One-Man Towns. Eight Paved Highways. 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, June 1998

One-Man Towns. Eight Paved Highways. 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

From the Arctic Circle to the shores of Kachemak Bay, a sporting guide to the wilds of the 49th state

Contemplating the full reality of Alaska tends to catalyze a very specific physiological response. It's a phenomenon that Alexander Baranov, an early Russian trader who explored the coast, described as "terror and awe." What he was referring to, I think, is the landscape's ability to leave you pixilated, unhinged, at sea. Alaska, like most imaginary kingdoms, regards humans with primordial indifference. It unfurls itself to the horizon, looms heavenward, and poses questions that set the heart to pounding. To understand it, says John Haines, the state's masterly and curmudgeonly poet emeritus, requires that we "Look deeply into the wind-furrows of the grass, into the leaf-stilled water of pools. Think back through the silence ... " Then again, don't think too much. Last year, Haines relocated to the more civilized climes of Montana. Said he could use a change.

For those who stay, the desire to wrestle Alaska into comprehensibility is irresistible. We festoon our walls with maps. We pore over digitized satellite photos. We brush our fingertips across topographics as if they were Braille. In desperation, we turn to the sacred catechism of tour-bus narration: Alaska possesses glaciers the size of Rhode Island. It possesses school districts the size of California. It possesses 20 percent of the land and twice the coastline of the Lower 48. It possesses fewer miles of highway than Vermont and fewer people than Columbus, Ohio.

Yet the thing itself eludes possession. Alyeska — the Aleut word means Great Land — remains fundamentally ungraspable, a sprawling, monstrous cap-piece of the continent, its center pushed three miles high by the pressure of the Pacific tectonic plate, the islanded fringes strung with volcanoes and rainforests, the northern reaches planing off into infinities of white. It's a 365-million-acre fastness traversable only in fiction.

In fact, the earliest renditions of this place were literally fantastical: The first map of the region, accurate down to the scraggly-coot profile of the western coastline, was drawn not to enlighten navigators, but to decorate an edition of Gulliver's Travels published in 1726, 15 years before Vitus Bering set sail and changed the name from Brobdingnag to Russian Alaska.

Today the spirit of this place remains that of a loosely run colonial outpost, a nation whose identity resides neither in itself nor in the motherland, but somewhere in the cold air between. To be sure, the colonizers have left their mark — the glittery Erector-set pipeline, the native villages abloom with satellite dishes, the malls and sprawls of "Los Anchorage." But the scars, significant as they are, serve mostly to accent what remains. Places like Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, an expanse of icy peaks six times the size of Yellowstone. Places like the Brooks Range, in the far north, where thousand-pound grizzlies range like lordlings. Places like Iditarod, a lonely outpost that once bustled with gold miners but now welcomes only mushers and, in summer, the most stouthearted of mountain bikers.

These and the other places described in the following pages are the favorite breakaways for those of us who live here, aiming with our every trip into the backcountry to gain a better understanding of our elusive homeland. These aren't the spots most visitors know. They're not on the cruise-ship itineraries. But they may help you grasp why some of us won't leave. They're places that, with skill, forethought, and faith in an unknowable landscape, can allow you, too, to become a little bit unhinged. — Daniel Coyle

Hiking the Backcountry of Denali

More than three million visitors have tromped through Denali National Park since 1990. And certainly they can't all be wrong. But they can make you feel quite like the "charismatic megafauna" you've come to rub antlers with, like just another middle-of-the-pack member of the caribou herd, jostling with the others for a prime spot at the watering hole.

Of course, there is also another, uncluttered Denali — a glacial, musky, difficult, and spectacular place where views of Mount McKinley loom up from the horizon and the crowds rarely bumble into your path. To find this Denali, aim high. Literally. Indeed, since most visitors assume that proximity to the mountain affords them the best views, the uninitiated line up for permits to the backcountry areas closest to Mount McKinley. (The park service divides the park into 43 "units," with only four to 12 campers allowed in each per day.) But after working their way into the mountain's lengthy shadows, they soon find their sight lines obscured by ridges, not to mention by clouds of mosquitoes and gnats. If you hike up to the top of the ridgelines instead, you'll experience both the astounding sight of McKinley soaring to its full 20,320-foot height and the heartening knowledge that mosquitoes circle in gangs far below.

