Three hundred miles, two geologists, no guidebook, and one Viking
Written and Illustrated by Paxson Woelber
I walk to the top of a small wind-scoured hill and look out over endless miles of yellow-green tundra, a landscape so silent, barren, and wild that it seems caught between the Pleistocene and the primordial. I’m searching for firewood, but this far into the Arctic there are almost no trees and all we can find are withered gnarls of dwarf alder and a little clusters of brittle, bone-white roots. We’re camped on the banks of the Anaktuvuk River in the foothills of the Brooks Range, probably the only people for two hundred square miles, and, as far as we can tell, the first people to run the Anaktuvuk River in over a hundred years. This is a landscape unfamiliar with human presence. The wildness and remoteness is absolute.
To the south, the Brooks Range mountains have disappeared behind a curtain of periwinkle clouds. As I head back toward camp I see Brett, Chelsea and Jason watching a set of concentric rainbows slide over the landscape. Just as I finish snapping a few photos a wave of ragged white clouds breaks overhead and the stillness is shattered by a ferocious wall of wind and rain. Brett and Chelsea’s ultralight tent collapses instantly into a mass of whipping nylon and bending poles. The world goes dark as the wind and rain howl across the tundra, snatching away everything that isn’t tied down. Yelling at each other through the torrent, we fill Jason’s tent to the top with deflated rafts, wet backpacks, paddles, remote-controlled airplane wings, a plastic Viking helmet, pots of half-boiled water. We dive, soaked and cold, into the tent and put our backs to the flapping walls as the wind screams through the vents.
"Hey Jason, this would be a great time for some harmonica."
Jason looks around the chaotic jumble. "Yeah, no way are we finding it in here."
Half an hour later we unzip the doors and look out into the cold, wet dusk. It’s almost one in the morning but the sun is still up, lighting the tendrils of rain on the horizon in brilliant orange. All that’s left of our fire is a wet, black spot on the tundra. We climb out into a world of harsh beauty, sublime adventure, and endless surprise.
In the twenty-first century, the expedition of three hundred miles begins with a thousand e-mails, a hundred phone calls, a custom-designed website and well-tended Facebook page, a Kickstarter campaign, gear sponsorships, grants, and a mountain of sponsor-provided fig bars so massive it deserved a summit flag. Our plan had taken shape almost a year before, starting with my brother Brett asking “could you take some time off?” and culminating in The Plan: Our small group would hike 70 miles through the Brooks Range, then raft 230 miles north to the Arctic Ocean. We would test outdoor gear, take photos for public use, and write about how the Arctic is being transformed by global warming and development. In the end, it had all come together. Routes had been drawn on maps, funds had been raised, and packs had been packed. Putting together the trip had been exhausting, but we’d succeeded, and now it was done.
Except we hadn’t even begun. The night before we leave, I lie awake buzzing with nervous energy, swarmed with what-ifs. It's one thing to draw a line on a map, but could we actually pull this off? What if someone gets food poisoning? What if we don't get along? Do polar bears ever attack people in small boats? I stumble out of bed, open my laptop and google kayaking around polar bears. Nothing. Polar bears attack boat. Again, nothing. The people on Yahoo Answers clearly had saner things to worry about. It suddenly hits me: we're impostors. None of us have ever done a trip much longer than a week. We're supposed to packraft a virtually unknown river in the most remote region of Alaska, but before this year none of us had even used a packraft. My paddle still has the sticker on it. There's a reason people don't do these things. These are not things people want to do. Too late now. It's happening.
North, North, North. From Anchorage, we drive 360 miles to Fairbanks, and the next morning pile into a 5am shuttle bouncing up the Dalton Highway. In the front seat of the van, Luke and I take turns at the window seat, dozing against the safety glass. Brett and Chelsea curl up behind us. Jason is somewhere in Canada—he'll fly into Anaktuvuk Pass and meet up with us in a week, after the first leg of the trip. As the van pulls into the dusty parking lot at the Arctic Circle, the driver tells us about an older man who carried his wife past the sign to celebrate their anniversary. Brett and Chelsea decide to recreate the scene, so Brett jumps on Chelsea's back and the two of them cross into the Arctic as the rest of us laugh and take photos.
People who didn't know Chelsea would ask us, with genuine concern, whether we thought she could handle this trip. People who did know her would ask if we'd have to slow her down by giving her all the gear. Chelsea is a triathlete, ultramarathon champion, and general practitioner of the very, very fast. She and Brett had started dating in undergrad, and they'd lived together while Brett pursued his masters in geology at the University of Montana. This was her first time backpacking in Alaska, but we half-joked that for her it was just another training exercise for the World Ironman Championships in the fall.
The road climbs past yellow bogs and stands of wind-bent trees surrounding pools of brilliant purple fireweed. Semi trucks returning from the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay barrel past us, spitting gravel at the van and kicking up clouds of gray dust. Running alongside the Trans-Alaska pipeline for its entire length, the Dalton Highway is really an only-slightly-glorified industrial shipping and pipeline maintenance corridor, and its nickname, "The Haul Road," belies its utilitarian purpose. It is 414 miles of semi-maintained, semi-paved road-ish gravel pushing insistently north, hills, rock slides, and avalanche runouts be damned. It was the season opener on the BBC's "World's Most Dangerous Roads," and it's estimated that 1 in 50 motorcyclists who attempt the road will crash. The odds for 15-passenger vans, presumably, are better.
The trees get smaller and smaller the further we drive North, almost as if they're sinking under the tundra, and then they're gone and we're winding through a sea of rolling bare hills and shattered rock: the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. We look at maps. Lace boots. Look at maps again. Look out the window as the mountains around us swell up into massive, towering forms, wild white faces of tumbling rock and dark canyons winding into the clouds. And then, suddenly, we're standing on the side of the road, backpacks over our shoulders, strapping and buckling and cinching, as the shuttle disappears into the distance without us.
Part 1: Mountains
The first step lifts all of the pre-trip anxiety off of my shoulders and replaces it with a 50-pound pack. All of the hypotheticals are discarded in an instant for the immediate and the practical: where to step, how to adjust our packs, the fastest way to that ridge, where to cross the river, the best way to frustrate the mosquitos. The wilderness forces you to live fully in the present.
The road disappears behind a slow bank of clouds as we climb into a broad and silent tundra valley. We thread our way through fields of wet tussocks to the riverbank, where springtime flooding leaves firm banks of dry gravel in the fall. Wolf prints zig-zag through the mud. Luke holds a caribou antler up to his head, grinning. We happily drop our packs and set up camp on a gravel bar surrounded by unnamed mountains whose red and white and black flanks sweep into the clouds.
As we're packing up after dinner, I glance up and see a dark shape lumbering toward us out of the fog. It's a grizzly, swinging its head low over the tundra as it searches the ground for food. "Bear!" We stand and wave our arms, yelling unmentionable things at our unwitting visitor. The bear hears us and stops. It rises up onto its massive haunches, peers at us momentarily, and in an instant wheels around and bolts back into the fog.
