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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Brooks Range and the North Slope - August 2003

Click here for an overview map of our route.

This trip was our honeymoon, and it was absolutely wonderful. We spent 8 days traversing the southern slopes of the Brooks Range from the Dalton Highway to Arctic Village, where we took a rest day and stocked up on food we'd mailed there. The next 11.5 days were spent hiking north over the crest of the range and rafting down the Hulahula river in packrafts to Kaktovik. We covered about 350 miles, watched wildlife, fall colors, and beautiful mountains, got hot, cold, and bitten by mosquitos, learned some river rafting, and had a great time and a wonderful adventure. I kept a log of the trip in a waterproof journal, and each entry is illustrated with pictures of the trip.

Brooks journal - Page 1

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Before the beginning

I am on a plane to Fairbanks, very tired but strangely unable to sleep. I always sleep on planes. We took off from Seattle at 10:30, and it was dark then. It's later now, but I can see a band of lit up blue in the distance as we speed north.

Tomorrow morning I meet Hig, who I haven't seen in a month, and we take off for our first big adventure since the last one. The plan is to hike 300+ miles in about 3 weeks, from Chandalar Lake to Arctic Village, to Kaktovik. We'll go along and over the Brooks Range, through much of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to end at the Arctic Ocean. I've never been north of Anchorage before. That's the plan. But the question is: can we repeat a once-in-a-lifetime experience?

Our Peninsula trek was the most amazing thing I've ever done in my life. And we did it without knowing anyone who'd done a thing like that, without friends and family trusting we could do it, without knowing how to go about it, and without any firm confidence that it was actually possible until at least halfway through. We did some things well and quite a bit stupidly. We were hungry. We were awestruck. We were hooked. The only thing I was sure of when we finished is that this was one once-in-a-lifetime experience that was going to have to happen more than once. Many times, preferably.

We've been talking about that trip for two years. This is our honeymoon, and we don't have two months, but we do have three and a half weeks in a land that should be spectacularly different from anywhere I've ever seen.

I'm excited.

Leg 1: Dalton highway to Arctic Village

Click here for route map.

8/4/03 - day 2

Arrival in the Arctic

We're now well into our paddle down Your Creek, and taking a warming, cooking, camping and sleeping break on a point bar sticking out into a river meander. It's sprinkling out. And we have a big fire, a "white man's fire" as Hig calls it. Even though it's midnight, I can see my writing easily. Sunset comes at about 11:30 here, and everything afterwards falls in the dimmer time between sunset and sunrise. We really are in the arctic now.

After two full days of waiting out the weather in Fairbanks, we gave up on our chances of flying out to Chandalar Lake and did a hurried restructuring of our plan. Instead of flying out, we could drive out. There were buses out the Dalton Highway every morning, which could take us out to Chandalar Shelf, which really wasn't that much further from Arctic Village than Chandalar Lake. All that remained was to print out a few quick topo maps online of our new route.

So we sat in the van of the Dalton Highway Express - 8 hours up to Chandalar Shelf, through miles and miles of rolling foggy hills, blanketed with forests of black spruce. Black spruce are the most bedraggled looking trees - shorn to a few feet past their trunks like a forest of bottle brushes and leaning into each other haphazardly in their marshy home.

But when we reached the shelf, the weather turned to beautiful, and we were in the Brooks Range proper. The valleys are huge, broad and open, sloping gently up yellow-green hillsides which grade into a rocky gray at the top. Craggier peaks poke out between them, capped with snow. It is less snow than I would expect for such a cold climate. It's dry here. The valleys are huge, while the rivers are still small.

But the vegetation seems to belie that. As we have been amply warned by fellow hikers in Fairbanks, the lowlands are wet and tussocky. Sometimes the slopes are also wet and tussocky. Tussocks are this wonderful feature of permafrost tundra, where mounds of grass rise up in the marsh as the old grass fails to rot. This gives one the option of walking on the tussocks, which fall over, or walking in the holes between them, which are difficult to see, or more likely attempting to walk on the tussocks but slipping into the holes as they tilt under your feet.

Thankfully, tussocks seem like the form of difficult travel around here. Down in the lower valleys there are scattered spruce trees, but all the willow, alder and birch are less than waist high, and don't really qualify as bushwhacking. We can see everywhere.

