General Update and Sheep Hunt Video

General Update and Sheep Hunt Video

I have been slacking in the posts department lately and it shows with only 1 post here in the last 10 months.  More posts to come soon on getting my pilots license and flying throughout the state,  biking 100 miles around the White Mountains with a friend, visiting a friend at Lake Clark, and getting to know all areas of Alaska through my forestry work among other things.

Over the past year I have had 3 articles published in Alaska Magazine.  I hope to have those on this site shortly.

In the meantime, I have been started to play with video format and here is a video of a packraft sheep hunt a friend and I undertook a couple weeks ago in the Wrangell St- Elias National Park area.

 

 

Bomber Traverse

Bomber Traverse

“OH EM GEE!” Atop Bomber Pass, our view of the Talkeetna’s stretched dozens of miles in the distance. The Alaska Range and Denali lay somewhere beyond, obscured by smoke.  Behind us lay the loose scree and boulders we had ascended, with Upper Reed Lake and its lingering ice patches below.  One of two formidable passes on our traverse, we stopped for a few minutes to take photos and enjoy the views of mountain grandeur before descending down to the snowfield on the other side via the frayed fixed ropes.

My friend Laura and I were hiking the Bomber Traverse, a ~25 mile mixed trail route in Hatcher Pass.  We had left the trailhead close to midnight the night before, camping a few miles up the trail at Lower Reed Lake.  We awoke to a sky free of clouds and smoke from wildfires in the area.  Without a breath of wind, the lake offered a still reflection of the surrounding peaks in the area. We set off for the pass, hiking the last few miles of trail.  Marmots, ground squirrels and songbirds kept us company, scurrying in and around the rocks, looking for handouts and observing us as we passed.

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Beyond Bomber Pass, we descended to the snowfield, stopping to explore wreckage from a military plane that crashed in the 1950s. Marginal weather had forced the crew off track and into the mountains, killing 6 of the 10 on board. High atop the glacier, the plane seemed unlikely to have changed or moved much from the original accident, frozen in place for much of the year.

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The snow brought a coolness to the air, despite the sun bearing down from above and reflecting off the snow from below. Although the temperature was well above freezing, the snow was still firm enough to hold our weight, prevent post holing and allow for easy travel off to the rocks below.

Thunderstorms in the distance made us think about waiting out any showers and lightning in the hut on the other side of the valley, but the sight of others already there quickly nixed that idea.  We found ourselves at what would likely be the last campsite for at least 6 hours at 5 pm.  Despite our tired states, we decided to push on rather than stop and make an early camp.  We soon found ourselves navigating among boulders, loose rocks before heading up a glacier once more.  The sun had melted out most of the tracks from those who had come previously leaving me uncertain about where we were supposed to go.   The wide saddle above seeded doubt and left me bouncing back and forth in terms of where we were supposed to go.  Laura wasn’t as bothered and quickly identified where we were and where we needed to go after taking a glance at the map halfway up the pass.  Soon thereafter, we found the fixed ropes and ascended the last few feet to the top of Backdoor Gap.

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After enjoying dinner and grand views, we descended down the boulders on the opposite side in a state of tired delirium.  The boulders seemed never ending but the hut and the half dozen tents stretched out on the tundra below slowly grew larger and larger.  We soon found ourselves back on the tundra, establishing camp at 1 am.  Thrushes sang from somewhere in the rocks above  and smoke descended into the valley as we settled in for the night atop the lichen.  We left the next morning, hiking down to the trail and out to the trailhead.  We left the tundra for the final time, replacing relative quiet and dry mosses and lichens, for alders, the rushing creek and endless stream of day hikers.

