turn headed for the Panamint Mountains. I immediately started gaining altitude, and soon started seeing some great views from this end of the valley. It’s such a better way to see it than from the paved road on the east side. That road is the main tourist route that goes to Badwater Basin, which of course is the lowest point in the US at 282 ft. below sea level. I camped for the first time below sea level last night as you can see.
The road to Butte Valley was a perfect 3/10. It was a lot more rough and rocky than the West Side Road, but it was well within what The Beast can handle. As the road was so rough, I couldn’t go more than 10 miles an hour. That was fine by me, I didn’t mind taking my time and enjoying the view. Every once in a while I’d stop, jump out and take pictures.
After about an hour of steady climbing, I arrived at the mouth of the canyon. Since it was a canyon, I knew that there would probably be some challenges driving it. The canyon was wide, and the road was still in a good drivable state. I couldn’t miss the talc deposits starting to appear on my left-hand side. I started to look around for old mining equipment and sure enough, old rusted contraptions started to appear everywhere.
The road wound along the bottom of the canyon until I came to a fork in the road. It wasn’t on the OnX map, so I chose the right hand side and hoped that I was following the trail. Immediately the way got really narrow and rocky. I reached a point where it was really only wide enough for a Jeep to pass through unscathed. There were a couple of sharp ridges sticking up that would be unavoidable to run over in The Beast. If I would have had a spotter then maybe I would have attempted it. I got out and saw it didn’t get any better a few yards up the trail, so I decided to stop at this point and try the other path at the fork. Maybe the other way bypassed this rough part of the trail.
I backed up a couple hundred yards to the fork in the road, and I took the left path. I didn’t go up but maybe a hundred yards before I found myself in the middle of an old mining encampment. I found a sign that said this was the site of Warm Spring mining camp. The spring that the camp was named for still gushed forth and ran down the road that I came in on. I felt the water and while it wasn’t cold, it definitely wasn’t warm. Perhaps they should have named it Tepid Spring Camp?
Looking over at the canyon wall, I saw the enterance to a mine. I walked over to inspect it. Unfortunately, it was gated off so you couldn’t go in. Probably for the best, as these old mines are super dangerous. Still, it would have been cool to go in just a little ways.
I ate some lunch and had a beer. It was so quiet and peaceful at this old camp. There was an eerie desolate vibe about the place as well. I really liked it! I thought about camping in the place for my last night, but I really didn’t want to make the hour and a half drive out of there in the morning. So I decided to poke around a bit longer to see what I could see before I made my way back down the mountain.
There were a couple of old houses that were used to bunk all the workers off to the side. I wanted to check out the interiors, but there were hantavirus notices posted warning not to go in there. Last thing I want to get is plague, so I just took pictures from the outside. In addition to the cabins, there was an old swimming pool there also. That was a good idea, you’ve got a spring running constantly so it was a perfect spot for a pool. I bet it gets hot as the devil here in the summer, so I bet it was nice to take a dip back when the pool was operational.
I had my fill exploring the camp finally, and with a heavy heart I turned around and headed back the way I came. I really liked this place, next time I come to Death Valley I’ll have to stay here at least a couple of nights. I headed back down the road, with my objective being a campsite I had spied on the way up. It was only a few minutes away from the West Side Road and still really private. When I got to the spot, I realized I had another hour before I needed to start looking for my camp. I decided to head back down to the road and head north. There were a few trails leading up into the mountains along the route, and I figured that I could find a better spot a little farther down the way.
The views kept getting better and better as I headed north. After a bit of traveling, Badwater Basin appeared on my right. It was cool seeing it from this side. I decided to head up this trail named Hanaupah Canyon Road directly across the valley from Badwater. The road was really rough, really only passable by Jeep. I made my way about a half mile up when I saw a turnout. I had to get out and move some rocks around, but it was a perfect space to park The Beast. I had a perfect view of Badwater Basin and it was gloriously private. Every once in a while a car would pass by on the road, but they were few and far between. No one was going to come up here and bother me.
It was a damn good campsite for my last night in Death Valley. For dinner I made carne asada tacos for my end-of-expedition meal. I was tempted to drink all the rest of my beers to celebrate, but I was pretty beered out. I knew the next day’s drive would be brutal even without a hangover, so I passed on doing that. I worked on my blog some and went to bed early so I’d be in the best shape for my return voyage.
Altitude: 407 ft. Stoke meter: 6 Temperature: 82-64 degrees Conditions: calm, overcast early, clear after mid-day
I woke up around 7 and it was pretty chilly and windy. I had hoped to see a nice sunrise on my final morning. Due to overcast skies however, I was disappointed. By the time I was ready to break camp however, the it cleared up and it looked like it was going to be a nice clear day.
I made coffee and had leftover tacos for breakfast. When I was done, I packed up and headed out one final time. The plan was to finish out the West Side Road which ended on the highway a little outside of Furnace Creek. From there I’d head out of the park via Highway 190 through Olancha. When I got close to the highway I stopped to inflate my tires to highway pressure. There were some interesting formations on the ground all over the place. I looked it up on the map and it was named ‘The Devil’s Golf Course’. It was pretty aptly named, no one but the Devil would want to play golf there!
I made my way up to the highway and headed out of the park. I had forgotton how long it takes just to leave Death Vally, I didn’t get out until around noon. From there it was a seven hour run back to Santa Cruz. Thankfully I didn’t run into any crazy traffic or anything, it was a little stressful driving through Bakersfield though. I got back to Santa Cruz around 8, and pretty much passed out from exhaustion as soon as I took a shower and ate something.
At last, I have reached the end of my expedition. I spent 4 weeks on the road to the day, so this trip marks my longest expediton to date. I could have kept on going, I really would have liked to have spent another week in Death Valley, but it’s all good. I really enjoyed myself on this trip, it was also my most successful trip ever. Other than getting stuck that one time and the usual struggles with bugs and wind, I camped in comfort. Thanks to my 12 volt cooler, I was able to save so much money not having to buy ice. It was also useful for saving money on food.
