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The High Sierra Trail in three days

In keeping with the tradition of doing a crazy trip over Veteran’s day weekend. Matt and I set our sights on the 72 mile High Sierra Trail. This trail is typically done in one to two weeks, but we figured that by hiking light and fast we could do it in three days. Furthermore the cold scared most people away so we had the trail to ourselves, we did not see a single person past Trail Crest. No pre reserved permits were needed.

However, we had to hope that winter would not come early and blanket the trail in snow, as this would certainly foil our trip. The weeks ticked on and winter still did not begin in the Sierras, so the trip was a go, we invited our friends Adam and Jared who we had done a lot of trips with and Sim and Ng too motivated hikers from our school who would go in the opposite direction and key swap with us.

Unfortunately we did not leave Berkeley until 8pm due to numerous delays. This meant that when we got to the trailhead we decided that instead of sleeping for a few hours it would be best to start right away. This however was a mistake as none of us got more then an hour of sleep on the car ride there.

At first the hike went very well, we were all stoked to get out there and finally start the trail, we pounded out some miles and before we knew it we were at trail camp and the sun was rising.

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sunrise from trail camp

As we climbed the switchbacks we got more and more tired and we began to feel the altitude. By the time we got to trailcrest I was ready to fall asleep.

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View westward from trail camp, the next two days of our route neatly laid out before us

Despite my exhaustion I wanted to go on to the summit. Luckily Matt convinced me that it would be better to get some rest as my exhaustion was only exacerbated by the lack of oxygen and continuing higher would be potentially dangerous. In the moment I really wanted to get to the top of Mt Whitney, but I am glad I rested up instead. I probably could have made it to the summit, but I came here for the High Sierra Trail, not for Mt Whitney which I had already climbed. CLimbing Mt. Whitney would have jeopardized the rest of the trip for me.

So I walked down the trail west of trail crest and found a small bivy spot to take a nap. Two hours later my friends came and woke me up and I was feeling much better. We continued down towards Guitar Lake.

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beautiful lakes on the west side of Whitney
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Matt taking a well deserved break

We descended to Crabtree meadow and camped the night there, it was in the single digits that night but we were all exhausted so we slept soundly. The next morning we set off westward into the Kern River headwaters and the heart of the Southern Sierra.

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Looking ahead towards the Monarch Divide

The miles began to fly by, this was the flattest part of the trail and we no longer were completely sleep deprived like on the first day. We had lunch at the Kern Hot Springs, which were rather underwhelming at this time of year, and we continued west. At around 4pm we were relieved to run into Sim and Ng, they were right on pace as they had an extra day to complete the trail, we screamed for joy and hugged them before exchanging tips on the trail ahead.

But we were all over 30 miles from a road, the draw of getting back to school pulled us back to civilization and the impending winter made us not get too comfortable in the mountains. We are fairly certain that we were the last people to complete the High Sierra Trail in 2017 as a storm came later that week. The snow free trail that we enjoyed soon became buried deep in snow for the next six plus months. All in all se hiked 28 miles that day and made it a few miles short of Kaweah gap.

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The trail ahead the next morning

We walked across dead meadows and eventually attained Kaweah gap. We were treated to spectacular view in both directions and took some time to soak it all in.

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view east from Kaweah Gap
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west from the gap
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descending towards precipice lake

 

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first glimpse of precipice lake
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Matt overlooking the frozen Precipice Lake
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Frozen Precipice lake
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Hamilton Lake

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As we descended further and further away from Kaweah gap we slowly left the alpine wonderland and entered the forest. We walked and walked and the miles began to drag on, it got dark and finally we reached the car around 6:30. We did it we completed the High Sierra Trail in three days!

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the sweet taste of victory

Short video of the trip below:

 

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Mineral King loop

I’d always wanted to go to Mineral King and it is one of the easier places in the Sierra to get permits to, so one weekend in September. Adam, Evan, Will and I set out to do a trip there. It is a beautiful part of the Sierra and if you can get over driving on Mineral King’s infamous 498 curve entrance road then it is a perfect place for a last minute trip. We did an about 30 mile loop visiting Little 5 Lakes basin, Big 5 Lakes basin and Columbine Lake, I also climbed Sawtooth Peak.

