Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tent Fever, Hobbits and Howling.

My boss dropped me off for a  couple-week backpacking trip, that got inadvertently extended because of weather issues. I didn't mind. He flew me onto his pioneered landing strip on the Canning River drainage in ANWR---about 200 miles into the refuge----and then promptly left.   

The plane leaving me behind for the next weeks. By day 8 I started singing and talking to myself, but hey, at least I didn't start calling my backpack "Wilson" or anything.  

First night of setting up camp. A bit exposed, especially when the winds started howling.
I may or may not have had to chase my tent for about 100 ft after I took my eyes off it and it flew away.

Lots of blueberries to supplement my diet. I hadn't been planning on being out so long, so by the end I started rationing out the beef jerky and oatmeal packets.  Jerky+blueberries is a surprisingly delicious combination. By the last day I was eating 4 beef jerky slices and half an oatmeal packet per day. 

There was lots of map reading involved to make sure I could find my way to the designated landing strip. 

 Foot-care seemed to be a reoccurring issue. At one point I took off my Keens and just walked barefoot several miles on the marshy tundra to give my feet some rest from the rub. At this point I felt very much like a hobbit marching to Mordor. 

 Ducktape saves the day. The poor man's moleskin (or forgetful in this case).

 Selfie pics. When you're all alone, there's not much to do but hike and take pictures and stalk animals. I averaged 15-20 mile days, with fairly easy walking at this time of year (swamp land trudging not included).

I found some 'auf' ice, which is ice that accumulates in river beds (pronounced "off ice"). Crossing a two mile stretch of it was like trying to ice skate with a 30 lb. weight attached to your back. There were a lot of near-falls, and I must have looked ridiculous to any hunters that may have been in the area.

Crossing this stuff without crampons was a bit of a bitch. 
These look like trails, but look again. Now over here, now back again. They're actually sheep game trails on steep, rocky, scree slopes. When it's wet and raining (like it was for the first 5 days), I resorted to a lot of unflattering crawling on all fours  across the slopes to avoid the canyons below. It was not a pretty sight.
Note to self: bring trekking poles next time...or gain the ability to transform into a mountain goat. 
Guess what? It's the Brook's Range, which means that it rains. A lot. And I mean a lot. That being said, I prefer rain to heat. Something about the Russian blood makes me unfit for travelling in hot climates.

A caribou I scared at the pass.

Sundown wasn't until after 11pm, so I had a lot of time to kill. I'd hike for about 10 hr/day, but after that I figured it was time to relax or something.

So I was productive. I finished the 450 page technical textbook "Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills"---even the parts about Aid Climbing and placing pitons, although it was the 5th ed, so I may need to check out the newest book to make sure I haven't memorized something too outdated (they barely mention leashless ice tools, and write that curved-shaft ice tools are rarely used and only by a fringe minority).

 If you don't bring a stove, then you literally have nothing left to do in the evenings but read and sleep.
 After walking up a drainage for 3 hours, I encountered this waterfall with no way of getting around it. I would have climbed up the rocks, but the Brook's Range are made up of extremely weathered, shitty, crumbles-in-your-hand shale. I tried placing some weight on it at times and it would give way with the slightest pressure.

A long roundabout detour followed this dead-end. 

 After day 5, the weather started lifting. Notice the colors on the tundra starting to turn red.

My awesome boss outfitted me with lots of food, which I could only access after I completed my initial stove-less trek. Hooray for hot meals!

Beef jerky is heavenly for snacking on. Seriously. It's like a steak-flavored granola bar. I'm a fan.
 And so begins the wait for my boss to fly me out. I was above treeline, so I spent about 2 hrs collecting firewood from the scrubby alder, only to burn through it in about 15 minutes, but at least I had something productive to do.

The temperatures also started dropping, so that I had to start keeping my water bottle in my sleeping bag to keep it from turning into a block of ice at night.

My bear weapon.

I called my boss on the Satellite phone every morning to see if the storm front had moved through, but every morning he said that it would be too dangerous to fly out to try and lift me out. Oh well, basecamp dayhikes are awesome anyways. 
How do my legs always get this scratched up even while wearing pants? It's a mystery. 

Figuring out where to go for the day.

Like I said... the footwear problem was a continuous nuisance throughout the trip.

You find out a lot about yourself when you're alone for 24 hrs a day. Plus you learn how to entertain yourself  during the long, lonely, cold hours of the night.

Can you see the Grizzly bear? He was moving at about 35 mph towards my camp when I spotted him. I watched as he passed within 100 ft. of my tent and then kept going downstream. I was a bit more alert that night when I was drifting off to sleep...
Yeah I know this picture sucks, but I only have one wide-angle lens. I need a new lens. One that can preferably zoom. 
Once the sun started coming out, the views opened up.

 I wish I was actually good enough at photography to capture the magnificence of this moment.

on the left is the tent and on the right is the ridiculously bright rainbow.

I worked hard for that pile of firewood.

 More posing. I don't know what got into me with this pose, but I can't seem to find any other photos.

Here's a normal one:

These Dall sheep came over the ridge and were very surprised to see me crouched down scarfing down blueberries.

 By this day the weather was perfect and the fact that my boss was already 3 days late didn't really bother me.

Do you know how cold that water is? I decided that for my boss's sake I should at least make an effort to wash off the dirt and grime before he picked me up. Spending two hours in a small bush plane would not help the backpacker smell.

Best part of the whole trip was when one morning I was woken up by howls right outside my tent. I peaked out and saw an Arctic Wolf sitting about 150 ft. from my tent. He howled for about an hour with my input of the best wolf howl imitation I could muster. I'm surprised he didn't run away after my first yowl.
 The whole episode reminded me a bit of the movie Balto (the one about the wolf-dog that has to trek across the Alaskan wilderness to save some children)

 Yeah... being alone for a period of time makes you introspective and you begin sounding all spiritual and shit. Anyway, I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time to witness this animal.

For those interested, I posted a video message for a friend, but the wolf features prominently. I think there's a few of my grotesque attempts at some howls in there as well. If you're curious, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DjGax5v08o&feature=plcp

My boss finally made a heroic break through the clouds, maneuvered around the heart of the storm and managed to get me out before the next round of hideous weather came in. More than a few days late, but I wasn't bothered (apart from the very real threat of no more food. I had 8 sticks of jerky left and an oatmeal packet by the time he got to me)

My boss is a pilot god. Seriously. He flies the DHC-2 Beavers with such finesse that you'd think they were made of balsa wood. 


  1. Natalie! I love all your photos! Also the very creative handstand/back bend selfies... I just want to know how many failed photos you didn't put up on this site.

  2. oh... ooops.... I may or may not have just posted on here like 3 different times... I can't figure this comment thing out. Technology is too smart for me.