Well, that about wraps it up! Thanks for all you for coming along with me on the journey! Now I’ve got to switch gears and get on a plane as soon as I have returned from the desert. I’m New Orleans bound! I’ve got to move my stuff out of storage in South Louisiana and move it up north. After that I’ll be spending some time up at the family farm for Thanksgiving. I haven’t been home since before the pandemic, so it’s time to go see the folks. All right, I’ll holler at ya’ll later!
Altitude: 1433 ft. Stoke level: 6 Temperature: 80-51 degrees Conditions: partly cloudy, calm early, moderate-strong wind late
I got up early and did some writing and blog editing before I broke camp. Afterwards, I checked the bond on my solar panel. It seemed to be stuck on pretty good. I took out my stainless steel zip ties and lashed the frame of my new panel to my rack. That will give me some added protection in case the adhesive ever decides to give way. I can’t be having my solar panel smash into someone’s windshield if it comes off as I’m going down the road!
Everything got checked out and packed up, so I finally got back on the trail again. I charted a course down Gold Crown Road. The road was nicely deserted and wide at first. After a few miles however, I came to my first obstacle. There was a culvert in the road that bridged a gully about 15-20 feet deep. I had about a foot on either side of my tires before I’d slip into the ravine. It wasn’t aligned straight with the road, so I had to back up and pick a better line. I’ve been through worse, but this was a bit stressful to navigate without a spotter. Right after this, I was faced with a hill that was kind of gnarly. The Beast and I were both capable of navigating this slope, but who knew what was on the other side of the hill?
I got out and walked up the hill to see what lay beyond. When I got up to the top I could see into the distance as the trail got narrower and rougher. It was definitely within my skill level, but my guts got in a knot thinking about the stress I’d have driving it. I decided to turn around and head back down. I wanted to see what was up the trail, but it just looked like more than I was willing to bite off at the moment. I had to go back over the tricky culvert again, which sucked. Since my daylight was running out, I made my way back to the general area I had previously camped. This time I chose a slightly better spot on the other side of the road however. I had a bunch of cardboard to burn, and this spot had a pretty nice fire ring already set up. I wanted to grill a tri-tip I’ve been packing around for a while as well.
Unfortunately, I never got to cook or burn anything. The wind came up pretty aggressively and refused to stop. I had to resign myself to eat cold food out of cans for dinner. Not the best meal by any stretch of the imagination. Some nights are like that out on the trail, especially when you have to cook your food outside on a propane grill. Wind really messes with the flame on the things, not to mention can even blow your whole grill over. That happened the first night I was in Anza-Borrego, fortunately no food was on it at the time, but it could have been a disaster!
I had many things to do tomorrow before I left town, so I got to bed early. My goal is to leave town no later than noon to get to the place where I want to be north of Baker. This damn time change has really screwed me up, now I have to start looking for campsites around 3 in the afternoon. It doesn’t give me a lot of time to explore unless I get up super early, which I am loathe to do unless absolutely necessary!
Altitude: 668 ft. Stoke level: 7 Temperature: 79-60 degrees Conditions: clear, sunny, strong wind early, light wind late
The winds last night never let up, and it was quite chilly. When I got up around 7 it was nice and sunny, but the wind was still whipping around pretty intensely. It took longer than I would have liked to break camp, but I finally got out of there around nine. I got back to the highway and drove back into Joshua Tree to go to the only laundry in town. I’ve done my laundry there before, it’s not my first rodeo! It was insane how busy the laundromat was, nearly every washer and dryer in the place was in use. I guess they’ve got the monopoly on laundry in town, that’s where everyone has to go!
Finally, I found a couple of washers ready for use and I got my clothes on to wash. It took a couple hours to get everything clean & dried, and when I was done I hit up Home Depot, Walmart, Vons, and the gas station to get filled up on various supplies, water, gas and food. I had a huge load of garbage to drop off at the gas station, I kind of felt bad to fill up their can. Oh well, I was a paying customer so all good! By this point it was close to 2 o’clock, which meant it was too late to get up to where I wanted today. I had an alternate place to go though, a place called Amboy Crater. It’s between Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve right off an old section of Route 66.
I’ve passed the Amboy Crater a few times on my journeys north from Joshua Tree, but always have viewed it from a distance. The crater is actually an old cinder cone that is left over from an eruption in the valley. The valley floor where it is found is absolutely flat, it must have been an old lake bed at one point. You can see Amboy Crater from miles away, it does look really odd on the horizon. It has a rather looming presence both far away and up close.
It sits on BLM land so it’s able to be used for camping. According to my app, the only spot where that was allowed was on the pavement in the overflow parking lot. I wasn’t thrilled to be camping on pavement, too damn civilized for me! Also there were busy train tracks close by, so it wouldn’t be quiet. It was the closest place I could get to in my timeframe where I wanted to go, so I really didn’t have a choice. Still, it would be really cool to set up camp there in the presence of interesting geology.
I headed back in the direction from which I came earlier. Back through 29 Palms I drove. I went and took Amboy Road north through Wonder Valley. I’ve been this way a few times before and it’s always cool how fast you can be in the middle of nowhere from the hustle and bustle of the Highway 62 corridor. The traffic, while light, was much more prevalent than in summer. There were lots of RV’s and campers for a Wednesday afternoon. They aren’t weekend warriors though, so they are all good in my book!
After an hour or so, I drop down into the Amboy Flats. I see the crater from ten miles away, it’s cool looking as ever! I took a left where Amboy Road meets good ‘ol Route 66 and went towards the crater. I found the road and went up towards the parking lot. Along the way, I spied the overflow parking and it wasn’t bad. There was no one there and there was a sandy spot in the back where you could back up to some cool-looking volcanic slag. I continued to the parking lot where there was only one car. The crater was at least a mile hike away from this point. Supposedly the trail goes all the way to the top as well so you can see down into the thing. I wasn’t about to attempt that now, so I took a couple pictures and headed back to set up camp.
