Posts Tagged ‘Alaska hiking and pictures’


March 2, 2014

 In a Starbucks somewhere at Sea-Tac, I’ve seen an older man, around my age, working the counter. I go through Sea-Tac annually, if I am lucky, because I am on my way to Alaska and to the remotest country I know.  When I come out of the Brooks Range, I take the red eye back to Seattle, get 3 hours’ sleep, and head straight for a bagel and coffee, before the next flight south.  I’m getting a bit old for these trips, but there is a lot of country I still want to see.

Noatak River, looking east, some of the most remote country in North America.

Noatak River, looking east, some of the most remote country in North America.

Dall Sheep above the headwaters of the Aichilik River.  This was one of the most beautiful areas to hike that I have ever been.

Dall Sheep above the headwaters of the Aichilik River. This was one of the most beautiful areas to hike that I have ever been.  This is in ANWR: to those who say this is a desolate place, I simply reply: “Hike the 120 miles there I have, and see what you think.”


The man works with many younger people.  He could be their grandfather. I know nothing about him: he could be lonely, a millionaire, and wants to be around people. Or he could be lonely, poor, needing every quarter people put in the tip jar.  I put in bills, because the workers divide the tips.  Divisors are fixed, but if the dividend increases, so does the quotient, a dividend in another meaning of the word.

What I do know is the man is dead serious about his job. He takes my order, and I sense I would be doing him a big favor if I were clear what I wanted and paid promptly with little hassle.  He doesn’t say this, of course, but his demeanor is no-nonsense.  He has a job, considered menial by many who walk through Sea-Tac catching a plane, but it is clear that doing the job well matters to him.

When I enter Hirons, a local drug store, I am greeted by a woman who recognizes both me and my wife.  “You back again?” she says, cheerfully.  Hirons is the only drug store I know where I had to ask directions how to find the pharmacy: I once got lost in there, overwhelmed by the inventory.  Just in time inventory doesn’t work in Hirons, and B-school students ought to visit to see how a place ought to run.  You don’t go online, like Amazon, you go there.   You walk in wanting Advil, you come out with it, a pair of lights to make walking at night safer, an Oregon shirt, maybe a mug, a dust pan, and a holder for soap in the shower. That’s how you move inventory, by having it available,  I once asked if they made keys.  That was stupid, but hey, I was new in town.

I called Hirons, because I need to move my Part D drug benefit pharmacy: three guesses what the answer was, the first two not counting.  Stupid call.  Now I can walk over there to buy a lot of other stuff along with the meds I need to pick up. Companies need to value employees who can remember customers.  It has no dollar value, or maybe it does, because people like to be remembered, and they will return.  I will of course use Hirons in the near future, like when I need a Dutch Brothers fix, at the kiosk nearby, at the EMX stop at Walnut.

Yeah, Dutch Brothers, with the red white and blue flags flying.  I don’t know how these places survive.  They do, in all likelihood, because when I arrive, there is music playing I normally wouldn’t listen to but end up liking.  There are two or three college students in there with personalities I wish I had been born with.  They could care less how I look.  They greet me warmly; people like this make me ask how they are, too, which I haven’t done for most of my life.  Not only do I ask them, I get a reply.  I get hot chocolate or coffee, and there are about 10 different kinds of both.  They work quickly and efficiently, their banter is interesting, they stamp my card, which means after 10 trips there, I get a free drink, so I will come again.  Think I tip them well?  Duh.  I go on my way, along the Willamette River, under the tracks, over Knickerbocker Bridge into Alton Baker Park, checking out the birds in the river.  My wife has never seen me so happy.

Autzen Bridge, over the Willamette River.  Hat reads Kobuk Valley, the most remote National Park in North America, and a real gem.

Autzen Bridge, over the Willamette River. Hat reads Kobuk Valley, the most remote National Park in North America, and a real gem.

Foggy night; bought the light at Hirons, behind me to my right.  Think it was $7.95.  They should charge more.

