Posts Tagged ‘Alaska hiking and pictures’

SAME BEAUTY, DIFFERENT BEHOLDER

July 12, 2016

As the Cessna 206 flew northward over the western Brooks Range, dark clouds ahead, I was thinking that we weren’t going to see the caribou migration from the air.  We might have to soon turn around, but at least we had already seen spectacular scenery that few are fortunate enough to view.

We had flown to Kotzebue, Alaska, for the express purpose of seeing the caribou migration from the air.  The Western Arctic Herd fluctuates in size, now about 275,000.  I have seen pictures of the herd bunched together from the air; I have heard stories of having the caribou go through one’s campsite.  The chances of being in the right place on the ground, however, are small.  The animals may come early, late, or take a different migratory route.

Jared, our pilot, had told us a year ago on a prior visit that it might be possible to see the migration from the air, suggesting we come about the second week in July.  We decided to spend six days in Kotzebue.  If weather were an issue, or Jared busy, which all pilots are in summer, we would have flexibility.  We arrived on the evening of the sixth and walked one block from the airport to their office.  Jared had just finished a trip and told us the caribou had migrated 2 weeks earlier this year.  Much of the herd was far to the northeast, he said, but a significant number were still due north of us in one of the valleys.  He thought we might be able to fly out the next afternoon, proposing a triangular leg that would put us near the first group and then move westward to see the others.

The next day Jared was still busy at 3, and my wife and I were beginning to think we’d wouldn’t go until the following day.  Maybe. I have dealt with Alaskan bush pilots for a decade, and things are predictably unpredictable.  One needs to expect anything, be ready immediately, and ascribe any untoward event as “It’s Alaska.”  We took a short walk down the beach, waiting. At 4:30, we were asked if we were ready; at 5, we were in the air heading north. We were going to try to find the tail end of the migration.

We overflew the valley where the caribou had been the day before, now empty, except for a stunning rainbow, which suggested we might have some sunshine in between showers.  I wasn’t expecting much, my long standing philosophy being that seeing wildlife is a gift and not an expectation.  We turned east, passing by mountains of the western Brooks Range. I think we saw six rainbows.

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Rainbow over the Brooks Range

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Not uncommon view in the Brooks

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Canyons of the Noatak River.

Suddenly, Jared said, “There are 10.”  I didn’t see anything.  “There are a few more. Wow, they sure have put on their hiking boots.”  My wife then saw them.  I hadn’t configured my eyes yet for what I should be seeing from the air.  I’ve seen thousands of caribou, but mostly from the ground.  I looked and looked.

Then I saw them, a couple of small dots, moving.  Then I saw several brown lines on the tundra, animal trails, with a line of brown moving on them. Caribou.

 

 

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There are about 400 caribou in this picture.  The dark lines are animal tracks.

The valley narrowed into a canyon, and the river, its banks, and the narrow sides of the canyon appeared alive.  It was.  The ground itself was moving, lines and lines of caribou moving east.  We weren’t standing still watching them move.  We were traveling 80 knots, 1.5 miles a minute, and for at least five minutes we saw lines of caribou.

Everywhere.

Jared banked at a fork in the canyon, and we turned back to a valley where a hill marked the entrance.  Flying much lower now, we could see the hill covered with caribou, a sea of brown, some lying on the ground in the 24 hour a day sunlight.  It was stunning.  I like to take pictures, but from a moving plane through a window, I looked, videoing while looking more carefully with my eyes.  If the pictures came out, fine.  If they didn’t, well…it’s Alaska, and the scene was now embedded in my brain.

All too soon, we banked away from the caribou, leaving them to their migration, heading south.  Nearby, the prior night, Jared had dropped off a guide with 3 Australian clients, telling them to camp by a small, shallow river and hike over to a nearby hill and wait for the caribou.  “I hope I was right,” he said.

We approached the camp and overflew it, then banking and landing on a gravel bar near the group.  The guide, a young woman, appeared with the three others in tow, young men.  She was ecstatic, slapping hands with Jared, saying they had spent much of the night, sun up of course, watching the migration from a quarter mile.  The clients seemed more muted. Wow, I thought.  What an experience, hours of caribou viewing from the ground.

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Ground view about 10 miles from Caribou viewing.

 

We took off and flew back to Kotzebue, thrilled that on our first full day we saw what we came—and hoped— to see.  No, we didn’t see 200,000 caribou in a valley milling around.  I’ve seen those pictures, and they are amazing.  We saw instead something more subtle, nothing I expected to see, but to me every bit as memorable.  We saw miles and miles of caribou on the move, covering the hills, the streams, moving through a valley and a canyon.  One doesn’t see that when they are bunched up.  We saw a migration.  Would I like to see it from the ground?  Yeah, I would. But I saw something special.

The next day, we happened to run into one of the Australians in the hotel, not surprising, since there is only one major one in Kotzebue.  He said nothing about the caribou, not one word, but spoke about the Wildebeest migration in Tanzania, telling us at least 3 times that we really ought to see it. I’m 3 1/2 times his age, but I get excited about nature like a kid.  At 19, he saw something rare and beautiful, but as Steve Prefontaine said, “sacrificed the gift.”  His father paid for his trips; the flight alone (not including guides, food, or the trip from Australia) were $6600.

We subsequently took two more flights with Jared, one to Kobuk Valley National Park, where we were dropped off while he flew elsewhere to shuttle a group from one area to another.  We had free “ground time,” because he had to be out there anyway, and spent three hours hiking in perhaps the most remote park in the country, quiet, beautiful and alone.  Two days later, we flew down to the Seward Peninsula to see Serpentine Hot Springs, part of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Jared, very familiar with the area, had never been in the water. Come to think of it, he had never seen such good weather there, either. While we were hiking, looking at the many tors, granite that appeared as the ground above it eroded, he soaked.

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Bush growing on sand dune in drainage where there were a remarkable number of wildflowers and a 15 year-old spruce tree.

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Western edge of Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

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The wind causes changes in the sand, changes in the clouds.

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Crop circle effect of wind’s blowing grass. Foot tip for perspective.

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Changes in the color and texture of sand occur just like in snow.

 

We came to see the caribou migration, seeing it in a way I had not expected.  Additionally, I got to see Kobuk Valley a second time, with adequate time to explore.  And I flew down to Serpentine Hot Springs, a place I hoped some day I might see but figured I never would.

I won’t ever see the Wildebeest migration, although I’m certain it’s remarkable, as are both North American migrations, caribou and crane.  Some of the best experiences come not from managing a trip to Tanzania or Alaska, but from managing one’s expectations.