Glad I got back to the spot when I did. Right as I got parked, some guy in a camper van pulled up and stopped. I could tell he wanted to park, but to his credit he went to the main parking lot and I never saw him or anyone else the rest of the night. As I got everything unloaded, the first of many trains came roaring by. I was only about a quarter mile from the track, so it was crazy loud! For some reason, it didn’t bother me as much as vehicle traffic does for some reason. Perhaps because the noise is more rhythmic? I’m not sure. I would definitely would have preferred to do without it, but what can you do?
The winds were pretty gusty when I got there, but around sundown it completely stopped. Usually when the wind dies in the desert all the bugs come out to play, but this spot was remarkably bug-free! The conditions were just perfect. It stayed in the 70’s until long after dark. Since it’s so comfortable here, I thought that I might sacrifice one of my 5 remaining days to spend another night somewhere in the surrounding Mojave National Trails area.
After a whole lot of thinking, I decided I was going to proceed with my original plan to go up north. I’ve done enough sitting and chilling in places that I liked, now it was time to put some miles under the tires! I haven’t explored Death Valley in 5-6 years (I did drive through back in July 2018 and temps were 127 degrees, the hottest I’ve ever been) so I felt that visiting there would be the best way to end this trip. I had to drive all the way to the north end of the park to get a park pass to legally explore the southern end of the park. It would be a full day of driving to get up there, so I needed to get on it as quickly as possible. I’m looking forward to checking out what is called ‘The Henry Wade Exit Route’. It’s the way the 49’ers who gave the valley its name managed to get out when they first found themselves marooned there. It’s a new trail for me, so I’m ready to check it out!
I only had a couple beers and went to bed early, so I was able to get up around 8 feeling good about the day’s travels. I slept amazingly well despite the roaring of the trains. Good ‘ol earplugs come to the rescue again! I had thought that it would be cool to hike over to the top of the crater and take a look around, but I was ready to hit the road when I got up. I figured it would take at least 3 hours to go there and back, that’s a half day’s driving! At this point in the expedition, time is of the essence. I needed to get on down the road.
I got back on Route 66 and headed over to Kelbaker Road. Kelbaker Road is an old friend of mine. It goes up through the middle of the Mojave National Preserve and cuts over towards Baker. When I’ve explored the preserve in the past, this road would be my main re-supply route, so I knew it well. I drove north through the desert until I went under the I-40 underpass. After this point, I was back in the preserve. I had to holler! It was so good to be back. I wish I could have had more time or I would have stayed, I’m so fond of this place.
About 20 miles in off to the left, you see the Kelso Dunes. They kind of look out of place, it’s like you took a detour into the Sahara or something! Like the Amboy Crater, this is something I’ve passed by a few times but never checked out. I decided to turn down the road towards the dunes to get a closer look. I drove about 3 miles in, and decided that was enough to get a decent picture. It looks like an amazing natural feature to hike up, again, like the crater. It would have been a cool thing to do if I had the time, but I just satisfied myself with a picture.
After I returned to the main road, it was a short distance to the old train depot at Kelso. It’s been there for a hundred years and used to be very important for freight being shipped up and down the line. It’s been restored in recent years and it is the Visitor Center for the preserve. It’s always been closed every time I’ve come through though, and this time was no exception. This time it wasn’t scheduled to re-open until 2023! Maybe someday I’ll get to check it out from the inside. Right as I was getting ready to leave Kelso, I messed around and broke my phone mount again! This is like the 4th or 5th time, it’s so bad. I guess it’s time to break out the Gorilla Glue again! I really need to break down and just buy a new one.
Continuing on my journey, I eventually made my way to the odd little town of Baker. It’s a weird crossroads of a place off the 15 between LA and Vegas. It’s always going off everytime I’ve been there, lots of folks are always coming and going. I pulled into the 76 station for gas and I saw this insane looking craft parked beside the gas pump. It looked like a jet aircraft without wings! I pulled in close to the thing and got out to take a look at it. This guy who was sitting in a truck attached to the craft’s trailer jumps up and I ask him if I can take a picture. He agrees and we start talking.
The guy tells me that he is a 4 time world champion land speed racer by the name of Jim “Jet” Neilson, and he’s been marooned with his jet car in Baker after his last race this past summer. He doesn’t have anywhere to go until his next race in Dubai in a few weeks. When he’s not racing, he lives down in Panama. Something must have gone seriously gone sideways in his life I gather, but he’s making the best of it. He can’t leave his rocket car, the same as I couldn’t leave my Beast out in the middle of nowhere. In the meantime, he is just hanging out at the gas station in Baker selling autographed t-shirts and talking to people. I imagine he’s had to cut some kind of deal with whoever owns the gas station.
The dude is pretty cool, he starts dropping names immediately. He claims to have grown up with Kurt Russell and acted in one of his movies. He’s also good friends with Vince Neil and some other rock n’ roll guys and actors. I guess jet car racers are just another kind of entertainer, they all run in the same circles…especially in this part of California. He told me that John Fogerty and Steven Tyler had both stopped to get gas and wound up buying shirts from him. The guy pulled out his phone and showed me pictures, and he wasn’t lying! John looked healthy, but Steven is looking pretty skinny these days. Steve was also holding a couple of Yorkie dogs in his arms, it was pretty funny! Jim said they were both super cool, and really admired his rocket racer. I liked the guy so I bought a t-shirt from him for 20 bucks. The shirt was pretty badass, and he even signed it to boot. I could have talked to that dude for a while, but I was already behind so I hopped back on the road.
I still had another hour and a half journey up to my destination. Needing to get a pass for the park, I was going to have to drive a long ways up Highway 127 to get to Death Valley Junction. From there, I was going to have to enter from the east side of the park on the 190 and find a kiosk to print me out a paper pass. I’d have to then double back and re-enter the park on the southeast border. It’s a pain in the ass, but all the infrastructure for permits is in the north of the park. When you are on park property you’ve got to have it. It’s pretty expensive as well, 30 bucks! It is what it is though, sometimes you’ve got to pay the troll his toll.
