FAIRBANKS — In the spirit of this backcountry challenge, the early pacesetters in this year’s Alaskacross took an impromptu detour seven hours into their 100-mile sprint across the northern edge of the Alaska Range this year.

It was about 5 p.m. Saturday, and a trio of first-time wilderness racers drifted down the Wood River on pack rafts in first place. The group of Rob Wing, Eli Sturm and Sam Herreid knew they were some 30 minutes ahead of another group of three: race veteran Andrew Cyr with rookies John Harley and Jeremy Vandermeer. 

The group of novice racers had planned to hike up Kansas Creek after floating the Wood River, a route favored by all the other participants. Instead, they decided it would be fun to “spice up the race” by taking a different route, explained Herreid, a University of Alaska Fairbanks glaciologist with a background in marathon running but who is new to backcountry racing.   

“We figured we would be dead last with our different route. We just had no way to compare,” he said. “That’s what made it fun. We had no idea what was going on with the race and we had no idea what the other racers were doing.”

The decision to change course may have cost them the lead but not as much as they expected. When Herreid’s group reached the finish more than 24 hours of floating and hiking later, they found they were in second place, about four hours behind the other group that had been chasing them. The first-place team finished in one day, seven hours and 44 minutes. 

An Interior Alaska tradition

In the Alaskacross, participants choose their own routes between two backcountry points. Then they compete to get to the finish first, usually in one long 24- to 48-hour push. The informally organized event has taken place since 2007, usually on a shorter course between Chena Hot Springs and Circle Hot Springs. Although it’s competitive, it’s not officially billed as a race and it offers no prizes. 

This year featured a new course. Twelve men, all from the Fairbanks area, competed. They met at 9 a.m. Saturday at Rose’s Cafe in Healy, then carpooled to the start point at the end of a road near Usibelli Coal Mine. Between 31 hours and 52 hours later, they had all hiked and floated their way to the finish at Lost Lake Camp, a Boy Scout camp off the Richardson Highway between Fairbanks and Delta Junction. 

Nine picked nearly identical routes despite the multitude of ridges and valleys between the start and finish. That route took them up streambeds to the Wood River, where they inflated their portable rafts and floated to Kansas Creek, a watershed they climbed to their final float, a trip down the West Fork of the Little Delta River to the wide, silty Tanana River, which they floated to Lost Lake. 

The detour of Herreid’s group followed the Wood River farther north and was followed by a hike along a ridge Herreid called the “Iowa” or the “piano keys” ridge. It’s a landmark visible to the south of Fairbanks with a long series of parallel gullies. The group found it was easy walking — “so flat you could ride a road bike up there, and the views of the Alaska Range simply can’t be beat,” Herreid said.   

Along both routes, participants spotted animals including Dall sheep, a wolf and a wolverine. Seth Adams, another participant, came within 30 feet of a wolf while floating the West Fork.  

“I pulled out my camera to take a picture and I was like ‘Should I be scared of this thing?’” he said.  “I just kind of said ‘Hey’ and it booked it into the woods.”

Low water, good hiking 

 The route was surprisingly free of the usual obstacles for this kind of summer journey. Because it followed creek beds, the most popular route had few thick stands of thick brush or soggy muskeg. 

“It’s a remarkable course that you can be out in the Alaska Range — and no bushwhacking and no tussock slogging,” said Adams, a veteran of several backcountry races like the Alaskacross who traveled in another group of three that finished some four hours behind Herreid’s group. 

The good conditions made the race merely challenging, instead of pure punishment as this kind of trip can become. 

Rivers ran low this year, which made the floats less dangerous but also slower. Several participants complained of extensive butt-dragging on the low water of the West Fork of the Little Delta River. Mark Ross, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who founded the Alaskacross, finished last this year with a time of two days and three hours. He said he had to walk large sections of the Little Salcha’s West Fork because a modification he made to make his raft lighter also made it less suitable for shallow water travel. 

Most Alaskacrossers said it’s too soon to think about next year. Most were resting their feet after the long hike this week, although at least one participant, Steve Duby, is getting ready for the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a journey that’s more than twice as long, which starts in nine days. 

Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.

 

Alaskacross Results

1. Andrew Cyr, John Harley, 

Jeremy Vandermeer 31 hours, 44 minutes

2. Sam Herreid, 

Eli Sturm, Rob Wing 35:40

3. Alex Gould 39:46

4. Seth Adams, 

Drew Harrington, Bob Gillis 39:54

5. Steve Duby 48:40

6. Mark Ross 51:26

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