RRT Adventure: Gates of The Arctic Part 2
Gates To Another World
Living Your Dream
Written by: Bryan Wolf
Time has no place in the real world. I don’t mean the “real world” that includes long hours at work or traffic jams on the way home. I am referring to a different world, one that I have had the pleasure of visiting yet again. You see, the real world is the one that has been here for billions of years, and the whole time it has been living and breathing all on its own. Long before our manufactured world existed, there were cities of stone peaks that were thousands of feet tall, and these cities had more travelers pass through than any of our cities today. Each bit of land was self sustaining, unaltered, and beautiful. When you see Alaska, and especially Gates of the Arctic NP, you will see this world because it is still here, and is all around us. Time disappears, you wake when you are rested, you sleep when you are tired, you eat when you are hungry, and you move at your pace. Blueberries grow at your feet, Caribou herds flow into the deep valleys, Wolves sing to you, and Grizzlies play. This place is unaltered, it’s life unshaken from our worlds existence, and for that reason it is more real than all else.
Our trip began in Fairbanks Alaska. The remoteness of the park requires from here a bush plane flight to Bettles, a town with just over 50 residence. The hour plane ride drastically changes your mindset from one of civilization to one of adventurous spirit. The town is more bare bones than most people care to go, but we are just half-way there. We check in with the Rangers at the National Park Service station and get briefed on what the current season has been like. You should always check with your local resources for that first hand information that never makes it online. With our group size she didn’t expect us to see much in the way of bears but maybe some Caribou migrating from the north. From her past 10+ years working at that station in Bettles however she couldn’t recall anyone else heading out for the route we had planned, which is exciting for us!
Jumping in an old pick up truck we throw our backpacks in the bed of the truck and dive into the plush double bench seats of the extended cab. The truck hasn’t even been registered in 10 years and I’m sure it dates back further. Just a short drive and we get to the second Bettles landing strip, the lake. From here we’ll take off by float plane and head another hour north into the park. Finally to our destination at Lake Agiak in a Northeastern area of Gates of the Arctic NP.
The planes leave but the buzzing continues, our friends the mosquitoes have been waiting for us. The mosquitoes only purpose is of course to fly into your ears, eyes, and mouth, and to bite you if you dare reveal an inch of skin. No worry, we anticipated this, we freshen up with repellent and some of us dawn our ever fashionable bug head nets. I think bug nets are the new in-thing, all the Hollywood stars are doing it. We sit, glance over our plans and the map to set route, and pump our first collection of fresh Alaska water. I gotta tell you, my Alaska glacier water tastes way better than that plastic bottle of “fresh glacier water” that you’ll find at the store so I’m not sure what they’re doing to it.
Our trek started by trying to escape the boggy low ground near the lake. Alaska doesn’t have the usual terrain, there is very little soil to pack and harden the ground. The water washes the ground away from around the vegetation and we are left to hike through the tussocks. Think of tussocks like ankle twisting basketballs glued to the ground spaced just inches apart. With the rocky and permafrost under-layer the ground between the tussocks is often a mucky puddle. The first day and a half were long, we covered nearly 10 miles as the crow flies but struggled to find the path of least resistance. We would come up and down off ridges as they spilled into river valleys, and had a few tricky river crossing en-route. So I know I’m not painting a glorious picture of Alaska so far, mosquitoes and slow miles that make your knees scream, but I’ll get there, I promise.
The first few days it seems you are just happy to be there. To stop and look around at the most open and vast landscape, to have giants around you in all directions, and even to breathe the fresh air is silencing. These are the days that the setting for your next 10 days is still becoming real, the realization of escape. So although the first few days can be the toughest physically I consider them very important transition days. They were also days that would teach us a lot we came to find out. There is not a topographical map that shows bogs or tussocks, you have to spend some time with the land to learn how it really moves. What took us four backpacking days to get to took us but two days to come back on.
The sights and the experience was absolutely amazing! If you have not already you have to check out some pictures we’ve posted. Our route took us west from Agiak and then north through a valley up to the north slope. We would cover nearly 50 miles backpacking and another 20 miles through our day hikes. Despite our group size there was no shortage of wild life encounters either. The trip summary would include well over 100 Caribou, the first sighting of which was a herd of nearly 70 at best count making their way right toward us! The herd was broken up for reasons that were not immediately clear. At first we thought it was the scattered showers that made some of them move on but we found it to be much more interesting than that. The Caribou herd was split by the sight of two adolescent Grizzly Bears.
The Twins as we would then call them were seen several times on our trip and always close together in their adventures. Adolescent bears can actually be the most dangerous due to their unpredictable nature. What started as two blond hair balls across the river bed very quickly became two large (adolescent or not) bears on our side of the ridge. A Grizzly moves at up to 35mph covering 100 yards in 3.5 seconds. At the time we were a group of 9 with 4 other adults out in front of the group and around the ridge. Keeping everyone calm, together and prepared was crucial for these next moments. Holding our
trekking poles in the air and shouting we readied our bear spray. The bears slowly but surely continued on a path towards the group.We shifted from a large cluster formation to a very tight and long line to show more numbers, louder than ever we gave up no ground. Forward progress became more of a lateral movement as the bears, still curious, moved along the ridge and away from the group. Then we all exhaled for the first time in 10 minutes.
We would see 9 different Grizzlies and have 13 different bear sightings over our 10 day trek. The third time we would see the twins became the most interesting, all this from a group that didn’t expect to see any bears (but were very prepared). It turns out that because nobody had explored this region for so long that nobody could predict the exact conditions. The height of blueberry season and the early migration of the caribou set the stage however for heavy Grizzly activity. Our eighth day had us venturing back that same river. We hit the river bed this time for easy walking. After a glimpse of the twins up in front of us we veered out of the thicker brush and up on the higher bank. With in a few minutes of shouting at the twins, who didn’t pay much attention this time, the unthinkable happened. Across the river on the opposite ridge was a third Grizzly, a large adult Grizzly!
