Snowden

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Rock formation on Snowden Mt.

All I had been hearing all summer was how it couldn’t be done.  “Oh you can’t do that, X couldn’t ever do it and he was a really good hiker.”  I had never met X but I could tell you one thing.  I did not really give a shit whether he had done something or not.  Someone else’s failures would not stop me from doing any trip.  As you may be able to tell from my writings, meager successes and failures, I am fairly ambitious and have some lofty goals.  But I’d much rather try and fail, then sit around musing about other people’s journeys.  The mission was the summit of Snowden Mountain.  Snowden sits in the Dietrich River valley 40 miles to the north of Coldfoot.  At ~6,400 feet, it towers over everything in the near vicinity.  A friend and I were planning on making an attempt at one point, but were turned away due to wildfire smoke.

Snowden represented much more than a mountain to me.  It was a mental hurdle.  By this point in the summer, mid-July, I was largely dissatisfied with what I had achieved in the hiking and packrafting domain.  Sure, I had done more and been out more, than everyone else in the area.  Enough that people were coming up with stories about what I’d done that weren’t even true.  It was like a scene from the Wild West, where a basic event eventually turns into an incredible and unbelievable yarn.  All this was very flattering, but I tried to downplay it as much as possible. Because for me, and for who I was trying to be, what I was doing was nothing.  Thinking about people I looked up to for inspiration in the outdoor world, like Luc Mehl and Roman Dial, put my situation in perspective. It was peanuts.  That is certainly fine, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more.

It is with all that in mind that I prepared to make an attempt on Snowden.  My friend was way too busy with work. This would be something that I had to do alone, as it should be. By the middle of July, I could procrastinate no longer.  One clear evening, I hopped in the van and made my way along the Haul Road to that familiar spot.  As mentioned in the previous post. I had received beta from a local and had studied the route on topographic maps quite extensively.  I would start on the north side of the mountain, just off the road, edging my way along the northern face until I hit the summit ridge that would lead me directly to the top.  It wouldn’t be as straightforward as it sounds, I’d be gaining over 5,000 feet in the process and travelling over 12 miles total while attempting to navigate around the various rock formations on this massive mountain.

Soon I had begun my journey, navigating through the dwarf birch and tussocks of the spruce forest.  One step in front of the other, I slowly made my way uphill. After fighting my way through a dense patch of willows, I finally found myself above tree-line and onto the firmer tundra.  Low growing vegetation interspersed with various rocks lay beneath my feet.  I quickly ascended to the base of one of the “molars” of the rock formation that’s locally known as the wolf’s jaw.  Leaving the grass and mosses behind, I stumbled over rock and lichen, paralleling the rock formation up to the canine, or the highest protruding rock.  The process was slow, as I moved across steep talus fields, picking my way so as I would not tumble down, unlike some of the rocks I was setting loose.  Moving along, I reached an opening in the rock formation, gaining my first glimpse of the summit while on the mountain.  I had a long way to go, as I gazed up at the jagged limestone formations on the main western face.  Not long after this grand view, I stumbled across a sheep trail.  Those high mountain dwellers had established a narrow, well maintained single track trail that followed right underneath the wolf’s jaw.  I quickly left the jumbled talus fields behind, electing to follow the path well traveled.  My pace drastically increased, as I was able to move quickly along the established path, stopping every so often to pick up the trail again wherever it went faint.

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The Wolf’s Jaw

Eventually, the trail ended at a scree field consisting of thing shale rocks.   These rocks lay between me and where I wanted to be, so there was no other path but to follow them up to the top of the wolf’s jaw.  It was a lengthy process.  Not only was I travelling up a steeper slope, but for every two steps forward, the talus seemed to cause me to sink one foot back.  Slowly and surely, I found my way to the top of this section, atop the wolf’s jaw. And what a view lay ahead!  I was taller than most mountains in the vicinity that allowed me to have quite the view of the region.  I looked south down the Dietrich Valley towards Dillon Mt. and Sukapak.  North, east and west lay innumerable lofty mountain peaks protruding into the clear, never ending summer “night” sky of the Arctic.  While the view may have been glorious, the route ahead did not.  I had ascended most of the elevation necessary to achieve the summit, yet distance wise I likely only remained just beyond halfway.  The immediate route ahead wasn’t promising.  It looked as if I would have to traverse a very narrow ridge (potentially non-existent) ridge to a steep colouir.  Whether or not I could get across the colouir to the summit ridge was unknown.  Scanning the area, I noticed that if instead, I had taken the creek north of where I started, it would have led me to a more gradual ridge that eventually connected with the ridge leading to the top.  I pondered what my options were.  I could consider as planned, although that route wasn’t likely to go.  The other route that I spotted, looked like it would, but that would involve descending, then ascending yet again.