To borrow a phrase, ask three Alaskans what they think about bear safety and you'll get four opinions. A certain type of red-blooded outdoorsman won't leave his front door without exercising his 2nd-Amendment rights in the highest caliber possible. The Gore-Tex crowd tends to argue that bear spray is safer, lighter, more humane, and more effective because it can be carried in-hand and deployed more quickly. Still others, including some of the most grizzled wilderness veterans, carry nothing at all. Opinions on what to do in camp are just as conflicted: some literally sleep on their food, while others consider that a form of attempted suicide and use bear-resistant canisters stored far away from the tents. Electric fences are a recent innovation and have racked up a few enthusiastic early-adopters, though there are reports of bears obliviously tromping through them. One man we talk to in Anaktuvuk Pass insists that the best way secure a camp is to hang dozens of tiny, delicate bells from the foliage, which confuses and scares the bears away. The truth is that there simply aren't enough bad encounters to prove with certainty what works best in every situation, and what people choose for bear protection says as much about them as it does about the bears.
We carry four bottles of pepper spray, store our food in bear-resistant canisters in order to comply with park regulations, have a finicky electric fence, and, tucked quietly away in his backpack, Brett carries a Smith & Wesson revolver, which I hope very much we will never have to use.
We wake up into a cool, gray world. The mountains are muffled by thick, drizzling clouds. Typical Brooks Range weather. Water seeps creeps through our boots as we trudge through the dewy wildflowers and spongy tundra; for the next week, none of us will have totally dry feet again. We leave our valley behind and climb up a small rocky drainage, into the clouds.
Only the lowest valleys on the southern side of the Brooks Range mountains can sustain trees in any significant density. The valleys of the Brooks are painted with yellow-green tundra, grasses, and wildflowers, studded with the bright white curved forms of caribou antlers. As we climb toward the steep pass at the head of the valley, we reach a point at which even the Arctic flora can't survive, and we enter a landscape of shimmering black rock and high, crumbling cliff faces. Through the clouds we spot the telltale blue glow of glacial ice clinging to a mountainside. The wind picks up and it begins to snow. We cinch our hoods tight and climb.
In 1938, while exploring and mapping much of the Brooks Range for the first time, Robert Marshall climbed to the top of a steep canyon. His writing captures the otherworldliness of the Brooks Range mountains:
"It seemed to be the end of the earth, or the heart of another earth as we perched on top of this remnant of a long-vanished age. Everything we looked upon was unknown to human gaze… [civilization] seemed unreal, unbelievable. Our present situation seemed also unreal, but that was the unreality of a freshness beyond experience. It was the unreality of a remoteness which made it seem as if we had landed miraculously on another planet with throughout all passage of time had been without life. There was also the unreality of countless needle pinnacles, jutting around us through the fog, alternately appearing and disappearing as the atmosphere thinned and thickened."
The top of the pass gives us our first panoramic view. The innocuous contour lines of the maps we’ve been studying for months suddenly take form in the reality of the terrain ahead of us: a chaos of deep canyons and ragged mountains soaring above roiling clouds in the valley below. The sense of remoteness is staggering. Few people venture into the Brooks Range. Other than the Dalton, there are no roads; there are no established trails, no guidebooks. Almost all of the massive peaks surrounding us are unnamed, and many are still unclimbed. In virtually every regard, the Brooks Range is as wild and untouched as it was when Robert Marshall explored it almost 75 years ago.
As unearthly and spectacular as this gray alpine world is, we're cold, and everyone is relieved as we start down toward the valley floor. With every step downward, the temperature climbs back up. The low sun breaks through the clouds and we find ourselves moving through a fractured landscape splashed with intense color. A pale pink glacial stream runs through vivid green, yellow, and red vegetation, which gives way with elevation to monstrous faces, arches, and fins of striped white, black, and orange rock.
As we drop our packs and rest in the warm tundra, Luke carefully assemles his ultralight solar panel and attaches it to the back of his backpack. Luke is our resident East Coaster, economist, gearhead, and techie. Brett and Luke had become good friends in undergrad, and Luke had impressed both of us years ago during a long trip to Alaska with his by-the-books outdoors knowledge and easy-going, up-for-anything attitude. While we were planning the expedition, Luke and I were both living in New York. We'd talked excitedly about routes and gear at restaurants in Chinatown, and about our jerry-rigged attempts at training by walking through lower Manhattan and across the Williamsburg Bridge. After the trip, Luke plans to fly straight from the wilderness back to New York for his first year of business school at NYU.
We camp on a gravel riverbed, with the canyons behind us glowing pale pink under the long-setting sun. We build a fire to cook and dry our boots, and enjoy the peaceful immensity of the landscape and the end of a full day.
We wake to bright light and a tent as warm as a sauna. As we walk down the valley, it becomes broad and green, then funnels us into a narrow, cool gorge, where we teeter and hop between the rocks and the rolling water. We pass a pile of skeletons from a flock of ambushed mountain sheep, still so fresh that red blood and flesh cling to the grinning skulls, and the lower legs lie in the grass, untouched. As we continue down the gorge we pass more bones, some new and some moss-covered, interred to various degrees back into the earth. Decay is a slow process in the frigid Arctic, and the remnants of death linger on the surface.
The creek we're following tumbles into Oolah Valley, a sweeping corridor of bright green tundra running West to East through the central Brooks Range. The braids of the Itkilik River weave through a gravel river channel a quarter mile wide, which winds back and forth across the valley floor. Rather than walk along the banks, we jump in it and begin walking up the river.
The idea that you would "walk up a river" violates both basic wilderness protocol to keep your feet dry and, perhaps, common sense. We cross and recross the Itkilik's innumerable braids innumerable times, but the cool, clear water is rarely higher than our knees, and the gravel bars in the river channel provide perfect footing. To walk up a sparkling river in the Arctic, making fast time with a warm sun and pale blue sky overhead, feels like a surreal glitch in the natural order of the wilderness. It's the type of rare experience that you could never plan and can hardly describe. It's almost funny. It's completely amazing.
This far north, the sun never gets very high in the sky, but swings low around the horizon. At this time of year the dusk stretches into hours, and sunsets last for hours upon hours before the sun dips just out of view during the short night. As the evening cools off, we leave the river and walk across the tussocks. After a day like this, with the tundra awash in warm Arctic light, it's hard to stop.
"It's eight," Luke says,"We need to think about setting up camp."
"It's perfect out though," I protest, "We're making great time, lets make it to the next lake."
Luke is firm. "We've been going to bed two hours later every night," he argues, "We're living on 26-hour days."
This is true, but I want to live by the weather and by the light. It's not as if we're going to become Arctic zombies, I say, unstuck from time by the unusual daylight. We could at least make another few miles before camp.
"It's OK for other people to have different ideas about what to do," Chelsea says.
We're at an impasse, but nobody wants to press it too hard and sour the day. The way that decision-making shakes out can be one of the most perilous aspects of a backcountry expedition, right up there with the terrain and the weather. We're each bound by the decision of the group; there's no way for people to amicably disagree and go their separate ways. Though Brett is the official team leader, we do our best to rule by a sort of tribal consensus. If any member has a strong opinion about when to stop, when to rest, or when to eat, everyone else tries to respect it. This means inevitable compromise, but it keeps the mood friendly and makes sure that nobody is pushed too hard.
We walk for a few minutes along the bank of the Itkilik, and as soon as we spot a gravel bar, we set up camp. We trim brush away from our electric fence, and build a big, hot fire to cook our dinner and dry our dripping shoes.
After several days, we've found our pace and set our routines. Our muscles have adjusted to the weight of the packs and we move faster, and more deliberately, over the terrain. Excitement is also giving us a boost: today we're headed into "Thunder Valley," a cluster of twisted and tilted sedimentary rock towers in the Central Brooks. This is a place we've only seen in old photos, but the tight knots of contour lines on our topographic maps have intrigued us for months. Whatever's back there, it looks weird and amazing.
