Archive for the ‘ALASKA TRIPS’ Category


December 22, 2017

I arrived home from the hardware store just in time for the rain.  Note: I didn’t say I just beat the rain home, but rather I arrived home in time to enjoy the rain.

Rain has a bad rap, and since I like rain, it means that once again I am on the wrong side of  conventional likes and dislikes in society.  I live in the city but love the wilderness, but I don’t fully belong in either.  I am an introvert in a society that extols extroverts.  I don’t like the idea that everything has to be set to music, which puts me at odds with conventional likes. The other day, I was sent a YouTube video of the Geminid meteor shower, which was a collage of pictures set to music.  I commented:  “Nice.  Nicer without music.”

I think summer is overrated, too.

I’ve felt this way most of my life about rain.  I enjoy being inside reading a book, while listening to the rain.  But lest one think that being indoors is somehow cheating, I love nothing better than being warm in my sleeping bag and listening to the rain on the roof of the tent.  Oh, I’m sure I will have to get up in the middle of the night and go out in it, but then it’s that enjoyable to be able to go back inside and hear it as I again get warm.

I led a hike to Heckletooth Mountain outside of Oakridge, Oregon, last October, when we had an atmospheric river hit us the night before.  An AR is a plume of moisture spreading from places like Hawai’i, Saipan, or Japan all the way in a continuous feed to the Northwest US.  Recipients can get several inches of rain.  I had some cancel that morning, calling me to say how they were staying home and not coming.  I initially envied them a little, but when we started hiking, the rain gear worked just fine (October hikes are great for testing rain gear), fall colors were beautiful, and while we were wet on the outside, we were warm.  Sure, we had to be careful about hypothermia, but hiking uphill helps warm one up, and so long as one hikes back down steadily, cold is not a problem.  Great hike.

Several of us hiked into to Kentucky Falls last January on what has been the wettest hike I’ve been on in Oregon.  We ate lunch standing up, in rain that managed to get to the forest floor through 600 year-old Douglas fir trees.  Hiking back out, we were totally soaked, and I loved it.  I knew I would dry off eventually, I wasn’t going to get hypothermia, and we were getting what we needed in winter—a long, cold rain.


Part of the Kentucky Falls area


Eating lunch by a 600 year-old Douglas fir


Kentucky Falls, one branch.  I stayed so long that when I turned to leave, the rest of the group was long gone.  Rain makes for beautiful waterfalls.

I’ve backpacked during a 6 day rainy spell in Alaska’s ANWR when the temperature never went past 40, our boots were completely wet, our tents, too, but we stayed warm by hiking, then pitched those wet tents and got into our mostly dry clothes.  The cook tent we set up had enough shelter for eating.  We saw snow on Bathtub Ridge in Drain Creek in June.  Yes, I had to put on wet wool socks first thing, but it was only cold for a few minutes, then my feet were warm.


Alaska’s North Slope, ANWR, shortly after being dropped off to hike south through the Brooks Range (2009).


Hiking through fog.


Brown bear rolling on ice, Drain Creek, ANWR.


Snow on distant Bathtub Ridge, after climbing out over a pass.  The prior picture was taken far down the valley and to the right.  

Years ago in the Boundary Waters, out on the waters of Crooked Lake, just south of the Canadian border, I got packed up, while everything was dry, then on the lake got hit with a downpour  I had to pull ashore on an island to empty water from the canoe, and I was really wet, but since I was paddling and portaging the whole day I stayed warm enough.  Once I reached my campsite, I had a dry tent—at least briefly—and dry clothes awaited me.  I had a quick dinner and got into bed, staying warm, listening to the gentle, steady rain.

I remember rainy days on the trail better than sunny ones.  I remember the cold rain in Temegami, when rain gear wasn’t as good, but our young bodies were able to deal with cold. I wasn’t as happy with it back then.  A quarter century later, and ago, I remember the Fourth of July week on Basswood Lake with the Forest Service, where it rained every day, and I worked to have dry socks each morning.  The woods were empty that weekend, the lakes were beautiful, and we patrolled a vast wilderness alone. That was the weekend I learned how to stay fairly dry during days of rain.

I missed the rain when I lived in Arizona.  We had summer thunderstorms, and if I were lucky, we had at least one nighttime boomer, where I could watch the lightning, hear the thunder, and hope the desert would soak up the water.  I hate droughts, and the 22 year one in Arizona was something I complained about often.  The few times it did rain, I heard weathermen and newscasters say that it was a “bad day,” as if we could live our lives with no water at all.

Before I moved to Oregon, I was at a party talking to somebody who heard I was moving.  He began berating me about its climate.  “It rains all the time up there!” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Great, isn’t it?”

After I moved, we were in a drought for 18 months.  I heard how it would rain all winter, but we got a third of what we needed.  When it was 80 in the mountains in January, an acquaintance told me how “spectacular” the weather was. I stayed quiet. I was told that March could be rainy, but it wasn’t, and that spring could be very wet, which it wasn’t, either. I was told that hot weather was not common, but that summer we broke the record for number of days over 90.  In October, my neighbor asked me how I was, and I replied, “nothing that 10 inches of rain can’t fix.”  In December, the “fix” came, not all at once, and never for 24 consecutive hours.