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The Abyss.  Snowden summit in center background.

I stared into the metaphorical abyss.  This felt like it could be a point of the transformation. Into the person that I wanted to be and knew I was.  I knew the route.  I was almost 100% confident that it would work.  But what would I choose?  The easy retreat? Back down the scree and into the easy comforts of civilization? Or would I transform, moving forward, doing what I know what I could accomplish, yet undergoing some sort of pain on the way. Definitely mental, possibly physical as well.  For whatever reason, I once again stepped away from the edge, convincing myself to retreat down the mountain.  Quickly, descending via the scree back to where I started. What had taken five hours to reach and ascend, only required an hour and a half to follow back down.  A lump in my stomach remained.  I knew how close I was to the other side, but for whatever reason I didn’t continue.  This may not have been the time, but I am there. I feel as if I am on the edge of a breakthrough of some kind, whether it is just physical or of my character remains to be seen.  My Snowden journey awaits.  I don’t know when, but I will stand on the summit, crossing to the other side.

Smokey Days

 This past summer, there were over 3 million acres in Alaska that burned as a result of over 600 different wildfires.  A lack of snow last winter, coupled with a normal, dry summer in the interior, provided a perfect catalyst for wildfire conditions.  Although there weren’t many fires nearby Coldfoot, we were not immune to the effects.  There were numerous days on end, in both the months of June and July, where we found ourselves surrounded by a thick layer of smoke.  It could be anywhere from a light haze to thick, choking smoke that obscured any visibility beyond ¼ mile.  Needless to say, not many people enjoyed it.

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Smoke filled sky

One day in early July, I found myself sitting shotgun in my friend’s Ford Ranger, traveling north along the Dalton Highway in the midst of this dense soup.  Our plan for the day was to make an attempt on Snowden Mountain, the tallest mountain in the near vicinity at about 6,400 feet.  This mountain was unlike many, in the sense that it wasn’t a standard steep walk up.  Snowden on the other hand, was rather limited in route options for ascent, with numerous steep and sheer vertical slopes.  It wasn’t something that was frequently attempted.  I had only heard of two people who had successfully summitted the mountain in the past 30 years or so.  They had supposedly ascended the near vertical south face, with minimal relief.  As someone who enjoys seriously challenging myself, all this information was music to my ears.  I had gained some beta on a possible route from one of my local friends, who had previously flown around the mountain.

We hoped that we would be able to escape the smoke once we moved a little further up the valley, past Wiseman.  Cloud formations tend to bunch up at the lower end and we were hoping the smoke would do the same.  Thirteen miles into our journey we found ourselves across the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River Bridge 1 and beyond Wiseman Road, yet still in the heart of the smoke.  Another fifteen miles later, we were travelling past the Skagit limestone spectacle that is Sukapak Mountain, though if we were ignorant we wouldn’t know, because we were still enshrouded in smoke.  Another fifteen miles passes.  We were at the base of Snowden, only to find the upper half encased in hazy smoke, without even a glimpse of the summit.  Snowden wasn’t happening today.  I’m not a smoker.  And I definitely didn’t feel like inhaling a few packs to ramble around with no visibility.  So we pushed on.