The group reformed to be all 13 of us strong together. We had look outs for all directions and our now 6 bear sprays ready to go. Oh but wait, that’s not all, we hit the jackpot on this one. Right when it seems the adult bear is in retreat we notice a head pop up from the very river bed we walked out of. That is when we looked over and just 3.5 seconds away was “Peek-a-Boo”. Peek-a-Boo was the closest a Grizzly had yet been and standing tall with his head peaking above the brush he seemed the most content to stand and just watch us. We wouldn’t win this stand off, we were cornered now by 4 Grizzlies and one of them was not going anywhere. In groups of 6 and 7 we moved very slowly backwards away from the river. Always keeping sight of Peek-a-Boo we moved one group back about 20-30 feet. Next the other group would come back to meet us and we would regroup. Repeating steps one and two eventually got us in the clear and for the first time in 15 minutes, we exhaled.
Our day hikes took us to two unnamed peaks, which we took the liberty of naming since we may have been the first to climb them. On day three a group of us went up “Dragons Peak”. The mountain was the closest to our camp but towered above the valley around us. This was a good opportunity for both spectacular views and to scout the valley ahead of us. The hike was moderate in difficulty but felt great with a light load. On the fifth day a group of us crossed the north valley that we had yet to go up and set our sites for “Dragons Perch”. We are obviously convinced that dragons do or did rule this land at some point. Dragons Perch was unique because it was more isolated and gave us 360 views leading up into 5 different valleys and over top of neighboring mountains. The Perch was not as kind either, a steep cliff side of broken slippery shale made for a complicated and sometimes nerve racking ascent. This extremely difficult summit was well worth it though. The peak had a sitting perch for us to view far in any direction and to no doubt feel like the only people to see the world from that perspective!
Our third day hike brought the entire group along. Traveling all the way up the valley we headed for the North Slope. The North Slope is the point where the Brooks Range Mountains begin to tapper and elevation slowly drops to the sea. At the end of the slope, at the very last peak, we would climb the ridge of rocky boulders and broken shale to get a sight of the ice field that lies within its grasp. An exhausting ascent led us to a spectacular view of the valley back to camp and that which then drops back down the other side. We could see the ice pack but our adventurous side wanted more. Splitting up half of us moved forward for a closer look. The ridge walking became a glacial rock field working down and then back up to the basin holding the ice in. Stowing the trekking poles away we had to scramble large boulders of often moving and unstable rock until close was close enough. The field was tricky to maneuver and since it has been untouched it presented too many dangers for us to continue on. Being close enough to see the blue shine on some of the ice was awesome though. The way down was
just as precarious with the wind and rain making the temperature bitter at that elevation.
The group, together again made the long hike back to camp and fired up the camp stoves. The group meshed incredibly well and I am lucky to have shared this experience with those that came along. Dinner time was a family event for us. We all huddled around the bear cans sharing the days stories and telling jokes. Be it gear junkies we couldn’t help but to pick everyone’s mind about there gear as well. Bartering was the most popular post dinner entertainment. Chili Mac for Rice and Chicken and two Starburst first required two Starburst for two Jolly Ranchers but the trade was almost soured by the infamous Twix bet of 2013. Like most trips into the wild there is a large emphasis on food at camp. A yawn and a stretch and it was time for bed, because we were tired. At one point I had to throw my sunglasses on to sleep.
I love camp sleep, especially with a new luxury pad. There was but one night that I slept poorly and it isn’t what you’d think. Sound asleep, I hear a light whisper, “Beej”. I hear it again, “Beej”. Vince who I shared a tent with was waking me up. I turn over in my sleeping bag and look up to him staring right at me. “There is a bear outside of the tent” he says with a frozen look on his face. I slowly and quietly unzip myself and grab the bear spray sitting between us. My heart goes from 0 to 60, the adrenaline pumping though my veins. I assume at this point he is frozen with fear so I jump into action and pull the safety right off the spray.
As I start to get out of the bag and ready for my next move he finally speaks again having been silent this whole time. “What are you doing?” “Whoa, what are you doing?” he says with a blank look. “You said there was a bear outside of the tent!” I said at this point more than confused. Still staring me down he says “No, I said Caribou”. Immediately following this he turns and falls fast asleep. I’m in a daze at this point, my heart still racing but this time a little angry. Looking outside the tent I can’t see a thing, caribou, or bear. I shake him awake “What were you talking about”, he responds with a “huh”. “You said there was a bear!” to which Vince replied, “No I didn’t”. It took me about an hour to calm down and get back to sleep and the next morning he didn’t remember a bit of it.
Looking over the trip there is very little I would ever do differently. Our gear performed exceptionally and I look forward to doing individual reviews after this post. Our food plan was stellar, our bear protocol and Leave No Trace ethics impeccable (we actually carried out trash and set GPS coordinates for larger debris left by early explorers), and our route (much improved on the way back) was beautiful! We stopped by and exchanged some information with the rangers upon return. The park ranger said she considers us the “foremost experts on the area”. Of all the gear I brought the least used were my mosquito net (we ended up real lucky) and my headlamp. The headlamp seemed silly to bring in the first place due to the 24 hours of sunlight but dark cloud cover would make you regret not bringing it even more. I hope that this post brings you closer to this wonderful world, or that one day you can visit it for yourself. We will give a free presentation on our experience on 8/27/13 at 7pm at Roads Rivers and Trails.