 

“I HAD THE BEST OF IT”

September 15, 2015

We woke at 1 a.m., perhaps because it was so quiet on Horse Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).  When we unzipped the tent and crawled outside on the dewy grass, we saw Orion’s stunning reflection on the water.  I looked overhead, the only time in my life seeing all 7 of the Pleiades visible to the unaided eye.  Oh my, there was absolutely no sound.  Wilderness, dark skies, and quiet:  My outdoor triad.  We had the best of it.

Yeah, we had the best of it one night on the North Tonto Platform down in the Grand Canyon, west of Clear Creek, where we had left the prior afternoon, so we could get part way back to Phantom Ranch rather than doing the whole hike the following day.  We dry camped, maybe where nobody had camped before.  We saw dark skies and heard nothing, not even the Colorado.  We whispered.  The Canyon is noisier today, and I don’t know whether that experience is possible, along with our hearing the echo of a raven’s wings off the Redwall, in a deep southern curve called The Abyss, back in ’86, unforgettable.

We had the best of it just last year in the BWCA, awakening to the sound of wolves not far from our campsite.  We got up, went out and saw an aurora, not just that night but the next, too.  Beavers felled trees in a swamp nearby, not knowing or caring about us as they swam by with leafy branches in their mouths.  A moose walked through the swamp, an hour after the thought had occurred to me the only thing we had missed was a moose.

Beaver swimming back to lodge, BWCA, 2014. Basswood Lake

Beaver swimming back to lodge, BWCA, 2014. Basswood Lake

Moose in swamp, Basswood Lake, 2014.

Moose in swamp, Basswood Lake, 2014.

Oh, the best of it could have been a number of places, one of which was from a small site on Lake Insula, where we saw the Harvest Moon’s rising over the trees at the far east end, trees now burned, but some day, not in my lifetime, will grow back.  We had the best of Insula.  I spent 40 nights there.  Camped twice for 5 nights each on one site and didn’t see a soul. That’s wilderness.  We had sunny days; we had sleet and snow.  We knew the whole lake.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Author standing on

Author standing on “The Rock,” Lake Insula, 2005

Author in tent, 2007, Lake Insula trip where we evaluated all 47 campsites. Snow and cold weather made the job interesting.

Author in tent, 2007, Lake Insula trip where we evaluated all 47 campsites. Snow and cold weather made the job interesting.

We had the best of it the day we hiked the upper Aichilik in Alaska, under heavy packs, where lunch was a sit down affair with Caribou walking right by us, and afternoon was walking below Dall Sheep, who weren’t the least bothered by us.  Doesn’t get much better.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River drainage.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River drainage.

Caribou, upper Aichilik River, Alaska ANWR, 2009. No telephoto.

Caribou, upper Aichilik River, Alaska ANWR, 2009. No telephoto.

We had the best of it in the Gunflint when we finished the 15th portage of the day, and I took the canoe off my head, tired but knowing we had finished the Frost River.  What a great decision to camp early the day before and start the river in the morning.  Saw a moose, too. That day some people asked what lake they were on and the weather forecast.  I told them Cherokee Lake and that it would rain the next day.  Mind you, I hadn’t heard a weather forecast in a week.  New south winds up north, however, mean rain.  Poured the next day, planned day of rest.  Great trip.

I had the best of Crooked Lake the day I soloed in from Mudro Lake.  I had an otter surface next to the canoe and hiss at me, as the south wind pushed me north. I crossed a rough stretch, later watching the Sun set, knowing my tired arms could take me the last mile of 20 to a campsite on the border.  I was awakened the next morning by wolves.  I got up, but it was too dark to see them.  I did see clouds moving up through Orion’s belt.  South wind. I broke camp and launched, and it poured all the way to Fourtown Lake. Didn’t see anybody the whole trip.

It’d be 14 more years before I actually saw a wolf— on Isle Royale— 10 trail miles from the nearest person. Told that to a friend, and he wrote back, “God Damn!  That’s what it’s all about.”  Never heard him swear before or since.  But he nailed it.  So did I.  He has had the best of it, too, in a different style.

Or ’92 in Canada’s Quetico, on Kawnipi Lake, alone, a quiet late spring night, after a hard push through snow and wind up Agnes.  The work involved in canoe travel matters as much as the destination.  Kawnipi is special, difficult to reach, and I went there six times, the last time solo, at 56. Wow, am I blessed.  I go to Kawnipi in my mind sometimes.  I had the best of it.

Last time on Kawnipi, May 2005. Or do I try one more time?

Last time on Kawnipi, May 2005. Or do I try one more time?

I had the best of Alice Lake, mid-October 23 years ago, 6 days without seeing anybody, alone in perhaps 200 square miles, with a morning blizzard and a headwind.  Crazy?  No, it was one of the most memorable days I’ve canoed, and I’ve been lucky to have camped five hundred nights Up North.  Last night out, I fell asleep to rain and then heard it stop, knowing I would wake up to a white landscape.

I’ve been alone at the top of Texas, on Guadalupe Peak, calm, despite gale predictions, looking down on the salt flats and watching the low sun cast the shadow of the mountain miles to the east.  I made it down that evening just as it got dark. Great hike.

Guadalupe Peak, Texas, summit, December 2005.

Guadalupe Peak, Texas, summit, December 2005.

Same in Wind Cave National Park, in South Dakota, on a hike out somewhere where you could see forever except for a few copses of trees, and an elk herd galloped right in front of me, a drop your jaw and stare moment.

Wind Cave, NP, South Dakota, 2007.

Wind Cave, NP, South Dakota, 2007.

I had the best of it on a cold February evening in the viewing blind at Rowe Sanctuary, alone, when a flock of ten thousand Sandhill Cranes displaced a large flock of Snow Geese.  There were birds coming right at me, birds everywhere.  On my video I say, “I have never seen anything like this in my whole life.”

Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska, Crane Migration, 2012. These are not uncommon sights.

Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska, Crane Migration, 2012. These are not uncommon sights.

It could have been the best along the Lady Evelyn River in Temagami, up in Canada, fifty-one years ago, when we camped by a long set of rapids on one of the most difficult canoe trips I ever did.  It was marvelous country to see, in my sixteenth year.

Or splashing down the Tim River, pack on my back and canoe on my head, because one of the campers was unable to carry the pack, and as head man, I had to do it.  I still remember on the Bulletin Board at Camp Pathfinder, where they listed trips, the words, “Mike Smith in charge.”  I was eighteen.

Oh, the best close to home might have been back in ’89, hiking up to 9000 feet in rain/snow mix, camping on Baldy Saddle in the Santa Ritas.  Snowed that night, but I was warm, listening to snow gradually accumulate and slide down the tent.

We had the best of the grasslands of Sonoita, before it got crowded, when we slept out under the stars, watched the Milky Way rise, and shortly thereafter the waning gibbous Moon.  A decade ago, I hiked up the Santa Catalinas from my then house, walking three miles to the trailhead and climbing 4000 feet, so I could fulfill a dream I had to spend one night—just one—sleeping up there.  Nearly a million people were below me, but I didn’t hear a sound.  I had the best of the Catalinas that night.

