Yakutak to Elfin Cove: Lost Coast South

Yakutak to Elfin Cove: Lost Coast South

The Lost Coast of Alaska stands as one of the more remote regions of the state.  The coast receives the brunt of storms rolling in from the Pacific and into the Gulf of Alaska, with no land in between to serve as a buffer.  With its many bears, storms, and rugged terrain, the area remains infrequently visited.  In the past, I’ve read of others who have done trips along this very coast (like Hig & Erin, Andrew Skurka and Roman Dial)  and had planned to follow suit one day.  Yet a trip of that magnitude didn’t seem to be within my repertoire of skills or expertise in terms of travelling solo, so it remained a distant plan. A few weeks ago, I received a message from a former coworker, Trevor Scott, who told me he had some free time and was thinking of doing the south portion of the coast, from Yakutat to Gustavus.  With nothing but time on my own hands, I invited myself along and the trip was born.

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After crossing the Situk River outside Yakutat, we found ourselves on the beach.  Endless miles of ocean lay off to our right and a wide path of sand lay straight ahead.  The sand was mostly firm and the walking was superb.  The initial forecast when we were planning the trip called for 9 days of rain, but showers were nowhere to be found.  The following day had close to no clouds in the sky, providing for a visual treat as we gained a greater view of the mountains in the distance.  Mount Fairweather dominated the skyline and after paddling across Dry Bay in the last light of the day, we made camp with it looming not too far off in the distance.

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The seemingly endless firm sand ceased halfway through the next day as we were introduced to the boulders along the coast.  The area holds many glaciers, most of which have receded throughout the past 200 years, leaving in their wake an array of boulders in all shapes and sizes.  Progress slowed further when we were forced to leave the coastline at the outlet stream of Grand Plateau Glacier.  We attempted to follow bear trails through the thick, but not yet leafed out, brush.  A short paddle among icebergs brought us to the other side and eventually back to the boulders.  At the end of the boulders and the close of our day, we found ourselves back on firm sand.  Here the trees towered much closer to the shoreline, leaving a much smaller beach.  It was beginning to look like the Lost Coast that I had envisioned.

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We awoke to earthquakes the next morning.  Two shook the ground and the tent in the early hours and served as a prompt to get us moving.  During the day, Trevor told me that he had a previous ankle injury that had a chance of flaring up again.  Coupled with a blister and rain, we made much slower progress than the previous days.  At Cape Fairweather, we found more boulders, which proved even more troublesome with the falling rain.  Halfway through, Trevor slipped; moving from one boulder to the next and fell.  There was no serious damage, but he wasn’t going to continue any further that day.  I was visibly annoyed, there was plenty of light remaining and I was in go mode.  My ego and this attitude would lead to further conflict in the coming days.

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The clouds lingered, but there wasn’t much rain the following day as we made our way to Lituya Bay.  Travel was becoming fairly routine. Miles of sand, both firm and soft, interspersed with patches of boulders, loose rock and water crossings.  The route had provided great travel up to that point.  There was minimal bushwhacking and any bushwhacking we did face wasn’t as severe as it could be due to the plants not having yet leafed out.  That very day we witnessed the onset of leaves and the blooming of leafing vegetation like the alders.

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We were protected from southeast winds before Lituya Bay, but as we approached we began to hear the beginnings of a storm raging on the other side.  The forecast called for 35 mph winds and that seems to be what we found.  Whitecaps and continuous waves filled the bay and large breakers rolled into the entrance from off shore.  A crossing was out of the question and we made camp in a protected stand of trees on the spit.

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We woke to lesser winds, 20-25 mph, but the bay remained rough and we were forced to do some more waiting.  Rain was often intermingled with hail, pelting the tent periodically.  Scaring off a brown bear that was grazing too close to camp provided the bulk of the excitement for the day.  There wasn’t much to do and we alternated between lying in the tent, eating and watching the water.  Trevor mentioned during the day that he wanted to go much slower from here on out and came up with a new itinerary.  With my attitude of go, go, go this was not a pleasant alternative to our pre-established plan. Tough discussions ensued concerning communication and planning.   We eventually came to somewhat of an agreement and left the tent to watch the waves at our own favorite viewing areas.

The morning brought much calmer winds and with it, our successful crossing of Lituya Bay.  We met a couple, Ben and Stephanie, on the opposite beach, who were undertaking essentially the same trip.  They were forced to call it short due to injury and would be flying out in the afternoon. After exchanging stories and gaining valuable route info, we continued on, following a continuous 2 mile bear trail, past a sea lion rookery, back to the beach.  The storm had passed and we were treated to grand views of the ocean, forest and immense mountains.  Travel was at a slower pace, but we still walked all day, leaving everyone pleased.  A wolf and a bear sighting, plus an encounter with another hiking group from Arctic Wild, capped off an end to a great day.

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Another clear day greeted us in the morning and we worked to move past La Perouse Glacier, less than a mile distant.  This was one of the question marks of the route. A few years ago the glacier had surged, blocking off any travel on the beach.  Some who had traveled at that time were forced to launch their boats into the surf and go around.  We found a glacial face that received waves from the ocean, but we were easily able to skate on past at low tide.  There was a continuation of travel like the previous days as we made our way to Icy point.  Firm sand, clear skies and water crossings filled the day.

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By this time, Trevor’s foot was feeling better, but he wanted to stick around Icy Point for a few days and explore the area.  I was not interested in doing so, and with that we decided to split amicably.  I wanted to see how fast I could reach Gustavus, estimating about 3 days if conditions and terrain went my way.  Goodbyes were exchanged and I set off down the beach at a fast clip. My first obstacles were two separate headlands that I’d have to navigate before leaving the coast and heading inland.  Skurka had described them as ardous.  But I figured without budding leaves and solid bear trails they couldn’t be that bad.  A rougher than comfortable ocean forced my hand, keeping me onshore, and off I went into the woods, attempting to find a clean route to the other side.    I think that arduous could be an understatement.  What I found was a mess of disappearing bear trails, thick alder, windfalls, steep slopes, plenty of devils club and rolling terrain.  The section was about 2 miles and took me 2.5 hours to complete it going at a hard pace.  Upon reaching the other side, I was exhausted and drenched with sweat. And there was still one more to go.  Suddenly, lounging about for a few days didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

The second headland was difficult, but nowhere near as grueling as the first.  A bear trail led me from one end, up, over and through the brush and down to the boulders before the beach on the other side.  After 5 hours of being separated, I had managed to cover only 7 miles.  My overestimation of my abilities and underestimation of the land was starkly apparent.  I made camp, scaring off a closely wandering brown bear before dozing off.

