Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Pan-American Green Pea

Torsten and Dirk pose inside of their green home on wheels.

The Germans arrived on my doorstep a few days ago. They are headed 500 miles north of Fairbanks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay which are situated on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Prudhoe is the northernmost point accessible by road on the North American continent.

They crashed at my place for a few days before embarking on their transcontinental journey which will take them from Alaska to the southern tip of South America - Ushuaia, Argentina.

These adventurous German boys will be making this grand excursion through the boreal forests of Canada, the hot and dusty desert southwest, the steamy jungles of Central America, across the Panama Canal and equator, through the Atacama desert in Chile which is one of the driest regions on the planet, to the bottom of South America --- in a 1952 green VW Beetle!

Torsten and Dirk head north in the green 1952 VW Beetle which is appropriately named "Erbse" (meaning pea in english) to the start of their 35,000 km voyage. You can keep an eye on their progress and experiences along the Pan-American Hwy on there website: Torstens and Dirks wild ride.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Arctic Refuge Traverse...

A midnight rainbow illuminates the Brooks Range on summer solstice

We headed north of the arctic circle to the land of never ending sunlight for summer solstice. The vast wilderness which rests on the northern edge of the North American continent is an endless playground of absolutely spectacular scenery. We traversed about 50 miles across infinite tundra in the western portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Our trip began just east of Galbraith Lake where the Atigun River crosses the Haul Road - the only thread of highway on the continent leading all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. We traveled east through Atigun Gorge, crossed several drainage's including the Sag River and Accomplishment Creek, and eventually descended down to Elusive Lake in the Ribdon River valley. At this point we jumped into our packrafts and floated down the Ribdon to its confluence with Sag River - which is adjacent to the Haul Road.

Chris and Trevor leave the solid ground of the highway and head out into nearly 35 miles of soggy tundra, uneven tussocks, and three days of wet feet. We had to duck under the Alaska Pipeline prior to entering Atigun Gorge.

The tundra was blazing with all sorts of pink wildflowers.

We stayed high above the Atigun River where the tundra was a bit drier and walking was less taxing. We heard the river was big class III water through the gorge so we decided to hike this stretch instead.

Floating above the tundra - with the waterfall in the background.

This unusual waterfall shoots out of a hole in the craggy limestone high above the Atigun River. There some nice fossils embedded in the limestone scree around the falls.

Self portrait - Trevor and Ed.

After leaving the waterfall we hiked down to get a closer look at the river. The water looked pretty reasonable for packrafting in this stretch - but the canyon narrows just beyond this point and apparently gets much more challenging.

We were forced to ascend a steep ridge where the canyon narrowed and our path was pinched down to nothing between a nearly vertical slope and the river.

Sheep seeking refuge on a talus slope.

One of the many water crossings along our traverse. This one was quite easy...

Leaving Atigun Gorge we got our first views of the Sag River Valley and the mouth of the Atigun River. We slogged our way through the tundra down to the Sag River and eventually traversed across the mountains in the distance.

Fields of arctic cotton grass sway in unison in the light breeze.

The Sag River was quite deep so we inflated a packraft and shuttled the gear and ourselves across the water.

Yet another river crossing...

11 PM - reflections...

Remnant aufeis on Accomplishment Creek. 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.

The view of Elusive Lake and the Ribdon River valley.

Dramatic evening light and tightly folded strata.

Arctic life clings to a rocky ridge high above the Ribdon River.

Chilling out at our high camp in Elusive Pass. A continuous breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay and made for pleasant camping.

Descending a couple thousand feet down to Elusive Lake.

Levitating above the blue waters of Elusive Lake.

Sending a SPOT message. These cool little gadgets have become quite popular recently. With the press of a button an email is sent to family and friends which gives our coordinates and also shows our exact location in Google maps.

Jumping into our packrafts on the Ribdon River for the final leg of our trip - a pleasant 15 mile float back to the road.

Drifting down the Ribdon enjoying the unbelievable warm and dry weather.

Chris and I take a break along the Ribdon River.

Packrafts resting on the Ribdon River.

