Divas Gone Arctic . . .

3 women, 2 toothbrushes, 1 pair of Crocs . . . Anaktuvuk to Wiseman.

How does one encapsulate an experience? What words exist to embody the spirit, soul, and humanity of six days? In reality, the Anaktuvuk to Wiseman trip was nothing more than 3 women walking and floating between 2 dots on a map, connecting one blue line to the next. The experience, however, ocurred so much more dramatically. It exists with the richness of diversity in the Brooks Range, with the alivenes of the Alaskan wilderness, with a depth comensurate with the vastness of the terrain, and with a softness as tangible, yet indescribable, as the evening shades and shadows on the mountains.

I honestly have no idea where to begin since this trip was so fun, hilarious, random, and adventurous on multiple fronts. The past week has been an experience that I shake my head at while rolling my eyes with a huge smile over the bounties of life, friendship, Alaska, and the wilderness. I am so blessed and thankful and am super present to the many gifts in my life!
It all started with a plan to traverse the Wrangells from Nebesna to McCarthy. Gretchen was doing field work in McCarthy, and we had it worked out to leave her car there, and she’d get flown to Glenallen after her work was complete. Chrissy and I met her there on Wednesday afternoon, as planned. We showed up to rain and a forecast that didn’t look great. With the rainy summer, the time constraints on our trip, and the ambitiousness of the journey, we had doubts about getting delayed by not being able to fly in. We also didn’t relish the idea of 6 days walking in the rain (as seemed entirely possible) and were craving sunshine. A brief perusal of webcams around the state showed blue skies all over the Brooks Range, so we said “f-it, let’s go north!” We had a few issues, however: How in the heck were we going to get Gretchen’s car out of McCarthy (90 miles off the highway)? What route would we do in the Brooks? How early could we fly from Fairbanks? How would we get maps? How would we deal with post-trip transport logistics? So we pooled our resources and worked it all out. My boss would have his friend drive Gretchen’s car, Rebecca and Thor suggested a route from Anaktuvuk to Wiseman (85 miles with combo of walking and packrafting), we could fly at 8am the next day out of Fairbanks, we’d get a map from Sportsman’s Warehouse at 7am (they’d open their door early), and we’d hitch a ride after the trip . . . I would hitch north to work in Prudhoe Bay, and they’d hitch south to Fairbanks and get Chrissy’s car to drive back to Anchorage (via Glenallen to get Gretchen’s car). Are you getting an idea of how funny this must have been as it was unfolding? We were on a roll, to say the least . . . brainstorming, laughing, keeping the playlist lively, and making it happen. We even celebrated Chrissy’s birthday at midnight along the roadside with whisky and Danish techno. It was great.

Me, in full logistics mode on the side of the hwy in Gulkana . . . I think we were reviewing our route with Chrissy’s friend at this point. His response: “Nice, nice” elicited some laughter.

A brief stop in Paxson for coffee with Creme Brulee creamer and stir sticks from the 50’s (no joke!) The roadside birthday celebration!
The next morning, in prep for our flight, taking advantage of the last coverage to get more ideas/input . . . gotta love the 1:250!
And then we were off . . . although we were running from the rain, it somehow followed us to Fairbanks!
In the mail plane to Anaktuvuk Pass
. . . and then in Anaktuvuk!
We found ourselves in Anaktuvuk on Thursday afternoon (after a 2 hour flight delay) and a little dazed by lack of sleep and a lot of travel. We met Rebecca, a school teacher volunteering with the NPS Gates of the Arctic and chatted about the Brooks Range, Arctic travel, and life. She allowed us use of the bunk house to re-organize gear and hang out. Chrissy and I roamed the town, chatted with some of the locals, and generally took it all in. We were overwhelmed with the people in Anaktuvuk – they were so friendly, lively, and outgoing. The surrounding mountains were unreal – we were already feeling like we’d made a good decision! At 1pm, the local museum re-opened, so we headed over for a lesson in Inupiat and Nunamiat culture. The collection of artifacts is amazingly educational, as is Vera, the woman who works there. We chatted for about an hour and a half, laughing almost as much as we were listening. Vera is amazing. She was born and raised in Anaktuvuk, worked as a mechanic for awhile, and then attended and graduated from UAF before deciding to move back to her home. She has 5 daughters and a spirit and heart as big as any you’ll ever meet. I have to admit having done very little investigation into native culture in Alaska and was overwhelmed by Anaktuvuk – now I feel an appetite to learn more as I realize the depth, aliveness, historical significance, and contribution to the Alaska culture I love.

