Mosquitoes and Glaciers

Roche Mountonee Creek

Roche Mountonee Creek

It’s said to be the best hike off the Dalton Highway in the Brooks Range.  I had heard it from numerous residents of the area and I intended to find out for myself if that was true.  My companion was my tent mate, Mark, and we decided on a day in late June to make our way north to hike Roche Mountonee Creek.  Rouche Mountonee Creek lies about 85 miles north of Coldfoot, on the north side of the continental divide.  It would be my first major hike in the northern end of the Brooks Range.  An area known for its low growing vegetation, no trees, immense precipitous mountains and in the summer time, billions of mosquitoes.   We loaded our gear into the van and set off, travelling along the rugged Dalton the two hours north to our destination.

Upon arriving at our destination, we are eagerly greeted by the local residents.  Yet with no permanent human habitants for at least 60 miles in any direction, who could I be speaking about? Why the mosquitoes of course! The North Slope of Alaska is notorious for its mosquitoes and this day is no different.  The mosquitoes quickly surround the van after I have put it into park, drawn by the heat of the engine.  As we exit the van, we are quickly surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds of mosquitoes, buzzing around our bodies, occasionally alighting and looking to steal a quick meal.  Mark quickly pulls out and dons his headnet as I look for mine, unsure whether or not I remembered to stick it in my pack.  He needles me a bit due to my negligence in bringing my headnet on our last hike, where I ended up being swarmed by mosquitoes.  Thankfully, I find it scrunched up in the bottom of my pack.  I pull out my pullover rain jacket, toss it on and we are on our way.

Lower Roche Mountonee Valley

Lower Roche Mountonee Valley

Leaving the road, we ascend up a hill on the left hand side of the creek.  The ground is uneven, but for the most part absent of tussocks, for which we are thankful for.  As we continue further into the valley, we are escorted by hundreds of mosquitoes (or as the Aussies call them “mozzies”) that lead the way, mirroring every footstep.  Mark dons his head net for the entirety of the hike.  I alternate back and forth as I try to decide which is worse, the confining nature and warmth of the head net or the dozens of mosquitoes that are after my blood.  More often than not, I decide to take the chance of being bit and leave the head net off.  After hiking for a couple miles east into the valley, it begins to take a sharp turn to the south.  From there we are able to see the entirety of the valley,  mountains continuing on either side with glaciers marking the terminus in the distance.

In the last ice age 10,000 years ago, this valley was completely covered by glacial ice.  Like most of the valleys today in the Brooks Range, it has been shaped due to the retreat of the glaciers. Roche Mountonee describes the process in which the passing of a glacier over bedrock results in striations and various formations. An example of the resulting formation is displayed in the photo below.

Roche Mountanee on opposite mountain side. Formations in rock are created due to glacial erosion.

Roche Mountanee on opposite mountain side. Formations in rock are created due to glacial erosion.

We continue up the valley, at points alternating between firm rocky ground and the soft, uneven tundra.  There is a small respite from the mosquitoes as we travel close to the creek, occasionally walking onto aufeis that still remains in the midst of the Arctic summer.  We gaze upon the surrounding mountains, pointing out unique formations and shapes in the rock, marveling at how ice has shaped the valley.  As we near the headwaters of the valley, the mountains draw closer.  The glaciers lay above us on our left hand side as we ascend a rocky hillside next to the creek.  The creek is cascading down a rocky passage, in almost waterfall like fashion, as it descends quickly down to the main valley floor.

As we reached a plateau, we found ourselves in a somewhat difficult situation.  We did not exactly know where we should go from that point to get to the road.  We did not bring a map. Sitting down on a hillside we pondered our options.  From looking at maps, I knew that there was a pass somewhere in this area that would lead us to the road.  But the question was, where?  We could continue further south, where it looked as if the valley eventually veered south, but was surrounded by steep, unclimable walls.  Or we could try shooting east, up the mountains towards what looked like a pass, yet we were unsure whether or not it was doable from our current location or where it led to. The last thing I wanted to do was retreat the ten miles back down the valley from which we came.  The valley ahead didn’t look very forgiving, so we decided to try for the apparent pass.  If that failed, we’d have to tuck our tails beneath our legs and retreat the long distance back down the valley.

