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I wasn’t on any big tree expedition, just scrambling up a nearby canyon to rid myself of that late-November cage-ey-ness. After rimming out, I was happily striding back toward my truck when something caught my eye. Was that two trees or one big one across the draw?


An investigation ensued. Nothing revealed itself immediately. An orange trunk glowed behind nearby foliage. I drew closer, the trunk got bigger, the TREE got bigger. A moment of awe commenced. If measured by wood volume, it is almost surely the biggest ponderosa pine in Arizona. By American Forest points, I’ve measured slightly bigger ones, but seen none greater. We call it El Rey—The King.


I’ve been to the tree 7 times now, climbed it once. Govi led, slinging dead branch staubs for protection. It was a little sappy at the top, and not that great a view. But the rappel back down, with the massive trunk expanding as we dropped, that was very cool. I have a new friend. 117′ tall, 221″ circumference, 20′ average crown, 396 AF points.

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The trip started at 35,000 feet, en route to Chile. I knew we were over the Mexican coast well north of the Tropics, but I wasn’t sure where. The land was desert. The coastline was empty, and full of coves, with rugged desert mountains rising straight from the sea.

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Turns out, this was mainland Mexico, just north of San Carlos, a resort town I’d visited a few times with my family when I was a child. Then, we’d made sand castles on the beach. I was too young to go on the great thorny bushwhack to the top of the mountain, darnit. This time, I wanted to plop a boat in the water.

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Lisa and I drove to the last house in the last village. The fellow there said, “Si, no problema.” We parked in his yard and offered some gifts. The water was brilliantly clear, and I was immediately impressed with the size of the swells.

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Our first camp came within a palm-studded canyon. Palm trees and saguaro, it was all very exotic, but familiar too. The mountains looked like the Superstitions, but with palm trees, along the Sea of Cortez.

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We paddled into the wind for three days, returning in one and a half. It was never over 80 degrees and never under 50. There were colorful fish under the water, which was warm enough for comfortable wetsuit swimming. I sense an annual trip developing.

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In A Guide to the Sequoia Groves of California, author Dwight Willard states, “Eden Creek Grove has biological significance that far surpasses its renown.” As for exploring there, Willard warns that it is “only for the most capable and resolute adventurer.” That was all the enticement I needed. Eden Creek would provide the perfect centerpiece for an article on the remote sequoia groves of the Sierra Nevada. American Forests magazine agreed, and I was off to the great forests of the southern Sierra.


John Muir trekked across the length of sequoia country in 1875, leaving Yosemite Valley in late August and reaching the southernmost sequoias, in the Deer Creek drainage south of the Tule River, by October. I would only nibble at Muir’s expedition, exploring an area where he reported, “way making here seemed to become more and more difficult.”





My way making, too, was plenty difficult, but not impossible. The striking beauty of lower Eden Creek made the boulder hopping and poison oak dodging worthwhile.



Well beyond the zone of casual hikers, I spotted a soda can beneath a boulder, with a bullet hole in it. Next was a lawn chair half-buried in the creek. I began to wonder aloud, “Who the heck would bring a lawn chair way up…” the answer struck me silent—cartels. The rugged and dense low elevation forests of the southern Sierra Nevada served as ideal growing locales for big drug syndicates’ marijuana crops. Legalization has made the practice less profitable of late, and most of these illegal forest grows have faded away. Still, when I came across their abandoned irrigation pipe, I moved quietly, as if I were hunting. But in this scenario, it was I who might be the prey.


As suspected, the grow operation was a thing of the past, and soon I was beyond their abandoned infrastructure and into the conifer zone. A bear ambled past. Later, I fell off a log and sprained my ankle. By evening, I was limping into the sequoia grove looking for a soft sleeping spot where I might place my old flattened therm-a-rest. I found and manipulated a bed of forest duff, only to be rousted in the night by the sound of a falling tree.


Still mostly intact by morning, I sat and rested, watching the morning sunshine illuminate the giants. By afternoon, I was wandering the grove, reflecting on Muir and his unequaled sequoia transect from centuries past. I might not get a chance to retrace that trek, but even following a few of his footsteps was an exercise in renewal.





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The Happy River is appropriately named. Bouncing and splashing, this clear little stream tumbles along between banks of bright green moss, never too threatening nor languid.

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We watched the Happy grow from a knee-deep creek to a small river. A few technical class III rapids near Pass Creek proved to be the hardest whitewater.