In November, a woman said on the radio that soon it would be cold, but it wouldn’t last long, and before we knew it March would be back, then spring, and then summer.  We had just gone through a summer with multiple days over 100, no rain for three months, wildfires that burned a quarter of the huge Three Sisters Wilderness and the Gorge, 20 days of bad air quality in Eugene, requiring special masks.  No thanks.  I can wait a long time for summer.  It’s overrated, at least in the American West, where it starts a month or two sooner than formerly, lasts a month or two longer, drier, and with more fires.  Arizona and southern California now have 12 month a year fire seasons.

I like rain.  I know it’s possible to get too much of it, but I have not had that experience in decades.  I had forgotten how many different shades of green there are in the Pacific Northwest.  In the desert, green is washed out by comparison.  I like flowing water, just to watch it, in the wild, not in some fountain.  I like the Sun when it comes out after a good long rain.  Then it is nice.  I enjoy it.

But only for a while.


Storm coming in, Lake Insula, BWCA, 2009


After the storm, next morning.


September 14, 2014

“The goal of the (backcountry responsibility) code…would be to encourage simple things like speaking up when someone is doing something unsafe….”  Outside magazine, article dealing with avalanche safety.

“I don’t like this!” I called, and stopped hiking.

The day hike we took on the third day of the Wulik Peaks backpack trip was going to be easy.  The whole trip had been.  While hiking in Alaska is seldom synonymous with the word “easy,” the abundance of caribou trails, low water in creeks, and hard ground made 2.5 mph possible, triple what I had been used to in my five previous trips to the Brooks Range.  My feet had stayed dry, and in my prior 50 days of backpacking in the Brooks, never had I ever finished one with dry feet.

We camped early, had lunch, then took a day trip up a long valley, over a pass, into a second valley, climbing to a ridge overlooking two mountains and a beautiful green cirque.  The Sun was out, the air clear, the wind light, and the way to the high ridge overlooking our camp easy.

People reaching summit of unnamed mountain in fog.  This one was safe.

People reaching summit of unnamed mountain in fog. This one was safe.


Cirque at top of second valley.

Cirque at top of second valley.


Once on the ridge, however, we realized we had to skirt a large slope of rock scree at about a forty-five degree angle.  There was the hint of a caribou trail there, but then the guide went one way, and I did not want to follow.  I saw no good route, and while falling on the rocks would not likely been considered life-threatening, in remote Alaska, there is no such thing as a “minor injury”.  This wasn’t the South Col, but it was more than I had bargained for on this hike.

I promise my wife before each trip that I will be careful, and I broke my promise.  I got away with it this time, much like the Space Shuttles got away with O-ring problems before Challenger didn’t, on 28 January 1986.

The guide called back, “It is only 100 feet around.”  A hundred feet means a lot of different things, and vertical vs. horizontal is a big difference.  I took it as meaning very short, without considering what modifiers “short” had.


Top of the ridge, after the crossing.

Top of the ridge, after the crossing.


Where the ridge turned from rocky to grassy.

Where the ridge turned from rocky to grassy.

I replied about my not being one of Outside magazine’s world class climbers. Every other person on the trip seemed comfortable, but one offered to go back with me.   Against my promise, and therefore against my better judgment, I went forward.  I reached the bottom of a 25 foot steep climb up to the guide.  I took large steps, stayed close to the mountain, being told by the guide I was going too fast.

I don’t like criticism, and I spend most of my life trying to do well to avoid it.  I ignored him, wanting very quickly to get to the top.  The guide had convinced me to do something I didn’t think safe and then criticized how I did it.  I said nothing about the event then or for the rest of the trip.  We had been required to hike single-file, and I didn’t like having to set my pace with another person’s.  When there are sharp-pointed walking sticks involved, people can easily get hurt, if they aren’t paying attention, and follow too closely.  I erred there, too, because I did not mention that problem at the outset of the trip, and I should have brought it up.  But the guide and another client had far more Alaska experience than I.

After the trip, when I got to a telephone, I told my wife about the incident and apologized.

Up on the ridge, I should have turned around and gone back.  The fact that I made it safely did not mean it was safe.  This concept is poorly appreciated by many, who feel if one “gets away with something,” it is safe.  No, one played the probabilities and succeeded, but the probabilities significantly predicted a bad outcome, and we read about those in newspapers.

In the Alaskan bush, one has already taken significant risks.  There is simply no reason to cross a potentially dangerous ridge that does not need to be crossed.  Going back around would have been safe and taken 30 more minutes.  Big deal.  But we didn’t do it.  I didn’t go back; I got caught up in “Group think,” and I didn’t want to disappoint anybody.  As it was, I felt like I was the worst hiker on the trip, as if it mattered, as if I were going to see any of these people again.  I disappointed myself, breaking a promise, because of a bunch of rocks.

The guide erred, and I erred, too, by not pointing it out to him.  He should have told me to turn around, rather than say, “It’s good that you know your limits” before making me violate them.  He should have decided to either have people look before proceeding or deciding on his own not to do the traverse.  That is what a guide really gets paid for, not for cooking a meal or leading a single-filed group of 6 on caribou trails in northwestern Alaska.

It is one thing to know a person’s limits.  It is quite another to respect and not violate them.

I suspect the rest of those on the trip have either forgotten the incident or thought I was a sissy.  I didn’t make a stink.  I moved on. But I didn’t forget it.  If I am a sissy, so be it.  I’m alive to hear the words.

