Archive for the ‘NOATAK RIVER’ Category

THE SCENT

November 20, 2019

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 immediately recognized the smell that to me characterizes one thing: “we’ve just come out of the bush.”  

I call it The Scent.  Capitalized.

The Scent is difficult to describe. It is not evident when I do trail work for a day or hike a 20 miler.  I sweat, I’m dirty, I come home and smell, but I don’t have The Scent. The first day out in the backcountry, I don’t have it. I smell clean. The Scent is days old sweat on clothes that have been worn far too long, unwashed, in places where there is usually a lot of dirt, rain, flowing water, skin that hasn’t been cleaned in several days, the combination’s often being mixed with woodsmoke from cedar, pine, birch or hardwood. Biologically, it is created by bacteria’s breaking down oils plus burned carbon, but I think some of it may be a special compound formed when hard work is performed in places where there are no signs, the rivers run free, people are few, and the sounds of traffic are ravens, eagles, hawks, hermit thrushes and flickers, marmots, wolves, and beaver tail slaps.  The Scent requires tens of thousands of paddle strokes, dozens of miles under a pack or paddle, bug bites, sunlight, rain or dew, a few cuts, walking through muck, tripping on a root, fording a river, reaching a difficult summit, watching sunrise over a lake with mist, warming or talking by a fire at night or on a cold rainy morning, kneeling on the ground pitching a tent, watching an eagle fly, or collecting wood from a downed jack pine.

The Scent is not the smell of a men’s locker room.  Nor is it the smell when one gets ill and doesn’t bathe for a few days.  Long spells in wild country appear to inoculate the nose to ignore The Scent.  But when I am on the last portage, the last mile of a trail, I can recognize a day tripper or a person who has just left the jumping off point. There is no trace of The Scent; they smell clean, soap and shampoo clean.  They haven’t worked enough yet.  Some of them will, and days later, they will be exiting  the way I am and have The Scent.

Once out of the bush, I notice The Scent immediately.   My wife and I weren’t able to shower once after we came off the water after a week out on Lake Insula in the Boundary Waters, with a lot of time under pack and paddle, near eagles, ravens, a wolf, nobody else for six days, a bit of rain, lots of flowing water, all the requirements. The outfitter changed out a propane tank, but something was wrong with the heating element, and he was really sorry, but there was no hot water.  We ended up driving five hours without a shower.  The next year we used a different outfitter. The Scent is that way: it is the smell of wild country and is foreign to cities, highways, crowds and buildings.

Lake Insula, 2007, before the fire. Le beau pays of Sig Olson

Walk through a trail town sometime, and by smell and sight, you can spot three different groups of people: those who are getting ready to go into the woods, on whom their clothes look normal and they aren’t self-conscious.  The Scent is absent. The second group has just showered and put on clean clothes, looks scrubbed and are self-conscious and maybe a bit bewildered by being back in a strange world. No Scent on them. The third group has just come out of the woods and one can smell them yards away—or when opening the door to a men’s room. When I come out of the woods, I know I have The Scent, and I try not to get too close to others.

These two men were in the third group. They were self-conscious about The Scent, both wanted a shower, and they were trying clean up in a men’s room, knowing that they had several hours ahead of them on the redeye back to the Lower. Nobody wants to get on a plane carrying The Scent.  It belongs in wild country.

As I washed my hands and turned from the sink, I accidentally brushed the pack one still wore.  People in the backcountry for many days feel at one with their pack.  I know thru-hikers on the AT and PCT feel that way, and when I section-hiked the AT, I discovered one day that getting ready to move meant I automatically put the pack on, like a shirt.  I didn’t feel right without it.  Anyway, the young man apologized. He probably forgot he had the pack on.

“Been there a lot,” I replied.  While I’m shy, I know well both the country and the work required to produce The Scent. These young men were kindred spirits.  “Where did you guys go?” I asked. I knew I wouldn’t hear “Anchorage” but the Chugach, not “Juneau” but the Chilkoot, not “Homer” but the Kenai, not “Fairbanks” but Denali. 

We started to talk.  They were young, at least 35 years younger than I, and this was their first trip to Alaska, where they spent 2 weeks, first in Denali and then 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.  They had The Scent to prove it.