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Most of the time, the Happy danced swiftly from corner to corner, a continuous gentle roller coaster of class I and II water. Occasionally, king salmon could be spotted, red missiles holding still in eddies under the water.

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After many miles, beneath swooping eagles, past arching spruce, over splashy riffles, we chose an island camp, halfway down one of the Happy’s many gravel bar rapids.

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Via satellite phone, a pick-up was arranged near the Talachulitna River confluence, along the banks of our old friend, the Skwentna. We had camped along its turbid source waters a week earlier. Now we would rejoin the Skwentna where it is a big river, running into lush spruce valleys at the foot of the range.

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Miles came easily on the big Skwentna, still swift with the energy of melting glaciers behind it. We gazed at dense forests rolling past, and speculated how slow and difficult it might be if we were walking through this country. We were glad for our pack rafts, our good fortune in the Alaska Range, and one last evening in the glow of a setting midnight sun.

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The spruce forest alongside Denny Creek was relatively open, soft and mossy too. Any stop in our movement, however, brought gathering clouds of mosquitoes. So, we kept moving.

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A vague route appeared that grew into a real game trail. Soon we were scurrying through an alder jungle with ease, courtesy of the local moose. Without that trail, progress would have been agonizingly slow. Yet we traveled steadily, hardly noticing the building rainfall.

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Camp was etched out of moss-covered rocks, in the rain, at 10 p.m. The bugs were horrible until the rain picked up enough to knock them out of the sky. At 5 a.m. Joel entered the tent where Govi and I slept, proclaiming, “let’s go hiking buys, I’m soaked.”

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Turns out, the bottle of Nikwax I applied in Anchorage wasn’t enough for an all-night rain. We talked Joel out of a 5 a.m. departure, and eked out a few hours more sleep, Joel partially draped in his soppy sleeping bag. Morning pack-up was cold, and we were all anxious to get moving. Govi spoke for the group, “Exercise is our salvation,” he said. Off we went.

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The rain let up. We climbed. We warmed.

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Goodman Pass was our gateway to the east side of the mountains, the windward side. There was more rain, then huge fresh piles of grizzly scat. We stayed high on the slopes, in the open.

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Ptarmagin Valley was a benchmark in our route. This was the birthplace of the Happy River, the waterway we would follow back to civilization. To the south, the valley lined up perfectly with the Styx, where we’d been just days earlier. The valley was vast and beautiful, but also boggy and difficult to cross. Fortunately the Happy wasn’t too far away. Arriving there, our countenance matched the stream’s title.

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The low clouds and light mist of Alaska returned. The small Styx River was lower than the previous evening, and milk green instead of grey. A golden eagle flapped across the valley. A herd of twenty caribou spooked into the bush. Two seagulls dive-bombed me repeatedly, no doubt fending off the invaders from their young.

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Spruce trees returned as we dropped below 2,500 feet. Canyon bluffs emerged, enclosing the river in a low canyon, sinking through the valley floor. Whitewater started.

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There was plenty of class III, and a couple standout rapids that were probably easy class IV.  These were the rapids the previous kayak descents had sought. Our pack rafts handled it all quite nicely.

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Sunshine returned. At a hard left turn, two small patches of sand beckoned, guarded by a tall cottonwood and a spruce tree. We pulled in, an early camp for once.

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Swift corners led to the confluence with the South Fork of the Kuskokwim. It ran a glacial brown, and more than doubled our flow. On a robust river now, we ran through Hellsgate, where the river cuts through the Teocalli Mountains. Class II water belied the ominous title, and soon we were on a fast smooth river running through the spruce covered Alaskan interior.

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An aluminum skiff sat on the shore, and a chainsaw whined in the distance. We pulled ashore and entered the woods, where we were greeted by a friendly young woman named Lexi. Her partner, Colter, showed up minutes later. During our 30-minute visit, both stood mostly bare amid the passing mosquitoes. True Alaskans.

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By evening, clouds were gathering once again. We’d have liked to have pitched the tents and relaxed, but the days were ticking away toward our pick-up date with a bush plane, and we had mountain ranges yet to cross. So, at 6 pm we found ourselves de-rigging our boats and re-rigging for hike mode. This was the confluence of Denny Creek, our key to Goodman Pass, and eventually, the Happy River. With rain spattering and skeeters buzzing and an unknown bushwack before us, our mood was determined, even stoic. We were stepping into the bush.

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Out of the canyon and onto open mountain slopes, sunshine and simple terrain buoyed us toward the River Styx.

