Like yesteryear, the world is divided. Hurricanes batter the coast, wildfires torch the land. We have a pandemic, although this time we have vaccines that could prevent much hardship. We have believers and deniers…
Summer is on his way out in the Arctic. The mosquitoes are gone. We had a blockbuster blueberry crop, tundra colors a peaking. Cloudy skies, termination dust, hunting season…
“At some point, you will hit a plateau. If you keep doing same things you did to get to that point, make a change.”
“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”
There are lots of different approaches to conservation, but I don’t think any of them will work unless there’s a personal connection between the individual and the natural world.”
When I was offered to go on a back country patrol with the Park Service into the Gates of the Arctic I did not hesitate a second to say yes. Little did I know what to expect. I was told we would float the Kobuk for about a week through the Preserve. At the time I did not know exactly where the Kobuk was, and which part of the Brooks Range was covered by the Preserve. Over time I learned that Kobuk flows along the Southern slopes of the Brooks Range, home to grizzlies, moose, salmon, and sheefish. Access to the Preserve is mostly by bush plane, boat, or snow machines. There is no road access to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Therefore visitation and human impact to this area is rather limited. This is about to change.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) proposes to construct a new 211-mile-long gravel access road in the southern Brooks Range foothills to provide industrial access to the Ambler Mining District. The road would originate at the Dalton Highway near Prospect Creek and end at the Ambler Mining District, and would have no public access. The proposed project crosses state lands (61%) and Native corporation lands (15%), but also crosses public lands (24%) managed by the BLM and the National Park Service.
What is the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority?
AIDEA is a public corporation of the State of Alaska, created in 1967 by the Alaska Legislature “in the interests of promoting the health, security, and general welfare of all the people of the state, and a public purpose, to increase job opportunities and otherwise to encourage the economic growth of the state, including the development of its natural resources, through the establishment and expansion of manufacturing, industrial, energy, export, small business, and business enterprises…”
In other words, the state of Alaska proposes the construction of a road through a largely undisturbed wilderness to enable exploratory mining operations. No mining companies have signed on to this project. The state proposes a private road, that will cost upwards of 1 billion dollars (public money) to support mining operations for 50 years. After that…
The impact of the road and its use on caribou migration, salmon and sheefish spawning, permafrost and subsistence living are unclear. Given the history of mining operations it is to be expected that there will be detrimental effects. Show me one mine that has been good for the environment.
The question is, do we really need this road? Is this about the general welfare of the people, or is it about politics and economy growth, which is not sustainable? Do we value wilderness, or does the mighty dollar trump everything?
The Pebble Mine near Katmai National Park and Preserve and the Constantine-Palmer Mine near the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve are other projects that face similar issues. They are located in the vicinity of protected public lands and conservationist are more than concerned that these projects threaten the surrounding natural areas. None of these places see the numbers of visitors of say Yosemite or Yellowstone.
Imagine a 221 mile long industrial road through Yosemite Valley…
Goes back to the initial question: Do we really care only for things that we have seen first hand?
September in the Arctic can bring everything from warm, sunny fall days to freezing nights, rain, snow and wind, sometimes all of the above in one day. Besides our false start we have been blessed with the weather.
The cottonwoods have turned yellow, the tundra is in rainbow colors. Wind gusts have shaken the first leaves of some trees.
We spent our first night next to the Walker Lake Rapids. The sound of the rushing water drowns most other sounds, that could startle you in the night. The temps must be around freezing when I get up in the morning. I sit next to the river and watch two otters climb out of the water. They explore land for a while, oblivious to my presence, and disappear in the brush after a while. Oatmeal for breakfast and off we go. We decide to line the canoe past the last set of rapids, which means walking in the river on slippery rocks. After that it all becomes quiet and peaceful.
We have an easy day ahead of us with regards to the itinerary. In less than a mile we will hit the mighty Kobuk. The river becomes wide and flows steadily at 3-5 miles per hour. There is no need to paddle, just navigating around some rocks or trees that may appear occasionally in our way.
