25 August 2005

Arctic Trek III

My third full day of hiking was a long one. I woke up on my gravel bar after a night of rain to find a beautiful morning. It took a long time to get out of camp. All alone, I went at a slow pace, eating and collecting my gear contemplatively. After all, the sun wasn't going to set.

As I was getting ready to go, looking reluctantly at my big pack and getting ready to swing it up onto my back I noticed a little piece of paper sticking out of the padding. It was a note from my friend Steph. She had written it and tucked it into my pack nearly seven weeks before when we went camping in the Olympic Mountains back home. I can't remember exactly what it said, and I've since lost it, but I know it told me to scream in a beautiful place. It was such an unexpected connection to my world, to home, I might have screamed just for the happiness of having received it, but as I looked around I saw beautiful clouds drifting over the mountain tops in the awesome blue stillness of cool morning sky. And as I yelled my morning pleasure into the emptiness around me, there was an even more startling invocation of arctic splendor. In the distance a wolf began to howl, and then another, and another. It was an eerie sound. I can see why it caused such fear in times past. Each howl is so rich in overtones that it seems to be harmonizing with itself.

I was so tired of tussock hiking that I decided to take Jack's advice and head straight up the river, cutting the oxbows and fording it when I came to it, mainly sticking to the easy walking of gravel bars. I had to give up on the idea of dry feet. I did however have the foresight to use my new gaiters that I'd bought in Anchorage, and as I moved ahead I discovered that I could make a nearly knee-high crossing without getting very wet at all. I also discovered--to a somewhat less enthusiastic response-- that my left boot had developed a sizable leak where the tongue meets the toe. After a long series of fords this left me with one foot damp and the other swimming.

A little wetness was not enough to set me afoul though. I continued with vigor, happy for many reasons, but especially that I
was not hiking through tussocks anymore. Waist high brush and swampy meadows and all the numerous river fords were like eating pie in comparison. It was much more difficult than trail hiking still, but I was fine with that.

Navigation was simple here. Just follow the river up the valley until the big Y, then take a left up to the pass. Of course I took the time to consult my maps periodically, and a couple times I made rough fixes with bearings to distinctive peaks. But as I continued, I concentrated less on the practice of route-finding, and more on the sensation of my surroundings. It would have been difficult to accidentally wander out of the valley, so why worry about that? What became more important was finding the bear and moose trails that would make travel easier. The best were the wolf trails. They always seemed to follow the best walking terrain, but they were also the hardest to follow. I'd walk one for a while and then it would be gone without a trace.

About five miles from my camp I came to a big bend in the river. It took me a long time to get there because I had to cross a huge meadow that was mostly inundated with 6 inches of water. Out of impatience I made the poor decision to beeline it across to see what lay around the corner. It was slow going, and I worried for a couple steps
about the sucking mud, but my boots were laced tight, and my feet were already soaked. Not much to lose. I looked around cautiously for the moose I was almost certain I would find but didn't see it. It took a long time, and I got even wetter than I'd been before, but I made it across.

The valley bottom at the bend was very flat, and I stopped for a snack near a large overhanging rock that jutted out at the bottom of a long spine of a west-running ridge. It was the turning point, the axis of the valley. In the distance I could see a new set of mountains including Chimney Mountain, which was near my destination. These peaks were more jagged, and steeper than the ones I'd been hiking through. Directly above me was a high mountain with rugged rocky top. I wanted so much for it to be covered with Dahl's Sheep that each little patch of snow became a phantom animal. They seemed to move as I looked away. Ragged bits of hide and bones, weathered and bleached after being carried down the valley in floodwaters hung from the shrubs around me.

With my destination in sight I decided to for it in one go without an in-between camp. It was an ambitious goal. I'd already gone a good distance. But how could I stop with the high country ahead of me like that, and no night to stop me? The sky had gone from a bright cloudy patchwork, to a thick impenetrable gray, and though my hope for good weather held strong, my realistic appraisal forecast rain. I had no interest in being in the high country in nasty weather, and that meant if I was going to see anything I'd better hoof it now.

As the vastness began to reveal its further reaches, my solitude became more prevalent in my mind. I had known all along that I was alone, but it wasn't until I'd been out
a couple days that I started to feel it. I realized as I moved on up the valley into closer looming hills, that this was new. I had never been so separated from people. Until this trip, I had never spent a full day, a full twenty four hours completely alone without another human face or sound.