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lunch break
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Indian Paintbrush:one of the last few remaining wildflowers
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Entering Little 5 Lakes Basin
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Nearing Columbine Lake
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Columbine Lake
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Sawtooth Peak looming overColumbine Lake

After Columbine Lake I split with my friends and climbed Sawtooth Peak alone. While it looks difficult from afar, it got much easier up close, as sierra peaks tend to do. The views from the top were fantastic, but clouds were moving in so the view was partially obstructed.

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Columbine Lake from Sawtooth Peak

 

I then ran down the trail to catch up with my friends before they got to the car. Infinity switchbacks later and then infinity curves later and we were back in the Central Valley heading back to school.

 

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Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route

I was excited all summer to embark on the Sierra High Route. After many intense weekend trips I wanted to try a difficult multiweek trip. Every trip seemed to end too soon, so a two week trip sounded very appealing. Matt, Dan and I had no idea how much of the Sierra High Route we would be able to accomplish in our limited time frame but we were excited to head into the off trail Sierra nonetheless. After a long summer though, it was bittersweet leaving my job at Ridge Runners summer camp. But the Sierra was calling. After my last day of work, my dad generously drove us up to King’s Canyon where we camped on the side of the road for the night.

The first day of the High Route involves a long 6000+ climb up and out of King’s Canyon. The climb is mostly on trail but eventually it departs the trail and as Steve Roper says “the truly adventurous part of the High Route begins” As we began to go up the Grouse Pass and we had to set up our tents in a suboptimal spot which quickly became a puddle. Knowing what I know now I would have kept walking until the storm ended or at least kept walking until we found a better campspot.

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Soon the storm cleared and revealed a beautiful view

The second day of the trip was filled with more stunning beauty and more learning on our part. We crossed two passes, Goat Crest Saddle and Gray Pass. At the first drop of rain we set up our tents and waited out a storm which never materialized. Luckily the weather was great for the rest of the trip after this and it never slowed us down again.

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View from our campsite on the second night

The Sierra high route has 34 passes and on the second day we set out to climb three more, Red, White and Frozen Lakes Pass. Red and White Pass went by quickly and we got our first view of Frozen Lakes Pass across the Lakes Basin.

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Dan cresting over Red Pass
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Looking down on Marion Lake, Frozen Lakes Pass in the distance

We were able to glissade down most of the way to Marion Lake. Crossing the Lakes Basin took the better part of the day. We had a quick lunch at Marion Lake in our tents because the Mosquitoes were so bad and then kept heading up towards the towering Frozen Lake Pass. This was the first of the notoriously difficult Sierra passes that we crossed and from far away it looked impossible. Like many of the harder passes however, only as we got close it began to look doable.

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Matt celebrating atop Marion pass

The descent down the other side was a little loose but not that bad. We were lucky that there was a lot of snow and we were able to glissade most of the way down.

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Matt and Dan descending Frozen Lakes Pass
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The JMT

Finally we made it down to the JMT. We joked about the trail being a highway for the first few days and it indeed felt like one compared to the pass we just came over. After days of not seeing anyone, we suddenly saw a lot of people. We camped just below Mather Pass.

On the fourth day Matt and I split off from Dan as he was really feeling the effects of altitude and wanted to take an easier day.  He stuck to the JMT well we stayed on the High Route. After quickly climbing Mather Pass, we went off trail again and up and over Cirque Pass. Potluck Pass was next and it looked impossible from a distance. Luckily as we got closer we found a doable albeit difficult steep route up it.

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Matt atop Potluck Pass
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The Palisade Crest

We then descended into the Palisade Bowl, and walked beneath 5 of the 14,000 foot peaks in California, what a sight! Our fourth pass of the day, Knapsack Pass, went quickly and soon we were back on trail and descending the switchbacks into LeConte canyon. Where just as all of the light disappeared we reunited with Dan. Dan saw 70 people that day on the JMT but we only saw one on the High Route.

The next day Matt and I were quite tired from doing 4 passes the previous day and we decided to take it easy, and call it early at Evolution Lake.

