By Jörgen Johansson
|My camera broke when the pack tumbled, described in chapter IV, so all photos are of course taken before that and those shown here do not depict the actual area described in the text. Still, I have tried to choose photos that support the narrative.|
What greeted me was a giant expanse of a valley, wide and long, with the sun coming out after the shower. There were a number of rocky channels, but no water to be seen. It was easy walking, maybe the easiest of the whole trip. Dry, flat and with a modest cover of stunted grass and other unobtrusive plants I made good time, and had a good time. I even had a couple of nice breaks, dozing in the sun, before the wide valley made a 90 degree turn and then continued much like nothing had happened.
I knew this would repeat itself after another 3-4 kilometers, a 90 degree turn, to the left this time, would put me on a downstream track along the main Ribdon River. There I would remain for a couple of days. I had some sweet dreams of making camp early in the pleasant weather, putting my sleeping bag out to dry, but that was soon taken out of me.
Ten minutes later a harsh wind started blowing in my face, interspersed with the occasional drop of rain. This became my companion for the rest of the day and I needed my rain gear and gloves, not so much for the rain drops, as to stay warm.
The main Ribdon valley was strange. Walking was no longer easy, the ground being soggy, boggy and with a bit of tussocks every now and then for good measure. Strangely enough there was still no water, just a sort of boggy dampness. The wide river valley had numerous, huge graveled channels that were no doubt filled with water during the spring run-off. But now they were completely dry.
The slopes coming down off the impressive peaks on both sides were mostly green and damp-looking, but no creeks were visible. So this was what a dry river looked like. At times you could hear water running under the gravel in the ‘channels’, but finding a camp site with water seemed difficult.
Dirk had thankfully tipped me off about this, and that in order to find water you had to search where the soggy slopes met the gravelly valley floor. There was water coming down these slopes and it surfaced briefly at this interface. The southern side was too boggy and difficult to walk, but along the northern side of the wide valley I finally found a pool of semi-stagnant water that would do for supper and breakfast. This I christened Camp Dry and pitched my tent, rear against the wind, on dry ground with a sprinkling of low willows around it.
The following morning was a dull grey. Water-logged clouds shrouded the peaks on both sides of the valley,seemingly just waiting to let go of their load. I took my time this morning and also lightened my load a bit.
Calculations in the tent the night before had shown that five more days of hiking with my planned daily average of about 17 kilometers per day would take me to The Road. So far my mileage plan had worked very well. Summing it up afterwards the lowest mileage I had scored with a full days hiking (not counting the first day, resupply day or the last day) was 13 kilometers.
Not surprising this was the day when I had lost my pack down into the ravine. The highest mileage I had scored would turn out to be 24 kilometers. I had a total of 7 days with 20 klicks or more. This is all measured on the map in the field. Real life mileage is of course longer, with zigzagging, detours and ups and downs, but that does not matter to me. What I needed to know was how I was doing compared to the plan, which also was ‘map-mileage’, the rest is academic as far as I am concerned.
This is not particularly impressive mileage compared to what for instance Andrew Skurka had done in the same area, but I was not in the Brooks Range to impress anybody. I was on vacation. I was here to have a good time.
Most days I did not start hiking until 8-9 am and stopped around 7 pm. As long as I averaged about 17 kilometers per day I was satisfied. If I hiked for eight solid hours and averaged 2-3 kilometers per hour I knew that everything would work out fine as far as time, mileage and food was concerned.
Sitting by the Ribdon the evening before I did not know that my highest mileage day was yet to come. But I realized that I had too much food in my pack. For five days of hiking, bringing supplies for seven days ought to be safety margin enough. So this slate-grey morning I dumped all excess food with the exception of the freeze dried main courses, the flavoured mashed potato mixtures and all the chocolate bars. Dumping meant that I cut open all packages and spread out all organic material on the ground, putting the empty packages back in my pack.
My guess was that this dumped food amounted to about three kilos. The lightening of my pack was quite noticeable and pleasant. I probably carried about 15 kilos now.
The weather was increasingly chilly and this past night I had slept in my puffy layer for the first time, the synthetic hoodie from As Tucas, for added warmth. The day was cold as well, about 5C, and the expected rain did materialize. It turned out to be a cold, wet day.
The first couple of hours was easy cruising on shelf-like formations along the north side of the valley. After a while some water began to materialize in the river bed. The dry river was obviously now behind me. I took lunch under my Trailstar, protected from the rain.
