Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Packrafting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - part 3

The last chapter of our Arctic adventure.....

At this point we had floated the Firth river, hiked up the Malcolm river then and up and over to float down a bit of the Kongakut river, then up out of that and over to the Egakserak, with one more biggish hike to float the Jago not only down to where it flattens out, but also through those flats to the Beaufort Sea (of the Arctic Ocean) and then traverse the coastline to the small, very isolated village of Kaktovik, which has a real airstrip and daily flights back into civilization.
blue is paddling, red is hiking. The yellow line is the US/Canada border. I was actually geeky enough to ask Roman and Brad if I needed my passport! 
And thus we were back hiking:
big views

Nice flowers

and more reminders of the voraciousness of bears; this was earth torn up by a bear looking for a squirrel.....
Long descents
and more wildlife skulls!  (Arctic Fox)
For a half a day we traversed the far northern edge of the Brooks Range, along a section I called God's Pump Track
Roman appears to be holding onto his hat for the wind, but he actually just saw a falcon drill a big golden eagle and almost knock it out of the sky!  

Kind of a weird photo, but this is a wolf shit that somehow ended up in a willow bush....fairly high!  Big Badass Wolf.  
More nice camping
Brad has tramped all over the Arctic Refuge

and more big hiking.  
The plains out to the ocean are the controversial part that supposedly are the Saudi Arabia of the north with potential oil.  
Apparently Sec of the Interior Zinke just requested yet another review of this area for potential drilling; that's the bad news, and the good news is that these reviews typically take years to execute. 

Finally we came to the Jago Valley.  The Jago is glacial-fed, so we knew there'd be floatable flows

I put on my dry top:
I'd blown the neck gasket on the first day, so I put a nice long Titan strap on as my warm dog collar
And off we went down the river

The nature of these arctic rivers is continuous gradient, so we zipped along quite well for a while without having to paddle much

And there were some great examples of permafrost showing on the banks
with plenty of good flowers doing well in the 24 hour sun

Lupen seems to thrive everywhere; the Wasatch, the desert, and the Arctic!
Brad contemplating the entirety of the trip

The Jago stretching towards the mountains
As we approached the Jago delta the temps plunged with the effect of the cold ocean and the wind started to pick up also, and we were a little worried about getting stuck in the braids.  But we found a quick exit before the braids got big and only had to portage about a half mile:
Before hitting salt water

Though physically we were pretty much done with the trip, we still had some stress.  The stiff wind was blowing out of the east and carried a lot of fog with it, so as we get into the salt water and started traversing along the coast, the waves came up and it was so foggy that we could only see a little ways.  And.....though we had left the land of the grizz, we had entered into the new land of the polar bear, which are scarier to me.  
No, I didn't take this pic; it was in the restaurant in Kaktovik.  
and this is what I imagined we'd look like if we found white fuzzy boy....
At one point I was paddling along with the shore as a handrail, and off in the distance I saw a white animal moving, and my heart leapt into my mouth:  is that a polar bear?  And suddenly.....a seagull took off in flight!  Such was our disorientation in the fog.  

Since we couldn't see, we were navigating completely by gps, and a phone-based gps at that, and Brad understandably didn't want his phone out as we paddled through choppy sea water.  We finally got to a point where we had to leave our land behind and do a fairly big crossing, and all of us found ourselves being really nervous (I think generally I like smaller bodies of water that move, versus big bodies of water that don't).  But I asked myself:  is this really sketchy?  or is it just a perception due to the lack of visibility, the cold, and the open water?  I decided that it was more perception than reality and tried to relax, and generally it worked somewhat, though I was relieved when through the mist I saw something that was definitely not natural, even though it looked like huge skyscrapers far off in the distance?  As we got closer we realized they were 25 foot high metal grates that I speculated were to keep ice blocks literally at bay from the shore of the village.  
happy to be on land.  
And our reckoning turned out to be perfect, because we landed right in front of the only place in town, the famous Waldo Arms:
the bus is the airport shuttle
that had plenty of places to hang your clothes to dry:
caribou antlers, whale bones...

and some interesting characters:

Heimo and Edna have been recently featured on a series called Wild Alaskans.  That jacket she's wearing is caribou leather with wolverine fur
and some impressive prices for their food:

But the kicker was the accommodations:  they had an "annex" that was a literally a storage shed with no power or heat and a couple of spring beds stacked high with mattresses:

Roman said "They'll give it to us for $125." Wow, I said, seems like a lot, but better than sleeping with the ravenous roaming polar bears!  "Each!"  Wow, now we are talking about real money!  But they have a bit of a regional monopoly, so annexed we did.  