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Muir Pass
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Evolution Lake

On the sixth day we set out to climb over the famed Snow Tongue Couloir, but took a wrong turn and went up Alpine Col instead. Alpine Col still crosses the Monarch divide and still gets you out of King’s Canyon National Park and is considered slightly easier, but there is a large boulder field at the bottom with rocks the size of cars that forces you to constantly climb and descend, and this cost us many hours. This coupled with the fact that Matt was not feeling well, lead to a short day.

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Matt and Dan with the Monarch Divide in the background.
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Beautiful view from our campsite
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Milky way over the Monarch Divide

On the 7th day we continued north towards Lake Italy, ascending passes and descending into a French Canyon, just to climb back out of it. The section just south of Lake Italy was on of my favorite sections of the whole trip.

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Feather Pass
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Black Bear Lake

We camped just South of Lake Italy. On the morning of day 8, Dan announced that he was going to exit over Italy Pass and would rest and then meet us in Mammoth. Matt and I took off and climbed three passes that day with no more then a few five minute breaks. The next section of the High Route had some beautiful sections like Gabbot Pass and Laurel Pass, but most of the route was very low elevation. Second Recess required a large descent and ascent and walking over a lot of fallen trees. We walked until sunset and set our alarms in order to get into Mammoth at a descent time. On the ninth day Matt and I got into Mammoth in the afternoon and were completely exhausted. We had both pushed ourselves very hard after  Dan left. As it turned out Dan had only gotten into Mammoth a few hours before we did. We all decided to get a room in a hostel and contemplate the next steps.

It was quite weird being in town after 9 days in the Wilderness. Suddenly my phone lit up with one hundred notifications, the bus ride into town felt like a roller coaster. After nine days of only worrying about miles and food, there was a lot on my mind and I felt lost and confused. The main thing that I thought about was the upcoming solar eclipse. I really wanted to complete the High Route in one go, but I also knew that the High Route would always be there whereas the eclipse would only last two minutes. It may have been possible for me to complete the High Route and hitchhike up to see the eclipse but it would have been risky.

Dan and Matt also had other things on their minds, Matt had a lot of work to get done on his solar vehicle project before school started and Dan had a flight back home to Mexico to catch. After much discussion and back and forth we decided that Dan and I would complete the next section to Tuolomne and hitch home from there leaving me with 30 miles and 6 passes to do over Labor Day weekend in two weeks time. This way I would have plenty of time to hitchhike home and I had a sure ride to see the eclipse with my family. Matt on the other hand had too much to do and hitched back to Berkeley.

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Berkeley or Bust!

On day 10 Dan and I descended into Red’s Meadow and climbed up towards Nancy Pass and the Minarets. Both of us were exhausted from the first part of the High Route and our bodies were pretty beat up so we decided to take it easy and camp just past Nancy Pass. After hiking quickly and pushing ourselves so hard south of Mammoth, it was nice to slow down and enjoy the hike a bit more.

We woke up on the 11th day to the stunning Minarets towering above us. We quickly climbed to Minaret Lake and stopped and took in the view.

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Minaret Lake

After climbing up to Cecile Lake we undertook one of the sketchier descents of the trip, descending to Iceberg Lake.

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descending to Iceberg Lake
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Iceberg Lake living up to its name
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The next section was incredible, walking through meadows beneath Ritter and Banner
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Looking back on the Minarets from Whitebark Pass
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Another sketchy descent down to Garnett Lake
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The view from our campsite on the west side of Thousand Island Lake

The 12th day was one of the more beautiful days on the trail. We made our way from Thousand Island Lake, over Glacier Pass and past Lake Catherine towards the beautiful Bench Canyon.

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Ascending Glacier Pass
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Looking into the large glacially carved canyons of the Yosemite area

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Bench Canyon
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Looking back on the Ritter Range.