The beauty of living in The Brooks Range is the endless options that lay in waiting.  Sure Snowden would be great, but anything within the 100 mile corridor, from Coldfoot to the end of the mountains, was great.  To think that this is only a small segment of the Brooks Range too.  Great or not, the smoke didn’t care. For it followed us past the northernmost tree and up on top of Chandalar Shelf.  Surely the smoke couldn’t  be on the other side of the continental divide as well? Surely we were wrong.  We crossed Atigun Pass, at ~4,700 feet, the highest point on the road system in Alaska and also the Continental divide, only to find the Atigun River valley to the north encased in smoke as well.  Soon we were out of the mountains, 100 miles and a few hours north of Coldfoot, yet still in a smoky haze.  Well, we made it this far we figured, might as well try a little farther.  Our persistence paid off. While we didn’t find the end of the smoke, we did find a section that we deemed tolerable enough to walk about in at Slope Mountain.

Slope Mountain isn’t so much a mountain, rather more of a massive hill.  Though for our purposes, it would more than suffice.   Stretching our stiff legs, we made our way down the pipeline access road in which we had parked, onto the uneven, soft tundra.

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Smokey haze from Slope Mountain

Hopping from tussock to tussock, we glanced up at one of the steeper slopes, counting the white dots that indicated Dall Sheep.  It wasn’t long before we were scrambling up the loose shale, finding ourselves with expansive views.  The foothills continued off beyond our field of vision to the west, gently rolling hills of tussock sedge grasses.  To our east lay a section of The Brooks Range that curved north as it continued east into the Yukon Territory.  It wasn’t a hard hike by any means, yet it was highly enjoyable as is the case with almost all of them.  Before long, we found ourselves at the rounded summit.  We looked out in all directions, as a peregrine falcon shrieked overhead, flying back in forth in front of us.  We must have been near its nest on the wall for it was relentless. It was fascinating to watch, the fastest creature in the world with the ability to fly at over 250 mph, though I hoped it wouldn’t try to defend its young and go on the offensive against us anytime soon.

We watched for a while before deciding to give the falcon a break.  From above, we had spotted a band of Dall sheep and we decided to try and sneak up on them on the way down.  Descending down the talus fields, the sheep eventually came into view.  Imagining ourselves in another era, as hunters from the Pleistocene age, we snuck down.  Crouching low to the ground, we crawled on our bellies on to an overlook not more than 100 yards from the sheep that lay grazing below.  We thought we were sly, as we whispered about their beauty but I imagine they had seen us long before.  Dall sheep have high density rods and cones in their eyes, having the ability to detect slight movements more than a mile distant. It wasn’t long before one of the ewes was staring right at our position.  The band continued grazing along the slope, moving north over a ridge and eventually out of our sight.

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Dall Sheep

Continuing down the slope, we soon arrived back in the wet tundra greeted by even more wildlife. The mosquito! We didn’t have to sneak up to find them, they were nice enough to come to us. After stopping to watch some unidentified waterfowl on a small lake, we soon found ourselves back at my friend’s trusty old Ford Ranger.  It wasn’t the adventure we had planned, but it would suffice.  Any day wandering around the north country is good enough for me, especially when that day contains a variety of observable wildlife.

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Can you see why it’s called Slope Mountain?

Arctic Myths

As part of my job, I interact with people from all across the world and spend at least a few hours with them.  I hear a lot about people’s preconceived notions of the Arctic and how it differs from what they imagined, especially in the summer time.  I hope to dispel some of those myths here.

Cold

No matter the time of year, many people expect it to be cold during every month of the year. For 8 months of the year they would be right! However, in the summer time (when most people decide to come), I have encountered many people who step off the plane with heavy winter coats, hats and mittens, while I’m usually sweating in short sleeves.  Many are dismayed to realize that it is actually quite warm in the Arctic in the summer.  This past summer we had a day that reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit and it was not uncommon to have days in the low to upper 80s from late May until the end of July.  The warmest temperature in Alaska was recorded in the Arctic.  Fort Yukon recorded a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Due to its high latitude and rotation of the earth, the sun is directly over the North Pole for 6 months of the year, basking the Arctic in endless daylight.  For example, in Coldfoot the sun is up for 33 days straight in the middle of summer.  From June 4 to July 7 the sun does not set below the horizon.  With the sun up for such a long period of time, it is pretty difficult not to have warm temperatures.  People complain about the warm temperatures, but when it gets cold they complain as well.  Hmmm…  The bottom line is if you come to Alaska in the summer, certainly bring warmer layers, but leave the heavy winter gear at home!

