“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
A.A. Milne in Winnie-the-Pooh
A Gates of the Arctic Float Trip #2
According to Alan Alexander Milne we should get there, right?
Our first day of the 2019 Kobuk River patrol was not going as planned. Due to poor visibility our pilot turned back five minutes before our destination. Safety first. We lived for another day.
Next day, another attempt. Same procedure, waiting for morning fog to lift, then waiting for the low hanging clouds to burn off. Off to the floating pond, loading all our gear, bear spray and fuel into the floats, donning life jackets and headsets, off we go.
The landscape already looks somewhat familiar, although today the colors are even more intense. The sun pokes through the clouds. The fall tundra puts on a splendid display.
The John River and the Alatna River below us almost look as if they did not want to leave the Brooks Range. Constantly twisting and turning they are drawn towards their destiny: the Koyukuk. Is that what is expecting us at the Kobuk as well? We see horseshoe turns, where the main channels come within a few feet, only to separate for a much longer detour. Amazing to see this from the air, probably hard to appreciate when you are on the river.
We make it to yesterday’s turn around point from yesterday. There are still clouds lingering, but nothing compared to yesterday. We climb through a shallow pass and there it is, Walker Lake, the starting point of our float trip.
The surface of the lake is glassy, no wind, the mountains and clouds reflecting in it like in a mirror. Hard to believe after yesterdays conditions. We spot a log cabin at the SE corner of the lake. That’s where 2 colleagues will stay for a week, while we attempt to float down the Kobuk. The cabin is located inside the Gates of Arctic National Park and Preserve. It was donated to the park and is used occasionally by back country rangers. The cabin is in decent shape, although it’s destiny is uncertain. No fixed structures are supposed to be inside the park and one of these days it may get removed. That would be a pity.
We unload the plane, have a quick bite. It’s 1 PM. The weather is perfect for crossing the open water. We are already one day behind schedule so there is no time to loose. It takes us quite a while to put together our folding canoe. A single PVC skin is stretched over an aluminum frame that needs to be assembled from a bunch of poles and joints. It takes some head scratching, a couple of zip ties and the ever present duct tape to setup the canoe, load our gear and say good bye to our friends. We are scheduled to call every morning and evening and transmit our location and status with dispatch.
The pilot is supposed to pick us up in a week, about 60 miles from here near the Pah River confluence.
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.
That’s apparently a quote from Jane Eyre, which I haven’t read, yet.
This fall I was invited to be part of a back country patrol into the Gates of the Arctic Preserve. Six days, two people, one canoe passing through a remote wilderness that is as pristine as it gets (for now).
Our starting point was Bettles, a hamlet with less than 20 year-round residents that can be reached on an ice road in the winter, if the conditions permit, Otherwise it can only reached by air from Fairbanks or Coldfoot, or by boat. Bettles saw it’s heydays during the 1899 gold rush. It was the northern terminal of the Koyukuk River barge line. It had a trading post, a post office
During World War 2 an airfield was constructed and used by the U.S. Navy for the exploration of the National Petroleum.
Today, it is used by tourists and hunters to access Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge and the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Our plan was to float the Kobuk River from Walker Lake to the Pah River junction.
It is a 1 hour flight on a float plane from Bettles to Walker Lake, the starting point of out float trip. Well, it takes an hour in good weather…
Turns out getting to Walker Lake was part of the upcoming adventure. We were told to be ready by 9 AM. Our gear had been checked, and checked again the day before to shed pounds. Although we had packed minimum gear we exceed the weight limit for our plane. As a result, we had chosen a single skin canoe over an inflatable canoe, which was our first choice, as it seemed the safer vehicle. Then we dropped excess food, which did not seem such a great idea. There was also no way to bring extra clothing, in case it got really cold or if it would rain hard for the whole trip, or if we would fall into the water, god forbid. We just had the bare minimum of gear, which is not the greatest idea, if you set out into the Alaskan wilderness. But there was no choice.
On out departure day we waited for hours for fog to clear, then some rain clouds to pass. Finally, at 4PM we got the go ahead. It was a beautiful fall afternoon in Bettles. The Beaver puttered to one end of the float pond, started bopping and gliding on the flat water of the float pond, and ultimately took off before the lake ended. Well done, we were on our way.
Around this time of the year the tundra is just a spectacular carpet of fall colors. Everything seems more defined than in summer or winter. Our eyes were glued to the windows, observing the endless landscape below us. Creeks and rivers would meander through valleys that had been carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago. Near Bettles there were some tracks in the tundra, the winter road and trapping routes. After a while these tracks vanished and it was just nature, as far as the eye can see.
We were heading mostly West, towards the mountains, which were partly covered in clouds. The closer we came, the darker the clouds appeared. We knew something was up when our pilot suddenly banked the plane making a huge circle. Raindrops starter to hit the wind shield. The previously colorful tundra seemed gray and dull.
About 5 minutes before our destination our pilot decided to turn around because of poor visibility ahead of us.
You can imagine what went through our mind. After all the anticipation and preparation for this trip what did this mean? Was that the end of the trip before it even started?
Well, I leave you with a picture of Walker Lake on a good day. Maybe I’ll write about the rest of the story another day…
“We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. “
That’s a passage from Moby Dick.
Now that I am back from the Arctic, I had a couple of weeks time to contemplate about my summer up North.
Compared to other travel destinations few people travel to the far North, to experience foul weather, thirsty mosquitoes and a lack of most conveniences. Nevertheless, there are some, that enjoy this harsh environment. I was wondering if the inconveniences make you appreciate the little things that you have up there more.
Maybe a shelter in the woods feels more special than your standard home in a gated community. Or the blueberries that you picked yourself, while watching for bears and battling the always present mosquitoes taste better than the exotic fruits you can buy in the supermarket? Or the unexpected kindness that was offered to you feels better than the best online deal you ever got?
For me it was the solitude that came with the vast landscape, the absence of humans and their doings and the sense of self -reliance in the back country that made an impression on me.
I can appreciate the conveniences of civilized life, but in the spirit of Herman Melville, there comes the day, when I need a little bit of roughing it, just for good measure.
Thinking back about my summer in the Arctic I am dearly reminded that we only get so many days on the planet, although for months the sun would not set nor rise.
When days and nights unite in the Arctic summer time seems to stand still for a while. Nothing tells us that it is midnight and we should be asleep, or midday and we should have lunch. Without access to daily news, TV episodes, shopping days, release dates, and scheduled appointmements it is possible to forget about time…
Until summer changes to winter. Then, time stands still, or at least moves very slowly, so it feels during long, dark nights.
Summer or winter, the light up North feels special. Like a gift of Nature. Food for the soul when it’s abundant. And like an essential vitamin, when it’s sparse?
It feels like an eternity that I have left the Arctic, although it’s just been a few weeks. That must mean I miss it…