I was running low on smoke, so I saw that there was a dispensary up at Death Valley Junction. I was intrigued that there was a dispensary out in the middle of nowhere so I had to go check it out. It’s called ‘DVJ Fine Cannabis’ and it is a huge grow house complex out in the middle of the desert. I pull up and it is surrounded by high fences like it is a government building of some sort. There is a tiny trailer out front so I assume that’s the business end of the place. When I step out of the truck, I get a big whiff of ganja. I’m a couple hundred yards away and it is thick! They must have mad crops in there!
I go in and it’s pretty casual. Nothing is out on display, you have a whiteboard featuring the menu options and you order from there. You say what you want and the gal goes and gets it from the next room. The prices are really reasonable, particularly to be that far out in the desert. When I mentioned this to the budtender, she told me that it was because they grow on site and cut out the middleman. I got an 1/8th of small bud Wedding Crasher for 27 bucks. It’s usually 30, but I got 10 percent off because it’s Veteran’s Day. Right on!
After picking up the produce, I headed into the park. I knew that there was an automated kiosk about 20 miles down the road where I could pick up a pass. When I reached the spot where I could get it, there was a sign on the machine that said since it was Veteran’s Day, no fees were required that day. That’s cool and all, but I’m still going to need a pass for tomorrow and the days after. Since it was 3 o’clock already and I needed to stick around to get a pass anyway, I decided to go a few miles down the road to a spot where I had camped before.
It’s up a rough 4×4 road called ‘Inyo Mine Road’. The road is a 6/10 difficulty on my OnX so it’s beyond my capability to drive it fully, but the first couple of miles going in is pretty tame. There’s a lot of places to camp that gives great views of the valley below. Way back 5 or 6 years ago I almost got bit by a sidewinder up here, so that’s why I informally call this place ‘Sidewinder Camp’. Also the last time I was here I found myself in a biblical horde of flying grasshoppers, so the spot has a pretty interesting history for me. I have a soft spot in my heart for the place, I’ve had good times here back in the day.
I turned off on the road and drove up. You can’t camp a mile coming in from the highway, so I had to go up a bit. I looked around and found a spot that looked reasonably flat. I got camp set up and wrote on the blog for a while before I got around to making dinner. Tonight I was going to put some effort into supper and make some red beans and rice! As the sun set I broke out the camp kitchen and got to work prepping yellow and green onions, bell pepper and andouille sausage. I remarked on just how nice it was here in Death Valley as I cooked. There was a very light wind, hardly any bugs, and it was warm enough to be comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt after the sun went down.
For the first time on this trip, I wasn’t setting up in a sand pit. This area is very rocky, so not having sand get into everything was a plus. I got everything cooked up and sat down to eat in the moonlight, and let me tell you it was amazing! It was probably the best meal and locale I’ve enjoyed on this whole expedition. It’s rare that everything just lines up perfectly on a trip such as this. Good food and great surroundings are always something to celebrate when you’re out roughing it in the wilderness!
It was a very interesting day all around. I’m right where I want to be at the moment. After I get my pass tomorrow, I can either go over towards Pahrump and run this trail over on BLM land, or I can just go ahead and jump on down to the south end of the park and get started on that trail down there I want to do. Decisions, decisions! I’ll have to sleep on it. I’m down to four nights left so I have to really make my days count. Wherever I wind up, I’m glad I came up here. Death Valley has such a raw beauty that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s actually comfortable this time of the year, which is something I can’t get over. I feel I’m at where I need to be, glad I made the effort to return here.
I was awakened by dawn by the sounds of artillery from the local Marine base and the hot-doggin’ OHV people. The explosion sounds I can live with, the mechanized whining of motorcycles, dune buggies and 4 wheelers, I cannot. There was not going to be a scouting mission to the next BLM parcel, I saw that this whole area was dirt central. I was glad to escape this noisy, kangaroo rat infested place. My stomach issues from the day before still persisted, which really dragged me down.
I decided that I was going to go over to the trail that I had marked as a route I wanted to take while I was here. I needed to stop and pick up a few things down in Yucca Valley, so I went and did that. In the process I uploaded my blog and downloaded some podcasts. The traffic was horrible, I felt like I was back in Santa Cruz! I’ve never seen it like this in the times I’ve been here. I’ve never been in this area during peak season, so I guess this is what it’s like. I have also heard a lot of Angelenos have moved here during the pandemic, I can definitely tell. My desert hideaway has been blown up!
I went over to the Visitor Center and it was just chaos. People were everywhere, I’ve never seen anything like it. On a Friday morning as well! There was a ranger posted up at a table out front and I went to talk with him about getting a park permit. The trail I wanted to run runs through Joshua Tree National Park, so to be legal I needed a permit. The ranger was very helpful in pointing out that the trail I wanted to run was on BLM land and ended before I got on park property. I wouldn’t need a permit to run the trail because of this. According to my maps, he was wrong, but if he said it was ok to camp without a permit I was going to run with it.
It was good to be back in Joshua Tree proper, but man o man, were there crowds! It was just ludicrous. It was with great pleasure I got out of town and headed to my destination off Highway 62 in the direction of 29 Palms. Thankfully, as I got out of town, the traffic got down to a normal level. I rolled through 29 Palms and it was the same as it ever was. I stopped at the Statler Bros. grocery and grabbed a few things. I was really craving pickles so I grabbed a jar of Kosher Dill spears and ate a couple, as well as a swallow of juice. I guess my body needed the electrolytes or something. Who knows?
I headed out of town about 10 miles or so to the east. I found the road I was looking for. It was named ‘Gold Crown Road’ and it led to the ‘Old Dale Road’ I was looking for. I turned off on it, deflated tires and locked the hubs. This was going to be a challenging road, so I needed to go in prepared. As I drove down the road, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t bad at all, at least at this point. I saw all kinds of places I could camp, and as I had full bars of 5G, I should find a spot here and continue up the road tomorrow. It was around 3 o’clock when I started to scout out a camp for the night.