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The sun still above the mountains at 1 am on June 15th. Solar midnight in Alaska is 2 am.

Don’t be mistaken though, it is typically quite cold here for much of the year.  In an average year, the rivers, creeks and lakes will be frozen by the beginning of the third week of October and remain so until the middle of May.  From the beginning of November to the end of March the average daily temperature ranges from 40 degrees below zero to 0.  The coldest I have seen so far this winter is -35 F, last Thursday.  About 60 miles east of Coldfoot is likely the coldest area in Alaska.  There is an old mining settlement there called Caro.  It sits at the base of three major river valleys with mountains trapping the cold air that pools at their bases.  In the winter of 1989 there was a man living there who recorded the temperature at -100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit on three separate thermometers!! This is much colder than the coldest temperature ever officially recorded in Alaska at Prospect Creek, which was -79.8 F in January of 1971.  It goes without saying that,that is some serious cold.

Snow and Ice

The Arctic is covered in snow for and ice for much of the year, but during the summer it is almost impossible to find any snow.  Remember that sun from the paragraphs above? Well, circling around above the horizon for so long melts all the snow from the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean.  You won’t find any snow in the middle of the summer, besides on the handful of glaciers and permanent ice fields. However, it is possible for it to snow in every month of the year (in fact, I have seen this occur).

Something that is surprising to most people is the fact that the Arctic is a desert.  In Coldfoot, we receive about 9 inches of precipitation, with most of that coming as rain.  The average snow depth is right around three feet.  With permafrost (ground that is permanently frozen for >2 years) covering almost the entire landscape, water is not able to permeate through the soil and drain out from the surface.  That is why there is lots of green vegetation in the Arctic, compared with minimal vegetation in the desert.

Another interesting anecdote is that the roads are actually much safer for the most part in winter.  There are nine different types of ice, ranging from water vapor to solid as a result of both temperature and pressure.  Most people in temperate latitudes are used to ice near the freezing point and associate it as very slippery.  In the Arctic, since it is so cold in the winter time, compacted snow/ice becomes a solid.  At -40 degrees below zero, you can stop a vehicle in the same distance on ice/compacted snow as a vehicle on dry pavement.  Even around -20 degrees Fahrenheit, you are only losing about 15% stopping distance.  To maintain the gravel sections of road, they actually dump water on it in the beginning of winter (60,000 gallons per mile!!!!).  It does not become an ice rink, but a solid that makes for excellent travel.  As long as the road is free of uncompacted snow, it is quite pleasant to drive in the winter!

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A raven flys over the Dalton Highway just outside Coldfoot.

Animals

Despite what the television shows would like you to believe, Alaska (and especially the Arctic), is not a Serengeti.  There is a low diversity of animals that are present here, and of those animals they are present in small quantities.  The climate is too harsh for the majority of the year to provide for adequate food sources. For example, we have moose from the tree line near the top of the mountains down to the valley floor. Yet their density is less than 0.2 moose per square mile.  It takes 5 square miles to have one adequate habitat for moose.  Dall sheep, which live on top of the mountains (and have hair, not wool) are here in even smaller densities. There are 0.1 Dall Sheep per square mile. It takes 10 square miles for one Dall Sheep.  Bears range over vast distances.  Coldfoot is approximately 50 miles south of the northernmost tree. So we also happen to be nearing the northern limit of Black bear habitat (who need trees to climb away from larger bears). Grizzlies range over large territories anywhere from 15 square miles to 100 square miles depending on where you are.  The most numerous large animal species of the north is the caribou.  In the northern third of Alaska there are over 500,000 caribou divided into 4 different herds.  Their population density is less than 1 caribou per square mile.  While you may see hundreds, if not thousands of caribou in one area, there are millions of acres where there are no caribou at all.  Finally, most animals are nocturnal because they can’t stand the warm temperatures, making it even more unlikely to see them during the day, especially near the noisy road!  If you see an animal in Alaska, consider yourself quite lucky! It is a treat!

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Not a rare sight! A snowshoe hare munching on food in Wiseman. Notice the white ears and feet, it is transitioning from its brown summer coat to a white winter coat.

Why?

