Into the Brooks Range, Part 3

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.]

August 6 — We See Bears

Finally we were back to walking a wide river valley not unlike our first day hiking. To stay in the river bed, we had to pass through some dense thickets of willow brush. Since it’s very bad to surprise a brown bear, we made lots of noise. Later, while walking along the riverbank, Eric heard something and motioned for us to stop. Down below on the gravel, a big female bear was standing up on hind legs, making warning noises: we had violated her personal space, which in the arctic encompasses a much larger area than for example in southeast Alaska where the bear density is higher. She calmed down after we stopped coming nearer, and we saw that she had three cubs nearby. Eventually, they wandered off into the willow scrub and we moved on. Later, we camped in a really pretty site up on the river bank.

I hadn’t spent time with brown bears before this trip, and it was interesting to do so. Most of the time, of course, we were managing bear risk as opposed to dealing with actual bears. For example, we carried a separate cook tent and never stored food in our tents overnight. We each had a can of pepper spray at hand basically at all times. Statistically speaking, this stuff is supposedly more effective than carrying a firearm, and certainly it poses less risk to the carrier (though there always seemed to be the possibility of being forced to discharge it into the wind). Even Eric, who has extensive bear experience, was hard-pressed to explain how one might distinguish a mock charge from a real charge before it was too late. A few times we joked that if the bears had their act together, they’d deploy one in front while another snuck up behind us. However, fundamentally, this kind of tactic is unnecessary since a single large bear could easily kill all of a five-person group like ours. However, the Brooks Range bears are not at all habituated to humans; their suspicion about the new shapes and smells causes them to back off more often than not, and attacks are rare (though not unheard of).

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

August 7 — A Warm Day and a Swim

This was a sunny, warm day with generally easy walking. The Ivishak was finally deep enough to contain plausible fishing holes — Ben had carried his fly rod the whole trip waiting for this. But no luck, it was too early for the arctic char sea run. One excellent location had deep, clear water and Ben, Eric, and I couldn’t resist a quick dip to wash off a week’s worth of grime and sweat. I’d guess the water was around 50-55 degrees: cold enough to trigger the gasp and hyperventilation reflexes, but not producing a strong feeling of impending cardiac arrest.

In the evening we found a gorgeous campsite on the river bank and Ben fished again. Around 11:30 Eric started yelling for Ben to come up to camp: a bear was prowling around on the opposite bank. We watched it foraging for a while: it was acting natural and hadn’t heard us over the river noise. Before turning in we banged some pots and pans to make sure it knew we were there: this got its attention right away and it stood on hind legs to try to figure us out. It lost interest quickly and wandered off, but even so most of us too a pot or pan to bed that night as a noise-maker in case he came back to investigate further. As far as we know, he didn’t come back.

Throughout the trip, everyone else did a better job than I did in spotting animals; my vision is about 20/50 and I decided not to wear corrective glasses most of the time. Also, as Sarah enjoys pointing out, I’m not the most observant person in the world. Eric on the other hand has 20/15 vision and his job depends on spotting wildlife in difficult conditions. Throughout the trip we were seeing plenty of caribou and raptors plus a single moose; these sightings quickly became routine and I’m only mentioning the more interesting ones.

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

August 8 — Last Day Walking and a Wedding

Our last walking day was cloudy and cool. The steep valley walls made it best to stick to the gravel bars and we spent most of the day in sandals. The frequent river crossings were uncomfortably cold. Also, as more side drainages added water to the Ivishak, and as it rained around us, the crossings got deeper. They weren’t scary but certainly we had to focus on maintaining our footing in the current. By the end of the day, crossing the main channel would have been dicey.

Finally we arrived at the big alluvial fan containing the takeout air strip. Although we were certain the location was correct (Shannon had been there before, as the starting point of a rafting trip) we had no luck finding any wheel tracks. Shannon went out and put a makeshift windsock on the part of the fan where she thought Kirk would land.

In the evening we had a fun surprise: Shannon and Ben had decided to get married. They asked Eric if he would marry them, and he was happy to (an adult Alaska resident can officiate at a wedding in the state). It was a nice ceremony in the most beautiful possible setting. Afterwards, we had drinks — sort of. Ben had stashed a mini bottle of gin that we mixed up with fizzy electrolyte drink tablets.

Shannon and Ben are a neat couple. They live in a cabin near Denali NP. They do various kinds of work such as guiding in the summer and working in Antarctica in winter. It sounds like an interesting life and I like to secretly think that in some alternate universe I’d have done this kind of thing instead of, or at least prior to, becoming a professional academic.

Overnight, a front rolled through and we had hours of high winds mixed with rain and sleet. We were fortunate to have set up camp in the lee of a small rock outcrop, but even so the biggest gusts brought my tent ceiling more than halfway down to my head. For a while I was pretty sure the tent would collapse or else go airborne. However, it did not, perhaps because I had added three extra guy lines. Nobody slept much and in fact around midnight we found ourselves all outdoors in the miserable driving rain putting extra-large rocks on our tent stakes. Ben and Shannon’s tent had partially blown down and they had to realign it; Bill and Eric had pretty solid tents and I — having probably the least weather-worthy tent — was very lucky to have set it up the right way.

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

August 9 — In a Snowstorm and Not Getting Out

In the morning the winds had died and we found the snow line barely above camp. The cloud level was only a few hundred feet higher. Still, the weather was improving and we hoped the plane could make it in. Eric and I took a short hike, but we didn’t want to wander far in case Kirk arrived.