Many of us don’t like to say anything negative on a subsequent survey, especially if either our name is known or our identity obvious from the response.  Those who survey should remember that their questions may not capture significant complaints.  People must feel safe to report problems, straddling a fine line between wanting to state their case without getting somebody in trouble with their bosses, many of whom do not have the gift of constructive criticism. I did not feel safe commenting.  The guide erred. I erred twice, when I didn’t turn back and when I did not discuss the issue with him, out of earshot of others.  That would have been best.

It is one matter to wrench a knee during a necessary stream crossing; it is inexcusable to risk injury on a day hike to a ridge.  The former is a significant problem, but stream crossings are a necessary part of Alaska hiking. Crossing hazardous ridges on day hikes were not necessary on this trip.  Had I fallen and broken a few ribs, at 65, my life would have been in jeopardy.  Day hikes are not necessary; often, they are treated with less, rather than more, care.

I regret my silence and not turning around.  Fortunately, I am alive to regret it.


September 8, 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.



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.



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.


October 13, 2013

On the highway from Anchorage to Wrangell-St.Elias National Park, there is a small restaurant half way to the Richardson Highway, right near the view of the Matanuska Glacier.  If you are lucky enough to have the owner serve you lunch, you will have the choice of getting the dessert first.  I was at first taken aback, but the lady was an Alaskan, and I figured she knew what she was talking about.  Alaskans often do.

It was a fantastic lunch, with the best cream pie I ever had, followed by a grilled cheese sandwich.  On the way back from the Park to Anchorage, I had a late lunch, because I wasn’t going to eat anywhere else. I ordered the pie first and the grilled cheese second.  Granted, my lunch was not a big ticket item, but I was one customer who came back, because of how I was served.  I saw four national parks on that trip, and they were beautiful, as I expected they would be.  What I didn’t expect was to ever eat dessert first….and enjoy it.


“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you.  I just got back from vacation, and I had a meeting that was dumped on me this morning.”

I heard that after I answered my phone to hear, “Mr. Smith, how are you?”

My answer was terse:  “That depends upon what you have to say.”

Normally, I don’t partake in pleasantries, which I have been trying to change for years.  In this instance, however, “How are you?” was ludicrous.  It ranks with a customer service person not helping you, and then ending the conversation with “Have a nice day.”  Do people realize what they are saying? The previous day, the same individual, from the cable company, had failed to show for an appointment to look at the wiring at my house and tell me what I needed to do to get service.  This was electrical science, not rocket science.

One hundred five minutes after the agreed upon appointment, a voicemail was left on my phone.  At the time, I had long since given up and did not have my phone with me.  Apparently, this individual didn’t have his phone either, at the time of the appointment, or he could have used it to call me earlier in the afternoon to cancel or to change the time, something in my era that required a land line and knowledge of where all the pay phones in one’s city were located.  I thought it ironic that a man from the communication industry couldn’t make a simple call.

We agreed to meet the next day at 1.  At 2, still waiting, I called him, with the above exchange.  He eventually appeared, told me about his vacation (to watch a football game) and eventually set up the service, although he didn’t stay around long enough to make sure it worked.  It didn’t, although I was eventually able to fix the problem myself.

Here are some lessons for people in the service industry:

  1. If you can’t keep an appointment, tell the customer immediately, apologize, don’t offer excuses, especially that you were on vacation (many people these days can’t afford them or are taking an unplanned, unpaid one), and had extra work.  Your family is interested in excuses; your customers are not.  We are interested in an apology and a new, early, convenient appointment.
  2. If you miss a second appointment, you are in trouble.  You begin the conversation with “I am so embarrassed, and if I can still convince you I will show up, I will give you a month’s of service free.”  That is an apology and use of a term called “recovery,” which was shown to me by the motel clerk in Anchorage, after I slept on the floor in the airport because they had given my reservation to another Michael Smith.  I got two nights in a large suite at half price.  Unfortunately, the night “sleeping” on the floor was not refundable.
  3. You are so in trouble, that you need to drop everything and serve that customer.  That means you don’t call ten minutes later and check where the customer lives, especially since you have a computer-phone which can give you that information as well as even substitute for a pay phone.
  4. You make it certain that you have your phone with you at all times, especially if you are in the–uhhh  communications industry, so if your boss calls you unexpectedly, you make sure that your customers are aware if there will be a delay.  If your boss objects to that, find a new line of work or a new boss.

I read body language well, and it was clear the cable guy either wanted to leave or needed to use my toilet. I’m not sure I ever did it right, but I have had doctors who were incredibly busy but made me feel they had all the time in the world for me.  Those people are worth a great deal.  Find them.


In this city, to which my wife and I travel frequently, we eat almost exclusively at a certain restaurant.  After a while, not only did they give us “a little extra” or “try this and see what you think,” great business practice, the owner, a woman, remembered us, despite our sometimes having been absent for months.  That is impressive; if you have that skill, you need to tell any potential employer you have it.  People like to be remembered.  Why would we eat anywhere else?

I was recently at this restaurant, this time alone.  Unfortunately, the owner was away on vacation, and there was a fill in staff.  The food was great, but the place wasn’t the same. I still left a large tip, because these days tips matter a great deal to people.