As we walk over plates of blue-gray ice, clouds roll low through the valley and shred themselves on the sharp fins of the mountains surrounding us. The nameless peaks loom out of the gray air like something from a science fiction book cover, sheer and triangular and cinematic. Their sides are striped with the colors of ancient seabeds, and rise and turn at geometric angles through the clouds. This is it. We drop our packs and set up camp by a small lake on the valley floor.
Brett pulls out his fly rod and soon the line whips neon through the bluegray landscape. We set up camp and sit on the wet bank, watching Brett wade to his knees as he peers into the cold water. Fish grow slowly in the low-energy Arctic, but we've read rapturous stories of legendary fly fishing and, after several days of dehydrated meals, we're all aching for fresh food. Brett wades from one side of the lake to the other. Cast. Wait. Cast. Wait. Cast. The rain-speckled gray pane of the lake surface shatters in a bright flurry of splashes and he pulls a silvery, iridescent fish onto the bank.
Brett cleans the fish and we cook it clumsily in smoking olive oil, covered in spices from a zip lock bag. We huddle around the pan shoulder-to-shoulder, forks out, mouths watering. As soon as the fish cools enough to eat, we rip it to pieces and devour our wilderness feast, then scrape the browned bits and oil from the bottom of the pan.
For the last few years, I'd been living off and on in Brooklyn, and felt the paradoxical loneliness that people often experience in big cities. There are so many people in the streets, in the bars, and in the restaurants, that you would exhaust yourself caring about, or even noticing, everyone around you. The more people are around, the less each individual matters. The less each individual can matter. When I take friends who grew up in cities into the outdoors, they're often surprised and confused when perfect strangers nod and say hi as they hike past. There's almost a science to it: within twenty feet of a trailhead, people might turn to you and smile, or nod. Within a couple miles, you might get a Hi or a Howdy!. Three or four miles out, people will give you a genuine How's it going? and actually wait for an answer. Ten miles out, people will stop and talk. Where are you headed? How's the trail? Have a good one! Any farther than that, and you're likely to have a genuine conversation. Something that people who don't go into it often rarely understand is that the wilderness is not a lonely place. It exerts its own kind of nuclear force on people, pushing and binding them together. Individuals become important again, and as their importance looms large, you're better able to see the details of their characters: the way they face challenges, the way they relate to each other, and the way they see themselves. The backcountry forces you to get to know people with a candor and intensity that is now very rare in the outside world.
We lounge around after dinner on our bear canisters, sipping hot chocolate and Tang, joking around about the names of mountains, telling stories about misadventures from our previous lives, discussing our routes, our progress, our plans. We plot absurd pranks to pull on Jason when he meets up with us in Anaktuvuk Pass, a few days from now. Weeks before, sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, I'd been looking at a little side canyon just a half mile from where we were camped, which opened into a wild amphitheater of vertical rock. Now, sitting in the drizzle around our pot of burned fish, I completely forget about it. There's no need to go anywhere else.
Up, up, up, back into the rarefied world of shattered rock and ice. We climb to the head of the valley and up a jet black ramp of scree, toward a high pass strung between two crumbling towers. With every step, it feels as if our heavy packs are trying to pull us back down into the comfort of the valley behind us, but we press on. The elevation gives us an expansive view of the landscape in its stark blacks and whites, and all its startling, brilliant colors.
From the top of the pass, we look down onto a cirque glacier, the dirt-striped, weathered, blue-gray remnant of the rivers of ice that carved these mountains. The biggest glaciers in Alaska are in the Southeast, where the Pacific Northwest climate provides the massive quantities of snow needed to keep them alive. This far north in the dry Arctic climate, the snowfall is so sparse that it can hardly compensate for even the short, cool summers, and for many years the early explorers of the Brooks Range debated whether there could be any glaciers here at all. The unnamed glacier we are standing above is one of the very few left in the Central Brooks range. It's likely that the rapid warming of the earth, which has been especially pronounced in the Arctic, will soon erase this glacier completely off the maps.
Brett pulls out a Nature's Bakery fig bar and holds it up, smiling, for a photo. During the last six or seven months we've been awarded sponsorships from ten companies and organizations, including funding from the Sierra Club and the Alaska Wilderness League, and winning the Fisher-Kellogg Memorial Grant from the American Alpine Club. Pursuing sponsorships is appealing: it legitimizes a trip, eases the financial burden, and helps expose and connect you with the outdoor community. From the beginning, we decided to only pursue sponsorships from companies whose products we would have purchased anyway, and we've ended up with some great backpacker loot: beautiful hand-made down mitts from Black Rock Gear, southwestern pasta from Mary Jane's Farm, and, waiting in Anaktuvuk Pass at the post office, Alpacka rafts partially sponsored by Northern Alaska Packrafts. We've unwrapped and crushed most of our Nature's Bakery fig bars into big, easily-packed bricks, but we've saved a few in their wrappers for photo ops. While we're all happy to have the support--and plentiful tasty fig bars--there's no denying that pursuing sponsorships for trips like this is not all sunshine and free down mitts. We spent countless hours writing applications, talking to marketing managers, toiling away on our website, and writing up agreements. Aside from the inevitable rejections, pursuing sponsorships devours time and creates obligations. It should be approached carefully, with an honest assessment both of the value of the products to your trip, and of your trip to the people who make the products.
We jog and slide down the loose scree to the side of the glacier. Luke drops his back and sits down. His Achilles tendon is strained, and he wants to take a break while we explore. Chelsea suggests that he ice it. In a trip this long and this remote, it's important to address even the smallest physical discomforts before they have a chance to worsen. Luckily, there is no better place to ice a strained tendon than on the side of an Arctic glacier.
I grab my camera and hoist myself onto the big lobe of ice. It's firm, slick, pockmarked gray-white, with small, pale blue veins of meltwater crisscrossing its surface. There are off-white objects everywhere, and as I walk higher I'm startled to find that the entire glacier is covered in bones: skulls, teeth, antlers, big thigh bones and pelvises, bird wings, whole spines lying sideways on the surface of the ice, as if they were all just shaken and dropped out of the air. I walk up into the head of the cirque, where the ice levels out, and cross a stream that snakes back and forth over the surface of the ice before plunging into the depths of the glacier. The ice goes from white to brilliant blue, to ultramarine, and then to black. This silent, cold, glacial graveyard with its wells of ice plunging down to blackness is eerie, inhuman. I turn around before reaching the head of the cirque and head back to the group.
We climb over the chaotic, loose moraines of rock near the glacier's snout, and to the shore of a barren lake, cold and still and devoid of life. As we sit on a boulder pumping water, Chelsea pokes around on the shore.
"Hey check out this fossil," she says, placing a small shard next to us. Emerging from the rock are the rough fins of dozens of interlocking hexagonal tubes. We look more closely at the rocks around us and realize suddenly that we are walking across an ancient seabed. The sides of boulders are covered in sprays of coral tubes. Many are so well-preserved that you can plainly see the little nodes, kinks and knobs on the corals, and others, cut across the grain, show all the fine inner structures. Tens of millions ago, this frozen, dead landscape, high in a mountain pass, was once a shallow sea teeming with life.
We set up camp on a high saddle, the highest point in a set of rough, rocky U-shaped valleys that arc around our camp like the empty ribcage of a gigantic glacial beast.
