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.


Blogger moon dog said...

who are these fake people who comment on blogs!? work on rotating your pictures.

love coho

10/8/05 12:44  
Blogger IntelliGirl Design said...

is that what you look like when your staring down a moose?

be careful, it might think your amorous with such a come hither look in your eye.

10/8/05 13:42  
Blogger intrepid_reason said...

Hey hun this is your cousin Leslie! I was turned on to your blog by Grandma Elaine. This is so fabulous! I am excited that you are having this adventure, and I look forward to reading more. Envy! Envy! Envy!
Much love!

10/8/05 15:32  
Anonymous smws said...

I like this entry because it contains tussocks, which the other day I was discussing. Apparently it is not a well-known word. I always thought it was somwhere between a patch and a hummock. I am sorry to see that to you, it came to mean Large Amount of Pain.

11/1/06 10:42  

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