Not a myth but persistent question. WHY do you live here?*  Well, for one nobody is forced to live here.  It is a conscious choice. In fact, many people quite enjoy it!  One of the residents in Wiseman likes to respond to this question by saying, “Everyone has a home. Dorothy and Todo live in Kansas. I live here.” That one always gives me a chuckle. While most people these days are content to live among large numbers of people, I am not one of them.  I enjoy living in close proximity to nature, in large wild landscapes.  For those who have traveled here, or at least seen pictures, the beauty speaks for itself.  So far I believe I have found a perfect match, living in one of the last great wildernesses left in the world.   Although, there was one gentleman who was trying to tell me how Vermont was wilder and more remote…

 

Now that you are enlightened, go forth and preach the good news of the Arctic!

 

*This is constantly followed up by what are options for medical services/where is the nearest hospital? As if everyone is breaking their legs every other month. For those who are curious, there are no medical services.  The nearest medical services are in Fairbanks, a 6-7 hour drive one way, or an expensive plane ride on the scheduled air service.  People tend not to become ill very often around here.

 

 

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

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.

Back to the Arctic!

In just a few short days, I will head north to Alaska, ultimately ending up back in the Brooks Range.  Unfortunately, at this time I will not be attempting my Brooks Range Odyssey.  Since last summer, my intention was to make another attempt this upcoming summer, but that will have to wait for another year.  A few months ago, I accepted a position as a guide in Coldfoot.  I will be spending the duration of my summer working there.  In my off time, I intend to examine and push my limits on backpacking and packrafting trips.  I see these trips as training for the Brooks Range Odyssey, as well as the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, which is very high on my list of things to do.   In the mean time, keep your eyes peeled! I intend to post updates here from time to time on life in the arctic.

A Summer Mirage

 This wasn’t supposed to happen.  I was going to be the badass who trekked over a thousand miles by himself in The Brooks Range. I was going to live out my dream, living and travelling in the wilderness on my own terms.  What was going to stop me?  I wasn’t afraid.  Possibility of injury or mishap?  No, that would never happen to me.  After months of intensive and detailed planning, I would set off in early June, over confident and anxious to begin the odyssey of my dreams.

The plane touched down after midnight at Fairbanks International Airport, a midst the expansive views of the rolling forested hills and a view of the towering, glaciated Alaska Range to the south.  As a frugal and adventurous minded individual, I decided to sleep at the airport for a while before setting off on my journey.  My journey began north of Coldfoot and my plan was to hitch hike north to my destination.  From what I had read and heard, this would not be too much of a problem in Alaska.  I set my pack down in a slightly enclosed corner, trying to recover from the long flight.  However, noise, hard benches, mosquitoes, the midnight sun and a variety of other factors prevented me from obtaining any real rest.  A couple hours later I had had enough, shouldering my 40 pound load and walking towards the Steese Highway where I would attempt to begin hitch hiking just a few hours later.

Cars speedily passed by as I stuck out my thumb on the shoulder of the highway.  As a product of middle class, Midwestern suburbia I felt nervous and exposed as I watched most cars pass without any acknowledgement.  I soon caught a ride for a few miles up the highway with a young construction worker.  A few miles of walking occurred before I was able to get another ride.  Traveling further than the last ride, I was now close to 20 miles away from Fairbanks after being dropped off again.  Not one for sitting put, I decided to walk along the road, making forward progress as I tried to get a ride from passing vehicles.  As I moved further away from Fairbanks, I began to see fewer and fewer vehicles as the morning waned on.

With just under 300 miles left to Coldfoot, I desperately sought a ride.  Walking the entire route was possible, but would force me to dip into my food supply for my first ration, which was something that I could not afford to do.   I continued on, moving quickly on the asphalt through a forested and muskeg filled landscape.  To think that a little over 50 years ago, such a route was not established is somewhat astounding.  No road or easy access forced miners, scientists and trekkers to slowly move over the bog filled land or wait until winter for relatively easier travel by dogsled.