We camped just outside of Yosemite that night and although we did not know it, it was my last night on the trail. The next morning we climbed over Blue Lakes Pass and began the 20+ mile on trail section into Tuolomne Meadows. I didn’t take many pictures of this section as it was mostly in the trees. 12 miles from Tuolomne we caught a brief glimpse of Half Dome from a distance and Dan, who knew he wouldn’t be back in California for quite some time couldn’t resist ending his hike in the Valley which was about as far away as Tuolomne Meadows.  We said our goodbyes and I continued northward alone. I considered camping in the wilderness and hitching out in the morning, but I was exhausted and really wanted to get home that night. T

The High Route had been very beautiful but also quite tough. I carried far too much stuff and got large blisters from not taking care of my feet properly. I was excited to go home and rest but I knew I would miss the freedom of the Sierra. As I limped the last few miles to the road, I was already planning next Summer’s adventure, hiking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail.

A german couple gave me a ride to Groveland, halfway home just as the sun was setting. They told me they were underwhelmed with the Sierras after visiting the Alps. They had seen Tuolomne Meadows and Yosemite Valley but they were not impressed. One really can’t understand the true beauty of the Sierra until they get far away from roads and even trails.

My friend Dan wrote up a trip report as well for this trip as well and shot some beautiful film pictures of the trip: https://acasualvagary.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/the-range-of-light-a-film-essay/#more-590

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Grizzly Lake in the Trinity Alps

DSC02862.jpgI did not go on many backpacking trips in the Summer of 2017. I had just gotten back from a three week trip hitchhiking to Alaska and I had my two week Sierra High Route trip planned at the end of the Summer. I was also quite busy with my job running Ridge Runners Nature Day Camp in Pleasanton.

Luckily I made it out to the Trinity Alps one weekend though, which is quite a long drive from the Bay Area. We chose to do Grizzly Lake, and it took about 6 hours to get to the trailhead. (mostly because we drove a Prius and the going was slow on the dirt road, there were a few sketchy sections but the Prius came away unscathed) When we got to the trailhead there were a few trucks and a Subaru but no other sedans.

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Grizzly Falls from afar

 

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Ira on the Uke
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most of the trip is on trail but the half mile is a class 1-2 scramble up large boulders
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Grizzly Lake draining over into Grizzly Falls
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sunset over the valley
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Sunset from our campsite on the other side of Grizzly Falls
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milky way over grizzly falls
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headed back the next day

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Overall it was a short but beautiful trip filled with meadows and wildflowers that rival the high meadows of the Sierra without all of the people.

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4000 miles and 55 rides north: hitchhiking from California to Alaska

My friend Arman drops me off on the side of highway one on the California Coast and we say our goodbyes. This is actually happening. Months of homework, tests to study for and dreaming about heading north and now here I am nothing separating me from the biggest adventure of my life. His car rolls away, I put my pack down and stick out my thumb.

The going was slow the first day. My mind went through the familiar ups and downs of hitchhiking. After hours of waiting on the side of the road, cautious optimism that I will get picked up soon turns into pessimism and I lose my faith that anyone will ever pick me up. Suddenly I get a ride and my faith in humanity is restored. Unforunately many of the rides I got were quite short. I would wait for hours to only go 15 miles up the road. Finally after waiting for hours for a ride just South of the Lost Coast, I got a ride all the way to Humboldt.

It was my first night on the road though and I wasn’t smart, they dropped my off at a campsite that cost 45$. Of course this was a ridiculous scam and I did not pay it. Instead I walked 6 miles into downtown Humboldt. No one wanted to pick me up as it was well past dark. There was a large homeless population in the town and people mistook me for them and gave me a wide breadth as I passed. After many failed attempts at hitching on the on ramp, I broke down and paid 10 bucks for an Uber to a campground by the beach. This ended up being the right decision, I met some cool people sitting around a campfire and slept in the sand dunes that night.

The second day started out slowly as well, but I was standing on the beautiful California Coast so it didn’t really matter. A few rides later and I got a ride into Oregon and almost halfway up it. This guy and I talked about our whole lives and lots of different political issues for four hours, but I didn’t even get his name. I swore not to repeat my mistake of the previous night and stopped hitching well before dark. I got a great campspot on the Oregon Coast and it was only 6$ (this was one of only two times I had to pay for camping on this whole trip)

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Sunset Oregon Coast

I headed north and the Coast only got prettier. That evening I found myself in Astoria, on the Oregon Washington Border. On a whim I threw my thumbout in the middle of a busy intersection with no good place to stop. It had just started to rain and the chances of getting a ride looked bleak, but suddenly a women stopped in the middle of the intersection blocking all of the traffic and motioned for me to get in quickly. Suddenly we were cruising along at 60mph and crossing over the Columbia River and into Washington on the Astoria Bridge.