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A herd of caribou shuffled past. Our route again fed into a canyon, this one made of golden granite and clear water similar to Arizona’s Salome Creek. Eventually, we climbed out, ambling across tundra laced with caribou trails.

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Weary with sore feet and cramping shoulders, we stumbled onto a cobble beach bordering the Styx, the jewel at the heart of our route, and the river valley that started it all. Again, we floated, joyously.

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Another 10 pm camp, satisfied by having reached our goal. We had crossed the River Styx!

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Narrow strips of sand bordering the wide gray Nagashlamina River were good places to walk, but occasionally a channel would cut off our route, forcing us into the water.

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At the end of a long day, mostly spent tracing bear trails through head-high bushes (we only saw one bear, at a safe distance), we suddenly realized that we needed water. One does not carry much water in Alaska, because there is usually plenty nearby. But now there wasn’t. Our new goal became the Skwentna River. A long slog over sharp moraine rocks got us to the silty waterway, and glorious slurps of cold brown liquid.

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It was a half-hour walk before the rapids relented enough for us to comfortably launch our pack rafts. Per usual, that was pure magic.

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After only a few miles, we begrudgingly got out of the water to start the crossing to the River Styx. Information for this part of the route was nonexistent. We had our theories.

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Avoiding a nearly impenetrable slope of alder, a gorge route seemed like the best option. Clearly there was a risk of getting cliffed out, but the other way was a guaranteed alder crawl. The walking in the canyon was familiar, like an Arizona creek.

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The canyon boxed out eventually, forcing us up and out. Then a side canyon forced us back down, and in again. It was 10 pm when a perfect campsite rescued us from our march.

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In the summer of 2013, I looked out the window of a 737 and saw a high treeless river valley. An inspection of the map indicated that the name of this lonely river amid the Alaska Range was—the Styx. A possible loop route was conjured, with ever more intriguing titles: Nagishlamina—Skwentna—Styx—Happy back to Skwentna. Roman Dial saw the possibilities too, he even had a name for the proposed route, “Happy Feat.” An Alaska pack raft team had tried it once. Weather foiled their plans.

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Although the loop had never been completed, the Styx had been paddled, in kayaks. The first descenter was Jerry Jakes, who flew his Piper Cub into a gravel bar, soloed the run, and got an airplane shuttle from another pilot. Later, Jakes landed two other paddlers on the Styx. One of them was my friend Susan Negus. That was serendipitous news, because our basecamp for the Styx—Happy loop of 2017 was due to be where else, but at Sue’s Anchorage home.

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After a frustrating wait through foggy un-flyable weather, Austin from Sportsman’s Air got us into the mountains, dropping myself, John Govi, and Joel Griffith at a picture perfect marine blue lake. First step: Up the Nagishlamina.

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We were immediately engulfed in alders. Crashing, stumbling, kneeling, snagging; bear tunnels offered the only route through the low jungle. Emerging onto open moraine, we detoured around the green, following small dirt hills surrounding azure ponds.

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After one last brutal alder bash, our first camp came on a ridge of soft gray lichen. Upstream, a wide valley led to the next glacier, the next moraine, and our next real test.

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A morning mist brought calm. We paddled, even drifted, through the gray, ever wary of the returning wind. But the big blow, four days of relentless, viscous gale, was finally over.

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The mouth of the river came slowly, an ever decreasing current sliding along overhanging banks of tundra. A permafrost lens looked like a layer of geology beneath a thick mat of soil. But this formation was ice, and beneath it, mud glopped down the bank in sloppy strings of brown. The tundra overhung like a cornice of wet snow curling off a rooftop.

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The horizon widened into a metallic mirror broken by green bits of land. It took some deciphering to determine which channel to follow between low islands, and which shallow mud flat to avoid.

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When the hanger at Pt. Lay appeared, creeping out from a blurry shoreline to rise beacon like in the distance, there was a small moment of elation. It looked so close, we considered continuing there. But our shoulders ached, our butts were stiff, our hands cold. There were piles of driftwood on the beach. We camped.

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Pt. Lay is now known by its Inupiat name—Kali. Kali might be the friendliest village in the world. As we waited for our flight in the sauna-warm community center, over a dozen people came through welcoming us to their Inupiat village, querying, “You must be the canoers.” I suppose that is correct; canoers, paddlers, pack rafters, or as I like to think of us, simply travelers trying to learn more about this wide world. Thanks Alpacka, Werner, Kokatat, Osprey, and Teva. With your help, we learned just a little more.

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