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Road Trippin’: The buggy, boggy, and brilliant hike to Tolovana Hot Springs

Published: Jul. 17, 2020 at 8:59 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - President Theodore Roosevelt once said that “nothing worth having was ever achieved without effort.” He’s hardly the only one to make that sort of statement. Plenty of world leaders, authors, poets and philosophers have penned similar lines and debated parallel trains of thought. I bring it up, because the real joy in our Road Trippin’ hike to the Tolovana Hot Springs was in the knowledge that our first dip in the warm and soothing waters of the campsite was a prize made that much sweeter given the aches, pains, and innumerable bug bites it took to reach it.

The beginning of our trip to Tolovana Hot Springs started in the parking lot at KTUU.
The beginning of our trip to Tolovana Hot Springs started in the parking lot at KTUU.(Charlie Sokaitis)

Let’s back up a bit first. Our trip began in Anchorage. A KTUU team consisting of Taylor Clark, Patrick Enslow, Cheyenne Mathews, Taylar Perez, and myself piled into a couple of well-marked Channel 2 vehicles, and made the 6-hour drive to Fairbanks. From there, we had a good meal and a decent night’s sleep before yet another vehicular adventure. After meeting up with our guide Matt Rekard, Vice President of Tolovana Hot Springs, we made our way 93 more miles down the bumpy, broken Elliott Highway.

Everyone involved knew that we were in for an undertaking of sorts, but spirits were high. There was a palpable excitement as we all covered ourselves in bug dope and double-checked our backpacks to make sure we had absolutely everything we were going to need for the next few days.

As amped up as I was to hit the trail, I have to admit that I had a few concerns. Taylar Perez had told me beforehand that in her communications with the Tolovana crew, the term the description of the trail that she’d heard was simply, “buggy and brutal.” That seemed to be backed up by our guide, Matt - about as jovial a fellow as you’ll ever meet - who told us this in our pre-hike interview.

“I hope the bugs aren’t as bad as I’ve been told they might be today, but we’ll see,” he said. “And then, going through the valley this time of year can be kind of muddy.”

With hordes of mosquitoes ahead I dawn the full head to ankle bug suit.
With hordes of mosquitoes ahead I dawn the full head to ankle bug suit.(Charlie Sokaitis)

As a group, we all prepared to varying levels for the pending mosquito threat. Flouting conventional wisdom, Cheyenne opted for bug spray and nothing else. Patrick and Taylor each had head nets to keep the blood suckers off them, while Taylar and I each had full on full-body, head-to-ankle bug suits. Taylar didn’t actually begin the hike with her full getup on, but it wouldn’t take long for her to break it out.

After a gathering the necessary pre-hike camera shots and interviews we would need, we hit the trail. Here’s a look at what we were facing: The trip into the springs is a little over 10 miles from our start point, with significant drops and gains in elevation, plus a bog in the middle of it.

This was the challenge ahead of us. Just over 10 miles with elevation drops and gains, a bog and as you can see... bugs.
This was the challenge ahead of us. Just over 10 miles with elevation drops and gains, a bog and as you can see... bugs.(KTUU)

The start of the journey would prove to be easily conquerable, with a leisurely walk downhill toward the bog, but one thing was noticeable right away: The bugs are horrific. There was enough slapping and swatting with every step that if you listened hard enough you’d have thought someone 30 feet away was getting faint applause.

Taylor even found a new and fun way to be terrorized by the busy buzzing, saying: “I think there’s one in the net with me.”

There was no way to keep the bugs off you.  Nets helped but not enough.
There was no way to keep the bugs off you. Nets helped but not enough.(ktuu)

While the bugs were annoying, everything else was great. The weather was warm, the views were as picturesque as any postcard, and we were covering a lot of ground. We passed the 10-mile marker, then the 9-mile marker, but the 8-mile marker was somewhere in the woods. Still, we made our way beyond where it should have been with alacrity.

As we continued our one-foot-in-front-of-the-other march, the grade of our downhill walk started to level out and the ground was getting a little soggy. I remember thinking back to Matt’s words at the top of trail: “Going through the valley this time of year can be kind of muddy.”

That would prove to be a reasonably large understatement. Rains had washed over the entire area in the days proceeding this expedition, and now, as we reached the bog, we had to adapt to the challenges at hand as if we were playing some deep trail version of Frogger.

We didn't know it yet, but this was just the beginning.
We didn't know it yet, but this was just the beginning.(ktuu)

For the next few miles, the trail was either mud, stream, or some sort of pond like standing water. This forced our party to venture off the trails in spots and onto the spongy tundra, through and over branches and trees as we high stepped like Olympic hurdlers that happened to be carrying 40 pound packs on our backs.

