Archive for the ‘KOBUK VALLEY NP’ Category


September 1, 2013

“We have a Michael Smith booked tonight, but he’s from Washington.  We don’t have a reservation for you.”

It was 11 p.m. in Anchorage, and I had been looking forward to a quick shower and getting to bed, after the flight down from Kotzebue through Nome.  I had a seat mate who kept jabbing me, her husband fell asleep (lucky him) and she didn’t want to leave the row at deplaning.  I got behind two women who were slow going up stairs, and each took one side, together blocking the stairwell.  It had been a long day.

The women were elderly, and I said nothing.  At my hotel, I was stunned at the news, and all other rooms were booked in the city. The night manager had no suggestions.  I looked outside for a place to sleep, but I camp in the woods or tundra, not cities.  I finally thought of one place where people sleep without being arrested–the airport.  I took the shuttle back to the airport, and the young woman driver was a bit sharp with me.  When she spoke, I was slow to respond, because I was tired, trying to solve problems, not create a scene.  Her loud: “Hellooo?” didn’t help.

It was a long, short night.  I heard: “It’s one thirty,” “two thirty,” and “four thirty” on the loudspeaker.  I got up at 5 to the sound behind me of people shuffling in line to check in at a counter.  Embarrassed, I collected my gear and went to the men’s room to clean up.  Fortunately, I slept in my clothes; unfortunately, I really needed a shower.  I called the hotel to send the shuttle, and the same young woman came to pick me up.

“Do you have a room?” she asked.


“Then why did you call the shuttle?” Her tone was angry.

“Because I felt like it.”  I replied, a little annoyed.  She knew that I had been at the hotel and might have a reason to go back.  I was thrice her age; I didn’t know if this was power over somebody, gender, race, my age, or she was just having a bad day.  I was wise enough to stay silent.  As a 64 year-old guy who just got 1 hour of sleep on the floor in the Anchorage airport, with a 7 hour drive ahead of me, I tried to be polite.  Treating elderly people with respect mattered when I was a kid, and I resent it when young people treat me with disrespect.

I am more than elderly.  I consider myself an elder, and the women at the airport who went up the stairs slowly I considered elders, too, which is why I didn’t yell at them to move faster.  Elders have lived long, have wisdom, listen a lot, and are willing to change their beliefs in the face of new evidence.  I qualify on all counts.  Some call it “being young,” which is fine.

When I got to the hotel, I was given a room, then asked to pay for it–full freight–until check out time 5 hours later.  I almost signed the sheet, not because I would pay for it, but it was going to be billed to the other Michael Smith, the guy from Washington.  But that wouldn’t have been honest. Elders must be honest, too.

The manager of the hotel was present and let me use of the room and shower for free.  I used two towels, leaving the room otherwise untouched. Subsequently, I spent two more nights there, in a nice room with a big discount.  That is why that woman is a manager.  She problem solves and knows that a customer who gets treated well after a bad outcome is likely to choose that place to stay the next time.  Indeed, I shall.

She was an elder, too.

I think the Native Alaskans were on to something.  Not only did the they clearly adapt their lives to the seasons, far better than we do, and existed a lot longer than we; their belief system respected elders.

I grew up told to respect elderly people, not all of whom were elders, but many were.  I was to listen and be polite.  Many elders taught me; I would have learned more if I hadn’t been a know it all kid, although I wasn’t a total loss.

I respected my parents, and my mother, a feminist before the word existed, and against segregation long before most of the country was, told me to treat all people with respect.  Making my parents proud of me was important. I didn’t always succeed. but I did when they began to die, and I had to become a parent to them.  They were not only my parents, but elders, people who taught me, people who deserved respect.  I had to help them exit this world with dignity, which I did, the second best thing I ever did in my life (marrying my wife was the best).

Yes, the Native Alaskans got it right.  The picture below was taken in the Headquarters for Kobuk Valley National Park.  The building is in Kotzebue; the Park 100  air miles east, barely reachable by water, not at all by land or roads, so I went by air.  It is noted for its sand dunes, which came from wind funneling between two glaciers millions of years ago, picking up silt and depositing it. I saw it, my 45th Park, and was thrilled to walk on the dunes.

But what I did not anticipate was far more important: to understand better what an elder is and the responsibility they have to pass their wisdom to the next generation. I needed to see Kobuk Valley, the Visitor’s Center, have a hotel reservation cancelled, and sleep on an airport floor for all this to happen.

Kobuk Valley Visitor’s Center; Kotzebue, Alaska


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.