Shadows of the Nunamuit

Shadows of the Nunamuit

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

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Headwaters of the North Fork

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

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Snow blowing off the top off the pass

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Looking up the Itkillik Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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Thoroughly soaked

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

N. Fork of Chandalar-Bettles River Loop

N. Fork of Chandalar-Bettles River Loop

During my time living in the Brooks Range, I spent a lot of time staring at maps of the surrounding area and dreaming up routes and places that I wanted to go. One of those places was a packraft loop involving the North Fork of the Chandalar and the Bettles River via Geroe Creek. The area is infrequently traveled outside hunting season due to it not falling within the confines of one of the neighboring famed management boundaries (G of A and ANWR), despite having all the same characteristics. This past weekend, I joined up with my friend Steve in Wiseman to undertake the trip.

We drove up to Chandalar Shelf through cloud enshrouded mountains and a steady trickle of rain.  The Interior was expected to receive a major rain storm starting on Sunday and continuing into Monday with some areas receiving as much as 1 inch per hour.  It was a few hundred yards from the road to the nearest channel of the West Fork of the North Fork where we found sufficient water to allow us to blow up and float. We had heard of people canoeing the river so we had thought that we would encounter a narrow, quick moving river devoid of major rapids like the Hammond or even the Upper Dietrich.  Yet within a few miles we found our prior conceptions were quite wrong.  The North Fork drops a few hundred feet over its first 25 miles or so, leading to a river full of splashy class II rapids.  There were little to no large boulders allowing us to run everything and scout on the fly. We stopped only once in the canyon and took a look above and beyond, looking for any hazards before continuing on.  By the time we reached the narrows, the rain had stopped but we were thoroughly soaked from the rapids and stopped ten plus times to pour water from our boats.

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At the put in

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Beyond the N. Fork narrows

 

We were able to make steady progress into the evening and found ourselves about 8 miles away from Geroe Creek 7.5 hours into the journey. We caught sight of three grizzlies, a bald eagle, two golden eagles and a late season harlequin duck along the way. The quick progress all but stopped as we reached the flats and paddled around bend after bend.  With dark clouds threatening to burst, we paddled to and set up camp at the base of Geroe Creek in the early hours of the morning, after a seemingly endless three hours of winding and winding and winding and winding….

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Winding along the N. Fork

We set off up creek the following morning.  We had been told prior to the trip about a great bear trail heading all the way up the creek to the pass. The trail was located not too far off the river and we were able to make good time traveling through the white spruce, in the rain and past the bear scat every few hundred meters. A few miles up the creek, a landslide slid across the path forcing us to hike around.  We continued up, but were never able to consistently find the trail after this point.

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Lower Geroe Creek

The mountains along the Chandalar valley run east-west, creating somewhat of a rain shadow.  However, the rain remained steady and continued to fall with increasing intensity as we traveled closer to the pass.  The foliose lichen, softened by the rain, and dense patches of willows brought our progress to a crawl.  In midafternoon, still a few miles from the pass, we decided to set up the tent and take an extended break due to fatigue and misery.  We rested on our knees, drifting in and out of sleep within the tent, before cooking up a hot meal and continuing on our way.

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Heading into the clouds

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Upper Geroe Creek from the base of the pass

Through brief openings in cloud cover, we were able to see that the upper reaches of the mountains surrounding the valley had received a fresh coating of snow.  This did not bode well for boosting morale.  The pass we aimed to cross was above 5000 ft and would only become more hazardous with a light layer of snow.  We plodded upward, picking our steps carefully over the wet rocks before topping out in the clouds amidst only a few patches of snow.  Elated to have crossed the pass, we descended into the thick cloud bank and Willow Creek on the opposite side.

We were both ready for bed by the time we summited the pass and initially agreed to find the best spot that was available somewhere lower in the valley. But upon descending we found we had slightly more energy than we had though and vowed to push on to Roberts Creek.  Our energy levels proved no match for the soft ground and sidehilling and I doubted whether I could continue down to the Roberts that evening.  It wasn’t long after that we came across a horse trail, travelling all the way down creek to the Roberts. Our moods soared and we moved almost as a trot, relishing in the hard packed surface beneath our feet. We covered the remaining distance in quick time thanks to the trail, following it most of the way down to the Roberts, setting up camp along the water in the early hours once again.

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Roberts River just above the canyon entrance

Clearer skies and sun shone briefly in the morning, allowing us to somewhat dry our wet gear before embarking on the river.  There was enough water for us to float the Roberts from its confluence with Willow Creek.  The river wasn’t too braided and allowed for quick and easy travel.  Closer to the canyon, the terrain dropped and we traveled through more splashy class II rapids.  A big drop at the Roberts Canyon forced us to take out and hike for about half a mile downstream before continuing on water once more.  We ran everything that followed, stopping to scout only once at another point further on down canyon. The water remained swift throughout the Roberts and started to widen out as we reached the Bettles.  By the time we reached the Bettles, both Steve and I were travelling through very familiar territory and made almost no stops between there and the road.

