Shadows of the Nunamuit

Shadows of the Nunamuit

As I made my way into the headwaters, the snow became deeper and deeper.  With mountains engulfing the valley, the area’s snow was not impacted by winds.  The deep, sugar-like snow required tremendous exertion to move forward with each stride.  A ski slides forward atop the snow. I transfer my weight and then sink a couple feet to the bottom.  The other ski slides forward.  I transfer my weight and sink.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Progress slowed to only a few yards per minute.  I wasn’t far from my intended target, Peregrine Pass, which would take me up and over the Continental Divide to what I hoped would be better conditions on the other side.  But for now, I was stuck struggling in the flat light, trying to plod my way along while avoiding the dips and banks of the creek that faded into the snow.  Eventually, with fading light and darkness settling upon the valley, I was forced to call it quits for the evening, laying out my sleeping pad and quilt in a dense willow thicket.

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Headwaters of the North Fork

After continuing another hour with slower travel the following morning, I began to make my way up the pass.  The drainage soon became steep enough to require skins.  Not long after, they lost their grip forcing me to improvise and use zip ties to attach them to each ski.  Yet this was a small worry.  The sides and mountains that surrounded me were steep enough to allow for avalanches.  Conditions appeared to be stable and starting off early in the morning made for a firm snowpack and solid layer due to the lower temperatures of the previous night. I remained nervous and cautious and hoped to get to the top as quickly as possible.  After duck walking up the final steep rise, I emerged on top and surveyed my surroundings.  Grizzly Creek lay below, and stretching out beyond was the beginning of the Anaktuvuk River heading west towards the horizon.  In all directions lay snow-covered mountains and almost no vegetation.  The country appeared raw and rugged, evolving from and shaped by the rough conditions of the region.   Descending on my butt, I looked back towards the pass to see snow swirling in the air, tossed about by strong winds.  At the base, I donned my skis once more and began making my way down the creek, following the tracks of a wolf pack that had previously traveled the same path.

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Snow blowing off the top off the pass

At first glance, it’s a land that appears to be uninhabitable.  For much of the year, temperatures hover below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Its waterways are frozen and its vegetation lacks diversity.  Any vegetation in the area clings close to the ground, in hopes of preserving life and protecting itself from the frigid climate.  Out of the north come the winds that race over the frozen expanse of the Arctic Ocean, delivering a biting chill atop mountain peaks and through lengthy river valleys.  The area I speak of and the one in which the above story takes place is that of the Brooks Range, located above the Arctic Circle in Northern Alaska.  A chain of mountains that span the width of the state, stretching some 700 miles from the Canadian Border to the Chuchki Sea on the western coast.

Most life in the area finds itself on the move throughout the year.  In a region that has minimal vegetation, short growing seasons and a low population density of animals, many must move to source their food.  For instance, in the spring and summer, caribou and birds migrate to the north, out of the mountains to the Arctic Coastal Plain.  As the cold and darkness encroaches on the land once more, caribou return to the safety of the mountains and birds flee to warmer climates.  The same has held true for the people that have resided within these mountains.  A few hundred years ago, the Nunamuit (“people of the mountains”) moved to the Central Brooks Range area away from the coast.  They are Inupiat, but unlike their brethren elsewhere, the Taremuit (“people of the coast”), they chose to make their home among the mountains.

Living in an area with dramatic fluctuations in animal populations and location, the Nunamuit were forced to lead a highly nomadic lifestyle.  They lived and died with the rising and falling of the caribou herds.  Life was simple.  If the herds couldn’t be found, the people starved.  They were forced to become highly skilled in their mode of living, coming up with ways to catch quick-footed animals like caribou in open country with limited resources.  This resulted in creative ways to funnel the caribou, by means of strategically placed rocks (inuksuks), into corrals made of willows or lakes, where the people would have the best opportunity to make their kill.  Meat was taken for food, hides were taken for clothing and bedding materials, and bones and antlers were used for tools.  Throughout the year, the people travelled.  Early on, movement was primarily done on foot.  Eventually, as dogs became more prevalent, they were used as pack animals and in formation as a team throughout the winter season.

 

While there was enjoyment in being out in the country, such travel was a necessity in a landscape where animals and edible plants were widely dispersed.  The Nunamuit settled in and formed the community of Anaktuvuk Pass in 1950, largely marking the end of their nomadic ways.  In more recent years, long range travel under human power has drastically decreased as snow machines (also known as snow mobiles or snowgos depending on your locale) took hold in the state throughout the 1970s and beyond.  People in rural villages and communities throughout the state lead a more sedentary lifestyle with this new wave of high powered technology, and now typically only venture away from home for no longer than a day at a time.  Long range travel under human power has become something that is done for recreational purposes, not out of necessity.  Even travel with dog teams has been relegated to only racing or tourism.