I camped outside of her RV that night and had the goal of getting to Sequim Washington that day. It was slow going but I linked a few rides together and made it to Forks Washington just outside of Olympic National Park. From there I took a bus into the park and went for a short hike to see a waterfall.

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Olympic National Park

I took another bus to Sequim to stay at a friend from school’s house. I met her through the hiking club and it was very nice of her to put me up for the night and let me shower. I was atempting to cross an international border the next day so showering was essential.

The next morning I boarded the ferry across the San Juan de Fuca straight and into Canada. I had done some reasearch and it seemed that I was most likely to get into Canada by ferry and if I hitched in at a land crossing I may get denied entry. Unfortunately it was the middle of the week and the other people on the ferry were mostly retired. With my large pack, I stood out like a sore thumb.

A 90 minute boatride later and I was in Canada. I nervously awaited my turn at customs and when it came I tried to be as vague as possible in my responses to questions. I knew this was a turning point in my trip, if I got rejected, I’d have to head home. The customs women was less then thrilled with my vague answers and pressed me for specifics I did not have. What hotel was I staying at? How did I hear about BC? Where was I going to see? on and on and on. Of course I could not tell her that I would be sleeping on the side of the road and planned to hitch to Alaska, so I told her I wanted to see Vancouver. Finally after I told her I had a job to go back to in the states in June, and school in August she reluctantly waived me through.

Canada was very different from the United States which I did not expect. I expected Victoria to be a small town but it felt like a big city. My phone no longer had reception and the money was different. But most importantly the people were much more willing to pick up hitchhikers. I took a bus and a ferry to get to mainland Canada and I got 5 rides after 4pm through Squamish Pemberton and Whistler. One time I got a ride 4 seconds after sticking my thumb out. While I was starting to grow tired of the emotional roller coaster that hitchhiking was in the United States, I now felt a lot better about my chances of making it to Alaska. When people asked where I was going instead of cautiously telling them I was going as far north as I could get I began to boldly declare Alaska.

I took a detour to go to Banff and Jasper instead of blazing through central British Columbia. It was a bit difficult to get a ride out of Kamloomps but finally an eccentric older gentleman picked me up. He had a different women in every town and he stopped frequently to offer to buy things that were not for sale from people’s homes. But a ride is a ride and I did not complain. As soon as I neared the National Parks the rides began to come very quickly. I made the mistake of  getting let out in Lake Louise where the rangers told me if I camped I would get eaten by a Grizzly bear. Not sure what to believe I caught a ride down to the town of Banff at the last light. I got picked up by a family as I was walking around the town, even though my thumb was not out. The man was very loud and a bit drunk and told me that his seven year old had just been driving the car. I was a bit apprehensive about getting in the car with him but he offered me a free place to tent at their camp spot so I took it. Upon returning to his camp spot his girlfriend was less then thrilled that he had picked up a hitchhiker with her two and seven year olds in the car, but she quickly warmed up to me. He on other hand did not get along with her and they always seemed to be at odds which created a very uncomfortable dynamic. He broke all of the rules in the campground including having hard alcohol, playing loud music at night and leaving food out at night. When the ranger informed him of this he replied that he would shoot any bear that tried to get his food. His girlfriend and the ranger were not happy and she quickly apologized on his behalf.

They kindly gave me a ride the next morning though and I was back on the road in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

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“Icefields Parkway” Jasper National Park
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Mountain Goat in Jasper National Park
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One of many black bears I saw

That night a very friendly Canadian couple picked me up along with four other hitchhikers. They let us camp in their campspot next to their RV and even cooked us a fantastic meal. We stayed up while into the night talking. It didn’t get fully dark until midnight but when it did we were treated to a glimpse of the northern lights.

