Region: Fairbanks uplands / Chena Hot Springs Rd
Trailhead: Milepost 39 Chena Hot Springs Rd
Date: July 16-17, 2005 | April 1, 2006
Mileage: ~15 | 4
Elevation Gain: 2,700'
Partner: solo | Al
Links: DNR trail info | Geophysical Institute Article - Tors | Backpacker trail description
Trip 1: July 2005
During the summer of 2004, the Chena Hot Springs area was devastated by a large wildfire. The 2004 season had burned 6.6 million acres of wilderness in Alaska, the worst on record. Modis Image - Note yellow area on bend in road heading due east out of Fairbanks. This fire kept Fairbanks residents inside for most of the summer, and obviously no hiking in the area was safe.
So the following year, I decided to check out what happens to an area after it burns. I had read the guide books on this trail, and they mentioned that viewing the tors (A erosional weathering feature where an area of stronger rock, usually granite, is left exposed on hillsides), is difficult through the dense trees and vegetation. Only a few 'viewpoints' occur. Well, from the extensive wildfire, the tors were viewable almost continuously.
It was interesting to see the areas burned next to areas untouched. The areas around the tors, as well as the higher ridge line were untouched, while the lower areas of the trail were decimated in places. The fireweed taking over as the green plants contrast strongly with the blackened soot of the downed trees.
The first part of the hike is at the opening to the drainage basin, on wooden planks through the swamp. Rock climbers were on the first part of the trail with me, the tors in their sight. After the first tor - Lizard Eye, I saw no one else until later than evening, when some other hikers passed in the other direction. On the first afternoon, the weather threatened with very nearby thunderstorms, and I ended up rushing through the best part of the hike. Roughly half-way through the hike there is a small cabin, and I thought that would provide some shelter from the storm above. Unfortunately the cabin is located after all of the fun tors. So I hiked quickly and sheltered in the cabin. Later that evening as the sun was shining again, I took a short hike back towards the nearest tors. I didn't want to go too far, as I saw a moose in the area, and I didn't want to startle him.
In a very Northern Exposure scene, I had cell phone service from this remote basic cabin. Just a wood stove, some bench seating, shelving, and some broken windows. I had brought my Bibler Tripod bivy in the thought that I would camp on the high tundra near the tors. But the very very lumpy nature of the ground, as well as the swampyness of it, made it necessary to camp inside the cabin. With the broken windows, the state bird - the mosquito - was inside as well. So I set up my bivy inside the cabin to get a better nights rest.
The next day started off overcast, and I knew later on, it would probably rain pretty heavily. So I quickly set about getting down trail again. This side of the basin saw the worst of the fire, and there were quite a few black trees in my path. It was hard to not end up rather sooty from climbing over the trees. I'm sure I was quite the sight for the group of 40-something ladies hiking on the lower trail, covered and streaked by soot. Though nature was also starting to make a rebound after the previous year's fire. The contrast of black and green was pretty impressive and beautiful.
As I was about to drop off the ridge back into the stream valley below, after a long gradual descent on the trail, a hawk talked with me quite extensively. It followed me down the trail, and kept up a constant conversation. It must have been passed fledging time, so I don't know why I was accosted by the raptor.
Trip 2: April 2006
Needing a nice trail for a day of snowshoeing, this seemed like a nice doable trail. We had only intended to make it up to a nice vantage point, as 15 miles in winter in interior Alaska, wasn't going to happen in 1 day. So on a beautiful sunny and reasonably warm day, I set out with Al for some fun in the snow.