Hiking in Alaska is most often noteworthy due to the absence of humans. In such a large state, it isn’t a challenge to find plenty of areas on the road system that are devoid of other people.  Hatcher Pass is not one of them. North of Wasilla, the area is close enough to Anchorage to attract droves of people making the hike properly crowded. We counted 3 tents at our first campsite and 5 plus at our second.  In the entirety of our time out, there was only about 7 hours where we didn’t see any other people.  Despite that, the hike’s constantly changing means of travel, from rock to snow to tundra to trail, kept travel interesting yet challenging and the beauty of the area lived up to the hype.  Paired with great company, the amount of people was almost a non factor and one in which I would do again.

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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.

 

 

Growing Up in Alaska

Growing Up in Alaska

The drizzle trickled down through the canopy. A few feet away the stones on the beach shed the droplets. Beyond, waves crashed lightly against the shore. We were attempting to set up our tent on our first night out. The only experience I had setting up a tent was on the pristine lawn the day before back in Palmer, or helping my dad bang the stakes into the ground on a backyard camping adventure when I was younger. I was on the lowest end of the spectrum in the outdoor skills department, that spectrum bottoming out at having no skills. Some of my peers had their own personal experience, but none had ever participated in such a collective endeavor. As a result, we struggled. It had been so easy to set up a tent the day before in the world of flat, squared off pieces of land. Now in the real world, the uniformity ceased to exist. Roots surfaced above ground near the base of trees, brush covered areas that could otherwise be good sites and uneven surfaces abounded, daring anyone to try and achieve a good night’s rest.

In 2013, I was one of eleven students who completed the National Outdoor Leadership School’s (NOLS) Mega Semester in Alaska. The school is renowned for its long-time effort and practice of teaching leadership and outdoor skills in a backcountry setting. Six months prior to embarking on our expedition, I had read the journals of Dick Proenneke, a famous Alaskan who turned to the land at age 50, building a log cabin by hand in what is now Lake Clark National Park. That felt authentic and meaningful to me, something that was worth pursuing at a time when my peers talked of corporate internships and jobs. However, growing up in suburban Chicago hadn’t prepared me for the rural Alaskan lifestyle. I was a cheechako. But not long after reading Proenneke, I came across NOLS and saw a stepping stone towards the life that I envisioned.

My eyes were glued to the front range of the Chugach Mountains as I stepped off the plane into Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. I had been to other areas in the country with mountains and big landscapes, but none held the mystique and mystery that surrounded the land of Alaska. I walked the coastal trail towards my hotel, eyes darting back and forth between the Cook Inlet and its mud flats and the forest, waiting for a whale to breach or a moose to dart across my path. I remained in awe throughout the day and into the night, marveling at the light that still lit up the sky when I turned in after 11.

We would spend the first segment of our semester, 25 days, sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. Starting outside of Whittier, our route led us south towards the open ocean and the Gulf of Alaska. Each day followed a similar pattern. We would wake around 6, emerge from our tents and check the weather and sea conditions. After breakfast, we would ready our boats and depart from our campsite, paddling up to 22 nautical miles each day to reach our destination.

After a week of travelling, our group began to show growth and development in our water skills. When travelling between campsites, we intended to move in formation as a pod. This meant that there was a lead boat and rear boat with the rest arranged in rows in between. This was impossible to attain early on. One boat would be moving almost perpendicular to the path of the majority, another would be far outside the group and the group would be spread out, due to a lack of a uniform pace. Yet with each day of travel, along with lessons from our instructors, our skill improved and we began to travel as one unit.

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Early paddling

As we paddled along, we were treated each day to sunny skies, an abnormality in a region known for its abundant precipitation. Mountains thick with spruce trees extended up from the edge of passageways and channels. Bald eagles soared overhead in such large numbers that they became almost commonplace. Each morning after waking in the tent I was eager to see what the land and the sea held beyond the next bend. Already we had been treated to soaring eagles, curious sea lions and otters, innumerable waterfalls and sunsets. What more could I ask for? What else did the land have in store?