The agenda called for more bushwhacking as I had to make my way to the Dixon River.  At Lituya Bay, Ben pointed out a route he saw that looked like it had a lot of muskeg, which could make for much easier travel than reports of elsewhere.  Brush was thick, but the terrain was flat.  With patches of muskeg, I found myself making good time.  About halfway through, I reached back to make my standard check to ensure everything was still in its place.  Water bottle? Check. PFD? Check.  Poles for my paddle? Gone.  I was soon filled with a sense of despair.  I raced back a short distance but was unable to find them.  Having lost them in the past half hour, a search seemed futile in the thick brush.  I trudged back to the beach to what I was sure would end up being a flight out.  Another mistake causing a shortened trip and more $$$ down the drain.  Before hitting the beach, a pack of wolves darted in front of me, offering a small consolation prize.

Meanwhile, Trevor had decided he didn’t want to linger around Icy Point after all.  He took advantage of the good weather to paddle around the headlands and continue on.  We were able to get in contact, and after making a surf landing, we linked up once more.  We would attempt to make a wood shaft and move our final destination to Elfin Cove, which lay closer than Gustavus thus requiring less paddling.  A day of rough travel and bushwhacking ensued as we made it to the Dixon River, up to North Deception Lake and after slipping and stumbling down a creek in the dark, found ourselves camped at the base of North Trick Lake.

During a break along the Dixon River, I had found a shaft for the new improvised paddle.  With Trevor’s superior lashing and knot skills, a respectable paddle was formed.  It was put to the test the following day on a crossing of the lakes.  And much more extensively later on as we navigated much of the outlet stream towards and through the tidal flats that lay before Brady Glacier.  It was heavy, but held up reasonably well for what it was and achieved its purpose.  Rain pelted us all day long and after being treated to a view of another wolf, we left the boats and walked quickly across the flats and found a protected camp near Taylor Island.

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The walking section of our trip was essentially complete.  We lay 10 miles distant from Elfin Cove and were now waiting for decent conditions to embark.  Rain and wind continued the following day, with less than ideal conditions we were provided with another day of forced rest.  Staring at the green wall of the tent for much of the day can’t be good for the soul.  The crossings would be the crux of the trip and with rain, an improvised paddle and low confidence, my mood sunk.

Both conditions and my mood improved the following day and seemed to be good enough for an attempt.  We set off with the intention of hitting our first crossing at slack tide.  With favorable conditions, we traveled quickly and made the decision to cross earlier than planned.  Midway, we found ourselves caught in a riptide and being pushed up the channel, away from our target, towards Gustavus.  We retreated towards where we originally planned to launch, eventually making another attempt much closer to slack tide, this time without issue.

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4 miles out from Elfin Cove, I called to book a flight for later that afternoon.  Shortly thereafter, we came across The Hobbit Hole, a local bed and breakfast that apparently had some history attached to it.  Trevor was interested in checking it out.  I didn’t want to risk missing my flight.  In disagreement once again, we parted ways.   I was left with ~3 miles of travel, with one smaller crossing along the way.

It wasn’t anywhere near slack tide as I started the crossing but conditions appeared favorable.  The sea was calm, the distance relatively short and the wind was in a position where it wouldn’t cause stacked waves.  I took what I considered to be a conservative line and set off.  All was going well until I reached the midpoint of the crossing.  Beyond protection of land, I found myself in the main current and being sucked out to sea.  I was aware of how serious my predicament had become and tried to remain calm.  I paddled furiously, attempting sharper angles to get across more effectively.  But my boat continued to drift past my intended safety net and out towards open sea.  Unable to return to a safe point, I felt my fate was somewhat sealed and became more anxious.  But with continued paddling, I found myself a few moments later out of the current into an eddy and ultimately back to safety along the shore. A half mile further, Trevor arrived with Greg (resident of The Hobbit Hole) in his boat and provided a ride for the rest of the way.  Another hard lesson that would round out the trip.

The Lost Coast proved to be spectacular, nothing short of the hype that others have generated.  Some have called it the best trip in Alaska.  I’m in no position to take a firm stance on that statement but it certainly is an exceptional route.  The trip was another step in my learning experience, in physical, mental and interrelationship skills.  It was filled with lessons concerning communication, group dynamics, subjective risks and ocean travel among others.  I had been to Southeast Alaska once before, but this trip allowed me to get a glimpse of its core.  I’d like to return for the north section at some point, but for now I’m content to flee north to the sunny and dry lands of Interior and Northern Alaska.s

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2017

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2017

Every major multi day winter ski trip that I have attempted has resulted in failure due to significant foot blisters.  I wanted to be like the cool kids and use the Dynafit plastic boots but could never seem to get them to work.  Shells and liners that were too tight or hotspots that couldn’t be stopped were a few of my many problems.  It was with this in mind that I prepared for the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic.  Like the summer Classic, the event was in my backyard and something that I couldn’t envision passing up.  With no job, I had plenty of time to train hard for a few months prior to the event, skiing every day along with resistance and high interval training. At the end of March, a week before the race all seemed well.  I was in great shape and had mutilated my boots to give my feet more room where I had experienced any problems.  The only thing left to do was ski.

This year, the Ski Classic offered two courses, one in the traditional area on the west side of the road in Gates of the Arctic National Park and the other on the opposing side in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Veterans of the Ski Classic and those more experienced would be given the opportunity to travel east on the new routes, while rookies and those without significant experience would travel west.  At the pre-race dinner, I discovered that there would only be three of us heading off into the Park.  I had been interested in potentially partnering up with others, but this strategy seemed limited if my pace didn’t match the other duo.