There was a track leading off the road that looked promising, so I headed off that way. The ground looked rocky and solid, so I had no qualms about driving around on it. I was at an area driving around about a quarter mile off the road when disaster struck. One moment I’ve driving around on solid ground, the next three tires are completely stuck! I leap out and assessed the situation. Immediately upon exiting the truck, my foot falls through the ground about 6 inches. It seems that I have run upon a desert trap! On the surface it seems normal, but it is just a thin layer on the ground. For a depth of about six inches or so it is empty space, and underneath it is powder sand. I just drove right into a batch of this nasty stuff.
I’ve never seen anything like this before in the desert. Three out of my four wheels were deep in sand, and my one wheel that was on solid ground wasn’t going to free me because I don’t have differential lockers. Even with half-deflated all-terrain tires and four wheel drive, The Beast got stuck like a duck! In all the time I’ve had this truck I’ve never been stuck like this. Fortunately, I was prepared for this kind of mishap. I got out my traction boards and hi-lift jack and got to work.
I soon realized that I had made a grave error in only having two traction boards. What I had thought when I ordered them is that if two wheels out of four can grab ahold of something, it can get me out of anything. That thinking was oh so wrong. When all 4 wheels are compromised, you need 4 traction boards. So all of my wheels were spinning like mad. I tried 4 wheel drive to get out but that just made things worse. I realized that with two traction boards I needed to put them under the back two wheels and try to escape this trap with two wheel drive.
I brought out my hi-lift jack and jacked up the back end, then slid my traction boards underneath the rear tires. I got my shovel out and cleared as much of the sand around my tires as I could. I got behind the wheel and reversed until I ran out of board. I repeated this process 4 or 5 times and finally, I got free! I was so happy, I was beside myself. It took me around an hour to get free, I still had plenty of time to make camp.
After getting all my off-road gear packed back up into my truck, I was so happy to be free from the trap that I made a critical error. Instead of reversing in the tracks I had made to that point, I tried to turn around. Guess what? I got stuck again! This time it was even worse than before. All wheels were a foot deep into sand. My tailpipe, which is usually a foot above ground, was only an inch off the sandy surface. I had to dig out a hole just so my truck could exhale. It was messed up! I almost called it quits for the night but I felt I couldn’t rest knowing that my truck couldn’t go anywhere. So I got my traction boards and shovel back out and got back to the grind.
This stuck point was so bad. I tried to jack up the truck but the weight of the truck kept pushing the base of the jack into the sand. There is actually a slot built into the traction boards meant for a jack base, but as I needed the boards for traction I couldn’t use it for that purpose. It was a brutal ordeal, I would jack up the truck as high as I could, put the boards under the tires and reverse. I’d get about 6 inches and then have to do it all over again. It was infuriating!
During this process I really screwed up. I had left my jack engaged while I tried to reverse. I heard a clank and rushed to the back to see what was the matter. The rail on the high-lift jack had plunged into the back door of my camper. I tried to go forward to release the pressure and since I was in a hole, I couldn’t do it. I went back to the jack and tried to lower it, but the end of the jack dug into my back door on my camper and opened it up like a can opener. Not only did that happen, but it ground against my rear-view camera mounted in my bumper and took that out as well. I finally wrenched the rail out of my door, but the damage was done.
Fortunately my door was still able to open, close and latch properly. As for the camera, it only worked around 20% of the time so no big loss there. It was probably a wiring problem before, now I’ve got to install a whole new system. There goes another couple hundred bucks. I had long hated where they mounted it in the first place anyway. Next time I’ll get it mounted anywhere than right over the hard point.
So inch by inch, I kept jacking up the truck and sliding boards underneath the tires. By this point, the boards were pretty much ruined and my tires had big chunks of rubber taken out of them. I tried to be careful as I could to not spin out, but it didn’t matter. Finally, after two hours of getting filthy and sweaty, I finally emerged from the second trap and had all four tires back on solid ground. By now it was almost sunset, I had been dealing with stuck issues for 3 hours.
I felt that this area was cursed, so I blazed back to the main road to find a place to camp that I know wouldn’t give me any surprises. I got to a spot only about 100 ft. from the main road and set up camp. I was so tired and dispirited that I didn’t bother cooking supper, I just made a sandwich. Oh well, the trip had been trouble-free so far. At one point something was bound to go wrong. I was glad I had managed to free myself rather than try and get hauled out, but it came at a cost. In the future I’ll be sure to take 4 traction boards with me, as well as the kind with replaceable studs. I also need to have a base for my jack so it doesn’t sink in soft sand. Sometimes the only way to learn is doing it the hard way. Every time I go on expedition I recognize the gear I need to have to do this properly, and this time was no exception.
Today I was just going to take it easy. I was still rattled by the events of the day before so I just wanted to hang out and get myself ready for the solar panel installation. My birthday was tomorrow, and I wanted to have my new panel up and running by then. After I got up, I brought out all my solar equipment to get things assembled. Unfortunately, the directions were really unclear on how to mount the thing properly. I got on YouTube and watched some instructional videos, and everybody did it differently. I got frustrated and started pounding IPA’s, hoping for some liquid clarity. I soon got pretty buzzed and it got real uncomfortable trying to do this in the heat of the desert sun. I finally just gave up and passed out for a while.
Around sunset I woke up and felt a little bit more clear-headed. I drank some Arizona Green Tea and that helped some as well. By this point I was pretty familiar with all the nuts and bolts I needed to use, and I slowly started to figure out what I was doing. I got brackets on the thing and hauled it up on the roof. Next, I had to connect the wiring and hope I had gotten the right parts. Amazingly, I was right on the money with getting all the parts I needed for the wiring job. Now all I had left to do was apply the bonding tape. This part was critical, because the space I had to install the panel only has about a half inch on either side clearance. If I didn’t get it exactly right, the panel would not lay down properly when I lowered it to a flat position. This would cause it to be exposed to the windstream and threaten to rip it off as I was going down the road. Once the mounting tape encounters a surface it pretty much is stuck there permanently, so I had to get it right the first time.
