A Walk Down the Bettles

Clack, clack, clack, clack. The sound of the metal points hitting the ice broke the silence. On either side of the river valley rose sharp, limestone mountains covered with high cliffs and pinnacles.  It was mid-April. Although the days were long, night still fell over the land. And with the sun dipping behind the mountains to the west, the only hint of its presence lay in the alpenglow covering the mountain sides.

The wide overflow sheet stretched out before us, covering the width of the gravel bar.  The hard surface was a welcome alternative to the deep snow within the forest, allowing us fast travel.  As dusk transitioned into darkness, the ice sheet ended, whereupon we proceeded to march east through the snow in search of camp.  As the river bent to the south, we continued on our course leaving the gravel bars and entering the stunted spruce forest.  Untouched by wind, we found deeper snow.  We fell into a single file line, each of us taking a turn at breaking the trail for the others.  Upon finding a spot among the spruce trees, tents and bivy sacks were set out underneath the soon to be vanishing night sky.

I had joined my friends, Casey and Steve, on a snowshoe trip up the Bettles River.  In a last hurrah before winter’s end, we planned to head out from the road in hopes of finding a large mountain to climb, in a desire to obtain an expansive view of the surrounding country. A week prior, I had scratched from the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic plagued by blisters and frostbite.  I was tired of the snow and cold. The long days of light only prodded my strong desire for the snow and ice to vanish and summer to arrive.  But with blisters largely healed and the company of friends, I set out once more.

In the southern Brooks Range, as well as throughout the Interior, snow takes on a form not found in southern climates.  With temperatures so cold throughout the winter season, almost all the water content is removed.  Therefore the snow becomes fine grained, taking on the texture of something like sugar.  For the winter traveler, this can prove to be problematic.  With fine grained snow, there are no layers.  If there is three feet of snow standing on the ground, each step will send you near the bottom.  Snowshoes and skis provide relief over the unadorned foot, but the flotation provided is by no means substantial.

While we had talked about the trip far in advance, our preparation was minimal.  I lent Casey one of my sleeping pads.  The sleeping pad proved worthless as it only held air for about an hour or so, leaving him sleeping in almost direct contact with the snow.   Not all of our gear was in the best of condition, and for that matter neither was our food supply.  An instance of miscommunication left us with less variety and quantity than we would have desired.  I brought along instant rice, potato flakes and moose for our dinner. Steve had a large bag of mixed nuts, raisins and chocolate for himself. And Casey had brought a cornucopia of Clif bars for him and I to snack on.  If the trip taught us one thing, it was that one’s tolerance for Clif bars is easily surpassed.  With us eating 7 bars each, we quickly reached the point where they ceased to be appetizing.

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Clear skies held for the following day and we continued up river.  The windblown snow of the Bettles ended as we passed the mouth of the Matthews River.  Soon we found ourselves trudging through deep snow, substantially slowing our progress.  We left the river and took to the forest, hoping that we’d find better conditions.  Our findings proved no better, arguably worse.  We sweated and toiled with the sun shining high overhead, moving no more than one mile per hour as we tried to reach the river’s canyon.

The seemingly unending trail breaking had sapped the energy out of Casey and me, leaving us to have no desire of ascending any mountain in the near future.  Plans were changed and we decided to continue up river as far as possible.  Exiting the forest, we found ourselves on the river once again.  We were no longer among the snow, but thanks to overflow, a sheet of ice that stretched from bank to bank.  An owl flew out of the limestone cliffs nearby as we clacked our way upstream.

The valley opened up as we exited the canyon.  More limestone mountains towered over the hills in the distance, marking the entrance to Big Spruce Creek.  This section of the river had once been populated during the gold rush era.  A few miles to the east was the settlement of Big Lake.  Miners made their home in cabins surrounding the lake, attempting to find gold in the hills nearby.  Some of them moved beyond the small community, exploring the Bettles River for mineral wealth.  An airstrip and small array of cabins on our map illustrated what once was here.  Before us lay almost no sign of that past.  Most of the cabins were no longer present, moved or eroded over time.  One did remain. The cabin’s walls were largely intact, but lack of a door and a caved in roof showed that nobody had lived there for some time.

In camp, we ate boiled moose as the sun dipped behind Wiehl Mountain. The wind soon settled to a faint breeze and we wondered if we’d be treated to one of the season’s final displays of aurora. In our final night out, I lingered around the stove, unwilling to go back.  Travelling with company or on a great trip on my own, it’s easy to fall into the rhythm of the country.  A rhythm that draws you in and makes you never want to return to the other world. Nearby Casey was cutting down spruce boughs for his evening’s mattress.  Steve was stomping out a platform with snowshoes in which he would lay his bivy sack.  Simple chores of life on the trail.  A simplicity that often fuels the desire and enjoyment.

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A well-established trail made for quick travel back to the road.  But the trail is never the same and on our return we found ourselves walking through overflow in sections that had been ice just a day before.  Tracks showed other users of the trail we had established. Caribou had encountered our path and followed, treating themselves to an easier passage.  Not all was different.  The limestone mountains still towered on either side of the valley.  The sun continued to shine brightly overhead, reflecting off the snow. The wind continued to blow directly into our faces, despite the change in course of travel. And the great company still remained.  The trip set no records, but checked every box that made it worthwhile.  We traveled far off the road, encountered new country, and enjoyed time with each other.  A perfect cap to the winter season.

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