Foggy night; bought the light at Hirons, behind me to my right. Think it was $7.95. They should charge more.

Maybe later, I will go to Evergreen’s, where they serve north and south Indian food.  I usually have a Nikasi Beer with dinner.  Yeah, for a dollar more, I get something brewed in Eugene, and I really like it.  A waitress and the owner herself recognize me, both knowing what I want.  I know the owner’s son’s name, birthday and age.  We were once immediately recognized after an absence of 9 months.  That’s impressive.  Think they get good tips from me?

Everybody knows places like the ones I described.  My late father-in-law went to Asquino’s, an East Providence institution with incredible Italian food.  They knew him, and if he had ever forgotten his wallet, I bet he would have eaten for free.  Asquino’s is no longer there. The world and families change.  These businesses are worth a great deal to customers, worth that doesn’t make the bottom line.  That’s the problem with bottom lines: they measure money, which people must make (teachers can’t eat “satisfaction,” my father, an educator, once said) but not customer satisfaction, ability to recognize repeat customers, and to have things the customer doesn’t realize they want.  I would bet much that “happiness” and “ability to recognize faces” is not on ExxonMobil”s bottom line.  Damage to the environment isn’t, which does have a dollar cost.

No money can buy good service and a pleasant person who remembers me, helping me have a better day.  I saw happier people in Ely, Minnesota, who worked half time, than my former partners, who made a half mil a year.  It was a rough life in Ely, but they were a lot nicer.  The average wage at Costco is double that of Wal-Mart.  The net worth of the CEO of Costco is 10% that of the CEO of Wal-Mart.  Throw in the rest of the Walton Family, and it is 1.3%.  The salary ratio between the worker and the CEO is still too large; when I practiced, the ratio was 1:7; 1:3 when hours worked were factored in.  Call me a socialist, but I lived comfortably.

I hope the man at Sea-Tac works to stay busy, but these days, that’s not likely.  I hope the Eugene places stay in business for a long time, along with Track Town Pizza, which hosts German Stammtisch Tuesday evenings. The whole lot are a 30 minute walk from my house.  I wonder how I got so lucky.  

Salary ratios ought to be on the bottom line; important things that can’t be measured ought to be mentioned, too.  Not everything in life has a dollar value.

Designed in 2003:  Follow your heart; it will lead you home.  Hirons charges more for this.  I really didn't need it.  No, I really did need it, for I have done what it means.

Designed in 2003: Follow your heart; it will lead you home. Hirons charges more for this. I really didn’t need it. No, I really did need it, for I have done what it means.

My footprints in the sand dunes at Kobuk Valley NP. It was one of those things that really is too expensive for the time spent, unless one factors in how much it meant to me, which was priceless.  What a lovely, quiet place.

My footprints in the sand dunes at Kobuk Valley NP. It was one of those things that really is too expensive for the time spent, unless one factors in how much it meant to me, which was priceless. What a lovely, quiet place.


August 17, 2012

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

The Maidens, Arrigetch Peaks, 2007

My rock, with the Aichilik River below.

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

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

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

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

The upper Noatak River.

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

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

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

A large portion of Arctic Village

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

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

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

Caribou 3 feet from you, Aichilik River.

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

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

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

Beginning a ford where the Aichilik is not so dangerous.

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


August 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or eat a lot less.



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.


December 10, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 17, 2009

This was my first trip to the Brooks Range,  and one I had looked forward to for many years, as seeing the Arrigetch Peaks had been a long dream of mine.  Seven of us flew from Fairbanks to Bettles (the ranger station is well outside the Park)  and from there via float plane to Kutek Lake, near the Alatna River at the mouth of Arrigetch Creek.  Unfortunately, due to the melting of the permafrost, Kutek Lake has gotten so small that float planes can no longer land there.

After a night camped on an island in the braided Alatna River, we started the hike up to the peaks.  It is 8 miles and 2000 feet of climbing, which in the Lower 48 would be an easy day.  In Alaska, it takes two hard days, because of tussocks, rock fields, outright bushwhacking, stream fording, and of course concerns about bears.