As the day progressed the weather deteriorated and we realized we were almost certainly in for an extra night. We moved the tents into a slightly more sheltered configuration in case the winds picked up. In the afternoon it began to snow pretty hard and we spent the rest of the day chatting in the cook tent and napping. We had little reserve food and had an extremely light dinner before going to bed hungry.

During the night it kept snowing. My light tent let in every little gust of wind and I started to get cold. As part of a weight-saving plan I brought only a 30 degree sleeping bag, knowing that it would make hiking easier but that I would suffer if things went badly. So I shivered, wearing basically every single piece of clothing I had brought along, including the fleece top that had been serving as a pillow.

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

August 10 — Snow and Sun and Out

We woke to perhaps six inches of snow, which represented a new obstacle to getting out: the bush pilot can’t land if he can’t see the terrain. Someone told a story of a bush pilot who overflew his clients after a snowstorm and dropped them a shovel, circling while they cleared the strip. With the threat of a second extra night out, we rationed food pretty severely and stayed hungry.

As the day progressed it partially cleared and the snow began to burn off. It was incredibly pretty, definitely worth the discomfort and inconvenience. Sometime in the morning we heard a plane and rushed to take down tents — but the plane passed overhead. The rest of the day we read and napped, not wanting to stray far from the air strip. By late afternoon we were resigned to another night, but then around 6:30 Kirk showed up. We packed up and ran for the plane, not wanting to keep him there any longer than we had to. The flight out to Arctic Village was spectacular, with clear air this time.

It turned out Kirk had tried hard to get us out the previous day, but had been turned back by severe turbulence. His brother had also tried, from a different direction, also unsuccessfully. This was something interesting to learn about bush pilots: their clients’ lives are in their hands and they take this responsibility very seriously. This, in combination with the levels of skill and experience of the best pilots, helped put the cost of bush plane travel into perspective (it constituted one of the major parts of the total trip expense).

At Arctic Village it was clear that we weren’t going any further. An old guy with an ATV gave Eric and me a ride into town, where by some stroke a luck the store was still open. We stocked up on high-calorie foods and walked back to the air strip to wait for Ben and Shannon. When they arrived, we ate a huge amount of spaghetti and candy bars. Unfortunately, the little visitor center was locked up, so we slept on its covered porch. I burned a bit of sat phone time to tell Sarah all was well, luckily she had been adequately briefed on the possibility we’d be stranded out.

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

August 11 — Heading Home

Wright Air Service was aware of our situation and sent an extra plane up to Arctic Village, putting us in Fairbanks by noon. Now we were two days late and Bill had missed his flights home. My parents were in Fairbanks with a car and Eric and I planned to ride down to Anchorage with them. However, Eric was stressed about work and stuff and flew home instead. I hadn’t yet missed my scheduled flight, a redeye late on the 11th, so we had a leisurely drive south. Luckily I had taken a shower in Bill’s hotel room or else we’d probably have driven with the windows open the whole way.

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

Notes

All pictures are by me or Bill Thompson. If you care, Bill’s pictures all have filenames starting with “dsc” whereas mine all start with “picture.” I shot a number of panoramas too.  We used identical equipment: Nikon D90 with the kit lens, an 18-105 zoom. Bill’s landscape pictures often look better than mine (at least partly) because he shot in raw format and then used a good converter, whereas I let the camera do everything.

Most of my gear performed admirably; the fact is that today’s mid-range equipment is overkill for almost any normal use. My favorite items were the Smartwool midweight wool long underwear top and bottom that became more or less a second skin for the cold parts of this trip. Completely comfortable, and not stinky like synthetic. My puffy synthetic Patagonia jacket was really nice as well, and way too warm for anything except sitting around or sleeping. The Arcteryx Bora 95 pack was awesome: big and bombproof. I have no idea when mine was made, I picked it up used from a guy who was moving away from SLC. Like all Arcteryx products, these are more or less prohibitively expensive to buy new. The La Sportiva Trango Trek GTX boots I took were about perfect: decent support, good waterproofness, and not unbearably heavy. After over a week in very tough country they look and work about like new. To carry water I took a single 1-liter platypus bottle, these are super light and can be collapsed to pocket-size when empty. Probably the main drawbacks are the easily-dropped cap and the narrow opening which makes it slow to fill. My old Cascade Designs Z-Rest performed about as well as it ever does, which is to say that it’s light and respectably comfortable, but really wants to be placed on soft ground.

A few items I was less happy with included the 30 degree Marmot synthetic sleeping bag that I got for cheap, which had very little loft. It weighed about the same as Shannon’s 5 degree bag from Western Mountaineering, which had so much loft it looked inflated. Seriously, you can bounce a quarter off that kind of bag. My Sierra Designs Sirius 2 tent was decent overall, but the open vestibules were a major drawback. First, they provided very little shelter for keeping items dry outside the tent. Second, they acted like wings to catch the wind: not good. Also, this tent is pretty short; I’m six feet and had to lie diagonally to keep from pressing head and feet against the tent ends.

Although I spend a lot of time outdoors and car camp as frequently as possible, my previous backpacking experience was minimal — probably no more than two weeks total, prior to this trip. So it was fun to refine my techniques and learn new tricks. One of the most useful was rigging a clothesline inside the tent so that socks and such could be dried overnight. Another good one was putting clothing and other items at the head and foot of my sleeping bag to keep it from getting wet from condensation due to touching the outside of the tent. A great pair of camp shoes can be improvised out of a pair of tevas and a pair of neoprene socks.