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.

Growing Up in Alaska

Growing Up in Alaska

The drizzle trickled down through the canopy. A few feet away the stones on the beach shed the droplets. Beyond, waves crashed lightly against the shore. We were attempting to set up our tent on our first night out. The only experience I had setting up a tent was on the pristine lawn the day before back in Palmer, or helping my dad bang the stakes into the ground on a backyard camping adventure when I was younger. I was on the lowest end of the spectrum in the outdoor skills department, that spectrum bottoming out at having no skills. Some of my peers had their own personal experience, but none had ever participated in such a collective endeavor. As a result, we struggled. It had been so easy to set up a tent the day before in the world of flat, squared off pieces of land. Now in the real world, the uniformity ceased to exist. Roots surfaced above ground near the base of trees, brush covered areas that could otherwise be good sites and uneven surfaces abounded, daring anyone to try and achieve a good night’s rest.

In 2013, I was one of eleven students who completed the National Outdoor Leadership School’s (NOLS) Mega Semester in Alaska. The school is renowned for its long-time effort and practice of teaching leadership and outdoor skills in a backcountry setting. Six months prior to embarking on our expedition, I had read the journals of Dick Proenneke, a famous Alaskan who turned to the land at age 50, building a log cabin by hand in what is now Lake Clark National Park. That felt authentic and meaningful to me, something that was worth pursuing at a time when my peers talked of corporate internships and jobs. However, growing up in suburban Chicago hadn’t prepared me for the rural Alaskan lifestyle. I was a cheechako. But not long after reading Proenneke, I came across NOLS and saw a stepping stone towards the life that I envisioned.

My eyes were glued to the front range of the Chugach Mountains as I stepped off the plane into Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. I had been to other areas in the country with mountains and big landscapes, but none held the mystique and mystery that surrounded the land of Alaska. I walked the coastal trail towards my hotel, eyes darting back and forth between the Cook Inlet and its mud flats and the forest, waiting for a whale to breach or a moose to dart across my path. I remained in awe throughout the day and into the night, marveling at the light that still lit up the sky when I turned in after 11.

We would spend the first segment of our semester, 25 days, sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. Starting outside of Whittier, our route led us south towards the open ocean and the Gulf of Alaska. Each day followed a similar pattern. We would wake around 6, emerge from our tents and check the weather and sea conditions. After breakfast, we would ready our boats and depart from our campsite, paddling up to 22 nautical miles each day to reach our destination.

After a week of travelling, our group began to show growth and development in our water skills. When travelling between campsites, we intended to move in formation as a pod. This meant that there was a lead boat and rear boat with the rest arranged in rows in between. This was impossible to attain early on. One boat would be moving almost perpendicular to the path of the majority, another would be far outside the group and the group would be spread out, due to a lack of a uniform pace. Yet with each day of travel, along with lessons from our instructors, our skill improved and we began to travel as one unit.

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Early paddling

As we paddled along, we were treated each day to sunny skies, an abnormality in a region known for its abundant precipitation. Mountains thick with spruce trees extended up from the edge of passageways and channels. Bald eagles soared overhead in such large numbers that they became almost commonplace. Each morning after waking in the tent I was eager to see what the land and the sea held beyond the next bend. Already we had been treated to soaring eagles, curious sea lions and otters, innumerable waterfalls and sunsets. What more could I ask for? What else did the land have in store?

After a group discussion one evening, we prepared for bed, a few of us brushing our teeth along the water’s edge. A few hundred yards out in the bay a whale breached the surface. A moment later, a tail shot up further out. Over the next half hour we were treated to the spectacle of a pod of humpback whales moving about in the bay. Snow draped the nearby mountains and the reddish orange sky provided the perfect backdrop for an awe inducing experience. I had come to find joy in the simple things. Standing on shore watching those whales had left me content in a way I’d never known.

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Hiking above Johnson Bay in Prince William Sound

Leaving the water, we moved inland to the rugged and glaciated mountains within Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. The previous section had allowed us to meld as a group, but that would soon be put to the test under heavy loads, rough terrain and long days. Shouldering our new packs, we trekked past the old gold mining structures at the end of the Nabesna Road, crossing the Park’s boundary in the process, our home for the next 48 days.

Like kayaking, I had never done any serious backpacking. Or for that matter, any backpacking at all. I took to it well and found joy in moving through wild country with everything that I needed on my back. That freedom led to an internal peace that would remain for the majority of the trip.

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A lake in Wrangell St. Elias

We were tested from the very beginning and each challenge seemed to send forth another to replace it. The glacial waters of the Nabesna River stood in our path. Working in small groups, we scouted and picked a route across its swollen and silty waters. After leaving the valley floor, we traveled through the forest and tundra. No longer were we swiftly moving along hard packed sand and gravel bottoms, now we encountered tussocks and boggy environments. With heavy loads, we fought to maintain our balance and figure out the most efficient route through each segment. The tussocks relented and we entered the canyon of Monte Cristo Creek. What appeared as a small creek on the map, existed as a formidable obstacle in reality. The long, warm days melted snow and ice further up the valley sending water rushing down the creek bed. Boulders rumbled along the bottom as we picked our way back and forth across the creek over the coming days.