Only a few feet from our camp, a small trickle coalesces from the wet ground on the hillside. As it drips downhill it becomes a small stream, and, gaining water from side tributaries, runs out of view into Graylime Creek. A day's walk away Graylime merges with the headwaters of the Anaktuvuk River, which runs down the length of the Anaktuvuk River Valley, veers North, leaves the Brooks Range, and winds across the North Slope. It pours into the Colville River a hundred miles away, where it follows a bulwark of crumbling bluffs and then tumbles off the edge of North America, into the Arctic Ocean. This tiny trickle leaving the damp ground is the beginning of our river, and it's all downhill from here.
As we scramble down past the black ramparts of Limestack Mountain the next day, Luke slows down, lowering himself gingerly down the rocks. We readjust the weights of our packs and ease the pace as we walk into the sweeping yellow upper Anaktuvuk River Valley. To the south, a slight rise in the valley floor signals the continental divide: the water on the far side will make its way to the Pacific Ocean, while Graylime Creek heading west will end in the Arctic. We drop our packs at the confluence of Graylime and the Anaktuvuk River. We set up the tents on a little island of tundra perched above the riverbed, talking and relaxing and repairing gear as rays of light play across the mountainsides through the long Arctic evening, until the light burns down into the short, blue night.
The Anaktuvuk River Valley is supposed to be our home stretch: a wide, straight, gently downhill carpet of tundra delivering us straight into the village of Anaktuvuk Pass. But these miles are strangely hard. We cross innumerable drainages emptying out of side valleys and canyons, filled with thick brush and loose, rolling rocks. The riverbed is overhung with bluffs and the river is too deep to walk down; the sides of the valley are covered in spongy marshlands and fields of unstable, rolling tussocks, in between which black, iridescent pools of stagnant water boil with mosquito larvae.
The mosquitoes in the Arctic are legendary, and this valley has produced a bumper crop. We all carry black mesh headnets and wear ultralight windbreakers and long pants. Though we all carry mosquito repellent, none of us have used it. If the mosquitoes are up, nothing short of a physical barrier will really work, but it does work completely. Mosquitoes are an easy problem to solve, it's just that the solution is annoying: you peer out at the dimmed scenery through a screen, and you lose the breeze on your arms and legs. Stumbling through the tussocks with our heavy packs and headnets we must look like lost, demented beekeepers. Every time we reach a breezy knoll we pull our nets up like divers coming up for air, savoring the breeze until the billionous multitudes force our nets back down.
On the second day walking down the Anaktuvuk River Valley we cross broad plates of sparkling blue ice. The German loan word for these features is "aufeis," which translates literally to "ice on top." It forms when rivers freeze to the bottom in winter, forcing the running water upstream to back up and pour over the top of the ice and into the cold air, where it rapidly freezes in a thin sheet. Successive eruptions of water and freezing can create vast plains of ice that last year-round, and look like flat, miniature glaciers spanning the valley floor.
The scenery in the Anaktuvuk River Valley is stunning as the sun washes over its myriad mountains and canyons, but our thoughts are restlessly plodding along ahead of us. Brett and I nervously reassure each other that there's enough water in the Anaktuvuk River to float it. We don't know what to expect in Anaktuvuk Pass, which is the first village any of us have been to, and we hope our resupply has arrived. Luke, despite keeping a steady pace and being as upbeat as ever, is walking with a bit of a lope, trying to keep weight off of his swollen Achilles.
On our third day in the Anaktuvuk River Valley, we pick up a four-wheeler track that leaves the riverbed and winds over a low maze of marshy foothills. At every rise we expect to see the village, only to find more mud, more marsh, more bare tundra. We start to joke that there's no town, Anaktuvuk Pass is just a pass, or everyone moved out. Then, at the top of the hill, we see it: a tight grid of small houses with gleaming metal roofs, huddled in two groups on the valley floor. A column of trucks and a somber procession of people are all slowly filing out of the village on its single road. We reach the village just as the tail of the procession has left, and a kid with flashing neon shoes runs past us to catch up. A young man spots us. "Welcome to Anaktuvuk Pass!" he says with a smile. He explains that his grandma has just passed away, and they are on their way to bury her in the permafrost cemetery outside of town. He points us in the direction of the store, saying there may be someone around, and we continue down the dirt road into the emptied town.
We grab sodas at the store and then visit the small Park Service station, where an intense, jumpy ranger is eager to tell us where we aren't allowed to camp. When we ask him where we might be able to pay for a shower, he looks at us as if we've just asked where to get a pedicure on Mars. "You're in Anaktuvuk Pass," he says.
We're used to cities that function through the clockwork mechanics of well-known rules, lubricated by a continuous flow of commercial transactions. If you want something, there's a correct way to get it, and you pay for it. Anaktuvuk Pass is not really like this; it's more like a neighborhood dropped into the wilderness, governed by informal discretion and social ties. When we ask where we can get showers, most people shrug. Someone suggests the work camp at the far end of town; the people there say they don't know what it costs but sure, why not? After our showers, a woman pulls up next to us on the dirt road. She tells us we can pay so-and-so. When we ask how much, she shrugs and zooms off. To the question of "can we ___?", the answer is usually, "I don't know, can you?"
The prefab houses are small, packed tight, and highly sealed against the elements, looking a little like some ragtag interplanetary colony. The small yards are filled with rusty tools and snowmachines in various states of repair, and every roof is adorned with caribou antlers and satellite dishes. Kids wander around with fishing poles and old BMX bikes, and grandmothers fly past us on 4-wheelers carrying big boxes of soda, kicking up thunderheads of dust. The village public safety officer drives his incongrously high-end SUV around the town's few roads in an endless figure-eight. Anaktuvuk Pass has only existed since the late 1940's, as a settlement for the inland Nunamiut Eskimo people, and the residents are the only ones who can live, and hunt, in the midst of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Sitting in the Arctic mountains on the continental divide, the village is famous for its fierce weather: the average temperature in January is an eye-popping(-and-freezing) -14°F (-25°C), and the town holds the distinction of being the only location in the United States to ever record a subzero temperature in June. It is a rough, resourceful, and utilitarian kind of place.
Yet the people here are incredibly, genuinely warm. Everybody waves as they drive past us on the dirt roads. People roll down their windows and stop to ask us where we've come from, if we're OK, and how we like the town. Everyone is eager to share their knowledge of the outdoors, and curious about the grizzlies we've crossed paths with in the park. As we walk past one home, an old man with a wildly wrinkled face and broad, gappy smile waves us over and asks how we hiked in. "You're crazy!" he laughs, "I've never left the village in the summer. Too many mosquitoes. But in the winter, I jump on my snowmachines"—he holds his hands out, grabbing the imaginary handles—"and I go for miles and miles!"
After a couple days in Anaktuvuk Pass, I'm about ready to go miles and miles, too. Hiking into the village, we've gone from being the richest people in the wilderness to the poorest in civilization. We're camped in the backpackers campground, on the far side of the gravel airstrip, in what looks like an old quarry. All of the ways of living in the wilderness feel slightly embarrassing when you're not in it. Crouching over a pot of dehydrated food to keep the rain out of it feels resourceful and adventurous in the backcountry. In a parking lot, it's just a little sad. Our time in Anaktuvuk Pass has been genuinely interesting, but it's time to go.