As usual it was nice to get under a roof, lay down, take of the rain gear and put on dry fleece long-johns and the warm puffy layer hoodie. I even dozed off for a while after eating a double portion of Cuban Rice with Coconut Oil. This brief snooze was perhaps not such a good move, I woke decidedly chilly and circumstances were not ideal for regaining body heat.
As had had happened before while hiking in persistent rain, the waist belt of the pack seemed to press water through both rain jacket and rain pants. The thin Patagonia Houdini running pants, that were perfect for hiking and dried in instants after each ford, got wet and my Icebreaker merino shorts as well.
Getting your groin soaked is not the ideal way to maintain body core temperature, since there are some huge blood vessels running the inside of the thighs straight up to the heart and lung cavity. My feet kept reasonably warm though, thanks to the neoprene socks I was wearing. They were beginning to show that they had been up the hill and over the mountain, but so far the duct tape kept them in working order.
My hands were another matter. I was wearing thin fleece gloves, but had managed to lose my homemade Cuben fiber mitts somewhere along the way. Most likely through the unforgivable sin, commited in spite of thorough indoctrination during my army days, of not zipping up the rain smock pocket where the mitts normally resided. Around 3 pm I stopped for some water and snacks and dug out a couple of gallon plastic zipper bags from my trash that served as over-mitts for the remainder of the hike. Little did I know that they would see a lot of use.
On my torso I was wearing my usual Icebreaker Kent short-sleeved merino shirt and a thin micro fleece smock from Peak Performance. In this kind of weather fleece is difficult to beat. Still, as the afternoon wore on it became more and more difficult to stay warm. There was every reason to make this a short day and I had decided to put up my camp around 5 pm, when I had planned to take a slightly delayed daily coffee break anyway.
But circumstances wanted something different, around 4 pm my makeshift repair of the pack waist belt disintegrated. A good excuse to call it a day. I hiked back a couple of hundred meters, to where I had seen some nice flat spots amid the low willows, almost in the middle of the wide Ribden valley.
There is not much that beats crawling into your protective cocoon of a tent after a day like that. Knowing that in a short while you will have dry clothes next to your skin and be nice and snug in your sleeping bag, while food is on the stove. This is why I am adamant about keeping my sleeping bag and extra clothing dry at all costs.
There are lighter drybags for this kind of gear than the ones that I am using. However, I really do want these drybags to keep things dry even after a couple of weeks or months rubbing against this and that in my pack. So I frequently check my dry bags for leakage by filling them with water and letting them hang for a while in my bathroom. Small holes I patch, if things look worse I buy new bags,which happens every 2-3 years or so.
The wire I had used to mend my waist belt back at Camp Supply on the Marsh Fork had not been a very good solution, it turned out. This time I settled for something simpler; I sewed the remaining buckle in place with dental floss and backed it up with a couple of sturdy safety pins.
The following day showed how some sunshine in the morning can do wonders for your mood after a soaking, cold day. Another late start morning, I got going around 9 am. Feels like I am getting lazier, but then I have no particular urge to end this hike. Things are under control, and I am, after all, on vacation.
It turned out I had overestimated the circumference of my hips and belly when mending the waist belt the night before. I could not cinch it tight enough. So I stopped hiking after about an hour and spread all my damp gear out to dry in the sun. Then I cut the dental floss, shortened the ends of the belt a bit and left the two sturdy safety pins to do the job. The safety pins worked very well on their own until the end of the hike. I thought I would put in some stitches in the evening but it was never needed.
Part of this day was easy hiking with big gravel bars along the growing river. I was now getting close to Elusive Lake, above which were two supposedly easy passes towards the Sagavanirtok River. I decided to ford all the arms of the Ribdon and stay on the south side of it at this point. It was probably a good move, but leaving the river and going cross country towards Elusive Lake, the going got a lot tougher.
I was back in tussock country, with some small lakes and hordes of mosquitos. At times, when there was a wind, I could hike without a head net under the sky that had turned slate grey. But then, the wind would die down and in one second, approximately 74 million of these insects would be swirling around my face.
The going towards the one pass I had selected was tough. A couple of creeks with dense willows and steep, but not very deep ravines, proved to be very entangling to put it nicely. And I was also going uphill, into an increasing steepness. It was now fairly late in the day, but I had determined that I would mount the pass and camp in the high country beyond.