We would spend three weeks travelling and living on glaciers. I remained nervous, unsure what glacier travel entailed. Glaciers weren’t a part of my vocabulary as a Midwesterner and my mind raced to assume the worse. Stories of crevasses that swallowed entire rope teams and people disappearing down moulins fueled my apprehension. That sense of caution would remain, but glacial travel didn’t prove to be as onerous as my mind imagined. Crevasses existed somewhere below, but on the surface was a white landscape, devoid of much movement or life. Colors in the sky seemed accentuated among the rock and snow below and each day offered a new vista of mountains to behold.

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Mt Blackburn towers over a glacial camp

We began to travel at night, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures and firmer snow conditions. Our time on the glacier was punctuated by a group summit of Mount Jarvis at 13,420 ft. Along the way we battled fatigue, low food rations, dehydration, and altitude while continuing to maintain strong interpersonal interactions. If we thought travel would become easier after our summit, we soon found we were mistaken.

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Atop Mt. Jarvis. Mt Sanford in the background

Leaving the glacier meant travelling down the Copper Glacier, one that was heavily ridden with crevasses. We only travelled a quarter mile on our first day, taking 20 hours to rappel down a crevassed face to the valley below. Tired and weary, we were forced to continue on the following afternoon after only a few hours of sleep due to avalanche danger. The mountains boomed throughout the day as snow crashed down from above under the hot summer sun. Weaving around the innumerable crevasses, we spent the following days travelling down to the end of the glacier. Bushwhacking through dense alder thickets at the glacier’s edge was the final test before we ended our time on the ice and returned to the wide gravel bars and open forests of the non-glaciated terrain.

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Wide gravel bar near the headwaters of the Copper River

There was only a week left for us in the Wrangells. After weeks of ice and rock, we reveled in the multitude of colors during summer’s peak and the blossoming of the flora, grazing in blueberry patches as we hiked. We travelled away from the head of the Copper River back towards Tanada Lake and the Nabesna Road. It was difficult to think that we would have to leave this lifestyle that had become normal and this area that had become home. I had entered the course as someone without any outdoor skills. By its end, I found myself comfortable in wilderness environments and in leading others through the terrain without instructor guidance or supervision.

It has been five years since that NOLS course. Five years since I first dreamed of living the authentic Alaskan lifestyle. I have now lived in Alaska full time for nearly four years, spending the bulk of that time living remotely in the Arctic, within the mountains of the Brooks Range. I have fished for salmon, hunted for moose, sourced wood for heat, and traveled the land on my own, withstanding the darkness and cold of three Alaskan winters. By most measures, I’m still that cheechako I once was. I still struggle to understand mechanical systems, I don’t have the skill to build anything of value and I still make mistakes out on the land. The journey began with that first step off the plane into Anchorage five years ago. It has been a journey of discovery and growth, of myself and the land. It’s a journey that’s bound to continue and one in which I still continue to find myself craning my neck to see what lies beyond the next bend.

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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.

 

 

Arctic Myths

As part of my job, I interact with people from all across the world and spend at least a few hours with them.  I hear a lot about people’s preconceived notions of the Arctic and how it differs from what they imagined, especially in the summer time.  I hope to dispel some of those myths here.

Cold

No matter the time of year, many people expect it to be cold during every month of the year. For 8 months of the year they would be right! However, in the summer time (when most people decide to come), I have encountered many people who step off the plane with heavy winter coats, hats and mittens, while I’m usually sweating in short sleeves.  Many are dismayed to realize that it is actually quite warm in the Arctic in the summer.  This past summer we had a day that reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit and it was not uncommon to have days in the low to upper 80s from late May until the end of July.  The warmest temperature in Alaska was recorded in the Arctic.  Fort Yukon recorded a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Due to its high latitude and rotation of the earth, the sun is directly over the North Pole for 6 months of the year, basking the Arctic in endless daylight.  For example, in Coldfoot the sun is up for 33 days straight in the middle of summer.  From June 4 to July 7 the sun does not set below the horizon.  With the sun up for such a long period of time, it is pretty difficult not to have warm temperatures.  People complain about the warm temperatures, but when it gets cold they complain as well.  Hmmm…  The bottom line is if you come to Alaska in the summer, certainly bring warmer layers, but leave the heavy winter gear at home!

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The sun still above the mountains at 1 am on June 15th. Solar midnight in Alaska is 2 am.