The valley ahead

The valley ahead

The vegetation quickly yielded to rock as we climbed out of the valley.  Mosquitoes followed us higher and higher,  I puzzled at how they could survive in these areas but continued on.  Snow still covered some of the northern faces in this location and as we rounded another bend, we caught sight of a large alpine ice sheet, just south of the pass we were attempting.  Sheep sign was abound as we made our way over endless glacial till and boulders.  They thrived in this kind of landscape, using the steep rocky faces of the mountains to evade predators.  We hoped our route would be somewhat more forgiving, as I don’t trust my ability to leap from one crumbling rock ledge to the next.  We neared the pass and began to ascend, we would be able to make it to the top, but it still remained to be seen what was on the other side.  Mark opted for the larger rocks, while I made my way up the loose scree.  I was the first to ascend and slowly made my way to the top of the pass.  I reached the top, gazing out into the area beyond.  A gradual slope! We would be able to descend!  I moved back to where I could see Mark and let out a wild cry of exultation.  Somewhat confused, he joined me on top but was elated as well once he learned of what was ahead.

A look back towards the descent route

A look back towards the descent route

We rested for a while before skiing down the loose scree.  After a short while, we once again found ourselves in another valley bottom, glancing up again at another alpine ice sheet that towered above at the head of the valley.  We made quick time moving down the valley, navigating across the river and along its edges bouncing from rock to rock, attempting to stay dry.  Soon enough, we found ourselves back in the brush and we broke our way through willows.  The pipeline stood out in the distance, signifying the end of yet another journey.  After crossing the creek for a final time, we made our way out onto the asphalt of the road.  We were unsuccessful in our attempts to acquire a ride for the six mile or so walk back to the van.  The monotony and unrelenting nature of the pavement wore on my psyche and body.  I was graced with one of the countless majestic Arctic sunsets and waterfowl moving about just off the road.  Upon reaching the van, I happily piled in, enjoying a rest from the asphalt as well as great mountainous scenery as we made our way back home through one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Upper Trevor Creek Valley

Upper Trevor Creek Valley

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Winter Notes

Darkness.  I stand in a clearing, surrounded by the boreal forest as snow falls down at a rapid clip.  The clouds have sunk quite low in the valley, encompassing the mountains and the surrounding area, limiting my view to silhouettes of spruce trees a few hundred yards distant in the dark Arctic night.  This land is shaped by the variations of light.  The time of light and joy has quickly come and gone.  As each day passes, the landscape moves ever more quickly into its winter state.

There are plenty of signs of winter abound even now in late October.  Ponds and lakes have a thick sheet of ice atop their surface.  My snow skates have been dusted off and have already been put to heavy use.  The creeks are almost completely frozen, with small channels continuing to flow between sheets of ice.  The river seems reluctant to freeze.  Well past the typical freeze up point, there are ice jams and ice at the edges, yet water continues to flow.

The sun is becoming an elusive sight.  Clouds continue to blanket the landscape, hiding the sun which is already showing itself less and less each day.  At this time, it doesn’t show itself until right around 10 AM, up for just a few hours before setting once again after 6 PM.  In less than a month, the sun will dip behind the mountains and then below the horizon, for where it will remain until it rises again in January.

In what many consider to be a depressing and bleak landscape, there still remains plenty of beauty and life.  Ravens dance in the daylight as they dart back and forth in the air, looking for a source of food.  Snow blankets the mountain and the forest floor, providing new perspectives and contrasts in the landscape.  On clear nights, the sky is blanketed with stars and auroral displays, providing magnificent displays of light in a region that’s known for its lack of it.

Animal tracks lay abound, as the snow reveals all travel in these winter months. The tracks reveal vast stories.  A fox wanders along the lake ice, circling “push-ups”, turf that muskrats shove in the ice to keep an unfrozen hole in the ice for breathing and feeding, in hopes of a meal.  A lone wolf trots up the hill away from the lake, quickly changing its course after encountering the tracks of a snowshoe hare, possibly hoping for a meal of its own.