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Roberts River

Despite being wet and cold the whole time, the trip was enjoyable and mostly lived up to the expectations that I held.  It would be far more enjoyable with better weather (perhaps 2 hours of sun instead of 1?) and the absence of the flat water paddling on the Chandalar.  If I were to do it again, I would take out before Geroe Creek at one of the passes heading into the Roberts.  That would cut off a good chunk of the hiking portion, but eliminate the tedium of paddling the winding sections of the Chandalar.  A spray skirt also seems like a good idea given how frequently we were dumping our boats.  Water levels definitely influence the character of the trip, I’m not sure certain sections could be floated on the upper North Fork at low water and much of the Bettles would be very bony and slow.

 

Redemption Float

The pain stopped me in my tracks.  A jarring sensation went up through my lower legs, from my shins on down.  I thought again if it was worth it.  Should I just turn back?  No. I told myself once again that I wouldn’t be mentally weak.  Almost reluctantly, I continued on stumbling over tussocks toward the pass.

Three weeks prior, I had completed the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.  The experience was exhilarating, but had left my legs in shambles.  The following weeks were comprised of me stumbling around, hobbled by swollen feet.  Once the swelling had decreased, I still could not walk quickly without pain.  Nonetheless, after a couple days without significant pain, I decided I was mostly healed.  During the Classic, I had walked the Hammond while everyone else had floated.  Now I wanted to see what I had missed.

The pass wasn’t far, roughly four miles distant from my starting point.  It’d be another four miles down the pass towards my put in, where I’d then float the ~30 miles to Wiseman.  I picked the wrong side of the pass to ascend, ending up unnecessarily climbing and descending numerous side drainages, clamoring over tussocks most of the way.  There were more instances of pain, though like before, I soldiered on.

After reaching the lake at the top of the pass, I hooped onto a well trod moose trail.  The trail wound the spruce forest, running parallel to the trickling waters of the creek. “Hey OOOH,” I yelled.  With fresh sign abound, I didn’t wish to surprise any moose along the trail.  The echo of my voice from a mountain bowl above was the only reply. By the time I had made it halfway down from the pass, the pain was no longer fleeting, having become a constant presence.  Each step provided a short of pain to my shins and lower legs along with a sort of mental anguish.  I debated whether it’d be better to turn around and head back or continue the last few miles to the valley floor.  More walking wasn’t an attractive option, so I lumbered on.  Fear and doubt crept in.  What if there wasn’t enough water?  During the Classic, everyone had been able to float the river from its headwaters with water levels near their peak.  Now in mid-July, the level had receded and even though I was trying to float from the halfway point, the water could still be too shallow for floating.  I dreaded the thought of more walking.

I had finally made it into the main Hammond Valley, weaved my way through the last spruce trees and arrived on the gravel bar.  I anxiously scanned the braided river channels.  There wasn’t much water, but it was just enough to float without scraping the bottom of the boat.  For the next seven hours, I paddled downriver.  The upper portion was more of a chore than anything else.  The low volume didn’t provide much of a current to propel me forward and I had to constantly paddle not only to advance, but to avoid shallow sections hoping to not scrape the bottom of my raft.

In the early hours of morning, I found enjoyment again in the Hammond Canyon.  With the large walls rising vertically on either side, I was in more familiar territory once again.  I paddled into the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk Valley to Wiseman, the diffuse colors of sunrise lighting the horizon at my back to the north.  Finished with the journey, I was now content and pleased with the idea of being able to finally rest.  My legs certainly had not fully healed and it would be a while before I was to go out again. In the entryway of an old cabin, I fell asleep in a rocking chair, pulling a caribou skin up over my torso for warmth.  I had travelled about 40 miles in 10 hours through big wilderness, but it wasn’t without its price.

Atigun-Sag

Dubbed by many as “the run” on the Haul Road, the Atigun-Sagavanirktok float offers intense boating through the northern reaches of the Brooks Range and onto the North Slope. I had wanted to do the trip since arriving in the country. Something always seemed to be lacking, mainly a partner or time.  In late August, I finally had both as my friend Ian and I took off north to the tundra.  Such a route was not without a troubled history.  Some had lost their lives in the past, falling off of cliffs and drowning after flipping their boats.

From the road, the river teases you.  It winds back and forth across the broad Atigun valley, slowly meandering towards the north.  It almost leads one to believe that it offers a gentle float to the coast.  For those who have travelled its lower reaches, they know that this is hardly the case.  The river makes a hard right at Galbraith Lake and heads east into the mountains, through what’s known as Atigun Gorge.

Not long after putting in, the action began.  Class II/III rapids were the rule.  Flat sections of any length were the exception.  We took out and scouted everything that looked questionable as a precaution, but ended up running everything with the exception of a bend where the main channel funneled directly into a rock face.  It was thrilling, we were always on edge.  Peeking around corners and craning our necks to see what lay ahead.  At the edge of our comfort zones, the experience was also mentally draining.  As such, we spent only a few hours on the river that first day.  A couple friends of mine were running the river as well and we joined their camp that first evening.

