Gates of The Arctic Trip Report

Prologue

This is my second trip to the great state of Alaska. It is also the second long backpacking trip. The previous trip, however great, wasn’t in the Arctic, so I had to go again. For some reason I only do long backpacking trips in Alaska, so far. Not sure if it is good or bad.

Since this wasn’t the first trip I hope to be better prepared. The dropped requirement for crampons was helping with weight too (there was some weird request to bring bike helmets as a protection during river crossings. Thankfully it was dropped as well). Somehow this time around I’ve managed to fit all my food into the bear box – 12 days of it. I seem to be getting better at (or I will be a lot skinnier at the end).

So, with a strong experienced group and good leadership was promising to be a great trip.

July 22, Friday

Fly out from SFO day. I couldn’t take this day off because  it would put me over the 2 weeks  time limit and thus would create all sorts of administrative problems. As a result, I was going to prepare and go from work directly. The good thing is that I could show-off all my hard-core backpacking stuff to my co-workers! Well, they weren’t really impressed.

The running started right off the train. Our ingenious public transportation system  makes using it really difficult. Why not put the CalTrain or something right in the airport? No, this would be too easy. Instead I had to jump from CalTrain to BART, negotiate that stupid ticket machine in less than a minute, then take BART one stop to San Francisco and one stop back from San Francisco, then take the SFO air tram. So I arrived to the UA’s terminal in the condition as if I ran half a marathon. But the best fun started later.

It appeared that United bought Continental. I wasn’t a big fan of either of them, but it doesn’t really matter. They managed to change the signs in SFO, but forgot to link the systems. When I showed my tickets to some employees of what clearly showed United Airlines they exclaimed “Ahhh, you are for United! That’s not us. Go to the real United”. WTF? Then the United counter had one worker for maybe 10 lines. Things were not looking good, or fast. All that free market bologna – that monopoly UA worked no faster than our old government USSR service.

Surprisingly I wasn’t late to the flight. The flight was delayed. I’m not really sure how this all working out for the allegedly struggling airlines. They keep charging more and more for each little details (there are rumors that soon even the toilets will soon be not free), so people keep cramming more and more in carry-on. This causing more time to load and unload thus causing delays. How much those delays really cost them? Well, they who make decisions don’t fly coach. Who are paying are the passengers.

Initially the delay between the flights in Seattle was about an hour. Girish got a call from United that the time was too tight and they rescheduled him on a direct flight. I got none of those treatment. On top of this the flight was late shrinking the delay to 20 min. Thankfully they came to their senses and thus Venkad and I were driven by a small bus between the planes right on the airstrip in Seattle (sweet). We didn’t even go to the terminal.

Finally arrived to Anchorage. There was no food on the flight because it was too short. I bought some tasteless burgher in the terminal while Venkad and I were waiting for V to pick us up. The rest of the gang was already settled in the hostel which appeared fine despite some scary reviews. I guess it was the usual case – the reviewers want to pay for a hostel but get a 5-star resort.

July 23, Saturday

Officially, the first day of the trip. Well, actually all we have to do is to procure some supplies and eventually get to Fairbanks at a reasonable time where I found a reasonable campground (I could say before dark, but it doesn’t really apply here). As a result of this plan everything was moving way too slow. I found some Russian place to eat in downtown Anchorage that was closed (why exactly I was thinking of Anchorage as a good place to find Russian cuisine I still don’t understand). So we had a standard heavy American breakfast at some western joint.
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Then went around town – souvenirs, weird salmon-flavored chocolate, photos with Sarah Palin, visit to REI, firewater. Basically, we just got on the road at around 11AM.

First big stop was next to Denali NP. There is a highway overpass right next to the main Denali NP entrance. A small commercial town grew up there. There are places to stay, lots of outfitters, a gas station, food of different sorts, and souvenir shops. The only problem is that it felt as if the entire place was in a giant wind tunnel – it was just blowing relentlessly all the time. The lack of trees and sandy soil made it much harder. So the group dispersed in search of suitable place to eat that will satisfy all the competing requirements. Now, I like to eat good food just as much as the next guy. However, in my experience looking for the best place in a set of unknown choices is a waste of time. Since there is not enough information to make an intelligent choice (i.e. no one really tried the food in the set), the result will be the same as random. So might as well just pick something and save time because the result will be pretty close anyway.

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But this algorithm didn’t find many supporters in our group. So I ended up ordering a ton of pretty good Thai food enough for two people (there was just one dish). What is strange is that Alaska seemed to be teaming with Thai places (no Russian food this year at all). Anchorage had them, Fairbanks, this Denali village. I mean, I’m not against Thai food, but why Thai? Strange. I didn’t know Thai people can even handle that cold (joke).

Besides the food there were souvenirs. All sorts of cheap touristy crap. There were Ulu knife sets for $3.99 – a very popular item in the group. From my two trips to Alaska I still didn’t buy those knives – just don’t know what to do with them. They may be ok as a souvenir to put on a shelf. Other than that I doubt I’ll ever use one as a real knife. But those $3.99 ones were made in China. I mean, seriously? In Alaska to buy traditional Ulu knife made in China (the box very explicitly stated that the set was designed in Alaska, but still). However, I did find a very nice jade bears explicitly labeled Made in Alaska, though a bit more expensive.

Arrived to Fairbanks at … some time. It was hard to tell because it was still light. Perhaps it was 9PM. Got the last open camp-site at the Chiena River campground. The campground was fine, even had free WiFi close to the router, lots of berries that other people for some reason didn’t pick, but a very noisy street nearby. For the evening we went to stroll around the tiny downtown. I was lugging around that leftovers of my Thai lunch because I didn’t want to waste it. I was thinking that I can eat it for dinner. Since it was way after 9PM the only place that was open was the McCafferty’s coffee-house (all that Thai places in the vicinity were closed) which wasn’t exactly a dinner spot.
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But it was still fun. They’ve had live music. The lead singer was actually the proprietor of the place. The coffee and other drinks were tasty (I’ve had some sort of pumpkin drink). We stayed there till 10PM when they finished playing, since there wasn’t much else to do and it was still light. Then we had a little conversation about the rich cultural life that is flourishing in Fairbanks largely supported by volunteer efforts.

