Alaska Spring 2020 – Hiking in the Year of COVID-19

I don’t need to say that the spring of 2020 has been . . . interesting. For everyone. Here in Fairbanks, we finished off one of the coldest winters since I moved here ten years ago. It was an indoor kind of season. Mutterings of potential lockdowns or shelter-in-place orders were concerning after spending the majority of three months inside.

snowy waves in fairbanks, alaska
Winter 2020 in a nutshell | Purchase Prints

The temperature finally went above freezing just a few days before the first day of spring (the average temperature was -6.03°F in February and -20.74°F in January). It was a great relief and a nudge to go outdoors finally. Yet, the new term on the streets was “social distancing.” Something that should be plenty easy to do in Alaska, right?

Castner Glacier Outing

On the first day of spring, my wife Cat and I drove down to the Delta Mountains for a day to walk out to the toe of the Castner Glacier, where there are often glacier caves accessible by foot. In the early 2010s, I rarely saw other people out there. Apparently the spot has become quite popular in the last few years. I believe I counted roughly 30 cars in the parking areas.

Cat in an ice cave while on a hike during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic
Cat under ice crystals on the ceiling of the Castner Glacier cave

The hike is just under a mile one-way, I can barely call it a hike. As we approached, there was a steady flow of traffic heading in the opposite direction. You could sense a bit of light-hearted tension, occasional semi-sarcastic comments along the lines of “better practice safe distancing,” laughingly, as others would step six feet out of the way as we passed. We didn’t know how seriously we needed to be taking precautions yet, and it was difficult to gauge how others felt. There were 12 confirmed cases in the state at the time, mostly down south. We didn’t know how much our geographical isolation would help us.

We had arrived late enough in the day that everyone else was on their way out. Only a few minutes after arriving, we were the only ones at the cave. I won’t go into details, you can read more about it here.

entrance to the castner ice cave
Entrance to the cave

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Things Happen

It seemed like only the next day, things started to change. Fast. A week later, a state-wide shelter at home order was in place by Governor Dunleavy. Non-essential businesses were ordered closed. Luckily, we had recently purchased toilet paper, because what the hell, man.

We were running low on water. In Fairbanks, a considerable portion of the population relies on hauling water to their homes. There’s no city-supplied water if you live only a few miles outside of town. Some lucky people have wells, but permafrost prevents most from having access to an outside water source. Many people live in dry cabins with no running water. I did that for six years here. Now we rely on a delivery service to deliver water to our storage tank so that we can have running water in the house. I called to get a delivery and became concerned when I was on hold for more than a few minutes.

It’s easy to think that everyone was freaking out, everyone was hoarding. But, I don’t think that was the case. It only takes a small percentage of hoarders to ruin it for everyone else. The grocery stores were nearly empty for days. It took three days to get our water delivery, and we were drinking out of blue 5-gallon jugs again. Things were weird.

Not Taking Oxygen For Granted

Certainly, when I came down with a severe respiratory infection early in April, I was confident it was COVID-19. I started having coughing fits and felt short of breath for a couple of days before getting walloped. I remember waking up and feeling like I couldn’t breathe. No. Not quite. It wasn’t hard to breathe; I just didn’t feel like my brain and body were getting any oxygen when I did. I could get up to walk to the bathroom and lie back down. That was it. And after, I would spend about 2 minutes gasping for breath. Then coughing.

Two weeks. Almost exactly. It was two weeks before I could start to get up and move around again. Not well, but I could. My muscles felt weak, and I’d get pretty out of breath from any exertion. At least I didn’t feel sick anymore. Unfortunately, the next few days didn’t change much. Recovery was slow. About a week later, I could slowly walk down to the mailbox and back. Another week later I could go a bit further. Every week felt slightly better than the week before.

My frustration was growing. I was antsy. Beyond antsy. I had just spent winter indoors, then was told to stay inside for who knows how long, then forced to lie in bed for two weeks. I’m a very active person, typically running 2-3 days per week, climbing 2-3 days per week, and hiking on the weekends. Suddenly I just couldn’t do anything. I was crawling out of my skin.