I started to talk out loud to myself, to sing. I'd point out my frustrations, yell at the mosquitoes, and as I walked I'd listen to the sound of my feet step step stepping through the brush. I began to think about home and all the people that are important to me, that have helped form who I am. I wasn't pining for them, just sort of acknowledging their place in my mind, in my heart. I saw my picture of them, my picture of home becoming a reflection of myself, a window into my own mind.

The valley closed in as I passed the confluence of the Chimney Fork and Roy Creek. I was no longer fording the river.
It lapped at my boot-sides as I walked right through the middle of it. Occasionally I would find the boot prints of a pair of relatively recent human predecessors. We were definitely on the same path now. There was no other easy way up the valley from here on out. I wondered if I would pass them or see them on their way back. My excitement was growing. The pass was close now and I was approaching the base of Chimney Mountain, a tall spire surround by a broad talus flank. I was also getting very tired. I'd been hiking for almost 12 hours and my legs were not so vigorous anymore. My eyes began inadvertently searching out campsites.

Just before another crossing of the creek I felt a sharp stinging burn on the ball of my foot. I knew immediately that one of my thick, calloused sections had completely separated from the lower strata of flesh. Each st
ep brought a stabbing pain. I'd hiked too much on the tussocks and then wetted down the abused feet. They could take it no longer. My skin gave up before my determination to get to the pass. I knew that I needed to take off my shoes and bandage my feet before I could continue, but it was starting to rain. My goal shriveled. Necessity took over and I looked up the hillside for a promising patch of lichen. It didn't take long to find a decent spot, a little lumpy, but soft enough to make up for it, and I set up camp. Little did I know I'd be there for twentyfour hours.

17 August 2005

Arctic Trek II

I think I left off on my second day of hiking. I'd just spent the night at Glacier Pass on the rocks above the moose filled marsh. In the morning I spent a long time getting out of bed and packing my stuff. I was too lazy to cook myself a hot breakfast, and took off a little slower than the day before. I was low on water, so that was my first priority.

My maps indicated a small lake just a half mile down the slope from my camp, and I set my sights on it. It also looked like a good way to cut some time off of my route, shooting through a gap between hills and then down into the Glacier Valley proper. I still hadn't had a good view of the valley, and I was eager to see the long view.

At first the travel was no problem through thin spruce forest, but I quickly found my way into thick tussocks. I should have stayed on the
wide winter path that I had followed across the pass! The last 1/4 mile to the lake was grueling. I was thirsty and the lake was so close, but the tussocks made every step a struggle.

When I finally got there and sat down to filter some water I realized that I hadn't put on any mosquito repellent. A horde descended but I was quick and went for my insecticide before they could eat me alive. It was a frantic action hurried by the pressing fear of itch, the buzzing and swarming mass producing a mild hysteria that could only be cured by the cessation of the threat. I struggled to pull the repellent out of my pack, but got i
t and dowsed myself before I lost too much blood. With the mosquitoes circling at a safe distance and my body covered with corrosive chemicals, I started pumping water. When I'd got a couple quarts I stopped and drank it all. I was so thirsty.

This second day of hiking provided the best weather of my trip. The clouds parted enough to let a good amount of sunshine filter down, and as I moved along out of the morning tussocks I saw the broad valley open up before me. The peaks were not enormously high, the valley not so steep. The topography was broad and open. It was like a lot of places that I've been except that there were no people. As I hiked along moose and bear trails, and disturbed the nesting sea-birds that had no doubt flown from some great distance to be in this solitude, I began to feel the loneliness of the place. In this twenty-five mile long valley I was probably the only human. And probably the first to travel this way for quite a while. If this valley were anywhere else in the world it would be developed and inhabited.

The east side of the valley was my intended route. Jack had told me about a flat bench running along that side for quite some distance that would provide better hiking ground. As long as I stayed in the trees I'd avoid most of the tussocks, he'd said. And always look for the white lichen on the ground. That indicates harder substrate. I tried to follow his advice but somehow I kept finding meadows full of the damn tussocks.

I struggled with the little bastards periodically as I moved along. I hadn't figured out how to spot the easier terrain, so I would come out of forested and easy areas into great stultifying tussock fields. In an effort to avoid the difficult hiking I dropped down off the bench and onto the valley floor. I'm not sure if that was the right move or not, but I was able to find animal trails that helped my passage a lot. Down in the valley bottom I found a group of small, shallow lakes that seemed to be a haven for birds. There were a lot of very noisy sandpiper-like fellows that would follow me around, yelling at me and telling me to go away, and occasionally I'd see a an owl circling above the meadows, hunting in broad daylight. The arctic is strange indeed.

