Winter Notes

Darkness.  I stand in a clearing, surrounded by the boreal forest as snow falls down at a rapid clip.  The clouds have sunk quite low in the valley, encompassing the mountains and the surrounding area, limiting my view to silhouettes of spruce trees a few hundred yards distant in the dark Arctic night.  This land is shaped by the variations of light.  The time of light and joy has quickly come and gone.  As each day passes, the landscape moves ever more quickly into its winter state.

There are plenty of signs of winter abound even now in late October.  Ponds and lakes have a thick sheet of ice atop their surface.  My snow skates have been dusted off and have already been put to heavy use.  The creeks are almost completely frozen, with small channels continuing to flow between sheets of ice.  The river seems reluctant to freeze.  Well past the typical freeze up point, there are ice jams and ice at the edges, yet water continues to flow.

The sun is becoming an elusive sight.  Clouds continue to blanket the landscape, hiding the sun which is already showing itself less and less each day.  At this time, it doesn’t show itself until right around 10 AM, up for just a few hours before setting once again after 6 PM.  In less than a month, the sun will dip behind the mountains and then below the horizon, for where it will remain until it rises again in January.

In what many consider to be a depressing and bleak landscape, there still remains plenty of beauty and life.  Ravens dance in the daylight as they dart back and forth in the air, looking for a source of food.  Snow blankets the mountain and the forest floor, providing new perspectives and contrasts in the landscape.  On clear nights, the sky is blanketed with stars and auroral displays, providing magnificent displays of light in a region that’s known for its lack of it.

Animal tracks lay abound, as the snow reveals all travel in these winter months. The tracks reveal vast stories.  A fox wanders along the lake ice, circling “push-ups”, turf that muskrats shove in the ice to keep an unfrozen hole in the ice for breathing and feeding, in hopes of a meal.  A lone wolf trots up the hill away from the lake, quickly changing its course after encountering the tracks of a snowshoe hare, possibly hoping for a meal of its own.

As the days continue to shorten, winter provides a time to slow down for all life.  The Arctic ground squirrel and bears follow this in a literal sense, having denned up and gone into hibernation/deep sleep.  For humans, it provides a period of silence, contemplation and solitude.  A season for which one can recoup and recover after the busy and never ending days of summer.

The snow continues to fall, accumulating on the top of my jacket.  Soon temperatures will plummet far below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Soon the river will freeze over.  Soon the light will almost completely disappear from this landscape.  I try to grasp the idea that this darkness will be present for the vast majority of the day.  The sun will not show itself for longer than it does now for another four and a half months.  Winter has arrived.

Explorations of the Known

 Dick Griffith forever changed backcountry travel in Alaska in the 1980s with the use of a small, inflatable raft for backcountry travel, which today is commonly referred to as a packraft.   You can read the story elsewhere but, in the Alaska MountainWilderness Classic in the 1980s, Dick opened up the eyes of others to a new mode of travel for wilderness trekkers of Alaska.  No longer would travelers be constrained or halted by raging rivers. In short, a packraft is a versatile and very durable piece of gear that can withstand class V rapids, yet pack down to the size of a compressed sleeping bag with a weight less than 5 lbs.  This method of travel works perfectly in a wild landscape where rivers run free, AKA Alaska.

Ever since I had purchased my packraft I wanted to use it to travel remote rivers in Alaska.  That was the goal when I attempted my big trip last year, but that did not work out as planned.  I was limited to playing around with my packraft in flat water environments, on lakes and stagnant rivers until I returned to Alaska once again.  In the summer of 2015, I had that chance.   In May 2015, I moved to Alaska, 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to a small service outpost called Coldfoot, which lay on the edge of the Brooks Mountain Range.  The Brooks Mountain Range is one of the last great wildernesses left on earth.  With only one road, the Dalton Highway travelling through this mountain rage, it truly is a wild landscape. At 750 miles in length and 100-150 miles in width, there is plenty of space to provide for adventures in more than one lifetime.

I arrived in Coldfoot in early May, just as the rivers and creeks were beginning to break up.  With minimal experience on moving water, I did not want to go out into with my packraft among the torrential flow of silt, gravel and ice.  I had concluded that Slate Creek, running just north of Coldfoot, would be where I would have my first float in this landscape would occur.  The creek continued to drop as the days wore on as the snowpack rapidly diminished on the mountains.  By the third week of May, the waters had dropped significantly enough to allow me to feel comfortable going out on the creek.  I was ready for my first test.

At the edge of Coldfoot, there is a mining trail, the Chandalar Trail, that winds its way sixty miles east through the taiga to Chandalar Lake.  I began my adventure travelling along this trail.  My destination was Colbert’s Knub, a large hill that rises out of the stunted spruce forest to the east of Coldfoot.  The trail provided fairly easy travel and I made quick time bounding along the compact dirt surface.  Three miles into the trail is its first crossing of Slate Creek, this would be my hopping off point as I continued east off trail towards the Knub.  For a few yards, there is an ATV trail that provides for decent travel, but otherwise it is rough country for walking.  I navigated tussocks and brush as I tried to keep my feet dry and avoid the water or muddy muck that often lay between the tufts of grass.   Making my way through the forest, I finally found myself at the northern end of Twin Lakes.  This landscape had changed quite dramatically since I had been there the week before. Ice covered the lake on my last visit but now there were only a few chunks of ice remaining on the outer edges of the lake; otherwise there was hardly any sign of winter.