We were also surprised to see a couple of other packraft-laden packs on the porch of Waldo Arms when we arrived; it was Alpacka Raft's co-owner Sarah Tingey and her adventure pard Marlena who had come down the Hula Hula river (the next major drainage to the east)  It was great to share tales of adventures with them.  

I was pretty excited for this trip since it was likely to be unlike any other, and it very much delivered on many fronts.  It was an interesting one for me because I usually am at least mildly alpha in my outdoor pursuits that are usually within my sphere of experience, but being with these two Alaskan/Arctic vets I was very much beta boy; they didn't ask me my opinions on anything, because my opinion didn't much matter and would likely be wrong anyway! But they were very gracious "hosts" and  I was able to learn a lot from watching Roman and Brad travel in this unique environment, and for being in close quarters for two weeks they are great guys to travel with; interesting, funny, smart, and as full of fun stories as anyone.  I can't thank them enough for their willingness to take a chance on an arctic newbie!  

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Packrafting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge part 2

Packrafting the Arctic.....chapter 2. 

The commonly held beliefs about traveling in grizz country is to make a lot of noise while traveling, store your food, eat your food, and sleep in a fairly big "triangle" separating each of those activities by 50 yards, and tote one or more of a large caliber gun, a loud noisemaker (air horn), and/or bear spray.  

But Brad and Roman's 60-odd years of collective experience in grizz country them has taught them some unorthodox methodologies which contradict all of the above.  Basically, their strategy is thus:  don't announce your presence to bears, try to spot the bears first (and Brad/Roman are really good at spotting them), your food doesn't smell any stronger than the scent that you are giving off (especially after a week out!) and trying to treat your food differently is a waste of time.  In fact, Roman pointed out that bears actually lay on top of their kills to protect it from other predators, so a bear coming upon a weird angular thing like a tent with hidden large, stinky animals "growling" (snoring, which clearly has served Roman well!) on top of their food may make them think twice about going after the food, so we pulled all our food into the tent.  Weight-intensive pack rafting somewhat precludes the desire to carry a firearm that would be effective on an 800 pound bear, and Brad feels like the best use of bear spray is to spray it and have the cloud blow back in your face, which makes you go apeshit crazy and thus scare the bear away!  Seriously though, with a "range" of 8 feet (??!!) the reality of stopping a bear that can run 30 miles an hour within 8 feet -  much less having the wherewithal to do that - seems unlikely at best. 

They also made the great point that bears are sophisticated enough animals that  -just like dogs and horses - they are not all the same, and have different personalities, temperaments, and moods depending on the bear, season, etc (which was something that Grizzly Man had emphasized).  So our habit (desire?) of applying a standard way to deal with a big complex animal (which - in this part of the world) has rarely/ever seen humans doesn't necessarily work (incidentally, our bear incidents were almost all across the border in Canada, where the national park does not allow hunting. Ironically, the "refuge" in the US does allow hunting, and the few bears we did see there did seem to try to avoid us).   

So using the "technique" of basically trying to avoid them we had seen a dozen bears  and had no problems aside from my notable incident with my momma and yearling).   We had walked about half of our total distance (30 miles) up the Malcolm River when we saw our unlucky 13th bear about a third of a mile from us in the drainage.  The wind was kind of swirly, so we weren't sure that it had caught our scent yet.  We crossed the river (about knee deep) and went a couple hundred yards up to a bluff above the river; the bluff had a steep face between us and the bear, with gentler slopes on either side.  We got to the top of the bluff, which is when the bear saw us and....immediately started walking towards us.  I stammered "holy shit.  it's coming towards us.  whadda we do?"  "Grab rocks" was the grim reply.  It got to the river's edge and stopped to take another look, which is when Roman yelled his standard line:  "Hey Bear!  Go Away!"  Which - apparently, in June (ie hungry) Bear-ease - translated to "Dinner's on!"  and to our horror suddenly charged across the river coming for us.  
No, I didn't take this picture (poached from the web), and no, it wasn't quite this close when it charged across the river.  But this was our vision.  
Virtually every wild animal I've ever seen - aside from a couple of very unconcerned mooses and a coupla bold coyotes in Death Valley - have responded to the presence of me by turning and running away....fast (including grizzlies).   And even with my recent experience with momma I still had a moment of "WTF is going on here?!?!  This is not what happens!"   And I have had the misfortune of almost getting killed at least 4 times, so I have felt mortal fear.  But watching that thing come at us like rolling thunder without expression scared me to my bones. But fortunately Brad and Roman went to the edge of the bluff and as the bear basically flew up the cliff at us Roman let fly with a head-sized rock that.....missed the bear.  But apparently this bear wasn't accustomed to animals that fight back at all, so just as fast he beat it back down the cliff into the river bottom.  After a moment, however, he turned and looked back up at us, then very methodically started to move to the side of the bluff that offered easier, less-exposed access to us.  He basically revised his hunting strategy, and we were prey.  I was stunned.  