Watching the ANWR group begin

The following day everyone unloaded at Atigun Gorge and worked quickly to find and assemble their gear.  It was a weird feeling, I was participating in the Ski Classic, but from the sidelines I was watching the vast majority prepare to set off without me.  They were soon off and the remaining group filed back into the vehicles and proceeded over to Galbraith Lake on the other side of the valley,

With a somewhat ceremonial firing of a potato cannon, we were off.  The weirdness subsided as soon as the focus and action turned towards skiing and forward progress. The snow offered good support as I made my way across the rolling foothills.  By the end of the gravel road, I had made my way in front of Heath and Tyler and continued on, following windblown dog sled trails.  At the Itikmalik, I took a hard left and skied down towards the river.  After sinking only 4 inches or so in the snow, I was sorely tempted to stay above the mountains and traverse the North Slope to Anaktuvuk.  Yet, trip reports and advice from others had warned me of potentially deep snow and that was enough to dissuade me and keep me on my way.   I made a couple minor route errors, climbing high where I should’ve stayed low but eventually made my way into the Itkillik River Valley.

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Looking up the Itkillik Valley

At Itkillik Lake, I took a break to refuel and check my feet.  After following their tracks for about an hour, we switched roles once again.  It would be the last time I’d see them until reaching Anaktuvuk Pass. As I advanced further up the valley, I debated travelling on the river versus following a more straight shot overland.  The river was longer and didn’t seem to offer significantly better travel, so I chose the latter.  Night at this time of year is slow to arrive but it gradually became darker and harder to navigate on a micro scale without the aid of additional light.  With this cue, I found a relatively dense patch of willows, set up my quilt and nestled in for the night.

Before falling asleep the night prior, I had heard two or three wolves howling not far off to the north.  In the morning, I skied across fresh wolf tracks not far from where I had lay out and heard a lone howl.  I wasn’t able to spot any wolves, but didn’t doubt that I was being watched as I continued on.  Ideally, the goal for the day was to get up and over Peregrine Pass, the crux of the route. It was enjoyable making my way up the valley. Not only was I treated to the presence of wolves but every couple miles there were bands of 20-60 caribou digging for food amongst the tussocks. My approach would send them running away in fear, sprinting forward or to the opposite side of the valley.  Those wolves certainly must have made their presence known. Travel still remained good, there wasn’t much significant trail breaking, though it still took longer than I envisioned to make my way out of the Itkillik, across the pass and into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk.

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Itkillik Pass

With only a few miles before the pass, I began looking at the map very frequently.  I had been treated to stories before the race of others in the past heading up a pass too early and ultimately finding themselves back where they started.   Katie Strong had also mentioned that they had run into deep snow the previous year before and after the pass. As the windblown surface ceased and I began my own slog, I wished I had asked for more specifics. The going turned sloth like quickly.  Without a base, each stride sent my ski through ~2.5 ft of snow to the bottom.  Further slowing my progress was the flat light.  Late in the day and with heavy cloud cover, the snow appeared as one flat surface and I was not able to discern the minute differences in elevation and terrain.  This made following the low point of the creek difficult as I almost blindly ascended unnecessary small rises and banks.  Turning around every so often, I hoped to spot Tyler and Heath so that I could have company in tackling this section.  Yet, each glance only revealed my lone trail. Frustrated, I settled in early for the night among the willows, with the base of the pass still lying ahead.

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Headwaters of the North Fork

After slogging it out for another hour and a half in the morning, I attached my skins before making my way off the main valley and up the creek towards the pass.  Off the valley floor and with a little bit of elevation, the deep snow subsided and I quickly ascended over the harder packed surface.  A lack of stickiness at points with my skins slowed me down but otherwise I was able to skin up to the pass without any significant issues.  The major fear on Peregrine Pass is that of avalanches.  While there were previous minor avalanches within sight, conditions were perfect that early in the morning and I was not very worried.  The view off the top was spectacular, but with strong winds I didn’t wish to linger long and prepared for the descent.  The butt slide down did not meet expectations.  The going was steep, but with me being the only one and no established trail, it was not the super slide that I had hoped for.  Nonetheless, I happily found myself in Grizzly Creek and on the other side.

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Looking back while ascending the pass

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Top of Peregrine with a view into Grizzly Creek

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High winds blowing snow off the ridge

I anticipated dealing with deeper snow once more but was pleasantly surprised to find relatively good going.  Most of the way down the creek I followed a heavily trafficked wolf trail before running into overflow that provided quick travel down towards the base.  Ernie Pass brought me to the Anaktuvuk River and with it, solid snowgo trails that inevitably led the ~23 miles to Anaktuvuk Pass.  I eventually left the trail and hit the large sheet of overflow that spanned across the river.  With the wind at my back, I was able to cover some serious distance.  My worry was that I was going too fast and I’d often attempt to find slushy spots or snow in order to slow my speed. The idea crept into my mind that I could maybe just double pole the rest of the way into Anaktuvuk.  Alas, it was not to be, after a few miles, the ice sheet ended.

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Taking advantage of the hot afternoon sun to dry out

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Mountains along the Ernie Creek Valley

My fantasy of arriving in Anaktuvuk that evening disintegrated with my first strides off the ice.  The ice had been hard on my knees and feet and I was reduced to a slow shuffle through the snow.  Not particularly pleased with my progress, I shuffled until just before dark before finding shelter amongst the willows once more.

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Travelling hard packed snowgo trail on the Anaktuvuk

After finding the snowgo trail again in the morning, I had what should have been an easy ~13 miles into the village.  Instead, it was anything but.  Each stride resulted in pain in my feet.  My shins were slowly wearing raw with each step, even with the foam liner as the only contact point.  The morning waned on and finally under the heat of the mid day sun I descended the last hill on the approach in to town.

I found the check in sheet at the Park Service building and with no surprise discovered that I was the first of the three to arrive in town.  There was a potlatch going on across the street and after being invited in for hot food for what likely was the tenth time, I made my way inside.  I filled up with water and chatted with some of the local residents about skiing and the area.  Not long after I returned to my post across the street, the duo (Tyler and Heath) arrived.  They brought word that they were considering bailing due to Heath likely having Bronchitis. I had been examining and managing my feet since arriving, and they weren’t looking particularly promising.  My shins remained raw and I had blisters around both ankles.  The thought began to creep into my mind of backing out.  Bad feet and being the only one out on the course didn’t seem like a good combination.  There was still roughly ~100 miles to go and I’d have to be breaking trail through much deeper snow.  After wrestling with the idea for a little while, I decided to end my trip there.  We arranged for a flight and flew out to Coldfoot the following morning.

