This is part 16 in a 17 part series that discusses my experiences during my NOLS Semester during my first summer in Alaska in 2013. We spent 75 days in the backcountry, 25 days sea kayaking in Prince William Sound (discussed in parts 1-5) and 50 continuous days hiking and glacier mountaineering in Wrangell Saint-Elias National Park (Parts 6-17). Part 1 of the series can be found here
A much needed rest day followed after finishing our exhausting and seemingly never ending trek, off the Copper Glacier. Morale was high within the group and rightfully so. The night before we had shed multiple pounds of glacier gear, obtained our next full ration of food and were now preparing for times back in the land of green. One thing that we did not forget to leave behind though was our adventurous spirit. After a late breakfast, my tent/cook mates and I set off on our own mini expedition in search of blueberries, for our planned biscuits later that afternoon. We headed towards to a nearby mountain, hoping to find a substantial patch above the brush line. Weaving through alder trees and following game trails we made it to the top, but unfortunately our trip was fruitless as we were only able to find small handfuls of the treasured blue delicacy. Our adventure was not for naught however as we stopped to lie in the sun and enjoy the feeling of the dry ground again, before heading back to camp. The rest of the day consisted of people doing all sorts of activities such as meeting with their mentor, reading, washing socks, playing in the nearby creek and napping before we all met after dinner for our somewhat nightly meeting. During the meeting, there was a rustling in the bushes behind us and we all took a quick glance and spotted the tall brown spine of an animal before it scampered away. We figured it to be a moose, due to the large amount of moose signs we had spotted around our camp. Nevertheless, we were happy with the probable increase in animal interactions for the rest of the trip, after seeing nothing but the occasional fly or worm in the snow, during our time on the glacier.
Our journey continued the following day with us dropping off any extra supplies at the airstrip, for Kirk to pick up later in the week. My group then set off, moving across the huge gravel bed in the direction of a lake about a mile away. Our initial destination was a little over five miles away, with the additional option of adding another mile and a half depending on everyone’s physical state. How great it felt to be back in our hiking boots on dry land! After wearing the heavy plastic boots for over 3 weeks, we felt as if we were barefoot as we moved across the rocks. We also happily noticed a big difference in our pack weight. Carrying 70 plus pound packs the last five days or so on the glacier strengthened our muscles to the point where our now 55 pound packs, which felt heavy previously, felt like we had nothing on our backs! There was nothing that we thought could go wrong as we quickly moved through small streams and over the gravel bed.
That is, until we hit the dreaded quick sinking mud. Before the glacier, I was the one who always prodded others to keep moving through our evil nemesis, but my wisdom seemed to have escaped me as I sank almost up to my knees in mud. It takes a fair amount of effort to pull your feet out but I think the hardest part is determining where to put your foot next. All the mud looks similar and it is often difficult to determine if you will sink or stand. We were able to make it out and after crossing the main channel of the creek we moved along the opening to the lake. However, we weren’t out of danger yet. While crossing the opening of the lake to reach more tundra, we found ourselves sinking once again. It wasn’t quite as bad as before, but in my opinion, it was a whole lot scarier to be sinking in mid thigh deep water compared to dry land. After reaching the other side, climbing up to the top of the hill and finding a blueberry patch, we promptly dropped our packs, got on all fours and crawled around eating blueberries for the next half hour. Talk about a nice transition back onto the tundra!
We continued moving on and after stopping for another blueberry break, we continued on over the hills before slightly dropping into the valley. The area was stunning with pine forests comprising the valley floor, a view of Mt. Sanford in the distance and majestic rock formations making up the surrounding mountain sides. We had reached our initial X, but the marshy area did not seem to be very campable, so we decided we would wait for the other groups to arrive before proceeding. It took a while for the other groups to catch up, so I made myself busy eating more blueberries before taking a nap on my pack (And no, it is not possible to eat too many blueberries). All agreed to proceed and we made our way through the nearby pine forest before stumbling into a deep marsh. It was quite the predicament, with us far from our entry point and the water becoming deeper with each step. I decided that we would push through and we laughed as some of us stumbled over the hummock like bottom into waist deep water. This extra mile and a half took a bit more bushwhacking through the brush than we had endured earlier in the day. At one point after coming out of the brush, onto the rocks of a drainage, we glanced up to the nearby mountainside to spot a sow (mama grizzly) and her two cubs moving up the hill. They looked back at us, as we shouted up to them, before bounding up through the bushes. I had seen my first grizzlies and 3 of them at that! Shortly thereafter, we broke through the brush once again out onto a larger drainage, arriving at our camp for the night. We celebrated yet another birthday during the evening with a rare camp fire, before the celebration was cut short with a downpour that had most of us scrambling back to our tents. After the rain had stopped, we came out of our tents to find a rainbow over a point further up the drainage. A perfect ending to our first travel day back on the tundra.
Before heading to bed the previous night, we decided as a group that for the next 5 days we would go without time. Our watches were placed in the bottom of our packs and we agreed not to look at them. When waking up, the first person up who thought it was a reasonable hour woke the others who were cooking breakfast and we would begin our day. Our travel would take however long and the rest of our day would carry on. I was LOTD once again and the instructors entrusted us with a lot of responsibility. On this day, we would be travelling independently without instructors for the first time on tundra. Independent student group travel and independent student group expeditions are two of big cornerstones of NOLS, forcing students to practice their leadership, communication and interpersonal skills we had learned in order to lead and maintain a successful expedition. Our route would be the most straightforward we had in days, maybe even the whole trip. We were simply heading 4 miles and 2000 feet up the drainage to a spot that would set us up perfectly for the next day where we would be travelling through a pass. The day was fairly uneventful by our standards, travelling along the rocks with a few crossings through the rapidly flowing creeks before reaching our X. During our travel, we did find a spot where someone had leveled out the rocks for a tent. That was quite disappointing to say the least. There were many places (during the expedition) where we thought that we were likely the first humans ever at that spot but not today. It’s also unfortunate that people don’t clean up after themselves. This spot didn’t leave any trash, but for the others: why would you go into some place to enjoy nature only to damage it?