The pass was not quite steep enough to feel dangerous, with mostly good footing on grass and rocks. But it was steep enough to really get my wind up and as usual in situations like this, seemed to go on forever. Around 7 pm I topped out and looked back at the Ribdon Valley and Elusive Lake for the last time.
The view was harsh, it was getting decidedly darker and the wind was rapidly chilling my sweaty body. I did not linger. I was at about 1000 meters above sea level, the ground was soggy but fairly easy to walk. My number one priority now was to find a place to camp. I hiked on and pretty soon water in the shape of a small creek started keeping me company. The problem was finding a big enough flat spot for my tent.
I saw one that was decent but passed it up; something better was likely to materialize. I kept on hiking, going slightly downhill in the grey evening, with rain threatening. No flat spots. I was really tired now, this day turned out to be my longest on the entire trip, 24 kilometers. And I recognized the signs of, paradoxically, being too tired to stop. This can happen when you are not hydrated, well fed or just beat and something to watch. You just keep stumbling on. The next semi-likely spot I would have to take.
So I did, and it was definitely high time to stop. It had started to rain as I pitched my tent. The wind was increasing as well. I doubled up with spare pegs on the windy side and a low pitch of the Trailstar entrance that had me crawling on my belly to get inside. While changing into dry clothes the rain-storm hit, more or less like the one on the first night by Joe Creek.
The worst wind bursts and torrents of rain lasted only for about half an hour, and during the gusts I lay on my back and brazed my feet against the wind side of the tent, to take some of the strain off the fabric and the pegs. After some 15-20 minutes everything settled down to more normal winds and rain.
I was pretty tired but also pretty satisfied with the way my body had delivered what I asked of it. It had been a long day, and the last part of it had been strenuous. And since I have not really been a spring chicken for a long time, it felt good to know that there was still some kick-ass left somewhere.
It was a cold night and I slept poorly. Around 4 am I made myself a cup of hot chocolate, which kept me warm for another hour or so. In the morning i found that the cold night had not only kept me on the chilly side but also turned the falling rain into snow.
There was not much white on the ground right where my tent was, but quite a bit on the mountains around. To put it bluntly, it was not one of those days when I looked forward to taking my regular morning crap.
Every hiker has to keep the digestive system running, but you seldom read about it, so I’ll put in a few words here. I have had the doubtful pleasure of dumping my load in most kinds of weather, down to forty below, and it works out pretty well. Never as bad as you imagine. Of course, you do not exactly linger.
A couple of quick muscular contractions is what you aim at. They probably help keeping body heat for the brief period of time that you have your rear end exposed to the elements even when it is really cold. One thing to be said for this morning was that there was a pleasant lack of mosquitoes around my butt.
Rolling up the soaked tent with numb fingers I tried to be as quick as possible, now that everything else was packed and I knew that I would be warm and comfortable if I just could put some five minutes of vigorous hiking behind me, even if I was shivering a bit right now.
My camp had been more or less where the snow gave in to rain and I made my way through the soggy tussocks and sparse undergrowth. I was travelling downhill and hoping that things would be a bit more pleasant at lower elevations. My hopes were not high though, I had a feeling this weather would stay with me for a while.
The terrain was pretty tussocky down towards Accomplishment Creek. Maybe it was a sign of civilization creeping in that not only major rivers had names here. As the crow flies I was now about 40 kilometers from The Road close to Galbraith Lake, which was my goal.
I followed Accomplisment Creek for about an hour. My plan was to go around a low, rounded ridge and follow Section Creek and other, smaller creeks upstream, before descending towards the Sagavanirtok River (a k a the Sag).
I do not know if crossing the the low ridge would have been a better option than going around it and I never will know, because I stuck with my plan. The temperature was 4C and it rained off and on, with the occasional sleet mixed into it for good measure. It was difficult to keep hands and feet warm enough.
I used the plastic bags on top of my fleece gloves, which helped to keep them only semi-wet. Starting out in the morning I had used my Helly-Hansen pile socks and Rocky Goretex socks, but switched to neoprene socks when my body engine had reached working temperature.
I had lunch on a soggy slope where the pitch of my tent among the tussocks by necessity was poor, but it kept wind and rain off my back. Sitting there I decided it would be, another, good opportunity to take a short day and camp as soon as I had knocked off my daily 16-17 K. To get into my tent and try to dry out some gear, particularly my sleeping bag.