We float for about 20 miles to the vicinity of the confluence with the Nutuvukti, a small stream coming out the mountains. There are plenty of sand banks, some more rocky than others, where we could camp along the way. We stop a few times for a snack break. On the beaches we find signs of otters, bears, and moose. We also see our first grizzlies, a mamma bear with a cub walking along the river shore on, which may be a narrow stretch of sand and pebbles, a steep river bank, boreal forest or boggy tundra. Once the bears notice the moving canoe, they scramble up the river bank and disappear in the forest. Good bears! I am not looking forward to a close bear encounter in the canoe,
We do not see a single human all day, no boat, no cabin, just some dispersed logs of firewood on a beach. It is clear we are deep in the Arctic wilderness. The Kobuk has been very gentle on this first day, which allowed us to enjoy this splendid natural setting.
We settle in for the night, pitching tents, cooking dinner, calling dispatch, listening to some music…
Our plan for the rest of the afternoon is to paddle about 2.5 miles to the first camping spot. This doesn’t sound too bad, but it is our first time together in a canoe. The first mile is on Walker Lake, the water is flat as a mirror, but we are zig-zagging across the lake like drunken sailors. First, we attempt to follow more or less the shore line, because it seems more comforting to be closer to land, instead of heading straight out into the middle of the lake, where the bottom disappears. Not that it matters, if we fall out of the canoe it’s going to be miserable either way.
All our belongings, food, camping gear is stashed in waterproof dry bags that are clipped to the canoe. We wear swim vest over warm clothes (warm when dry). It’s a beautiful afternoon. Still, I can feel some suspense.
I am having the front seat, so I am just the engine, keeping my paddle mostly on one site, trying to get into a rhythm, that we both are comfortable with. Despite our best efforts, we are not going in a straight line. I am wondering, how will we do in class I or II water? How will we navigate around obstacles in the river?
Dylan is optimistic. He has paddled the Koyukuk from Coldfoot to Bettles. He says, we’ll get better every day…
Alright then, let’s find the outlet of Walker Lake that will lead us to the first set of rapids. We are not planning on running the rapids. Apparently it is possible to portage around the rapids, which can be anywhere from class I to V, according to our reliable resources.
We have said goodbye to our colleagues about an hour ago and all we can hear is the splashing sound of paddles, no wind, no engines, no planes, no voices. Mountains in our back, a glassy lake and foothills in front of us.
At some point we did find the outlet. The change from lake to “river” was gentle. In the beginning the flow was very gentle, the water level seemed rather low, in some places just deep enough for us to keep going without scraping on the bottom. Then came the first gentle turns. We learned rather quickly that the water mostly determines where the canoe is going, and that it is a lot of work or simply impossible to go against the flow.
To make progress on the lake it was all on us, once the water started to flow, we could just drift with it. That off course is an insane experience. We are gliding through the landscape without effort, without noise.
What I remember most was that the clarity of the water. It seemed non-existent, as if we floated on a layer of saran wrap. Below us, the creek bottom would float by. We could see underwater plants, tree logs, fish, and rocks. Like snorkeling without the mask.
I was wondering how we would find out about the rapids. Would there be a place to land the canoe, before we would get sucked into the rapids? Oh, the mind of a newbie.
Yes, it become very obvious when we got closer to the rapids. While there was silence until now, except the splashes from our expert paddle strokes, all of a sudden there was a roar in the air and we could see the water surface become more agitated. But we could not see white water, yet. Must be around the next turn. No, still no white water, but the sound becomes louder and louder. There seemed to be a nice landing site, so we decided to stop here and explore on foot our options.
Since the canoe was our life line we made damn sure that it is safely dragged out of the water and tied to a sturdy tree. We had picked the perfect spot. It was indeed the beginning of the portage trail. Amazing how little human use it takes to create a visible trail through the otherwise dense brush.
That’s it. That’s the first set of rapids. It may look tame, but you should hear the sound. No way would we get through this…
So, we unpack our canoe and portage everything around the rapids. At the end of the rapids we find a flat, open site that has been used before. We find a campfire ring and some spots that are ideally suited for a tent.
Our first day of adventure ends well. We make it to the intended campsite, maybe not in style. But we make it, before dark, before some evening raindrops fall on our tents. We are dry, warm, and had a decent dinner. At least I had, more on that next time.
“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…