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.

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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.