Walking the streets of Anaktuvuk Pass The amazing museum we hung out in for awhile and learned about life and history from Vera

And then the sun came out . . . us and Vera outside the museum
An interesting mix of time and cultures . . .

We ended up leaving town around 2:30 and headed west up the Anaktuvuk River for about 8 hours before camping . . . we actually saw a grizzley in the distance just before descending to the river to camp, which gave us pause as we debated sleeping with our food vs. caching. We opted for the cache as it seemed better to hear the bear and try to defend our food than to be surprised with it in the tent. Fortunately, there were no issues – I don’t think it even saw us. We capped the day with a dessert given to us by the folks at Copper Valley Air in Glenallen in celebration of Chrissy’s birthday and promptly decided that all trips should have dessert on the first night. Dear universe: please add this to the rule book πŸ™‚

Heading toward the Anaktuvuk River . . . we walked up the right side of the river . . . I recently found out that this trail continues all the way up the left side of the river! Oh well, I guess we just got a better workout πŸ™‚
The Anaktuvuk River under amazing skies!

That must be Fan Mountain . . . I mean, it looks like a fan! Oh the ways you can delude yourself into thinking you’ve gone much further than you have!

Friday dawned high overcast and pretty warm which provided great travel conditions up the rest of the Anaktuvuk River and over Ernie Pass. We opted to camp near the river at the base of the pass as it appeared that a good campsite would be hard to come by if we walked much further. We found another amazing spot and settled back into our megamid home and crashed pretty hard . . . tired from travel, our day of walking, and probably from a summer of going nonstop.

And when I say we were tired, I meant it. We had some cushion time on this trip and had discussed that we would be willing to take a down day if the weather was bad – the area was too cool to walk by an not see it . . . the Valley of the Precipices (it was printed in italics on the map, so it had to be cool, right?!?!) and THE Gates of the Arctic didn’t seem like things you’d want to miss. So, when we awoke to a storm, we rolled right over and went back to sleep . . . UNTIL 2PM!!!! I couldn’t believe it when I woke up and looked at my watch . . . we had a good laugh over that one, and then spent the afternoon chatting, laughing, napping, and eating. We were initially worried that we wouldn’t sleep a full night, but that didn’t prove to be an issue – we crashed hard, yet again – classic!


A lovely August day in the Brooks Range . . .I guess I will interject here to discuss the wonder of freezer bag cooking (http://www.freezerbagcooking.com/ and http://www.harmonyhouse.com/ are great references). Essentially, you put gourmet “just-add-water” foods into a freezerbag and dinner is prepared in the 3 minutes it takes the jetboil to create hot water. Dinner is super easy, tasty, light, and fast. Skipping dinner isn’t really even a consideration! On this trip, we had:
Organic real mashed potatoes with sun-dried tomaotes and pine nuts, Mexican night (rice, beans, veggies, burrito seasoning), curry rice & lentils with cranberries and peanuts, pesto cous cous with pine nuts and veggies, and Thai with powdered coconut milk, lemongrass, and peanut sauce. Chrissy made one freezer bag last the whole week for 2 meals/day, and Gretchen re-used the Mountain House bag from dessert on night one. We were so thrilled with this system that we intend to write Ziploc a thank-you note πŸ™‚ We do wonder if we’re all going to get cancer from leaching plastics into our system with the hot water, but maybe it’s worth it for the joy and simplicity of freezerbagcooking . . .?!?