Rounding the tussocky end of the low ridge after lunch, I reached Section Creek and sat down for a snack and some water. Nice relief I hoped, following creeks and rivers usually presented easier walking than the surrounding areas. However, this creek did not much resemble the wide, gravelly waterways with mostly calf deep water that I had waded hundreds of times for the last three weeks.
This one was more like the creeks back home in the Swedish mountains. The rain had filled the steep, un-braided channel and the water was running across big boulders, mostly submerged, but often churned into a white grin that did not strike me as friendly. My side of the creek up stream was blocked by a steep, sizable hill with a sheer drop into the the rain-swollen channel, so I had to get across to the other side on order to continue.
I made a first attempt to ford, bracing myself against the rush of the water, but had to turn back when I felt that the main channel in the middle would be waist deep. I did not know if I could keep my footing in that deep water running at this speed. I then gave the steep hill on my present side of the creek a try, climbing a bit on the steep grassy slope to see if I could pass, but retreated quickly. I did could not see what was around the bend in the hill that the creek curved around, but what was on this side was scary enough. No more steep slopes where I gradually boxed my self in, thank you.
I went downstream some hundred meters, which was about the span I had to work with, further down things got a lot worse with almost continuous white water and a rock face on the other side of the creek. There I managed to find a spot where I could ford comparatively easy. Well, comparatively, it was an 80-90 per center, the toughest crossing so far in the Brooks.
Following the creek was not that easy, but better than the tussock fields of this morning. I reached my ‘turn-off’ lake where I hitched on to a smaller creek flowing into it. This brook would be my companion for quite a while, leading me to a low pass in the rounded mountains, from where I would descend to a sizable but nameless tributary of the Sag River.
This new creek was not that easy to follow, no sand or gravel strips down by the water thanks to the rain, with tussocks and low shrubs on the elevated shorelinem but I kept going for a couple of hours. However, when I reached a sort of dry and flat piece of ground that the creek had curled around, I decided to put up my camp for the night.
It was the first likely spot I had seen in quite a while, it reminded me a bit of Camp Oasis but was considerably smaller. And I also had hiked 17 kilometers since morning, so things were under control. After having pitched the tent I had my coffee outside. It was cold, but not raining and I felt that I had taken too many meals inside the tent lately, due to inclement weather.
After a number of soggy days I usually take every opportunity to spread my soggy gear. I heated some water and poured it into my soft Platypus water bottle, which I then put inside my damp sleeping bag to dry it out.
This was of course begging for the rain to start again, which it did. So I moved all my gear into the Trailstar, put my dry sleeping clothes on and crawled into the sleeping bag, bringing the hot water bottle with me. During the evening I did my best to dry things out, replenishing the cooling water in the bottle with warm a number of times.
I had a hunch it would be a cold night, even colder for me since my sleeping bag still was dampish after a number of days with wet weather and also being kinda old and never had a wash. And yeah, I am still talking about the sleeping bag…
So I put on all my clothing excluding rain gear, put water and stove in readiness and turned in. Around 3 am I woke, being chilled. I sat up in my sleeping bag, switched on the stove and brought half a liter to the boil, or almost. This I poured into half a litre of cold water in my 2 liter soft Platypus and, presto, a nice hot water bottle that did not scald me.
In spite of bringing this comforter into my sleeping bag I did not fall asleep and at 4.30 am the water bottle was no longer hot. It was also snowing outside and the tent fabric was sagging a bit, so I pushed most of it off and heated another water bottle. This time I fell asleep and woke around 7 pm.
It was still snowing and some 8-10 centimeters of this was covering the ground outside. I gave the outer tent another push to decrease the slight sag and considered my options, now being warm and snug in my sleeping bag.
This might be an excellent day to wait in the tent. The snow was driven by a brisk wind that did not entice me. But even if loafing in the tent might be a comfortable option I did not think it was a wise one. The Sag River was known for rising quickly in wet weather and some people had drowned in it.
These incidents might ber more be because this river was more easily available from The Road and had a higher frequency of would-be-waders than some of the more distant rivers I had come across. Still, this was July 25 and when this weather passed there would be a shit-load of snow in the surrounding mountains that would melt and find its way into the Sag.
I deemed it prudent to be across the Sag before that happened. Looking at the map in my GPS I could see what lay ahead. Some 8-10 kilometers of following the creek beside me and some other streams to a low pass that would take me down to a lower altitude along a big tributary of the Sag.