We ambled up to the grassy hill above the drainage, which may have been our best campsite the whole trip. We were able to see back into the valley behind us, at the interesting rock formations on either side of the drainage and also up at the glacier near the top of Tanada Peak. The grass was perfect as well with sporadic mounds that made for the most comfortable seats you could imagine. Our first day without time had worked out perfectly. There was no worry that we were travelling too fast or too slow and it did not matter how many breaks we took. It certainly took out a lot of unnecessary stress and the other expedition members and I were ecstatic with the results. A long meeting was held later that night since a lot of both interpersonal and personal problems had arisen over the past couple weeks. During this time, the rocks on the mountainsides danced in the light of the sunset. Another beautiful evening in Alaska.
I watched the sheep high up on the mountains while eating my breakfast and hanging around camp the next morning. Some of those fellers do not move or change position for hours. There was one that I watched that did not do either, from the time I began watching to a while (No time, no worries) later just before we left. Today was another independent travel day and this time the instructors had left before us, getting an early start up the pass. The initial part of our travel was moving three quarters of a mile and up 1500 feet through a pass to the other side of the mountains. It took us a while to ascend the steep pass as we moved along a small creek under the hot sun. During one of our breaks, we paused near a pool of water in the creek and dunked our heads in, the freezing water instantly cooling off our heads and faces. The views back toward the valley were remarkable, as we climbed higher, with the towering Mt. Sanford peeking out from behind the clouds in the distance. The grass quickly gave way to a rock filled drainage near the top of the pass. This final steep ascent was our last obstacle on this side of the mountains and we stood atop the pass, greeted by more mountains and a raging creek on the other side.. From here, we planned to travel another four miles downhill before cutting towards an opening in the mountains to our camp, besides a lake. Moving downhill, we were forced to zig zag across the raging, but shallow, creek multiple times due to dead ends at each side. One of our interesting sights of the day was our encounter with a rock ptarmigan. The ptarmigan is the state bird and they surprisingly did not scatter as we approached them. One of my peers was following one less than a foot away with the intent to kill the poor bird. I’m glad he didn’t. Eventually, we moved up the side of the mountain and made a long traverse across multiple rock fields. This part was actually fairly dangerous because the rocks are usually either thin or unstable, so one has to be pretty particular with where they place each step. Along with river crossings, rock fall terrain is one of the biggest hazards in most NOLS courses. In the past, there unfortunately have been a few instances where students have died in similar situations and terrain. Travelling in a single file line, we wearily continued moving across the rocks, stumbling a few times, before coming across a sheep trail. After descending into a drainage and climbing a final steep hill we had made it to camp. There was nothing on the agenda for the evening so I helped set up the tent before heading back to the kitchen. We had no idea what time it was, but that made it even better as we enjoyed a great meal with views of Mt. Jarvis and other mountains on the glacier in the distance.
Our final day of student travel took us down the drainage into the valley below, five and a half miles to the northern end of Sheep Lake. We were initially supposed to receive our re-ration on this day, but we had pushed it back a couple days before since we would not have made it on schedule. For the first time, our hiking groups split off into an all boys and all girls group, and we set off after the girls, leaving the instructors at camp. A question that one of my friends posed to us while we were hiking was, “Would you do another 50 days of this, for free, immediately upon finishing next week?” I answered, “In a heartbeat.” This expedition had so far been the adventure of a lifetime and as someone had said earlier in the trip, each day becomes the new best day of the trip. There were no bad days.
Travelling down the drainage was easy with no creeks to cross over or many trick spots to navigate. We soon reached grassy area again where we were reunited with our delicious blueberries after a brief stint away from these scrumptious treats. We continued over relatively easy terrain, crossing a small creek before plopping down in an area filled with blueberries for an official blueberry break. There is not a day without a blueberry break when they are present. We reached the lake shortly thereafter where we were met with a familiar humming sound. A plane was coming up the valley towards Sheep Lake. Was that Kirk? Why was he coming now? We had told him we were not planning on arriving until tomorrow. The plane’s floats touched down and the pilot slowly moved along the lake turning towards us, as a member of our group yelled out to him. As we approached the now “docked” plane, we saw that it was an Alaska State Trooper! Trooper Dan Dahl was kind enough to speak with us dirty and foul smelling creatures for a little while, also letting us look into his cockpit. He was just flying to the lakes within the park and familiarizing himself with the area in order to prepare for sheep hunting season, just over a week today. What a cool job! He is in charge of this area and flies around on patrol like he was doing that day. After a quick picture with us and the plane, Dan went off to speak with the girls, who were at the other end of the lake, before turning back into the wind and taking off. Soon after watching him soar through the valley, we reached camp after marching through a final boggy section that surrounded the lake. To cap off the day, we were camping in an area that was filled with the most blueberries we had seen yet! I gorged myself on these treats while enjoying yet another camp with spectacular scenery. In the evening, we faced a thunderstorm but the rain and lighting dispersed as quickly as it came, leaving another calm night. With a re-ration in the morning, we were unfortunately reminded that this unforgettable adventure would soon be coming to a close. But it sure wasn’t over yet!