I climbed up my stepladder and took a deep breath to steady my nerves. I then placed the panel down as lightly as I could and checked the sides. I was over one one side a bit too far, so I wrenched up the panel and adjusted it. I checked it again and I had done it! I had my clearance on both sides. The panel wasn’t able to be budged after this, so I got real lucky it hadn’t stuck the first time. I mashed it down all around so I’d get a good bonding. I was overcome with relief. It took me from 5:30 to 9:30 to get it installed, it was quite the ordeal. Now all that was left to do was wait until morning to see if the panel was fully functional. I should have tested it before I permanently bonded it to my roof, but I didn’t think to do so. I guess I’ll see in the morning if it is any good or not. Fingers crossed!
Happy Birthday to me! The first thing I did when I woke up around 8 was to check my voltimeter. I was pulling 5 amps and the sun was barely up! GREAT SUCCESS! As the morning wore on, my voltage and amperage kept rising. Around noon I was pulling 16 volts and around 9 amps. This new solar panel was savage! Usually around that time with my one fixed solar panel, I’d pull around 13 volts and 3-4 amps so this was a vast improvement. Being able to tilt the panel towards the angle of the sun is a game-changer. I bought another set of tilt brackets for my fixed panel, but I’ll worry about that some other time. I’m pulling all the power I need for now. It didn’t take very long at this rate to fully charge up my battery. It’s such a relief to not have to worry about power issues any more. I was thrilled, it was a great birthday present to myself!
The rest of the day I drank a bunch of IPA’s and watched 90’s grunge videos on my phone. Now and then I’d talk & text with people who wished me well. It would have been nice to be in a better camping spot, but as I stated before, I needed to let my panel adhere for at least 24 hours so I couldn’t go anywhere. That was fine by me, I really enjoyed my day. I spent it the way I wanted to in a place I dearly love.
I paid today for the revelry I had yesterday. I had a king-hell massive hangover. The concussions from the bombs being dropped at the nearby Marine base rattled my truck and rattled my head. It got hot and I was miserable. I was going to head further up this road I’m on today but I could barely stand up without feeling I was going to pass out. Looks like I’ll be spending another day at this camp. I just chugged Gatorade all day and kept trying to nap just to not feel like garbage for periods of time.
I really hated to lose another day, as I’m entering the final week of my expedition. I took advantage of the downtime and thought about how I wanted to finish this trip up. I had planned on heading up to Mojave National Preserve and maybe running the Mojave Trail again. It’s a pretty technical trail however, and I really don’t want to be stressed out the last few days I’m here in the desert. Using my OnX app, I took a look at some trails up in the lower part of Death Valley National Park that I’ve never been on. I’ve explored up the area around Furnace Creek quite a bit, but I’ve never been in the southern end of the park. The trails are marked 1-3 difficulty on a scale of 1-10, so that sounds perfect for what I want to get into.
I think tomorrow I’ll head up this road I’ve been camped alongside the past 3 days and spend one more day in the Joshua Tree area. After that, I need to do laundry and pick up the supplies I need for this final push. I’m hoping that this expedition will get back on track and I’ll finish it up in grand style. I just got to watch out for that desert sand in the meantime!
Altitude: 635 ft. Stoke level: 6 Temperature: 84 to 60 degrees Conditions: sunny, clear, no wind
Today I was in a foul mood for some reason. I was having problems with glitches on my WordPress app when I was writing up my blog this morning. I use a Bluetooth keyboard and for the most part it works all right. Today my page kept scrolling up and down constantly as I’d type. It took a lot longer to do than usual.
I did get a text from Home Depot saying that they had my solar panel for pickup! It wasn’t due until the 11th, so this is amazing news. If my other gear comes in on time, I’ll be sporting 200 volts of solar panel power by this weekend! This news lifted my spirits a bit. I then went to town and got a bunch of groceries, refilled my water supply, and did gas/garbage. The whole time I was annoyed by everything around me. I thought I might be hangry, so I made a turkey sandwich and that helped somewhat.
I had in mind to head towards this place called Hawk Valley. It was right next to The Slot, so I’d be right in striking range to hit it tomorrow. I made my way over to the spot, but my navigation app directed me to The Slot for some reason. At least I know where it is now! I found the turn-off about a mile back down the road and turned towards the campground. Around this time. I was horsing around with my vent mount for my cell phone when I broke off one of the supporting clamps. I’ve broken it in this spot 3 times already, so hopefully I can superglue it for the 4th time.
The sand on the road was really deep, deeper than it had been over at Font’s Point the other day. I kept it in 4 wheel drive but didn’t bother deflating the tires, and I made it through just fine. I went up this tight canyon and came upon the spot. It wasn’t very big, only a couple hundred yards across. It could accomodate 6 groups of campers, max. There was one group there already, I saw with disappointment. I would have liked to have such a small campground to myself, but I can’t be lucky every time!
My tube of Gorilla Glue was dried up in my center console, so I had to drag everything out of the camper to get at my stash of super glue in the off-road bin. I applied it to my broken part and it refused to bond. I might have to find a new mount if I can’t glue it back together. As I was trying to fix it, the dudes over at the other camp started whooping and blaring classic rock. This really got me on edge and I almost lost it. I got ahold of myself, popped a beer and mellowed out. I wasn’t sure why I was so pissed off all day, it’s probably just expedition fatigue.
It’s happened before around this time in my journeys. I get frazzled a bit by always having to troubleshoot, strategize and plan the trip. Not to mention the constant driving and exposure to the elements. It passes pretty quickly, I’ve learned I have to ride it out and not dwell in it too much. Even on pretty successful trips it can strike without warning.