A light rain began to fall as I slowly continued along the side of the road.  Trucks heading to the oil fields at Deadhorse and government pick-ups made up the vast majority of passing vehicles by that point.  I had learned earlier in the day that most truckers will not pick up hitch hikers because of company policy.  This became disheartening as I realized they were likely my only ticket north via the highway.   It had been hours since my last ride, and now over thirty miles away from Fairbanks I didn’t like my chances.  Tired, hungry and somewhat dehydrated, I plopped down on my pack at a gravel turnoff along the road.  I briefly chatted with a passing cyclist before calling my parents.  With a sense of hopelessness, I spoke of my despair as tears rolled off my cheeks.

 

The decision was made to retreat the 35 miles back to Fairbanks and re-evaluate my strategy.  I was washed over with a sense of dread as I realized that I would most likely have to walk most of these miles. Each step was filled with despair as I moved south, and I was beginning to feel the pain in my feet from miles of walking on the unforgiving asphalt.  Exhausted and somewhat delirious, I continued along in a bit of a daze, with no rides from passing cars.  Halfway up a hill, I debated whether or not to stick out my thumb to the next car.  Wearily, I gave it another chance and was happy to see the car quickly pull off to the side of the road.  I opened the passenger door, tossing my pack in and mumbled, “Hey thanks, how’s it going?”  In my tired state, I failed to recognize for a few moments that it was the same man who had given me my last ride.  We talked of my day and he questioned what I would do now.  I wasn’t sure but without much thinking I asked him to drop me off at the truck stop, forcing me to pay for an expensive cab ride for the remaining distance back to Fairbanks.  Over 12 hours and 35 miles of walking later, I found myself in a hotel room in town.   Hobbling around on my damaged feet, I was unsure what to do next. The day had severely shot my confidence, but I still desired to go ahead with my plan.

Muskeg and Black Spruce trees compose the landscape

Muskeg, Black Spruce trees and rolling hills compose the landscape north of Fairbanks

Fortunately, I was able to obtain a seat on a small plane heading up to Coldfoot.  With a pit in my stomach and an intense sense of nervousness, I joined the tourists as we flew out of Fairbanks heading north.   We flew over the Yukon River on this clear day, with sweeping views of the flatlands and rugged mountains in the distance.  After a little under an hour, we began to enter the foothills of The Brooks Range.  As the mountains came into view, my confidence dropped even further.  The mountains were massive, imposing and rugged features of this remote landscape that still remained dotted in snow in mid-June.  Travelling solo amplified everything.  Making objects, moments, emotions and landscapes dramatically larger than they would be with a partner.  We touched down on the landing strip and I joined the pilots on a walk over to the camp.

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Entering the Brooks

Following breakfast with the pilots, I sat on the stoop outside the camp’s main building, searching for a ride to my starting point.  Time passed without much luck as I ran through numerous nervous thoughts while contemplating the forest and mountainous landscape immediately surrounding the area.  After enduring a lecture on Jesus from a tourist heading south, I finally caught a break.  “Hey, you a hitchhiker?”  Barry and Randy were seasoned adventurers beginning a 13 day float trip at the same place in which I was trying to travel.  They would happily take me on.  Accompanied with them was a Latvian hitchhiker named Yuris, who had stayed with Barry for the past couple days.  I came to learn that I was in great company.  Barry had been a refuge manager in this region for the Fish and Wildlife Service and had undertaken many trips of his own.  He knew much about the country and the people that inhabited it.  Randy worked search and rescue in Anchorage and was an accomplished adventurer in his own right.  Like others, I told them an abbreviated version of my plan, afraid to speak the truth, and was quickly questioned.  I learned that my first stop at Arctic Village may not have been the wisest choice.  Apparently, the people of the village aren’t necessarily kind to those they do not know and I wouldn’t accomplish much without an inside angle.  That is not to mention the advice not to leave anything lying around, for it would quickly be stolen.  Needless to say, this only amplified my nervous state even with Barry’s plethora of helpful information and contacts.

