Red Rock Canyon Road/Trail in the Alaska Range.

Driving through Red Rock Canyon is a slow kind of exciting. I barely reach 10 miles per hour as alders scrape both sides of the car on the single lane, windy road in the Delta Mountains.

The road traverses a mountainside above the toe of the Canwell Glacier. It feels like at any moment all four tires are going to bust on sharp schist, but I keep driving until I reach a stream that I wouldn’t dare try to cross in the Forester. The creek isn’t too deep, but I certainly don’t have the clearance to make it over many of the rocks in it. I park, tie my boots to my pack, pull up my pant legs, and ford in my sandals.

It’s all uphill from here. The jeep trail, a remnant of mineral exploration along the valley wall, opens up above the alder-confined, steep start. The Canwell Glacier appears a few hundred meters below. I stop 3 miles in; there’s a significant stream originating from a small glacier high above, barely visible from the trail. Once upon a time, this was a tributary to the larger Canwell. Today it terminates a couple of miles up the valley.

Meltwater stream leading up to the Rainbow Basin | Purchase Print

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I follow a small ridge that parallels the stream up toward the smaller glacier in an area known as the Rainbow Basin. I have no plan for the evening, I’m looking for a nice place to camp and maybe photograph the aurora if it comes out. There is no trail, just steep and loose talus. Two steps forward, one step back up until I hit some flat, rocky meadows. I know I’ve found my spot as I look out over the glacier-clad basin that terminates at a jagged rocky spire a few hundred feet tall. This is what I want to see from my tent door.

Glacier in the Rainbow Basin | Purchase Print

The Sun is setting soon. Not really setting, but the mountains are tall enough on the west side that I’m feeling the last of the warm light. It’s not long before my tent is up and I walk down to a spot well below my campsite to cook dinner. I passed quite a bit of bear scat on my way up here and don’t want these smells up near my tent.

I choke down half a pound of pasta primavera. I don’t want it; it doesn’t taste good at all by the end, but I know I need the calories. The light is still beautiful, so I take a little walk further up the valley after cleaning up my kitchen area and stashing the bear canister. McCallum Peak looks magnificent in this evening light.

McCallum Peak and Institute Peak lurking in the back | Purchase Print

Darkness sets in as I place my tripod up on a hill above my tent. The clouds fill in the sky, but they’ve been moving in and out all day. I need to be ready if the aurora shows up. The tent is comfortable; I’m always comfortable when sleeping outside. I try to memorize the location of all the things I may suddenly need in the night. My camera is in the open case by my right knee, bear spray in the left tent sleeve by my head, the alarm clock/phone in the right sleeve, warm water bottle I filled earlier in my sleeping bag at my feet. I set my alarm to go off in an hour and drift off.

I’m startled by my alarm – I was out hard. Unzipping the tent door and fly, I stick my head out without leaving my sleeping bag. Clouds. All clouds. One more hour.

Beep . . . beep . . . beep. There’s a tapping sound on the tent; that doesn’t bode well. My suspicions are confirmed when I stick my head out and get pelted with tiny ice drops—one more hour.

Again. Nothing. No more ice. One more hour.

I hear the wind. Parting the vestibule on the tent reveals a green sky through a hole in the clouds. I grab the camera from the case and race up the hill in the dark. My eyes are trained on the lights dancing in the sky. The window is small, and I know that any second they could move to another part of the sky. Fumbling to get the camera on the tripod head, I notice they’re already starting to fade away. Just in time – I manage to snap a couple of shots before they disappear and the window closes.

Aurora borealis through the clouds taken in the Rainbow Basin in the Alaska Range
Tall aurora rays viewed through the clouds

I wait for a few minutes trying to see if it will come back. The hole in the sky is gone and I’m in total darkness. Removing the camera and collapsing the tripod I walk back to the tent, smiling. While climbing back into my sleeping bag the pattering on the fly starts up again. It’s after 3 am; no more alarm, I’m going to sleep for real.

Tent in dusting of snow - camping in the rainbow basin

Good morning! What started as ice had softened in the night. I wake up to a winter wonderland on the last day of August. The air is pleasantly cool – nothing like winter camping here, which can be brutal. I’m not in the mood to cook right now, so I settle for some granola and a gross protein bar.

Breaking camp is easy on a single night trip since I don’t care about keeping my equipment dry or organized. I’m heading for home where things can dry just fine. The walk down is tricky, though. The ice from earlier in the evening stuck to the talus and now I have to focus on every step I take since I want to keep all my teeth.

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The Sun starts to break the horizon as I reach the jeep trail. I can see the full valley now and everything is dusted white. Less than an inch of snow is perfect to leave the dark rocks beneath still exposed – a beautiful dynamic contrast on the moraines of the Canwell Glacier.

The Canwell Glacier with dusting of snow at sunrise | Purchase Print

As I look over the terminus of the glacier I’m pretty sure I could see summer, fall, and winter in the valley below.

Terminus of the Canwell Glacier and the start of fall colors | Purchase Print

My journey ends with a chillier fording of the stream to get to the car. At least I have some warm socks for the drive home.

Sun rises over the ridge to the northwest | Purchase Print
Reflections – Taken on the drive down near the Donnelly Creek Campground | Purchase Print

I have more photos from this trip and prints available on my photo page:

Blog Comments

I like your writing at this page so much. All of present tense verbs take me to the very moment as if I “am” at the place with you!! Really really nice writing!! And I “am” stunned at your photos. WOW!! WOW!! WOW!! I deeply thank this world that you are you and Alaska is Alaska!!
Thank you so much for sharing, Lee Petersen.
(^ v ^)/

I like this sentence, especially last word.
“Removing the camera and collapsing the tripod I walk back to the tent, smiling. ”
And this, especially “warm socks” (they let me feel this story “so next to skin”).
“My journey ends with a chillier fording of the stream to get to the car. At least I have some warm socks for the drive home.}

So good. So so good.

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