Pulling out of the race early was/is embarrassing.  After arriving back in Wiseman, I discovered that the small blisters on many of my finger tips were a result of frostbite, further adding to my embarrassment.  With a couple weeks past and my feet largely mended, self doubt and questions start to fill the mind.  Could I have kept going? What could I have done to prevent this? Was my preparation adequate?  None of these questions can be put to use now or in the past, but can guide me going forward.  I envied the sense of accomplishment and joy of the other skiers as they came into Wiseman.  Chatting with others post race, I tried to gain as much information on strategies and gear so that I can better perform in the future.  For now, a void remains until next spring.

Appreciation must be given where it is due, so with that I’d like to thank the Hickers for being such gracious hosts, Dave Cramer for all he does in organizing the event and the people of Anaktuvuk Pass for being so friendly and welcoming.  Congratulations to all those who finished!

Katie Strong’s trip report from the other side

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.

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.

 

The Final Lump

The instructors had spoken with Kirk (our pilot) the night before, about the re-ration in the morning, and he had said that he would meet us at first light.  While that may be an ordinary statement in most places, it can be fairly surprising in Alaska when the sun rises around 3 am.  We had no idea when he would come, so we made the decision to wake up around 6 to prepare for him to arrive shortly thereafter.  Once again, that familiar buzzing sound soon filled the valley.  Gathering up whatever gear we needed, we headed over to meet Kirk as his floats touched down on the still lake.  I was so fortunate to receive the task of refilling the peanut jars, happily enjoying a few scoops to myself as I went through the process.  Later that afternoon, we planned our routes for our independent student group expeditions (ISGE), which were set to begin the following day.  I volunteered as expedition leader for my group, meaning that I would be in charge of the paperwork for each day as well as ensuring that we stick to our overall plan.  For ISGE, we selected a spot to meet the instructors 4 days in advance.  The rest of the route would be determined by each group.  My group of 7, including myself, decided to split up the 15 mile route evenly, with each day’s travel being about 5 miles.  Each group was hoping that this final stretch would be relatively simple, because the map showed that there were two trails that covered half the journey.  By that point in our expedition, we were physically and mentally exhausted and would have loved to just find a trail from our current site to the road.  But as you have probably figured out, Alaska doesn’t really work like that!

We arose, slowly moving about camp, preparing for our first day of independence.  After hugging and bidding the instructors farewell, we made our way north through the valley towards Tanada Lake.  Moving through the bushes, we continued to scan ahead in hope of finding the first pack trail.  With no luck, we continued out into an open section of the valley where we were met with wet and boggy terrain.  We quickly moved a few hundred yards east, towards Goat Creek, in order to find drier land.  We stopped to grab a few more blueberries before crossing over to the east side of Goat Creek.  Bushwhacking through a series of trees and bushes, we stumbled upon a long series of game travels which resulted in much more efficient travel.  Route finding skills are something of great value in the backcountry.  The difference between easy and exhausting travel may be only a hundred feet.  The trails eventually ended and we found ourselves in thick brush once again.  Our group then moved throughout all different types of terrain, across the creek multiple times, through more thick brush and up a hillside to open tundra, in order to find a good route.  Eventually we came across our final destination, the confluence of Goat and Pass Creek.  We had reached our intended X, 5 miles from our start, finding a gravel bar along the creek to camp for the night.  The surrounding area was spectacular with more beautiful rock formations on the mountains that lined the edges of the valley.  With no sense of time, we spent the rest of the day reading, eating, napping and just enjoying the wilderness.

The second day of independence followed a similar routine.  Arising after a long and deep sleep, we set off north once again in hope of finding an ATV trail that the map had shown.  Heading out of camp we moved northeast towards higher ground in search of the treasure.  However, instead of treasure we were met with yet another boggy area and we slowly slogged our way through the knee deep water.   It didn’t seem like we would find the trail, so we continued on our route through the pine forest, near the base of the mountainside.  Travel turned out to be much easier than expected and we quickly moved along with minimal bushwhacking.  A blueberry rule finally had to be enacted, as people started to hold up travel since the berries were becoming bigger and more plentiful.  The rule stated that one could not hold up the group while picking berries, but anyone could call for a blueberry break and we would drop packs, drop onto the ground and gorge ourselves.  At one point on our journey, we stumbled out of a section of the forest right onto the ATV trail! To say we were excited would be an understatement.  With big smiles, we continued along the hard trail, north to our X.  We stopped for one final blueberry break at the end of the trail, basking in the sun while savoring the view of Tanada Lake and the encompassing valley. During the last half mile, we moved down the hill into the drainage.  Further up the drainage, we found yet another perfect campsite alongside a stream with the clearest water we had seen all trip.  The days of independence had so far been nice but nothing special.  Over the past 40 plus days we had formed a great bond with our instructors and our relationship had evolved from instructor-student to a group of peers and friends enjoying the journey.

The next morning we moved, on our final day of ISGE, up towards the Sugarloaf (highlands above the valley).  Our initial route had us gaining over 1000 feet in elevation over three quarters of a mile.  By this point on the expedition, this type of climbing/travel was not exhausting but rather somewhat delightful, due to the ability to look back at the area where we had traveled, as well as Tanada Lake and the pointy mountain peaks in the distance.  At the top, we saw the other group of students a few hundred yards away, packing up camp from the previous night.  A brief argument soon arose within our group about the pace of travel resulting in the split of our group of 7 into two smaller groups of 3 boys and 4 girls.  The situation probably could have been handled differently, but we moved on, walking quickly up and down over the rolling hills of the highlands.  4 miles and a couple hours later, we arrived at our X, at the base of a ‘lump,” on a hill above a dried up lake.  In the area below, we spotted some type of animal. It was difficult to determine what it was from that distance and we first guessed it was a wolf, moose or even a bear.  It slowly continued to move closer to us, as we made crazy sounds while holding our bear sprays at the ready.  Galloping up the hillside, we finally determined that it was only a caribou.  It came up the hill to about 25 yards from us and proceeded to prance and dance back and forth.  It was a peculiar fellow and as quickly as it came, it bounded back to the drainage area below.  After enjoying some more vegetation and listening to pleas from us to return, it galloped over the far hill and out of sight.