The fabulous weather day of sleep, chatting, and relaxation – we loved our Megamid home! Sunday dawned with improved weather, although still gray. The rain had turned to snow the day before (blowing sideways, I might add), so we started out in about 2″ of snow to travel on. We got below snowline farirly quickly and headed down Ernie Creek. Travel was pretty good, and we entered a beautiful blue hole. The sunglasses came out and we celebrated warmth and finding the summer we were looking for πŸ™‚ Constantly the optimizers, we debated how best to split the rest of our time and agreed on spending the afternoon ridge walking and peak bagging instead of travelling downriver . . . we had the weather, after all, and we were in a truly incredible place. I can’t even begin to describe the scale, expansivity, and overwhelming nature of the Brooks Range. I was in love and now have another lifetime of projects to indulge in . . . I guess that’s what I love about Alaska . . . it’s not like we’re discovering new mountains or valleys, but rather new entire ranges. It’s incredible. That’s the only way to put it. It was fun that this was the first time in the Brooks Range for all of us, as we were able to share our amazement, gratitude, and excitement for our “discovery.” Anyway, we cached food and dropped weight and then headed up Two Prong Mountain to traverse its ridge. It felt great to be walking uphill, and we loved having the weight off our backs. The highlight, however, was the way the universe unfolded before our eyes. We were looking north to the Valley of the Precipices and the big mountains around Ernie Pass, south to the Koyukuk confluence and the Gates of the Arctic and east/west to more huge drainages and dramatic mountains. I have never seen colors and shadows like we saw. There are no words for it, other than the already-overused amazing, overwhelming, incredible, etc. We descended out of the wind and treated ourselves to an extreme picnic (dinner) before descending back to camp as the rain started. We secured our megamid home and crawled in for the indulgence of sleeping bags, sacred socks, and puffy coats!

Leaving camp, and heading down Ernie Creek

Gretchen, our wildlife biologist, taught us all a great deal about animals, and we loved it!
And then the sun started coming out – hooray!

Can’t miss an opportunity for headstands in The Valley of the Precipices!
And then the world opened up a bit, and the Gates of the Arctic could be seen in the distance – Ernie Creek was starting to look pretty darn floatable, but the walking was really great, so we continued on foot!
For those challenged to discern letters from humans, this is a GOA . . . Gate of Arctic πŸ™‚
It was so nice, we decided to go peak-bagging/ridge walking for the afternoon up and around Two Prong Mountain

An amazing view of where we’d come from . . . Ernie Creek below

Monday dawned rainy for our river day, so we had drysuits on before we even exited the tent! We packed up, with the intention of walking to Ernie Creek and putting in immediately. The creek looked pretty festive with boulders and branching, so we walked downstream before finally just taking the plunge and putting in. I somehow got elected to go first, so I sucked up the nervousness that I always get before entering my raft and downriver we went. Ernie Creek turned to be pretty darn fun when it was all said and done with. I’d compare it to Glacier Creek in Girdwood in terms of water level and river characteristic, but 2-3 times the distance. It kept us on our toes, but nothing came up that was more than Class II. No logjams or river obstructions either! We floated to the confluence with the Koyukuk, at which point the gradient lessened and the river widened, becoming a class I float . . . maybe too class I. At some point, paddling became necessary if we were to avoid being on the river until 4am . . . and even with consistent paddling we didn’t get off the river until 1am. It sorta became the equivalent of a slog as the rain/clouds persisted and we couldn’t really see the universe. Of course, the clouds present somewhat of a drama of their own, but we really did want to see the mountains. Oh well πŸ™‚ We exited the river freezing cold and tired and got the megamid up pretty quick in pursuit of dryness and warmth . . . our home did not disappoint. It never ceases to amaze me how comfortable one can be in the wilderness πŸ™‚ After a little Thai food, we were out . . . and ready for the next day’s adventure.

Heading toward the riverPart way down Ernie Creek – it was pretty fun paddling!
Just after the confluence with the Koyukuk, which we would float for a long time!
Yet another great opportunity for backcountry yoga mcnugget . . .
As you can see, the gradient and speed of the Koyukuk would not be characterized as large . . .