The next night, however, was different, maybe even a disaster.  As I entered, I noted many cars parked outside.  There was a large group in one room.  I sat down and immediately ordered, not because I knew there would be a wait, but because I knew what I wanted.  Fifteen minutes later, the woman across from me asked if anybody was going to serve her.  This was a bad sign.  Ten minutes later, I was told by one waitress there was a group of 14, and the kitchen was getting “slammed.”  There was an apology, but the lady still not had her order taken.

Fifteen minutes later, and fifteen minutes before I was going to leave, my food came, slid to me by the server, without one of the side dishes I particularly like.  I had to go up front to request that side dish, and when it arrived, it was again slid about a meter across the table to me by a hurried waiter.  Simultaneously, a table of 5 was getting special treatment by one server.  It was an elderly lady’s birthday, but I wished that they could have just ordered the dessert a little faster.  The lady across from me was now saying people who had come in behind her were getting served.  I finished as fast as I could and left.  I did leave a tip, less than I normally do, and left.

This restaurant was too busy that night.  The lady across from me will never go there again, UNLESS  there is recovery and her meal is free.  That would likely bring her back at least for another try.   Is a free meal worth it?  I think so.

The next night I returned.  Within 30 seconds of sitting down, I had my order taken and the side dish was at the table.  I had a good meal and left a good tip.  On the way out, I did talk to one server I knew.  I told her that had the restaurant told people there would be a 15 minute wait, they likely would not have had so much difficulty.  People are willing to wait to be seated, so long as the wait time is reasonable.  What people don’t like is be put at a table and forgotten.  Once a customer is seated, the process has to begin.  The server thought I had a good idea.  This isn’t even electrical science.


The following night, at a different restaurant, I got prompt service, but the menu was  stained with food, and I received an “is everything OK?” called to me from about 10 meters.  To be fair, I was the only one in the restaurant, so maybe that was fine.  It seemed a little tacky, however.  The bill came with a feature that costs the restaurant industry millions in lost revenue every year:  Nobody asked me, “Would you be interested in looking at our dessert menu?  We have some interesting choices.”  I’m thin for my age, and on this particular day, I was hungry.  I paid the bill, left a better tip than deserved, and left.

You can bet the lady running the restaurant in the Alaskan hinterland wouldn’t have forgotten the dessert.



July 26, 2013

Katmai National Park is for bear viewing and the valley of the 10,000 smokes.  I didn’t see the latter, but I did get to the former, and the bear viewing was spectacular.  Located about 220 nm SW of Anchorage, it is reached by float plane, with about an hour and a half ride over rather spectacular scenery.

Scenery on flight to Katmai

One arrives at Brooks Lake, and gets off the float plane on the floats.  There is a short walk to the visitor center, where the ranger talks, and there is a good 10 minute video on dealing with bears.  These are not the same behaved bears as in the Brooks Range, who have likely never encountered people.  These bears are near people, but so long as people stay on walkways, there shouldn’t be much of a problem.  The bridge over the Brooks River can be closed if there are bears in the vicinity, however, and bears are unpredictable.

The area for viewing has a lower and an upper platform.  The downriver or lower platform is open without waiting, and the smaller bears tend to congregate there.  The upper platform has room for 40, and one may stay no longer than an hour.  However, after one leaves, they may immediately put their name on the list to go back.  I did just that and spent an enjoyable 45 minutes at the lower platform seeing one bear sleeping in mud and another carrying his prize catch back into the woods.

Brown bear sleeping in mud.

Look what I caught!

The upper platform has a great view of the falls and bears will walk under the platform.

Some of the bears at the upper falls viewing area.

Fishing from the top.

The highlight was a cub chased up a tree by a big boar, who barely missed him.  Young bears until 3-4 years of age can climb, but older bears fuse joints necessary to climb and no longer can.  After awhile, the boar left and the sow returned with 2 siblings, sending them up the tree as well.

\ Literally climbing for his life

The reason.

Mom at bottom.


The third.

Mom with spring cubs.

The three cubs did come down from the tree, Mom got them a salmon from upriver, and they disappeared into the woods.  It is difficult to know how many will survive.  There is a lot of food, but there is also a lot of predation.  The spring cubs got a much later start, and it will be less easy for them.

We don’t know the effect of human visitation has on the bears.  Hopefully, it is not significant.  The day was spectacular, and this is a park I definitely want to see again.


July 25, 2013

I was in the Anchorage airport, late one night on my way home from my tenth trip to “The Great Land.” I stopped in the men’s room, and before I saw the pair, I recognized the smell that to me characterizes one thing: “we’ve just come out of the woods.”

It’s a difficult odor to describe.  It is woodsmoke plus something more.  Many people would just say the person needs a bath, and they wouldn’t be wrong.  But in the woods, we neither notice the smell nor particularly want a bath.  I can attest to that with a great deal of experience.  It is when one comes out of the woods that one notices the odor and really wants a shower.

As I washed my hands and turned from the sink, I accidentally brushed the pack one was carrying.  He apologized.

“Been there a lot,” I replied.  While I’m shy, I knew these young men were kindred spirits.  “Where did you guys go?” I asked.  They knew I wasn’t talking about cities but wild country.  I wasn’t going to hear “Juneau” but the Chilkoot, not “Homer” but “The Kenai”.

We started to talk.  The pair was young, at least 35 years younger than I, and this was their first trip to Alaska, where they spent 2 weeks in Denali and the Kenai.  They had wanted to do this trip now, while they could, because their lives were going to be busy in the coming years.  They did it.