There was likely to be less snow once I got down there. But getting there would entail plodding through the tussocks and shrubbery, now partially covered by the steadily falling, wind-pushed snow. Not a picnic, really.
The difference between doing this and sitting on top of a rocky slope with my teeth chattering with fear, however, was huge. Now I was in my backyard. I had done my share of hiking in snow in wet and miserable weather before and knew I could do it again. It was just a slightly different version of ‘tussock mode’.
I would not be able to keep much speed hiking through this, but I was fairly confident that I could average around 2 kilometers per hour, which would have me down at the big creek around 2 pm or so. I was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and try to keep reasonably warm and dry. With the GPS the route finding should be no problem.
The snow kept piling up as I made my way along the creek, then shifted to following another and then another on my gradual way to the high point, which was my pass. The higher I got the less soggy it got. The snow was now about 20-25 centimeters thick on the ground, but my pile and Goretex socks kept my feet comfortably warm and dry in my worn mesh Salomon shoes.
I stopped once every hour as usual, sat down on my pack with my back to the wind and had a cup of water and some chocolate, raisins and nuts. In situations like this I find that keeping to my routines is a great help. It help you to feel that your world has some structure, that you are in control, something that is increasingly important when visibility is reduced.
Adding calories and water to your body also is important. I knew I could keep this pace for a long, long time if I had to. Fortunately everything went according to plan. I was down by the big creek in the early afternoon and pitched my tent in what had now turned into rain with some marginal white slush on the ground.
It was pretty nice to have a roof over my head and knowing I had the worst part of the hike towards the Sag behind me. I had my usual lunch and then decided to cut straight across the reasonably flat area between here and the Sag River. I now felt pretty confident that I would reach the Sag in a couple of hours.
But I also knew that the Sag was a different river from what I had been used to so far. I had been told that this river was not braided where I was going, but ran in one single channel. Knowing that I would encounter the Sag if I headed more or less due west I simply let the terrain decide my route and did not keep a sharp watch on exactly where I was going. This would turn out to be sort of a mistake, but also a blessing.
The rain had stopped as I topped out on a rise to the left of a low hill and saw the Sag River a bit below. It was running through a wide, mostly flat valley that softly undulated towards cloud-shrouded rock walls to the west and the south. The river was some 20-30 meters wide and looked pretty deep, but running inexorably but peacefully.
I sat down on this side of the Sag and had some coffee. The sun was peeking through the clouds and the clouds were slipping away from the jagged peaks rising from the flat expanse reaching out from the other shore. Right below where I was sitting a tributary entered the Sag from the west.
Fording the Sag above the confluence with the tributary, before it added its muscle to the river was of course a given. There was a sand bar in the water on this side, slightly upstream from where I was sitting and after coffee I left my gear and went to check it out.
The sandbar petered out downstream and when you see something like that you can usually rely on silt deposit continuing beneath the surface of the stream, its shape and lenght determined by the how the river ran.
True enough, I could follow this sandbar, angling under water towards the middle of the river, the water of course getting progressively deeper for each step. Standing in the middle of the sluggishly moving stream with water up to mid-thigh I figured fording here was doable. I should be able to walk and not need to swim.
So I went back to my pack, stripped down completely and put all my clothing into the drybag in my pack. Then I donned my rain pants and rain smock, neoprene socks and shoes and ventured out into the water with my backpack on and my walking poles as under-water antennaes.
I wore the pack loosely, only using the shoulder straps, in order to be able to wrench it off easily, should this be necessary. However, entering the water I was bit too fired up and enthusiastic and did not enter from the petering sandbar, but more or less straight into the water from where I had ben having my coffee.
I thought this would be a shortcut to the under-water sandbar I had used during my reconnaissance, but I had underestimated the depth of the water close the shore and more or less immediately found myself in cold, waist deep water. The bottom of the river was also not sand here but more like mud, sucking at my feet and making each step a bit wobbly. Feeling my way through this, on my way to the sandbar I knew to be beneath the surface halfway to the next shore, I felt myself getting colder by the second.
I do not know the temperature of the water, but I doubt it was above 10C. A temperature like that means you do not have very much time before becoming hypothermic if submerged. Maybe 5-10 minutes, depending on how much of your body is above water. I was not totally submerged, but enough, right now I could feel a rapidly increasing pain in my family jewels.