After a group discussion one evening, we prepared for bed, a few of us brushing our teeth along the water’s edge. A few hundred yards out in the bay a whale breached the surface. A moment later, a tail shot up further out. Over the next half hour we were treated to the spectacle of a pod of humpback whales moving about in the bay. Snow draped the nearby mountains and the reddish orange sky provided the perfect backdrop for an awe inducing experience. I had come to find joy in the simple things. Standing on shore watching those whales had left me content in a way I’d never known.

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Hiking above Johnson Bay in Prince William Sound

Leaving the water, we moved inland to the rugged and glaciated mountains within Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. The previous section had allowed us to meld as a group, but that would soon be put to the test under heavy loads, rough terrain and long days. Shouldering our new packs, we trekked past the old gold mining structures at the end of the Nabesna Road, crossing the Park’s boundary in the process, our home for the next 48 days.

Like kayaking, I had never done any serious backpacking. Or for that matter, any backpacking at all. I took to it well and found joy in moving through wild country with everything that I needed on my back. That freedom led to an internal peace that would remain for the majority of the trip.

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A lake in Wrangell St. Elias

We were tested from the very beginning and each challenge seemed to send forth another to replace it. The glacial waters of the Nabesna River stood in our path. Working in small groups, we scouted and picked a route across its swollen and silty waters. After leaving the valley floor, we traveled through the forest and tundra. No longer were we swiftly moving along hard packed sand and gravel bottoms, now we encountered tussocks and boggy environments. With heavy loads, we fought to maintain our balance and figure out the most efficient route through each segment. The tussocks relented and we entered the canyon of Monte Cristo Creek. What appeared as a small creek on the map, existed as a formidable obstacle in reality. The long, warm days melted snow and ice further up the valley sending water rushing down the creek bed. Boulders rumbled along the bottom as we picked our way back and forth across the creek over the coming days.

We would spend three weeks travelling and living on glaciers. I remained nervous, unsure what glacier travel entailed. Glaciers weren’t a part of my vocabulary as a Midwesterner and my mind raced to assume the worse. Stories of crevasses that swallowed entire rope teams and people disappearing down moulins fueled my apprehension. That sense of caution would remain, but glacial travel didn’t prove to be as onerous as my mind imagined. Crevasses existed somewhere below, but on the surface was a white landscape, devoid of much movement or life. Colors in the sky seemed accentuated among the rock and snow below and each day offered a new vista of mountains to behold.

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Mt Blackburn towers over a glacial camp

We began to travel at night, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures and firmer snow conditions. Our time on the glacier was punctuated by a group summit of Mount Jarvis at 13,420 ft. Along the way we battled fatigue, low food rations, dehydration, and altitude while continuing to maintain strong interpersonal interactions. If we thought travel would become easier after our summit, we soon found we were mistaken.

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Atop Mt. Jarvis. Mt Sanford in the background

Leaving the glacier meant travelling down the Copper Glacier, one that was heavily ridden with crevasses. We only travelled a quarter mile on our first day, taking 20 hours to rappel down a crevassed face to the valley below. Tired and weary, we were forced to continue on the following afternoon after only a few hours of sleep due to avalanche danger. The mountains boomed throughout the day as snow crashed down from above under the hot summer sun. Weaving around the innumerable crevasses, we spent the following days travelling down to the end of the glacier. Bushwhacking through dense alder thickets at the glacier’s edge was the final test before we ended our time on the ice and returned to the wide gravel bars and open forests of the non-glaciated terrain.

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Wide gravel bar near the headwaters of the Copper River

There was only a week left for us in the Wrangells. After weeks of ice and rock, we reveled in the multitude of colors during summer’s peak and the blossoming of the flora, grazing in blueberry patches as we hiked. We travelled away from the head of the Copper River back towards Tanada Lake and the Nabesna Road. It was difficult to think that we would have to leave this lifestyle that had become normal and this area that had become home. I had entered the course as someone without any outdoor skills. By its end, I found myself comfortable in wilderness environments and in leading others through the terrain without instructor guidance or supervision.