Been there, too.  I told them about my 5 trips to the Brooks Range, and their eyes showed a gaze I’ve seen many times, and which I have shown others. It’s a far away gaze of longing, of thinking about wild country, of rivers nobody down here has ever heard of, like Kongakut, Aichilik, Nigu, Itchilik, Kobuk or Noatak.  It’s mountains and remote valleys.  It’s slogging through tussocks, in rivers, in swamps, in bear country.  It’s aufeis hiking and bugs in June, blueberries in July, rain and autumn colors in August.  It’s the most difficult country to hike that anybody can imagine, and it is also the most beautiful.  It is a country that kicks one’s butt, until finally one accepts it with the simple words, “It’s Alaska.”  Everybody up here understands that.

Normally, I don’t talk much to strangers, but when I’ve been out the bush for awhile, I find myself pretty talkative.  These guys were me, 35 years ago.  Then, my dreams took me to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, every year, to get into the backcountry, away from people, civilization, only me and the wild lakes and rivers.  I explored that country until I knew it as well as my home town.  Maybe better.  I sure loved it more.  Always will.

It was much later that I discovered Alaska.  Oh, I did the Chilkoot Trail in ’84, the Nahanni the following year and the Chilkoot and the upper Yukon in ’87, but I didn’t camp above the Arctic Circle until 20 years later.  By then, I knew if I didn’t start to make my dreams come true, they never would.  I hiked to the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park, and then decided I’d come back to see ANWR.  I thought once to ANWR would be enough, but when Christmas came I got a letter from the guide saying he planned a real special ANWR trip the following year.  I had to do that one, of course, because I had the longing in my eyes. I could see the Dall Sheep and Caribou, a river I knew would be special, so I accepted and did the trip.  Tough? Very.  Weather issues?  Plenty.  But we saw wildlife I couldn’t believe, and I came out of there saying I had seen the ANWR I wanted to.

Except I still haven’t.  Probably never will, either.  I did two more trips into the Gates, one combining backpacking with a paddling.  We saw a dozen bears, four of whom walked blithely through our campsite one night. Alaska.

I still want to see the Sheenjek Drainage in ANWR.  I would be 65 if I did it, but I think I can. A guide-friend is willing, and I know a pilot who would get us to the jumping off point.  No question that we could do this trip.  When I think about it, I know I have the look in my eyes those young men had.  Age  doesn’t destroy that look.

I didn’t tell the pair to follow their dreams, as I have tried to follow mine.  They didn’t need me to say anything; they were already dreaming.  I could see it in their eyes.  They didn’t know how they were going to get up here again, where they would go, or what they would do, but they were going to do it.

They will see the Brooks Range, ANWR and deal with all the issues Alaska throws at those who go into the bush.  They will come out of the country filthy again, smelling, but not of woodsmoke, because they will have been north of the treeline, where night doesn’t exist in summer.  They will again take the redeye to Seattle or the Bay Area, where they live, thrilled to have done the trip, and already planning the next one.  They would have had adventures I would be jealous of, but only a little.

No, the two needed no encouragement to come back. Had I shown them my pictures of the Arrigetch, the Aichilik, or the Noatak, they might have cancelled their flight and stayed.  Some people do that.

To the wife of one of them, should either some day be married, I apologize.  I just happened to run into a fellow dreamer, somebody who reminded me of myself, and planted a few more dreams in his head.

Let him go to the Far North.  He has to do it. He will come back better for it.

But he will want to go the following year.

And maybe some day he will be 64, in a men’s room in an airport, talking to a 30 year-old who has just finished his first backpacking trip in Alaska…..

2 year-old griz on the Noatak. Out of focus because my hands were shaking. Distance: 25 meters. Anything between us? Air

Bull caribou, Noatak.

The Maidens, part of the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Dall Sheep, ANWR, Upper Aichilik River drainage.


July 21, 2013

Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest park in the US, and conjoined with adjacent Kluane in Canada, the largest area of protected land on the Earth.  The park is difficult to get to.  For those who want to set foot into it, you can’t–without a significant drive or a day on a bicycle.  It is 7-8 hours from Anchorage up the Richardson highway, which has a lot of no passing zones on the first part and construction with flagmen on the second part.  Then, one takes route 4 south about 30 miles.  The visitor’s center is along this road, but you are not in the Park.  You turn at a sign that says Chitina 33 miles, McCarthy 93 miles, and the distances are accurate.  The last 60 to McCarthy is on a dirt road, which is better than it used to be, but the first 10 miles aren’t great.  Plan on 35 mph after that, and watch for those who are doing 45 or more coming the other way.  You end at a river, where you park for $5 a day, and call a lodge to bring a vehicle down to pick you up.  It is about a half mile walk, and camping is allowed at the river for $20 a night.  The town is not in the Park, but one has passed through the Park and Preserve many times on the drive in.  The town is lovely, quaint, and the food/lodging good.  It’s 5 miles up the road to Kennicott, but there is a shuttle, should one wish.

For me, this is a climbers park and a fly-sightseeing park.  There is certainly good backcountry for camping, and there is a lot of it.

McCarthy Road

McCarthy road.

Trestle from a century ago, McCarthy Road.


Copper River

Matanuska Glacier, Richardson Highway.