We shared our adventures and what we had seen, with the other group and the instructors as we reunited with both by the following day.  This was another day that most people decided they would spend in their tents, but as I stated before that was not my intention in coming here.  The last thing I wanted to do was sleep and stare at the neon yellow wall on the inside of the tent, especially considering it was one of the final days of the trip.  Instead, I lazed around the kitchen area, delighting in views of the surrounding area and the parting of clouds for brief glimpses of Mt. Jarvis and Mt. Sanford.  As a group, we decided that we should do one last big group activity together, so we chose to climb the nearby “lump.” The lump was simply a very large hill on the Sugarloaf that rose about 1500 feet over 2 miles.  Shortly before sunset, we departed as a group for the final climb of our trip.  On the way up, half of us had a blast playing tag and running up the mountain.  Stumbling upon the rocks at the top, we sat as a group and reflected on our trip, as we watched the sun dip behind the mountains in the distance, with the light reflecting off the hundreds of lakes below.  It started to drizzle and we reluctantly left, making our way down to our tents in the darkness.  A memorable closing to a great trip.

Our initial plan for the final two days was to move 2 miles down into the valley and camp at Jack Lake.  However, we would have to endure more difficulty, like the rest of our trip, travelling 12-14 miles back to the lodge (our starting point), in order to facilitate an easier pick-up.  We moved as a whole group, travelling 6 miles over multiple game trails off the highlands, into the valley below, eventually coming across our camp at Jack Creek.  The blueberries had become huge by this point, the biggest, ripest and tastiest we had seen the whole trip and were found everywhere you looked.  The campsite at Jack Creek may have been the best one we had had yet.  It was a great spot at the gravel bar along the slow moving creek, with mountains towering behind us in the distance.  Later that day, a group of us embarked on a scouting mission in order to find the gravel road for tomorrow.  After crossing the creek, we immediately found an old game trail and followed it, stepping over fallen trees and pushing back branches.  Less than five minutes later, we came out from the bushes onto the road.  That may have been the quickest and easiest scouting mission there ever was.  We moved back to camp, enjoying one last campfire as a group before we departed in the morning.

The 6 miles along the road was the easiest travel we had to date and it only took us a little over two hours to get to the lodge. It was extremely disappointing moving along the road as we realized the end was in sight.  Upon arriving at the lodge, we organized our gear and enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by Kirk’s family, while we waited for the bus to arrive.  I had multiple helpings of a scrumptious fruit salad. along with at least six pieces of chocolate cake.  A feast for the ages.  The bus eventually arrived and I was able to read letters that my mom had sent me, but that had to be the only positive aspect of our departure.  Moving along the gravel road, we moved further and further out of the park, away from the wilderness towards civilization.  There wasn’t much I was excited for besides seeing my family and maybe having a nice meal.  I had found peace, calmness, quiet and beauty in the wilderness. Much of which is rare and more difficult to find in civilization today.

Travelling on the bus towards the airport two days later, I became somewhat depressed as I fully began to realize what was happen.  Cars, stores and buildings filled the area.  I felt very out of place, yearning to return to nature and the wild.  I will never forget the lessons that I learned and the true beauty I witnessed during the expedition.  While I had to leave Alaska and its stunning wilderness, I knew that one thing was for certain. I’d be back.

Looking north up valley

Looking north up valley

Moose

Moose

Goat Creek

Goat Creek

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Cotton like plants with Tanada Lake in the distance

Cotton like plants with Tanada Lake in the distance

The "lump"

The “lump”

Caribou

Caribou

Mt. Jarvis from the Sugarloaf

Mt. Jarvis from the Sugarloaf

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Sunset in the land of 3 million lakes

Sunset in the land of 3 million lakes

The End

The End

Bears and Berries

A much needed rest day followed after finishing our exhausting and seemingly never ending trek, off the Copper Glacier.  Morale was high within the group and rightfully so.  The night before we had shed multiple pounds of glacier gear, obtained our next full ration of food and were now preparing for times back in the land of green.  One thing that we did not forget to leave behind though was our adventurous spirit.  After a late breakfast, my tent/cook mates and I set off on our own mini expedition in search of blueberries, for our planned biscuits later that afternoon.  We headed towards to a nearby mountain, hoping to find a substantial patch above the brush line.  Weaving through alder trees and following game trails we made it to the top, but unfortunately our trip was fruitless as we were only able to find small handfuls of the treasured blue delicacy.  Our adventure was not for naught however as we stopped to lie in the sun and enjoy the feeling of the dry ground again, before heading back to camp.  The rest of the day consisted of people doing all sorts of activities such as meeting with their mentor, reading, washing socks, playing in the nearby creek and napping before we all met after dinner for our somewhat nightly meeting.  During the meeting, there was a rustling in the bushes behind us and we all took a quick glance and spotted the tall brown spine of an animal before it scampered away.  We figured it to be a moose, due to the large amount of moose signs we had spotted around our camp.  Nevertheless, we were happy with the probable increase in animal interactions for the rest of the trip, after seeing nothing but the occasional fly or worm in the snow, during our time on the glacier.

Our journey continued the following day with us dropping off any extra supplies at the airstrip, for Kirk to pick up later in the week.  My group then set off, moving across the huge gravel bed in the direction of a lake about a mile away.  Our initial destination was a little over five miles away, with the additional option of adding another mile and a half depending on everyone’s physical state.  How great it felt to be back in our hiking boots on dry land! After wearing the heavy plastic boots for over 3 weeks, we felt as if we were barefoot as we moved across the rocks.  We also happily noticed a big difference in our pack weight.  Carrying 70 plus pound packs the last five days or so on the glacier strengthened our muscles to the point where our now 55 pound packs, which felt heavy previously, felt like we had nothing on our backs!  There was nothing that we thought could go wrong as we quickly moved through small streams and over the gravel bed.

That is, until we hit the dreaded quick sinking mud.  Before the glacier, I was the one who always prodded others to keep moving through our evil nemesis, but my wisdom seemed to have escaped me as I sank almost up to my knees in mud. It takes a fair amount of effort to pull your feet out but I think the hardest part is determining where to put your foot next.  All the mud looks similar and it is often difficult to determine if you will sink or stand.  We were able to make it out and after crossing the main channel of the creek we moved along the opening to the lake.  However, we weren’t out of danger yet.  While crossing the opening of the lake to reach more tundra, we found ourselves sinking once again.  It wasn’t quite as bad as before, but in my opinion, it was a whole lot scarier to be sinking in mid thigh deep water compared to dry land.  After reaching the other side, climbing up to the top of the hill and finding a blueberry patch, we promptly dropped our packs, got on all fours and crawled around eating blueberries for the next half hour.  Talk about a nice transition back onto the tundra!

