Into the Brooks Range, Part 2

[Continued from Part 1, also see Part 3.]

August 3 — Over the Arctic Divide

Our third hiking day took us over a 5700′ mountain pass where the Wind, Ivishak, and Ribdon river drainages converge. Since the creek-bed of our side drainage was totally impassable, we climbed steep talus slopes, leaving the last tundra behind. Eventually the rocks leveled out and we came to a high bowl containing the Seefar glacier, which appears to be dead. We stopped and climbed its moraines a while: the basin was really spectacular and Bill and I were bummed that the thick smoke eliminated the possibility of good photographs.

To exit the Seefar bowl and get to the pass, we had to bypass a small waterfall on angle-of-repose scree. It was doable, but dicey with the big packs; we went one-by-one to avoid kicking rocks down on each other. After a bit more walking we reached the pass itself, which might as well have been on Mars, it’s as desolate a location as I’ve ever seen. It would have been nice to stick around for a while and climb the unnamed 7500′ peak nearby, but we wanted to get down to a suitable campsite. The mountains in this area have no doubt been climbed before, but definitely not very many times.

The talus slog down from the pass on the Ivishak side was steep, loose, and not much fun. It contained, however, a memorable site: the remains of a Grumman Goose that crashed in 1958, killing Clarence Rhode, the regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and two others, triggering Alaska’s then-biggest-ever search and rescue operation. The search was unsuccessful and the fate of the plane and its three occupants was a mystery until 1979 when the wreck was found by hikers (Debbie Miller’s book Midnight Wilderness describes this). The bent propellers showed that the plane was powered when it hit the mountain. The arctic climate preserves things well: a can of coffee near the wreck still contained recognizable coffee grounds, and a typed “permit to take wolves and/or coyotes from an airplane” was perfectly legible after 50 years outdoors. The site was disconcerting, probably especially so for Eric — a current employee of the US Fish and Wildlife service and a heavy user of small aircraft in the arctic.

We dropped down to a confluence of small sub-drainages that would have been a very small, rocky campsite, then continued until being stopped by a waterfall. We bypassed this and went to the next confluence, which contained a beautiful meadow where we stopped, exhausted after a very long day.

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All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 4 — Layover

Our schedule had some slack built into it for weather and other difficulties. However, now that we were over the pass most of the risk had disappeared so we decided to take a rest day. Unfortunately, we had descended so far from the pass that nobody had energy to hike back up to it to climb some peaks. We poked around, read books, and generally enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day outdoors. This confluence was some sort of caribou highway and small herds walked past our campsite all day. I poked back upstream to the waterfall that had blocked us the evening before; it was gorgeous. Bill and I hiked around the next bend in the river and saw a group of Dall sheep.

On this trip Eric read much of The Brothers Karamazov, which seemed like a fine choice. I brought along Little, Big, which I’d read before and loved. However, Shannon brought perhaps the best book: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic. It is targeted at the interested layperson, and is packed with information about the kinds of things one wonders about while walking around this part of the world. What is the difference between hibernation and torpor? What is a tussock, exactly? What is the relationship between the moon’s phases and the “moon stays up” periods that correspond to the midnight sun? Among three PhDs, it is possible to speculate endlessly without any actual information, so this book was a godsend.

Although we missed the midnight sun, we didn’t have any real darkness on this trip. I’m used to fall camping trips in Utah where the nights are quite long; it felt really strange to not pack any light source at all for an extended backpacking trip, but that’s what we did. I’ve never had trouble sleeping in the light, luckily. I almost didn’t take a wristwatch on this trip, but I was really glad I did: lacking daylight-based cues about the time, I often had no idea at all what time it was.  Each day shortly after midnight, the sun rose in the southeast, made a near-complete circuit of the sky, and then set in the southwest around midnight. I took a very small tube of sunblock on this trip, guessing that the low sun angle plus likely clouds and rain would make sunburns unlikely; this wasn’t a very good decision.

Hiking in Utah, a person gets used to always filtering, purifying, or boiling water. Each of these is a pain, and one of the things I loved about the Brooks Range is that water is clean enough to drink straight from any moving source.

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All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 5 — Out of the Mountains

After the rest day, the going was easier. Our bodies were getting used to the packs, the packs were getting lighter as we ate food and burned fuel, and we were hiking downhill. However, in the morning we were still in a seriously mountainous area and the stream would often constrict to a narrow gorge. Luckily the tundra benches were wide and fairly level, so we stayed on them most of the day. By the time we made camp, we were back into a fairly wide river valley.

It was claimed, by people on this trip, that a certain kind of tundra moss makes a passable substitute for toilet paper. Not the dry, rough top side of the moss, but rather the soft, damp underside. I just wanted to mention this and won’t bother the reader with details.

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All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

[Continued in Part 3.]