For the finest multiday hike in Denali, get a permit for Units 5 and 6. Then, from mile 37 on the park road, scramble down the steep bank to Igloo Creek. Hike east along the bushy, overgrown south haunches of Cathedral Mountain; wolf country is to your west, though given their elusiveness, you're unlikely to see any. You might, however, stumble onto a grizzly.

After about three miles, you'll find the forest thinning out and falling away until you enter the open gravel bed of the Teklanika River — literally "much bed, little river" in the local Athabascan language. Head south. Dall sheep wander the lush, sloping valley walls. Make camp wherever the land appears both flat and thorn-free.

Next day, follow the easternmost branch of the Teklanika as it narrows and rises steeply. You'll be scrambling over boulders; beware of slippery moss. At the top you should be rewarded with an indelible, Call of the Wild kind of moment: hundreds of caribou pounding along the 5,400-foot pass during their midsummer migration. Follow them (judiciously — they do stampede) as they pick their way down the steep eastern slope. This scrambling two-mile descent ends for them with a group slurp at the glacier-fed stream at canyon's bottom — and for you with an ideal, tree-shaded campsite called, appropriately, Refuge Valley.

From here an 18-mile trek brings you back to the relative comforts of Sanctuary Campground, near your original drop-off point. But don't rush: After all, how often does one get to hike through lonely tundra carpeted with lichen and moss and punctuated with the bonsai perfection of prickly rose? And always, off in the background, towers the stupendous outline of that Platonic ideal of mountainhood. When you run into the closer-is-better hordes upon your return, be magnanimous. There's no need to loudly describe what you were able to see, at least not while they're still rubbing calamine on their welts.

To arrange a guided trip into the backcountry of Denali, call Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna (907-733-1016). Treks average $60-$100 per person per day, depending on length. If you'd rather go on your own, reserve both a spot on a Denali Park Resort shuttle bus (800-622-7275) and a backcountry permit in advance. Shuttle and permit fees are $15. Admission to the park is another $5.

Kayaking in Wood-Tikchik State Park

For those who don't stray from the beaten path, "wilderness kayaking" in Alaska can be rather populous. In tourist strongholds such as Prince William Sound and Juneau, paddlers from package tours tend to string out like ducklings, bobbing along in the shadows of the big cruise ships. But don't despair: If you're willing to venture a little farther afield — to a park few have heard of in a corner of the state nearly everyone overlooks — you can find the lonely, birch-shadowed paddles of memory. You just have to find your way to Wood-Tikchik State Park.

Little known outside Alaska, Wood-Tikchik is actually America's largest state park, dwarfing even such national jewels as the Everglades and the Grand Canyon. Roadless and wild, its forests ranged by grizzlies and caribou, Wood-Tikchik is dominated above all by its lakes, their snowmelt-fed waters spectacularly clear.

To begin a paddle of this remote spot, you must first arrange a floatplane lift from Dillingham, the nearest town (about 350 miles from Anchorage). Ask your pilot to drop you at Lake Kulik, south of the Ahklun Mountains; it's the entry point to the six-lake Wood River chain, the most accessible — a relative term — of the waterways in Wood-Tikchik. Narrow and chilly, Lake Kulik twists like a sea serpent for 20 miles between alders and draping willows. After lazily exploring the shoreline, make camp on the north side, ensuring yourself a spectacular view of the 1,000-foot-high waterfalls cascading down the far shore's rock walls.

Wind River is just ahead, commencing at the southwest end of Kulik. A pleasant riffle of Class I and II rapids, it soon widens into tiny Mikchalk Lake, and then, 2.5 miles farther along, into Lake Beverley, one of the loveliest lakes in all of Alaska. An immense, curvy, 26-mile-long body of water, Beverley culminates in two spectacular fjords, the Golden Horn and the Silver Horn. Before exploring them, make camp at Hard Luck Bay, on the north side of the lake. Then pull out your telephoto lens, patiently wait for dusk (it arrives at about midnight in June), and try to capture the gold and pink light playing off the pelts of the 250,000-strong Mulchatna caribou herd feeding along the low tundra to the east.

