ANWR 2009, AICHILIK RIVER/DRAIN CREEK


We split up in two planes, a Helio Courier and a Cessna Grand Caravan.  The Courier was going straight to the Aichilik dropoff, the Caravan to Arctic Village.  Due to weather, the Courier came back to Arctic Village, refueled and tried again.  They got in.  They were unlucky, because it poured, they didn’t have the stove with them, and there was little high ground.

There were three other pairs, two pairs going to the Aichilik and a third to another North Slope dropoff.  One pair got as far as the Sheenjek and were dropped off.  The Sheenjek is well into ANWR and the Brooks Range, but nowhere near the Aichilik.  It was too foggy to cross the mountains further.  The plane returned to Arctic Village and took the other pair to the North Slope.  Finally, it was my turn, and we got as far as the Sheenjek.  I had hoped we could go all the way in, but when I saw the clouds ahead over the Divide, I thanked the pilot, Kirk Sweetsir,  for his judgment.  (Go to this Web page for some great ANWR pictures.)  We had no rain, dry campsites, … , and a stove!

The next day, Kirk, who actually stayed with us (how many pilots would stay with their passengers?), flew two of our group to the Aichilik.  He came back for Aaron, the guide, and me.  I had a rain top on and shorts below.   Kirk simply said, “you might want to put on more clothes.”  We took off, went over the Brooks, over Drain Creek, and over the upper Aichilik River, where we would be hiking in about a week.  We got within a few miles of the dropoff point and the rest of the group, but it was too foggy to land.  We circled at a couple hundred feet altitude, thought about landing to drop Aaron and me off, and then kept circling.  I figured that Aaron and I could hike five miles down to where the other group was.  I figured very badly, and fortunately two other people in the plane had better judgment.  About the time Kirk was going to bag it, he saw a hole in the clouds and went for it.  We landed with a big splash on a grassy strip.  Welcome to the North Slope, just a shade under 70 degrees north, with the temperature about half that.

We hiked 3 miles upstream, in intermittent rain, and camped by the river.  The aufeis kept breaking off all night long with sonic boom kinds of sounds.  The next morning, we actually saw the Sun and were pleasantly surprised by a wolverine that went right through the camp.  I tried to follow him uphill with my camera and ended up getting a shot from quite a distance.

We hiked upstream, in the stream, on ice, up on bluffs, taking the proper side, the wrong side, etc., and found a nice camp right by the river.  Sightings:  one griz.  The clouds started moving in the next day, although the rain didn’t start until night.  During the night, I managed to somehow push both my boots and pack out of the vestibule, so I dressed and packed wet.  As the day turned out, I just got an early start on the wetness.  It dumped, but we stayed warm by hiking and by pitching the lunch tent for hot soup and a brief respite.

Three days later, we reached the headwaters of the Aichilik River, with the upper part loaded with Porcupine Caribou and Dall Sheep.  From there, we crossed a divide into Drain Creek and hiked downstream.  We had rain most of the way with some of it bouncing off us, and some looking a little more white than we wanted.  The afternoon was sunny, but side hilling was treacherous, with the mud, the tussocks and the holes.  We camped on the knoll near where I had been the year before.  And, like the year before, we had a grizzly sighting, as he crossed the creek, the aufeis and the tundra.

Rather than taking the easy way downstream to a side stream and then up, we decided to bushwhack up and over a pass.  Distance was a lot less; work was a lot more, but the packs were light, and our feet were all pretty much toast by this time anyway!  We had lunch on the pass and rolled into our Kongakut River campsite by 5 or so.  Those were two really long days by Alaska standards, but the views from the pass were great. 

Next day was pickup, with stops at Arctic Village, Fort Yukon, Fairbanks and a red eye home!

 

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