It has been five years since that NOLS course. Five years since I first dreamed of living the authentic Alaskan lifestyle. I have now lived in Alaska full time for nearly four years, spending the bulk of that time living remotely in the Arctic, within the mountains of the Brooks Range. I have fished for salmon, hunted for moose, sourced wood for heat, and traveled the land on my own, withstanding the darkness and cold of three Alaskan winters. By most measures, I’m still that cheechako I once was. I still struggle to understand mechanical systems, I don’t have the skill to build anything of value and I still make mistakes out on the land. The journey began with that first step off the plane into Anchorage five years ago. It has been a journey of discovery and growth, of myself and the land. It’s a journey that’s bound to continue and one in which I still continue to find myself craning my neck to see what lies beyond the next bend.

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A Bison Hunt

A Bison Hunt

“Are you gentlemen ready for a late night?” The sun sat above the mountains but it wouldn’t be more than two hours before darkness descended upon us within the throes of the valley. Dave unslung his rifle from his pack and placed his pack along the trail. We answered his question with nods and smiles of affirmation as we excitedly began to discuss what lay in store. This moment had been long anticipated by each one of us, yet the certainty of it had remained in question just moments ago. As we talked, Dave moved down the trail and towards a stand of spruce trees. He wove his way through the open floor of the forest, entering the meadow no more than 80 yards from our hulking quarry, the 2,000 plus pound animal that would become the center of our lives for the next three days.

Bison are one of the most quintessential and storied animals in North American culture. For centuries, people lived off the great herds that once traveled throughout most of the country. Their hides were used for tents and clothing. Their bones were used to create weapons and tools. The large mass also produced plenty of meat and fat to sustain people throughout the year. The historic numbers have large variations ranging from as few as 3 million to as many as 100 million. It is thought that after Europeans first arrived in what is now the United States, buffalo numbers surged to great numbers (50 million) due to the death of many people infected by foreign bacteria. While the number likely was near the upper limit of the range for a short duration, there still were herds in sizes magnitudes beyond comprehension today. Valleys and fields would be littered with the species to the extent that it would lead some to remark that the plains were moving.

The expansion of the West brought the decline of the mighty herds. Railroads brought more people and allowed easier transport of goods. There were those that capitalized on this new means of transport, killing waves of buffalo for their hides. Buffalo declined to as low as 541 individual animals. Eventually, areas like Yellowstone National Park were put in place to conserve ecological regions and those animals within. With protection from the US Army from early years, the buffalo recovered from years of poaching and market hunting, rising up from the brink of extinction. Today, 300,000 bison are found within the United States. However, only 15,000 of those are non-domestic and classified as wild and free ranging. Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the Lower 48 states to have had a free ranging bison population throughout history. Many of these bison live within the Hayden and Lamar River valleys and can be seen in large numbers by visitors throughout the year.

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Meadow within the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

Due to the near extirpation of the species within the US, there have been limited hunting opportunities over the past 100 years. The state of Montana and some Native Reservations within the state have offered the opportunity, however using the word hunt would be a generous term. These instances often involve heading to a spot along the road where the animals migrate, line up and wait for them to step beyond the park boundary. A practice that many from within and outside the state look down upon. However, starting in 2016 the state of Montana offered a new opportunity. The state would distribute 5 tags a year to individuals allowing them to hunt for outside the park’s boundary areas in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. As designated Wilderness, such a hunt would preclude the use of any motorized transportation, adding difficulty and an increased challenge.

Towards the end of June, I found myself excited by a new post on one of my favorite sites, Bedrock and Paradox. Dave had drawn one of the bison tags in Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and was looking for help. I found myself excitedly reading through the post and came upon his pitch in the closing paragraph:

So, are you able to carry an at least moderately heavy pack for a good ways at highish altitude, camp out in potentially cold weather, and be cheerful in the face of discomfort and ambiguity?  Do you want 100+ pounds of the best meat on earth to take home?  Will you be available in late September this year?”