As the days continue to shorten, winter provides a time to slow down for all life.  The Arctic ground squirrel and bears follow this in a literal sense, having denned up and gone into hibernation/deep sleep.  For humans, it provides a period of silence, contemplation and solitude.  A season for which one can recoup and recover after the busy and never ending days of summer.

The snow continues to fall, accumulating on the top of my jacket.  Soon temperatures will plummet far below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Soon the river will freeze over.  Soon the light will almost completely disappear from this landscape.  I try to grasp the idea that this darkness will be present for the vast majority of the day.  The sun will not show itself for longer than it does now for another four and a half months.  Winter has arrived.

Explorations of the Known

 Dick Griffith forever changed backcountry travel in Alaska in the 1980s with the use of a small, inflatable raft for backcountry travel, which today is commonly referred to as a packraft.   You can read the story elsewhere but, in the Alaska MountainWilderness Classic in the 1980s, Dick opened up the eyes of others to a new mode of travel for wilderness trekkers of Alaska.  No longer would travelers be constrained or halted by raging rivers. In short, a packraft is a versatile and very durable piece of gear that can withstand class V rapids, yet pack down to the size of a compressed sleeping bag with a weight less than 5 lbs.  This method of travel works perfectly in a wild landscape where rivers run free, AKA Alaska.

Ever since I had purchased my packraft I wanted to use it to travel remote rivers in Alaska.  That was the goal when I attempted my big trip last year, but that did not work out as planned.  I was limited to playing around with my packraft in flat water environments, on lakes and stagnant rivers until I returned to Alaska once again.  In the summer of 2015, I had that chance.   In May 2015, I moved to Alaska, 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to a small service outpost called Coldfoot, which lay on the edge of the Brooks Mountain Range.  The Brooks Mountain Range is one of the last great wildernesses left on earth.  With only one road, the Dalton Highway travelling through this mountain rage, it truly is a wild landscape. At 750 miles in length and 100-150 miles in width, there is plenty of space to provide for adventures in more than one lifetime.

I arrived in Coldfoot in early May, just as the rivers and creeks were beginning to break up.  With minimal experience on moving water, I did not want to go out into with my packraft among the torrential flow of silt, gravel and ice.  I had concluded that Slate Creek, running just north of Coldfoot, would be where I would have my first float in this landscape would occur.  The creek continued to drop as the days wore on as the snowpack rapidly diminished on the mountains.  By the third week of May, the waters had dropped significantly enough to allow me to feel comfortable going out on the creek.  I was ready for my first test.

At the edge of Coldfoot, there is a mining trail, the Chandalar Trail, that winds its way sixty miles east through the taiga to Chandalar Lake.  I began my adventure travelling along this trail.  My destination was Colbert’s Knub, a large hill that rises out of the stunted spruce forest to the east of Coldfoot.  The trail provided fairly easy travel and I made quick time bounding along the compact dirt surface.  Three miles into the trail is its first crossing of Slate Creek, this would be my hopping off point as I continued east off trail towards the Knub.  For a few yards, there is an ATV trail that provides for decent travel, but otherwise it is rough country for walking.  I navigated tussocks and brush as I tried to keep my feet dry and avoid the water or muddy muck that often lay between the tufts of grass.   Making my way through the forest, I finally found myself at the northern end of Twin Lakes.  This landscape had changed quite dramatically since I had been there the week before. Ice covered the lake on my last visit but now there were only a few chunks of ice remaining on the outer edges of the lake; otherwise there was hardly any sign of winter.

