Thursday, June 25, 2009

Kids on the Itkillik

Dwarf fireweed casts a midnight shadow along the Itkillik River

I looked back over my shoulder and they were still there. Completely lost in their thoughts and undoubtedly struggling to deal with the miserable situation. I began to seriously question my decision to bring two 15-year old kids on this trip. We had been stumbling across knee deep tussocks in the late afternoon heat fully draped in our armor of raingear for hours. The uneven surface made it nearly impossible to move in any direction. Each erratic and unstable step ended with a sharp roll of the ankle as we clumsily navigated through the maze of towering tufts of grass. But we had to keep progressing forward because the incessant humming of the mosquito filled atmosphere was maddening. The continuous ricochet of bugs against our bodies felt like a torrential shower of raindrops pelting our clothing. There was no choice but to move on to a place where the ground would firm up enough to allow us to setup camp and take refuge in our tent.

I knew better than to head to the Arctic this late in June but I thought we had a few more days of reprieve before the onset of bugs. We were a day too late. The season is short this far north and the tundra explodes with new life every hour during the start of the brief warm season and 24-hour sunshine. My nephew Mark and his friend Mara were up for the adventure and decided it was worth the gamble. So we spent summer solstice above the Arctic Circle in the shadow of spectacular folded limestone cliffs, fields of wildflowers, diving raptors, howling wolves, following the footprints of grizzly bears, and sacrificing ourselves to the hordes of blood thirsty mosquitoes.

Our traverse would take us over the crest of the Brooks Range to the Itkillik River valley. From there we would hop in our packrafts and drift northward before beelining our way back across the tundra to Galbraith Lake about 40 road miles north of our starting point. The entire trip consisted of roughly 50 miles of hiking and 25 miles of river travel.

Our last view of the Dalton Highway before we head into the wilderness. It would be another 5-days before we returned to this industrial artery that connects the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay to the rest of the world.

An uncountable river crossing...the classic image of almost any trip across Alaska where trails and bridges are almost non-existent.

Mark gazes into an eroded cavern in the remnant river ice. Extensive areas of aufeis are common in this region. These large sheets of ice can be several meters thick and persist well into the summer. Aufeis begins to form as the river freezes and the channel becomes constricted. The buildup of water pressure forces the river to flow out of the channel and spread across the adjacent flood plain throughout the winter. Ice sheets like this often serve as the only escape from the mosquitoes for thousands of caribou.

Crossing Oolah Pass - aka the continental divide.

Mara makes the descent into the Itkillik (or Oolah) Valley past giant walls of sedimentary rock that originated as the floor of a shallow tropical-like sea. There is evidence of this past environment in the fossilized corrals and shells that can be found littered in the piles of scree.

We tromped through a lot of grizzly bear scat but never saw the source of the bodily waste.

Vibrant arctic poppies brighten the landscape.

We eventually came to a point where the gradient of the Itkillik River mellowed enough for us to throw the boats in the river.

As we continued to move downriver and to a lower elevation we reached the "mosquito zone" --- our only escape was the heat from a fire fueled by dried willows.

The river was mostly class I/II water with occasional rocks and small wave trains to bounce through.

Mark paddles past a massively exposed ice wedge along a cutbank of the Itkillik River.

More frozen ground or permafrost features. A lens of ice heaves the tundra up into the warm summer air. Its hard to believe the ground is permanently frozen just below the green surface.

The uber-light and roomy tarptent sheltered us from mosquitoes, heavy rain, and moderately strong winds.

We make the final push out to Galbraith Lake and the Dalton Highway with our small insect friends in tow as another spectacular trip in the arctic comes to an end...


Anonymous said...

Awesome trip write-up Ed. And the mosquito video is absolutely crazy.


Phil said...

Really enjoy your pics and trips, more more more!!!