It’s actually a pretty cool little canyon. It’s probably the most protected from wind than any other campsite so far. Once in a while there will be a slight puff of wind, but that’s all. Since I’m surrounded by steep canyon walls, the sky view is greatly limited. It’s pretty protected from the sun as well, the sun set around 4:30 and it will probably be around 9 o’clock before it shines in here again.
I’ll be out of here as early as possible to hit The Slot. It looks like a really cool place to explore. I drove right on up to the parking lot earlier and didn’t come across any crazy hills like I heard about. There’s a loop I’m on that goes all the way around the loop and approaches The Slot from the other side, so maybe that’s where it is. I kind of would like to drive it, it’s on my OnX app as a 5/10 difficulty road. I only do 4/10 and under trails, so maybe I’ll pass. I’ll see how I feel once I’m done going through the slot canyon.
Altitude: 321 ft. Stoke level: 9 Temperature: 91-70 degrees Conditions: clear, no clouds, no wind
I got up today feeling super stoked about taking on the slot canyon. I headed over there around 11. I was hoping the sunlight being somewhat overhead around that time would make better lighting for photos. I arrived at the trailhead, which I knew the location of since I had been there the day before. I had heard that the trail down to the canyon wasn’t obvious, so I did a little bit of scouting around. The trail wasn’t that hard to find, but I can see how someone could miss it. I turned down into the ravine and hiked down into the slot canyon.
As I made my way down the canyon got narrower and narrower. It was exciting knowing what was to come next! At first the way was pretty wide open and clear.
I walked on, and the walls gradually got closer together until it was almost like I was in a cave! The sides narrowed until I had to start going through sideways for some parts. I loved it! The rocks were really cool looking, since they’ve been worn smooth by eons of water. It’s not really colorful, (unlike Antelope Canyon in Arizona) but it has some really interesting geological features. It’s great fun to go through one of these slot canyons.
The trail through where the canyon is very short, maybe around a quarter of a mile. After I navigated this stretch, it opened back up again. The trail went on for a ways further before hitting the main road and you could walk that back to the parking lot. There was a path to go the other way which made a loop that involved climbing out of the canyon somehow. I elected to do that, as I was wanting to spend more time in the canyon and not be hiking down a dusty road.
I doubled back and looked for another way up out of the canyon I might have missed. I walked back up the way I came and found another trail off to the side. It looked pretty well traveled judging from the footprints. I decided to give it a shot and see where I wound up. At first it was pretty wide without many obstacles. Soon however, it started heading upwards pretty sharply. It began to get pretty challenging to traverse as well. I was definitely off the beaten path!
I soon caught up to a couple of guys walking ahead of me. I asked them if this route took you back to the parking lot, they had no idea. They were just exploring and hoping like myself! I referenced my trail app and it showed I was going in the direction I wanted to go in. It also appeared that the trail I was on dead-ended in a contour line. I was getting close to the top, so maybe I could scramble up the rest of the way if I ran out of trail. Sure enough, about 30 feet from the top the trail went kaput. At first I was bummed that I’d have to go all the way back down, but after inspecting the cliff, I reckoned I could indeed climb up to the top. I scrambled up the hill, and I made it up sucessfully! There was a great view from up there. I could see back down into the canyon, and I could see the parking lot on the other side of the ravine about a quarter mile away.
There was no way I was going to get across to where The Beast was parked from where I was at. I set off overland on some trails heading back the way I needed to go. I didn’t have to go far to arrive back at the point where I first went down to the canyon. What a great experience that was! I’m hooked on slot canyons now. I briefly thought about maybe heading up to Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona for my birthday on Sunday.
I had talked to a group of hikers while I was admiring the collasped pillar who were from Arizona, and they told me it was like a 7-8 hour drive from where I was at. It was tempting, but it would cost me money and more importantly, time. It’d be a day there and back, plus a day or two there. My main mission was to explore the California desert, and besides that I was itching to pick up my solar gear in Yucca Valley as soon as I could. It would be a really cool thing to do though!
I drove back into Borrego Springs to pick up some Gorilla Glue, then went back down the same road that went to The Slot. My goal was to get to the trailhead of Fish Creek Wash/Sandstone Canyon and spend the night at a campground there. It was late in the day, and I didn’t want to traverse the canyon at this hour. My destination was the Mud Caves, only reachable by this route. I had heard that the canyon was pretty easy to navigate, but there were some tight spaces that might not work for driving The Beast through. I wanted to do my research before possibly getting myself into a hairy situation.
I got to the Fish Creek Primitive Campground and I was in luck! The campground was small, only six spaces, but it was deserted! Not only that, but I got strong 5G signal being on the Salton Sea side of the mountain, and I had a good view to boot! It turned out to be one of the best campsites I’ve had so far on the trip. For dinner I made some carne asada I bought from the market. It didn’t come pre-cut, so after I cooked the steaks I tore them in half and stuffed them in my tortillas. It was so good, nothing better than tacos in the desert!
It was another great day out in the desert. The Slot Canyon definitely lived up to the hype, and ending the day at a great camp with tacos was the cherry on top. Now I’ve got to decide if I want to take on this trail or not. I’ll do my research tonight and decide in the morning. I do want to see those mud caves for sure!
After a morning doing research, I decided to not take the trail to the mud caves. There were a lot of videos on YouTube of people running the canyon and the narrow parts looked like they would be trouble for The Beast. Jeeps could get through fine, and 4 Runners and Tacomas could get through just barely with a spotter. I didn’t feel like tearing up my truck, so I made the decision to abort the mission. I really hate to not go through with plans, but I’ve learned from past disasters that sometimes it’s just not worth it. There are plenty other trails that will work fine for me in other places.
Since I wasn’t going to go to the mud caves, I was done with Anza-Borrego. I was ready for some new desert to explore, and I was itching to pick up my items in Yucca Valley. I got packed up and headed over to Ocotillo Wells campground where I heard they had pay showers. I haven’t showered in over two weeks, so it was time! On the way, I passed this huge community where everyone lived in RV’s and storage containers. It looked like a real tweaker nest! I’m not used to seeing places like this in California, it looked more like something you’d see in Nevada. Pretty place for a tweaker camp, they picked a good spot for it I guess.