After Beverley, conditions become less placid, as the Class II whitewater of the Agulukpak River whirls you into the largest and most treacherous of the Wood River lakes, Nerka. Ringed by towering, glaciated mountains, the broad expanse of Nerka is often plagued by 50-mile-per-hour williwaws (glacier winds) that roar down off the peaks and whip up four-foot whitecaps. It's best to navigate the lake in the morning or early evening, when the winds have subsided. Conveniently, these also are the loveliest times of day: The sunlight is low and golden, the lake's surface shimmers like glass, and a few salmon break the surface with piscine joie de vivre.

To arrange a guided trip down the Wood River chain, contact Tikchik State Park Tours (888-345-2445). Five-day paddles cost about $1,700 per person, including airfare from Anchorage. To do it yourself, call Bay Air in Dillingham (907-842-2570). Its pilots will drop you in Lake Kulik and retrieve you in the village of Aleknagik, at the end of the Wood River chain, for about $525 per person, including transport of your gear.

Mountaineering in the Brooks Range

At 68 degrees north latitude, the Brooks Range is the northernmost set of mountains in the world, an unbroken swath of wilderness that stretches from the Chukchi Sea to the border of Canada's Yukon Territory, yet it has only two narrow dirt roads. Few visitors venture to the range's beautiful but forbidding national parklands: Cape Krusenstern, Noatak, Kobuk Valley, Gates of the Arctic. Even the bears of the Brooks are uniquely uncongenial: Not plump and content like their salmon-stuffed lowland kin, they attack anything that can be made into a meal. Hikers included.

So why go to the considerable effort of trekking into the Brooks? Because in its Arrigetch Peaks region, the range harbors some of the finest mountaineering terrain in North America, a wonderland of glacier-carved granite, sheer vertical cliffs, and domes right out of Coleridge (there's even a route known as Xanadu). Getting to the Arrigetch, however, as to any of the remotest regions of Alaska, requires some ingenuity — and a floatplane, since the peaks are far from such modern mountaineering innovations as airstrips. Have your hired pilot drop you at Circle Lake. (Brooks Range Aviation will carry you from Bettles, the nearest town, for about $200 round-trip. Call 907-692-5444.)

After splashdown, hike two miles north and west to Arrigetch Creek, and then slog up the streamside trail till you hit timberline, about 12 miles in. This will take you two days but will get you to the base of the spires — sleek, 7,000-foot peaks rising, in the words of the Eskimos who named this place, like "fingers extended." No other people are within a hundred miles. Not even moose disturb the solitude. This could be Yosemite before the Californians, before the Spanish, probably before Homo erectus.

From the pathway, the climbing options are mind-boggling. Each valley seems to be topped by a nontechnical pass that leads to yet another valley ringed by still more charcoal-colored spires. Many of the routes up these walls have never been attempted. Even most of those that have been climbed haven't been thoroughly mapped. It's best to be accompanied by an experienced guide.

You'll also need a certain indomitability of spirit, since snow squalls can appear as late as July, and when they don't, mosquitoes rule. But if you remain undeterred, the rewards are astounding. Check out the long (about 12 pitches) West Ridge of Shot Tower, for example, or the North Buttress of the Maidens, or perhaps above all, the South Arete of Xanadu, the highest peak (7,190 feet) in the Arrigetch massif, a 2,000-foot alpine climb on moss-free granite. At the skinny summit, the whole of the shadowy, feral, imperturbable reaches of the Brooks roll away at your feet.

To do the Arrigetch justice, you should allow at least a week. As for outfitters, among the most experienced is Nova Adventures in Chikaloon (800-765-5753); its lead guide, Paul Turecki, takes climbers to the peaks for $300 per day. In addition, Sourdough Outfitters (907-692-5252) in Fairbanks runs backpacking trips to the range for about $1,350 per person, including airfare.

Biking the Iditarod Trail

The old man slowly unbends, crooking his hands in the small of his back to lever himself upright. You wave. He stares and, presumably deciding that any group wearing such a rainbow of spandex can't be aiming for claim-jumper stealth, turns back to his ramshackle sluicing operation. To the west, Mount McKinley rises over shadowy forest. The alpenglow of evening will soon pinken the clouds. But the miner cares only about his mud. You watch for a moment before continuing on. Your destination, Iditarod, a town built by and then forgotten by gold diggers like this, still lies 20 miles ahead.