I thought that I could answer yes to each of those questions and quickly sent him an email requesting to be included. He responded in the affirmative and as summer wore on, final plans began to gel together. There would be 6 of us heading out in the last week of September in search of the largest land mammal in North America.

Dave, Tim (from Helena) and I got off to an early start and left Helena early Saturday morning. Mike (from Helena) and Craig (from LA) would meet us later on in Cooke City. Norm (from Missoula) wouldn’t meet us until the next day. We passed through large swaths of range land and grasslands. Elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope were scattered throughout the region. 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark had traveled nearly the same route on their return to St. Louis. While much was the same, more was different. Strip malls from Bozeman, Livingston and other small towns spread out into the countryside. The mighty Missouri River, the second longest in the country, was dammed at multiple points along the route, creating large reservoirs that spread across large swaths of the valley. Absent were the brown dots that covered the valleys, the massive buffalo herds of old. The wild ones that remain are confined to a small corner of the state, blocked from travel by cattle guards and barbed wire, strung for thousands of miles.

The road in was much rougher than any of us anticipated. Large boulders and a seemingly endless stretch of cobbles up a steep grade marked the first two miles of the route. It wasn’t long before we determined that we took a much more difficult route up than was necessary. After reaching a more manageable road, we made good time traveling the 8 additional miles back to the trail head. The only other people in the region were horse packers who were forced to park a few miles back from the trail head due to the rough nature of the road. With gear sorted and packs on, we took off just before 4 PM, uncertain as to what lay ahead.

From the parking lot, the trail descended slightly over 2000 feet to a larger valley 9 miles away. There were a handful of spots where there could be buffalo but we weren’t expecting much before reaching the meadow complex in the valley below. The group began to mold as we made conversation and began to learn more about each other. The trail was hard packed and required almost no thought in terms of navigation or travel, allowing us to chat, scan for bison in any openings and take in the beauty of the country. Mountains rose sharply from either side of the valley while remnant trees stood a midst fallen trees from a fire decades ago. The good weather and pretty sights made for jovial moods for all as we continued towards the meadows below.

We were about 6 miles in when we passed an opening that caused Dave to stop and say something. I was towards the front of the line with Mike and Tim lost in conversation. “There’s a buffalo,” Dave repeated. Sure enough, no more than 120 yards off the trail was a lone animal, head down grazing among the grasses in the open meadow. After affirming that we were all up for the task ahead, Dave snuck away, moving into the trees further down trail in hopes of narrowing the distance.

While Dave moved forward, the rest of us remained on the trail, excitedly talking about what lay in store for us this evening. We watched Dave move slowly out of the trees and among the grasses. The distance was narrowed to 80 yards, 70, 60…without the slightest indication of care from the old bull. The first shot rang throughout the valley, echoing off the walls of the mountains high above. It was well placed, right through the lungs causing the bison to buck like a bronco and take off at a sprint. Dave reloaded and fired once more. BOOM. Another echo. But fall he did not. The animal was still on four legs and moving at a healthy pace. A pace that made one question if we had enough power to take this giant down. BOOM. Another hit. The bison runs head first into a large spruce tree. Continuing past, only to fall over beyond with his legs kicking in the air. It has surely ended. But with a large guttural, groan the bison fights its way to its feet again, moving forward. BOOM. A final shot knocks the bison down. This time there is no further movement.

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Mike moves towards Dave following the final shot

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Craig and Dave excitedly recount the details

Wary of being gored, we approached as a group with caution. Dave lobbed a stick at its head from a few yards away, no movement. A trekking pole was thrown with the same result. Only then did he feel confident enough to approach at a closer distance, using the full length of the rifle to reach out and poke its eye. Without movement, we realize our search is complete. Giddy with excitement, we walk around looking at the almost gargantuan size of this bull. Dave appears to more than relieved as he talks about the hunt with the others. Months of planning, preparation, and anticipation had yielded to great luck and success.