July 24, Sunday

Unlike the previous day this was supposed to be a tight schedule day. The original plan, as I later found out, was to be dropped into the field today. A bit ambitious, but possible, weather permitting.

Get up was sometime very early. Since it was Sunday early morning everything seem to be closed. Everything fast and decent at least. I just spotted one open place – a doughnut shop owned by some diligent but rather unfriendly Chinese people. Well, enough for coffee of sorts and some sugar with carbs, at least for me – I’m not too picky this early in the morning.

After a bit of driving we reached the Wild West, sorry – Wild North – the James W. Dalton Highway.

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I still don’t understand what was so special about that sign. It marked the beginning of the long wild nasty gravel road. The road doesn’t have much services. There are a couple of gas station far between. All the food and supplies have to be trucked in (which makes them all taste the same). And there is that ever-present pipeline snaking in parallel. However, if needed one can just pull over and camp. No permit required. The driving, like on any other gravel road, requires careful attention and basically a cool head – going slower will allow you to go further. The strange thing is that the highway is not always gravel. It has some sections of asphalt, for some reason. BLM actually produces a very nice free brochure about the highway. It describes the history, all the mile posts, nature, dangers and beautiful spots.

The first notable stop was on the Yukon River crossing. The bridge was a beautiful marvel of engineering. There was a special small bridge for the pipeline.
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Interestingly, right after the river there was this hut with some souvenirs and informational materials about all that BLM lands around and about the highway. You can even get a certificate that you reached the Arctic Circle. On the other side of the highway there was an eating place/store/shower/gasoline/and probably a place to stay – basically what a road sign calls services. We’ve had lunch there consisting mostly of burgers. It was already raining, drizzling mostly.

More driving till the Grayling lake. This is the spot where we were going to be picked up and flown to Bettles. It turns out that Alaska has, at least, two Grayling lakes – one is in Yukon Flats area, another is where we were going next to the Dalton highway. A search in Google maps points you to the lake in Yukon Flats. On the way to our lake we stopped at the very important point – the Arctic Circle sign. How can we miss that obvious touristy spot. Well, our group wasn’t the only one there taking stupid photos. After that in a couple of hours we reached the starting lake.

That was it. We called the Bettles air from my finely working Iridium satellite phone to pick us up, packed, and were ready to go. We should return to this van – our only link to civilization in 12 days or so. That is assuming the weather cooperates. So far it was raining, all the time, just a bit harder or softer. The thinking was that pilots don’t fly late in the day (after 5PM) so we may end up camping on this lake (not so bad, there was a parking lot and a toilet not far from our van). But suddenly they decided that the weather was fine to fly (cloud level wasn’t very low so that they can see the mountains) and it wasn’t so late and sent two planes at the same time.

The airplanes landed fine. However, that dock on the lake from which the passengers usually get into the plane was gone somewhere. As a result we had to do the barefoot boarding – take off the boots and walk to the float. Great service with this airline – no movie, no peanuts, and have to walk through water to the airplane. Good thing they didn’t ask us to fly the damn thing. /end_sarcasm In fact the movie was very good – just look out the window.

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The flight to Bettles was short and uneventful. I have to tell you that water landing is great, very soft. The best airplane landing I’ve ever experienced.

Bettles is a tiny town inside of the GAAR (GAAR is Gates of the Arctic – this is how NPS abbreviates this park). It looks like some resort town somewhere on Caribbean or Thailand. It actually reminded me about McCarthy a lot. The town (!) has an airport, some residences, a ranger station for the park, hotel Hilton where we stayed, two lodges, and two (at least) mushing dog places. There is no way to get to Bettles in Summer other than by air. The road works only in winter when everything freezes. But there are still services – there is data connection to the world, probably by satellite, and some reasonably priced food in the lodge, not much fresh fruits and vegetables though. I did see a couple of vegetable beds around town, but it is hard to say if they were for food or decoration. There was also a small greenhouse next to the airfield with some tomatoes. It seems that local people still want to eat good food so they grow their own (the same thing actually appeared in that suburban neighborhood in Fairbanks we stayed in – lots of people were growing their own vegetables).

That was it. We landed on some landing lake. Then got delivered to the airport and checked into Hilton, courtesy of Bettles Air and free of charge. They told us that we can use some old open hangar to cook and even shower. That hangar had a small kitchen, non-working stove, a bathroom of some sort. Some people were rebuilding old airplanes there. Interestingly there were bug repellent bottles on almost every table. I guess mosquitoes were really bad there (Did I tell you that there are almost 40 species of mosquitoes in Alaska).

After we settled into the Hilton it was time to cook some dinner. It didn’t feel like it was almost midnight – the regular human clock we had before wasn’t working because it was always light. It was cloudy with some drizzle so it was difficult to tell what time it was. The area around was sort of foresty. Some trees were growing, bushes, grass, but there was not much layer of soil – mostly rocks and sand. Perhaps there was permafrost underneath. Yet this didn’t prevent mushrooms from growing. Maybe it was the rain, maybe locals just didn’t pick them, but there were tons around, all sorts too. Very good boletes.
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Igor picked up enough to cook for dinner. So with a lonely onion from the airport store and some weird local beers that we managed to get from the lodge before it closed he started cooking. Igor wanted to preserve the taste of onions and mushrooms. As a result the cooking time was getting long. However it was still light so it didn’t feel very late. Well, technically it didn’t, but I was tired and sleepy since I had to wake people up that day very early. So I tried the freshly cooked mushrooms with onions and retired into our Hilton suite.

