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Brooks journal - Page 3

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Leg 2: Arctic Village to Kaktovik

Click here for route map.

8/13/03 - day 11 (day 2 leg 2)

Water and color

It is 11:30PM on the second day of our trek to Kaktovik, and we have stopped just short of crossing about an hour's worth of tussocks. I decided it would make me too cranky in the evening. Right now I'm half-enclosed in our sleeping bag, sticking out just far enough to write, and trying to avoid the rain. Cramming two people into a sleeping setup made for one is much lighter to carry, but it's cramped and rather difficult to move around inside, especially on hot sticky nights. Thankfully, tonight is a cool night.

I've been hiking the past two days in my blue fleece pajamas under my raingear. At least the suit resembles pajamas more than anything else. It is very cozy and very silly-looking, should there be anyone around to look.

We left Arctic Village in drizzle and fog, and we had to use our compass for the first time on the trip to find our way out of the valley. The meandering rivers and numerous lakes make the lowlands confusing if you can't see the mountains. As we crossed one small stream we startled a flock of very reluctant ducks. They didn't want to be near us, but couldn't stand to take off, so they beat their wings furiously along the water, looking for all the world like little paddlewheels as they churned the surface.

This is a place of drought and floods. After only two days of wet, the normally bone-dry forest is flowing with water. Every tiny stream was over its banks. Water can't sink into the permafrost, so it has nowhere else to go. Ice explains everything. That is our motto for this place. We spent a long time at one particularly pretty stream, taking long exposure pictures of the rushing water and frothing pools.

Today we woke up to a wet mist coating our forest hillside. The blueberry bushes gathered drops on their leaves, and spider webs were outlined sharply - suddenly appearing as tufts of white on every bush. But we climbed up to ridges and the mist cleared away. We even caught a glimpse of Arctic Village again in the distance behind us.

The most noteworthy thing about a tundra ridge in mid-August is not the view of broad valleys and distant mountains we have from its crest. It is the brilliant colors of the ground at our feet. The blueberry plants range from lavender to deep purple, mixed with the fiery orange of dwarf birch, the glowing red of bearberry, the yellow-green of the willows, and the numerous shades of white, green, yellow and brown from the mosses and lichens that squish underfoot. It is quite striking to walk through, and makes me wish I had a room wallpapered with all the colors and textures I see here. We must be content with our numerous photos.

We are finding, unfortunately, that tussocks are just as happy at higher elevations as they were in the lowland, and some of our high valleys might take longer than we though. We've been eating a lot of food these past few days, more to get our very heavy packs lighter than because we are especially hungry. We've still seen no more big animals than those sheep. I'd love to see a bear, but I hope our animal-free trend holds through the night, since we have nothing in this plain of tundra and knee-high shrubs to tie our Ursacks to. We've seen sign of bears digging for ground squirrels on a few of the ridges, but nothing else and nothing recent around here.

The wind today has driven off almost all of the mosquitoes, which I am very grateful for. I love wind.

Soon we head north, and more deeply into the mountains. I am excited.

8/14/03 - day 12 (day 3 leg 2)

Through the mountains with eager feet

The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
And far ahead the road is gone
But I must follow if I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet
Until it joins some larger way.
Where many paths and errands meet
And whither then?
I cannot say.

Hig taught me the words to this Lord of the Rings poem today. It is perfectly appropriate, and it makes a great hiking chant.

Today we confirmed our fears that large flat valleys, no matter what the elevation, are no good for walking, and we headed out on a completely different route than we had originally intended. Of course, following a different route than we had planned is what we had originally intended.

We followed a stream's floodplain up the valley, weaving quickly through willows, crunching on gravel bars, and following bits of moose and caribou trail. It was fast, mostly easy, and rivers always have enough variation in their twists and bends to keep things entertaining.

Today was alternately drizzly and cloudy, with sun breaks. We stopped for our siesta just as the first shower of the afternoon was arriving. We've been enjoying taking two hour-ish breaks in the middle of the day, and this time we wanted to build a fire and cook oatmeal. We hadn't originally planned to cook at all on this leg, since I was worried there would be no wood so far north. But willows at least are abundant in just the right places, and we picked up some instant Quaker oatmeal and Kraft macaroni and cheese in Arctic Village. But it's been damp for the past few days, and damp willow and dwarf birch does not make the best fire-starting material. It took several matches, followed by a long period of blowing on, feeding, and carefully coddling our small smoky fire before we got it really going. We had fire starter (paraffin-soaked paper towels), but it was a better challenge not to use it. The oatmeal was tasty, and messing with the fire was fun.

We inadvertently followed the route of the caribou, migrating to the North Slope. Or at least we followed the route of some caribou. Their trails coalesced, split, and weaved up our valley as we headed for the pass. The upper valley was bouldery, steep, and mountainous. No tussocks could be seen, and we were almost 6000 feet high at the pass, which is higher than we've been so far this trip. Glissading down the scree slope on the other side, we even hit a patch of snow in the gully.

We've climbed again to another ridge, and if it gets cold tonight we could even wake up to snow. That would be exciting.

With scree slopes, rocky peaks, and steep traverses, I feel very much deep in the mountains already. The way to Kaktovik lies ahead, and I am pursuing it with eager feet. Sometimes sore feet, but eager all the same.

8/15/03 - day 13 (day 4 leg 2)

Down from the ridge tops

This time I have a small LED light hung from the ice axe as I write. I don't need it to see by, but Hig wants it for his picture. The added brightness is nice, though. These 'waterproof' LED lights really are not. We've been hanging them from our coat zippers and have already killed both of them and resurrected one. And we haven't even been dunked.

It's just started sprinkling and we're camped on a hill overlooking the East Fork Chandalar River valley, which is the big river valley here. We've changed our minds again, and now we are going to follow the valley up to the pass. This far up, the valley has nice-looking braid plains, where before it had marshy meanders. And as we puffed up yet another ridge into the howling wind, seemingly moments after descending the last one, we decided that our planned route was unnecessarily convoluted. Or maybe we decided we'd had our taste of ridge top views, and had our fill of climbing ridges. But we were having fun with our ridges yesterday and this morning, going up and down and up onto another ridge and down into another gully and across another traverse... It was a route to make me feel strong. The views were incredible. The mountains now are dressed in grey talus, decorated with the orange-brown of mosses and lichens in the fall. The rivers snake through the valleys below, lined with the soft green puffs of willow shrubs. We are in the middle of everywhere, and far from everything we know. These may not be the highest mountains I've seen, but they are the wildest.

We've seen many caribou trails and even a small group of caribou today. We must be following part of their migration route north. I don't know what the caribou we saw were doing here at this time of year. They seem larger than the ones we saw on the Alaska Peninsula. And there the caribou don't form large herds. Perhaps it is a better place for them here.

There are a few mosquitoes buzzing around me now, but they have not been bad these past couple days. Our fire today was more to cook than anything else, since the weather was warm and un-buggy to start with. Everything was dry enough that I could start the fire easily with twigs and cotton grass tufts. It almost felt like cheating. We went for our biggest cooked meal today. A family-sized box of Kraft macaroni and cheese with a whole stick of butter. It was incredibly tasty, and we followed the meal with a good long nap. I doubt that bright orange powder food has ever been so appetizing.

All in all, it was a restful day, but we still made 14.5 miles, and we'll descend to the river valley tomorrow morning, and hopefully make good time along the gravel bars.

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Last modified: 12/17/2003