I made my way over to the campground with the showers. I was expecting the worst, but found that not only did the showers work, but they were spotless as well. They worked on quarters, you got around a minute a quarter. The water was hot and good pressure also. I took an incredible shower, it’s good to wash all the grime off when you get a chance on an expedition! I usually take baby-wipe baths every 2-3 days or so and that works pretty well. I have a camp shower but I hardly ever use it. It just takes a lot of water to use, and the spray isn’t that great. Still, it is good in a pinch!
After I took a shower, I was ready to make the 2 and a half hour run up to Joshua Tree. I orginally had planned on circling the Salton Sea, but I wanted to be up there by four so I’d have to pass on that. The banana museum I wanted to check out on the north shore was closed anyways. I did however get off the highway at Salton City and drive down as close as I could to the water. It’s a pretty sad town. You can tell where they laid out the streets and subdivisions thinking all these people were going to come live there. There’s maybe like one house per block in the desert, and they all look pretty run down. Every once in a while there is a nice house, but they are few and far between. This place has definitely seen better days.
I got down to the beach, and you can see where the water used to be and where it is now. The water has receded something like a quarter mile from where it originally was. I hear on the other side of the lake the water has receded even further than this. It was pretty desolate, but the view wasn’t bad. There were some paragliders flying around to the north, so it looks like some people are still having a good time down here.
As I started driving north along the Salton Sea, I started getting into the Coachella Valley. I started seeing massive orchards of date palms, yet another thing I don’t think I’ve ever seen in California. I’ve never come up through Indio and Palm Desert before, so I was looking forward to the scenery. There must be a reason why they have the Coachella festival here every year. It’s a pretty lush region for the desert actually. The whole area seems like one big oasis.
I made my way into Palm Springs and saw a sign for Popeye’s, so I had to stop and grab a fried chicken sandwich and a big cup of sweet tea. That really hit the spot! A little bit of driving on I-10 later, I came to the Highway 62 turnoff for the Morongo Valley, and now I was in familiar territory. It’s been 3 years since I’ve been here, and I was glad to be back. However, I started feeling a bit nauseous and anxious. I don’t know if it was the caffeine from the tea, a hangover from last night’s beers, being stressed over picking up my gear, or trepidation over getting to my destination later than I wanted, but it definitely knocked some of the stoke off of my day.
I got to Yucca Valley and tracked down all my gear. Everything was as I ordered, and picking it up went without issue. In addition to the things I got delivered, I picked up a small step ladder so I can reach my roof to work on things up there. I’m so glad I could have all this sent to me on the road! I figured I’d be dealing with this electrical issue until I got back to Santa Cruz, but through the magic of the Internet I’ve got everything I need to be truly self-sufficient power-wise now. I’ve just got to get this panel installed on my camper roof. It’ll take a day for my mounting tape to set, so I need to find a good spot I can hang out for a bit and get this panel put on.
My destination was a BLM campsite about a half hour’s drive north of Yucca Valley to a place I’ve never been. I was hoping being so far out of town would give me a better chance at having some privacy. I arrived at the place about an hour before dark, which is way later than I like to arrive at my camp for the evening. The camping place is this flat sandy area that used to be an ancient lake bed, I think. My nearest neighbors were about a quarter mile away so I thought I was all good.
Unfortunately, after a few minutes of hanging out at the site, I realized I was in one of those damn SRVA areas! My neighbors were cruising around on four-wheelers and motorcycles making a hellish racket. It wasn’t just them, it seemed that I’d landed right in a thicket of motorized campers. Drat my luck! As it was so late, I was pretty much stuck were I was at for the night. I resigned myself to the aggravation and set up camp.
I got unpacked for the night while the crew next door zipped around all over the place. I don’t like to hate on people who are trying to have a good time out in the wilderness, but it just twists my guts into knots having to listen to all the racket when I’m out here to find peace and quiet. They also cranked up their sound system and what do you know, here’s another group that likes to listen to crappy classic rock. They’d probably be good buddies with the crew from the other night at Hawk Canyon! At one point they even started shooting off fireworks. That actually was pretty cool, at least they’re getting their kicks that way and not discharging firearms in every random direction. That’s one good thing I can say about them.
Looks like this campsite is chock-full of my old desert friends, the kangaroo rats! As I was cooking dinner, I looked down and saw a rat right next to my foot. I kicked at him and he ran away, only to come back a few seconds later. His buddy came at me from the other side, when I’d shoo one away, I’d look over to the other side and the other would be sitting right next to my foot. A couple of times they even ran up on my feet! I think they were trying to climb my legs to get at my food.
The little bastards were everywhere! They actually are pretty cool little creatures. Their tails are long with a little tuft of fur on the end, and they have great big back feet. They don’t scurry, instead they hop around like little kangaroos! They’re pretty entertaining little jokers. I didn’t see any of these critters down in the Colorado Desert, maybe they are only native to the Mojave. I remember the first time I camped in Joshua Tree they would climb all over my truck. I spent all night trying to keep them out of my camper, I’ve never seen a place so infested with vermin! This is nothing compared to that, as long as they stay out of my space I won’t mess with them.
Oh well, I guess this camp is a wash. I definitely don’t want to install my panel here tomorrow and have to spend another night, so in the morning I’ll have to hunt for a better location. There’s another BLM parcel next to this one, so I’ll scout it out tomorrow. I’ll let my new panel adhere for a day, then head into Joshua Tree Park proper on Saturday. I know this trail that runs north to south across the park. I’ve never gone that route so it’ll be something new to experience. I’m sure that there will be some good dispersed camping along that route. Hopefully the weekend warriors won’t be clogging things up too badly. I have my doubts though, this is peak season for visiting this area and there was so much traffic on the way in. I imagine it’ll be a complete clusterfuck until Monday. Oh well, at least I made it up here! I’ll make the best of it.