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Picture time

After a few pictures, we dive right into the task ahead of us. Dave and Mike dive right into dressing out the buffalo, making the first cuts along the belly through its thick hide. While they are working on the animal, the rest of us fulfill essential secondary tasks. Craig heads to the nearby stream to gather water. Tim and I gather a load of wood to burn and search for trees where we would be able to hang the meat. As the quarters come off, I grab a knife and begin the deboning process, taking the meat off the bone in order to further reduce our weight for the pack out. The quarter is smaller in length to that of a moose, but wider and with much more muscle. Mike and I are able to take off blocks almost beyond comprehension. 40 lb slab there, a 30 lb chunk here. We joke about starting a butcher shop, “Big Meat Butchers.” We only cut it big, but business is booming.

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The group readies for the task ahead

The last remaining daylight gives way, causing us to work under the din of headlamps. Craig and Tim start a fire a few yards away and it is not long until it is roaring. As a nearly full moon rises above the mountains, the scene seems somewhat primeval. We are doing something that humans have done for most of history. Working in a small group, we took down a large mammal, providing us with food for the winter season to come. In the moment, there aren’t many differences, with the exception of our modern clothing. The group gels as we work together, joke and tell stories, cut meat, and scan for grizzlies.

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Attempting the near impossible task of removing the horns, working by the light of fire, headlamp and moon

With the meat cut up and in game bags, we transport it about two hundred yards to a set of trees with larger branches. The heavy weight and thin cord made it a three person job to get the bags high enough, so that they were beyond the swipe of a standing grizzly. The last bag was hoisted and Mike, Dave and I set about to move the hide away from the kill site. Mike took the head and Dave and I took the rear. Grabbing the tail and a portion of the leg, we heaved and hoed away. The effort took all our might, enough that we were forced to stop and break multiple times within the 80 yard drag. Craig eventually came to help as well and we managed to wrangle the 250+ lb hide off the trail and onto a log to dry. All tasks were now complete, we gathered our gear and set off a few hundred yards to set up camp. Worn and weary, tents were erected and meals were had before we slipped into our sleeping bags before the clock struck 12.

There was no sign of disturbance as we returned to the kill site the next morning. The buffalo had looked like it had deflated more overnight, but grizzlies or other predators were nowhere to be seen. Gray Jays flitted from branch to branch, dropping down onto the carcass before snatching a piece of meat to take to their cache elsewhere. Our hung meat remained undisturbed. We lowered 5 bags, distributing them by weight and fitting them into our packs. With the game bag lashed secure to my frame, I sat down, buckled in and rolled to my hands and knees in order to stand up with the ~80 lbs on my back. Loaded down, we plodded forward. One step in front of the other, for the 1,600 ft ascent. Only 6 miles to go…

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Walking down the trail

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The setting was more than picturesque. Recovering from a burn from fires in 1988

By the time we returned to camp, it was too late in the day to consider another full trip to the car without ending even later than the night we had before. We moved camp up the trail another few hundred yards and decided to shuttle the meat to a halfway point that had sturdy enough trees. We went through the process again of taking the meat down, distributing it, hiking 3 miles and hanging it back up. We returned back to camp in the dark, the light of our headlamps illuminating a few yards of trail ahead of us. Back in camp, the group gathered to have dinner, only to be sent scurrying to our tents by the onset of a thunderstorm.

We woke to calm winds and ice on the tents. Dave and I went back down the trail to grab as much of the hide as we could while the rest packed up camp and began the first trip out to the car. If all went to plan, we would hike our camp gear out first, before returning back to the halfway point and grabbing the final load of meat. More than 36 hours later, the carcass still remained relatively undisturbed. The hide had soaked up much of the water from the rain the previous night, now weighing easily over 300 lbs. Taking out the whole hide would not be feasible given our circumstances. Dave took out his knife, splitting the hide in two. The head was simply too heavy and would have to go, leaving us with a third of the hide plus the tail.