July 17, 2013

I really wanted to see this Park, the most remote one of the 57 Parks in the 50 states. It is about 100 air miles east of Kotzebue and about 150 west of Bettles. Many people haven’t heard of either of these places.  Had I thought about it after the Noatak River trip in 2010, I would have been able to have gotten a trip from Bettles.  I had a Gates of the Arctic backpack in 2012 that I decided to add a Kobuk Valley trip on.  The good news was that we had an early pick up at Summit Lake, on the Continental Divide, because the pick up pilot knew we were there and that the weather was going to deteriorate.  We got out before the storm hit.

Unfortunately, the fact that the storm was coming from the west meant that the next day’s trip was not likely to be easy.  A group of 5 of us, a family of “park collectors”, like me, and me got into a float plane (Beaver) and got over Ambler, a town near Kobuk Valley, on the Kobuk River.  Twenty miles from the Dunes, we turned around because of low visibility.  We were over the Park, and I thought that might be sufficient, but it wasn’t.  It never is sufficient not to see something the way you want to see it.

Let me digress on that last statement.  I wanted to see Kobuk Dunes.  I didn’t want to camp there for a week, hike the whole park, or canoe the river through the Park.  Those are all worthwhile activities for some people.  For me, seeing the Park was seeing the Dunes.  Pure and simple.

In 2013, I decided I was going to see all the rest of the Alaska National Parks (there are 8, and I had been in 4).  I decided to set up a week trip do see the southern 3: Katmai, Lake Clark,and Wrangell-St. Elias.  I started thinking, and I realized I could fly to Kotzebue and try Kobuk from there.  Kotzebue is on the Chukchi Sea, and that in itself would be worth seeing.  I booked the trip.  I flew from Phoenix to Anchorage, stayed a day in Anchorage, flying that evening to Kotzebue.  With no obvious taxi, I schlepped everything to the Nullavig Hotel and stayed the night.  I was told by Jim Kincaid of Northwestern Aviation that we would be flying the next day, probably in the afternoon.  The following morning, he confirmed that for me.

I took a walk right after an early breakfast, and I headed over to Northwestern Aviation’s office.  I don’t know why I did, but in Alaska, one does things like this.  Right after they opened, I walked in, and Jim met me, saying, “I’m really glad you’re here.  Can you go in 30 minutes?  I have some people I can’t pick up this morning, but I need to go this afternoon.”

I said that if he could take me back to the hotel, I could get my luggage and be back in 30 minutes.

It took 13.  I had everything pretty much packed before I had left the hotel the first time, so when I went in, I stopped at the desk and asked them to get my bill ready, while I went up to my room.  When I came down, the bill was ready, I paid and left.

We had to push the airplane into position, we got in, and we were on our way out over Kobuk Lake, brackish, and then to the north side of the river, passing Kiana.  We then crossed the river and went through a couple of small squalls until we reached the Dunes.  I didn’t even see the runway on the sand until we were 100 yards away.  We landed, got out, and I had a half hour.  Only a half hour?  Not less than a half hour!!  I sprinted up the ridge to a large dune, where I could look out over trees and a stream.  It was quiet, the sand was damp and firm, the size of the dunes huge, with a copse of trees and a stream nearby.  I immediately thought of it as a place to camp.

Time passed quickly, I got my pictures, we got into the plane, and we headed back to Kotzebue.  It was a wonderful trip, and I got into my 45th park on the second try.

We brought in the sign and put it in the sand. Kobuk has no trails, roads, NPS office (except in Kotzebue).

The copse of trees was by a small stream. To camp there would be lovely.

Plants can grow almost anywhere.

The size of the dunes is remarkable.

I suddenly realized that my footprints were a nice addition to nature.

More of the same.

Just such a lovely spot.

On the return trip. The Kobuk River has six channels, and this was only one of them.

Runway two seven at Kotzebue. It is too short for full size 737s, which have a special dispensation to land here. I thought when we came in, there was a bit more thrust reversal than usual.



August 17, 2012

In 2009, I hiked part way up a mountain along the Aichilik River, at the northern end of the Brooks Range in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I sat on a flat rock and wondered who had sat on that rock.  It was a place where conceivably nobody had, for a century or a millennium–or ever.  Two years prior, I went into the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park; our trip of seven was the only trip to go in all year, and the Arrigetch are well-known.  Maybe 80 people backpack ANWR every year, a place the size of South Carolina.  I’m blessed; I’ve done it twice.

The Maidens, Arrigetch Peaks, 2007

My rock, with the Aichilik River below.

In the Lower 49, the least visited National Park had 19,000 visitors annually.  No place is more than 20 miles (30 km) from a road.  I have taken 60 multi-day canoe trips into the Boundary Waters, often five or six days between sightings of people.  But every place one camps, there is a little trash.  You know you are one of many who has been there, even though the numbers of people who get into the backcountry are relatively small.

Few ever camp in the Brooks Range, where you are 200 miles (300 km) from a road.  Alaska has wilderness like nowhere else on the continent.  There are thousands of valleys in the Brooks Range which may go years in between human visits. This is a different league from the “Lower”.  I am blessed.

The following year, I hiked 32 miles along the upper reaches of Alaska’s Noatak River, one of the remotest rivers in North America, which starts high in the Brooks Range off Mt. Igepak and ends far to the west in Kotzebue Sound.