This is the end of the trip for Luke. We've asked many people in town about running the Anaktuvuk River, but nobody has heard of anyone doing it, and we don't know what to expect. If the river is too low to run, we'll have to walk with the boats and two weeks of food on our backs, and an injury out there could lead to a complicated rescue. As we're standing on the airstrip waiting for Luke's plane, Brett asks him if he's gotten what he wanted from the trip. "I have. Definitely," he says. Brett and I had secretly gotten a rasta-colored packraft from our packraft sponsor, and had bought a dreadlocks wig and hippie glasses to give our East Coast companion a bit of good-natured flair, and it's sad to have to mail them back, unused. None of us want to lose our cheery companion, but the decision is his and it's probably the correct one.
A small plane drops out of the mountains, circles once, and lands just a few dozen feet away from us on the gravel airstrip. The door opens and Jason leaps out in a flash of red Gore-Tex and fresh energy. He and Luke, who have never met, exchange a friendly handshake. Luke hauls his backpack onto the plane and jumps in, the only passenger. We wave and make faces, and he returns them. The propellers spin back up in a loud whine. The plane bounces down the runway, lifts into the sky, and disappears.
A group of Louisiana hunters arrive at the airport on another plane, decked out head to toe in the bright green camo of a more southerly latitude. They unload so many bags and guns it looks like they're preparing for a ground assault against some unknown Arctic fortress. Brett tries to make small talk with them, but is stymied by the intricacies of BBQ and gumbo. They seem a little put off to come all the way to the manly Arctic only to find that a bunch of skinny guys and a girl wearing brightly-colored ripstop have beat them there, but they slowly open up. They're on their way to an all-inclusive guided hunting trip in the lower Anaktuvuk River, where they'll hunt black and grizzly bears, and caribou. Trip of a lifetime. They say they've heard black bear tastes like pork.
As we're waiting, a group of kids walk past. One picks up a rock and hurls it at their plane in disgust. "Fucking hunters!"
Take what football is to Texans, what restaurants are to San Franciscans, and what Wall Street is to New Yorkers, add it all up, and you still have only a partial sense of how important hunting is to the people of Anaktuvuk Pass. It is their recreation, their heritage, their source of food, and the currency of their village economy. The Nunamiut Eskimo people are only a single generation from people who lived or starved by the success of their hunts. They located their village in one of the few major valleys that transverses the Brooks Range from North to South, which makes it attractive to migrating caribou and the animals that follow them. It's often said that the names people bestow on places represent their histories, hopes and aspirations, and so we're familiar with places like "Lincoln", "Washington", "Sweetwater", "Goldenview", or "Paradise Valley". The name Anaktuvuk Pass translates to "The Place of Caribou Droppings". Hunting is everything.
So it creates profound resentment and hostility when outsiders fly in to, literally, shoot their livelihoods. By hopping just outside the boundary of Gates of the Arctic National Park to the north, sport hunters essentially snatch animals as they migrate south, before they have a chance to enter the park and reach Anaktuvuk Pass. The guides are rarely locals, and little, if any, of the money—which can be up around $7,000 per person—ends up back in the village. Every person we talk to is fiercely opposed to various State schemes to build roads throughout the North Slope, fearing an existential influx of drive-in hunters. After the Louisianans depart, we talk to a local woman waiting at the airport. "The elders eat everything," she says, "the nose of the caribou, and the eyes. They're delicacies." She stares out at the mountains while she speaks slowly, scanning the tundra. She tells us that ever since the fly-in hunters started coming, it's become harder for the locals to find enough game. "They fly in and fly out, but they never take the meat," she says. We find that hard to believe; leaving game meat to rot in the field is unethical, as well as illegal. She repeats, slowly: "They fly in and fly out, but they never take the meat."
We stuff our backpacks with new supplies, and when they fill to the top we hang things from the sides. Styrofoam RC plane wings, life jackets, paddles, and helmets dangle off of our packs, making us look like outlandish, colorful backcountry gypsies. We tell Jason that, due to some vague trip rule established before he arrived, he must wear our plastic Viking helmet. He pushes it down over his hat, and we're off.
Part 2: Rivers
Backpacking through the Brooks Range is toward the outer limits of what "people do". This next part of the trip isn't. We've pieced our route together by peering at low-res, false-color images on Google Earth and poring over maps, but we don't have any way of knowing if this will actually work. The only record we can find of someone running the Anaktuvuk River dates back to 1901, when it was surveyed in a bark canoe. We're a mess of uncertainty and excitement.
We walk the long road out of town, past the cemetery, under a warm sun and our brutally heavy backpacks. The road ends at the town dump and we continue along a dirt track squiggling through the wet tundra. At the marshy edge of a lake we drop our packs. The Anaktuvuk River is somewhere in this broad valley, we just don't know where. We can't see an outlet at the far end of the lake, but at least we can raft across it and get the weight off of our shoulders. We pull our packrafts out of our backpacks and inflate them on the shore.
Toward the far end of the lake it looks like we'll have to pull out and pack up the boats, but we spot a little finger of water poking through the grass, beckoning us. We paddle through it. Now we have to pull out. "Wait," I call to the rest of the group nearing the shore. I paddle my packraft up over a floating mat of mud, into the grasses. There's a current! One by one we pull ourselves over the mud and suddenly we're flying through the grass in a little channel, barely wide enough for our tiny boats. It feels like we're rocketing down the lazy river at a secret Arctic water park. We laugh at our stupidly awesome luck.
The channel picks up water and speed. At some point, the braided Anaktuvuk River merges with our stream and the river slows into a series of deep, wide S-curves, winding placidly north out of the Brooks Range. Fat fish shimmer and dart below the banks. We kick our feet up on the decks of our boat, lean back, relax. After a week of hard hiking on our feet, nothing feels better than to let the river carry us.
We camp on a sandbar covered in wolf and caribou tracks, and do our best to fill our Viking recruit in on our newfound traditions and camp routines. As we drift off to sleep, the wind picks up and the tents shudder in the wind and rain. After the storm passes, the tent fills with a strange orange glow. Everyone else is asleep, but I climb out into the surreal, silent haze. Layers upon layers of ominous black and gray clouds twist and clash together overhead, and a low, ragged funnel-shaped storm cloud rakes the scoured mountains to the east. Today went better than we possibly could have expected, but we need to be prepared for the opposite. This is wild country, and we're alone.
After tall cups of cofee we head back onto the water for our first full day of paddling on the Anaktuvuk River.
To either side of us the Brooks Range mountains peel away, and before us is nothing but an endless expanse of churning bluegray clouds and the dim outline of low hills. We're entering the North Slope, one of the most remote and untravelled regions in the world. The Slope is a massive expanse of tundra hills, rivers, and valleys arcing westward from near the Canadian border to the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia. If it were its own US state it would be the 11th largest, yet outside of Alaska, its name is barely even known. Aside from the villages and oil facilities scattered along the Arctic coast, there are no roads, no settlements, and the only signs that humanity has ever existed here are rusting industrial tools from surveys and the camp rings left by indigenous hunters centuries ago. Our route takes us north on the Anaktuvuk River and the Colville, traversing 230 miles of wilderness on a stupifying and humbling scale.
Fat walls of rain wash over us and thunder rips back and forth through the clouds. The thick air lights up all around us with the flash of lightning we and count the seconds. It's far enough away that we stay in the boats. We're already decked out head to toe in raingear for paddling, so the rain doesn't slow us down, but the violent weather adds to the excitement and uncertainty.
