Tuesday, August 23, 2011

the rules of the boat

(photo by Nick Adams)

1. The boat is not a democracy.
2. Never let go of the boat.
3. Always disembark upstream.
4. Aim for the V.
5. Hold onto your paddle.
6. Engage both short and long range sensors.
7. A canoe needs water to float in. Not much. But some.
8. Standing waves can be fun.
9. Barking orders is acceptable. In an emergency, politeness is a waste of time.
10. The boat is not a democracy. (It bears repeating.)

Those of you who know me are well aware that I'm not someone who naturally follows orders. I ask why, I countermand, I suggest alternatives. But not in the canoe. When you have someone as skilled as Michael in the stern, it's a joy to let him take charge.

I'd paddled on NH lakes in my YMCA camp childhood and on the Delaware as an adult, but neither of these required acute judgment or fast decision making. The John River was an education.

On the John there was no time for shilly-shallying. We'd hear the riffle of shallow water and have only seconds to decide if the water was deep enough to float our boat. (Amazingly, we only ran aground once during the week.) A canoe requires surprisingly little water to float; 6 inches was plenty with our load.

Were those standing waves the result of high water volume (in which case, they'd provide a fast, fun ride) or did they signal an underwater rock or log (in which case, no fun at all)? Would the fast current take us too close to the sweepers on the far bank? ("Paddle like you've never paddled before!")

(photo by Nick Adams)

Don't agonize. Remember the rules, make the best choice you can, and commit to your decision. With any luck your reward will be a beedi on the beach and a welcoming camp fire.

(photos by Nick Adams)

Monday, August 15, 2011

on the river

We expected our boats to arrive Sunday morning but didn't hear the plane approach until after 1 pm. We trekked back to the drop site from camp to unload the aircraft, then began portaging to the river. Jim & Rita and Michael & I had rented canoes in Bettles, but we'd brought Bob's raft from Anchorage in a trailer. It was clear that after the portage, inflating and assembling the raft, and packing the boats it would be too late to put in to the river that day.

After a brief flash of disappointment, we decided to kick back and enjoy the leisure time. It was a beautiful camp site, we had plenty of food, good booze, and a roaring fire. Plus Bob had brought a few luxury items and it felt downright indulgent to sit around the fire in a folding chair.

photo by Nick Adams

Monday morning dawned clear, sunny, and mosquito-free. The put in was some of the fastest water we'd encounter on the whole trip; 50 feet after ass-in-seat time we hit the confluence of the John and the Hunt Fork. Michael was an accomplished cano-er in his youth (lo, these many years) and apparently paddling a canoe is like riding a bike. Our companions probably took us for city slickers who would panic in fast water. Ha! I don't have Michael's skills in the stern but I paddle a strong bow and the boat is one place where I'm happy to take direction from an expert.

The John is a snow melt river; its water is clear, unlike the silty water of a glacial river. It twists and turns, curving around on itself,

photo by Nick Adams

splitting into channels, detouring around islands, then coming together again. Each split presented a new choice: shallow or deep? fast or slow? Aim for the V, call out the rocks and snags (underwater logs), and avoid the sweepers (fallen trees that lie across the river's surface).

photo by Rita Bates

We made camp that night in view of Gunsight Mountain: a stunning gravel bar replete with rose hips and red currents.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

above the Arctic Circle

Jim warned us that once we were in Fairbanks we were on Bush Time, which meant put away the watches. A challenge for yours truly, but one I was determined to meet. We arrived for our 10 am flight to be told that Bettles (the town we were flying to) was socked in and we'd be delayed until the weather cleared. "Bush Time," I told myself.

We unloaded and weighed our considerable pile of luggage and settled in to wait. An hour passed. Michael and I took a walk outside the terminal and I harvested a cup of berries. These plants were Alaska-tough, pushing right up through the tarmac. Tasty, too.

Our plane arrived after noon. There was just enough room for the 6 of us and half of our gear. A second flight would bring the rest of the luggage later that afternoon. There's no road to Bettles except in winter when an ice road goes through town; all summer transportation in and out of town is by plane. Our flight followed the pipeline north and after just over an hour we arrived in Bettles, north of the Arctic Circle.