You've found the real Iditarod Trail, which most cheechako (outsiders) probably think of as nothing more than the route where the world's best mushers brave ice, moose, and frostbite each winter. But the Iditarod actually began as a track cut out of the wilderness by prospectors. Crossing forests, tundra, rivers, and the home fields of large and prickly bears, it tested just how serious the prospectors were about striking it rich.

Today, it also happens to be one of the greatest mountain-bike rides on earth, a rough, 1,049-mile immersion in all things Alaskan, from nubbly tundra, moose scat, and icy patches in June to deep midtrack ponds after the thaws of July. Make sure your bike is outfitted with extra spokes, a handlebar-mounted air horn, and, if you can afford it, indestructible snowcat rims from All-Weather Sports in Fairbanks ($60 each; 907-474-8184). Don't sweat over equipment too much, though; miners once rode this route on one-speeds, the tires stuffed with rope.

Since the Iditarod in its entirety is too long for any but the most dedicated or underemployed, it's best to pick a manageable, representative section. The finest is the 165-mile-long stretch from McGrath, the geographic center of the state, to Iditarod itself.

The Iditarod Trail doesn't run through McGrath proper, however. So you'll need to hire a boat to take you down the Kuskokwim River to Sterling Landing, which offers access to the trail via an old dirt track. (Book the boat ride, about $50 per person, through the Tukusko House hostel, 907-524-3198.) From Sterling, head in the only direction possible: up. You'll be grunting along a steep, gravelly road that rises 1,500 feet to where you join the Iditarod. But at least you'll be pedaling through a pleasing, rough-hewn world, filled with tall grass, Sitka spruces, and hemlocks.

After about 45 miles, civilization returns, sort of, as the microtown of Ophir shuffles into view. Stop and chat with Roger Roberts, the 55-year-old Loafer of Ophir, the town's mayor, sheriff, greengrocer, barkeep, and — you guessed it — lone resident. Share any cookies you may have brought and ask him if you can camp in his fiefdom.

After this, the trail climbs a high ridgeline. Mud frequently clogs the route. Bears crash through the underbrush. (That's why you have an air horn.) It's harsh country. But a few miners still work claims here, with a tenacity that's both formidable and poignant. This same spirit inhabits the empty streets of Iditarod itself, which you should reach about two days after leaving Ophir. Its dilapidated shacks deserted for decades, Iditarod can be sobering. Its emptiness does have one advantage, however: Your bush plane can set down right in the middle of Main Street.

For a guided trip along the Iditarod Trail, call Iditasport Inc. in Anchorage (907-345-4505); multiday rides cost about $250 per day. If you go on your own, round-trip airfare from Anchorage to McGrath on Pen Air is about $428, including bike handling (907-243-2323.). Enterprise Flying can then whisk you from Iditarod back to McGrath for about $150 per person (907-524-3322).

Rafting in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

The volcanic mountains of southeastern Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park seem all but designed to cater to the whims of adrenaline junkies in inflatable craft. A 13-million-acre landscape of broken ice and jagged rock threaded with a cold-blooded vasculature of waterways, Wrangell-St. Elias clearly offers the best concentration of rafting opportunities in the state, with the hallowed Kennicott River draining into such other notable flows as the Nizina, Chitina, and Copper. For sheer whitewater bliss, however, none of these can rival a lesser-known sibling called the Tana, which boasts craggier scenery and beastlier water, a frothing, canyon-trapped run officially rated Class IV+, emphasis on the "plus."

The best put-in on the Tana is just below the Tana Glacier's slow spill, about a half-mile from the only airstrip. The river here is massive and frigid — about 35 degrees even at the height of summer — and its waters are chalky with chewed-up rock. From the put-in, the upper Tana braids through a plain of gravel bars three miles across. Broad vistas mount to skyscraper peaks, their summits ripening each evening from blue-white to apricot and peach. Brown bears ruminatively wander the shoreline, especially at dusk.

Where Granite Creek bisects the Tana at mile 21, a washboard of 500-foot-tall sand dunes drifts up along the shoreline, creating a fine, protected spot to camp. Eat well, break out a bottle of Alaska Frontier Ale, and pay no attention to that angry murmur in the background. You'll have plenty of time to contemplate the Tana Canyon rapids tomorrow.