The river provided much of the same character that next day with almost non-stop action, bend after bend.  In one set of rapids, I glanced further downstream to see Ian’s boat floating upside down.  A quick scan of the water found him near shore unharmed.  He had lost his paddle and was a little shaken up.  We set out along the river’s edge, scanning up and down the bank for its tell tale bright yellow blades.  Without luck, we continued on.  The incident had occurred near where my friend’s group had taken out to scout for caribou.  Glassing amongst traditional campsites of traditional peoples, they offered Ian a ride down river on one of their bigger boats.  A much larger convoy travelled down the river.  The big boats took the lead, my packraft and I bringing up the rear.  One large rapid remained before we left the Gorge and in light of the recent event, I decided to portage. Instead helping the big boats come through before moving on.  The tight enclosing nature of the Gorge was behind us.  No longer were we surrounded by cliffs and mountains rising up directly from the river.  We encountered a seemingly larger landscape upon entering the broad Sag valley.  Rugged mountains rose out of the valley to the south.  Downriver the foothills of the Brooks Range rolled out onto the North Slope.  For now, gone were the major rapids.  The gas wasn’t flat, but much more gentle than what we had experienced over the past couple days.  Camping with my friends again that night, we moved in and out of the rain.  We shared meals (or receiving them in our case…Thanks Barry!) and stories, enjoying the experience of being out in the country.  In the evening, Ian and I wandered over the tundra. We found numerous caribou antler sheds, signs of movements in the past.  Rain drizzled down as we walked towards a small lake, picking blueberries along the way.

Before we had arrived in camp, Ian had found his paddle.  It had floated a few miles down from where he had flipped and had washed up on a bank.  With necessary gear in hand (or boat) again, we set off the following day.  It was just the two of us continuing on, the others would remain to hunt caribou.  Like the Atigun, the Sag at this stretch was deceptive, with calm and flat waters. We knew it’d pick up later on with more nonstop action and one large class IV rapid before we were to end our time on the water.  Pyramid Peak came into sight, the marker for which we were told was a sign of the big rapid somewhere in the not too distant future. Out front, I craned my neck at the riffles ahead.  It seemed to be just lower grade rapids so I turned to give Ian the all clear sign.  How wrong I was.  It was the big one.  Big rapids amongst a large boulder garden.  I maneuvered as best I could, constantly attempting to scan ahead for obstacles.  Water filled my boat and I had bounced off a few rocks but I had made it out safely.  I dumped my boat out, looking back and hoping that Ian had recognized my mistake (he did).

It was rock n’ roll from there to the take out with large wave trains every few hundred yards.  On a flat stretch, we watched a grizzly walking on the gravel bar towards the river.  Once it sighted us, it took off and bolted the opposite direction, only stopping to glance back when it had reached higher ground.

The river was thrilling, providing plenty of challenge and excitiement but not too much to be overly intense.  With the incident the day before, Ian wasn’t feeling completely comfortable.  We took out early, hiking the few miles back to the road near Slope Mountain.

This was a great trip and one I plan to make again somewhere further down the line.  For those who are skilled and short on time, the trip can be done in one long (intense) day during the summer.  Total float time was probably around 16 hours or so, with lots of scouting.

The end of the trip ended up being the most frustrating aspect.  Ian’s truck was parked back at the put in, 30 miles down the road.  We tried to hitch back, standing at the side of the road for about 2 hours.  With no luck, we decided to start walking.  It was another 3 hours and 10 miles of walking before we caught a ride at last light.  A state trooper and a couple in a Subaru were the only ones that stopped before we were able to get a ride.  The couple stopped to ask us if we had seen any caribou.  When we said no, the driver gave us a disgusted look and drove on.  Break down in a car on the side of the road? Plenty of people will stop for you.   Find yourself looking to get a ride without one?  Good luck.  It seems to become harder and harder with each passing year.

Strategy and Gear Notes from AMWC 2016

I’ll start with what turned out to be the most notable strategic decision, not bringing a packraft.  It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to say I should’ve brought one.  Water was really high and I could have cut significant time off my total.  But knowing what I did then, I probably made the right call.  Steady rain brought water levels much higher than what they had been for most of the week prior.  A few weeks after the race, I went to float the Hammond and found very shallow waters.  If rains subsided, that could have been the conditions present and I would have been in a much more favorable situation compared to other participants.  The lesson I gain from this is to pay much more attention to weather closer to the starting date and maybe take the forecast for the upcoming days into slightly more consideration as well. I’m still unsure as to what the ideal ratio (walking/floating) is where bringing a packraft is more beneficial than the added weight is a hindrance.

Sleep:  I slept much more than all the participants who finished before me.  In total, I was trying to sleep or sleeping for roughly 3.5-4 hours out of the total 53.75.  This was likely too much.  Granted, walking the entire distance calls for more rest due to more activity.  But I believe if I cut down the amount of sleep (or attempted sleep by hours) I could still see similar results.  I’d sleep for shorter durations, such as > 45 min, instead of an hour and a half to 2 hours at a time.

Navigation– The route I travelled was perfect.  It was the most direct and contained great walking.  Hard ground and minimal tussocks were the rule, not the exception.  I was caught in brush on Trembley Creek for a couple miles, but outside of a few yards elsewhere, the route was brush free.