A letter in High Country News prompted these musings.  A prior issue was devoted to the overcrowding, cycling in the wilderness, and the loss of wild country, through privatization and destruction.  The writer, 63, if I remember correctly, wrote simply:  “I had the best of it.”  He did.  And so have I.

It’s still possible to have the best of it, but far more difficult because of more people, less wild country, many years behind me and few ahead.

My hearing is fading, my strength less, but I still hear the call of wild country.  I’ll answer as long as I can.

Young Moose, Isle Royale, May 2006. Too close.

Young Moose, Isle Royale, May 2006. Too close.

The Big Lake, Superior, from Isle Royale. May 2006: 9 Moose, 1 wolf, 1 fox.

The Big Lake, Superior, from Isle Royale. May 2006: 9 Moose, 1 wolf, 1 fox.

KINSHIP

August 20, 2015

“Mike, could you do me a favor?”

Rosemary, a few years my senior, is a good friend and works with me as a volunteer at Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska during the Crane migration.  She and her husband are remarkable people, and we see each other for a week or two every spring.

“Sure, what?”

“Could you clean the toilets in the men’s room?  I simply cannot bring myself to do that any longer.”

“Sure.  I’ll do it.”  At Rowe, I do anything I am asked if I am capable of doing it.  I can clean toilets.

Since that day, five years ago, there isn’t any public restroom I have used without scanning the urinals or the toilets for cleanliness.  If I see a man cleaning one, usually a person of color, I feel some kinship.  The man will never know that I’ve done his job.  I don’t like the unnecessary junk thrown into urinals, the misses, the stains on the floor, and the paper that misses the garbage can.  It’s gross, and the job doesn’t pay well.  I did daily cleaning as a volunteer, but morning and night I guided people to see one of the world’s great migrations, and I don’t use “world” lightly,  It’s on Jane Goodall’s top 10 list and my top three.

Cleaning toilets was third in a line of cleaning up poop. I learned it as a fourth year medical student working in the NICU and general pediatrics.  If one examined a newborn, and found the diaper soiled, one changed it and cleaned the baby.  Period.  No exceptions. It’s cruel and unprofessional to knowingly let anybody sit in their own urine or feces.

I cleaned up after adult patients when I examined them, if they had soiled themselves.  It took time, I gagged more than once, but it was relaxing to do something I knew was good.

It’s not always fun being a tour guide, dealing with the public in a visitor’s center.  I don’t walk into one today without knowing exactly what it is like to be behind the desk, to have to clean the place, and answer questions. Perhaps that is why I had I thought my experience interesting, on successive days, with two tour guides in Alaska.

The first tour was to Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park.  Our boat guide to see the bears was a man our age, a stone mason for 42 years, with one knee replaced and needing the other done, too.  I wonder why those in Congress who want to raise the age for Social Security can’t understand that that most can’t do difficult manual labor until 70.  I’m not far from 70, and I would have trouble.  Then again, when one is in his 40s, with good health, money and connections, he doesn’t think about the day when his body starts betraying him, as mine has.  I don’t think I must end my hiking and camping, but I’d be foolish to discount the possibility in the near future.  Ted, Rand, Rick, and Donald don’t think in those terms.

Bear viewing that day was poor.  We went immediately to where there was a single sow, the only brown bear we would see, but saw great bear behavior for an hour.

Brown bear, Lake Clark NP, Alaska

Brown bear, Lake Clark NP, Alaska

I have seen 18 bears in the Brooks Range, but I saw more behavior from this one in an hour than all of my sightings combined, often from a safe 800 meters, rather than from 50, if that.  I knew the guide was unhappy with the paucity of bears, but the large numbers of fisherman, many with noisy motors, made it impossible.  As a tour guide, I know the pressure guides feel to “deliver,” when nature calls the shots. That afternoon, I spotted a black bear and two cubs from 800 meters, and we had a delightful half hour of viewing when they came closer.  Further away, where the guide hoped to find bears, all we saw was an unseen bear making trees move, the movement gradually uphill.  My wife and I were excited, and I think the guide was glad.

Black bear, Lake Clark, NP, Alaska

Black bear, Lake Clark, NP, Alaska

Sow with one of her two cubs.

Sow with one of her two cubs.

Crescent Lake was beautiful, the mountains clear, the weather perfect.  I still felt sorry for the guide, but this is Alaska, not a zoo, which too many people expect when they go on wildlife viewing tours.  Seeing wildlife is a gift. For the first time, I had seen black and brown bears the same day, interesting bear behavior, and spotted another at great distance.  I helped.

Crescent Lake, Alaska

Crescent Lake, Alaska

The second tour was a flight/see over the Chugach Mountains to Prince William Sound.  The tour was supposed to start at 10; we learned it would be 20 minutes late, because somebody missed the shuttle.  While not in a hurry, it is annoying to make the effort to be on time when others don’t.  The lady who appeared took pictures by the plane, then decided she really needed to use the restroom.  Forty minutes late now, the group still chatting with the pilot, I sat by the plane.  My wife wondered aloud what was going on, adding her husband was a bit grumpier.  The pilot called, “How are you doing?”  I answered, “Waiting.”

The pilot then did something wrong.  He told me in front of everybody that this was fun, his philosophy was to have fun, and if he weren’t having fun, he would quit doing it.  One never, and I mean never, berates a client in front of others.  I have flown in remote parts of Alaska, landing in 15 different lakes or sandbars.  I learned early that nobody who depends upon a plane in Alaska must ever be late.  I should have said that.  His job was to ensure people had a safe tour and hope they had a good time. That’s what I tell clients when I guide.

The pilot was knowledgable, although I could have done without a discussion of his personal life. Later, he played music, neither my kind nor appropriate.  I stayed quiet, not about to get chastised again.  My wife, however, did have a discussion with him about turning off the music.  Note to music lovers: if others complain, don’t ask “you don’t like it?”  They don’t.  That’s what headphones are for.

Glaciers in the Chugach.

Glaciers in the Chugach.

Nose of glacier.

Nose of glacier.

At a stop on a lake to briefly deplane, the pilot neither said how long we would stay nor counted heads over and over, as I would have.  This was bear country, and few tourists knew not to wander far.  Indeed, wildlife was hardly mentioned until near the tour’s end, although I did see fifteen mountain goats.

Pattern on glacier from the air.

Pattern on glacier from the air.

I learned about Alaska’s glaciers. But the other things I learned were a far more important.  They will make me both a better tour guide and a better person, even if I don’t have 25,000 flight hours, haven’t flown for Exxon or rich folks, and have a different take on what is fun.  I’ve missed a lot, but I’ve been around.