The Knub with the northern end of Twin Lakes below

The Knub with the northern end of Twin Lakes below

I crossed the stream at the northern end of the lake and soon found myself at the base of the Knub.  Moving up tussocks and sphagnum moss, I gradually made my way up the hill.  Unlike many other hills and mountains in the area, the Knub is unrelenting.  There is no compact rock or hard ground to provide for easy walking. From the bottom to the top, you are contending with tussocks, which make what looks like a simple and easy hike, into a calve burning and humbling excursion.  I have found that if I go into a hike or approach an area with a mindset that it will be easy, it ends up being on the opposite side of the spectrum.  The landscape can quickly humble you and reminds you who is ultimately in charge.  Nonetheless, I found myself standing on the summit in just under an hour.  The elevation allowed me to gain a grand view of the area.   I was able to see north up the Middle Fork Valley towards Wiseman and beyond, south towards Cathedral mountain and a view of the flats and also a glimpse of the South Fork of the Koyukuk Valley to the east with its surrounding mountains.  It’s hard to tire of such a magnificent view, but the creek was calling.  I quickly made my way back down the mountain.  The same moss and tussocks that were a nightmare going up provided quick travel on the way down, as I could move swiftly, leaping from one soft spot to the other.  Soon after, I found myself at Slate Creek, ready to put in. What had taken me an hour to travel from base to summit took only fifteen minutes to descend.

At the put-in

At the put-in

Feeling excited and somewhat nervous, I began to inflate my packraft as I readied for myself for my first river excursion.  The water had become much clearer since the initial break up stage and there was minimal silt or gravel flowing in the water.  After a few minutes, my packraft was fully inflated.  I tossed my pack in and set off, navigating away from lingering ice protruding out from the bank.  The water levels were at almost an ideal level, I could move through the creek with minimal portages due to shallow water.  There were occasions where I had to scoot across the rocks but for the most part, I floated at a swift 4-5 mph through the forest.  What a novel experience!  Instead of fighting or going against the landscape, I was able to use its power to propel me where I wanted to go.  The creek provided a new perspective of the area, as I floated along with towering spruce trees on each bank, able to grow to such great heights due to the creek thawing the permafrost beneath the surface.

Slate Creek

Slate Creek

It was only about seven miles back to Coldfoot from where I put in, so it didn’t take long until I found myself thinking about pulling out.  I was planning to take out near the Coldfoot airstrip, after the confluence of Slate Creek and the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, where it would be just a short half mile walk back to Camp.  As I rounded the seemingly endless bends of the creek, I began to see familiar spots of the Chandalar Trail that parallel the creek and even began to hear the steady droning of the generators back in Camp.  I was beginning to wonder when I would float under the Dalton highway bridge when I heard a rush of water.  I rounded the next bend and found myself facing a large log jam.  The current was moving quite swiftly as I tried paddling with all my might, in hopes of reaching shore.  The water was moving too fast.  Not wanting to collide with the log jam, I grabbed on to a spruce tree that was hanging over into the creek.  It wasn’t the wisest idea, but the best thing I could think of.  As I held onto the tree, the current began to sweep both my raft and myself underneath, filling my boat with water.

My mind raced.  The bank lay just a few feet away.  Should I slash my raft?  Can I safely make it to shore?  These questions among others raced through my mind as I contemplated my next move.    Ultimately, I decided I would chance it.  I decided I would make a move towards shore without damaging my raft.  First, I took my now soaked pack and tossed it on the bank.  I then slid out of my packraft, thrusting it out of the water and safely onto shore.  The final and most important task lay before me, finding a way to get myself onto the dry banks of the creek.  I saw a willow tree overhanging along the bank and decided to make a move towards that.  Hopefully, the roots would be deep enough into the ground to provide support.  I made my move.  I pushed away from the spruce tree and the current began to sweep me downstream.  Reaching for the willow tree, I found my grip, pulling myself up out of the creek, onto dry land.  The whole ordeal felt like an hour, but lasted only a couple minutes at the most.  It had left me somewhat shaken and cold, as I found myself soaked from chest to toe.  I deflated my packraft, shouldered my pack and began to make my way through the brush back to Camp, where I quickly changed back into dry clothes.  It had been an enjoyable first excursion, yet the end of the trip had provided a hard lesson that I wouldn’t be forgetting any time soon.

Back to the Arctic!

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

A Summer Mirage

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Muskeg and Black Spruce trees compose the landscape

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Entering the Brooks

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Brooks Range Odyssey

 

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

Brooks Range_Wikipedia

 

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

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

The Plan

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

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

Overview

Overview

Why?

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

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

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