After they enjoyed lunch, we traveled along the highway, stopping in the town of Wiseman to meet with a longtime trapper in the village. Jack Reakoff has lived in the town all his life, and is a  true Alaskan sourdough.  As Barry’s friend, he provided advice on their route before showing us some findings from the nearby area as well as native relics.  With myself being an avid lover of Alaska history,  I was greatly pleased during this visit.  About an hour after leaving Wiseman, we reached the Chandalar shelf.  Rugged, snow capped and towering mountains loomed over us as we arrived at our starting points, unloading their gear from the truck bed. I became more and more unsure with what I was doing.  I didn’t want to travel to Arctic Village.  Could I handle this country?  Was there any way that I could do this?  After helping assist Barry and Randy, I quietly stepped away to make a call to my mom.  I decided that I wasn’t going to complete my trip as planned.  The whole ordeal proved to be too overwhelming for me to undertake.  Returning to the others, I shared my decision with Barry.  He thought it was wise and recommended a shorter route for me just up the road. We popped open some beers before they departed and toasted the river gods, hoping for a safe journey. I wanted to join them.  They had asked a couple times during our past few hours together, but lacked the extra PFD.  Yuris and I watched them set off with their inflatable kayaks before continuing on our own way further north.

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After visiting the top of Atigun Pass, I said goodbye to Yuris as I hopped over the guard rail. I wasn’t planning on travelling far that night as the pass further up the valley would likely be covered in snow, best saved for the cool temperatures of the morning.  Mountains covered in snow loomed to my left, above a creek, as I hiked across the wet tundra.  Moving about a quarter mile, I set up camp along a stream.  The road and the occasional passing truck were still in view, but I felt alone in this remote landscape.  The strong arctic sun bore down on my tent as I tried to sleep.  Being above the Arctic Circle, the sun wouldn’t set that night, or any night in the immediate future.  The surprisingly warm rays promoted endless tossing and turning as I tried to go to sleep.  After a while, I made the decision to pack up camp and hike for a while longer.  I couldn’t sleep and would rather move about the country than stare at the cuben fiber walls of my tent.

“Heyyyyoooo!”  I yelled, as I came close to cresting a ridge.  The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was surprise a brown bear.  As I took a few more steps, something massive began stepping out of the drainage.  I reached for my bear spray as a cow moose trudged into view, defiantly standing tall no more than 25 yards away from my position.  My first wild moose sighting! Standing in awe, I realized with my limited knowledge that it appeared the moose was standing her ground.  I let out a yelp, as I frantically backed away, trying to quickly posthole through a lingering snowfield to a further and lower position.  This encounter proved to satisfy me enough for the night, so I set up camp a little over a hundred yards below where I had encountered the moose.

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My tent, a speck in the giant landscape, near Atigun Pass

With the sun finally dipping below the mountains, I attempted to grab some sleep before continuing over the pass in the morning.  I awoke in the morning, looking up towards the drainage where I had encountered the moose the previous night.  I was overjoyed to see the moose grazing with her calf in plain sight, no more than 150 yards away.  It is no wonder now, why she appeared somewhat defensive. It was a pleasure to watch them for a while before packing up camp.

 

I had awakened that morning with a sense of emptiness. With no maps and almost zero confidence, I decided that it wasn’t going to happen on this trip. I had no desire to continue on this amended route, only wishing to return home.   In my mind I had failed.  I had let myself down and hadn’t even come close to achieving what I set out to do.

I began the lonely walk down the road back towards the direction of Coldfoot, examining the rugged and remote landscape on my feet for what would likely be the final time this year.  I heard the roar of a truck to the north, as it came down Atigun Pass.  As I continued walking, the blue tanker came into view and I stuck out my thumb.  “Hey, thanks for the ride.”  I said, as I stepped into the cab.  “No problem, I was worried about you.  What the hell are you doing out here?”

Living up to the trucker stereotype, my new pal for the next seven hours back to Fairbanks was a rugged, overweight individual with long straggly hair and the facial hair to match.  He treated me to food and drink as he lectured me about the dangers of this country and the foolishness of carrying bear spray.  As we continued south through the Brooks Range we encountered over 10 moose, a fox, a rabbit and what appeared to be a bear just off the road.  My journey may have not lived up to my expectations but the views from this ride sure proved to be a treat.  After travelling the country by air the day before, it was a joy to travel through this untrammeled landscape on the ground, even if it wasn’t my preferred method of transportation.  For over 300 miles, we were treated to sweeping vistas of the country, with almost zero sign of man.  Throughout the ride, I was regaled with tales from the trucker’s past life as a cowboy, run-away, oil worker, and drug junkie.  I sat there quietly, as I listened to the gun loving womanizer continue with one story after another, keeping my harrowing tales from my 21 years as a white suburban boy from a well-to-do family to myself.