The stormclouds break and we paddle under layers of pearly white clouds, shot through with rays of Arctic sun. The mountains of the Brooks Range turn purple with distance as they recede behind us. We camp on the sun-washed tundra on the banks of the Anaktuvuk. It looks like we've passed the North Slope's storm test, and now we get to enjoy our first long, sunny evening on the Slope.
Before we even have a chance to cook our dinner, we're hit with the storm that I described in the beginning of the trip report. Rain sandblasts through our camp in the screaming wind, flinging everything not tied down into the tundra, gone forever. Brett and Chelsea's tent flaps wildly and then crumples, and we hurl everything, even our rafts, into Jason's mountaineering tent. If it weren't for Jason's tent there would be nowhere to hide: there are no trees in this ocean of tundra, and the landscape is scoured smooth, in many places down to bare dirt. Wet wait for the storm to end, and when it does, we climb out into the wet, gray-green landscape with soaked boots and a new appreciation for the fickle power of this enviornment. Nobody lives for long out here in the exposed tundra, and we begin to understand why.
As soon as we climb into our boats the next morning we realize we've camped at the border between two rivers: the gentle, deep, upper Anaktuvk and the chaotic, exciting lower. The river speeds up as it swings us between the tundra hills, whipping us around corners in a roller-coaster of waves that crash over our bows and leave us soaked and grinning. We realize that not only is this gonna work, but it's gonna be fun.
For the next week, our home is the wilderness of the Anaktuvuk River. We camp on gravel bars covered in bear and caribou tracks and cook our meals in blackened pots over driftwood fires. We sit around late into the Arctic night talking about our progress, our boats, and ways that we could improve our gear. The paperback book in my backpack—"Arctic Dreams", by Barry Lopez—is left unread, as there is always something to do or look at or talk about. Eventually we rip out the first few chapters and use the paper as a firestarter. We don't talk very much about issues from the "outside" world, which now seem like strange and pointless word games. Our practical, present needs are all that really matter.
We spend long days in our boats, bouncing down the rapids, paddling the slow stretches, steering away from sunken clumps of foliage that look like swaying underwater forests. We constantly read the river, watching the way it goes from tan to emerald to deep blue with depth, studying the slope of the banks, judging the boils and waves and eddies to find the deepest channels. Where the river fans out or drops over gravel bars it dissolves into bright, splashy shallows. Sometimes we jump out of our boats and haul them over the gravel bars, but more often we paddle hard and pry ourselves over the rocks, paddling through as much riverbed as river. Often three or four of us approach a shallows at once in different channels, only to have two end up marooned on rocks while the others sail through, laughing and hooting at the shipwrecked unfortunates.
In some places the river comes together into one deep, fast channel, but often it braids out over its massive riverbed, into innumerable smaller streams that cross and recross each other through vast plains of gravel, shrubs, and antler-littered sand. Predicting which channel is the "main" one is difficult from our vantage point only a couple feet above the water, but once the paddler in the front makes a decision, the others are beholden to it. If we were to take different paths through this maze we could lose each other in the vast wilderness. Usually we stay in what seems to be the deepest water, but we sometimes pick our route just to hit a big wave train or play in a rock garden. While running a set of waves, I look over to see a wild wave train charging off into the shrubs, cutting a new braid through the tundra. It's so tempting to follow these crazy new paths...
Every bend and turn in the river is another chance to run into the wild residents of the Anaktuvuk. A lone caribou on a gravel bar spots us, raises its head and massive antlers to peer in our direction, and then trots briskly into the underbrush. Many species of birds fly north to take advantage of the Arctic's brief summer abundance, and raise their young in a place with fewer predators. Many also make use of the relative safety to molt, and when we surprise them, the confused, flightless birds try running down the river, often right over wave trains and rapids. Fluffy gaggles of goose chicks scramble and wobble on the banks, mothers pausing only to glare at us. As we bob down one deep section, Brett spots what looks like a massive beaver crossing the river directly in front of him. "Bear!" The grizzly lopes out of the water on the far side and shakes itself off. It hears our yelling upriver and stares at us, uncomprehending. Then there is a flash of recognition and it instantly bolts into the swaying, crashing brush. At night, the eerie, otherworldly cries of loons ring back and forth across the riverbed.
With no trees and no cover, we're fully in the weather. Sometimes the sun pours down on us for hours, and we paddle in just our shirts. Other times, huge thundering storms roll over our heads, pounding us with cool rain. During one storm, the rain comes down so fat and fast that the banks of the river disappear in a fog of splashing water. The boundaries between the river and the bank and the sky merge and blend in the torrent, and water comes at us from every direction. We can't separate one thing from another, so we drift with the river, hoods up, heads down.
As the storm passes, I look over to see Brett and Chelsea paddling in the very center of a brilliant double-360-degree rainbow, so stupifyingly picturesque it would make a children's book illustrater blush.
You can only see so much from two feet above the lowest point in a river drainage. When we have a chance, in camp or when we need a break, we climb the bluffs and hills on the sides of the river to get a better sense of the terrain we're traveling through. We pull our boats up the riverbank and tie them off, grab our pepper spray, and start climbing.
When judging the value of landscapes, we’re drawn to the superlative. We admire and praise the deepest canyons, the loftiest peaks, the longest arches, and the tallest waterfalls. Our National Parks, from Arches and Bryce to Yosemite and Zion, are open-air museums of geologic spectacle. Much of the Brooks Range Mountains are protected as wildlife reserve and national parkland, but the park ends, predictably, at the foothills. We just don’t tend to value places without extraordinary topographical relief, which is too bad because the North Slope is, without a doubt, one of America’s great unknown national treasures.
The hills roll on, and on, and on, in endless graceful yellow-green curves sweeping into the distance. Taller hills are capped with shattered sculptures of vertical rock that look like whimsical abstract castles, or the backbones of sunken beasts. Rays of light from the low sun, clouds, and rain churn over the land in tumbling waves, spraying the landscape with light and ever-changing color.
Appeals to protect coral reefs or jungles inevitably count off the number of species that live there, as if the worth of a place obviously follows from its biodiversity. While this metric has its uses, it would seem to condemn the Arctic as a near-wasteland. Of the 5000 mammals known to science, fewer than 50 live in the entire Arctic; of 10,000 bird species, fewer than 10 live here year-round. Put simply, the Arctic is a tough place to survive, and few species have figured out how to do it. Similarly, a vanishingly tiny number of people will ever travel throuh this landscape and experience it firsthand. The North Slope isn't full of magestic geological monuments, it isn't home to fantastic biodiversity, and it isn't a major tourist attraction (or even, really, a minor one). So why care about it?
Whether we decide that the North Slope is worth protecting may be the ultimate test of our commitment to wilderness sheerly for its own sake. Because it's massive, because it's pristine and untouched, because it's still, in many ways, mysterious, and full of fresh adventure, and because that, today, is very, very rare. Early on in our trip planning, we decided that we weren't going to take sides in development issues: we would provide information, not opinions. But out here that becomes difficult. There have been various plans to cut the North Slope up with roads, almost entirely at the behest of extractive industries. As we raft downstream, construction continues on the first bridge spanning the Colville River, which will open up a vast region of the North Slope to petroleum development, with all its attendant roads, pipelines, airports, and structures. I wouldn't argue that development doesn't bring tangible benefits to many people, but rather that simply through ignorance or carelessness, something real and unique and amazing could be lost.