In fact, you'll have no choice. The river is about to enter a narrow, 15-mile-long channel with hundred-foot cliffs looming on either side. Before starting, get out and scout from shore; when the water is high, the approach to Tana Canyon becomes a series of harrowing, 20-foot whitewater stair-steps. In the canyon itself, the water is thrillingly relentless, the spray slapping against the high walls, the sounds of human voices disappearing beneath the river's roar. If you're lucky, the waters will part at some point around an oasislike sandbar, well stocked with driftwood and perfect for a revivifying wienie roast. Then it's back into the fray.

Six hours or so later, the ride abruptly ends. The canyon suddenly widens, the waters flatten, and you're at the junction with the Chitina — a fast-flowing but much less technically demanding river, its blessedly flat shoreline covered with poplar, spruce, aspen, and alder. Choose a rest stop along the western bank and Mount Wrangell will serenely rise above the trees behind you.

From here, your take-out spot is still two days away. Enjoy them; this is the most leisurely part of the journey. From the Chitina, you meet the Nizina, a river especially beloved of bruins in July, when it teems with their favorite finger food, king salmon. Allow them dibs; in fact, stay well upriver if they're present. But once they've waddled off, pull out your pole (assuming you bought a $30 nonresident license in Anchorage) and reel in dinner. It'll be more satisfying than freeze-dried stroganoff and will fortify you admirably for the last 77-mile stretch to the pull-out at O'Brien Creek.

To arrange a guided raft trip down the Tana, call River Wrangellers in nearby Gakona (888-822-3967) or Nova Adventures in Chikaloon (800-746-5753). Prices range from about $1,350 to $1,575, depending on trip length. For the most up-to-the-minute information about river conditions, check in at the Copper Oar (907-554-4453) in McCarthy, the closest town to Wrangell. An outfitter-cum-community center, the Copper Oar is also where, at any given time, most of McCarthy's entire population of 25 can be found.

Fishing at El Noo Taat Denh

There's a place on the Yukon River northwest of Fairbanks that's one of the world's greatest fishing holes. If you can find it. At this particular spot, in a small delta of about ten flat acres, the massive Yukon narrows, funneling sheefish, arctic grayling, whitefish, pike, and king salmon toward the nets and flies of the knowledgeable. It's a secret the Athabascan Indians have known for generations, calling it El Noo Taat Denh — "the flat place where spruce bows are found" — and returning each summer to erect a temporary village and stock their larders for the sunless months ahead.

But only since 1990 have outsiders been allowed to join in. It was then that the Athabascans of Stevens Village decided to admit a few Gussucks (a corruption of "Cossacks," the first white people the Indians encountered) to El Noo Taat Denh. Today, the camp bustles with the few Gussucks lucky enough to have heard of this place.

It's easy to see why. On the fringes of the 20-million-acre Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, El Noo Taat Denh is the upper Yukon at its most imposing, a starkly beautiful place of tundra marsh and chilly, ice-blue lakes, with thousands of ducks and shorebirds cascading overhead. At dawn, moose splash through the streams, mist rising like a veil around them. And then, of course, there's the fishing, the secrets of which are imparted by the Denyee Hut'aane Nene' (very literally, "the people of the place where the Yukon River comes out of the Yukon Flats and flows into the Ramparts Canyon area"). One of the Denyee will meet you in Stevens Point and ferry you the six miles upriver to the camp's secluded tent city. Stow your sleeping bag in the nearest empty shelter: There are no room keys here. There's also no schedule and no formal instruction. When you see a fisherman heading out to check the set nets, tag along. You'll be taught how to read the water, how to pluck pike from the fish wheels, and which music is preferred while deploying king salmon nets (Elvis Costello and the Rolling Stones are among the faves). Later, help hang the day's catch in the smokehouse, and then borrow one of the camp's canoes and float along the riverbank, sniffing the wild roses and watching the bald eagles scoop up their own poisson du jour.

Alaskan fishing regulations prohibit the Denyee from selling their catch to campers. (They also prohibit outsiders from using nets, though you can fly-fish if you've purchased a license.) The Department of Fish and Game doesn't prohibit sharing dinner, however, so each evening the entire camp sits down to a communal fish fry, while the midnight sun sparks the sky and the loons provide a shoreside chorale.

