A month ago, I headed up the Dalton Highway to spend part of the 4th of July weekend up in Wiseman, on an invite from a local that has a Bed and Breakfast up there. 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Wiseman’s the furthest north I have ever traveled in Alaska and so the trip itself was bound to be as exciting as any part of the old mining town that I was visiting. Thankfully, my good friend from Anchorage, Brian, had some time off to come along with me – so we made our way up to Wiseman for what was supposed to be a fairly relaxing weekend shooting old mining cabins, equipment and listening to some music provided by the local festival.
Although the weekend was exhilarating and well worth the travel, it wasn’t nearly as relaxing as I had hoped it would be.
The drive up was wonderful – gorgeous vistas across the wild tundra, vast unspoiled wilderness… a slice of Alaska that I’ve only seen once before: from the window of a rushed fly-and-drive tour up to Coldfoot. The Dalton was far more tame than I had expected, so the FJ wasn’t even fully tested on a trip that I was certain would at least require FWD at some point.
As we pulled into Wiseman, I was quickly introduced to several members of Clutch’s (the local I know) crew and was hastily coerced into setting off on a little adventure to install a geocache at an old mining claim north of the Wiseman Canyon on Jap Creek. Hand-drawn maps with GPS coordinates showed a promising route that wouldn’t take but 1-2 hours to cover – a simple mile and a half (or so) off the Nolan Road down the old road to Jap Creek. Confident that we could do it, Brian and I recalculated the GPS coordinates into useful waypoints and set on our way. Clutch was kind enough to follow us up the Nolan Road to show us where he thought the trail should be – and with some informed hindsight, I think we would’ve been better taking his advice rather than following the GPS coordinates. We pushed on an extra mile down the Nolan Road before we stopped at the coordinates and started our hike.
Unable to immediately find the trail, we started in a southeasterly direction toward Jap Creek, and soon enough, we found what we thought was the old Jap Creek Road. The going was fairly easy until the road started turning northeast, at which point we decided slugging through the fairly dry tundra would be a better option – so long as we kept going toward Jap Creek. We knew that we would have to ford Wiseman Creek but were fairly unconcerned about that at the time.
Once we started working down toward the Creek, an easy crossing was difficult to find and the mosquitoes, which had been fine higher up where the wind was steady, started hovering around us like a draped piece of fabric. With each forward swing of a arm, half a dozen mosquitoes struck each arm – and all the while, the rest of our bodies felt little dings and pings from their erratic flight patterns as the 98% DEET we covered ourselves with did its job. We continued to push on, paralleling the creek until it started going into a small canyon – and there we were able to cross and remain relatively dry. Unfortunately, the other side of the creek had turned from easy-going Tundra to thick and deep muskeg. Footing was questionable as our pace was quartered while we made slow progression for the next hour, dropping down several times to try to follow the banks of the creek rather than the muskeg. Unfortunately, we started running into glaciation on the creek’s edge – yes, in July – there was still snow pack and ice on the edge of Wiseman Creek. Deemed unsafe, we crawled back up the bank just to walk in more muskeg. At this point, both of us started feeling it – Brian took to inhaling mosquitoes while I started feeling my nerves fray from the mosquitoes’ constant attempts to suck me dry. At this point, wearing a ridiculous-looking bug net helmet and coat didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Alas, we had none.
After slugging through no less than 2 or 3 dry creek beds where the alder was so thick that it was near impossible to stay going straight, we reached Jap Creek – only to find it completely glaciated. Exhausted and speaking as the voice of reason, Brian decided we couldn’t go further and that we should head back – I, stubbornly, wanted to go on but decided to listen. That said, my chosen path back was the wrong choice.
Somehow, in the flurry of activity that happened when we arrived first in Wiseman, I could’ve sworn I heard someone suggest we take the route “through the Canyon” – unfortunately, they said “around the Canyon”.