July 25, Monday

First order of business was to visit the ranger station to get permits and become educated on proper behavior inside the park. The ranger station was nice, clean and new looking. Well, the park was just organized in 1980. They showed us a movie about leaving no trace in the Arctic, which always a useful reminder.  The two rangers there showed us the route we were planning. They actually had pictures of the exact place we were going to, the pass that V was planning to cross (what was he thinking?), and the trail. I was a bit disappointed – how well was that area traveled so that the ranges had so many photos of it. And this was supposed to be the least visited park in the nation? Perhaps I shouldn’t have seen it. But they also gave me the GPS coordinates of some hot spring in the area – 67°29.129′ 153°53.124′ (I actually have no idea what that “hot spring” really is in reality).

After some light breakfast in the hangar we … went back to the ranger station to watch a movie about the park. What else to do? It was still raining so the airplanes didn’t fly. All we could do is wait for the weather to clear. After that movie there was a bit heavy lunch at the Bettles Lodge and then another movie. A movie about an older guy who hiked and the paddled all the way from Canada till the mouth of Yukon river. It took him time and money to organize this sort of trip. He actually went over that pass in Arrigetch peaks that we, at this point,were not going to. Suddenly the weather cleared a bit and we were off to the Circle Lake – our starting point.

This time the deboarding was not barefoot. We landed in a thick young forest on the slope of the mountains. The idea was to move a bit down the Alatna river and then turn left towards the Arrigetch peaks. This involved a bit of heavy bushwhacking and walking on tussock. It was slow progress, good thing we didn’t have to worry about walking in the dark. However, to make things worth it started raining again, the group also wasn’t acclimatized to backpacking (well, yes, we were all experienced, sure, but no matter what the first day (and the day after) are always difficult). I personally had my stupid eye+head ache. Funny it always comes up at the beginning of long trips (aside from other cases of unknown origin). All of this didn’t make the going enjoyable, for everyone. In retrospect it seem to have discouraged our leader from pushing the group to what it is really capable. Eventually we broke the camp at some flatish point  that was relatively clear of trees and large bushes. It didn’t matter much to me. Sorry, guys, but I just wanted to sleep off that headache.

July 26, Tuesday

It was raining half of the night. I was sharing the tent with Balder this time. The tent was generously landed to us by Yuhua. It was a fancy 4-season climbing single wall tent, similar to this one. I can’t say I was really ecstatic about this tent (sorry, Yuhua). It did serve its purpose, however, didn’t leak or rip. But for the price it didn’t even come with a rainfly, which in  that conditions would be quite useful. Good thing I brought some garbage bags. So it was raining. By morning it was drizzling and foggy. However, that didn’t stop mosquitoes to do what mosquitoes do. They weren’t too bad, but still annoying. I’ve picked up some blueberries for breakfast. There weren’t nearly as dense as we saw in Wrangell, but there were some, everywhere. Perhaps it was a bit early in the season.

Around after breakfast it started clearing up, just a little bit, very little. Oh well, we had to go anyway. Everything was wet and heavy – closes, backpack, tent, bushes and trees all over. Even the food inside my bear box was wet. I still have no idea how the water got to it. My bear can, unlike others should not leak water inside if a can is just standing there. On top of it I wisely left the cheese inside the box in its original packaging. As a result and due to warm temperature it leaked lots of fat all over the place. But eventually the weather cleared so much that it became quite warm.

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We were still bushwhacking our way through. My filter went down. The day before I decided that the prefilter was impeding the progress and removed it. However, this clogged up the main pump with some wood pieces. Thus my filter was out of commission. We can still use the filtering cartridge, but in some other pump. My boots started leaking slowly. So sad. These were high quality $250 leather boots. They were supposed to be bomb-proof. Oh, well, I guess nothing lasts forever. Igor’s and V’s boots were leaking as well; not sure about Girish’s. For lunch we stumbled upon an area which was relatively free from tall bushes. Recent advent of a warm sunny weather allowed people to dry their stuff. Alaska can be very nice when it isn’t raining. Withe the nice weather we could hear all the airplanes flying around.

After a bit of walking we cam across of an established campsite (least visited park, eh?) and called it a day. It was a nice place – flat, with some trees, a small creek not too far. The large main river was roaring down below.

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After dinner the advanced (i.e. crazy) group decided to scale some unnamed peak next to the site. It didn’t look to difficult to me just nasty – lots of bushes to whack, mosquitoes, so I passed (there were some other reasons also, one of them was that I started enjoying the book that brought). But the view from the top was probably spectacular.

July 27, Wednesday

Start hiking. The weather was actually turning very nice – no rain, fluffy clouds, quite warm. Due to seem very high humidity I was sweating like a … The trail largely continued the bushwhacking theme with some variations of boulder fields. Since these mountains were old the boulders already had a good layer of losses and lichens making them quite slippery (there will be worse to come). But suddenly we stumbled on a trail (!). I would like to think that it was an animal trail. But the sad fact that it was probably largely human. With the trail the progress went much better.

For lunch we found a nice swimming hole. It was quite warm to people swam. Even I did it, though the water was far from Caribbean. The water was a bit  cloudy from silt, but there was actually small fish in it. At that time we met the group of hikes that started after us. They came on the place the day before. There were just two people with two payed guides. They were making a hell of a progress. Perhaps they knew exactly where the trail was. One of their guides was leading trips in these mountain for many-many years. He was nice enough to hold his groups so that we can pretend we are in total isolation. Perhaps he actually was mostly  taking care of this clients.

After lunch we just booked it. The trail was huge help. Even though it wasn’t a well maintained national park service standard issue trail, it was still a big help. It was getting hot a humid. I could just feel the coming rain. So far, however, only a light drizzle arrived. As soon as I find a good relatively flat spot on the bank of the Arrigetch creek we broke the camp.