If not for the water I suspected I would have heard them tinkling, feeling brittle and just as hard as real jewels. So I hastily made my way upstream towards the sandbar, where I should have started this ford in the first place. After a couple minutes recuperation with my mid section above the water I did follow the sandbar this time, as it plunged underneath the muddy flow of the chill water, towards the middle of the river.
The water unexpectedly rapidly got deeper after I had passed the spot where I had turned during my recon. Pretty soon I was up to my chest in the middle of the Sag, my feet scrambling and searching for slightly higher spots on the river floor. With the buoyancy of the pack I could at times feel one of my feet sometimes loosing traction, floundering in the stream. But I got through the main channel and pretty soon the water got shallower and I was on the west side of the Sagavanirtok River.
With cold hands I ripped off my raingear and put on my dry long johns and my Climashield hoody. I then walked rapidly and jogged a bit along the tributary that would have to be my next ford in order to be able to proceed down the Sag to the confluence with the Atigun River. While regaining body temperature, which usually happens very quickly once you are out of the water, I could see that the tributary I was walking along was braided into two major channels.
I was also obvious from the way they both were running high, ripping at the stunted willows along the shore, that they were swollen with rain an melted snow. These two arms were not as deep as the Sag, but the water was running at considerably higher speeds, the brute force of it all very intimidating.
Walking for a couple of hundred meters I did not see any spot where I would dream of putting my foot in, much less try my luck at wading. I had slipped across the Sag with a bit of luck, I felt that I should not rely on more of that utilitily this particular day. In retrospect I now realised that I should have taken the safe, big river way of crossing the Sag, meaning I should have swum across it with my hands holding the pack in front of me.
For these tributaries this was not really a choice, considering the speed of the water. I walked back to my pack, the sun was now gaining in confidence, but the air was chilly and there was a bit of wind. Standing by my pack right at the confluence, I studied the wide mouth of the tributary running across a sort of threshold into the Sag.
Often you will find a doable ford where a creek runs into a lake. And not exactly where it enters into the lake, but a bit into what you would consider the lake itself. This is perhaps counterintuitive but pretty logical. A creek with moving water usually carries silt of varying coarseness, and when it enters the lake the rushing stream meets with a comparatively immovable object; the lake. The creek water slows down abruptly and the silt it carries will sink and settle on the lake floor.
So depending on the size and depth of both lake and creek you might find a crescent of silt deposited some 5-20 meters from the mouth of the creek, out in the lake itself. This silt deposit, not necessarily a perfectly shaped crescent, will sometimes let you ford quite easily. The same thing goes for confluences between streams. Depending on the speed and depth of the two waterways this might not always create something useful for a hiker, but looking at the Sag I thought this might be the case here.
The tributary got considerably wider and shallower right before joining the Sag. But it also was running pretty fast for some 10-20 meters at this point, with lots of white water over gravel and small rocks. The gravel indicated that smaller and lighter material had passed on into the Sag and that the water right below this threshold might not be as deep under the muddy surface as one might think. At this point the water was also running at a lesser speed there than further up the tributary, confirmed by my recent walk in that direction.
So I switched back into being naked under my wet rain gear, took a steadier grip than usual on my hiking poles and went in. It turned out that I been correct in my assumptions. Pretty good footing and the water not that deep. The tributary was still coming at me at a respectable speed and it did not take long before I was realized that this ford was beyond the 80-percenters I had earlier encountered. That is fords that taxed my subjetive opinion of my own total fording capacity to 80 percent.
I was hunched in mid confluence, in a wide stance, like a four-legged spider under my pack, moving only one of my supports, feet or poles, at one time. The poles vibrated intensely as I made my way across the wide mouth of the tributary. It was wider than the Sag ford I had recently done and the last five meters were the worst. The melt-water came pouring around the silty corner of dry land and into the Sag at a high speed, and it had carved a thigh deep channel next to the shore.
Water is heavy and high speed gives it immense power so thigh deep fords in fast moving water is no fun at all, in fact it has proven lethal many times. I could, for some gut-wrenching instances, feel my feet almost being pushed and lifted off the gravelly creek bottom, with visions of myself hanging from my hiking poles for a blinding instant. Then I was across.
I was truly grateful. Now the snow in this corner of Alaska could melt all it wanted, I was across the biggest obstacle in time. It was nearly 7 pm and clearing up and I told myself: Let’s call it a day, boy. I was not hard to convince.