I made 2 major errors in navigation which likely cost me 3-5 hours.  The first was just after the continental divide.  I descended into an unnamed valley and had to climb another pass to get into the Koyuktuvuk, though the view was obscured by thick clouds.  I crossed the creek, walked a little ways down valley and guessed at where I was.  The pass I ascended had a glacier ant the head and the upper bowl was filled with snow.  I trudged up halfway before realizing my mistake and turned back.  The next pass over was free of snow.  This is a hard situation without a gps.  There isn’t much I’d do differently other than be more aware of distances between areas on the map.

The next instance also involved choosing a wrong pass.  This time from Trembely creek going into Big Jim.  I went too early and had to cross over a few hills and fight through brush to get back to where I was supposed to be.  This mistake was just due to poor navigation.  Visibility was sufficient.  I need to take a better look at the map when judging the surrounding terrain.

I think the argument could be made that these areas cost more than 3-5 hours due to the extra distance through snow and brush, causing more wear on the body.  Route mistakes are a major time killer.  Sleeping a few minutes extra is OK.  Travelling a few extra miles is not.

Gear

Weather conditions made for much more difficult conditions.  For most of the duration of my trip, it was raining or snowing.  Temperatures likely weren’t below freezing, but I don’t imagine they passed 50 degrees either.  Skies were overcast and I saw the sun for the first time 8 miles from Wiseman.  With the race being held in late June, there was still deep snow in the high passes.

I was pleased with almost everything I brought, there was very little excess.  I had a full out weight of somewhere between 12-13 lbs.

Before I go into a brief line by line analysis here are the major items of gear I didn’t bring:

Packraft

Stove

Tent

I still would not bring a stove or a tent.

ULA CDT 55 L Pack-  A little too big for my purposes but its what I have and provided easy access to contents in the pack and things in pockets outside.  The material does absorb lots of moisture which probably didn’t help to provide any additional warmth.  I won a HMG pack through the post race raffle that I’ll probably use next time.

Rab Pullover- I wore this almost the entire time.  There were no issues of being soaked by rain and it was breathable enough that I wasn’t too damp from sweat underneath.  No major complaints.

Base layer T shirt-Worked well.  There were basically no bugs.  If there were bugs, I’d switch to a long sleeve base layer

Wind Pants- Dried quickly after numerous snow and river crossings

Salomon X3 shoes- These were essentially worn right out of the box.  I love these shoes.  Comfortable fit for my foot, great grip and dry very quickly.  No foot issues outside swelling.

Winter hat- Wore almost the whole time

Sun hat- Remained in bag the whole time

Glove liners- Don’t remember using. I wouldn’t bring these again.

Sherpa fleece pullover- Never used. Would not bring again.

Sat phone- Required. Never used.

SPOT Messenger- I sent messages out every 6 hours or so. There were 3-4 instances where my messages that were reportedly sent did not reach my recipient list.  I’m becoming less and less a fan of SPOT.  For something similar, the InReach is a much better option.

Enlightened Equipment 20* quilt- Overkill for the conditions but again, it’s what I own.  It became wet in the rain but still had plenty of insulation to keep me warm on my extended rests.

Thermarest ¾ CCF pad- Functioned as sleeping bad and pack support.

One trekking pole- I found this very useful once leg pain started to increase.  I would not bring 2.

Miscellaneous- Olympus Tough Camera, extra battery, very basic med kit, fire starting materials, and headnet.

The 2 things I wouldn’t bring amounts to liner gloves and the fleece pullover.  Not bad.  In the future, I’d also consider a different strategy of less sleep which would allow me to remove the sleeping quilt and the lseeping pad.  Instead I’d bring a jacket, like the Montbell Pro (I think that’s the name) and curl up under a tree somewhere.

I was pleased to discover that I remained outside of hypothermia/warm enough to function in that setup.  If I was packrafting I’d slightly change my approach.  I rode on a packraft for a few miles and when I wasn’t padding I was constantly shivering.  Rain pants would help.  This is another instance where jacket over sleeping bag could be of great help.

Food– For efficiency and speed, I went without a stove.  I brought dried mangoes, peanut butter pretzels, homemade granola (oats, peanut butter, brown rice syrup) and one other thing I’m forgetting but I believe peanut/almond/raisin combo.  I planned 1.5 lbs/day for 4 days and threw in an extra pound for good measure.  It was too much.  I finished with a little over 4 lbs of food remaining.  With the benefit of knowing my capabilities now, I’d plan for less food per day maybe 1.33 lbs and/or try to more accurately account for days out.  If every pound costs a loss of a mile (according to research done by Roman Dial for Arctic 1000) then it is better to end with none than 1 lb of food remaining (provided that you run out of food as close to the end as possible).  I think I’d switch up my food choices as well, keeping the chocolate and dried mangoes but removing the other two and adding jerky plus some other type of nut combination.

 

 

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2016

The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, as the name implies, is an annual wilderness event occurring in the mountain ranges within Alaska.  The event was started by a group of friends in the early 1980s and has continued ever since.  It is a point to point trip, meaning you’re given a starting and ending location and you have to figure out where to go in between achieve that.  There aren’t many rules, only that you must be self supported and only using human powered transportation.  The most popular methods are usually hiking and packrafting, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying their hands at other means like using paragliders and fatbikes.  The Classic is without any frills.  There are no event fees, no sponsors, and no awards or prizes of any kind.