Once we arrived at a meadow under the Peaks, we had views of them in and out of clouds (mostly in clouds, as I never used my sunglasses the whole time we were up there).  We took three day hikes, one to the headwaters of Arrigetch Creek, where a hanging glacier starts everything.  The second was into Aquarius Valley, but the rocks were too wet and exceedingly slick for us to go all the way in.  The third was up to the base of the polished granite peaks themselves, where we had dinner and got back to the campsite minutes before an all night soaking rain.

Because of the rain, we were unable to ford one of the branches of the Arrigetch, having to hike a mile uphill to find a place to cross and then a mile back down, so that 2 miles of hiking netted us about 50 yards of forward progress.  It took us two days to get back to the Alatna, where we spent a day floating, a day dayhiking and another day floating until we took a nasty quarter mile portage into beautiful Takahula Lake.  While the portage wasn’t long, we were hauling 14-16 foot craft through the brush.  The craft were heavy, bulky and it was hot and a bit buggy.  We were beat when we reached the lake!  The water wasn’t real warm, but it was good enough for swimming, and after 12 days on the trail, it sure felt good to get clean!

We had dinner with a couple who at one time lived off the grid on the lake.  They now come there for the summer.  I had nervously watched a warm front come in all afternoon, and sure enough, the night before pickup, it started to rain.  The next morning, the ceiling was coming down below Takahula Peak.  As we thought we wouldn’t get out of there, two float planes arrived, and we packed quickly and got out of there before the storm hit.  Later that day, a plane had to stay put on Takahula because of weather.  We got ourselves through the clouds and back to Bettles, where we caught the Grand Caravan to Fairbanks.  I took the red eye from there to Seattle and was home in Tucson 24 hours after leaving Takahula.  Strange!


September 12, 2009

We split up in two planes, a Helio Courier and a Cessna Grand Caravan.  The Courier was going straight to the Aichilik dropoff, the Caravan to Arctic Village.  Due to weather, the Courier came back to Arctic Village, refueled and tried again.  They got in.  They were unlucky, because it poured, they didn’t have the stove with them, and there was little high ground.

There were three other pairs, two pairs going to the Aichilik and a third to another North Slope dropoff.  One pair got as far as the Sheenjek and were dropped off.  The Sheenjek is well into ANWR and the Brooks Range, but nowhere near the Aichilik.  It was too foggy to cross the mountains further.  The plane returned to Arctic Village and took the other pair to the North Slope.  Finally, it was my turn, and we got as far as the Sheenjek.  I had hoped we could go all the way in, but when I saw the clouds ahead over the Divide, I thanked the pilot, Kirk Sweetsir,  for his judgment.  (Go to this Web page for some great ANWR pictures.)  We had no rain, dry campsites, … , and a stove!

The next day, Kirk, who actually stayed with us (how many pilots would stay with their passengers?), flew two of our group to the Aichilik.  He came back for Aaron, the guide, and me.  I had a rain top on and shorts below.   Kirk simply said, “you might want to put on more clothes.”  We took off, went over the Brooks, over Drain Creek, and over the upper Aichilik River, where we would be hiking in about a week.  We got within a few miles of the dropoff point and the rest of the group, but it was too foggy to land.  We circled at a couple hundred feet altitude, thought about landing to drop Aaron and me off, and then kept circling.  I figured that Aaron and I could hike five miles down to where the other group was.  I figured very badly, and fortunately two other people in the plane had better judgment.  About the time Kirk was going to bag it, he saw a hole in the clouds and went for it.  We landed with a big splash on a grassy strip.  Welcome to the North Slope, just a shade under 70 degrees north, with the temperature about half that.

We hiked 3 miles upstream, in intermittent rain, and camped by the river.  The aufeis kept breaking off all night long with sonic boom kinds of sounds.  The next morning, we actually saw the Sun and were pleasantly surprised by a wolverine that went right through the camp.  I tried to follow him uphill with my camera and ended up getting a shot from quite a distance.

