Into the Brooks Range, Part 1

[Also see Part 2 and Part 3.]

In Summer 2009 I went on a 1.5-week backpacking trip in the Alaskan arctic with my brother Eric, my colleague and hiking buddy Bill, and our guides Shannon and Ben from Arctic Treks. It was an amazing trip through a very rugged part of the world. Not only did we not see any other people, but most days we saw no signs that people had ever been there. If the civilized world had ended, we wouldn’t have found out until nobody came to pick us up.

July 31 — Getting There

It took most of two days to get from Salt Lake City to our starting point: the highest airstrip on the Wind River, on the South Slope of the Brooks Range’s Philip Smith Mountains. Bill and I first flew up to Fairbanks, through Anchorage. Descending into Fairbanks, we couldn’t see anything at all due to smoke from wildfires, and it was lucky that we even got there — earlier in the day they were turning planes back. After dinner we did some last minute gear-sorting and met up with Ben and Shannon, who gave us our share of the group gear. We’d been aiming for 50 pounds but with a full load of fuel and food, mine was around 60; Ben took more than his share of gear and had 70 pounds. Most everything we took ended up being useful or necessary, our main luxury was a tent apiece for Eric, Bill, and me. As Eric puts it, “If weight is so much of a concern that I have to share a tent with a dude, I’m not going.” I hadn’t managed to shake a bad cold, and decided to leave behind a half-bottle of bourbon. I went to bed early; Eric, who lives in Anchorage, had to work late and didn’t show up until early morning.

Next morning we went to the air taxi company to take a single-engine Cessna turboprop to Arctic Village, a town of less than 200 people next to the Chandalar River at the foot of the Brooks Range. The flight could have been spectacular but we hardly saw anything, again due to smoke. The big gravel air strip is maybe a half mile out of town; we dropped packs and slapped bugs waiting for the bush plane. Bill, who has done a number of trips in the arctic, said it could be 15 minutes, could be all day. It wasn’t too long until Kirk Sweetsir and his little Cessna arrived, but we still had to wait — he first had to drop off a couple who had flown out of Fairbanks with us, who were hiking over the continental divide and then packrafting all the way the Arctic Ocean, ending at Kaktovik, a pretty serious trip. When our turn came, Kirk flew us over (or rather through) a rugged and forbidding patch of mountains instead of heading up the Junjik river valley; it was spectacular, thought still very hazy. Before landing, Kirk had spotted a moose and a brown bear. As the plane flew off it began to drizzle and we pitched tents on boggy ground near the airstrip. A little later, Kirk came back with Eric and Ben and then we were left alone in the wide river valley, probably 45 miles from the nearest people. Before Kirk left for the second time, Shannon double checked with him regarding the pickup day and location. This seemed like a fine idea.

The Alaska definition of “airstrip” is something like “someone landed there once.” Guys like Kirk have an amazing job but the level of flying skill, rapid risk assessment, and luck required to grow old in that line of work must be fantastic.

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

August 1 — Up the Wind River Valley

Our first walking day was in the miles-wide Wind River valley. Lacking trails, the main tension in this part of the world is between walking in the river channel, which is easy when on gravel bars but involves lots of river crossings and may be very brushy, and walking the bank, which is generally brushy, hilly, tussocky, and boggy. Tussocks are pillar- or mushroom-shaped tufts of grass that are raised about a foot above the surrounding terrain. If you try to step on them, they tend to flip over or otherwise give way, creating risk of injury. If you try to step between them, you also get unsure footing — the tussocks are so close together you can’t clearly see the gaps. Additionally, the gaps are usually filled with water or mud. You might think (at least, I certainly thought) that a sloped river bank would be well-drained, but somehow in this part of Alaska that is not the case. Although a tussock field looks inviting from afar, since the surface grass is nearly flat, it can be an amazingly effective obstacle to progress. Even a strong hiker wouldn’t expect to make more than about a half mile per hour in a nice, flat tussock field. Happily, on this trip we were mostly in the high country and didn’t get killed by tussock travel.