I only made five miles or so before I was pretty exhausted. At the river's edge I found some bear and wolf tracks in the mud and made camp on a gravel bar not far from them. To the west was Swede Creek, and up the valley I was beginning to see the higher mountains that were my goal. My feet were sore from all the tussock hiking of the last two days, but I was excited and ready for a new day.

10 August 2005

Arctic Trek I

My vacation from the Spirit of Columbia and Cruise West started as usual with a bus ride out of Whittier along Turnagain Arm and into Anchorage. I spent a couple days there in preparation for my long anticipated hiking trip into Gates of the Arctic National Park. Most of the gear that I needed I'd brought up from home and kept stowed aboard the vessel during my last rotation. But I needed a first aid kit, food, and maps, so I still spent a whole day bussing my way around the city finding everything.

From Anchorage I made my way via Alaskan Railroad to Fairbanks where I spent the night in a funky hostel. There were a lot of older guys there. Oil company workers from up in Prudhoe Bay. I talked a little with a guy named Jerry with spindly forearms and coke-bottle glasses and wispy blondish-white hair. He helped me find my way around Fairbanks when I was looking for a digital camera, and basically talked the entire time I was within 10 feet of him. After one night in Fairbanks I caught a small
plane to Coldfoot, fifty miles north of the arctic circle.

By some great stroke of luck I happened to share the flight with a guy named Jack Reakoff. He is a second generation arctic inhabitant, hunter, trapper, subsistence living extraodinaire. He lives in a village just north of Coldfoot called Wiseman, population 15. It is in fact the village treated in Bob Marshall's first book "Arctic Village." Jack helped me enormously in choosing a route, and gave me invaluable hints about traveling across the arctic terrain. At the end of my trip he even let me stay in one of his cabins, and treated me to cranberry juice of his manufacture, the best I've ever had.

My route was simple and open-ended. There are no roads, no campgrounds, no trails anywhere in the park, so I had a lot of possibilities. After some consideration I decided to walk up the old Nolan Creek Mine road to the border of the park, and then head over Glacier Pass into the Glacier River Valley. My planned route would then take me north to Chimney Pass at the headwaters of the river where I might get a glimpse of the gates of the arctic themselves: Boreal Mountain and Fridgid Crags on either side of the Koyukuk to the NW. From there I'd have the option of making a high route loop or heading back down the valley.

My flight left Fairbanks in the evening, and we didn't arrive in Coldfoot until after 9pm. By the time I was dropped off at the Nolan road it was well past 10, but the boreal summer sun was still well above the horizon on it's slow circumnavigation, and would only drop behind the mountians, not below the true horizon. I had all night to hike.

I strode fast up the road. I knew that this road, with its flat, groomed surface would be the only place I'd be able to make good time. Where the road turned up into the Nolan creek drainage I decided to make my cut across a large flat meadow and up toward the pass.

The meadow however was mad
e of the stuff of nightmares, the worst trekking terrain on the face of the planet, the dreaded tussock tundra. I had read of it, and even received warning from Jack, but I thought my youth and strength would make an easy go of it.

I was so wrong. The tussocks are mounds of grass that have built up over decades as the roots grow year after year on top of the last years growth. Plant matter decomposes extremely slowly in the harsh arctic climate. In many places the mounds are knee high and surrounded by a base of mud. Stepping over and around them is extremely laborious because of the sucking mud and uneven spacing. But to walk on top is equally difficult because they are highly unstable, rolling over in unpredictable directions when you step on them. Travel through this type of meadow then becomes an alternating balancing act and wet slog, either of which saps energy and morale. From here on out, I've decided that the worst possible insult I could give is "Son of a tussock!"

After several hours of learning about tussocks I made it to Glacier Pass which was blocked to my great annoyance by three moose and a browsing bear. I would have kept hiking if it weren't for the large menacing bull moose staring me down, but it's probably good that I didn't because it was five in the morning by that time and I'd been awake for nearly 24 hours.

I set up camp on a rocky knoll above the tussocks and in my lack of motion discovered another arctic treat, the flying horde of mosquitoes. The moment I stopped walking my body was covered with their little sucking bodies. That was as good an incentive as any to take a rest. I was in bed before six, and slept soundly well into the afternoon. The next day I descended the far side of the pass and made my way into the Glacier Valley.

Sorry I can't finish the story now. I'll see if I can do it later.