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Northern Lights in Jasper National Park

I would have liked to stay in Jasper longer but my sights were set on Alaska so I got back on the road. After a quick hitch out of the park and past Mt. Robson, I was again stuck on the side of the road for four hours. A cop came by and I thought she was going to give me a hard time, but after 15 minutes of running my documents she drove off. Luckily I soon got the longest ride of my trip so far from Hank a very interesting gentleman who was heading out to the middle of nowhere in Northern BC where he was attempting to build a settlement and move his family there to live off the land. His sister generously let me stay in her backyard for the night and the next morning he dropped me off at the base of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway in Kitwanga BC. It turned out to be a good thing he gave me a ride through this section as the Prince George to Prince Rubert stretch of highway is notrious for being a dangerous highway to hitch on, dubbed the  “highway of tears”. Many signs were put up to discourage hitchhiking.

A tow truck driver gave me a ride an hour up the highway to Meziadin Junction. This to me was another key turning point of the trip. I stood on the empty road for a while and only about one car was going north every hour, the prospects seemed grim. I mentally readied myself to wait a few days on the side of the road and potentially having to turn around after having come so far. The one bright side though was that it was a 16 hour drive up to Whitehorse and there were only a few small towns in between. If I got a ride it would be a long one. Luckily a gentleman named Billy picked me up and we he drove me for 2.5 days.

Billy had been driving for over 20,000 km and had been on the road for months, visiting most of the western United States. After two and a half good days on the road with good company and not worrying about getting a ride, Billy dropped me off in Whitehorse. Luckily not more then an hour later a gentleman named Andy picked me up and he said he would take me all the way to Alaska.

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almost to Alaska

Andy worked seasonally in Alaska and drove up there in his vegetable oil powered car every summer. He told me a lot about places to visit, since I didn’t know if I would even make it this far, I didn’t do much research on Alaska itself.

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Kenai Fjords National Park

Andy dropped me off on the Kenai Penninsula and after hitching around there for a while and seeing the glaciers and going backpacking on the coast I headed north. I stayed at a hostel in Anchorage to charge my batteries and rest. It is never really dark in Alaska so it was good to sleep in the dark for one night. I hitched up to Denali National Park. After 55 rides I became less eager to tell my story and hear the story of every person who gave me a ride and more comfortable sitting in silence.

The next morning I headed into Denali National Park on the mandatory bus. It was beautiful and we saw lots of wildlife.

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Dall Sheep in Denali National Park
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Moose Crossing
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Caribou

 

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Ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird

As the bus returned back to the main road, I got off at the Teklanika River and headed north into the Alaskan wilderness. There are almost no trails in Denali National Park and I did not see anyone for the next 3 days. I had a rough plan of heading north from the road and trying to get to the Magic Bus completely off trail. Off trail travel was hard in Denali and my feet were constantly wet. It was beautiful however, and I walked across a big mountain range and had sweeping views of the park. My legs got very scratched up but a day and a half later I reached the bus.

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Bus 142 on the Stampede trail

I decided returning off trail would be far too difficult so I elected to take the less beautiful Stampede trail which is mostly in the trees. It was much quicker then off-trail and that night I crossed the mighty Teklanika river, which luckily was not very high.

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My campsite on the east side of the Teklanika River

I got a little lost the next day and went the wrong way for a few hours, discouraged, I finally got back to where I started around 3pm. At this point my body was falling apart and it hurt to walk. I had huge blisters on both feet and I had no idea how to take care of them. Nevertheless I walked out and just before I reached the road I ran into an Australian guy who was trying to get to the bus. Since he had no food or shelter I told him to turn around, and luckily he agreed, we walked out together and he gave me a ride into Healy. James had been travelling around the US trying to see the most touristy things possible including, 8 mile, Walter White’s house and he even appeared on the People’s court. His last planned stop was the bus but it did not pan out. He then drove me to Denali to return my bearcan and took this very staged picture of me hitchhiking in the snow.

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Hithchhiking in Denali National Park

The park was closed due to snow so he drove me back to Fairbanks. James was my 55th and final ride of the trip. I tried to get a ride up to Prudhoe Bay but I was unsuccesful. This truck driver offered me a ride on Craigslist but he never showed up at the Walmart we planned to meet at. I camped the night there and then went to the Fairbanks airport the next day.

There is so much to see in Alaska and I barely scratched the surface. I really want to move there one day!

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Mt. Denali, so lucky to fly home on a clear day