WC’s Epic Fails: Augustana Creek

Augustana Creek, running from Augustana Glacier and Bivouac Peak on the left, to the Delta River on the right. The Delta River runs north, to the top of the of the photo.

It wasn’t called Augustana Creek at the time of these events. So far as WC knows, the creek and the glacier at its head didn’t have an Anglo name. and if the Athabaskan people had a name for it, that seems to have been lost. The Richardson Highway, as it runs through the central Alaska Range, is on the easterly side of the Delta River. Across the Delta River, on the westerly side, between Flood Creek and Michael Creek, the glacial stream enters the Delta River from the west.

Augustana Creek runs about 5-6 miles, from its confluence with the Delta River upstream to the snout of Augustana Glacier. It’s a beautiful valley. WC has only been there once in the summer; it’s a hair-raising task to cross the Delta River in the best of circumstances. And the hike up the creek is a struggle, involving repeated fording of the icy cold Augustana Creek as it washes against steep cliff faces.

But in the winter, when the Delta River and Augustana Creek are frozen, then it’s fairly easy to cross-country ski across the Delta to the lower valley of Augustana Creek. The prevailing winds create deep snow drifts there that are perfect for snow cave camping.

WC made the trek down there from Fairbanks probably 10-12 times, driving down Friday evening and crossing the Delta River for a couple of days of snow camping and exploring the area. There is an avalanche hazard there, but it you are sensible and careful, it’s not worse than anywhere else in the mountains.

On a solo trip down there in 1988, a year with remarkably little snow, WC was forced to cross the river on foot, dragging his pulk full of gear with skis strapped on top.

What’s a pulk? It’s a low-slung sled you can load up with your gear and drag behind you instead of struggling with gear in an unstable, top-heavy backpack. Some back-country skiers like rigid fiberglass poles to connect the sled to a waist strap. WC prefers rope. YMMV.

The Delta River, which has frequent overflows and aufeis, was bare ice that year, with occasional cobbles poking through, all the way across. With hindsight, WC should have thought about that.

It was clear, calm and bright on Saturday. WC skied up to the snout of the glacier, watched a lynx for a while and enjoyed himself in the silence and serenity. But the weather went sour overnight. The wind picked up from the south, never a good sign, so WC broke camp at first light to head home.

By the time WC got to the Delta River Canyon the wind was blowing from the south a steady 40-50 mph, with higher gusts. A haze of snow – a ground blizzard – was blasting across the frozen river ice. It was impossible to stand up. It felt like if you fell down, you’d be blown for miles. An additional complication: the pulk blew downwind, tugging at WC’s waist, penduluming back and forth in the wind.

A sensible person would have gone back into the lee of the Augustana Canyon and waited the windstorm out. You already know WC is not a sensible person. Besides, WC had a court hearing on Monday morning. There was an executive decision to crawl across, using his poles to keep from being blown to Big Delta.

So, yeah, WC crawled, sometimes on his belly, about two miles across the Delta River Canyon floor. On polished, glare ice. The whole way, the pulk was pulling hard, jerking, on WC’s waist. The ski poles, which WC was holding by the bottom, tended to catch the wind as well, making them difficult to control. Twice WC lost his tentative grip and slid downwind, ski pole tips skittering on the ice. WC’s ski goggles, apparently not designed for crawling on ice in a ground blizzard, repeatedly fogged up. WC’s reasonably sturdy wind pants wore through on both knees. It’s hard to say what was sorer: WC’s knees from all that crawling on hard ice or WC’s forearms from about three hours of a death grip on his ski poles.

Despite WC’s best efforts, WC ended up almost half a mile downwind when finally reaching the the easterly side. So there was an added slog back up the highway, upwind, back to the truck.

WC had to re-position his Jeep Cherokee to load the pulk into the truck; the vehicle was rocking so hard that WC worried it might roll over, or that the wind would tear a door off. The drive north out of the canyon was a white-knuckle affair, too, with pitiful visibility, seriously bad snow drifts and lane-changing crosswinds.

WC stopped in Delta Junction for coffee and breakfast. The wind was still howling when he went in the diner. When he came out, less than an hour later, it was dead calm.

3 thoughts on “WC’s Epic Fails: Augustana Creek

  1. Anytime you survive without hurting yourself or others counts as a win in my book. And, in hindsight, you may have learned a thing or two. Great story for campfires. An adventure worth retelling!

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  2. Glad you’re still here to relate this tale, WC. Cold PLUS extreme wind is most pernicious. This post arrives in conjunction with a High Wind Advisory for the Treasure Valley tonight and tomorrow from the NWS. “Secure outdoor items,” is some of the advice given. Me? I’ll be next to the fire away from the wind.


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