Archive for the ‘ANWR, AICHILIK RIVER 2009’ Category

THE EPI-PEN CARTRIDGE

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.

CONTINUING ON IN THE FACE OF SOME REALLY BAD S—

December 10, 2009

Well before the Cessna Grand Caravan cleared the mountains near Fairbanks, Nancy, a vivacious fortyish woman next to me, started talking.  We were traveling to Arctic Village, 235 miles northeast; from there I would fly over the Brooks Range in a smaller plane, landing along the Aichilik River on Alaska’s North Slope, near the Arctic Ocean.

Nancy told me that she and her husband, Jim (both names changed), who was dozing in the single seat on the other side of the aircraft, were going to a different river on the North Slope for their trip.  As she talked, I realized they were as familiar with this country as I was with the Boundary Waters, except “their country” was 20 times bigger and vastly more remote; the last road we would see for two weeks was behind us.

I noted that her husband looked not just older, but his hair was patchy and almost ravaged.  I didn’t say anything, and Nancy soon elicited from me that I had once practiced neurology.  Jim was an exceedingly smart geologist who several years earlier had been diagnosed with a left hemispheric astrocytoma and forced to retire.  These tumors are malignant, and at a young age grow slowly.  But they eventually get nastier and will kill in 5-10 years.  Jim was treated at Duke, which is about as far from Fairbanks as London is from New York.  She was remarkably upbeat for somebody who had gone through a hell I hope I never will, and they were doing the trip while they still could.  I was sitting next to a saint.

“He has some trouble word-finding,” she said, but with a smile that would light up an Arctic winter, added, “he just loves this country, and I do, too.  We’re going as long as we can.”

We talked about Alaska, the time passed quickly, and we soon landed on the dirt strip at Arctic Village.  The weather over the Brooks Range was poor, and many of us to be shuttled in.  Jim and Nancy would go in the mid-afternoon; I was in the last group and wouldn’t depart for 8 hours.  We put all our gear by a small building, new from the previous year, unstaffed and christened “Arctic Village Visitor Center.”  One hour took care of seeing the village; when I returned Jim and Nancy were inside, looking at a large map of the Refuge and nearby Yukon.  Jim was pointing out, with minimal but noticeable dysphasia, some of the areas where he had traveled.   I looked with awe and envy at his travels.  I was never going to see that incredible country and he had.  On the other hand, I’ve seen sixty, and he would likely not see fifty-five.

Later that afternoon, Nancy suggested Jim and I walk across the airport to a nearby lake.  Jim had a quick pace, was able to identify a lot of plants and birds, and soon, like his wife, asked me what I had done.  When he heard I was a neurologist, he said, “I have this s— growing in my brain.”

This was one of those difficult moments where one has to quickly decide whether to lie, tell the truth, change the subject, or just run away.  I knew what Jim had, but he didn’t know I knew.  I didn’t want to act curious; I just wanted to be somewhere else.  God, I thought.  What do I do?  Just then a couple of loons called in the distance, so I took option number 3:  I quickly changed the subject to loons.  I felt like a coward.  Whether Jim noticed, I’ll never know, but during the rest of the walk, we didn’t discuss his medical condition.  We birded, spending about a half hour sitting beside one of the many lakes that surround Arctic Village.  Jim pointed out the plants to me, and I just worked like mad keeping the subject off astrocytomas.  I’ll never know what he thought of me, but I sure learned much about the local flora.

We eventually returned to the airport, and later, Jim and Nancy left for their trip.  At 7 p.m., the guide, Aaron; I; and pilot Kirk Sweetsir, a Rhodes Scholar (in another life, as he puts it), finally departed.  When we saw the wall of black ahead over the Continental Divide, Kirk turned around and set us down in ANWR, along the Sheenjek River, half way to our destination. We had the stove, dinners, breakfasts, and a dry place to camp.  The other group that did get to the North Slope that day had none of those four things.

But all of us had functioning brains and bodies that would get us through eleven tough days in ANWR and hopefully for many, many years after.  But there are no guarantees.  Jim is one of the reasons why I go when I can.  Bad stuff – s—, if you will – happens, and it can happen to anybody, good or bad, young or old.  I’ve had some nasty medical problems, but compared to Jim, I’ve had nothing.  He’s still going while he can, able to carry gear, navigate and love his wife, who copes with a grace I wish to emulate.  Both of them have and will continue to see country that few will ever see.  They are special people, truly living fully while they can, as we all should.

ANWR 2009, AICHILIK RIVER/DRAIN CREEK

September 12, 2009

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!