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


At August 11, 2011 at 1:43 AM , Anonymous Leda Meredith said...

What an amazing trip! I can't wait to hear more.

At August 11, 2011 at 6:42 AM , Anonymous Zoe said...

How exciting to follow your journey, Ellen. The pictures are beautiful. Me too - can't wait for more.

At August 12, 2011 at 9:13 AM , Anonymous Mark said...

What to say? Ahhh ... ohhhh. Mmmmm. It all looks so tranquil, so alive. I love the shots of meek berries toughing it out. Glad you ate a bit from the land.

Did the water taste different?

At August 15, 2011 at 12:45 PM , Blogger Marie said...

Great story.


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