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It was a good camp – nice view of the Arrigetch peaks (well, we will be looking at them for the next 4 days), beautiful refreshing river, a view of some unnamed waterfall across the river. The people set into their camp routine. There was a lot of massage done, washing, cleaning, gear repair. I managed to rip a sizable hole in my battered inflatable pad. Perhaps it was done during the bushwhacking section. Good thing Igor had some fancy heat activated glue and was able to repair it. I doubt duck tape by itself would hold. One more thing to bring to trips – pad repair kit. After dinner a more advanced group went up to see the small waterfall across the creek. I joined them. We didn’t do anything crazy, just went up to it and took funny pictures. What else was there to do – it was still light.

July 28, Thursday

Why do people get up so late – 8:30AM? We barely started rolling at 11AM. What is this – a pleasure trip? It was a short hike. Basically go a bit further up towards the peaks and find a good place for a base camp. The camp selected was on a bit of a plateau with good views of the Arrigetch valley (whenever it was actually visible). It had remains of some animal and tons of goat or sheep droppings. It would be nice to see them. However, I doubt we would see anyone with all that noise a large group makes. Actually there was a third group that went ahead of us. But they were climbers so by that time they have probably crossed the pass already.

I can’t say that I like base camping (set up one camp and do day hikes). It kind of messes up my head because I don’t see a clear set goal for each day. An idea was floated to get our of this park (GAAR) early. The reason was that the environment we went into wasn’t looking like Arctic Tundra. It looked more like, say, Colorado. So we could get out early, drive further North and perhaps camp there. Well, personally I don’t like change in plans. For me it is always difficult. Maybe I’m just to set in my head for some plan to change it. But things always come up and plans have to be adjusted. So it could be also a better plan – when would I have another opportunity to go so far North. Well, we would see. There were a couple of variables that had to fall into place for the new plan to work. Personally I was fine with bushwhacking till Thursday – I didn’t have a headache any more.

After setting the cam we went to explore the first glacier valley. I’m not really sure how the order came about. It was mostly remains of some melted glacier. I could be still sitting there under the rocks, but there wasn’t much left of it on the surface. The going was as slow as the first day of bushwhacking. It was all big talus field with sizable rocks covered in all sorts of lichens. One had to be constantly focused to prevent falls.
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First it is fun, but it gets tiring after some time. We reached the perfectly formed cirque, took pictures, and went back. After that just do the regular chores, washing, cooking, dinner, read, and sleep. For some reason no one wanted to do any extra after dinner hikes this day. To tell the truth the constant light didn’t really bother me at this point. I probably adapted to the new environment and slept just fine, especially after a long day of hiking.

July 29, Friday

Today is another base camp valley hiking day. For some reason the longer the daylight the more people sleep. We’ve been getting up later and later. Why am I can’t sleep like everyone else, wake up like a clock at 7AM. The funny thing is that the time zone is different. So I should be waking up at 8AM local time. Oh, well. Maybe they were all doing something half the night.

But when I came out of the tent I saw a lone wolf. Regular standard issue gray wolf. He ran around the tents, marked that antlers and went off somewhere. Haha. Early bird gets …  a wolf.

After breakfast we went to the most opposite valley that was visited the day before. It was getting cleared up a bit after all that rain during the night. Our neighbors also went into the same valley, though they did get up earlier. Was there some kind of an agreement on the order of valley visit? We could just as well visit the valleys in a different order and not mess up each others’ wilderness experience.

Initially there was a beautiful flat meadow with the river running through. We saw some bear tracks on sand, so the bears must be coming here to eat. After a bit it turned into the same slippery scree with a river right next to it. It started drizzling so no one really wanted to continue further. We found a nice overhanging rock to eat lunch. At least it can protect from some rain. Our neighbors actually went a lot further up the valley. Perhaps they wanted to get their money’s worth. There was probably some small glacier at the end. But going there is a major pain hopping on all that wet boulders.

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After that there was another photoshoot we decided to head back. Personally I’ve had some stomach problems so I didn’t feel very well. I think Girish was suffering from the same problem. I don’t know about Igor though. But the three of us headed back. From the rest V and Gaelle stayed to just meditate. The others decided to scale one more peak or at least a valley above a waterfall. On the way back the grassy meadow presented a nice stage for photos. There was no rush to go back – it wasn’t raining yet and we didn’t have a schedule to keep.

After early dinner Balder, Yuhua, and me were just sitting in the tent reading, talking, making fun of Igor who at midnight went to cook some water and eat again.

July 30, Saturday

Get up, eat, go the last valley – the one with the lakes. Again our neighbors got up and headed out before and way further than we did. But it was fine. The weather was ok with cloud cover. The lakes were beautiful azure color. There were even ducks or some sort of birds. I was wondering if there was any fish in there. The thing is that I bought that fishing license and I really wanted to use it (the license even specified the exact time when I could fish). However, at this point the food wasn’t an issue because it appeared that the group resigned to do a short trip.

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It was possible to go further. There was total of four lakes one after another, at least according to our maps. The largest one was the second. But it all involved more and more rock hopping.

So the same advanced group went further and the same lame group stayed behind. We just sat there for a while looking at the beauty of the lakes and headed back. Then it started. It seemed as the skies just opened and it poured torrential rain. I thought it usually drizzles in Alaska, but this definitely wasn’t the case. I also decided not to get sweaty in the rain pants ans didn’t take them. Should have known better. By the time we reached the camp I was wet, everywhere except the boots. For some reason that brand new Columbia Peak Assent jacket leaked through. Not a lot, but still. I thought it was completely waterproof. Anyway, I just went into the my tent to dry out. Igor and Girish were sitting there cooking water. I guess they didn’t care any more about the rain. Igor was actually so nice to bring me tea to the tent.