I tipped both guides well, including the pilot.  Once a year, somebody tries to tip me at Rowe.  I tell them to please put it in the container in the visitor’s center.

With luck, I’ll see it when I go clean the toilets.

One small reason why I lead tours to the viewing blinds. Rowe Sanctuary, 2013.

Two small reasons why I lead tours to the viewing blinds. Rowe Sanctuary, 2013.

ALASKA THOUGHTS FROM 2015 VISIT

August 6, 2015

I have had good fortune to have traveled to Alaska 12 times.  I’ve had deeply satisfying hikes and backpacking trips in the Southeast, the South Central, and the North.  There is a mystique about the name “Alaska,” the bush pilots, who take one to where moose, wolverine, grizzlies, arctic foxes, caribou, and Dall Sheep may be seen.  There are places one can imagine that no person has stood in the past several thousand years, if ever.

Place where I once sat and wondered if anybody ever had been here. It is the rock lower center. Aichilik River 2009.

With that backdrop, my wife and I visited Alaska so I could show her some of the beauty of the land,  Beginning in Kotzebue, we saw musk oxen close up, a bear hunting a caribou, ate blueberries and stared at wide open spaces for miles.  On our return to Anchorage, we planned a drive to Homer, one of those “You should see” places.

Musk Oxen, Cape Kreusenstern, Alaska. July 2015.

Musk Oxen, Cape Kreusenstern, Alaska. July 2015.

Unfortunately, it was a Saturday.

Route 1 was nearly a solid line of cars, similar to the Oregon Coast in summer, or the Minnesota northland on a Friday.  Construction was a given; roads take abuse in the Alaskan climate.  I neither expect nor want four lane roads in Alaska, but I was amazed, which I shouldn’t have been, by the traffic.  This is the height of the tourist season, although small Kotzebue didn’t show it.

The 220 mile (350 km) drive to Homer took nearly six hours.  The city itself is situated on the southwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula with a spit jutting several miles into Kachemak Bay.  The spit was jammed with RVs, more than the nearby dealership had in stock, scores of shack-stores, what some would call rustic, others garish.  The beach was fine, the views of the mountains great, the protected wetlands well done.  I didn’t like the spit, but that’s my judgment. Many would disagree, which is why the place was jammed.  It’s why I don’t like “You should see” recommendations and why I don’t give them myself.

Homer is a beautiful town, and its reputation as such is deserved. The spit is center left. The road here is described as the most beautiful drive in America. One would be advised not to do the drive on a summer weekend.

On our return, through Soldotna, we noted again the sameness, the chain stores, “this could be anywhere in America.” True, the Kenai River runs through the city, and the green, glacial water is beautiful.  People were nice, but it was anywhere USA.

Skilak Lake, Kenai Peninsula. A beautiful lake, but it gets a lot of use.

We detoured south from busy Hwy 1 to the Skilak Lake area, where the lakes and trails looked interesting.  What we found was a moderate amount of traffic on a dirt road, trucks hauling big boats.  The launch points had several cars parked with people out on the water.  One might find a place to camp, but there would be many people nearby and considerable noise. Back on Hwy 1, along the Kenai River, we saw scores of people fishing and rafting.  A store that served food had no toilet, except a half mile away at a campground.  Wow, I thought that was illegal. This was a different Kenai from the one I visited in 2009.  Returning to Anchorage, traffic increased.  It became so heavy that if one pulled off, it took a minute or two to find a gap in which to merge.  At Bird Creek, I counted 13 fishing on a 50 yard stretch near Turnagain Arm and about 40 on a 400 yard stretch further upstream.  Many caught fish, but it wasn’t success or failure at fishing that bothered me.

It was that the place was jammed with people. Southern Alaska is jammed in summer.  Why should I be surprised?  I was contributing to it.

Fishing, Bird Creek, Sunday afternoon.

Fishing, Bird Creek, Sunday afternoon.

Once back in Anchorage, we went to a shopping mall that my wife commented was one of the ugliest she had ever seen.  Alaska has a mystique I think it should use, and good architects ought to be able to create it, not repeat architecture of the Lower.  Or do it worse.  We viewed bears on Crescent Lake, over in Lake Clark National Park, but the river out of the lake where we had hoped to view bears, had a plane by the shore, people fishing, and several loud John boats blasting by.  No bears there.

Brown bear at Crescent Lake, Lake Clark NP. Katmai has more bears, but they are viewed with many other people at a platform. This is a more intimate experience with far fewer bears but much more natural bear behavior.

Black bear sow with one of her two cubs, Crescent Lake. This was the first time I saw both black and brown bears the same day.

I’m spoiled; I admit it.  I’ve been above the Arctic Circle where there are few roads and one can hike for miles without hearing any unnatural sound.  There is a move afoot to build a road along the entire Brooks Range, from perhaps the Dalton through Bettles to Ambler, ostensibly so Native Americans can easily get to town to buy supplies.  There may be a village in support of this; the others are adamantly against it.  They’ve done fine without a road and know what it will bring:  hunters, to hunt their game, upon which the natives have subsisted for thousands of years.  The roads will bring Wal-Marts, liquor, gas stations, casinos, and people.  Yeah, they’ll bring people like me who want to see this country, although I come by plane, leave nothing except footprints in places seen by the dozen or so people who pass in a year.  The Haul Road to Ambler will become another Dalton Highway.  It’s not just acres of pavement that detract, noise and fragmentation destroy wilderness.

More pernicious is that roads will bring access to mines, several of which are proposed in the western half of the Brooks.  Red Dog Mine is already there, with 737-200 service out of Anchorage.  Who is going to say no in a solid Republican state and country?  We need jobs, although nobody says maybe having fewer kids would decrease pressure to create jobs.  Defunding Planned Parenthood makes birth control and women’s health difficult, but hey, Iran and Saudi treat women badly, too.  Mining jobs pay well, except when there are strikes, but new mines won’t be unionized if Mr. Walker gets into office.  The jobs will last until the ore isn’t needed, like one of the rare earth mines in California, leaving not only be a land scar but a permanent impact on the water supply, in places where there are wild and scenic rivers like the Noatak and Kobuk.  Yes, we need elements.  We also have learned to do without those that were once considered “essential.”

I worry about Alaska from the southeast Tongass to the Refuge in the north, and offshore.  I worry that the next eruption of Redoubt Mountain may flood the berms protecting four large oil tanks and foul Cook Inlet.  The mountain is steaming.  Whose idea was it to put the tanks near a river by an active, glacier covered volcano?  Sure, nothing may happen.  The last eruption was in 2009, and the berms barely held. We’re playing roulette with a huge unspoiled ecosystem.

Redoubt Mountain steaming, plug at upper left center. If the glaciers melt, the flow will run right by a bank with a low berm with four large oil tanks.