The upper Ribdon River was mostly fast class I. The lower reach was littered with some refrigerator size boulders and some class II rapids.

The final leg - walking the Haul Road a mile back to the car. Thanks to Dea and Ben for shuttling the subie 40 miles up the road for us.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Village in the Arctic

The log church in Arctic Village is situated in the shadow of the Brooks Range.

I traveled a couple hundred miles north of Fairbanks today to do some work in Arctic Village. This remote and isolated community lies north of the arctic circle along the southern boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The village is only accessible by small aircraft and everything must be flown in. The consequences of such isolation are very high prices -- gas was going for a spendy $9.50 per gallon.

Arriving back in the thriving metropolis of Fairbanks smack dab in the middle of interior Alaska.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Gillette Pass Traverse

Dan splashes through one of the many creeks on the way up to Gillette Pass in the Alaska Range

Dan, Sky and I spent the weekend exploring the eastern Alaska Range south of Tok. Neither one of us had ever done any hiking down in this area so we were eager to blaze a trail through this unfamiliar country. We were fortunate to see an abundance of wildlife including moose, bear, porcupine, caribou, and bald eagles.

Our 85 mile traverse took us up the the Tok and Dry Tok Rivers toward Gillette Pass. From the pass we descended into the Slana River drainage and eventually back to the highway where we ditched our bikes in the woods. The plan was to make a complete loop which included three modes of transportation: foot, packraft, and bike.

Walking along the gravel bars was great at times but involved hundreds of stream crossings which kept our feet soaked. The heavily silt laden glacial water was cold and continually filled our shoes with course debris which chewed away at our feet.

The riverbanks were generally brush free and provided easy walking - they were obviously corridors for animals of all sorts by the number of prints we stumbled across. Grizzly bear tracks of all sizes were abundant.

This couple lives in a remote location about 20 miles away from the highway. When the water in the river is low they can drive a monstrous army truck right up the riverbed to reach their home. In the winter they can snowmachine out to civilization. They told us we were the first hikers they had seen in several years and were excited to feed us coffee cake and tell us about the wolves they have adopted.

Orchids in Alaska - this is a delicate ladies slipper standing alone in the woods.

Dan and I were trying to travel relatively light so we didn't bring a traditional camping stove and accompanying bottle of fossil fuel. Instead we carried the wood burning "bush buddy" stove. It only takes a small pile of sticks and about 10 minutes patience to boil a liter of water.

We also decided to bring the ultralight tee pee shelter sans tent pole - instead we improvised and used one of our packrafting paddles to support the structure.

Gillette Pass is underlain by the Denali fault and was rocked hard during the November 2002 magnitude 7.9 earthquake. The area was scarred with numerous rock slides as the earthquake ripped gaping holes into the mountain sides. This red pile of rubble originated high up on the flanks of the precipice in the background.

A porcupine spreads its quills in self defense.

Dan spots a bear across the river valley foraging in the tundra.

Dan hikes up his shorts to cross the chilly Slana River.

The plan was to hike down the Slana River until it was deep enough to drop our packrafts in the water. Unfortunately the level was a bit low and the river was quite braided - so we continued to walk until we reached consistently deep water for floating.

After 60 miles of pounding our feet against the rocks we finally reach a point where the braids end and the river narrows into one deep channel. Dan quickly fills his raft so we can get in the river and effortlessly travel forward.

10 pm and we finally get to set sail and rest our feet.

Sailor Dan poses in front of his boat.

The relatively gently braided waters of the Slana River quickly transitioned into solid Class II rapids with occasional Class III waves and holes right after we dropped our boats into the silty water. We were completely drenched as waves broke over our heads and water washed through the gaps in our spray skirts. The river was a great rush...

The lower section of the Slana was much more mellow as the gradient decreased. Sky unwilling hitched a ride for a little while....she much preferred running along the riverbank and swimming.

As we went to retrieve the bikes from the woods I realized I left the key to the bike lock in the truck - dope! So we hiked several miles up the road like vagabonds to the nearest store and ended up getting a ride back to the truck.