We continued moving on and after stopping for another blueberry break, we continued on over the hills before slightly dropping into the valley.  The area was stunning with pine forests comprising the valley floor, a view of Mt. Sanford in the distance and majestic rock formations making up the surrounding mountain sides.  We had reached our initial X, but the marshy area did not seem to be very campable, so we decided we would wait for the other groups to arrive before proceeding.   It took a while for the other groups to catch up, so I made myself busy eating more blueberries before taking a nap on my pack (And no, it is not possible to eat too many blueberries).  All agreed to proceed and we made our way through the nearby pine forest before stumbling into a deep marsh.  It was quite the predicament, with us far from our entry point and the water becoming deeper with each step.  I decided that we would push through and we laughed as some of us stumbled over the hummock like bottom into waist deep water.  This extra mile and a half took a bit more bushwhacking through the brush than we had endured earlier in the day.  At one point after coming out of the brush, onto the rocks of a drainage, we glanced up to the nearby mountainside to spot a sow (mama grizzly) and her two cubs moving up the hill.  They looked back at us, as we shouted up to them, before bounding up through the bushes.  I had seen my first grizzlies and 3 of them at that!  Shortly thereafter, we broke through the brush once again out onto a larger drainage, arriving at our camp for the night.  We celebrated yet another birthday during the evening with a rare camp fire, before the celebration was cut short with a downpour that had most of us scrambling back to our tents.  After the rain had stopped, we came out of our tents to find a rainbow over a point further up the drainage.  A perfect ending to our first travel day back on the tundra.

Before heading to bed the previous night, we decided as a group that for the next 5 days we would go without time.  Our watches were placed in the bottom of our packs and we agreed not to look at them.  When waking up, the first person up who thought it was a reasonable hour woke the others who were cooking breakfast and we would begin our day.  Our travel would take however long and the rest of our day would carry on.  I was LOTD once again and the instructors entrusted us with a lot of responsibility.  On this day, we would be travelling independently without instructors for the first time on tundra.  Independent student group travel and independent student group expeditions are two of big cornerstones of NOLS, forcing students to practice their leadership, communication and interpersonal skills we had learned in order to lead and maintain a successful expedition.  Our route would be the most straightforward we had in days, maybe even the whole trip.  We were simply heading 4 miles and 2000 feet up the drainage to a spot that would set us up perfectly for the next day where we would be travelling through a pass. The day was fairly uneventful by our standards, travelling along the rocks with a few crossings through the rapidly flowing creeks before reaching our X.  During our travel, we did find a spot where someone had leveled out the rocks for a tent.  That was quite disappointing to say the least.  There were many places (during the expedition) where we thought that we were likely the first humans ever at that spot but not today.  It’s also unfortunate that people don’t clean up after themselves.  This spot didn’t leave any trash, but for the others: why would you go into some place to enjoy nature only to damage it?

We ambled up to the grassy hill above the drainage, which may have been our best campsite the whole trip.  We were able to see back into the valley behind us, at the interesting rock formations on either side of the drainage and also up at the glacier near the top of Tanada Peak.  The grass was perfect as well with sporadic mounds that made for the most comfortable seats you could imagine. Our first day without time had worked out perfectly.  There was no worry that we were travelling too fast or too slow and it did not matter how many breaks we took.  It certainly took out a lot of unnecessary stress and the other expedition members and I were ecstatic with the results.   A long meeting was held later that night since a lot of both interpersonal and personal problems had arisen over the past couple weeks. During this time, the rocks on the mountainsides danced in the light of the sunset.  Another beautiful evening in Alaska.

I watched the sheep high up on the mountains while eating my breakfast and hanging around camp the next morning.  Some of those fellers do not move or change position for hours.  There was one that I watched that did not do either, from the time I began watching to a while (No time, no worries) later just before we left.  Today was another independent travel day and this time the instructors had left before us, getting an early start up the pass. The initial part of our travel was moving three quarters of a mile and up 1500 feet through a pass to the other side of the mountains.  It took us a while to ascend the steep pass as we moved along a small creek under the hot sun.  During one of our breaks, we paused near a pool of water in the creek and dunked our heads in, the freezing water instantly cooling off our heads and faces.  The views back toward the valley were remarkable, as we climbed higher, with the towering Mt. Sanford peeking out from behind the clouds in the distance.  The grass quickly gave way to a rock filled drainage near the top of the pass.  This final steep ascent was our last obstacle on this side of the mountains and we stood atop the pass, greeted by more mountains and a raging creek on the other side..  From here, we planned to travel another four miles downhill before cutting towards an opening in the mountains to our camp, besides a lake.  Moving downhill, we were forced to zig zag across the raging, but shallow, creek multiple times due to dead ends at each side.  One of our interesting sights of the day was our encounter with a rock ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan is the state bird and they surprisingly did not scatter as we approached them.  One of my peers was following one less than a foot away with the intent to kill the poor bird.  I’m glad he didn’t. Eventually, we moved up the side of the mountain and made a long traverse across multiple rock fields.  This part was actually fairly dangerous because the rocks are usually either thin or unstable, so one has to be pretty particular with where they place each step.  Along with river crossings, rock fall terrain is one of the biggest hazards in most NOLS courses.  In the past, there unfortunately have been a few instances where students have died in similar situations and terrain.  Travelling in a single file line, we wearily continued moving across the rocks, stumbling a few times, before coming across a sheep trail.  After descending into a drainage and climbing a final steep hill we had made it to camp.  There was nothing on the agenda for the evening so I helped set up the tent before heading back to the kitchen.  We had no idea what time it was, but that made it even better as we enjoyed a great meal with views of Mt. Jarvis and other mountains on the glacier in the distance.

Our final day of student travel took us down the drainage into the valley below, five and a half miles to the northern end of Sheep Lake.  We were initially supposed to receive our re-ration on this day, but we had pushed it back a couple days before since we would not have made it on schedule.  For the first time, our hiking groups split off into an all boys and all girls group, and we set off after the girls, leaving the instructors at camp.  A question that one of my friends posed to us while we were hiking was, “Would you do another 50 days of this, for free, immediately upon finishing next week?” I answered, “In a heartbeat.”  This expedition had so far been the adventure of a lifetime and as someone had said earlier in the trip, each day becomes the new best day of the trip.  There were no bad days.