Good for them, I said.  I mentioned my then 5 trips to the Brooks Range, Up North even by Alaska standards: Arrigetch Peaks, twice in the Kongakut drainage, and a backpack/paddle on the Noatak. I didn’t say much more, because they were busy trying to get clean, but I suspected that when I used an Up North name, a lot of communication took place. There is a magic to certain words in the North Country for those who make it part of their lives. My last trip in the Brooks was where my guide and I got hauled up to the south end of Atigun Pass on the Dalton.  We had stopped in Coldfoot for a break, and a lady who was a volunteer at the Visitor’s Center asked me whether I was going north or south, for the Dalton only goes those directions.  I pointed west.  She laughed.  She knew.

We bushwhacked in to the Gates from the Dalton was about all I said, but perhaps my tone of voice unsaid told them the rest of the story. I used a few words like “Oolah” and “griz”, “tussocks” and “Boreal.”  We had climbed over a thousand foot divide, camping at what seemed like the top of the world, then traveled for 3 days in the rain in and by rivers, past Oolah Lake and more rivers, finally hiking six miles in flooded tussock country to Summit Lake.  We saw a griz. I finally got to see Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain—the Gates of the Arctic that Bob Marshall named.  They had that look in their eyes—maybe I should call it The Look—which others have seen from me. It’s a far away gaze of longing, of thinking about wild country, of rivers that run free and few people in the Lower have ever heard of, like Aichilik, Nigu, Itchilik, Alatna, Hulahula, or Kobuk.  It’s mountains and remote valleys, wild country, open horizons, where the Sun in summer travels in a circle above the treeless tundra.  It’s slogging through tussocks, rivers, swamps, and in bear, caribou, Dall sheep, wolverine, and moose country.  It’s hiking on residual ice, or aufeis, and bugs in June, blueberries and crowberries in July, rain, autumn colors and the return of night in August.  It’s the most difficult country to hike that I have encountered, 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 who has worn The Scent understands that.

Oolah Lake

Normally, I don’t talk much to strangers, but if I’ve been out in the bush for a while, I find myself pretty talkative.  These guys were me when I was a young man.  Then, my dreams took me every year to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, “le beau pays” of Sig Olson, to get into the backcountry, away from people, civilization, only me, the wild lakes and rivers, loons, beaver, otter, eagle, moose, bear, and wolf.  I went into the country scrubbed and clean, explored it and came out with The Scent.  Eventually, I knew that area 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 and ’87, paddling the Yukon as far as Carmacks; I paddled the Nahanni in the Northwest Territory in between those two trips. 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, I never would. First on the list was the Arrigetch Peaks in the Gates, spending four nights at the base of the mountains, close enough to hike up and place the palm of my hand on the granite.  We tried to get back into Aquarius Valley, but the rain made it too slick and unsafe to see the whole thing.  We got to the glacier that is the headwaters of Arrigetch Creek. On the eight mile hike back to the Alatna River, there had been so much rain that we had to detour upstream a mile to finally cross in fast water that was mid-thigh in depth, then walk a mile back down to move forward a net ten yards.  

Base of the Arrigetch Peaks

Afterward, I said that if there were a guarantee I could see Aquarius, I would go back. But there was too much else up there.  I never did. I returned to Fairbanks with The Scent, took a quick shower and the redeye to Seattle.

The next year, I came back to see ANWR, and we did a loop hike from the Kongakut River that got us into Drain Creek, bordered by mountains called Bathtub Ridge, with a mountain to the east called “The Plug.”  This was the ANWR I was looking for, with huge vistas, miles of tussocks full of caribou, and a braided river.  We went in early June to beat the bug hatch and camped at the base of a cliff that was a salt lick for Dall Sheep. I remember being up at 1 am watching them in bright sunlight, high on the rocks above, moving on the near vertical face more easily than I could move in tussocks. 

Dall Sheep on a salt lick.

I thought once to ANWR would be enough, but that Christmas I got a letter from the guide saying he planned a special ANWR trip to the Aichilik River.  I went into the garage, smelled my pack, which had some residual of The Scent, and decided I had to do that one, of course, because, well, I had to.  I knew there was a longing in my eyes. I could see Dall Sheep and Caribou, another braided river and maybe a griz, so I went.  