Fortunately or not, climate change will be a game changer; nature will win this game.  Virtually every glacier in the Chugach is retreating.  One, after being stable for more than a century, has retreated 12 miles in the last 40 years.  If Mr. Inhofe’s dropping a snowball on the Senate floor is evidence against global warming, how does he explain glacier retreat, why the caribou migration was a month later than usual in 2013, and the water of the rivers they crossed not nearly as cold as formerly?  The Elders in the Native Villages know there is change; the Senate would do well to have true Elders, not young, charismatic, angry, anti-science ideologues (who love their phones and private jets) and old diehards, who won’t believe compelling evidence contrary to their beliefs.

I started to write that Alaska disappointed me.  No, Alaska is wonderful.  I hope we don’t love it to death.  Or forget that wilderness has worth than cannot be measured in dollars.

AN HONEST TO GOD GRIZ

August 1, 2015

It had been a good morning outing: we saw 18 Musk Oxen from 200 meters, a pair of Sandhill Cranes, which had possibly been on the Platte River last April, when I was there as a tour guide, and found a few blueberries to boot.  We had flown across the Kobuk Delta from Kotzebue, Alaska, where we had arrived the day before.  I wanted to show my wife some of the places in “The Great Land” I have seen during my seven backpack trips.  The last one was a year ago in the Wulik Mountains, 150 km north of Kotzebue.  It was a good trip, but what made it special were neither the rivers, as nice as they were, nor the peaks that few people ever see, let alone hike in, up and around. No, it was seeing Musk Oxen on Cape Kreusenstern after the trip, and I had to make it happen.

Wulik Peaks backpack, August 2014

Wulik Peaks backpack, August 2014

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River in the Wuliks

While backpacking, I had heard there were Musk Ox out there, and the pilots would take us by them on the return flight.  That had me excited, for I have wanted to see Musk Ox for many years.  I knew if I didn’t see them on this hike, I might never.  However, we didn’t detour to see them on the trip back.  Pilots are busy, summer is when they make a living. Disappointed, I wasn’t about to quit.

After landing and unloading, I went to the office and asked about flights to see Musk Ox.  “Sure, they’re right over on Kreusenstern. When do you want to go?”  I got one woman on the trip to split the cost with me, and we flew over that afternoon.  We were on the ground briefly, not too close, but close enough.  I saw them. That mattered.

My wife and I planned a short Alaska trip to see Musk Ox and bears, starting at Kotzebue for the former, then down to Homer and over to Lake Clark for the latter.  In Kotzeube, we had a chance to see bears down the coast, but the absence of any whale carcasses meant no bears. That happens. I’m impatient and often complain, but I accept Alaska for what it is.  I deal with the weather better up there, stating “it’s Alaska.” My default expectation is to treat any wildlife sighting as a gift.  I expect little, yet I have seen a couple of wolverine, a couple dozen Griz, a couple thousand Dall sheep, and a couple tens of thousands of caribou.  I’ve been lucky.  But I’ve made my luck, not waiting until I was too old to carry 60 pounds needed to backpack Alaska.

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Musk Ox hair, with scat present.

We landed out on the tundra in overcast 50 degree weather, with 20 mph winds.  My wife and I started to walk towards the musk oxen, dots a mile away.  It was beautiful out there; I found blueberries, musk oxen hair, and flowers on the tundra.  Suddenly, I heard a sound behind me that I identified even as I turned my head:  two Lesser Sandhill Cranes.  It was the furthest north and west I had ever seen cranes, half again more latitude and a sixth of the way around the world from Nebraska.  That was special.  So were the musk ox.  We got within 200 yards without disturbing them.  With binoculars and a 50 x camera lens, we viewed 18, including several young. We were thrilled.

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Lesser Sandhill Crane.

Musk Ox

Musk Ox

Sometimes, out of focus shots capture things that make the picture.  The eyes were remarkable.

Sometimes, out of focus shots capture things that make the picture. The eyes were remarkable.

Young one with mother

Young one with mother

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Pair of Musk ox. The one on the left kept pushing at the larger one to her (presumably) left.

Part of the herd.

Part of the herd.

Returning to the plane, I looked across at Cape Kreusenstern, beautiful rock that for 6000 years Alaskan natives had seen as they travelled up and down the coast, finding seals in the winter, other game and berries in the summer.  The pilot asked us what we wanted to do next, and well, I wanted to fly by Cape Kreusenstern, but….nah, we would flying back. There wasn’t anything else out here to see.  Chartering a plane and pilot isn’t cheap, but the time on the ground wasn’t as expensive, and a half hour of it was outright free.  Besides, I was already out here, and I would likely never come here again.  Maybe I might, but my body had recently had other intentions, and I’m not placing any bets.  I looked at the Cape again, as the plane started to taxi on the tundra, and then I tapped the pilot on the shoulder:  “Could we fly by Cape Kreusenstern?”

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Cape Kreusenstern.

He nodded.

We flew north a few miles then east across the water to land.  As we flew inland holding the same altitude, the land came up to meet us.  I realized we weren’t going to fly along the Cape but rather towards it and inland.  Well, no matter.  I was enjoying the tundra below me.  I looked out the port window and saw a single caribou.  It was small, even with the distance factored in.  I told the pilot and my wife, who was in the co-pilot’s seat.  I’m not a good spotter of wildlife, but Jared, the pilot, was looking, and he hadn’t seen it.  I pointed behind us.

Jared banked steeply to starboard, swinging around, so my wife could see the caribou.  I remembered the first time I saw Caribou from a plane, back in 2008 in ANWR, and I was thrilled.  I’ve seen thousands since; I’ve had them walk right by me.  I wanted this memory for my wife.  But there was something else out there, too, and when I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it. I tried convincing myself it wasn’t.  But it was.

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Caribou, Aichilik River, ANWR; June 2009. No telephoto.

A bear.  An honest to God griz.  Hunting the caribou.

We circled again, saw the bear, who promptly headed towards some bushes.  Jared hadn’t intended to disturb him; he had just granted an old guy’s wish to fly by Cape Kreusenstern.  Wow.  First the Cranes, then Musk Ox, a caribou for my wife to see, just one, being hunted by a bear!  When an Alaskan bush pilot is excited about a spotting, you can be sure you’ve seen something special, in case you haven’t ever seen a bear go after a caribou.  I hadn’t, and I’ve seen plenty of both up here.

I still don’t know why I asked to go to see Cape Kreusenstern.  While we slowly taxied along the tundra, I told myself twice it didn’t matter, but some feeling inside told me to go, now.  In Alaska, one flies when the weather is favorable, because it may not be favorable tomorrow. In Alaska, I took backpacking trips when my health was fine, because it might not be fine next year.  I had wanted to see the Cape, for whatever reason, and the feeling inside me finally got my attention and said, YES, THIS IS THE TIME. IT MAY NEVER BE THE RIGHT TIME AGAIN.