Don’t be mistaken though, it is typically quite cold here for much of the year.  In an average year, the rivers, creeks and lakes will be frozen by the beginning of the third week of October and remain so until the middle of May.  From the beginning of November to the end of March the average daily temperature ranges from 40 degrees below zero to 0.  The coldest I have seen so far this winter is -35 F, last Thursday.  About 60 miles east of Coldfoot is likely the coldest area in Alaska.  There is an old mining settlement there called Caro.  It sits at the base of three major river valleys with mountains trapping the cold air that pools at their bases.  In the winter of 1989 there was a man living there who recorded the temperature at -100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit on three separate thermometers!! This is much colder than the coldest temperature ever officially recorded in Alaska at Prospect Creek, which was -79.8 F in January of 1971.  It goes without saying that,that is some serious cold.

Snow and Ice

The Arctic is covered in snow for and ice for much of the year, but during the summer it is almost impossible to find any snow.  Remember that sun from the paragraphs above? Well, circling around above the horizon for so long melts all the snow from the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean.  You won’t find any snow in the middle of the summer, besides on the handful of glaciers and permanent ice fields. However, it is possible for it to snow in every month of the year (in fact, I have seen this occur).

Something that is surprising to most people is the fact that the Arctic is a desert.  In Coldfoot, we receive about 9 inches of precipitation, with most of that coming as rain.  The average snow depth is right around three feet.  With permafrost (ground that is permanently frozen for >2 years) covering almost the entire landscape, water is not able to permeate through the soil and drain out from the surface.  That is why there is lots of green vegetation in the Arctic, compared with minimal vegetation in the desert.

Another interesting anecdote is that the roads are actually much safer for the most part in winter.  There are nine different types of ice, ranging from water vapor to solid as a result of both temperature and pressure.  Most people in temperate latitudes are used to ice near the freezing point and associate it as very slippery.  In the Arctic, since it is so cold in the winter time, compacted snow/ice becomes a solid.  At -40 degrees below zero, you can stop a vehicle in the same distance on ice/compacted snow as a vehicle on dry pavement.  Even around -20 degrees Fahrenheit, you are only losing about 15% stopping distance.  To maintain the gravel sections of road, they actually dump water on it in the beginning of winter (60,000 gallons per mile!!!!).  It does not become an ice rink, but a solid that makes for excellent travel.  As long as the road is free of uncompacted snow, it is quite pleasant to drive in the winter!

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A raven flys over the Dalton Highway just outside Coldfoot.

Animals

Despite what the television shows would like you to believe, Alaska (and especially the Arctic), is not a Serengeti.  There is a low diversity of animals that are present here, and of those animals they are present in small quantities.  The climate is too harsh for the majority of the year to provide for adequate food sources. For example, we have moose from the tree line near the top of the mountains down to the valley floor. Yet their density is less than 0.2 moose per square mile.  It takes 5 square miles to have one adequate habitat for moose.  Dall sheep, which live on top of the mountains (and have hair, not wool) are here in even smaller densities. There are 0.1 Dall Sheep per square mile. It takes 10 square miles for one Dall Sheep.  Bears range over vast distances.  Coldfoot is approximately 50 miles south of the northernmost tree. So we also happen to be nearing the northern limit of Black bear habitat (who need trees to climb away from larger bears). Grizzlies range over large territories anywhere from 15 square miles to 100 square miles depending on where you are.  The most numerous large animal species of the north is the caribou.  In the northern third of Alaska there are over 500,000 caribou divided into 4 different herds.  Their population density is less than 1 caribou per square mile.  While you may see hundreds, if not thousands of caribou in one area, there are millions of acres where there are no caribou at all.  Finally, most animals are nocturnal because they can’t stand the warm temperatures, making it even more unlikely to see them during the day, especially near the noisy road!  If you see an animal in Alaska, consider yourself quite lucky! It is a treat!

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Not a rare sight! A snowshoe hare munching on food in Wiseman. Notice the white ears and feet, it is transitioning from its brown summer coat to a white winter coat.

Why?

Not a myth but persistent question. WHY do you live here?*  Well, for one nobody is forced to live here.  It is a conscious choice. In fact, many people quite enjoy it!  One of the residents in Wiseman likes to respond to this question by saying, “Everyone has a home. Dorothy and Todo live in Kansas. I live here.” That one always gives me a chuckle. While most people these days are content to live among large numbers of people, I am not one of them.  I enjoy living in close proximity to nature, in large wild landscapes.  For those who have traveled here, or at least seen pictures, the beauty speaks for itself.  So far I believe I have found a perfect match, living in one of the last great wildernesses left in the world.   Although, there was one gentleman who was trying to tell me how Vermont was wilder and more remote…

 

Now that you are enlightened, go forth and preach the good news of the Arctic!

 

*This is constantly followed up by what are options for medical services/where is the nearest hospital? As if everyone is breaking their legs every other month. For those who are curious, there are no medical services.  The nearest medical services are in Fairbanks, a 6-7 hour drive one way, or an expensive plane ride on the scheduled air service.  People tend not to become ill very often around here.