Arranging a stay at El Noo Taat Denh is easy: Show up in Stevens Village (135 miles from Fairbanks on Dalton Highway). As long as the Denyee are resident at the camp, you'll be welcome. But when the fish aren't running — usually in May and September — the camp is empty. To find out about conditions, call Denyee-owned Yukon River Tours in Stevens Village (907-452-7162). Cost is $45 per person per night.

Driving the Dalton Highway

The end of the road. It's a phrase that, in Alaska at any rate, means just that. You can find it at the intersection of Dalton Highway and Airport Road in the town of Deadhorse, where an unobtrusive plaque announces that you've arrived at the northernmost point in the U.S. highway system. This inauspicious spot, flanked by a sign warning visitors away from the local oil fields, has become a kind of lodestone for the adventurous, the curious, or perhaps just the morose. You can go no farther, in Alaska, in the United States, in North America.

Built 20 years ago as a supply route for the Trans-Alaska pipeline, the 414-mile "haul road" (as it's known to everyone but the Alaska Department of Transportation) was closed to the public until 1994. But even in years since, the world's highway cognoscenti haven't exactly rushed in. The Dalton Highway, unpaved, deeply rutted, and virtually devoid of any roadside services, remains an acquired taste. It's a pass-or-fail test of driving skill, axle resilience, and above all self-sufficiency. But it's also one of the most unforgettable journeys any visitor to Alaska can undertake.

The Dalton starts at the end of Highway 2, about 85 miles northwest of Fairbanks, at Livengood. Don't let its emptiness beguile you into rushing along at the speed limit (55 miles per hour). Not only is this dangerous, it misses the point. The haul road is for ambling, for admiring, for pulling out your fishing gear at Hess Creek (mile 25) and catching some grayling for lunch. Another 30 miles brings you to the Yukon River. Hike into the tundra here for wild blueberries, roll out a blanket in the shade of the wooden bridge, and watch bush planes land, in your lane, just a few miles ahead. (The Dalton Highway sometimes doubles as an airstrip; planes have the right of way.)

Linger at the Yukon if you like. But allow yourself plenty of time to savor the next major intersection, 50 miles ahead: the Arctic Circle. Arrive on June 21, the high holy day of the North, and you'll likely share the site with druids, Wiccans, and a few bemused Bureau of Land Management agents. Otherwise the place, marked by a BLM interpretive display ("What Is the Arctic Circle?"), is typically deserted. You can camp at a primitive site a half-mile east. Better, though, to drive about 17 miles to Gobblers Knob, a grassy rise that affords a mesmerizing view of the 3 A.M. sunrise.

From here the land becomes increasingly denuded and Miesian. White spruces give way to stunted black. Tundra the color of flax unfurls to the horizon. At mile 203, the chiseled gray rock of Sukakpak Mountain marks the traditional delineation between Athabascan Indian and Nunamiut Eskimo territories and also serves as timberline; trees don't grow on the sudden, 10 percent grade of the upcoming Chandalar Shelf.

This grinding, downshifting two-mile climb begs for some kind of climax. And one is in fact provided: Near mile 244, at the shelf's 4,800-foot summit, Atigun Pass, you straddle the Continental Divide. Hundred-mile views stretch out past the Endicott Mountains to the west and the North Slope straight ahead. It's all downhill from here, past polygonal ponds and "pingos," giant frost heaves beneath the tundra carpet.

Unfortunately, you can't reach the Arctic Ocean's shore on the haul road. That land is controlled by the Alyeska Pipeline Service, which allows visits by tour groups only. (Call the Prudhoe Bay Hotel in Deadhorse, 907-659-2449, to join one.) You can, however, head to the Arctic Caribou Inn on Deadhorse Airport Road, belly up to the beef buffet ($15), and listen to the locals swap tales of the frostbite season of '97. That'll make your drive back to Fairbanks seem like a summer stroll.

For more information, contact the BLM office in Fairbanks (907-474-2251), which administers much of the land along the Dalton's route. It doesn't, however, provide road service. If you need assistance, you have one resource: yourself. Failing that, the state police will drive by eventually; they sweep the road about every three weeks. — Geo Beach

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