Breakup And The End Of Winter

I stayed at home for 14 days after my symptoms ended, just as break-up was happening on the rivers and lakes. I was starting to feel better as we entered the worst season of the year to do anything outside. The migratory birds had returned, and in May I finally ventured down to Creamer’s Field and Peat Ponds to see them.

Trumpeter swan at Creamer’s Field | Purchase Prints
Northern Shoveler at Peat Ponds in the Goldstream Valley | Purchase Prints
Moose in the backyard | Purchase Prints

I was hesitant to do any hiking that would put me in a bad position if I suddenly felt my breath go. Walking up a hill by our house was still a real struggle. Yet, we slowly started venturing out a bit more by mid-May. Alaska was in phase 2 of re-opening and most businesses were already going again. Even without the tourists in town, traffic was starting to feel like summer traffic. Clearly everyone was itching to get out. Multiple forums and Facebook groups reported that most of the accessible trailheads were packed.

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In mid-May I had both a COVID-19 test and the antibody test. Both were negative. The thought of having whatever I had not been coronavirus was scary. Here it was 1 1/2 months later and still couldn’t do more than walk without loss of breath. What if I get it? Would it be worse since I was still working off my potentially other respiratory infection? My doctor assured me that the test isn’t that conclusive since many are flawed. Anyway, we still don’t know much about how susceptible people are to being re-infected. We’re all kind of in the Twilight Zone.

Hiking During COVID-19

Venturing Out

Starting to push outside, we went for a short walk on Murphy Dome through the location of last year’s Shovel Creek fire. This fire burned over 23,000 acres between July and September of 2019. Luckily no major structures were lost, despite it coming very close to multiple neighborhoods. It was shocking to see just how much of the hillsides burnt. Also, it felt incredibly good to be out and especially out of town.

Burnt spruce trees left standing on Murphy Dome | Purchase Print
Always a few spruce standing in the aftermath | Purchase Print

Denali National Park

Once I could more or less make our 2-mile daily walk without getting super winded on the hill, it was time to actually go somewhere. We packed up and headed for Denali National Park to try something new. I found a hike described in Ike Waits Guidebook that I hadn’t done yet near the Teklanika River.

The hike heads out to the foothills to the east of the river and supposedly had a great view of Double Mountain.

Since the road was open to the Teklanika Rest Stop at the time and the round-trip was only 5ish miles, I figured this would be a good start for our modified hiking season.

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Unfortunately, our drive into the park was cringe-worthy. It was absolutely packed. If you’ve never driven the park road, let me paint you a scene.

The Park Road

The 90-mile road is typically closed to the public at mile-15. To go further, you need to take a shuttle or tour bus. This helps keep the number of vehicles down and reduce the chances of interfering with wildlife. For the most part, this seems to work, as we don’t hear of many cases of negative wildlife encounters like in Yellowstone National Park.

For a few weeks in the spring, before the buses are running, the road opens to the Teklanika River at mile-30. This usually brings a lot of locals to the park since tourists aren’t here yet. Well, this year with so many businesses yet to open and people being apprehensive about indoor activities and the virus, I think it brought out most of the locals.

People tend to drive fairly slow on the road, looking for wildlife. It’s not usually a problem; the speed limit is only 35 mph anyway. Every once in a while, though . . . every once in a while, someone decides to drive 10 mph max, with a line of 15 cars behind, and never give enough room to pass. That’s what we faced. Two cars behind “that guy”. For about 15 miles my blood pressure continued to rise.

I’m not sure if people like this are oblivious to what they are doing, or just don’t care. I’m sure there are plenty of both types. It’s great if you want to look for wildlife in the park, I encourage it, but be courteous! Some people actually have a destination, and this gentleman took 45 minutes out of our hiking time. And no, we never made a single stop for wildlife. But, we did have a dog we had to get home to in a few hours.

Teklanika Foothills

Huge talus field on the side of Peak 3992

The parking area at the rest stop was full and there were cars parked on the side of the road. We managed to get a spot as someone was leaving. I tried to make a bet with Cat that we wouldn’t see a single person on our hike despite all the people here. She didn’t take me up on the offer.

The hike is off-trail starting out across the tundra, passing by some gorgeous kettle ponds. A few rolling hills precede the bigger foothills. Then it gets steep. We decided to deter from the guidebook description because of some overgrown willow and alder, which made us take a hillier route.

