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Brooks journal - Page 6

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8/22/03 - day 20 (day 11 leg 2)

To the Arctic Ocean

I'm writing today from a large campfire on Arey Island. The lights of Kaktovik are winking in the distance, and we expect to reach it sometime tomorrow afternoon.

Today was a day of long fast travel on the river and great changes in the land. Last night's campsite was truly in the last of the trees. There they were less than head-high, but big enough to provide decent firewood. As we rafted north, all the vegetation was mowed shorter and shorter, until even the willows were only ankle-high.

Today we left the rapids behind, and spent the day rafting in a large braid plain. There was hardly a rock to avoid, but there were many channels to choose from, and we bumped over quite a few gravel bars. I weigh less than Hig, and can float over some that leave him stuck on the rocks. I'm glad our new Alpacka boats have such tough bottoms. Not one patch has been required, which is a good thing, since our raft glue tube burst back before Arctic Village, and all we have is duct tape and repair tape.

Unlike rapids, gravel bars can make us stuck, but luckily they can't make us very wet. And it was a cold day for rafting. The clouds were low and sprinkling rain, and a cold humid wind was blowing up the valley and into our faces. We wore just about everything we had with us, save the ice axes. We wore our clothing, we wore the sleeping setup, we wore the foam pads from our packs, and we even took our remaining plastic baggies of food and maps and stuffed them in our coats so we could wear them too. I had the remainder of some crackers as one earmuff, and a bag of toiletries as the other. Still, we were chilly. Every time we stopped, the blood started flowing to our ice-cold legs and made us even colder. We did quite a bit of running up and down small hills on our breaks to warm ourselves. Actually, only one was a real hill. The other spot was a small sand dune.

It is really flat out here. The endless stretch of the tundra is broken only by the occasional ice-formed hill (pingo), and the occasional knee-high shrub towering over its ankle-high companions. Seagulls were everywhere crying along the river, and flocks of geese and laughing ducks wheeled overhead, rounding up for their coming trip south.

One of our stops today was initiated by a musk ox. We were rafting along, and noticed a large brown shape moving on a gravel bar up ahead of us. It had a humped profile, and we were sure it was just one monster of a bear. So we pulled over to another gravel bar, and watched it warily with bear spray in hand, calling out to be sure it noticed us. And it did seem to. The beast moved towards us at an angle, lumbering, pausing to look, and lumbering some more. It sure didn't move like a bear. When it got closer, we could see that it was in fact a musk ox. And it didn't seem to know what to do about the two funny humans. We were too curious a thing to ignore completely certainly not worth running from. So it kept lumbering along, getting a real good look at us. Meanwhile, we were taking its picture and bouncing around, trying to warm up our legs. We were absolutely freezing, and wishing the musk ox would make up its mind so we could get moving again. But it was certainly in no hurry to do anything. After it examined us at least a dozen times, it seemed to feel we were worth lumbering away from. So it crossed one small stream, waded into the next channel, and decided that it was too wet and deep for its tastes. So it crossed back again, continued its lumbering and looking for awhile. We were still cold, but this was getting rather funny, in addition to being a great view of a musk ox. The musk ox eventually gathered up an idea to cross the opposite stream instead, which was also quite deep. But this time it swum across, looking for all the world like a clump of sod in the water. Immediately on the far bank (of the channel we needed to raft down) he paused again, deciding that these particular willow would make a perfect post-crossing snack. Finally, he moved a bit further, and we hurried past.

After a long fast day on the Hulahula, we crossed over to the Okpilak River, and dinked around getting stuck on sandbars for awhile before deciding to portage around them. And almost immediately, we hit the ocean. The Arctic Ocean at last!

The sun came out for a few minutes to celebrate with us, and we took a few pictures. We also decided we were close enough that it was ok to break into our 'emergency food' Power Bars, and those jaw-wrenching blocks of sugar and vitamins were an absolute taste sensation. We also filled our bottles with unfortunately brackish water from a pond (we forgot to check), and will be thirsty when we reach Kaktovik tomorrow.

We reached the ocean in a lagoon behind Arey island, and it was dead still calm, reflecting the colors of the evening sky. It was beautiful. The shorebirds were feeding in the shallow water, and it was almost shallow enough that we could walk to Arey Island. But we had the boats blown up already, so it was easy enough to walk in the shallows and paddle the deeps across.

There are no trees on the north side of the mountains, but large wood drifts here from who knows where, and we have a large fire to keep us warm this evening. A bright orange fire to write by, a crescent moon hanging over the sea, the lights of Kaktovik gleaming in the distance, and the sound of ocean waves to go with the crackling of our fire.

8/23/03 - day 21 (day 12 leg 2)


And now we are done. I'm writing from bed again, but this time in a Kaktovik hotel room (kindly provided for us as a wedding present by Hig's mother). Here we have a nice warm building with lights, electricity, showers (not so warm, but still clean), and all the non-hiking food we care to eat. And we care to eat a lot. It's hard not to overeat upon returning to civilization. I suddenly become much more sedentary, but my body still feels it needs to fuel itself for hiking, and all the food is so good.

We walked for a good long half day today, following the polar bear tracks down the spit from Arey Island. The woman here at Waldo's says whaling starts in a week and the bears come back a bit early, ready to scavenge the scraps of the whale.

The spit dwindled to an isolated strip in the middle of the ocean, and then fell away completely. The beaches here are short on seaweed and shells, relative to others I've walked on, but we found a nice piece of whale baleen, and the bleached remains of strange little crustaceans in the drift line. They are also short on tides. The entire tidal range is only about 9 inches.

We had to raft to Barter Island, but from where we stood the short hop to another spit wasn't visible, and rather than paddle straight out into the ocean, we decided to make the longer crossing to the part of Barter Island we could see. Unfortunately, the wind was dead against us, and the current was pushing us out to sea. So it was a long slow paddle for a couple hours, fueled by the last of our emergency power bars and a few gulps of brackish water. From there, we had only to walk the beach into town, admiring the permafrost cliffs as they dripped and crumbled into the ocean.

Each approach to a new town from the wilderness is a different experience. This time, the first signs of civilization were a series of bizarre abandoned military structures, complete with warnings and keep out signs. They were part of the DEW line - relics of the cold war meant to give us an early warning of any missiles coming over from the USSR. And then we were in town, saw the sign for Waldo's Arms almost immediately, passed some awfully clean-looking fleece-clad rafters on the way to the airport, and were here. This is the first place we've been on a trek that sees much significant adventurer traffic (though Brooks Camp certainly had more tourists). They are used to people coming in and rafting down the rivers or sheep hunting in the mountains, so here we don't seem quite so strange. Perhaps they will understand why we're still wearing dirty raingear in a hotel. It's odd to be inside, where inside is greater than the width and length of two bodies in a sleeping bag.

We've been hiking for weeks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the coastal plain of which is under consideration and fierce debate as a location for oil drilling. The people here in Kaktovik are for it, as they'd get a lot out of it. In Arctic Village they're split, but more against it. Here we've flipped through a recent photo book of the refuge by Subhankar Banerjee, and seen an interview with him on TV (a very odd coincidence). I feel that we should write to congress people or do something to protect this when we return home.

All in all, we've traveled about 350 miles from the start, through beauty and adventure. It was an awesome honeymoon. I am already daydreaming of our next journey.


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Last modified: 12/17/2003