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