Ironically, I never did fly along the rock face of Cape Kreusenstern, but in my mind, the rock face I saw from the distance will always remind me of a special day, one that three of us will always remember:

“Mike made a suggestion we fly by the Cape.  We did it and went inland when suddenly he saw a lone caribou,  As we turned, damned if there wasn’t a bear, hunting him.  Right by Kreusenstern.”

JUST A NOBODY

June 18, 2015

JUST A NOBODY

A recent article in an environmental magazine discussed a trip by a small group to the Aichilik River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  The group included the executive director of the organization, a multimedia artist, one looking to tie racial justice to environmental movements, a photographer, an author, and their guide.  These were important people, head of a national organization, published authors, international exhibitors, go getters.

And they didn’t belong in ANWR.

The first inkling was laughable.  The musician saw caribou and walked towards them holding out his hands in a gesture of peace.  This is Alaska, not a petting zoo.  It quickly became worse.  Shortly after they had set up camp on the Aichilik River, where I backpacked in 2009, a bear came downstream on the other side of the river, then crossed to their side.  The photographer and a club director then went towards the bear, soon retreating, running, hollering, and using their bear spray in such a way that it formed a mist.  The bear came close, later lay down and rolled before departing.   I quote:

“Fortunately—especially considering that …executive director….was part of the trip, dispatching a beautiful grizzly was not necessary.  The bear turned and fled as suddenly as it had approached…”

Sow with one cub crossing a side stream on the Noatak. River.

Cubs crossing a side stream on the Noatak. River.

moving away

moving away

I was appalled.  “especially”?  “dispatching”?  The verb is “to kill.”  A bear that was minding his own business until two humans appear, a species he may never had encountered before (that happens in northern Alaska) scream, run, and spray something that he can smell but isn’t bothered by?  Twenty feet from camp?  Why weren’t you backing up quietly long before the bear came?  Why did you approach a bear?  Why would you run, potentially provoking a chase?  And why would you use bear spray nowhere near a bear?

More practically, why would you publish what you did? I would have been embarrassed as hell.

I’ve had a sow, two cubs, and a 2 year-old grizzly suddenly appear out of brush and walk through our camp.  We were obviously alert but hardly shouting, spraying everywhere, and causing a ruckus.  We stayed quiet and still.  I’m a nobody photographer, but I got nice pictures, and I certainly didn’t approach the bear.  Later, on the same trip, a bear came down the shore of a lake towards our camp.  When he got within 100 yards, the guide stood up, said, “Hey Yogi.  Out.”  The bear turned and ran off.  They run about a mile when this happens.

I’m a nobody.  I’m neither an executive director of a club, nor a famous musician, nor a famous author, nor an organizer.  I’m just a guy who has been in ANWR twice, knows the Aichilik basin, been in the Brooks Range four other times, and encountered 17 bears. Lot of people have done a lot more than I.  A lot. True, a couple were killed by a bear 10 years ago on the Hulahula River in the Refuge, the first fatal attack there.  They had done all the right things, but the vast majority, and I am not exaggerating when I say vast majority, of bear encounters end with the bear’s running away, no spray needed.

As for caribou, if one sits down on the ground and stays quiet, and they will walk close by.  The animals don’t see humans as a threat when humans are quiet and low.  Stand up with hands outstretched, and caribou quietly but determinedly move away.  I was new in Alaska once, and I tried to approach one.  It left.  I didn’t state my mistake until now, because as I said, I’m a nobody.  I expected better from world class important people, who write articles for environmental magazines which are well read by millions.  I expected them not to approach a bear for a “perfect picture,” certainly not to shoot bear spray into the air, which does no good at all, and absolutely not run, which will have the bear potentially chase.

Caribou with no telephoto.  I was sitting quietly on the ground.

Caribou with no telephoto. I was sitting quietly on the ground.  Upper Aichlik River, 2009.

Just curious.

Just curious.

The part about “dispatching,” or killing the bear, was most appalling.  Nowhere did the author discuss Alaskan hunting regulations, which require the head and hide of the bear be brought out, which is a huge deterrent to shooting bears.   Had this environmental leadership group been involved in killing a grizzly, I, a life member, would no longer be a member.  My wife, another life member, had a better thought for a letter to the editor:  “You were a disgrace to the organization and should quit.”

Fortunately, at least for the wildlife, it appeared that the group didn’t float the upper reaches of the Aichilik, which may well have been too low.  It was there where I saw Dall Sheep, 10 meters above me and used my camera to view them, not try to approach them “in peace.”

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River, 2009.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River, 2009.

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I’ve had a wolverine on the Aichilik run right by my tent.

Wolverine, running away, lower Aichilik River, 2009.

Wolverine, running away, lower Aichilik River, 2009.

I’ve seen the Sun well above the horizon at 2 a.m., and I’ve walked the banks in a pouring rain.  In short, it is part of Alaska, and one accepts the land as “It’s Alaska,” not trying to mold the country into what suits you, but to deal with Alaska on its terms, what comes your way—hunger, thirst, bugs, no bugs, heat, cold, dry riverbeds, floods, wildlife, no wildlife.

I’ve seen solo hikers in Alaska.  This isn’t smart.  Some have had trouble—a sprained ankle is life threatening— and set off emergency locator beacons to get hauled out.  A German did that once up near Summit Lake, not because he was hurt, but he got into more difficulty than he realized.  ELBs are non-specific.  He needed a satellite phone. Frankly, that area is fairly easy hiking for Alaska.  Walking in the stream is fast, walking far from a stream avoids tussocks.  You learn that when you’ve been up there a while.  Alaska hiking is not Europe. He was flown out, no easy feat, costing American taxpayers $15,000.  Our wilderness is for real here.  I could hike the Aichilik alone if I wished.  But I would never do it.  There are far too many risks.

I’m an experienced Alaska hiker, which is to say I am several levels below guides.  I know enough to take weeks getting into shape before I go, have good gear, which isn’t new, but which I can trust, know my limits, and take only what I know I will need.  I’ve gone with one other, I’ve gone with six others.  I’ve hiked in every condition imaginable except freezing rain, and that was close.  I’ve seen wonderful sights up there, from Kotzebue to the Canadian border.  I trust the bush pilots and the guides.  I’m a nobody, a guy from the “lower” who loves the country, respects it and knows his limits.  I’ll never have my experiences published in an environmental journal, but do note the picture at the top of the page you are reading.

I took that in 2010, on the Noatak, from my tent.  She had two cubs, too.  I played by her rules, stayed silent, and she could have cared less about me.

Just like Alaska.

YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN

April 14, 2015

In the video that every visitor to Rowe Sanctuary must see, before they go to the viewing blinds, Bill Taddicken, the Executive Director, calls “You Should Have Seen” the four saddest words in the language.

It’s interesting, because the first two, “You should,” bother me enough that I almost never use them to others.  “Should” connotes advice, and many don’t like it.  Me, too.  I actually try to follow some advice I’m given, but there is not enough time in my life to do everything “should” expects from me.

But Bill’s four words are powerful.  You Should Have Seen.  I capitalize them, in order to emphasize that rather than annoyance, failure on my part, or unwanted advice, YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN is a statement of what a situation was once like, before it changed for the worse and the opportunity was never again available.

Bill uses two examples:  YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THE BUFFALO MIGRATION, not stating the obvious, that we nearly exterminated this magnificent creature, a hundred million animals, in the 19th century by shooting them from trains, for sport, and letting the animals die a horrible death and rot on the prairie.  This is a sad commentary on America.  Bill doesn’t say that.  I do.  I would have loved to have seen the buffalo migration, to have studied it, to have learned from it.

YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THE PASSENGER PIGEONS, before stating they went extinct in 1914, the year my father was born.  This beautiful bird used to fly in dark clouds that blackened the sky, extending for miles.  I can only imagine the view.  I am angry my forebears exterminated this bird, and I never got to see it.  I can understand how the next generation is angry with mine, for the species we have allowed to become extinct.

Bill doesn’t want his daughter to have to tell her children, YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THE SANDHILL CRANE MIGRATION, because in the name of jobs, crops, recreation, sending water elsewhere, we took away the habitat the cranes needed along the Central Flyway of the US, where the cranes migrated for ten thousand years, after the last glaciation.  Bill is fighting for the River, the Flyway, the Bird, and the Migration, one of two great ones here; the other, the Porcupine Caribou, is much more difficult to see.  The Sandhill Crane migration can be seen six miles from Interstate 80 in Nebraska.  For $25, one can spend 2 hours in a viewing blind and see something that Jane Goodall calls one of the great ten sights in Nature.

Right in the middle of the USA.

People get transformed by the cranes.  Some cry.  Couples hold hands.  Some kiss, in a way they may not have for a long time.  Some stare, eyes fixed on the scene in front of them, people whom I watch, but leave alone, for the people are spellbound.  For them, this is not just a bunch of birds, it has become what some call a sacred place.

I’m not advising anybody to see the cranes.  I was often asked in Arizona, where some cranes winter, why I just didn’t go there to see them.  I replied that I’ve seen them in Nebraska.  I’ve seen the full migration first hand.  I once took videos.  Got one when it was becoming really dark, cranes flying in circles coming towards me in the viewing blind, where I was alone.  The sound was so loud, the birds so close, that I said, easily heard on the video, “I have never seen anything like this in my whole life.”

You should have seen my face.

Took another video of a pair of cranes courting, in the Platte River.  Each put a bill into the river, and they both pivoted around their bills and around each other.  Wow.  You should have seen it.

Sandhill cranes, Nebraska, 2010

Sandhill cranes, Nebraska, 2010

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Sandhill Cranes, 2015, Nebraska

You should have seen the Boundary Waters, before the water became undrinkable in 2020 and the loons disappeared because a sulfide mine brought JOBS to the region.  The mine failed, the company went bankrupt and couldn’t clean up the water.  They were sorry.  Couldn’t find a politician that year in the state who claimed they supported the mine.  Sure could in 2010.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

You should have seen the corn yields in Nebraska before the Ogallala Aquifer was polluted by oil in 2023 and corn ceased to be a crop.  Keystone thought the leak was “An Act of God.”  They are now bankrupt and express “regret”.  None of the 62 senators who originally voted for Keystone will comment on the Ogallala.  Nebraska voted Democratic in the 2024 election, but the outmigration allowed them only 3 electoral votes.

You should have seen the Grand Canyon, before the Republican Senate decided that the states should own all the federal land, and privatization allowed mining. I remember back in ‘85 when my wife and I were camped out on the Tonto Platform below the Abyss, hearing the flap of a Raven’s wings echoing off the Redwall.  You should have heard it.  You should have seen it.

The Abyss, Grand Canyon, 2012.  Tonto Platform is to the right.

The Abyss, Grand Canyon, 2012. Tonto Platform is to the right.

You should have seen the Aral Sea, before it disappeared in the latter part of the 20th century.  Nobody seemed to care.

You should have seen the Brooks Range of Alaska, when one could be 300 miles from the nearest town, days from civilization, before the road that paralleled it was built in 2025, so that Native Americans could drive to Fairbanks to shop.  The Natives seldom used the road, but miners and hunters have, and now the natives are destitute.  You should have seen the bears I saw on the Noatak in 2010, the sow with 2 cubs and a second year male, marching through our camp one night like we weren’t even there.  They had likely never seen humans.

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Grizzly Cubs, Noatak River, 2010

You should have seen Churchill, Manitoba in the autumn, before climate change that we were told wasn’t took away all the pack ice and the animals are now only found in zoos.  Past president Ted Cruz still claims that “he wasn’t a scientist,” and that he was using the best available evidence when he denied global warming was occurring.  You should have seen me nose to nose with a polar bear in 1992, 15 inches separating us.

You should have seen the Whooping Crane before they finally went extinct in 2060.  I saw nearly ten in my lifetime.

You should have seen the Harris Sparrow in central Nebraska.  They became extinct ten years later. I saw them.

We still have time.  But not much.  You should have seen how Americans came together and fixed the environment in the 21st century.  That’s what I want to hear before I die.

CHALLENGER MOMENT

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.

WULIK PEAK BACKPACK, 2014

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.

Wheatear

Wheatear

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

Forget-me-not

Forget-me-not

Author on a plateau at 1800 feet (550 m)

Author on a plateau at 1800 feet (550 m)

The vastness of the Alaska mountains above the Arctic Circle

The vastness of the Alaska mountains above the Arctic Circle

 

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

West fork of Wulik River.

West fork of Wulik River.

 

View from unnamed mountain.

View from unnamed mountain.

Water slowly moving down a stream bed.

Water slowly moving down a stream bed.

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

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

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

 

Flying over a herd of musk ox.

Flying over a herd of musk ox.

Pair of musk oxen

Pair of musk oxen

 

Head on from 400 meters.

Head on from 400 meters.

 

Much larger than I had anticipated.

Much larger than I had anticipated.