We started heading for the Canyon, believing that, with the water only 1-2 feet deep at the deepest spots, we’d be able to squeeze through and get back to Wiseman quickly. We slid down probably 150 feet of a bank to the creek and started following it into the Canyon – and, aside from getting soaked from the knees down, we moved quickly, moving down each bend of the creek and even further into the Canyon – until we turned the last corner…
The gentle creek turned into a narrow pass less than 5-10 feet across, albeit short, the water immediately plunged into a deep pool. There was no way through… no way except up. Weighing the options of completely turning around 3 miles into the hike, climbing through all that muskeg and tundra UP the valley toward Nolan Road, I made the decision to go for the Canyon wall. Nearly vertical, possibly 2 feet vertical for every 1 foot horizontal, we started the ascent out of the Canyon and up 600 feet on the adjacent hill. Slow going and agonizing, especially because of the heavy rain that had started 20 minutes ago (and we had praised it because the mosquitoes were shooed away) made every surface nearly impossible to find traction on. The 2:1 slope was only passable in a narrow corridor – on the left, an old mudslide with zero traction – on the right, a sheer cliff – and in between, our path that was originally about 30 feet across at the bottom of the canyon narrowed to less than four feet worth of clearance at the top.
Not 40 feet into the climb, I slipped – and nearly fell back all the way down. I seriously started to wonder if calling for help on my SPOT tracker wouldn’t be a bad idea. Brian was completely out of energy, I was “drill sergeanting” him up the hill all the while praying that I could get out of this situation. The rain continued to weigh us down, made the surfaces we climbed even less predictable and started to put a chill on us. Stupidly (a mistake I’ll never make again), for what was supposed to be a quick hike, we hadn’t brought any food along – just water. Stubbornly, I refused to be one of those naive cheechakos that desperately call for help when a) it’s not really needed and b) it’s only a mile and a half from civilization – but I started to respect their predicaments a little more. Alaska will throw one hell of a wrench into an otherwise easy hike that should provide no serious obstacles – and it’ll do so even within earshot of civilization. Without respecting this, you’re bound to die. We took half a dozen breaks on the way up but we eventually crested the hill and immediately started our decent into the Wiseman valley. 40 minutes later, we dragged our feet as we walked into Wiseman – completely soaked, exhausted and ready to give Clutch a bit of my mind.
Immediately apologetic (that’s a lot coming from a Sourdough), Clutch fed us, offered us showers and kept on apologizing for the trip that was far more difficult than what was on paper. Although we quickly started joking about our adventure, it was obvious that he was truly sorry that the hike had ended up as it had, that glaciation kept us from our final destination and that the geocache, which had been dropped at the base of the cliff, had given us that much trouble. I realized I had no “piece” of my mind to give him, as he had welcomed us to his home, treated us like guests and provided us, at the very least, with one hell of a thrilling adventure. In sum, he’s a great, warm-hearted Alaskan that typifies a state full of externally gruff men. The rest of the evening was spent recovering and, eventually, a jam session broke out – Brian even joined into the session and, even though he doesn’t admit he had a blast, he did.
The next day, we were up to the task of actually getting some photography done. After having some delicious Raspberry Wheat Beer Pancakes (that we made over a camp stove), we explored the local pioneer cemetery and inside the local Post Office, which closed in the ’50s. The Post Office was amazing – it had barely been touched over the years, had dozens of FBI Wanted posters hanging alongside posters introducing “zip codes” for the first time. I took the opportunity to capture a common element of life back then in these remote mining camps – the Post Office often defined the success of a camp – as much as its closing defined failure. Pairing the diptych with a seed package sent from Burpee (a company that still survives today) also hints to Wiseman’s gardening past. The Pioneer Cemetery, albeit showing its age more than most, provided an opportunity for a created apparition to reflect – not only on the passing of a friend or family member, but to allude to their own story’s fading. The cross is for a Joseph Coxy Brown, who died in 1921 – a quick google search doesn’t reveal anything more about his story than this cross did. His story, much like the stories of all of these miners that tamed the wild frontiers of Alaska, deserve to be remembered.
After carrying nearly 60lbs of equipment the day before and not having a single shot worthy of my Thesis Project, I was happy to get some great shots in both locations while also checking out the rest of the town and a couple extra pioneer cabins. Afterwards, we said hasty goodbyes as we high-tailed it back to Fairbanks. Overall, a great trip.
As always, critique and comments are more than welcome.