Quick aside: If you think all the marshy, boggy water made the mosquitoes even worse, you are right. The bog was basically the perfect breeding ground for tiny-winged itch-inducers. No matter the pre-hike preparation or the chemical composition of your particular brand of bug spray, some amount of mosquitoes were going to find a way to get you. It was inevitable. At this point, you just had to keep it moving.

Having now crossed the bog, there was a feeling that even if we had to start going uphill, avoiding the water was going to be a big win. We might even be able to move a little faster, but first we had to contend with yet another challenge. Matt called it “the hall of death,” describing it as, “maybe the last really bad spot; it’s maybe 150 yards long. You’re boxed in by brush on both sides, so it’s like you’re walking in a hallway.”

It is important here to remind you, the reader, that it had recently rained, and the “hall of death” was not only closed in like a hallway, but it was also flooded out. It was like walking up a mud-filled slip and slide where, in spots, the trail was completely washed away. A few small sink holes had developed, and there were what looked like two-foot-high waterfalls to work your way around.

Due to recent rains the "hall of death" was even more treacherous than usual.
Due to recent rains the "hall of death" was even more treacherous than usual.(ktuu)

With a bit of doing and some well thought-out foot placements, everyone did manage to make it through, but at this point, our group was in various states of distress. Cheyenne and Patrick were each in low tops, and thus had mud or water or both in their shoes at this point. Those of us with slightly more coverage of the foot and ankle had at least one if not two boots covered in a muddy slime. Everyone was tired, all of us were hungry, and in short order, we would be able to help with at least one of those issues.

Having made it through the “hall of death,” we now marched straight uphill. The trail was still wet, but it was increasingly less so, and eventually, after about another mile, we found a dry enough spot to stop and fuel up on an assortment of hiker-friendly foods that were chock-full of calories. The hillside lunch provided energy, and the rest helped as well, but I didn’t want to sit around too long. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get going again if I did.

Back on the trail, we passed the five-mile marker, and shortly thereafter, we reached the top of a very long climb. This was another opportunity to pause and rest, only this time, we weren’t in the trees, and there was a lot of open space, so we really were able to spread out and more or less collapse.

Things would get easier from there. We have a few more stretches up the mountain, but it was all at a fairly modest incline. There would be more rest and more food, more rest and lots of water, but overall, the caravan kept its focus forward. Then, like some sort of mythical Greek figure from a lost chapter of the Iliad, we ran into Tom DeLong, owner of Tolovana Hot Springs. This was a second-wind kind of spark for a flurry of reasons: Number one, it meant we must be close to the finish line of this difficult day. Number two, Tom brought more water and supplies with him to the rendezvous point, which were greatly appreciated. Number three, and maybe most importantly, he had a four-wheeler with him. Now, no one was gonna get a free trip the rest of the way in, but for Taylor, Patrick, and myself, it was the most exciting thing we’d seen in hours. One thing I had left out of our story is that along with all our own personal gear, we were also lugging a tripod and camera. The camera wasn’t a big deal, but the tripod was both heavy and awkward to carry, so there was really no good way to do it. As such, the three of us had been taking turns lugging the thing over the river and through the woods to Tolovana Hot Springs. It was a significant pain in the backside, and I mean that literally: It would scratch or hit or just sit wrong no matter which way you decided to carry it. To the three of us that had to handle this annoying piece of gear, that four-wheeler meant one thing. It meant we were going to be able to unload the tripod. If we had any energy at all at that point, we probably would have attempted a jumping three-person high five.

Having finally lightened our load and now rested and refueled, there was only about a mile and a half left to go and it was, mercifully, entirely downhill. Every member of the group was exhausted. The final stretch of trail was almost eerily quiet, the only sound being the metronomic plodding of our feet on the way down a surprisingly steep trail. Finally, mercifully, the path evened out, it widened, and around a final corner we got our first view of the Tolovana Hot Springs sign. We were spent, all of us, no sweat left to give, feet unwilling to move a step more but we had made it to the finish line and it felt like victory.

After almost 11 miles of hard hiking, bugs, and bogs we reached our destination.
After almost 11 miles of hard hiking, bugs, and bogs we reached our destination.(ktuu)

Having reached our final destination for the day, everyone celebrated, hooting and hollering, and after spending more time than I would like to admit just laying in the grass, unable to move, we all remembered one very important thing. While the journey was the story, here, the goal was to reach the hot springs. And we made it! We had put in the effort, and now we, as a group, would reap the rewards, sliding into that muscle-soothing, life-affirming, pleasant-sigh-causing hot water in a little place called Tolovana.- which made the whole day worth it!

After all the effort the hot springs really was worth the hike. It felt amazing to hop in their and the view... that wasn't half bad either.
After all the effort the hot springs really was worth the hike. It felt amazing to hop in their and the view... that wasn't half bad either.(ktuu)

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