So I just sat there reading my science fiction stories, trying to dry out. The rest of the gang came back a bit later totally soaked. I don’t know how these guys can sustain this and not get sick. Perhaps their immune system is tuned differently. However, after a while I had to come out and eat. At least it wasn’t raining as hard. I called the airline. We had to make sure that they have time to pick us up from circle lake. We may want to come out, but if they don’t have planes available then we would have to just sit and wait. They did have planes. The problem was that the circle lake wasn’t big enough for a float plane to take off with 4 people. As a result, they would have to shuttle us by 2 to Takahula and then take off from there. Oh, well. This actually presented a problem – what if the weather changes and half of the group would be in one spot and half in another?

Late in the evening, after the food was done and vodka finished we had a singing session. Venkad, Balder, Gaelle, Yuhua, V and yours truly were singing, somewhat reluctantly, songs in different languages, mostly their native languages. Even V sang one, some old country song. He forgot all Tamil songs over the years.

July 31, Sunday

Morning brought more rain, then fog. But we had to break the camp so there wasn’t much choice. However, after a bit the weather cleared, even full rainbow appeared. When it did Yuhua yelled so loud I almost lost my hearing. We were kind of struggling to break camp. It took quite a while to pack up. I guess after several days in the same spot it wasn’t easy. Then there were also pictures and stuff. So we basically rolled from the camp at around 1PM.

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With the newly discovered trail the progress was good. By lunch time, whenever that was, we reached the same old watering hole. It was actually warm and sunny enough for people to dry closes and equipment and actually swim. Swimming is not a problem per se, even in that cold water. The problem is how to dry up after that. Some people swam in that whole. I didn’t. It wasn’t warm enough for my taste. But Venkad was swimming all the time. Perhaps different people have different levels of tolerance to not being showered. I didn’t mind. V have never swam (in all the trips I had with him I’ve never seen him swim). He did, however, shaved as soon as he had a chance.

We also tried to fish in that swimming whole. There were a couple of small fishes there, probably grayling. They were biting really well. The problem was that I have brought way to large hooks. That was fine exercise, we weren’t going to mess with cooking them anyway.

After we started heading down it started raining again. This time I was wiser and put my rain pants on. But soon the rain stopped an I started swimming in my closes. I couldn’t get any break – either wet inside our wet outside.

We reached the same camping knoll we stayed at a couple of days earlier. This time, however, it was occupied by the park rangers on their whatever mission. Likely there was another spot right next door. One of the park ranges, as soon as he saw our group, came over to talk. I suppose they don’t really see large groups like that often.

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The weather wasn’t sunny, but wasn’t rainy either. Good enough for dinner, talk, some close drying, and foot massage. This time around no one wanted to scale that peak next to the campground. For some reason it became very cold that night. Usually, it wasn’t very cold so far this trip. But his particular night it was. Well, I suppose some peculiarities of the Arctic weather.

August 1, Monday

Today is a potential get out day. Sad, I was really looking forward to a very long backpacking trip. The weather seemed nice so we may actually be lucky. It would be really unfortunate to get stuck sitting on a lake waiting for weather to clear for a couple of days. (Well, I could perfect my non-existent fishing skills).
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With the trail we were making great progress. In a couple of hours we have reached the main Arrigetch creek valley. It was kind of flattish valley with the river just meandering though. This meandering actually created many small lakes and islands. Man, the forest there was plentiful – lots of blueberries, mushrooms. Different types of mushrooms. I’ve never seen so many types of mushrooms in such a small place. Too bad we’ve missed this place the first day.

We’ve reached circle lake by lunch time, made a call to the traffic controller in Bettles and prepared to wait. There was a broken Twin Otter nearby that we saw on the way in. Right now it wasn’t visible, but there were some strange noises coming from the place where it was expected to be. Vencad and Igor went to check it out. Suddenly there was one the Bettles Air beavers coming from behind the bushes. It turned out that with the current wind the pilot can take off with 4 people no problem. Then we can Takahula shuttle busyness. Nice, we can save some money too. I went with the first batch straight to Bettles.

As soon as we let to the airport, Igor went to shower. And he calls himself an outdoorsman? Anyway, Girish in the mean time used the satellite phone to call his wife (which the company didn’t charge for some reason). But the party was over before they knew it. The Bettles Air guys told us that they can fly us to the van (Grayling lake) right away since the weather is good, which they did. The advanced group flew from Bettles to the van and the rest went straight to the van. I did, however, managed to visit the Ranger Station and pick up their fancy bandana. Well, the bandana was just unique – it’s is bright orange to be visible from a bush plane and it has some information on backpacking. It is just unique. Other parks don’t have it.
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On the way back I piloted the plane, a little bit. We have had a bare foot deboarding again. On top of this the rain started really picking up. So by the time actually went on the road with our jump started van it was pouring and everything, including the inside the van, was wet. Likely the drive was short – just till the town of Coldfoot, AK.

Well, whether they were happy to see us in Coldfoot camp will probably never be known. We were basically the largest group of foreigners they’ve ever seen. The eating place – diner of some sorts – had orders but we went to the buffet I don’t remember why any more. Perhaps it was after 7 days of eating not enough of freeze-dried food. The food was nothing fancy – standard American buffet fare. At least they had some fruits and vegetables and hot tea. There was also a full bar, but I’ve skipped that. There were always some people coming in and out, drinking, talking. Some tourists, I suppose, some maybe construction workers. The truckers that carry stuff to Deadhorse had their own corner. I hope they weren’t drinking. The place even had a laundry, which we used. There was also a multiagency visitor/information center across the road. Very well built with expansive interesting displays. Just no visitors. So we were just sitting there in the diner waiting I guess for the rain to subside, no one minded. There was also a vote on where to go – North or South. North won. I think it was the right decision. It would be much better if the van didn’t break down, but I guess it is not possible to have everything. At about midnight we have relocated to the Marion Creek Campground nearby.