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Dave works to separate the hide

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At the neck, the skin was well over an inch thick

At the halfway point, we found the others loading some of the remaining meat bags into their packs. They had made the decision to go heavy, saving at least two of us an additional trip back. While we sat and snacked, singing was heard further up the valley. Someone else was making their way down the trail. With no sight of Norm the previous day, we had joked about him coming in to relieve us. A figure larger than life who could throw 6 game bags over his shoulder and take off on a trot off the trail. Sure enough, Norm walked up a few moments later, proving to be the very savior we had envisioned. He took another bag off the tree, leaving one to dangle above. Craig and I decided to take on some more weight, distributing the meat between our packs. With nothing else remaining and no return trips planned, we set off on the final stretch. 3 miles to go.

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While we had rain, the high peaks had snow during the storm the night before and throughout the day

I hadn’t found issue with the first load, but the likely weight of 100+lbs dug into my shoulders and caused my hip belt to slide. We had a number of short steep ascents that took all our effort to keep moving forward. A mile in, graupel began to fall, pelting us and covering the trail and surrounding area with a layer of white. Yet, with each step forward we made our way closer to the vehicles and it wasn’t long before we dropped packs and collapsed. We drank in celebration, thinking back on the whirlwind that was the past 48 hours. A period well worth remembering, full of action but without any unwanted drama.

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Dave rests back at the cars after the final load

Three weeks later, it is still difficult for me to comprehend the magnitude of what we accomplished. The experience is unlike any other hunting trip or back country excursion. We went into the mountains of the American West, successfully hunting one of the most storied animals in American history by our own means. After returning to Helena, Dave and I talked about the hunt being something similar to the Classic, a paradigm shift that recalibrates one’s individual mindset and what’s thought to be possible for the future to a level previously unknown or perceived as out of reach. I am more than grateful for being allowed to take part in this experience and can only hope that there will be more of such events in years to come.

Craig’s Summary

Dave’s Summary 1

Dave’s Summary 2

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The meat sort at Dave’s.  All the meat minus Norm’s share. Well over 600 lbs total..

Indian Summer

Indian Summer

The wind whipped along the ridgeline, gusting across and ferrying the few loose flakes into the valley below. Up high among the tors, the light and the terrain made one think of winter. The soft pastels lit up the horizon beyond the mountains as the sun shone its last light for the day. Snow covered the ridgeline, while the brisk temperatures and strong breeze forced us to pile on layers to forestall the entrance of the cold. Atop the ridge, we had no choice but to continue, with hope of descending the bowl beyond and finding a campsite free of snow and out of the wind. After descending the icy slope with care, we set up camp an hour later in the dark. Strong gusts and frozen hands created an added challenge in establishing our home for the night. The frozen ground bent stakes while the wind haphazardly flung any that weren’t secure. After seemingly endless fussing around, the tent appeared to be stable. After miles of walking, three humans and a dog crowded inside, protected from the wind, trying to catch some sleep as the tent swayed back and forth, threatening to collapse.

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October in Alaska can be an odd time. In certain years, like this one, it is almost like it is another season. Leaves fell long ago and colors have changed, leaving a muted and bare landscape. Yet, snow has not fallen in most areas and temperatures remain mild during the day. It is easy to forget what lies ahead. Looming on the near horizon are months of darkness and an area completely blanketed by a layer of snow. For now, the cool night temperatures and dry days yield great hiking over firm ground. Cold nights serve as a reminder of seasons past. A reminder to bring heavier gloves, a pair of fleece pants, and to sleep with water bottles. In this transition season, the price is small. A little thirst or numb hands. Months from now, inaction can lead to frostbite or worse. Not too far north, snow covers the valley floors across the Arctic and rivers are nearly closed. Winter is knocking on the doorstep and sure to arrive soon. For now, I try to enjoy this uncertain season and the joys that come with it.

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