WHEN AGE DOES AND DOESN’T MATTER

August 3, 2014

“Hardesty Hardcore,” intrigued me: an annual loop race through 3 trails in the Cascade foothills, open to anybody, with a 4 hour time cut off.  The route is 14 miles and begins with a 3000 foot climb in the first 4.5 miles.  I had hiked it once in the opposite direction, without hurrying,  in 5 hours, with a lunch stop. I thought I could do it in four, so I went out to try.  I am in good hiking shape, having hiked nearly 40 times in Oregon the past 4 months and frequently climbing well over a thousand feet, occasionally over two thousand.

I started by walking fast—too fast— becoming slightly short of breath and uncomfortable.  I slowed, and finished the initial climb in 1 hour 36 minutes.  That is pretty good for a guy my age, but at that pace I wasn’t going to finish in 4 hours, either.

I came down Eula Ridge, much steeper, so I had to watch my foot placement.  I finished that stretch two 2 hours and 45 minutes in, averaging 3.1 miles per hour, well below 3.5 mph I needed to average to make the cutoff.  The last 5.5 miles was on a trail between the two, but not at all flat; it climbed another 1000 feet, difficult on a humid day, when I had finished my water and food.  I got in just under 4 1/2 hours.

With cooler weather, an earlier start, a lighter pack, and running shoes for the last part, I might be able to make the cut.  But I don’t want to race.  I’m not sure I want to subject myself again to that stress, despite being in excellent hiking shape.  I am good but not great.  The fact that I can walk uphill on a 30% grade at 2.5 mph is nice, but I need to average 4 mph for this race, and I am not likely to do it:  I’m too old, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter.

When I was in my 30s, I got in a canoe, bound for lakes and portages I had never seen.  I camped in some of the most beautiful country imaginable, woke early, paddled hard the whole day, camped late.  I could carry pack and canoe together, and I never got sore.  Seeing the country mattered.

In my 40s, I did the same, the only difference being that I took anti-inflammatories before and after each day’s paddle.   For the first time, however, I had a neck problem, a pinched nerve, but that subsided, and I was able to continue.

In my 50s, I stopped carrying a canoe and a pack simultaneously.  I had nothing to prove and a lot I could hurt.  I started base camping, which I liked, but I still enjoyed seeing new territory.  I didn’t go as far as formerly, but I enjoyed practically every mile.

 

Agnes Lake, on my last trip into Kawnipi Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005, age 56.

Agnes Lake, on my last trip into Kawnipi Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005, age 56.  I have not been back.  I do not expect to see Kawnipi again.  It mattered that I saw it that year.  Agnes?  Seeing this picture makes me wonder….

 

Kawnipi Lake, 2005.  The most beautiful lake in the Quetico to many people. I have been there six times.  That matters.

Kawnipi Lake, 2005. The most beautiful lake in the Quetico to many people. I have been there six times. That matters.

 

 

Lake Insula sunset.  Having spent more than 30 nights on this beautiful lake matters.

Lake Insula sunset. Having spent more than 30 nights on this beautiful lake matters.

In my 60s, things have changed.  Many tell me that age is a number.  Those people who do are always younger than I, where one believes that the world will continue unchanged.  I still can solo trip, but I do it and base camp.

Sunset on my bay campsite, September 2013, solo.  Age 64.

Sunset on my bay campsite, September 2013, solo. Age 64.

 

I can make the miles if I have to, but I don’t feel the pressure to do so, either.  It doesn’t matter.  The year I turned 60, my wife and I aborted the first day’s paddle into Lake Insula, one we could normally do in 7 hours, where 40 year-olds we had spoken to said they needed three days.  We aborted the paddle in because of heavy rain.  We stopped, pitched the tent and stayed comfortable. Making Insula that day in 7 hours didn’t matter.  We made it easily the next day.  It was a great trip.

Twenty years earlier, I would have bulled on through.  Indeed, over our 25th wedding anniversary, we paddled 110 miles in 11 days with a day of rest.  One day, I portaged a canoe 15 times, a record for me.  Those trips mattered.

What will happen the next decade, if I make it that far?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the distance may stay the same, if my arms and legs are still working well, but I suspect it will decrease, and it won’t matter.  I still hope to be in the woods, away from people, enjoying the quiet, the Pileated Woodpecker’s crossing the lake by the campsite, loons, sunrise, sunset, and full Moon.

What about backpacking?  There, the clock ticks louder.  As I write this, I will soon leave for my sixth multi-day trip to the Brooks Range.  On my fifth, I carried 75 pounds with difficulty, but I did it.  I wasn’t sure I would do a sixth.  But then you see there was this trip offered to the Wulik Mountains in the far west Brooks, country I hadn’t seen, wonderful, wild country, and maybe I had one more trip in me after all.  Or two more, since I want to see ANWR’s Sheenjek’s River drainage.  Each year, backpacking requires more training.  Six weeks prior, I start carrying 25 pounds around the neighborhood, then 35, the 50, and finally 60.  This year, after hiking a lot more in spring, I started at 50 pounds, and I’ve carried that weight the past month.  I can comfortably walk 3 miles with it, essential if I want to complete the trip and enjoy it.  Ten years ago, I didn’t need to train.  Now I do.

Arrigetch Peaks on my way out of the area, August 2007, age 58

Arrigetch Peaks on my way out of the area, August 2007, age 58.  It mattered that I see these peaks, which had fascinated me for decades.

Dall Sheep, Aichilik River, ANWR, June, 2009.  Age 60. This afternoon mattered.

Dall Sheep, Aichilik River, ANWR, June, 2009. Age 60. This afternoon mattered.

Cubs, Noatak River campsite, August 2010, age 61. This day mattered

Cubs, Noatak River campsite, August 2010, age 61. This day mattered

 

Fording the Noatak, August 8, 2010. Age 61.  My guide said that day, "I hope I can do this when I am 61."  He was 51.

Fording the Noatak, August 8, 2010. Age 61. My guide said that day, “I hope I can do this when I am 61.” He was 51.

Gates of the Arctic, 2012, carrying 75 pounds.  This trip mattered. Age 63

Gates of the Arctic, 2012, carrying 75 pounds. This trip mattered. Age 63

My body isn’t betraying me, but changing, and my brain with its desires is fortunately changing, too.  I rely more upon experience than brute strength.  I read the weather well, pack dry in a pouring rain without leaving the tent, then striking the tent and quickly finish, putting the pack cover on a dry pack.  Alaska just is, with a lot of rain, mosquitoes and tussocks.  Fortunately, I know how to hike there.  That itself is probably worth 25 years of age.

My guess is that I will slow down in the next decade but will still enjoy what I do.  I look back fondly on the times when I was really good, especially the difficult trips, for that is what one remembers.  Age does matter.  I am grateful for what I can do, hope I will like it just as much during the coming changes, as I add more to my wonderful wilderness portfolio.

You see, I feel blessed.  Not a lot of guys my age can hike the Hardesty Loop.  I did it for time.  That’s pretty cool.  The fact I tried did matter.

It only hurt a little that night.