August 2, Tuesday

It started raining again during the night. The evening was dry, but I guess that didn’t last long. It was actually hard to tell the time of the day – it was all the same gray. Somehow we packed all that wet equipment into the generously smelling van and went to Coldfoot to eat. There was actually not much choice – there is nothing for 270 miles from Coldfoot till  Deadhorse. Breakfast was again a buffet. I think during the backpacking I forgot what buffet was really about because I just kept eating.
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The plan was to drive further North to see the real tundra. Perhaps camp there for a day or two and visit Deadhorse with a potential tour of Prudho Bay. And what do you know? As soon as we crossed a very scary looking mountain pass the weather started clearing up. When we reached the North plateau it was actually quite pleasant. Sunny with clouds. The wast expanse if flat tundra on both sides of the road. There were even some small hills with some snow on them. Nice, it would be interesting to cam there for a couple of days. Well, assuming the weather stays like this. However, it would probably be quite boring to just walk for miles on flat terrain (mosquitoes and tussock and all that water probably won’t let it be boring).

We have reached Deadhorse sometime after noon. Interesting place. It is basically a factory town. Everything is revolving around people working on the oil busyness and a little bit of tourism (one can get a two-day excursion to Deadhorse from a cruise). Lot so machinery everywhere, some weird heavy equipment. All waiting for winter freeze when the heavy work can be done on the frozen tundra. There is no asphalt, no sidewalks, no downtown per se.  There is a store, however, and a couple of stay and eat places. But the food in all those places was $20 buffet, that’s it (I suspect the food was the same also). There was absolutely no alcohol. I suspect it is a good idea. You don’t want people who operate heavy machinery next to highly flammable liquids to have access to alcohol. Most of the passenger cars there are big trucks, mostly Fords too. Probably company cars. Interestingly most of the parking spaces have power cables hanging. They are to connect the heater in a car in winter. Pretty much all the cars in Alaska has this small power plug hanging from under the hood. I suppose in Deadhorse it would be especially important. Most of the oil stuff belongs to BP. However, there are lots of small contractor companies. Each company has its own space with the equipment stored for the services it provides.

First thing we visited was Arctic Caribou Inn in order to reserve the tour to Prudho Bay and Arctic Ocean. Generally Prudho Bay is closed to tourists due to security. Actually, I don’t know whose security they had in mind. There are polar bears there. The oil guys have cameras to keep an eye on them. Any tourist venturing there would be in more danger from bears than present danger to some oil infrastructure. They probably also don’t want people walking around all that equipment unnecessarily. So, after the tour was reserved (and they checked everyone’s IDs) we set to find the best buffet in town. Somehow Igor found that newly built Aurora hotel. The food was good, the view from the eating place was great. There was just a bit too much of it. It was the third buffet in 24 hours and my stomach was getting full.

After the heavy meal we set out to find a place to stay for the night. It wasn’t much to it. No one really cared as long as we didn’t  interrupt the business operations. So we went a bit South on the Dalton highway and found a small side road with a flat dry spot. There were already some people camping there. There was some shotgun training. Our van renter generously provided us with a shovel, a gold panning plate, and a shotgun.
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Someone had to always stay on guard to watch for polar bears. The guys in Prudho Bay have their equipment, we had to rely on our own reserves. Since I am a morning person I volunteered to take the morning shift – 4AM till the get up. Get up time was rather early because the tour was supposed to start at 8AM. However, after all that food I couldn’t sleep. In the mean time people were watching gorgeous sunset+sunrise, Gaelle even swam in that arctic river nearby. It was beautiful around midnight – sun with clouds, very quiet, beautiful colors. When Balder woke me up for the shift, however, at 3:30AM it was foggy and cold. Everyone was sleeping so I just sat there in the wan with the gun and the camera ready. But I had my reward – there was a fox that ran through the camp and I just had the camera ready to take pictures.

August 3, Wednesday

Get up very early at around 6AM. I mean the rest of the group had to get up. I was up already. Packed, all ready to go and … the van doesn’t want to start. It was cranking, but didn’t start. Perhaps with all that fog and humidity and cold it had accumulated water somewhere. So we were trying to cajole it to start in order to make it to the tour. Two days before it was possible to jump it. This day even that didn’t work. Balder went to ask the neighbors for help. Some guys camping right next to us in their RV or something. They were hunting and fishing. They tried to jump with the same result. Applied some weird chemical to the fuel. Eventually, after many attempts it started, but by that time we were late.

We went to the Caribou Inn with the idea to perhaps reschedule the tour that was already paid for. The operator was “oh, sure, no problem. We’ll do it at 12“. In reality the operator was just one dude who is actually a security guard and just does the tours on the side. Plus not like there were drones of people waiting for this tour anyways. So before the tour would start we tried to fix the van. I mean there couldn’t be a better place for a vehicle to break down than in Deadhorse with all that machinery around. There must have been lots of great mechanics who could fix anything. Well, the reality was quite disappointing. For whatever reason most of the cars in Deadhorse were Fords. Somehow the mechanics were so specialized that they didn’t know what to do with a Dodge. WTF. It’s a car, not a rocket engine. Anyway, we didn’t fix our van. As a result, camping in the tundra was out of the question. If we have left it overnight it might not start at all and then we would be really stranded, big time. So we just hang out inside Caribou Inn till the tour time. I didn’t eat anything still digesting that heavy dinner from the day before. Interestingly the insides of the Inn looked like the inside of a ship. Same type of doors and corridors. Toilets actually had showers. It didn’t look like a hotel.
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The tour was mostly oil company propaganda. First the was a movie how they developed this oil field. Then he just drove us around the town showing the machinery and stuff. That Christmas tree thing that can close a well. He was throwing lots of numbers around and terms and stuff, but didn’t really show anything specific. Prudho Bay itself didn’t look much different from Deadhorse. I expected to really see some oil-producing stuff, that big machinery, the drills, the pipes and pumps working – more details basically. But all we got is just view of the buildings, from afar. There were a couple of lonely animals walking around. Some lost bull caribou, two arctic owls just sitting there (in different places). From the distance they looked mechanical as if made specially for the tourists. There were rumors that some polar bears were spotted in the area. That would be so exciting (!), even if we had to stay in the bus, but nothing happened. All we did is dip feet in the Arctic Ocean and went back. After the tour we just got some food for the road and started driving South to Fairbanks. As long as the van isn’t shut off for a while we were fine.