We ended up spending the first day mainly on the gravel bars, and except for Ben we stayed in sandals since otherwise the braided river would have forced multiple changes of footwear per hour. Ben had gaiters that appeared to keep his boots dry if he crossed quickly. This was the first of August and the river was low, so the crossings were inconvenient instead of scary.

We camped close to where the valley forked three ways and watched a snowstorm hitting the high mountains. Eric and I walked up a big alluvial fan and found a nice place to sit where we could be above the mosquitoes and scan the valley for bears. We didn’t see any, but had a good talk. This was one of the things I had been hoping would happen on this trip; Eric and I aren’t particularly close and in fact I’m not sure I have much of a handle on what kind of adult he’s become. Of course I still think of him as my little brother, though he is 35.

Eric is a field researcher for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, studying polar bears. As far as I can tell, it is the perfect job for him because he enjoys organization (capture work has hellish logistical requirements), is talented at statistics and modeling, and also has a strong commitment to field work. The field work is most often flying over arctic sea ice in a helicopter, darting a bear, and then landing to weigh it, take blood samples, and whatever else. His videos from bear-darting operations are amazing: a white bear is zig-zagging around on white ice under a white sky. Anyway, Eric has a ton of polar bear stories including some that are scary. It’s a neat job.

Throughout this trip, the mosquitoes were a constant low-grade annoyance. After too many years in Utah’s deserts my pain threshold for these pests is pretty low, and I ended up wearing my mosquito net for a while this second evening. Luckily I never felt the need to put it on after that, and in fact only seldom applied any DEET. In early August the mosquito season is just about over and by Alaska standards they were not at all bad. The Brooks Range mosquito adopts a slightly different strategy than those I’m used to: it wants to spend a bit of time hovering about a foot above your head before diving in to strike. I eventually learned that if I found a location where they couldn’t hover above me — such as sitting in my tent with the doors wide open — they wouldn’t bother me at all. Something nice about the arctic is that mosquitoes are the only pest: there are no chiggers, ticks, biting flies, or any of the other little critters that can make life difficult.

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

August 2 — Into the Mountains

On our second moving day the air was clear of smoke: the only really clear day on this whole trip. We walked up the middle fork of the three-way split, which rapidly narrowed as we made progress. Walking was easy on the benches, and the river crossings were at most calf-deep. We saw a wolverine pretty close, which was fun: it was chasing something on opposite side of the creek and didn’t pay much attention to us. By the end of the day the valley had become a canyon and we were walking on talus, having gained enough elevation to leave most vegetation behind. We camped next to a beautiful but imposing waterfall that emerged from the side-drainage we had to hike into the next day.

You might wonder why three strong hikers who can read a map and have plenty of wilderness experience, arctic experience, and even hands-on bear experience would take a guided trip instead of rolling it ourselves. One reason is logistics: we’re busy people who live far from Alaska (well, Eric lives up there but he wasn’t actively involved with planning this trip) and having people on-location getting the gear together and setting up the bush plane was super handy. As our trip progressed I learned that it is pretty damn nice having someone else cook and clean up. In the mornings we generally slept quite late (arctic summer trips seem to tend in this direction due to the near-constant daylight) and Shannon or Ben always had coffee going when we got up. It is not a bad life to get out of the tent long after the morning chill has burned away and then sit around for an hour looking at maps, drinking two pots of coffee, and chatting. Shannon and Ben turned out to be great company, and certainly Bill and I, and Eric and I, would have gotten on each others nerves if it had been just the three of us. Finally, adding people lightens loads (early on, we hadn’t been sure Eric could come) and greatly increases bear safety.

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

[Continued in Part 2.]

2 responses to “Into the Brooks Range, Part 1”

  1. Awesome. 3 Professors hiking and camping in the mountains… I think this proves you guys are not geeks. 🙂 Beautiful photographs.

  2. Wow! This is such an amazing blog! I loved reading about your trip. And your definition of an Alaskan Airstrip is hilarious.

    Did your feet not freeze off hiking in sandals in the arctic??

    It sounds like Eric should start his own blog about his adventures researching polar bears!

    As an avid backpacker and outdoor enthusiast, I really enjoyed reading this story and I hope you go on another trip soon so you can post another entry!

    Thanks for sharing!