Travelling down the drainage was easy with no creeks to cross over or many trick spots to navigate.  We soon reached grassy area again where we were reunited with our delicious blueberries after a brief stint away from these scrumptious treats.  We continued over relatively easy terrain, crossing a small creek before plopping down in an area filled with blueberries for an official blueberry break.  There is not a day without a blueberry break when they are present. We reached the lake shortly thereafter where we were met with a familiar humming sound.  A plane was coming up the valley towards Sheep Lake.  Was that Kirk? Why was he coming now?  We had told him we were not planning on arriving until tomorrow.  The plane’s floats touched down and the pilot slowly moved along the lake turning towards us, as a member of our group yelled out to him.  As we approached the now “docked” plane, we saw that it was an Alaska State Trooper! Trooper Dan Dahl was kind enough to speak with us dirty and foul smelling creatures for a little while, also letting us look into his cockpit.  He was just flying to the lakes within the park and familiarizing himself with the area in order to prepare for sheep hunting season, just over a week today.  What a cool job! He is in charge of this area and flies around on patrol like he was doing that day.  After a quick picture with us and the plane, Dan went off to speak with the girls, who were at the other end of the lake, before turning back into the wind and taking off.  Soon after watching him soar through the valley, we reached camp after marching through a final boggy section that surrounded the lake.  To cap off the day, we were camping in an area that was filled with the most blueberries we had seen yet!  I gorged myself on these treats while enjoying yet another camp with spectacular scenery.  In the evening, we faced a thunderstorm but the rain and lighting dispersed as quickly as it came, leaving another calm night. With a re-ration in the morning, we were unfortunately reminded that this unforgettable adventure would soon be coming to a close.  But it sure wasn’t over yet!

Gravel bed near the Copper River

Gravel bed near the Copper River

Mt. Wrangell

Mt. Wrangell

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Looking up drainage towards Tanana Peak (back left with glacier)

Looking up drainage towards Tanada Peak (back left with glacier)

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Near the top of the pass. Mt. Sanford looms in the clouds

Near the top of the pass. Mt. Sanford looms in the clouds

"Castles" at the top of the pass

“Castles” at the top of the pass

Glacier in the distance. Mt. Blackburn on the left

Glacier in the distance. Mt. Blackburn on the left

Glacier in the distance again. Mt. Jarvis on the right. Mt. Blackburn on the far right

Glacier in the distance again. Mt. Jarvis on the right. Mt. Blackburn on the far right

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Southern end of Sheep Lake below the Mountain

Southern end of Sheep Lake below the Mountain

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Sheep Lake.  Mt. Blackburn visible in the distance

Sheep Lake. Mt. Blackburn visible in the distance

Hello Snow!

The excitement was still in the air the morning after ice climbing as we prepared to travel once again.  The three day stretch at base camp had been one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip and had largely quelled some of my fears about the coming days of life on the glacier.  At our meeting the night before, I had been told to go big today.  It had only been three days since the double carry yet we believed that we could now make it in one trip after shedding three days worth of food (a little less than 6 lbs. each)  to our next X which was about 3 miles away.  After I loaded my pack with my group’s tent, my skis, a rope and whatever other group gear I could fit, I heaved my now 70 plus pound pack on my back. Wowee! Today would be slow going as I felt my pack dig in to my body even before we had left camp.  Our plan today was to travel through the pass, gaining 300 feet in elevation, near camp and then move down into the valley, across a creek until we reached camp at the base of the glacier.

We had decided to leave earlier than a typical hiking day because one of our instructors was afraid that we would not be able to cross the creek.  I was usually one of the faster walkers in the group, but was unable to move any farther than the back of the group as we began our trek up the pass.  As my pack began to really dig into my shoulders, we stumbled our way to the top of the pass. We took a break, taking in the beautiful scenery that lay before us.  Looking ahead, we saw the valley with the creek below us and also some beautiful rock formations on the mountains before the glacier.  Heading downhill with the gargantuan packs was much easier and we quickly sped down into the valley.  We approached the roaring creek fearing the worst.  Our odds of crossing did not look good as the creek seemed to be too swift and too deep. Would we have to turn around?  Nah, just kidding! The creek was nothing more than ankle deep and we jabbed at our instructor as we splashed our way across. Everyone was in a great mood as we moved the final mile or so through the valley.  After setting up camp early around 2 pm, we spent the rest of the afternoon learning more about ice protection (anchors) and glacier travel before caching our gear on the ice.  Tomorrow, we would begin life on the glacier with no idea of when we would return to dry land.

On the glacier the next morning, I hooked my pack up to the sled, which carried much of our group’s food, cooking equipment and skis.  Feeling like a sled dog, I gave a few barks to my friend Jessie, who was also carrying a sled, and we were off, barking our way up the ice. On glaciers, the lower level is usually ice before turning into fern (a mixture of snow and ice) then finally turning into snow.  There is no need to travel in rope teams on ice because you can’t self arrest.  If you were to fall in a crevasse in that situation, you would just drag your whole team with you, which we would prefer not to happen.   Half our journey was uphill today and I definitely felt it as I struggled in the back of the pack while pulling the heavy sled.  We soon crossed into the fern and proceeded cautiously, while we tried to determine whether or not we were on snow or ice.  Soon enough, we decided that we were on snow so we created a small perimeter, tossed on our skis and split off into rope teams.  Unfortunately the snow didn’t last for very long and we ended back up on ice for another half mile or so.  Skiing on ice is very difficult in general and especially with a sled.  It’s very frustrating when your sled refuses to hop an ice bump and then flies up right next to you or flips over in a small glacial creek while you are sliding all over the place yourself trying not to fall on the ice.  Thankfully, we soon reached snow for good and continued uphill on our journey.  After taking a long break I felt a strange heat/tingling sensation from my pinky finger.  I happened to glance at my ice axe to find it smeared with blood and immediately took off my glove to find a large cut on my finger.  During the last break, I had sliced open my finger with the ad of my ice axe while picking it up.    Our legendary instructor, JQ, came to the rescue as her rope team skied up alongside me and she applied some first aid treatment saving me from amputation.

