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Brooks journal - Page 5

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8/19/03 - day 17 (day 8 leg 2)

From river to glacier

I am writing from the oddest campsite we've had so far. We're lying with all our gear on top of a large and almost flat boulder, over a little stream running along the ice on Esetuk Glacier. This is such an absurdly out-of-the-way place for a bear to come that we haven't bothered to do anything at all with our food.

We spent the first half of the day in the rafts, making good time downriver. It was fast enough for a little excitement, avoiding big waves and choosing braid channels that wouldn't lead us onto gravel bars. But it wasn't anything like yesterday. Our stops today were to stretch out and warm up, not to dump out boats barely floating with their load of river water.

This is a noisy place, on our boulder. Rain is spattering on my hood, the little stream is gurgling underneath us, and the larger river is rushing away down the valley. It's cold here as well, though obviously still above freezing. I can tell we've come north into a different climate these past few days. All the vegetation is a little more dwarfed and put-upon looking. Some species have disappeared altogether, and others nearly so. There are still good-sized willows on the gravel bars though, so fires are no problem. I wonder why they don't count as trees? There are supposedly no trees on this side of the mountains, and certainly all the spruce are gone, but I think these willows deserve a little more respect.

This glacier we are camped upon is certainly not on the way from the Hulahula to Kaktovik. We were making good time on the river, so we decided we could afford the time to come up here and take a look. Time, of course, is food, so we may pay for our detour with slightly emptier bellies in a few days. I think it's worth it.

It's beautiful here. We climbed almost 3000 feet from the river to the ridge top, and scrambled down to Esetuk Glacier. We watched the setting sun light up Mt. Michelson and Tugak Peak, and took way too many pictures of them. At 8800 and 8100 feet, with glaciers, these are the first big mountains we've seen on the trip, and some of the highest in the Brooks Range. These are the Romanzof mountains. We were headed right past them on the river in any case, so they were definitely worth the look.

Picking our way down the boulder fields to the glacier took long enough that camping right here was about the best we could do. But it's a good campsite. The boulder fields right by the glacier are all sitting on ice, and sometimes we could hear the rushing of a stream far below the rocks. As we approached the glacier, each moraine had fewer lichens than the last, and we could watch the slopes getting younger and younger beneath us.

Tomorrow we head back to the river to whip out the boats and continue along our way. The pack rafts open up the world to us. A few minutes with a 4-pound piece of rubber and a little pink inflation bag, and we are transformed into water-borne creatures. Scrambling back onto the bank, we roll up our boats and they disappear into the packs, transforming us into land-dwellers that can climb high and walk quickly. The flexibility is wonderful.

The rafting today was both beautiful and exciting. The sunspots and clouds kept shifting to spotlight different parts of the valley, and all the mountains are orange with the fall. As we were rafting through an especially awesome bedrock gorge, we saw a group of sheep staring at us from the top of the cliff. It is the first time we've been close enough to have a good look without them running away. They seemed to think these curious blue things floating down the river weren't a threat, but when we stopped to take their picture, they bolted.

We have the rafts partly inflated now, and draped over us for extra warmth. I love having a nice boat just pop right out of the pack when I need it, but it's even better when the gear has more uses. We're sleeping under our rafts, and rafting in our sleeping setup. It's cold enough sitting in the boats that we need more insulation, so I've taken to wearing a half-inflated thermarest under my coat, while Hig wears the bivy sack. It works quite well.

8/20/03 - day 18 (day 9 leg 2)

Not rafting to the bear-trashed cabin

Today I am writing from yet another decidedly odd campsite. We're sleeping in the corner of a bear-trashed cabin, just past the mountains on the Hulahula River. There are piles of more or less soggy insulation on the floor, which is strewn with pots, pans, bullets, tools, and the odd article of clothing. There are lots of 55 gallon drums outside, and sheep hides strewn around the cabin. Labels on a few things suggest that the cabin is the work of the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation. The trashing is definitely the work of a bear. It's interesting, if slightly depressing as a campsite. But we can barricade ourselves in here nicely, and don't have to worry about our food.

Today didn't go quite according to plan. We hiked up over the ridge from our glacier, and back down to the river. But the river didn't want to cooperate with us. There were gorges and rock gardens, which we had expected, so we continued to walk downstream, periodically checking the river for improvements. We were both feeling a bit low on energy at various points throughout the day, so we took a number of short breaks.

Finally we passed the last of the hills and eagerly inflated our rafts. We were going strong, paddling along, and came to a huge rapid. So we got out, awkwardly dragged the inflated boats around it, and were off again! Only to get stuck on a gravel bar, walk down it, hop in again, come to another rock garden, and get out again. We dragged our boats through the willow again, trying to find some reasonably comfortable way to carry them, plus the packs and paddle, as the puffy life vests we were wearing got in the way of doing anything. As we were doing this, we were curiously eyeing the cabin across the river. Then we hopped in the boats again, only to raft a short distance to a gravel bar we had to walk down. By this point it was late in the day, I was definitely cranky, and in no mood to raft further. So I convinced Hig we should camp early, and here we are in the bear-trashed cabin.

The river does look markedly better ahead of us (I think we were just a bit too optimistic about inflating our rafts), so hopefully we can get a good early start tomorrow and get a good day of rafting in.

We solved the mystery of the fossil sheep horn this morning at the glacier, by finding a skull with horns like that on it. It is just the same as the modern sheep, only buried a little while. It was cool anyway. And the skull was cool. We could have carried a sheep horn back, but decided it wasn't quite exciting enough for its weight.

8/21/03 - day 19 (day 10 leg 2)

A long day of rapids

Today was our first full day of rafting. Actually, it was our first full day of rafting ever, since we never rafted that long on our last trip. It was a long day. We did not raft for as long as we sometimes walk, but we did raft as far, and the rafting is far more intense.

The rapids today were generally quite doable, but they were constant. It was only in the last hour of the day that the river gave us any real breaks from watching waves and dodging rocks and holes. It's all very basic as far as whitewater rafting goes, but my skills have increased tenfold in the past few days. We caught a few big waves in the boats, and I went onto one rock, and later over another, down a couple feet of waterfall into the boil behind it. Or at least it seemed that high. Hig saw a fox on the shore, and at one point a bird watched my progress curiously from a boulder in the middle of the river.

Less energy is burned rafting down a river than walking along one, but negotiating rapids is somehow far more exhausting. We took frequent short breaks to dump water from the boats, and a couple longer breaks to build fires. Rafting is cold. The waves are wet and cold, and the air here on the North Slope isn't a lot warmer. Hig has been wearing the sleeping bag and the bivy sack, I've been wearing the thermarest, we've both been wearing the foam pads from our packs, and it's still cold. We're sitting by a nice warm fire now, preparing hot rocks from our bed.

We expect we have a day and a half left to Kaktovik, though location is difficult to tell here. We've left the mountains, left the low hills, and it is flat. There are a couple of cabins on the beach here (all boarded up) that look like something straight out of "Little House on the Prairie". The evening fog has rolled in, and now I can barely even see as far as the cabins. Lately the weather has been fickle to us. The clouds break and the sky hints of sun, only to return with a light spattering of rain or a blanket of fog.

Rationing our food is definitely difficult by now, and we can tell we've both lost a good deal of fat. We're having a small evening snack of salty gorp, and I am restraining myself from eating the half stick of butter that happens to be in the same bag.

It's a chill evening here in the wind and fog, and our fire is dying down Hopefully tomorrow's rafting will be mellower and not quite so wet as today's.

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Last modified: 12/17/2003