Drive back was great, for a while. The weather became better – sunny with some clouds. Beautiful tundra all around. It could have been of course a very wrong impression. But from the distance tundra looked fine. It was very unfortunate that we couldn’t camp there.
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We stopped by in Coldfoot, AK to get some gas, food, and maybe souvenirs in the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. It was actually very disappointing that they didn’t have GAAR little magnets. Strange. So I had to just resort to a pin and a t-shirt.

It seemed that the rain had never really stopped in Coldfoot. We left it was raining, we came back it was raining. It was the same situation there in the same diner, with seem to be the same people. So we just ate some leftovers and went on the long road. The idea was to drive all night, changing the drivers, of course, and perhaps reach Fairbanks by morning. There we should call the car renter and find a mechanic who can tell the different between a Dodge and other cars. Good thing I wasn’t the driver. However, big thanks to Balder and Viyasan for their efforts. We could just stop for an hour or so on the way, there was just nothing on the way just mountains, forest, and the pipeline.

August 4, Thursday

I woke up at maybe 3AM. It was already light. Balder was still driving. The sun was coming up (or going down – it was hard to tell) and it wasn’t raining. We were getting close to Fairbanks. I wasn’t sure how the others slept that night. I suppose it depends on each individual. But I sure would use some more sleep. Although I did wake up, I was so tired that I couldn’t crack my eyes open. So while I was struggling with that and missing all the nice early morning nature around we reached Fairbanks, AK. It was around 5AM. The idea was to wait till 7AM when the car renter’s office opens. In the mean time to get some hot liquid, perhaps with some caffeine in it. The best place to do it, it turned out, was the local Safeway. It had food, Starbucks coffee, hot water, toilets, tables, even free WiFi – all the necessities. Somehow Igor found this hostel – Glacier House – that let us crash in their backyard for a day for about $10 per person. I was actually happy about it because was afraid that the group would just decide to leave the wilderness lifestyle behind and stick with the touristy path of hotels and coffee shops.

The hostel was very interesting. It is basically a house in some residential neighborhood. Nothing even remotely close to the area of Fairbanks that can be considered downtown. It has all the regular amenities – WiFi, shower, laundry. But also a small vegetable garden and even a live chicken (not sure if they will ever eat it, though). Actually most of the houses around the neighborhood had some sort of vegetable gardens or greenhouses. Venkad, Yuhua, Balder, and I did a small walk around the area enjoying the nice sunny weather for a change after all the washing and cleaning was done and V didn’t come back with the van yet. There was a small river somewhere, but all access to it was over private property. One can try going, but Alaska being a frontier state it was possible to get shot. The neighborhood looked very green. There were regular houses with just plain yards – no much separate sidewalks and curbs. I was wondering how this place looked like in winter.

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Then an idea came up to actually pack up and go to Denali NP. It was on the way anyways. If we left soon, instead of the next morning, we could actually get an early start and see more of the park, maybe even backpack there. Despite the day felt like lasting forever it was still just around noon.

For some reason no one objected to this idea. V came back from fixing the van. Said that the rental guy doesn’t give a … about his van. In the case it fully breaks down he could just drive from Anchorage and pick us up. I guess he just gets them cheap and runs to the ground. So we all packed and went off. The hostel people were a bit sad it seemed. Maybe they were expecting a big and noisy group for the night. Oh, well, we had to do what we had to do; besides – we have already payed. The hostel caretaker said that it was possible to get the campground inside visitor area of Denali (this is the area where all the hotels and visitor centers are, bot the place where the bus goes) without any reservation, especially on a weekday late in the season. Still I’ve called a couple of commercial places close to Denali NP entrance to make sure there was room. One camping place actually said that tents were not allowed because it was too windy. After some short lunch we were off.

We have reached Denali before 5PM, right on time before all the administrative offices close. Getting the campground was easy – we got Riley Creek Campground tent only walk-in – basically we could camp, but couldn’t park the car there, not a big deal. However, figuring out what to do was a challenge. The main limiting factor was Igor’s flight on Saturday evening. Since there was no driving in the Denali proper we had to adjust to the schedule of the backpacker bus. The only bus that could fit was the first one leaving the end – Wonder Lake Campground – at around 5AM. We could just flag it on the road, but there is no guarantee that there would be space in it. So, the only option left was to camp one night at the furthest developed point in the park – Wonder Lake Campground.

That was all. We purchased tickets to the bus, some souvenirs (V got his favorite – a Denali baseball cap), a bit of food, and settled to the camp. There was some sort of dinner made mostly from the old uneaten backpacking dinners and newly purchased stuff. After that, since it was still light and good weather, a small group did a hike around the Denali Village towards a small beaver lake. One can see the Alaska railroad and the resorts inside the park. Good thing that it is all localized to the small area right at the entrance and the rest of the park is still wilderness without even trails. Towards the evening it started raining again while I tried unsuccessfully to fall asleep.