We continued downhill on the glacier but were posed with yet another problem.  It was getting late and we had not yet found deep enough snow for camping.  Around 5 o’ clock we faced a decision of whether to push on an additional 5 miles and try to find deep enough snow or make the 2-3 mile push off the glacier, back onto dry land.  We decided upon the latter due to low morale, as well as a high level of fatigue from the long day of travel already under our belts.  Continuing downhill, we reached a point where we were able to abandon our skis and continue the rest of that day’s journey on foot.  We happily walked towards the edge of the glacier as we could envision dry land and a warm meal after this grueling day.  However, we were faced with yet another difficulty.  The route that we looked to take off the glacier was quite steep for walking and we would have to create anchors to rappel down the face of the glacier to the rocks below.  While the rest of us waited, a group of students and instructors built anchors so that we could attach a rope and move down this steep face.  I was one of the first to move down and I waited over an hour for all my peers to join me on the rocks below.  After everyone had moved down and the anchors were disassembled, we gathered up our sled bags, sleds and whatever else we had to carry in our arms and walked the last thousand yards or so through the muddy terrain to our campsite.  We were exhausted and everyone groggily set up their tents, had dinner and waited to hear the plan before going to bed.  I was leader of the day for the next two days so I went over to discuss the plan for tomorrow with the instructors.  Quickly, we decided that tomorrow would be a day-off. No lessons. No anything. It was a rarity at NOLS but much needed after the day’s 8 miles of travel over 13 hours.

Looking outside the next morning, we noticed on almost the opposite section of the glacier, from where we came down the day before, that there was a gently sloping hill that we could have easily walked down without rappelling.  It was pretty funny to see and would have saved us quite a bit of time but that’s alright, what we did makes us seem more badass.  Most of my peers spent their whole day in the tent inside their sleeping bags.  My mindset was that I didn’t come to Alaska to sit in a tent and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity presented to us.  The instructors were allowing us to explore independently since we were no longer in bear country.  I took the time to venture over the hill at the edge of camp and explore the grassy meadow on the other side.  This area was absolutely beautiful with the meadow sitting high above the valley below and views of Mt. Jarvis and the Nabesna glacier on the other side.  I wandered around for two hours by myself, enjoying the sights and also discovering the airstrip for our re-ration the next day, which featured a cabin at one end.  These people with these small cabins sure pick some nice spots to live!  I can’t believe they don’t spend most of their time out there, especially in the summer.  I know I would.

Later that night, I spent a couple of hours in the instructors’ tent going over our overall plan for our time on the glacier, which would now last 18 days.  One of the greatest parts about the trip is how the students had complete input on the route and the overall goals of the trip.  We created plans based off what we wanted to do, not some structure that the school created for each trip because that doesn’t exist at NOLS.  Anyways, we established our main goal of our trip to climb Mt. Jarvis, a true challenging Alaskan mountain sitting at just over 13,400 feet.  In the second ration on the glacier, we thought that it’d be cool to possibly split off and tackle some smaller peaks or make a big push for Mt. Wrangell before making our way down and out on the heavily crevassed Copper Glacier.

The following day we met up with Kirk for the second time as he brought us our ration for our first 10 days on the glacier.  This would be the last time we would see him for 19 days because our re-ration on the glacier would be from a different pilot named Paul.  In the afternoon, we hit the small slopes (hills) near camp and practiced our skiing skills on these expedition skis which would be our main form of travel on the glacier. During class, we spotted a group of sheep in the distance running through the grassy meadow.   After our lessons were finished, we stayed for a while and shredded some pow with our new sick pizza moves.  Who knew you could make such big pizza slices in the middle of the wilderness?  I proceeded to fall a few times (a lot) as I tried to figure out the heavy expedition skis, which are much different than downhill (either that or I’m a bad skier, both highly likely).  Following dinner, we took an evening walk over to the base of the glacier to create a cache so we would have less to transport the following morning.  On the way, one of the girls became trapped by the quick sinking sand next to a small glacier creek.  We came upon this “hazard” multiple times on our journey and you were always unsure whether the mud was solid or not. If you did find yourself sinking the number one rule is never stop moving! If you stop, you’re screwed and you’ll need multiple people to pull you out from the mess.  However, if you are not involved it is quite a funny site to see the person become trapped and caked with mud (don’t worry I’m not that evil, I helped her out).

Our instructors departed early the next morning to ascent a small peak at the edge of the glacier with the goal of bonding and further improving their skills.  As we were making breakfast, they arrived back at camp exhausted but thrilled to begin our journey on the glacier.  During that time, we felt the wind pick up and eventually someone spotted that the glacier behind us was just a giant white cloud.  It was a whiteout and we could no longer see anything on the glacier due to a large snow storm, even the mountains that lay less than a quarter mile from camp.  We decided that it was probably best to not travel for our second time on the glacier in these whiteout conditions.  Some students were disappointed and wanted the experience but we were assured that it was highly likely that we would eventually face similar conditions.

So instead of travelling, we headed to the slope of a nearby off glacier mountain to practice kicking steps on steep slopes , more snow protection and self arrest techniques on all types of falls.  Self arrest was probably the best part of the day. Once you fell, the slope was steep enough for you to gain a significant amount of speed after a few yards.  I had some difficulty executing the self arrest from the fall where you are falling headfirst on your back.  The technique to stop yourself is to basically complete a crunch to one side, slamming your ice pick in the slope which swings your legs around eventually causing you to stop.  If you aren’t skilled enough, like myself, there is potential for you to miss the snow on your crunch and impale your leg with the pick, which I’m guessing would cause some serious damage.  I was told by one of my instructors after a few attempts that I was prohibited from practicing at full speed and worked with him on my technique, eventually improving until I was able to execute it properly.   Before leaving the mountain, we decided to have some fun and glissaded on our feet and butts multiple times (search glissading on YouTube).  We eventually created a chute where we were able to slide down for hundreds of yards at fairly high speeds before self arresting with our elbows and coming to a stop.  It was easily the most fun I’ve ever had “sledding” down a hill (I guess it’s pretty hard to compete with a mountain).

The weather had cleared by the next day and we were able to finally move onto the glacier.  Leaving the tundra and dry land behind us for the next 18 days.  We would soon come to learn of the hardships we would have to face and the huge challenges that lay ahead.

View down from the pass

View down from the pass

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Fellow student trudges on through the valley

Fellow student trudges on through the valley

Nothing but white, a beautiful sight

Nothing but white, a beautiful sight

Looking back at Mt. Gordon

Looking back at Mt. Gordon

Rope team travel

Rope team travel

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Coming down off the glacier

Coming down off the glacier

Plywood cabin with the Nabesna Glacier in the background

Plywood cabin with the Nabesna Glacier in the background

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