We landed on semi-flooded tundra and my boots were soaked for the next 11 days, temperatures most of the time hovering at freezing. I packed four pairs of wool socks, kept one pair for night, which meant after three days my dressing began with cold wet socks. It mostly rained or rain-plus— hail, graupel, or sleet. We crossed and recrossed the Aichilk, walking on ice by caribou, as we headed south into the Brooks Range.  One day, we sat down on the tundra for lunch near the entry into the mountains and had caribou walk close enough to touch, between us  and the river.  That afternoon, we hiked underneath rock faces where Dall Sheep stared down from us from thirty feet up.  I had a wolverine run right by my tent one morning and a caribou calf do the same one evening. The last day, in sunshine, we saw a griz rolling on ice and  then hiked over a mountain rather than take a chance on a valley with a rain-swollen stream. 

Caribou on ice

Dall sheep

A year later, I backpacked the upper Noatak and kayaked a couple hundred miles downstream to Lake Matcherak. I saw another wolverine and we saw a dozen grizzlies, including a sow, two cubs and a yearling that walked right through our camp and another that we had to encourage to turn around on the shore of Matcherak.  I flew back to Bettles with others in a float plane loaded with gear, flying past the Arrigetch in clear weather.  It was fabulous, except the poor pilot had a planeload of The Scent.

Boreal Mountain, part of the Gates of the Arctic

I thought I had seen all I wanted to up there, except I still haven’t.  Probably never will.  I wanted to see the Sheenjek Drainage in ANWR, but things happen and I never got around to doing it.  When I write about this, I know I have the look in my eyes those young men had. I can still see the Noatak far upstream from where I stood one day, when we climbed a mountain and stood on the summit in the wind, astounded by the beauty of the country. 

I didn’t tell the pair to follow their dreams, as I have tried to follow mine.  They were already dreaming. They had The Look.  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 with The Scent, of course, not mixed with woodsmoke, because they will have been north of the treeline, where darkness doesn’t exist in summer.  Their speech will be peppered with Up North words, and they will again take the redeye to Seattle then the Bay Area, where they live, thrilled to have done the trip, already planning the next one.  They will have adventures the way I did, and look back later with fondness at their good fortune, as I have.

Maybe they will travel together, alone, or have company—spouses, children, other friends— who will discover these wild places and carry The Scent.  Maybe some day they will meet a traveler outside the bush with The Scent, ask where that person came from, and share some of their memories of the back and beyond. 

If for some reason they never go back, they went once, saw it, came out with The Scent, and that mattered.

Caribou without telephoto.

I’M JUST NOT A RIVER RAT

August 29, 2010

“Hey, Mike,” my guide, Mike Reitz, called out to me, just before our float plane dropped him and Ramona Finnoff off near the headwaters of Rough Mountain Creek in the western end of Gates of the Arctic NP, “you”ll love the flight up to the Nigu and back to Bettles.  The rivers are fantastic.”

An hour later, I didn’t think they were.  From 500 feet, the Nigu had a good gradient, and the rafters on it looked like they were having fun.  Above tree line, you could see wildlife for miles.  And I might have got a chance to see a musk ox, which would have been really special.  But I didn’t think I would enjoy the Nigu, and I had just spent ten nights camped in the Noatak valley river running and five before that backpacking.  Without a doubt, the backpacking was the best part, pretty as the river valley was.

I’m not nearly as experienced as the other Mike.  He spends his life outdoors in Alaska, carrying far more than I did on the backpacking trip, and walking a lot faster, and I consider myself pretty fast on the trail, even the non-trails, which are Alaska hiking.  To my credit, I’ve seen one place he hasn’t–the Arrigetch Peaks, and run one river he hasn’t–the Nahanni.  But he has been all over the “Gates,” although our backpack was in an area neither of us had been before.

I’ve done only 4 northern Alaska backpacks–2 in ANWR, the Arrigetch and the upper Noatak River valley.  I’ve run 40 miles of the Noatak River and maybe 25 of the Alatna.   I’ve canoed Takahula Lake.  All were nice, and my 16 days in Noatak country was special, but 4 more days of backpacking and no river running actually would have made a good trip even better.  The further upstream we went, the better the Noatak valley got, and the easier the hiking got, too, at least for Alaska.  Going 1 mph to 2 mph is a big deal in this country.  Four more days, and we could have gone to the source and back. 

The Noatak doesn’t get a lot of annual visitors.  Indeed, perhaps 1000 people see Gates of the Arctic NP in a year, our second largest, and the size of Switzerland.  Many of these visitors walk in from the haul road, not traverse its valleys or paddle its waters.  I bet maybe 20 see the Noatak every year.  So I’m not complaining.  I count myself very, very fortunate!  I’m just not a river rat.