The tan strip on the horizon grows bigger and clearer, and then we're there: the bluffs of the Colville River. We drag our boats over a long sandbar and paddle across the main river channel. It's big, fast, and powerful, ultramarine with depth, its bottom beyond the reach of our paddles. We set up camp on a sandbar below the towering bluffs.
As soon as our tents are up and socks hung out to dry, we hunt for firewood. The beach is strewn with strange black rocks. When we pick them up, they crumble into shiny black sheets and splinters. When we toss them into the fire they ignite, shatter, and burn with a weak, smoky heat. Coal.
The United States has more coal than any other nation, and more than half of that is in Alaska. Within Alaska, the region with the largest coal deposits is, by far, is the North Slope. There are a staggering 4 trillion tons of coal here, over a tenth of the world's total, underlying nearly all of the Central and Western portions of the Slope. The thick black veins running through the bluffs behind us are the exposed edge of what is arguably the biggest fossil fuel stockpile known to mankind.
The reason that Alaska's Arctic coal has not been extensively mined is that it simply hasn't been economical. Building infrastructure from scratch and employing people in the Arctic is fantastically expensive, and getting at the coal would require the construction of vast, open-air mines in a region with brutal weather and ice-clogged harbors for much of the year. But economic factors are always in flux. Though demand for coal has decreased in the US due to regulation and alternate energy sources (namely natural gas), the phenomenal, growing hunger for coal in developing nations could cause the economics to reach a tipping point. New technology continually increases the efficiency of mining operations, and the melting polar ice cap could make major commercial shipping operations in the Arctic Ocean viable. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an organization that controls vast tracts of land and represents the region's Native people, writes that "Alaska's North Slope could be the world's coal storehouse for the next century," and is publicly seeking industrial partners for development.
The coal lumps in our fire burn down, and we kick the rest of it out. Nobody wants to breathe or cook over coal smoke, and there's plenty of wood here for our needs.
The next morning we scramble up the loose bluffs behind our campsite. The land at the tops stretches on into the green distance, an endless expanse of flat tundra and glittering lakes. Despite the Arctic's low biodiversity, the species that can live here often thrive. Unfortunately, one of those species is the mosquito. Fortunately, another is the wild blueberry. We stoop over the tundra, pulling up big handfuls of the sweet, tangy berries. The bushes droop with the weight. Jason finds a patch of year-old cranberries from last fall, dark red and tightly shriveled. They are sweet, sour, pungent, and unbelievably delicious. Our exploratory hike turns into an impromptu tundra feast. Jason collects a pile of fat white wild mushrooms and then, after thinking it over, decides that eating a bunch of Arctic shrooms might be a little sketchy, even for a Viking.
Jason is our resident biologist, and the only member of the group who has previously spent time on the North Slope, doing environmental assessments for various organizations. When Brett and I were planning the trip, he was one of the first people we thought to ask to join, and, luckily, the Expedition perfectly wedged into his schedule between summer work and the beginning of graduate school in Canada. Jason's contributions to the group included a burst of fresh energy, solid wilderness experience, creative ideas for drying wet gear, and the occasional harmonica solo, often "Amazing Grace". Actually, always "Amazing Grace".
After our long day relaxing and berrypicking, we decide to lash the boats together and flotilla down the river at night, with Chelsea paddling in the front. This is a bad idea. We end up hunched over shivering in the boats, which bounce and jerk against each other. After a gloomy half mile, we abandon our flotilla and head for shore. Everyone is a little down, cold, and dejected. When you're out in the wilderness making your own adventure, you always run the risk that things just don't work out.
We need a good day and we get it. The sky is a pure, pale blue and the heat from the sun radiates up from the river. We dig sunglasses out from the bottom of our packs and fumble with little tubes of forgotten sunscreen.
We let the current carry us past the Colville River bluffs, which tower above us, near vertical, like the walls of an ancient fortress. The bluffs are constantly eroding, and we often lift our paddles out of the water and listen as clumps of sand and dirt tumble down, sending up clouds of dust.
Jason and I haul out when we realize that Brett's stopped some distance behind us. Soon we spot the bright fishing line glide and snap over the river. I poke around the gravel bar in the sun, looking at the river rocks in all their shades of mottled blue, bright red, sandstone green-orange and translucent pink. Eventually Brett paddles down to us carrying four fat Arctic Grayling. We clean and cook over a bonfire on the spot.
A few motorboats speed past us, headed upriver. We wave and the Native people, decked out in long black winter coats, sweatshirts, and hats, smile and wave back. A couple stop to raise cameras up and take photos. Visitors to this part of the world are rare, and we're something of a curiosity.
We stop for a long dinnner in the late evening, watching storms drag rain over the landscape in every direction.
We paddle into the night.
The river swings away from the bluffs and around a broad bend, where it undercuts the tundra and permafrost. Huge plates of ice and tundra overhang the river by fifteen or twenty feet. Water and dirt drips down from their rooty undersides into the river. The water churns with mysterious upwellings and sudden patches of downwelling "spooky water" that tug at the broad tubes of our rafts. We paddle away quickly from the overhangs and set up camp in the half-dark of the early morning.
The next day a pair of motorized rafts races past us. "If you want to check out some dinosaur fossils," they call out, "Stop by our camp at Ocean Point!"
We reach their camp by early evening. They're a group of paleontologists searching for bird tracks and dinosaur fossils along the bluffs. They invite us to use their water pump, and then, after making Jason promise not to raid or pillage their camp, they invite us for dinner. Their camp on a broad gravel bar is a riot of backcountry decadence, complete with coolers, a big steel stove, and a mountaineering base camp tent. The pasta with sausage and thick red sauce they offer us is unnaturally good. They're friendly, funny, and hospitable, and they invite us to camp with them tonight. Jason breaks his promise, reverts to his Viking ways, and raids their cookies.
Pat, a professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks, shows us their finds: big plates covered in bird tracks and fossilized trees from the Cretaceous. He explains their significance, glancing up every few seconds to see if we're still paying attention. We are.
The next morning, they invite us to join them at their dino fossil site, an unassuming section of bluffs and beach near their camp. Pat teaches us how to spot fossils and once we see them, we see them everywhere. Sandwiched into the bluffs above is a massive bone bed of herbivorous dinosaurs that died en-masse during the Cretaceous. Their fossilized bones literally spill out of the bluffs and litter the beach. There are sections of thigh, ball joints from legs, shin bones, whole vertebrae, and teeth.
The story of Arctic paleontology is a strange one. In 1961, Shell Oil geologist Robert Liscolm discovered dinosaur fossils at multiple locations while surveying the Colville River. However, his discoveries were met with incredulity and suspicion in the paleontology community due to the site's extreme northern location, and Liscolm died the following year in a rock slide. In the mid- to late-1980's, Liscolm's notes were rediscovered and paleontologists returned to his sites only to find many more dinosaur fossils and tracks. Today, the Colville River bluffs are widely recognized as one of the most fossil-rich locations in the Arctic. Specimens collected on the Colville include theropods, ankylosaurs, albertosaurs, pachyrhinosaurus, gorgosaurus, and hadrosaurs.
Most of the fossils here don't have enough scientific value to justify keeping, so they're left where they are or tossed into the bushes. As I paddle up to one of the palentologists to say goodbye, he hucks a few reddish-brown chunks at me. I deflect them with my paddle and they splash and disappear into the river. "I bet nobody's ever thrown dinosaur bones at you before," he says with a chuckle. This is true.
As we paddle downriver, it occurs to me that, since we've left Anaktuvuk Pass more than a week ago, I've probably seen more dinosaurs than people.