I have wanted to compete in the Classic since learning about the event in the fall of 2013.  With minimal experience at the time, it seemed more fantasy than reality for a long time to come.  Though as the years passed, I gained more and more experience, exponentionally so after moving to Coldfoot, AK last summer.  Every three years, a new course is chosen.  With last year being a memorial course dedicated to Rob Kehrer, the course was set to change.  There were rumors during the Winter Classic that this year’s course would be in the Brooks Range.  The rumors turned out to be true and with the course set in my backyard, I was faced with an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

The route I selected was the most direct path that one could do, while staying within the course boundaries.  I had gathered a plethora of information and beta from Jack Reakoff, a longtime resident of the area who knows the country well.  My plan was that with low water, I’d be able to outrace everyone with a lighter pack and lesser miles.  I was not going to be bringing a packraft.

At the event check in the night before, the major topic of conversation was water levels.  After sharing my thoughts on not bringing a raft, some were reconsidering their idea of bringing one along, especially with me being the only local in the race. At typical levels, my route likely would not offer more than 25% floating.  Leading up to the event, I debated back and forth whether floating 25% of the route was a substantial enough number to bring along an extra 9 lbs.  Ultimately, with hot weather and clear days, I decided no and left the raft at home.  I would be the only one not to bring a raft.

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Last minute preparations at Galbraith Lake

21 of us set off from Galbraith Lake Airport around noon on Sunday the 19th.  Most of us followed the road over towards the campground before heading off into the mountains.  The beginning of the route was a very social hike.  For about the first 10 miles there was a group of 8 of us that were hiking fairly close together.  After continuing into the Itikmalak River Valley, the group started to spread out, with Luc and Todd setting the pace out front and me following closely in their footsteps.

The crux of my route was the high passes.  Those were the sections I was most nervous about both before and during the race.  I had scouted out the region near the Continental Divide a week before and found that there was minimal to no melt off of the winter snowpack.  Low clouds and limited visibility also proved to be another challenge.  I made it up the first 6,000 ft pass with no issues, able to avoid all the snow.  The continental divide looked to be a bit trickier.  I was keeping pace with Luc and Todd and we kept switching off back and forth.  We were both going for the same pass at the Divide and we made our way up, alternating breaking trail through the snow.  I sure am glad I was near them at that time otherwise I would’ve been expending a lot more energy.  In some spots, the snow was so deep that we’d break through to our waists.  Todd was fed up at breaking trail at one point and instead of walking on he decided to start rolling over in the snow to the nearest section of dry rocks.

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Plenty of snow near the Divide

On top of the Divide, Luc and Todd moved quickly by, ending my social section of the race.  I would travel almost completely alone for the remaining ~80 miles. As we were making our way up the Divide, it had started to rain.  That combined with breaking trail through the water dense snow made for a wet experience.  I had brought along no rain pants and a light rain pullover.  My shoes, wind pants and jacket were soaked and would remain so for the majority of the rest of the race.

Descending into the next valley, I had to cross one more 6,000 ft pass before passing the crux of the route.  Not only would that in itself prove to be challenging having already traveled 25 miles and crossing two 6,000 foot passes, but I descended into a valley that was completely socked in by clouds.  One could not see more than 100 ft off the valley floor.  Those aren’t ideal conditions when you are trying to select a specific pass.  I thought maybe I could see where Luc and Todd went, but they bolted off into the clouds, leaving me staring at my maps and guessing where to go.  I made my way across the raging creek and started up.  I quickly encountered snow, continuing to trudge up the mountainside, postholing one step at a time.  Eventually, I was able to see farther ahead and realized I was in one pass further east than I should have been.  There was snow all the way up to the pass and it would take too long at my current pace, so I decided to descend and try another route.  I was thinking about going further down the valley and crossing a lower pass that I had went up on a previous trip.  On my way down, I found myself halfway up the pass that was one over and was able to find a snow free route to the top.  Standing at the top of the pass, I wasn’t entirely sure if I was continuing into the right area, yet at the time I let out a whoop in exultation, as that was one of the most joyous moments of the trip.

I kept continuing on, feeling great and moving at a decent pace.  Up to that point, the walking had been tremendous.  There had been fairly firm ground for the vast majority of the route, no tussocks, great scenery and absolutely zero bugs.  I saw Luc and Todd’s footsteps along the gravel bar in the next valley and figured they were much further ahead.  The navigational error at the previous pass had cost me around 3 hours.  Nevertheless, I was making great time.  By this point, I was about 15 hours into the race and had traveled just over 45 miles.  Feeling a little tired, I found a spot underneath some willows laid my sleeping quilt and pad out and got three hours of sleep.  I was wet and without dry clothes and found myself shivering myself to sleep. I woke up to a thoroughly soaked bag.  I had brought along no tent or bivy sack.  I was using a large trash compactor bag as an emergency bivy, which went up ¾ of the way up my bag.  That didn’t turn out to be as effective as I thought and I had a wet bag as a result.