Rivers in Alaska are great.  They have good current, the rapids are generally not too bad, and one can carry far more gear on a river trip, because most of the time it will be sitting in the boat with the person.  You can cover more territory, day hike on layover days, and never run out of water.  So why am I a foot soldier in this wilderness?

I just am.  I think it boils down to Sig Olson’s 1938 quotation of “sweat and toil, hunger and thirst, and the fierce satisfaction that comes only with hardship.”  I like water; I am an avid flat water canoeist.  Maybe it is the idea that I get a free ride on a river, and I don’t get one on flat water or under a pack.  I have to get from Point A to Point B under my own power, and that matters to me.  I like having all my gear with me, too, and when I reach a campsite, all I have to do is set the pack down by the tent site and put everything up.  Sure, I have to carry more weight, and yes, I don’t cover much territory.  But what ground I do cover, I know very well.  I can still see the large rock I sat on for a picture in the Noatak valley. Or the willow thicket we crashed through, all the while calling out for bears.  Or the bog we crossed, trying to get to drier ground.  Or the creeks, streams and small rivers we had to ford.  Or the bear, whose head poked out of the grass 25 yards from us, with no retreat possible.  Our feet were always wet, the bugs attacked us, and we had to rest periodically.  We had hills to climb, not current to move us.  But I have an intimate connection with the Earth when I backpack or canoe a lake.  I see a mountain alongside me, and I watch myself slowly pass by its landmarks, carefully noting them.  We heard two rockslides because we were near a mountain, not further away on the river.

But on a day hike, one can have all these adventures and hardships, too!  That is true.  And I like day hiking; I can cover a great deal more ground, which in my visiting of the national parks, has allowed me to cover more ground and see more.  But for extended trips, there is nothing like carrying my house on my back and covering all the ground myself.  Portaging a canoe means two trips at my age (it once meant one), one to carry the canoe, the other to carry the pack.  On Alaska river trips, there are inflatable boats to maneuver, which aren’t nearly as easy to carry as a canoe.  There is a lot more gear to carry, and travel in Alaska is difficult enough with a backpack let alone with all this gear.  While portaging is uncommon on Alaska river trips, loading and unloading the boats is a long involved process with strapping in the gear, as opposed to dropping a pack into the bow or stern compartment of a canoe.

Perhaps I should suck it up, for there are so many rivers in Alaska to run–the Nigu, the Killik, the Sheenjek, the Koyukuk, the Hulahula and the Kongakut, to name a few.  But there are also plenty of hikes in a place where there are no trails, just countless valleys to explore and new places to rest my head at night.  My feelings are my own; they are inherently mine.  Some of my best friends are river runners.  More power to them, for they love what they do.  More power to me, when I do what I love to do.

NOATAK RIVER VALLEY, GATES OF THE ARCTIC NP, 2010

August 23, 2010

This was on “The List” for 25 years, and I finally decided it was time to see this country.  (Click here for pictures!) I originally wanted to see the “Gates,”  two mountains for which Gates of the Arctic National Park are named.  No people signed up for the trip, so I went to the Noatak, where nobody signed up, either.  Ended up doing it custom with one guide.

We originally were going to fly in on a Helio Courier, but Fairbanks was so socked in we flew SOUTH (wrong way), around the clouds and had to stop in Bettles to refuel.  Then we flew in, one shortcut not open due to clouds (they fly VFR, visual and not instruments, so we backtracked to the Alatna River, flew up, past familiar area  I had been, like Arrigetch Creek, and then popped through Gull Pass, down Lucky Six Creek, landing at a sandbar about 2 km west of the creek.  Landing on a sandbar in a small plane is an interesting experience!  We were at 67 36 N. and 155 15 W.Once the pilot left, we were on our own, and started upstream or east, crossing 12 mile creek in deep water.  We linked arms, and the idea is not to stare at the water but let your feet find the bottom while you look at the shore.  Otherwise, the rushing water really disorients you.

After another mile, we set up camp under threatening skies.  The skies generally threatened during most of the trip, but it tended to rain harder at night.  We walked near the river, with typical Alaskan hiking–tussocks, climbs of 30 m or more, drops into brush calling “Mr. Bear!” in case a bruin was present.  There aren’t a lot of trees except in the drainages, and the ground is wet because permafrost limits the depth of absorption of water.  We camped near the river that night.