In today’s urbanized and fast-paced world, there are those that feel out of place and use the outdoors as an escape and reprieve.  For some, that means a short hike on a nature trail or a trip to the beach.  For others, they seek out more intensive trips spending multiple days performing various outdoor pursuits like camping, hiking, skiing or hunting.  Like all pursuits, there are some that take this to the extreme, covering large swaths of wilderness in a quick manner.  Despite the lack of hunting or gathering on most of these adventure trips, such activities aren’t far from what was performed by our hunter/gatherer ancestors long ago.  In Alaska, wilderness events like the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic and the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic offer such an opportunity.

The travels I discussed at the beginning of this essay took place during the 2017 Ski Classic.  It being my first year in the event, I was only permitted to travel within Gates of the Arctic National Park, while event veterans skied routes through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Two others would attempt to complete the same route and we set off on a clear day from Galbraith Lake, just outside the eastern boundary of the park.  Our final destination was Wiseman, but first we needed to reach the checkpoint about 90 miles distant at Anaktuvuk Pass.

Old sled dog trails provided a path towards the Itkillik Valley.  The Itkillik was one of the major drainages which the Nunamuit regularly inhabited during the nomadic times.  The valley often had caribou and other animals to offer as food sources.  After the national park was established, there have been many archaeological surveys revealing old tent sites and kills throughout the Itkillik region.

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Looking up the Itkillik Valley

As I skied through the Itkillik Valley, light rapidly faded as the sun dipped behind the mountains to the northwest.  Soon, it became too dark to travel efficiently and I began looking for a spot to camp, sheltered from the wind.  Trying to eliminate as much unnecessary weight as possible, I left my tent at home.  I found a small thicket of willows, set up my sleeping pads and tucked myself into my quilt for the night.  I awoke early in the morning to the sound of wolves howling further up the valley.  Their location was difficult to determine with them being upwind, but after beginning to ski the next morning, it wasn’t more than a few hundred yards before I went over their tracks.

The presence of wolves suggested the presence of other animals throughout the valley.  It didn’t take long to confirm this hypothesis.  Throughout the day, I passed small bands of caribou, most often digging beneath the snow to feed.  In the willows encompassing the edge of the river, ptarmigan set among the branches and my close passage flushed them and sent them fleeing.  By the end of the day, I had left the caribou and ptarmigan behind, moving out of the Itkillik and into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk that I described at the beginning of this essay.

I wasn’t able to finish the Ski Classic, instead I scratched and flew out of Anaktuvuk Pass.   After descending Grizzly Creek, I made my way to the Anaktuvuk River and traveled quickly with ease over its frozen expanse.  But the hard surface of the ice had negatively affected my knees and negligent foot care had led to areas being rubbed raw on my feet and shins. The next morning, I shuffled the final 10 miles into Anaktuvuk with my feet in poor condition.  Taking a break outside the park service building, I talked with locals, was invited innumerable times to a potluck and watched as children zoomed by on new snowmachines.  Arriving after me, the other participants told me how they were bailing and I soon came to the same conclusion for myself.  I skied out beyond the village, sleeping among the willows once more before flying back to Coldfoot the following morning.

Although it’s north of the Arctic Circle, the Brooks Range isn’t covered with snow throughout the year.  The high and always circling sun helps to melt all the snow in the summer except for patches hidden in the deepest nooks and crannies.   That snowmelt flows off the mountain sides and into the valleys, forming rivers and creeks throughout the region.  In the past, the Nunamuit would take advantage of these natural highways to travel north for trade.  Each year, the people would load up their kayaks with their belongings and head down a river such as the Colville to meet others from the coast.   Each side would trade what was plentiful in their locale.  For example, the Nunamuit would offer caribou meat and hides, while the Taremuit would offer seal oil and muktuk.

Mimicking this change in mode of travel due to the change in seasons, in late June of the prior year, I participated in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.  Ditching last year’s skis for travel by foot or boat, 22 of us set off from Galbraith Lake with Wiseman as the final destination once more.  Snow lingered in the high passes, making for difficult passage as we crossed the divide early on.  Rain had started falling heavily the day before the start and continued throughout the course of the event, causing further saturation.  Rivers ran high with the resulting runoff causing further wetness and difficulty.  Constant movement was the theme and I only stopped twice to take short naps, amounting to about 4 hours in length during my 53 hours of travel.  I had forgone bringing my packraft, thinking the waters would be low, only to watch high waters rush swiftly by as I stumbled along the river valleys to Wiseman.  I had traveled about 115 miles, seeing only 4 large mammals during that span, two grizzlies and a cow moose and her calf.  One would imagine seeing significantly more than 4 animals after walking such a distance through numerous river valleys, yet the norm was minimal to no animal presence.  It didn’t take much prompting to think of the Nunamuit and the tough times they had faced during their nomadic era. This surely proved to be a hungry country.