Looking down from the first ridgeline. The Teklanika Rest Stop is center left, just below the river.

I. Struggled. So. Bad. My legs didn’t want to push uphill. Stopping to catch my breath every few minutes didn’t seem to help my legs recover. A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the difficulty of this hike. I probably could have run it reasonably quickly. Now I question my ability to get to the top.

Luckily for me, the steep sections were short-lived. Or else, I would have been. The rest of the hike went relatively well. I’m starting to feel like I can cruise on more gentle grades and other than a bit of knee pain have no issues hiking downhill. The book was right, the views are stunning from the top.

Double Mountain viewed through some conglomerate tors
View of Peak 3992 (destination of this hike) from one of the kettle ponds below | Purchase Print

I was right, by the way. We were the only people on this hike.

Twin Bears Trail – Mosquito Hell

A few weeks later, we were on the Twin Bears Trail in the Chena River State Recreation Area. June bugs were going full-blast. The only reason we did this hike was literally that I needed to map one part of the trail that I hadn’t mapped yet for my guide. Any muscle weakness or shortness of breath I may have had was absolutely negated by my fight-or-flight response to the mosquitoes.

There was no lollygagging, no stopping for the view. My arms felt like they were moving through pebbles suspended in a fluid. If we stopped, they bit. So we didn’t stop. Unsurprisingly, we saw no one on this hike either. My legs were sore for a couple of days after.

We only stopped for long enough to take a picture – North Overlook Twin Bears Mountain

Nome Creek, Mt. Prindle, Dead Legs

My need for mapping trails and working on my wildflower guide quickly led to an overly ambitious hike. I wanted to map the Nome Creek to Mt. Prindle hiking route, but it proved to be more than I could do in a day right now. A couple of years ago I did quite a few 20-mile “day-hikes” with lots of elevation change. I hadn’t been having problems with running out of breath for a few weeks, so I figured I was good-to-go.

hiking in nome creek
Hiking on the trailed section in the Nome Creek Valley

After two stream crossings, we passed three groups of people hiking out that had stayed the night. This is a better way to approach this hike. No one looked too concerned about social distancing, and I’m confident they weren’t families, so I can tell many people are already not too concerned about the virus anymore. One was wearing a Buff as a mask, but I’m convinced it was for the mosquitoes.

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Five miles of uphill terrain had slowed me to a crawl. I kept moving, but at less than half my usual pace. Physically and mentally I couldn’t push myself any harder. For once, I wasn’t having trouble breathing; my legs just wouldn’t go. This is partially a side-effect of not being able to work out for almost two months, including not getting any sort of exercise whatsoever for over a month. It’s also because while I’ve been working on getting my blood pressure down for about six months, one of the best mitigating factors for me is exercise. Lately, I’ve been getting bigger blood pressure spikes when I’m exerted, and it wears me down fast.

While the hike was humbling, and my legs bumbling on the last stretch back to the car, the views were gorgeous! We had two separate storm cells on either side of the ridge to Mt. Prindle that provided stunning contrast in the sky.

Mt. Prindle Ridge and Tors
The final stretch to Mt. Prindle | Purchase Print
Greening valley to the northwest of Mt. Prindle | Purchase Print

Summer 2020

Who knows what summer is going to bring? I didn’t talk about it before, but I certainly hope that the on-going protests continue until we start to see some substantial change. Maybe that will be my topic at summer’s end. I hope we see some change not only in policing but in our mentality as a society as well. Our dichotomies are growing too deep. Whether it’s race, religion, or politics the divide of dialogue is vast. Something about culture right now feels unwell, maybe COVID-19 is some weird metaphor of that.

I have real hope that things will get better. This is just a rough patch that most of us will get through and use to become better at working together. I’ll continue to pay attention and try to learn lessons along the way. Continue to be humble about my opinions.

Thank You!

It was my love of science, photography, and the outdoors that started this blog and website, and I’m ecstatic to be writing so much again! It makes me so happy to share my love of photography and nature. I feel incredibly grateful to my readers and people that are already getting use out of my new guides. I sincerely want to say, thank you.



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