Getting into my dry clothes again, I swept the area with my eyes and then went downstream for about 50 meters before I found a nice flat area protected from access of high winds by low willows. The spot was kind of silty and my gear would get a bit dirty, but that was OK. This was Camp Sag.
After pitching my tent I sat outside cooking. The mosquitoes were back, but not in force. I guessed that they had taken a beating in the last days of snow and low temperatures. Checking my GPS for the first time in several hours I realized that I should have done this more regularly.
The tributary I had felt that I needed to cross in order to continue downstream to the Atigun River was in fact the Atigun River itself The same river that I was going to follow west for approximately another day and a half to The Road. This was more evident now that the clouds along the rockwalls had risen and I could see a gate opening up, from whence the recently forded tributary of the Sag came. This gate would be the entrance to the Atigun Gorge.
So I had not really needed to do that last ford. I could have followed the Atigun upstream on the other side. Well, shit happens I thought. Especially when you get sloppy with your route finding. It had happened a couple of times during this trek and I did not seem to learn. Incidentally, this unnecessary crossing later turned out to be a blessing, but that I did not know then.
What I did know, sitting by the softly swirling Sag that evening, waiting for my noodles to mellow, was that it was a blessing to sit here, seeing the magnificent, white-topped peaks glittering in the sun all around this great, wide expanse of a valley. It was truly a grand place to be at and grand to be alive.
The sun was still shining on the impressive, snow covered wall of jagged peaks to the south and the west the following morning. The night had been frosty cold, and also damp this near the river, and the hot water bottle technique a blessing. It had taken two of them to see me through until dawn.
My obvious goal this sunny, autumnish morning was the gate in the mountains to the west, where the Atigun River entered the flat expanse, running down towards the Sag. Atigun Gorge, running due west through the mountains and out to The Road. Looking at the map it seemed pretty likely that I could reach The Road if I pushed it a bit this day, it was only about 20 kilometers on the map.
But I saw no reason for doing this, quite the contrary. My plan when reaching the road was simply to stick my thumb out and hope for a ride down to Coldfoot, where I would pick up my civilian clothes and some other stuff left with Dirk and Danielle of Coyote Air. It seemed more likely, or at least more pleasant, that I would get a ride if I reached The Road fairly early in the day, instead of late in the night.
Camping by the side of The Road also held no temptation whatsoever. I thought that camping some 4-5 kilometers, or a couple of hours walk, from The Road would be the optimal way of spending my last night in the Brooks Range. So with that thought in mind I set off across the spots of slush on the tussocks and wetlands towards the gateway to the Atigun Gorge.
The sun was shining, but there was no summer to be felt in the temperature, nor in the brisk wind blowing from the northern tundra and the Artic Ocean beyond. There was not much snow left on the ground, but what there was was melting. I started out in my mesh shoes and thin nylon socks and my feet got numb pretty fast.
There are few things that sucks the heat from your feet more efficiently than wet snow landing on your shoes for every step, clinging and changing phase from semi-solid to liquid. At my first hourly break, I took off the thin socks and was back into the worst case solution, the pile socks with Goretex socks on top that had worked so well yesterday. After that I regained some feeling in my numb toes.
It was a good day for hiking and, as long as I took care to find some lee from the wind during my breaks, it was nice sitting in the sun. Pretty soon I reached the gate into Atigun Gorge and left the wetlands behind. The Atigun River was running strongly and it was now I realized that I had been lucky when fording it to the northern shore, albeit by mistake.
As usual flatter areas where hiking was easy were mixed with steep inclines running straight down into the river. The river itself was running pretty full and did not offer any dry stretches of river bottom with comfortable flat gravel bar walking. But looking at the southern shore I saw many places that simply were not negotiable at all, along the river and that would have forced me over or behind sizable hills and, probably, up steep slopes that these days held a very limitied attraction for me.
The northern shore that I was walking was doable, but in places I had to step on rocks beneath the water in order to bypass a sheer rockface, with the river running fast and deep close to those rocks. On some occasions, where water was deep without rocks I had to boulder my way short distances along rock walls with meager, but reasonably safe, hand- and footholds.
In the afternoon I had coffee while watching a steep hill rising in front of me, that I would have to climb, since following the river seemed quite impossible for the next 5-6 kilometers. Sheer rockfaces and deep gorges from creeks entering the Atigun forced a major deviation of my route away from the river itself.
