WULIK PEAK BACKPACK, 2014


The Wulik Peaks area of Alaska is separate and west from the Brooks Range  and lower, not rising much above 3600 feet (1100 meters), compared to twice that in the central Brooks and nearly thrice at the highest peak.  I hadn’t even heard of the Wuliks before this year, but when one Alaska trip to the Refuge (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) didn’t pan out, I discovered this trip, a part of the Brooks I had never seen, and one that immediately intrigued me.   Wilderness I haven’t seen intrigues me.

The advantage of living in Oregon meant that I could get there in a day, arriving in the evening, and leave on the trip the following morning, which I hadn’t been able to do on my five previous trips to the Brooks.  I did so, met the 5 other people who would be along, representing England, Germany, and the states of New Jersey and Alaska, as well as mine.  Our guide was finishing a trip in the Wuliks, and we would fly in to meet him the next day.

I had dinner with the Englishman that night, and the next morning, we all flew into the Wuliks in two planes.  It was a smooth trip, over the Noatak Delta, inland, and landing on a slight uphill rocky strip.  The planes left, and it was quiet.  There are not a lot of birds in the Brooks, especially in mid-August, and it is a very quiet place.

Noatak Delta in the morning.

Noatak Delta in the morning.

 

Landing spot.

Landing spot.

The guide gave us instructions on bear spray and dealing with bears, and we hiked as a group.  We covered about 5 miles the first day, typical for Alaska, camping where two creeks joined.  We would stay there two nights, doing a day hike the next day.  Hiking up here was much easier than I had been used to: we were often on caribou trails, and while caribou go places I don’t want to tread, their trails are a very useful highway.  The grass was low, dry, and the creeks and streams, all having a good amount of flowing water, were not difficult to ford.  I stayed dry, and I would have dry feet the whole time we were out there, which I never would have expected in the Brooks; it had never happened in the 50+ days I had hiked in five different parts.

The second day, we climbed in fog to the top of a mountain nearby, gaining about 1100 feet (340 meters) and having lunch in the shelter of a rocky area.  We returned to camp and then crossed the river and climbed up into another area, not as high, but with a view back to the north.  The nights were cool but not cold; heavy cloud cover limited radiational cooling, but the high humidity plus any wind made one cold.

Bear, from 800 meters. He was the only one we would see.

Bear, from 800 meters. He was the only one we would see.

People reaching summit of unnamed mountain.

People reaching summit of unnamed mountain.

Wheatear

Wheatear

The third day was the only day we saw sun, as we headed up to a divide between two streams, climbing about 700 feet (210 meters) and descending almost as much.  We set up camp on a bluff a little above a stream and then day hiked into the mountains, doing a loop that at one point reached a narrow edge with a scree slope with large rocks at a 45 degree angle.  I did not want to go on, but I allowed myself to be talked into it, crossing without incident.  That was my only regret on the trip: we had “group think,” and had I turned around, somebody would have gone with me.  The fact I could negotiate the area without incident did not make it safe, something I refer to as “Challenger thinking,”  after the 1986 disaster, which had plenty of prior warnings, but since nothing bad had happened, the warnings were not heeded.

Forget-me-not

Forget-me-not

Author on a plateau at 1800 feet (550 m)

Author on a plateau at 1800 feet (550 m)

The vastness of the Alaska mountains above the Arctic Circle

The vastness of the Alaska mountains above the Arctic Circle

 

We then hiked downstream to where the West Fork of the Wulik River widened and camped, climbing another 1000 foot peak nearby, without the issues of the prior day.  The fifth day, we went up another stream, through the fog, across many side channels, where there was a steep drop on uneven ground to the stream bed, followed by an equally steep climb out.  After crossing a divide between two watersheds, we camped in what was later called “rain camp,” for the moisture appeared to funnel through the mountains and turn into rain here, but not in adjacent valleys.  Indeed, as I would later learn, there was moisture funneling into the Wuliks, but the surrounding area outside the mountains was relatively dry.

West fork of Wulik River.

West fork of Wulik River.

 

View from unnamed mountain.

View from unnamed mountain.

Water slowly moving down a stream bed.

Water slowly moving down a stream bed.

It was a short walk from rain camp to where we were to be picked up.  We could see the stream beds, previously dry, start to flow, the water moving downstream about 1 meter a minute, slowly, but steadily.  Whether the water, and the few fish present, would reach the main river, was not clear.  With more rain, the water would make it, and the fish survive; if not, they would die.

We camped our final night in a foggy valley, where we could clearly see the moisture funneling into the area from which we had come.  We were mostly dry.  I had hoped that on the flight back, we would fly over the coast and see the musk ox, that were clearly there.  That didn’t happen, but when we landed, I spoke to the pilot, who agreed to take me and one of the people on the trip out off Cape Kreusenstern where we could see them.

And so a high point of the trip came, not in the mountains, but at sea level.  I asked for what I really wanted, and the answer was yes.

 

Flying over a herd of musk ox.

Flying over a herd of musk ox.

Pair of musk oxen

Pair of musk oxen

 

Head on from 400 meters.

Head on from 400 meters.

 

Much larger than I had anticipated.

Much larger than I had anticipated.

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