Perhaps 10 people a year go to the Noatak to raft it or to hunt in the nearby mountains.  Ten.  Few hike it.   As I walked, we encountered a few rusty cans, evidence of miners who worked in this region a half century ago.  Then I saw an empty Epi-Pen cartridge.  That piece of modern day litter made the area a little less remote, a little less wild for me.  I know others have walked here; I wanted to believe that I was one of the few who ever would see this place.  Seeing modern day trash badly affected that image.

The upper Noatak River.

Wilderness is not just acres of undeveloped land, because a forest with no houses along a highway is only a forest, not wilderness.  Wilderness is an extensive roadless area, an ecosystem, where people seldom go, and if they do, they don’t stay long.  The go to test themselves, to think, to get away from other people, to be alone, to hear nothing but natural sounds, or nothing at all.  Sig Olson was the first American author who really understood the concept, when he wrote “Why Wilderness?” in 1938.  He wrote of those who wanted hunger and thirst and the fierce satisfaction that comes only from hardship.  He wrote of those who wanted to be in the “back of beyond,” where roads, and towns and steel ended, for only there would they find release.  When I first read those words, I realized I was not alone.

That is why even a few acres of ANWR devoted to oil exploration is something I don’t want to occur, even when I use plenty of oil in my life, to get to places like ANWR. Perhaps that is hypocrisy, although I use those resources also to relate how special these places are to people who will likely never see them. Additionally, I have  spawned no children, which is as green as it gets.  I believe our society, with as many intelligent people as we have, should not be drilling for oil in ANWR.  We can find other sources of energy, and we can conserve better, too.

I know that a few acres in ANWR compared to 19 million that comprise the Refuge seem small.  Those few acres are like a Epi-Pen cartridge on the Noatak, or aluminum foil in the Alatna.  There will be roads, unnatural noise, development, more aircraft, risk of spills that will destroy the most wildlife (which is along the coast).  It will change the character of the wilderness and degrade it, for instead of being 100 or more miles from Arctic Village, a tiny town served by aircraft and with no roads out, one will be 50 miles or less from oil development in most parts of the Refuge.

A large portion of Arctic Village

Does 50 miles matter?  Yes, even more than an Epi-Pen cartridge.  If you think that is crazy, I accept that.  But then you don’t understand wilderness, either.

Leave ANWR alone, for future generations, as one place where we have not despoiled.  Let those whose lives have yet to begin see the mountains and valleys, grizzlies roll on aufeis, Dall sheep 10 meters above you, caribou walk 3 feet by you, fight the bugs, eat the berries, climb passes that maybe only a few people ever had, and watch the Sun circle the sky every day in June, as I have.

Grizzly rolling on aufeis, Drain Creek (Kongakut Drainage), 2009.

Caribou 3 feet from you, Aichilik River.

There need to be wild places in America where one can’t easily reach.  We don’t build chair lifts in the Grand Canyon, so people can go up or down.  Let’s leave it like that.  Those who can’t–or won’t–hike it can still see the beauty.  Those who can hike it, who are willing to carry what they need and work hard doing so, will see more.  That is how it should be.  I need to know there are still places out there where I can go to escape my own species, my detractors, my society, and find peace.

Unless you have experienced the wilderness on its own terms, know you are not in control of a situation, have met a bear or wolf face to face, dealt with a powerful thunderstorm solo, 3 days travel from town, forded a dangerous river, know the capsizing meant death, had to make do without something you really needed, you can’t understand the need for wild country as part of America’s heritage.  If you can understand how an Epi-Pen cartridge changed the Noatak Valley for me, perhaps you can understand why I want no development.  Leave no trace of your presence in the woods, and let’s leave no further traces of our presence in the Brooks Range.

Top of an unknown pass. Who has climbed it? Bathtub Ridge in distance.

Beginning a ford where the Aichilik is not so dangerous.

Face to face with a 2 year-old male Griz.


August 7, 2012

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had six extended backpack trips to Alaska, two on the Chilkoot Trail, two in the Gates (Arrigetch and Noatak River), and two in ANWR (Kongakut and Aichilik Drainages).  I had missed seeing the actual Gates of the Arctic, the mountains that Bob Marshall called the Gates–Boreal and Frigid Crags.  I wouldn’t see them by foot, but I could see the area near them by foot and see the Gates by air.  It wasn’t quite what I wanted, but it was as good as I was going to get, and I jumped at the opportunity.

Like a lot of things in life, how this happened was by chance.  I knew ABEC, my past outfitters, had “hung it up,” so I tried other groups, but the cost was very, very high, mostly because of air travel.  I wrote Dave Hamilton, one of the past owners of ABEC, and wished him well.  He wrote me back and said, “Don’t plan anything yet.  I’ll talk to Aaron (his son)”

Aaron and Dave guided the Aichilik trip, and Aaron is both good and strong.  He now works for Alyeska, and he had time for a trip in the summer.  We could cut costs if we drove the Haul Road just south of Atigan Pass and hiked in, flying out.  Aaron thought he could get somebody to drive his truck back home, and it was my job to pay for the flights necessary to get us from the middle of the Gates back to Bettles and then to Fairbanks.  With remarkably little, but effective communication, we set up the trip, and I shaved a day off the front end by flying to Fairbanks in a day and spending overnight only before pickup at the motel the next day.

I was picked up by Aaron and his father-in-law, and we drove up the Dalton, stopping at the Yukon River Crossing  for lunch, and the Arctic Circle.