We checked in with the National Park Service and signed out several bear proof food containers, then headed back to the Bettles Lodge to load our stuff onto the Beaver, a float plane that would drop us at Hunt Fork Lake in the Gates of the Arctic National Park. The Beaver could carry 3 passengers at a time; it would make two trips this afternoon, then bring our boats the following day.

photo by Michael MacDonald

Jim, Michael, and I were the first group. Due to the morning's weather delay, we wouldn't get onto the water till the next day, but we fully expected to have camp set up by the time the second group arrived. Easier said than done.

photo by Nick Adams

The lake is less than a mile from the confluence of the John and Hunt Fork Rivers, where we would put in, but it wasn't a simple stroll. Surrounding the lake was muskeg, boggy land composed of large grassy tussocks surrounded by several inches of standing water. The mud sucked at our boots and it was tough, uneven slogging. Our gear was in dry bags, so we left it in a pile by the lake while we searched for a path to the river.

The rivers weren't visible from our drop site, but we could hear the water and we followed its sound. Recent rains had raised the river depth considerably; when we reached the bank there was no place to camp, just a straight drop to rushing water. We turned around and started out in a different direction only to find more of the same. We knew there were two rivers coming together here, we just couldn't find our way to open ground suitable for camping.

After an hour of searching I reached my limit. My stress level was exaggerated by the fact that it was after 3 pm and I hadn't had lunch. (You know how I get when I'm hungry.) Jim had eaten back in Bettles and graciously volunteered to continue looking while Michael and I had a snack. He headed off into the brush, making plenty of bear-warning noise, while we opened a package of beef jerky and picked a few bog-blueberries.

By the time we finished eating, Jim was back with good news. He'd found a path to a wide river bank, perfect for our camp site and for loading our boats and putting in to the river. It was about a half mile away. But a half mile through sucking mud and blind bush carrying camping gear feels a lot longer than a half mile.

The second group arrived (surprised not to find us comfortably ensconced and gathered around a fire) and immediately pitched in. It took hours (12-15 trips each) to move our gear to the river's edge, but the campsite was perfect: a wide sand & gravel bar with plenty of room for separation between kitchen and tent sites. Also, plenty of distance from the shrubby brush meant reduced chances of wildlife stumbling unexpectedly onto our site.

And there was wildlife a plenty. At the campsite we found ample evidence of grizzly, moose, and wolf.

photo by Nick Adams

Days like this made us grateful for the extended daylight. It literally never got dark. I never saw the sun go down, and even though I'm told it did (sometime between 1 and 3 am) it was always bright enough to read inside the tent without a flashlight or head lamp. I came to love those long hours of daylight. They were psychologically invigorating and it took the pressure off setting up camp and making dinner when you knew you weren't racing to get it done before dark.

After dinner (chicken vindaloo over orzo) we gathered around a driftwood fire and shared our several flasks. The sandbars were littered with driftwood and fire building couldn't have been simpler.

photo by Michael MacDonald

I worried I might not be able to sleep, surrounded by so many wild animal tracks, but physical exhaustion won out. The next morning, fresh wolf tracks near the tent were evidence of silent visitors in the night.

photo by Nick Adams

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

the set-up

Jim & Rita picked us up in Anchorage and we headed north to Fairbanks. The road goes through Wasilla. You can NOT see Russia from her house.

Anchorage to Fairbanks is about 8 hours and we hadn't planned to stop, but as we got near Denali the weather was sunny and clear, which is apparently very unusual. Inspired by the view, we detoured to Talkeetna and jumped on a plane. We would circle Mt. McKinley (aka Denali), the highest peak in North America then land on a glacier, goddammit!

Michael loves to fly. I think this is the happiest I've ever seen him. Ever.

Glacial rivers are gray and opaque from the silt held inside the ice.

As we head into the mountains, the peaks got craggier and we started to see snow.

The ice of the glaciers is miles thick with snow cover of 8-10 feet. Taking off was much scarier than landing. Basically you point the skis (instead of wheels) at the edge of a cliff and go.

The moment of falling away is amazing.

Sadly, I was so enthralled I neglected to fully capture the experience on film. The next photos are courtesy of Ms. Rita Bates, who had her wits about her.

I was on the verge of tears for much of the flight. To see the planet so fierce and vulnerable at the same time.