Chandalar Shelf, just off the highway, was a picture perfect plain of tundra in the mountains. We were so excited to be here at last. But it had its fair share of sinky tundra and tussocks, and it was such a beautiful day that we had to climb the ridge. From the ridge over Chandalar Shelf we saw the evening sun light mountains in all directions with sharp highlights and deep shadows. We went a bit crazy with our pictures. And we decided, despite the howling wind and barely above freezing weather, that the place to camp was the peak of the ridge. We were fine in our new setup. And the wind died down. Every time I opened the head of the bivy sack to look out, I saw not black, but gray.

If yesterday was a day for photography, today was one for travel. We pushed our still city-soft bodies for 12 hours of walking, and drifted down the river for another three. We've gone well over 20 miles today. I'm exhausted, and my powers of language are waning as the evening wears on.

We followed a horse trail for much of the day, and drifted past their camp in the rafts. That may be all our people sign until Arctic Village. We'll see.

Today we discovered that reindeer moss is a sign of firm ground to walk on. Today we went up a valley, down a valley, and between a gorgeous set of mountains. Today the sun shone on us. Today we discovered that real kayak paddles are infinitely better than our old ones and maneuvering the raft away from obstacles. Today we saw lots of animal sign, but no animals. I am too far gone to sleep to describe today in more detail, but today was wonderful. This is the best honeymoon I might have wished for.

8/5/03 - day 3

Down a meandering creek

We're just above a pass on the ridge over Your Creek. It's almost 1AM again, but, unlike yesterday, today was slow and lazy. It rained last night, but we slept late, and woke as the warm sun dried our gear.

And then we floated. We paddled our way around submerged sticks and pushed off a couple sandbars, but mostly just drifted along with the meandering river. The mountains on either side of the valley seemed to be posing for us around each bend, and we took way too many pictures. The sun got lower, but the river went on, long and slow, through black spruce forests and past hillsides and cliffs.

We actually saw some of the permafrost that controls this landscape today. The river cuts into the bank, creating an overhang of mud. Only it's frozen mud. As we drifted by we heard a continuous drip, drip, drip, sploosh, drip, crash, drip, drip... as the banks melted and fell into pools at their base.

But after six and a half hours, I was too cold, had a sore butt, and was just rivered out. I love seeing the landscape from the water, but it's not quite as engaging, and I often just don't have the patience for it.

So now we're up the pass on an alternate route. The cold dry arctic wind is blowing over me, and Hig is whittling a new end for my paddle shaft walking stick. How is it that we never leave anything behind, but things always disappear? We check carefully. I think the glove and chair leg tip must be in Fairbanks somewhere or on the bus. I am happy in this cold wind for our warm sleeping bag.

8/7/03 - day 5

Away from the tussocks and onto the ridge

That walking stick tip I was talking about last time lasted all of two hours before I lost it yesterday. But I did a quick fix by duct-taping a forked stick to the end, and it works even better. As I walk through the tussocks I feel like I should be stabbing them with my pitchfork and tossing them aside. No such luck. I think the old rule of thumb that "one pound on the feet is five pounds in the pack" should be modified to ten pounds for tussocks. Each step is likely to take you up and out of a thigh-deep hole before stumbling into the next one.

So we try to avoid tussocks. Yesterday we walked mostly along ridge lines, skirting the highest peaks. In the sun, we could see everywhere, and everywhere we looked were more ridges, valleys, and peaks. Every day we leave familiar views behind and head off to new mountains, new valleys, and new rivers. But there is never any end in sight. This is a vaster stretch of wilderness than any I have walked before.

Yesterday was a long day. We pushed to meet up with the route we had planned from Chandalar Lake. Today, appropriately, is a lazier day, and we are not following the route we had planned from Chandalar Lake. We have learned that anything large and flat is to be avoided as a possible haunt of the man-eating tussocks.

Right now we're sitting by the fire on another unnamed creek, and Hig is carving and burning an antler into a forked stick for the end of his walking stick. The wind is howling, as usual, which is a wonderful thing for driving off mosquitoes, but also a good thing for chilling us very quickly at a rest stop. The mosquitoes really aren't bad at all here. Perhaps it's a good thing we came in August. We've had few bugs, many blueberries, and a touch of fall color on some of the plants.

Yesterday we walked off our map a good couple of miles on the ridge. We awarded ourselves a dried raspberry prize for that, as we have for quick camp setups and breakdowns, and other such things. Basically anything particularly good, particularly drastic, or spectacularly stupid gets a prize.

Now I should stop writing and wash the pot, so we can put in some more miles today. I like the challenge of what we're doing, but with the loss of time in Fairbanks, we have to push ourselves.


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Last modified: 12/17/2003