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Thoroughly soaked

The walking wasn’t as great during the beginning of the second day as I traveled through narrower valleys with high water and more brush.  I picked one pass too early once again and this time was penalized by having to go over two more small passes to get to the Hammond River.  The climbing was starting to wear on my legs and it was about this time that I started to develop shin splints.  After finally ascending what turned out to be my final pass, I made my way down into the main Hammond Valley.  It was at this point that I experienced the lowest emotional moment of the trip.  After travelling down Kapoon Creek, I found myself in the main Hammond valley staring at a roaring river.  That rain had not only made my trip a bit more wet and cold than otherwise desired, but also allowed the waters to swell to near flood stage.  Everyone would be able to float the entire Hammond River, from the headwaters to Wiseman, while I would be stuck walking the remaining 40 or so miles.

I moved down the valley, cursing myself out quite a bit. About an hour later, I heard someone call my name as they floated up in a packraft.  It was another racer, Alex, who after sharing some details about our trip up to that point, offered me a ride.  I was absolutely ecstatic.  The rafts that most people had generally aren’t made for two people.  With his legs wide and over the side, I was able to crouch up front, holding my pack on the bow.  It wasn’t the most comfortable position, but I was happy to take what I could get for free miles.  Eventually, we switched positions, as I was getting to cold in the front being continually splashed by water and without a drysuit.  However, the other arrangement wasn’t really ideal.  With two people, the raft is tippier and a lot less responsive.  Those factors combined with high water and my mediocre at best paddling ability made for a limited float.  After about 5 or 6 miles of travelling, Alex kicked me out, leaving me to walk the rest of the way.  I was happy to get some rest while floating, but now all my gear was completely soaked and I still had to walk the rest of the valley.

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Hammond River Valley

The Hammond provided very easy walking with its wide gravel bars and fairly firm grounds and game trails in the forested areas.  Animal sign was abound as I passed countless bear, wolf and moose tracks.  My shins were starting to hurt more and more as I continued on.  I began to take longer and more frequent breaks, stopping every 2-3 hours for 30 minutes or so at a time.  Late in the morning, I decided to sleep again.  I lay out underneath a spruce tree beneath cloudy skies.  An hour later, I woke up in the rain, with my sleeping bag soaked and in a state of delirium.  I thought there was supposed to be a cabin around, but that someone was playing a joke on me and moved it.  I walked back and forth looking around the area for the cabin, talking to myself and searching through my pack during that time before realizing that I’m out in the middle of the wilderness and there was no cabin.

The cold and rain proved to be a constant challenge.  My clothes were soaked for the majority of the race.  If it wasn’t from the rain or the brush, it was from one of the many river crossings, difficult in their own right due to the high water.  Moving forward was essential just to stay barely above freezing and a hypothermic state.

After what seemed like endless walking, I arrived at the head of the Hammond Canyon.  I followed a game trail up and over the canyon down to the other side.  Wolf and moose trails continued to lead me through willow thickets in the forest to the end of my route off trail at the Hammond Road.  Upon reaching the game trail before the canyon and up to the road was one of the happiest times during the race.  I was living out my dream and not only just getting by but thriving.

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The lower Hammond Canyon. Descending Canyon Creek

The happy moments were short lived however as the road turned out to be a death march.  I had about 10 miles along the Hammond and Wiseman Road before finding myself in Wiseman.  The hard packed surface caused my feet to swell up quite a bit, making for some significant hobbling for the remaining portion of the trip.  A few hours later, I crossed the bridge at Wiseman Creek where I was greeted by Luc and a few other participants who had finished before me.  I had finished the Classic.  I completed the course in 53 hrs and 45 minutes, walking roughly 105 out of the 110 miles.  Not bringing a raft cost me about 14 hours, but I still managed to place fairly well without it.

One of the best things about the Classic is not only the amazing country you travel through during the course, but the community that it fosters.  Completing such a challenging and tough event, creates quick bonds between participants.  Everyone is so giving of their energy and time.  Thank you to Luc and Todd for organizing the event. Thank you to the Hickers for hosting us in Wiseman.  Thank you to Jack for helping me with my trip preparation and thank you to anyone else who offered support along the way.  This is one of the top highlights/accomplishments in my life to this date.  I can’t wait until next year. And you can be sure that I’ll definitely be bringing a raft.

Here is Luc’s write up

Confrontation with the Locals

All summer I had stared at her. She lay glittering right across the river or just off the road depending on where you were, changing colors with the seasons.  If you think I am talking about a woman, I’m going to guess that you haven’t been to Arctic Alaska.  For there are no women here, at least none that make themselves available to a strapping young lad like myself.  Though I am talking about a mountain, Michelle Mountain*, just across the valley from Wiseman, AK.  As part of my job, I spend a fair amount of time in the town of Wiseman.  As part of my life, I try to spend a good bit of time in the mountains.   After spending quite a bit of time staring at Michelle Mt. from Wiseman, I decided that I needed to become intimate with her.

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Sad to discover I only have one picture of Michelle Mt.  This is one week from one week after the hike described in this post. Picture taken in Wiseman on the banks of the  M. Fork of the Koyukuk.