The Knub with the northern end of Twin Lakes below

The Knub with the northern end of Twin Lakes below

I crossed the stream at the northern end of the lake and soon found myself at the base of the Knub.  Moving up tussocks and sphagnum moss, I gradually made my way up the hill.  Unlike many other hills and mountains in the area, the Knub is unrelenting.  There is no compact rock or hard ground to provide for easy walking. From the bottom to the top, you are contending with tussocks, which make what looks like a simple and easy hike, into a calve burning and humbling excursion.  I have found that if I go into a hike or approach an area with a mindset that it will be easy, it ends up being on the opposite side of the spectrum.  The landscape can quickly humble you and reminds you who is ultimately in charge.  Nonetheless, I found myself standing on the summit in just under an hour.  The elevation allowed me to gain a grand view of the area.   I was able to see north up the Middle Fork Valley towards Wiseman and beyond, south towards Cathedral mountain and a view of the flats and also a glimpse of the South Fork of the Koyukuk Valley to the east with its surrounding mountains.  It’s hard to tire of such a magnificent view, but the creek was calling.  I quickly made my way back down the mountain.  The same moss and tussocks that were a nightmare going up provided quick travel on the way down, as I could move swiftly, leaping from one soft spot to the other.  Soon after, I found myself at Slate Creek, ready to put in. What had taken me an hour to travel from base to summit took only fifteen minutes to descend.

At the put-in

At the put-in

Feeling excited and somewhat nervous, I began to inflate my packraft as I readied for myself for my first river excursion.  The water had become much clearer since the initial break up stage and there was minimal silt or gravel flowing in the water.  After a few minutes, my packraft was fully inflated.  I tossed my pack in and set off, navigating away from lingering ice protruding out from the bank.  The water levels were at almost an ideal level, I could move through the creek with minimal portages due to shallow water.  There were occasions where I had to scoot across the rocks but for the most part, I floated at a swift 4-5 mph through the forest.  What a novel experience!  Instead of fighting or going against the landscape, I was able to use its power to propel me where I wanted to go.  The creek provided a new perspective of the area, as I floated along with towering spruce trees on each bank, able to grow to such great heights due to the creek thawing the permafrost beneath the surface.

Slate Creek

Slate Creek

It was only about seven miles back to Coldfoot from where I put in, so it didn’t take long until I found myself thinking about pulling out.  I was planning to take out near the Coldfoot airstrip, after the confluence of Slate Creek and the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, where it would be just a short half mile walk back to Camp.  As I rounded the seemingly endless bends of the creek, I began to see familiar spots of the Chandalar Trail that parallel the creek and even began to hear the steady droning of the generators back in Camp.  I was beginning to wonder when I would float under the Dalton highway bridge when I heard a rush of water.  I rounded the next bend and found myself facing a large log jam.  The current was moving quite swiftly as I tried paddling with all my might, in hopes of reaching shore.  The water was moving too fast.  Not wanting to collide with the log jam, I grabbed on to a spruce tree that was hanging over into the creek.  It wasn’t the wisest idea, but the best thing I could think of.  As I held onto the tree, the current began to sweep both my raft and myself underneath, filling my boat with water.

My mind raced.  The bank lay just a few feet away.  Should I slash my raft?  Can I safely make it to shore?  These questions among others raced through my mind as I contemplated my next move.    Ultimately, I decided I would chance it.  I decided I would make a move towards shore without damaging my raft.  First, I took my now soaked pack and tossed it on the bank.  I then slid out of my packraft, thrusting it out of the water and safely onto shore.  The final and most important task lay before me, finding a way to get myself onto the dry banks of the creek.  I saw a willow tree overhanging along the bank and decided to make a move towards that.  Hopefully, the roots would be deep enough into the ground to provide support.  I made my move.  I pushed away from the spruce tree and the current began to sweep me downstream.  Reaching for the willow tree, I found my grip, pulling myself up out of the creek, onto dry land.  The whole ordeal felt like an hour, but lasted only a couple minutes at the most.  It had left me somewhat shaken and cold, as I found myself soaked from chest to toe.  I deflated my packraft, shouldered my pack and began to make my way through the brush back to Camp, where I quickly changed back into dry clothes.  It had been an enjoyable first excursion, yet the end of the trip had provided a hard lesson that I wouldn’t be forgetting any time soon.