We hiked upstream, in the stream, on ice, up on bluffs, taking the proper side, the wrong side, etc., and found a nice camp right by the river.  Sightings:  one griz.  The clouds started moving in the next day, although the rain didn’t start until night.  During the night, I managed to somehow push both my boots and pack out of the vestibule, so I dressed and packed wet.  As the day turned out, I just got an early start on the wetness.  It dumped, but we stayed warm by hiking and by pitching the lunch tent for hot soup and a brief respite.

Three days later, we reached the headwaters of the Aichilik River, with the upper part loaded with Porcupine Caribou and Dall Sheep.  From there, we crossed a divide into Drain Creek and hiked downstream.  We had rain most of the way with some of it bouncing off us, and some looking a little more white than we wanted.  The afternoon was sunny, but side hilling was treacherous, with the mud, the tussocks and the holes.  We camped on the knoll near where I had been the year before.  And, like the year before, we had a grizzly sighting, as he crossed the creek, the aufeis and the tundra.

Rather than taking the easy way downstream to a side stream and then up, we decided to bushwhack up and over a pass.  Distance was a lot less; work was a lot more, but the packs were light, and our feet were all pretty much toast by this time anyway!  We had lunch on the pass and rolled into our Kongakut River campsite by 5 or so.  Those were two really long days by Alaska standards, but the views from the pass were great. 

Next day was pickup, with stops at Arctic Village, Fort Yukon, Fairbanks and a red eye home!



September 10, 2009

These were among the best pictures of the 2008 ANWR trip.  (View the 2009 Aichilik River/Drain Creek/Kongakut River trip here.)  We flew from Fairbanks to Arctic Village, about 200 miles, some of us in a Cessna Grand Caravan, others flying directly into the Kongakut River via a Helio Courier.  The Courier came back to pick the rest of us up, and we flew over the Brooks Range (not by much!) about 90 miles east, into the Refuge, landing on a gravel bar on the Kongakut.  The plane left, and we had our first tussock experience as we hike about 1 1/2 miles west to our campsite.

Tussocks are part of the Alaskan hiking experience, along with game trails, fording streams, and occasional four footed creatures.  Tussocks are dangerous to step on, as they have a large top on a narrow stalk.  In between is some form of water/muck.

The second day, we hiked north over the divide from the Kongakut itself to one of its tributaries into Drain Creek.  We set up camp on a high bluff.  The following day, we went upstream to a rockfall by two small lakes, called “Maze Lakes,” due to the rockfall.  We worked our way through the rockfall, up over a hill and down a long unnamed stream to a junction with another, with rain threatening.  We stayed there the fourth night.

The next day it was back up stream, and then a long, steep climb to the top of a pass, where it was hoped we would stay at that altitude until it was time to descend to Drain Creek.  Alas, we had to descent first and then ascend, in snow, up to about 5000 feet, where we camped.  It is interesting to see how the water flows in day time and shuts down in the night and morning as snow and ice melt decreases.

Finally, we descended into Drain Creek, which I consider the “true ANWR”.  It has lovely green hill benches, black mountains on the north side called Bathtub Ridge.  We had a long day, ending up at the Mineral Lick, where we watched about 40 Dall sheep moving on a vertical rock face as easily as we walked (probably easier, since we dealt with tussocks.)  Since it was light 24 hours a day, we watched them as long as we wanted to.  So long as we didn’t get too close to the mineral lick, they weren’t too concerned about us.

The next day, we hiked to a knob on Drain Creek.  I camped on top of the knob, and the next morning, at about 5 a.m., saw a grizzly that had just moved through camp below.  It was thrilling!

We then hiked back up a tributary to the place where we had spent our second night and from there over the divide back to the Kongakut, where we were picked up the next day.  Thanks to Dave and Aaron Hamilton and ABEC Alaska!