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Thoroughly soaked

Travelling throughout the region that the Nunamuit previously roamed gave me a better understanding of their livelihood.  But there are massive differences in what I did and what their daily life consisted of.  I was outfitted with lightweight modern clothing, and I not only had a satellite phone, but also a SPOT messenger device in which I could seek help if anything went wrong.  My purpose was not to find food, but to travel fast.  And despite these superior modern tools, I still ended up battered and somewhat beaten following both events.  Contrast that with a people who had to travel the same landscape, but without a surplus of food.  My abundance of food didn’t allow me to feel hunger, but it isn’t difficult to imagine how much more arduous such a trip or journey would be without such bounty.  I may not be able to empathize or fully understand the everyday reality of the past, yet I have emerged with a new appreciation of the tenacity, skill and hardiness of the Nunamuit of old.

Coffee Pizza Traverse

Coffee Pizza Traverse

The forecast was enough to cause some trepidation for those with any sense.  High wind advisories were in effect across the Alaska Range with sustained winds forecasted for 40+ mph and gusts up to 60 in the passes. Our route involved one such pass and we found ourselves a few miles away as the evening’s summer light waned.  We had long since passed the tree line and the encompassing rocks and hummocks offered no respite from the wind that stirred through this upper section of the valley.  We had spent the moments prior watching dozens of caribou, feeding on lichen a few hundred yards distant, unconcerned with the thoughts that preoccupied our minds.  We had no notion of what lay beyond the bend on our route ahead, but knew that continuing would add a few more hours to our already late evening.  Weary but determined, we pushed on.

Towards the end of June, I joined friends Shannon, Evan and their dog Cooper on the Coffee Pizza Traverse.  Set in the heart of the Alaska Range off the Parks Highway, this is a well known “route” involving equal parts packrafting and hiking.  We set off from The Perch following the ATV track off the road and up the powerline.  Without knowing where the trail led, we hopped off, navigating spruce bog, willows and tussocks on our way up the alpine.  The trail led the same way and not much later we were back on its hard surface.  Within a couple hours, we found ourselves beyond the willow thickets with a grand view of the Nenana River Valley.

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Sunny skies and alpine hiking allowed for joyous moods as we continued our way up the valley.  I was reminded of Roche Montanee Valley further to the north, with the clear creek gurgling down the middle of the valley and the still snow clad peaks towering on either side.  Unlike Roche Montanee, there were no sheep atop the hills but er ran into a herd of caribou in the evening, with a surprisingly high proportion of calves. As discussed in the opening paragraph, we decided to push on up and over the pass in the late evening of that first day.  Ascending the boulder fields, we soon found ourselves staring ahead at a wall of snow.  Just past solstice, this tucked away section of the valley had yet to melt.  The snow offered good purchase and we were able to pick a route out without too much risk.  Sidehilling along the valley’s eastern wall before walking (and postholing) our way to the top.

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Strong winds greeted us atop the pass and provided enough of a motivator to continue on and down to camp.  Unlike the north side, the south side was free of snow.  In its place were massive boulders that slowed travel to a crawl.  Cooper had great difficulty in navigating this section, forcing Evan and Shannon to guide and carry him along the way.  After another hour or so, boulders and rocks gave way to grasses and moss and we eventually set up camp.  Ptarmigan were scattered throughout the rock fields in this section and despite our best efforts, fresh meat was not part of that evening’s fare.

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The wind was only the beginning of a front coming from the southwest off the Bering Sea.  Rain fell throughout the following day wetting the vegetation, and therefore us as we navigated through dense willow thickets and alders on our way down to the Nenana.  We left the alpine environment within an hour of breaking camp and soon found ourselves in dense thickets.  We sought out moose trails, following them under and over willow branches, down to the creek’s edge and back up high again searching in vain for an easier route.  Eventually, we stumbled upon a moose superhighway (the largest and greatest network of moose trails that I have ever seen) leading us through willow thickets and the spruce forest down to the banks of the Nenana.  Mosquitoes kept us company as we blew up our boats, put in and floated a couple miles down to that evening’s camp.

Swift waters brought us quickly back to civilization without much effort the following morning.  While we drifted along, low clouds hung atop the mountains and fighter jets from JBER roared through the valley ahead. Cooper wasn’t fond of the whole boat experience necessitating a few stops as Evan and Shannon switched back and forth, trying to find the best way in which to situate him without flipping over. The water became a little choppier as we entered the main valley and soon we were watching cars rush by on the highway just beyond the river’s edge.  The trip had offered welcome respite from the often too frantic world.  Like always, it was never enough and left us yearning for more as we reflected and munched on pizza at Prospector’s later that evening.