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.
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.
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.
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.