The sky is huge and calm. The river, which pulls away from the bluffs into a series of miles-wide S-curves, is slow and clear, like rippled glass. The upstrokes of our paddles throw little diamonds of water into the air, which fall back, bounce on the reflective surface and then sit there for just a moment before slipping back into the river.
As the day winds down, we haul our boats out and set up camp on a broad mudbar covered in bright green grass, as flat and soft as a suburban lawn. The banks are packed with huge twisted masses of driftwood. Some of it is ten feet above our camp, a reminder of the staggering volume of water, ice, and debris that churns down the Colville during breakup in the spring.
When people think of picturesque sunsets, what often comes to mind first is the tropics or the South Pacific, with a few palm tree silouhettes in the foreground. My guess is that that has more to do with the weather; toward the equator, the sun arches high overhead and dives quickly below the horizon. The show is over in a flash. For those willing to enjoy the view in fleece coats, down hats, and mittens, or standing around a driftwood fire, an Arctic sunset would be tough to beat. The sun is never really overhead in the Arctic, even in midsummer, but rather swings low around the horizon, casting long shadows in warm light. Sunsets last for hours upon hours, and even after the sun disappears the clouds and sky are lit up from below. Just a little later in the summer, and daylight in the Arctic is replaced entirely with a continuous 16-hour sunrise and sunset, interrupted only briefly but a short, dusky night.
Under the brilliant sunset colors overhead, we notice a bank of thick, dark gray fog creeping across the horizon. We've noticed it for the last few nights, always in the distance to the North. Jason explains that the fog rolls off of the Arctic Ocean and can wash far up into the North Slope. We've been lucky with the weather so far, but we're headed right for it.
Cold wind pours down on us from the north. We paddle for several hours, and stop for lunch below a small hill capped with a tilted, faded wooden cross. The landscape stretches out for miles, flat and wet and green. It's instinctual to compare new places with old, an attempt to make sense of the new landscape by bringing in more familiar reference points. To me, this place almost looks like some verdant African savanna. But the average January low here is -30°F (-34°C). All of the comparisions I try to make in the Arctic are futile; no place here is much like anything else.
The wind whips the Colville into a froth of upstream whitecaps. The slow current is no match for the wind. Eventually we can't fight it anymore, and we pull out and carry our boats across the sandy banks.
Because the river's S-curves here are so wide, we decide to inflate our boats, paddle across the river, and pack them up on the other side. Fighting our way across the channel is brutal. Brett and I watch Jason from the bank, unsure for a minute whether he is making progress at all. Eventually we all jump in, arms twisting and straining, breathing hard, prying and torquing our boats forward against the wind and waves. Chelsea passes Jason and is the first to hit the other bank. We all reach the other side at different places, and pack up our boats. We see the river far away on the other side, waves crashing against the bank, shooting spray into the air. We're walking.
Later in the evening when the wind settles down, and we cross the channel once again and set up camp on the tundra. As we build our fire, we see the wall of fog racing silently toward us. It seals off our view, and it becomes quiet, dim, and cold. From our camp, we can see the dark outlines and blinking lights of the town of Nuiqsut. We'd been warned about Nuiqsut. They aren't friendly like other villages, we'd been told. They don't like outsiders. We had talked to a former Village Public Safety Officer from Nuiqsut, who had told us that on New Years he and his partner were so scared of being shot that they barricaded themselves in their office. Tomorrow morning we would walk in and see for ourselves.
We walk into town in a tight bunch, like uninvited guests showing up nervously at a party. A truck drives past us on the road and the driver waves. The first person we see smiles. "Welcome to Nui'!"
Everyone in town seems to know who we are already: we're "the kayakers". As we stand outside of the store the people walking in look us up and down with an awkward smile. "So you guys the kayakers?" Inside the store the clerk takes a break stocking the shelves and looks our way. "Hey! You guys must be the kayakers. Welcome to Nuiqsut!" Everyone we meet is friendly and curious. Many people regard our trip with a mixture of reserved admiration and, often, a little confusion ("Wow you guys came a long way! ...why?"). Some are more standoffish until we let it slip that we're not hunting, at which point they ease up and ask us if we've seen any moose on the Anaktuvuk.
The village of Nuiqsut was established in the 1970's by a group of Inpuiat Eskimo families, and has a population of about 400. In appearance, the town is similar to Anaktuvuk Pass: small, utilitarian houses shoulder-to-shoulder on small lots, with a larger general store, a small hotel/restaurant, a couple modest churches, a fire station, and an incongrously modern school that looks like it was picked up out of Anchorage and dropped into the tundra. But where Anaktuvuk Pass straddles the Continental Divide in the Brooks Range, Nuiqsut is perched on the bluffs in a vast flat, marshy expanse. We have no desire to stray past the town's gravel roads; one woman we meet in the restaurant tells us that, while doing a survey in the tundra, she stepped into what looked like a small puddle only to sink up to her chest in frigid water. There are no mosquitos here, which means it has recently gone below freezing at night.
Through the fog, there is only one dim landmark on the horizon: a massive tower from the Alpine Oil Field. For over 15,000 years, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic lived as nomads atop one of the most valuable fossil fuel deposits in the world. Russian explorers first began exploring the coasts of what would be called "Alaska" in the mid-1700's, and colonial claims soon followed. Spainish explorers performed "posession ceremonies" in the southeast, and Russia established small towns and colonies, mainly for the purpose of coastal fur trade. In 1867, the United States purchaed "Russian America" for $7.2 million, or a little over $12 per square mile. However, the US paid virtually no attention to the Arctic, shrugging it off as an icy waste and geopolitical liability. Oil was found throughout the North Slope, but attempts to exploit it were meager and unsuccessful. Very few European-Americans ever ventured North of the Brooks Range Mountains until WWII, when the Japanese invasion of Alaska, and the subsequent Cold War, forced the United States to consider Alaska's strategic importance.
In the years after the war, the government began establishing airfields and installations in the Alaska Arctic. Surveyors in the mid-late 1960's were surprised to find that the Slope didn't just have oil, it had a lot of oil. The Prudhoe Bay oilfield, perched on the Arctic coast just east of Nuiqsut, is, by a wide margin, the largest in the United States. Suddenly, the Arctic was starting to look very attractive, and a hungry scramble for mineral rights was soon underway.
The discovery of oil in the 1960's conincided with a more introspective moment in Western history, when people were becoming more attuned to the shortcomings of colonialism and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. Alaska's native people were able to gain much more meaningful legal leverage in negotiations than other groups had in the past, and acted as participants, rather than subjects, in crafting land-use legislation. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act required all Native groups to relinquish claims of soverignty in exchange for the creation of twelve regional Corporations, which own and manage vast tracts of land to the benefit of Native shareholders. On the North Slope, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation manages leases and pays dividends to residents. Largely because of these dividends, the median household income on the North Slope is among the highest in the United States, at $76,667 per household. In addition to Corporation dividends, oil production and ancillary services provide well-paying jobs.
Still, one could wonder whether the people of the North Slope really came out ahead. By the estimate of one business group, the value of oil already shipped from the North Slope amounts to over $10.3m per North Slope resident. Had they been able to retain sovereignty over their ancestral land, an Arctic nation of Alaska Inupiat people could have been, per capita, the richest in the world. One could see the people of the North Slope as either the world's wealthiest nomads or its poorest oil tycoons.
The rest is coming soon!