But Brad and Roman broke my momentary reverie by yelling "down the cliff" so we clambered down the face (not easy with 50 pound packs), rushed over to the river and crossed it, even as we checked over our shoulder and saw the bear continue up the easier side of the bluff (I think we were out of his line of sight when he was going up and we were going down).  The last glimpse we saw of the bear it appeared that he was sitting down at the spot where we had just been; I think that he was just reveling in the lingering pungent smell of human fear still wafting in the area!  We didn't say much and just marched hard for about 45 minutes, with periodic glances back indicating that we weren't being followed.  Finally we relaxed a little, went another hour or so and threw our packs down for the day (in a thunderstorm)
happy to be cooking dinner instead of being dinner!
Fortunately we all are pretty good sleepers and were able to sack out pretty hard even with the memory of Yogi in full sprint at us fresh in our minds.  
Roman and his mohawk, unfazed....
Back on track, we continued to walk up the riverbed

towards what we knew was going to be the crux of our trip; getting up a side drainage and around the flanks of Great Whale Mountain was the part of the trip that looked pretty skitchy on both maps and Google Earth.  Kirk the pilot said "no problem!" but Brad and Roman pointed out that pilots rarely know anything about the terrain they fly over.  But it seemed to go with a bit of scrambling

And even though we had a few tussocks to navigate:
really hard walking through these lumps
and we still had some solid bear reminders:
sometimes we see moki steps in the desert, chiseled in by natives eons ago.  These are grizzly moki steps!  
we were pleased to see caribou trails heading up our anticipated drainage; caribou are no mountain goats and generally seem to go through terrain that is also traverseable by bipeds.  And it was fun to be on trails that weren't created by WPA or CCC workers....they've been trails for millions of years!   
some of the trails were good enough to mountain bike on

Roman drying out his jacket on his one-piece paddle after a thunderstorm

there were lots of scenic rest spots

a pretty exceptional campsite, with water, in the middle of nowhere, or so we thought....
but we found a kind of anchor; maybe for an airplane that landed there?  
That pass took us up and down into a dramatic gorge:

 of an unnamed creek that we dubbed "Geezer Creek" that we hoped was paddleable, but weren't sure.  We were pleased to fairly quickly find enough water...until it went into a burly-ass gorge

 -but then backed off to a fun little class 4 section:
Roman going deep
 then class 2-3 to the aufeis of the Kongakut

and a few miles down we saw our first signs of civilization. 

That was also where we had Kirk deliver our barrel of food, which made me happy:
Ash says I'm a food (and water) weeny, and I was a little concerned being down to a half-day's worth of food out that far.  
There was a party there from St Louis that had just landed and was planning on paddling canoes out to the coast.  In a very short time I was able to offend them in multiple ways:  two of them were scientists for Monsanto ("Ah, The Evil Empire") and they asked me why we were wearing running shoes ("because hiking boots are terrible!") and what we were using for bear protection ("Bear spray is worthless!") even as the next morning they were all sporting both hiking boots and bear sprays!  But they were nice enough to be nice to us despite me and my offensiveness, and it was impressive that midwesterners were keen for an unguided arctic adventure.  

We left the river and headed up and over the mountains to the Egakserak, with packs once again laden with food.  Our slow trudging enabled Roman to make another cool find:
wolf skull
A full day of hiking brought us to a tributary stream that had a surprising amount of water in it, and then as we got to the Egakserak itself we realized that it was quite full.  We had anticipated having to hike down that river 15-20 miles, but with plenty of water coming from somewhere and a high but steady gradient we floated that distance in just a few hours.  

I'll do the final (far less exciting) installment later; enough for now...