We drove up Atigun Pass  in fog, then came back to “Plan A,” camp along the Dietrich River, hike upstream about a mile, then hike over a pass about 1200 feet high down into the Kuyuktuvuk Drainage.  This would be preferable to a 4-5 mile hike through brush on the latter drainage, although it would entail a lot

Aaron at base of climb. This was only about 1/5th of the entire hill.

t of climbing.  We decided to do it, and sent the truck back down the Dalton and camped on a sandbar in the middle of the river.

The next day, sunny, we hiked through some brush, through the river, and reached the climb.    It first looked easy–steep, but only about 200 feet vertical.  Unfortunately, that was the first of several false summits.  We would climb 1000 feet altogether, and while the grade lessened, it was steep the whole  way.  Aaron was carrying 93 pounds, I was carrying about 70.  We camped about 2/3 s of the way up to the top, where there was some running water.  We had a great view of the road, and a shorter 400 feet vertical to cross the pass.   

The next morning, we waited for the fog to burn off, which it did, and set off, over the pass down the other side into a large meadow and truly in the Gates.  We hiked downhill about a mile and a half to the river, where I crossed a moraine briefly hyperextending my knee.  While it did not appear to be a problem, I did notice some posterior pain.  We had lunch, I noted no stiffness, and we continued upstream, finding a camp on a bluff above the river.

The next morning, with no more stiffness, except with full flexion, we continued upstream, the weather deteriorating.  We crossed Oolah Pass, a 1000 foot climb, and saw Oolah Lake, a small pond, at the summit.  By now, we had rain and wind, the latter behind us, and we headed downstream, through several rock fields.  In retrospect, we should have stayed on the other side, and high, but we stayed low, along the river, and went through some ballet-type maneuvers to get through the rocks,  Quite wet, we set up camp on a bluff, where running water was available, away from the river, well below us.

That night, it rained, and I got about as wet as I ever have in my tent.  What I thought was poor waterproofing was instead the wind blowing the rain under the fly and through the vents.  I rocked down the fly and sponged out the tent, realizing that having a tent sponge was a very useful item.  We were visited by a solo hiker going the other direction.

The weather no worse (and no better) the next day, we kept going, downstream and then joining the Itkillik River, crossing a giant moraine and walking through the river, tussocks, and general Alaska hiking.  We saw a bear eating blueberries, and stayed well below him, getting pictures from a distance.  I found that 35 x has some advantages. My leg was fine, and we planned on camping near the last turn that would lead a few miles to Summit Lake.  I was ready to set down, when Aaron suggested a small hill about a quarter mile inland.  Unfortunately, the hill was covered with Arctic Ground Squirrel holes, usually meaning trouble.  He then pointed to a large hill at the corner, asking “Do you have that in you?”  After a whole day, I thought I did, and climbed a few hundred feet in a half mile.  Neither of us was fast, but while windy, the campsite was better.

From this time on, the wind was in our faces and in our lives.  We were well above the river and thought we could stay high and avoid a lot of the muck.  That did not work, although we did have 1-2 miles of river that had easy walking, before the vegetation a half mile on either side was swampy. We bit the bullet, crossed the swamp, and climbed a couple of hundred feet.  As we crested the hill, I thought if Summit Lake was way in the distance, I would be really discouraged.

It was right in front of us. NPS was camped at the best spot, but we camped across from them and had 2 days of high winds, rock down the fly, and try to stay warm.  We did, although the wind was strong.  We saw several Dall sheep across the swamp high up on a mountain.  Neither of us was eager to do a day hike, given the near constant probability of rain.  One morning, it was calm, the tent stopped flapping, and I went outside to find us enveloped in thick fog.  When I heard tent flapping a few hours later, I opened the tent door, and there was no more fog.

After two nights, we were talking after dinner on the third night, and I was just about ready to get undressed to get into the sleeping bag.  Aaron called his wife on the Sat Phone, and she said, “Have you heard?  A plane is coming for you tonight.”  Well, no, we hadn’t heard, since Sat Phones are turned off and the battery removed when not in use to save power.  We quickly packed up and were almost ready when Tyler, Chief Pilot at Bettles Air, landed a Beaver on the lake.  Within 1 hour, we went from getting ready for bed to being high over the Koyukuk, headed through the Gates of the Arctic, which I finally saw, back to Bettles, and another wait before we could get back to Anchorage.

My knee did fine, but my leg developed soreness and swelling.  My best guess is that I tore something posteriorly in the joint, perhaps a tendon, and have some blood dissecting in the muscle.  What concerns me is a deep venous thrombosis as well, so ending the trip when we did  gave me a chance to come home early.

Was this my last backpack trip to Alaska?  I don’t know.  A 71 year-old did the Arrigetch, but on the other hand there are no major trips I can see myself easily doing in the Gates that I want to.  There are places to go, passes to climb, but they are difficult, and some end up at Summit Lake, which I don’t think I want to see.  ANWR?  There is the Colleen, the Leffingwell Fork of the Aichilik, and the Sheenjek Drainage, the latter I have spent a night at.  It is two flights to ANWR, one to Arctic Village, and a second into the Refuge itself.  I’m not sure, but I don’t have to decide tonight….at the Anchorage Airport, waiting for a flight south.  I’ll have to see what happens as I age a bit more.  I think both Aaron and I think we needed to get into better shape, even though I was carrying 65 pounds every other day 2 miles for several weeks.  I needed to carry more….and further.

Or eat a lot less.