It wasn’t until mid-August that I finally decided to make an attempt up the mountain.  Late in the day, after tours and dinner, I made my way the 10 miles down the Dalton to the base of Michelle. I quickly made my way out of the rock quarry in which I had parked, beginning to ascend through the forest.  It was not long before I found myself above treeline, for I was climbing the west face of Michelle, which does not receive much sunlight.  The going was steep, yet not overly strenuous. I enjoyed the beginning of the fall colors, as the ground and surrounding vegetation varied from green to yellow and red.  I soon found myself rounding a large rock outcropping and at the top of the first ridge.  I had a wide view of the valley, but I could not see much higher up the ridge, likely only about 40 yards or so.  Looking around, I thought that this would be a perfect spot for a quick break.

The next thing I know, there is a black bear running downhill, directly at me.  There are a few standard guidelines for travelling safely in bear country. So far on this hike, I had followed none of them.  Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Travel with others: I was alone, as I often am on many hikes, bears aren’t deterred by single humans.
  2. Carry bear spray: If you live or travel in Alaska you will hear from many people who live in Anchorage or Fairbanks that you shouldn’t travel in bear country or if you do, you should bring shotguns or various heavy artillery so that you can kill these indestructible creatures. The favorite past time of many people in Alaska is to tell bear stories.  As one of my friends says, “You’ll hear stories of bullets bouncing off skulls or impossible to kill.  Don’t listen to them; they’re drunk or poor shots.  Many of these people haven’t even seen a bear.”  At the least, many recommend that you carry bear spray.  I had neither.

However, I did do a few things correctly.  I instinctively raised both my arms into the air, protruding out in a wide formation, trekking pole still grasped in one hand. As I did this, I began to yell at the bear in quite a loud manner. “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!”  The bear was either really anxious to say hi or did not like me very much, for she did not stop.  As I continued yelling, as if I was a broken record, she continued to rapidly make her way toward me.  During this time, I had no fear. My thinking was extremely clear. I debated whether or not I should throw my trekking pole at her.  I also thought that the bear would not stop.  This whole process felt like minutes, but only occurred in a matter of seconds.

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One of the few women in the Arctic

Finally, she stopped at a mere 10-15 foot distance away.  She did not rise up or change in action, but noiselessly stood there, staring intently at me.  At this point, the record was still broken for I continued to yell, “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!” on repeat.  She quickly became bored with the conversation after about 5 seconds(“These stupid humans only knows 2 words.”) turning around and walking back up the slope.  This seemed to appease my internal mechanisms and I stopped yelling.  She continued walking, stopping to glance back every 20 feet or so. As she stopped, I’d yell once again. “Go on, get out of here!”    She responded, “What rude manners, these humans are oh so insensible.”  As she made her way to the edge of the slope, I caught a glimpse of a cub trampling through the willows.  She joined her cub and they ambled over the edge into the unknown.

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Check out dat butt. Dang girl, you fine! You can see the cub’s ears/head directly to the right of mama.

At this point, I could either continue up the mountain, proceeding up the slope and over the edge to where the bears likely now lay, or I could retreat down the mountain and call that enough for one day.  I elected to choose the latter option.  As much as I would have liked to continue up the mountain side, I don’t think I left a positive enough impression on Mama Bear to chance a second encounter.  Michelle remains for another time, meanwhile continue to dazzle me with her everlasting beauty.

 

*While there may not be many women in these parts, there sure are a high number of natural features that bear names of women from the past, who lived in this valley!  There’s Clara Creek, Emma Creek, Emma Dome, Minnie Creek, Minnie Dome, Kahlabuk, Rosie Creek….the list goes on.  However, I still prefer the living, breathing kind over the names.

Snowden

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Rock formation on Snowden Mt.

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

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

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

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

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The Wolf’s Jaw

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

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The Abyss.  Snowden summit in center background.

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

Smokey Days

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

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Smoke filled sky

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

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

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

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

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Smokey haze from Slope Mountain

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

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

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Dall Sheep

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

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Can you see why it’s called Slope Mountain?

Mosquitoes and Glaciers

Roche Mountonee Creek

Roche Mountonee Creek

It’s said to be the best hike off the Dalton Highway in the Brooks Range.  I had heard it from numerous residents of the area and I intended to find out for myself if that was true.  My companion was my tent mate, Mark, and we decided on a day in late June to make our way north to hike Roche Mountonee Creek.  Rouche Mountonee Creek lies about 85 miles north of Coldfoot, on the north side of the continental divide.  It would be my first major hike in the northern end of the Brooks Range.  An area known for its low growing vegetation, no trees, immense precipitous mountains and in the summer time, billions of mosquitoes.   We loaded our gear into the van and set off, travelling along the rugged Dalton the two hours north to our destination.