Tuesday dawned overcast as we prepared for a day of of overland travel crossing Delay Pass and then Glacier Pass in an effort to arrive in Wiseman . . . all I have to say is we covered some ground. It was probably only 12ish miles of direct straight-line travel, but that becomes a pretty decent undertaking with route optimization, pursuit of good travel surfaces (read: find the forest, avoid the tussocks!), and a 1:250 map to guide decisions πŸ™‚ The weather improved all day and we ended up in sunshine, and amazed yet again at the beauty of the place we were in. We were intially underwhelmed by re-entering treed terrain and being out of the high alpine, but were we ever wrong! The forest was actually super open and beautiful, interspersed with lakes and open tundra. Glacier River was incredible, and we chose to gain elevation from there and go up and along a ridge on Bluecloud Mountain. Chrissy and I have an admitted penchant for gaining elevation and we all love walking ridges, so the temptation was too much to pass up. We ended up high at about 8pm with some of the most amazing light I’ve ever seen. Again we were moved and humbled by the mountains and landscape. It was so much fun to be present to our graciousness for the experience we were having. What a feeling! From there, we descended, crossed the remainder of Glacier Pass, and found a great trail to the Nolan road . . . tired and uninspired by road walking, we opted to sleep for a few hours and hit Wiseman in the morning.

Leaving the shores of the Koyukukand heading overland . . .

Getting a bit higher on the ridge . . . gotta love the alpine!

A truly amazing moment of natural beauty and great friends!

We awoke at 6:30 on Wednesday and packed up quickly for our anticipated long road walk. Much to our surpise, it was only about an hour before we saw TAPS (the trans-Alaska pipeline) and knew we were close to the Dalton Highway. On our way into town, we met Bob (a ranger for the NPS in Gates of the Arctic and a year-round Wiseman resident) who offered the use of his cabin for coffee-making and phone calls! So, off we went to town, let ourselves in and made ourselves at home while Bob walked his dogs . . . you gotta love Alaskan hospitality! Wiseman was great and we immediately fell in love! The town was established in 1908 when gold was discovered. Today, it has about 15 full-time residents in 8-9 households (I can’t remember) and is super quaint. Everyone has solar panels and/or windmills as alternative energy is necessary, which was pretty cool to see. Bob’s cabin was awesome – the woodwork was amazing! With caffeine in the blood, full bellies, and some warmth (we slept COLD the night before!), Bob was kind enough to drive us to the Dalton Highway where we’d start our next adventure πŸ™‚ With amazing sunny skies, views of the mountains around, and the middle fork of the Koyukuk for added ambiance, the hitchhiking began. It took Chrissy and Gretchen about 15 minutes to get picked up by a trucker who ended up taking them all the way to Fairbanks, and it took me about another 20 minutes to get picked up by a UAF civil engineering professor and teacher from Pennsylvania who were headed to Prudhoe for an Arctic Ocean tour! We had a great drive chatting, taking in the scenery, photographing wildlife, and watching the landscape change. They even fed me lunch and snacks, which was amazing!!! I made it to work about an hour early and then headed to the PBOC for a much-anticipated shower and removal of dirty socks!

Just down the road from where we camped on the way to the Nolan Mine πŸ™‚ And then we were there!
I feel like this picture says it all . . . on Bob’s front lawn in Wiseman
Hitching south . . .
Hitching north . . .
The ride south πŸ™‚

I am so grateful for the trip we had and the way it worked out. Gretchen and Chrissy are both amazing women and made the trip so fun and interesting with their spirit, heart, and intellect. So many people helped us out and made the trip what it was – I am so appreciative of the generous nature of Alaskans and their willingness to help in unconventional ways! I also thought a ton of my friends and family on this trip and how much certain parts of it would have appealed to them, and realized how blessed I am with the people in my life! I am sorry to be so gushy, but I can’t help it . . . it’s all too great and I am so thankful!

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  1. Andy says:

    What a fantastic f’n trip! Nice work on the adventuring and the writing and the photo-ing! Always fun to read.

  2. Evan says:

    Man what a sweet TR! Great photos too. I visited AK for the first time this spring. Can’t wait to get waaay out in the Brooks next time. These packrafts are coming on big, seems like the way to go up there. I came over from backcoutnryblog. Cheers!

  3. totally fucking awesome!

  4. karen says:

    sounds like a fun trip, great pics

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