The steep hill sucked at my lungs when I trampled my way up and from the top of it I could see another long, but less steep, incline waiting. From the map I judged that from then on I should be on a sort of high, wide and reasonably flat shelf stretching for quite a distance, high above the river bottom.
The shelf turned out to be fair walking, an occasional shower did not matter much. The view was just spectacular. On the other side of the river a wall of high and fairly uniform peaks rose. There was four or five of them, evenly spaced and with similar size and steepness. They were separated by gullies where water was running down into the Atigun. The coloring of this whole expance, enhanced by the sunlight, was a multitudes of deep greens rising from the river, that turned into numerous shades of brown further up the steep slope.
These hues of brown subtly melted into a forbidding black rock-face that strived upwards, only to climax in the brilliant white of the newly fallen snow towards the peaks. It was almost painful not to have a camera to freeze this moment in time, to be able to bring it with me, to be able to revisit a glorious experience and also to share it with others.
The only thing I could do was to photograph it with my eyes. To try to draw every hue and facet of this stunning view into my mind, for safe keeping and hope it would be there whenever I felt the need to revisit. There might be a more profound lesson here. Perhaps digitalized memories are not all we are supposed to be.
Having rounded the huge mound by the river and the adjoining ravines I descended from my high shelf towards the valley floor again. This was easily done down some gentle shale slopes where I could followed the well-trodden paths of Dall sheep. A pity that I had not seen any of these interesting animals along my route, but they had probably been there. It was just that I had been to occupied with making my way and had not looked in the right places.
It was the last evening of my Brooks Range vacation and I was now well placed for a couple of hours walk the next day, before hitting The Road. As the crow flies it was 3,5 kilometers from here, that would likely entail about 5 kilometers of hiking. On a silty and sandy beach, that stretched for about 100 meters along the river and was some 10-20 meters wide, I pitched my Trailstar for the last time. There were low willows in bunches on the sandbar, some cradling other, dislodged, willows that had come sweeping with the river at high water and got stuck here.
I stepped away from the sand and sat down in the low growth on the shore, cooking my noodles and sausages as usual at the end of the day. It was a cool, clear evening with a chilly wind coming down the river. Low, yellow grass and shrubbery across the water slowly accelerated into a steep incline towards a white-tipped peak.
After supper the chill of the evening made me light a fire for the first time on my trek, down on the sand, just a couple of meters from the river that had shrunk a lot since morning. I found fuel for my fire going up and down the sandbar and picking the dead willows from the embrasure of the living. In the sand I saw quite a few wolf tracks, seemingly rather fresh since the snow and rain during the last couple of days probably would have blunted their contours otherwise.
It felt like the perfect last night in the wilderness; sitting by my fire, the Atigun River and the peaks before me, wolf tracks behind me. Tomorrow I would be back in the man-made world after this brief escape. Or was this hike across the ANWR really an escape? Perhaps it was the life in the rustling and bustling man-made world that really was an escape. An escape from life. An escape from true life. I did not have the answers. But I had a feeling that hikes like this one were a fertile soil for producing good questions.
The night was cold, with frost that demanded some hot water bottles, but the morning came with sunlight. There was a lovely scarcity of mosquitoes for a change and I did as I sometimes do in nice weather. I simply removed the roof over my head, the outer tent and then crawled back into my sleeping bag, cooking and eating my breakfast with the walls of the bug tent down, warm and comfortable in the morning chill.
I took my time and enjoyed this perfect spot, but finally everything was packed and I made my way up the sandbar. I could see my own tracks from last night, where I had walked around collecting firewood. On top of one of my footprints there was a wolf track.
The walk along the river in the sunny morning light was nice, but not without its challenges. There were number of these sizable hills with rock faces hurtling into the river. The hills were not high and would have been fairly easy to climb and circumvent, but I gave the rock faces a try, balancing on rocks more or less above water.
One of these precipices had a crux, where I had to ease my way around a blunt corner with minimal hand- and footholds. Falling into the water running right below me would have been extremely unpleasant, though likely not that dangerous, the river was a lot smaller now. But all went well and after a couple of hours I could see the Trans-Alaska pipeline glistening in the distance.
I passed under the aluminum and steel structure through which oil from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in southern Alaska, has been pumped since the mid 1970’s. I was a landed immigrant in Canada when the building started and almost went up to Alaska to get a construction job on the pipeline. There was a couple of maintenance pickups parked on the gravel by the pipeline, but nobody to be seen and I walked past the trucks and stepped out on The Road at 11.21 am.