Upon arriving at our destination, we are eagerly greeted by the local residents.  Yet with no permanent human habitants for at least 60 miles in any direction, who could I be speaking about? Why the mosquitoes of course! The North Slope of Alaska is notorious for its mosquitoes and this day is no different.  The mosquitoes quickly surround the van after I have put it into park, drawn by the heat of the engine.  As we exit the van, we are quickly surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds of mosquitoes, buzzing around our bodies, occasionally alighting and looking to steal a quick meal.  Mark quickly pulls out and dons his headnet as I look for mine, unsure whether or not I remembered to stick it in my pack.  He needles me a bit due to my negligence in bringing my headnet on our last hike, where I ended up being swarmed by mosquitoes.  Thankfully, I find it scrunched up in the bottom of my pack.  I pull out my pullover rain jacket, toss it on and we are on our way.

Lower Roche Mountonee Valley

Lower Roche Mountonee Valley

Leaving the road, we ascend up a hill on the left hand side of the creek.  The ground is uneven, but for the most part absent of tussocks, for which we are thankful for.  As we continue further into the valley, we are escorted by hundreds of mosquitoes (or as the Aussies call them “mozzies”) that lead the way, mirroring every footstep.  Mark dons his head net for the entirety of the hike.  I alternate back and forth as I try to decide which is worse, the confining nature and warmth of the head net or the dozens of mosquitoes that are after my blood.  More often than not, I decide to take the chance of being bit and leave the head net off.  After hiking for a couple miles east into the valley, it begins to take a sharp turn to the south.  From there we are able to see the entirety of the valley,  mountains continuing on either side with glaciers marking the terminus in the distance.

In the last ice age 10,000 years ago, this valley was completely covered by glacial ice.  Like most of the valleys today in the Brooks Range, it has been shaped due to the retreat of the glaciers. Roche Mountonee describes the process in which the passing of a glacier over bedrock results in striations and various formations. An example of the resulting formation is displayed in the photo below.

Roche Mountanee on opposite mountain side. Formations in rock are created due to glacial erosion.

Roche Mountanee on opposite mountain side. Formations in rock are created due to glacial erosion.

We continue up the valley, at points alternating between firm rocky ground and the soft, uneven tundra.  There is a small respite from the mosquitoes as we travel close to the creek, occasionally walking onto aufeis that still remains in the midst of the Arctic summer.  We gaze upon the surrounding mountains, pointing out unique formations and shapes in the rock, marveling at how ice has shaped the valley.  As we near the headwaters of the valley, the mountains draw closer.  The glaciers lay above us on our left hand side as we ascend a rocky hillside next to the creek.  The creek is cascading down a rocky passage, in almost waterfall like fashion, as it descends quickly down to the main valley floor.

As we reached a plateau, we found ourselves in a somewhat difficult situation.  We did not exactly know where we should go from that point to get to the road.  We did not bring a map. Sitting down on a hillside we pondered our options.  From looking at maps, I knew that there was a pass somewhere in this area that would lead us to the road.  But the question was, where?  We could continue further south, where it looked as if the valley eventually veered south, but was surrounded by steep, unclimable walls.  Or we could try shooting east, up the mountains towards what looked like a pass, yet we were unsure whether or not it was doable from our current location or where it led to. The last thing I wanted to do was retreat the ten miles back down the valley from which we came.  The valley ahead didn’t look very forgiving, so we decided to try for the apparent pass.  If that failed, we’d have to tuck our tails beneath our legs and retreat the long distance back down the valley.

The valley ahead

The valley ahead

The vegetation quickly yielded to rock as we climbed out of the valley.  Mosquitoes followed us higher and higher,  I puzzled at how they could survive in these areas but continued on.  Snow still covered some of the northern faces in this location and as we rounded another bend, we caught sight of a large alpine ice sheet, just south of the pass we were attempting.  Sheep sign was abound as we made our way over endless glacial till and boulders.  They thrived in this kind of landscape, using the steep rocky faces of the mountains to evade predators.  We hoped our route would be somewhat more forgiving, as I don’t trust my ability to leap from one crumbling rock ledge to the next.  We neared the pass and began to ascend, we would be able to make it to the top, but it still remained to be seen what was on the other side.  Mark opted for the larger rocks, while I made my way up the loose scree.  I was the first to ascend and slowly made my way to the top of the pass.  I reached the top, gazing out into the area beyond.  A gradual slope! We would be able to descend!  I moved back to where I could see Mark and let out a wild cry of exultation.  Somewhat confused, he joined me on top but was elated as well once he learned of what was ahead.

A look back towards the descent route

A look back towards the descent route

We rested for a while before skiing down the loose scree.  After a short while, we once again found ourselves in another valley bottom, glancing up again at another alpine ice sheet that towered above at the head of the valley.  We made quick time moving down the valley, navigating across the river and along its edges bouncing from rock to rock, attempting to stay dry.  Soon enough, we found ourselves back in the brush and we broke our way through willows.  The pipeline stood out in the distance, signifying the end of yet another journey.  After crossing the creek for a final time, we made our way out onto the asphalt of the road.  We were unsuccessful in our attempts to acquire a ride for the six mile or so walk back to the van.  The monotony and unrelenting nature of the pavement wore on my psyche and body.  I was graced with one of the countless majestic Arctic sunsets and waterfowl moving about just off the road.  Upon reaching the van, I happily piled in, enjoying a rest from the asphalt as well as great mountainous scenery as we made our way back home through one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Upper Trevor Creek Valley

Upper Trevor Creek Valley