Arriving in Fairbanks, I was dropped off, despondent and disappointed, just a few yards away from where I started my hitch hiking journey a few days prior.   While not achieving much, this journey was encompassed with numerous hard, expensive and emotional lessons.  After returning home to the flatlands of the Midwest and recovering from the emotional damage, I had a greater yearning for Alaska and The Brooks Range.  The future holds great adventures, but for now I am stuck enduring the summer that never was.

Brooks Range Odyssey Update

Near Atigun Pass

Near Atigun Pass

This is Jack, here. I am writing this post from home.  My Brooks Range Odyssey will not be completed this year.  In short, I failed and I failed quickly. I had been anxious and unsure of my plans ever since I got to Alaska. I made it up to the Brooks Range and my starting point after a failed hitch-hiking/walking attempt that left me with a low level of confidence.

As I arrived at my starting point, the immensity of the task I had to accomplish and the true remoteness/wilderness left me feeling incapable and very unsure of my abilities. In short, I did not feel mentally prepared at all. I spent the night there and, after much thought and discussion with my parents, I realized my heart wasn’t in it anymore and caught a ride back to Fairbanks.

I had spoken a lot before my attempt with others about completing the task alone and how I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. Well that ended up not being true. At this point in my life, the vast remoteness of that area is something that I feel I can not endure on my own.

This was a very tough and disappointing decision for me to make after committing four months to planning. While short, this trip will have a lasting effect and has taught me a lot about my personal limits and trip planning among other things. Hopefully, I can get back into a solid state mentally and figure out what to do from here.

Thank you for all your support.

The Brooks Range Odyssey

 

June 4, 2014: Today I head north to  begin my adventure.  I will hopefully begin my trek tomorrow.  My mom will be posting weekly or so updates of my expedition to this blog.

Brooks Range_Wikipedia

 

With winter winding down, I feel as if now is as good time as ever to announce my plans for this summer.  After I graduate in May, I will be beginning a new set of (hopefully successful) adventures.  I wanted to start off my own personal adventures with a bang.   So for the past few months I have been planning a trek that will likely challenge me more than I have been challenged  at any other point of my 21 years of existence.

On June 4th, I will be departing for The Brooks Range, located in Alaska’s Far North.  I will be spending the next four months there, hiking and packrafting, back and forth across the Brooks Range for a total of two full traverses that total just over 1,750 miles.  It has been my dream for quite some time now to spend a summer in The Brooks and I have devised a unique route that will allow me to do just that.

The Plan

A basic descriptions of my route is as follows: I start just short of Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway.  I will head east, stopping close to the Canadian border.  From there I will proceed to hike and packraft west along the Continental Divide, before floating the Ambler and Kobuk River south/west past Ambler.  I will head northwest past Noatak before turning around and hiking across the northern section of the range, until floating out through the Gates of the Arctic to Coldfoot on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.

The total route of 1750 miles will be traveled on foot roughly 70% of the time, with the remaining miles using a packraft to float various rivers within the range. I will be resupplying my rations in the sparsely located towns (Arctic Village, Ambler, Anaktuvuk Pass, Noatak) in and around the range, along with one food cache  near the Dalton Highway.

Overview

Overview

Why?

One of the most common questions one faces when they look to embark on an adventure is why do this?  It is a tough question to answer.  For me, there are multiple reasons that answer this question.  The number one reason would be to return to Alaska, a place I fell in love with in the summer of 2013.  I have never experienced the level of natural beauty or sense of complete inner peace, at any other place or moment during my life.  I strongly desire to return to that simple way of life and being.

Other reasons include immersing myself in The Brooks Range (as stated above) and challenging myself in order to see what I’m capable of. To live. To be free.

I’m both very excited and scared for what the months ahead hold.  This is the adventure of a lifetime, yet I hold a fear for the unknown.  Stay tuned, more details to follow.