The next day, we moved as far east as we would get.  The Sun broke through, and my skin over my left achilles tendon broke down, necessitating first moleskin then moleskin with duct tape.  That held, even during some stream crossings.  We passed Lucky Six Creek and got into remarkably good hiking terrain for Alaska–2 miles per hour rather than 1.  We camped about 16 miles from where we started, walked another mile upstream to look (or try to look) at 2700 m Mt. Igepak, which we saw sort of through the clouds.  Did see a bear in the mountain.

The return was above the river, and I picked up one bear trying to root something out of the ground.  It was too far away to know if s/he was successful.  The fifth day we saw a third bear in the grass, about 75 feet away.  That prompted a “Go away!,” which these bears usually do.  He did.  We made it back to 12 mile creek, crossing at much lower water.  Interesting that twice we heard loud rockfalls.  This area is geologically active!

On the next day, we finished, set up camp, and welcomed a second guide and Calvin, a physician about 20 years my junior.  We got along great.  We dayhiked about 500 m vertical up to a ridge, with river views somewhat obscured by …rain!  Alaska, like aviation that is such an integral part of the state, is terribly unforgiving of neglect or carelessness.  I have camped with a sub-optimal waterproofed tent.  No more.  I literally painted the stuff on my tent last winter.  I store everything inside the tent or the vestibule, and I now pack everything first, saving the tent for last, so I have the pack closed up before I have to take it out in the rain.  The pack cover then covers it while I strike the tent.

The river had a 4 knot current, clear if it hasn’t rained for a while, muddy if it has.  We paddled and floated down to the Pingo, which is a boil on the Earth’s surface.  The pingo has expanding ice underneath and is a mound about 60 m high and probably 500 m circumference.  It was full of “sik-siks,” the Eskimo name for the Arctic Ground Squirrel, which sounds that way.  The rocks were covered with a dust so fine that it looked like gold spray paint!  We hiked back to the boats and continued a total of about 15 river miles to Kugrak Creek, where we set up camp for 2 days.  Mike and Ramona had a tent; Calvin and I had our own tents.  Because I had backpacked, my tent was a good deal smaller.  One advantage of river trips is the ability to carry more gear.

We spent two nights at Kugrak, dayhiking about 5 km up stream past several alpine lakes with Pacific Loons.  We stopped at a large cottonwood grove with almost an artesian water spring flowing out from all around it into the stream.  I was amazed at how large the trees were a degree above the Arctic Circle.  One night in our camp, Calvin turned around and exlcaimed, “Bear!” Not twenty yards away, a sow was looking at us; she turned and led 3 cubs, one at least a second year male, across the stream continuing down river.  I grabbed the first piece of photographic equipment I could find, which happened to be my camera.  I’d rather have used the camcorder, but bears wait for no man!

From Kugrak, we went down stream several more miles, watching chub salmon spawn and camping on the south side of the river.  We climbed 700 m up to the top of one of the mountains near the campsite, with a splendid view of the valley east and west of us.  Good thing we got that in, because the barometer dropped like a stone after that and we spent the next day in the tents in pouring rain.  The good news was we didn’t have to go anywhere that day and the barometer slowly started to rise (about 0.01 inch an hour).  The bad news was little to do except during the rain breaks.

We paddled the rest of the way to a campsite across from the Lake Matcharak portage, where Calvin and I were fascinated by a caribou skeleton with some nerves and identifiable ligaments (ACL and PCL) still present.  We portaged into Matcharak, and hoped for a pickup the next day, as scheduled.  While the weather on our side of the Continental Divide was fine, it was not so good in Bettles, and the Beaver pilot unable to get through the two possible passes (Gull, which comes down Lucky Six Creek) or Portage (which comes down Portage Creek).  Brooks Range flies VFR, and these passes were socked in.

I wasn’t at all sure about the next day, either, for it still looked cloudy to the east.  We were so far west, however, that we had no good sense of the weather in Bettles or on the passes.  In mid-afternoon, the plane came, we loaded up, dropped Mike and Ramona off about 25 km up another stream where they would continue on Rough Mountain Creek.  We then continued up to the Nigu River, picking up two hunters, then flew low over the Alatna Divide, coming straight down the Alatna, past  Arrigetch Creek where I had once hiked, past Takahula Lake, where I had once paddled, landing at the float pond in Bettles.