August 5, Friday

Getting up was way early – 5AM or so. We had to break camp and walk to the bus stop to make it to the first backpackers bus at 6AM. There was a small quarrel again about the buses and the exact place we could leave our van because the people in the park were giving mixed information. Eventually, after some struggle to start the van we were off to the Wonder Lake.

The drive itself was good, at least the parts that I remember. It was about 6 hours or so. Because of the early start I was dosing on and off all the time (and I wasn’t the only one). We saw some wildlife. One girl spotted a group of grizzlies on the side of the road. Too bad I didn’t have good optics to see them very well.
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We have passed through several mountain passes. The weather was getting progressively worse towards cold wind with rain and snow. There was an Israeli couple who had mountain bikes and was planning to bike back to the entrance. Not sure how far they’ve gotten in that weather.

The Wonder Lake Campground was shall I say interesting. It was a regular accessible non-wild campground with tables and toilet with water. The campsites were located among the bushes on a hillside towards the main Denali mountain range. The mountains, including The Big One, were somewhere in the clouds as expected. The campground also featured a walk-in food storage sheds. I suppose that was a necessity. Since it was accessible by bus – i.e. no carrying your own food, people brought stuff, big time, including vine bottles and other goodies. All of this had to be properly stored otherwise there would be a lot more grizzly sightings.

After setting up camp we went for a short hike (Igor for some reason didn’t want to do it). In essence there weren’t many places to hike around there – it was all wilderness without trails. There was just one short trail leading through a rather swampy forest towards wide braided Denali river. Upon reaching the river Balder decided to take a mud full body massage.
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Well, I have to admit there was quite a bit of high quality black mud there that the river was probably carrying from some distant glaciers. However, the weather wasn’t exactly supportive for the mud bath activity. In the mean time V and Gaelle went to cross the entire river. I wouldn’t mind doing that if there was some purpose on the other side of the river. But just to get my boots wet wasn’t very appealing.
On the way back we stumbled upon a field of blueberries. Sure, there were blueberries most of the trip, but not in such high density.

In the evening there was range led presentation about the global warning. Though I wasn’t surprised by most of the information he said about the warming, I was surprised about the things that Alaskans do about it. I was under the impression that Alaska would be this very conservative state that denies any mention of global warming. However, being hit one of the hardest by the changes, they seem to be doing a lot more about it that many other more liberal states.

August 6, Saturday

This day the get-up was early too. I was already awake but didn’t get up, just soaking in my sleeping bag that accumulated heat before the actual time. Then I heard V’s voice urging people to get up because of some view that was so good he was having an orgasm. Was this a joke? So I came out from the tent to see. Yes, the view was ecstatic indeed.
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The clouds from the day before were cleared up and under the blanket of the fresh snow we could see Mt MckInley with pink glow from the rising sun. Gorgeous. I was very surprised to see how large that mountain was. The day before, in the clouds I thought that the mountains there weren’t that large. But once cleared The Big One really stood out towering above everything else around. The commotion awaken everyone in the campground. People were taking photos like mad trying to capture that sight (and packing at the same time because the bus was going soon). After all that bad weather we got somewhat lucky.

The ride back was more interesting than the day before. The weather cleared. There were sightings of some dall sheep far in the distance. We saw that grizzly bear that was still sleeping on a caribou carcass. Apparently a bunch of wolves killed a caribou. However, one grizzly bear got hold of the kill and took it from the wolves. He then proceeded eating the meat. He couldn’t, however, eat all of it at one set – a body can only absorb food at certain rate. So in order not to give up the precious protein he  just slept right on the carcass. The driver said that he’s been doing this for a couple of days already.

Not much happened after that. We reached the park entrance on time, somehow got the van started, had fast food in Healy (that touristy strip mall right outside the park entrance), and blasted towards Anchorage.

Upon arriving we went back to the same Alaska Backpackers Inn hostel (not only that, they even gave us the same rooms). After many showers we just went downtown for the final dinner. Igor found this Sack’s Cafe place. A bit more than I would normally pay for food. But hopefully the salmon I had was local and wild and not some farm raised in Canada. On the way back from the restaurant we found a strange Russian Pelmeni place in the main downtown Anchorage. That place was owned by some Italian dude who grew up somewhere in South America. Well, I can say authoritatively that his pelmeni still needed improvement.

After Igor was offloaded sort of speak all that remained was to go back to hostel and sleep. Personally I wanted to visit that market in downtown where the last time we had a much better pelmeni. We stopped by some liquor store to get more alcohol and chips. People were planning to stay up late. Personally all I wanted was hot tea and good WiFi.

August 7, Sunday

Last day in Alaska. Got up fine. It appeared that Venkad with Gaelle and V spent most of the night in the van drinking (at some point a hostel worker asked us to move from the basement kitchen because some late arrivals needed space to sleep). We just had a couple of hours to get last minute souvenirs. We visited the salmon river next to the Ulu factory store. For some reason the salmon run this year was pretty thin. Then visited the market which was quite deserted. Perhaps due to intermittent rain. But worst of all there were no Russian dumplings or pirogi there, at all. There were lots of Asian food and regular fairs. So I just got the GAAR pin (why is that park doesn’t have a magnet?) and some chocolate. That was all.

We went to the airport.  V returned the van. Checked that people didn’t really loose much of the weight this trip. Had some shitty food at Chili’s place in the airport (I was so mad at the waitress there I didn’t give her any tips), and flew back to San Francisco.

Epilogue

This was my second trip to the great state of Alaska. Hopefully not the last. The state has so much to offer in the way to travel. It is large with many different places to stay and things to do. I hope I don’t have an incorrect opinion about the friendliness of the people there and the next trip will be welcome. Perhaps I can visit in Winter or do some sea kayaking travel around Prince William Sound.


EveryTrail map is here.

My photos are here.
Girish’s photos – GAAR, Prudhoe Bay, Denali.

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5 Responses to Gates of The Arctic Trip Report

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