On Arctic Ground
Last month was another wonderful opportunity to lead a group of backpackers for Sierra Club Outings in Alaska’s arctic. The trip was planned to start near the Noatak river and then head over a pass and follow the Ambler river into the boreal forest. Wilderness travel requires an open mind and flexibility. Those demands fell upon us on this trip as well. Rain had fallen in the western arctic for several days before our arrival and was to hang around for several more days. The Monday we were supposed to fly into the wilderness was heavy with rain.
The FAA in Alaska has positioned weather cams in some of the small towns to aid the bush pilots. Our pilots at Golden Eagle Outfitters could see in some of the towns en route to our destination that conditions were not safe. In addition, the tundra is underlaid with permafrost, sometimes only inches below the surface. When a few inches of rain fall it cannot sink into the ground so it flows to the rivers and they become swollen. Our plan was to land on a gravel bar beside the Noatak. As the rain continued to fall this plan became less likely. As evening came we camped along the beach in Kotzebue not far from the airport.
Tuesday was more rain but it was easing up. As a contingency, we chose an area about 60 miles to the northwest that had a strip that was high and dry. I had been at that location before and I knew of a route that did not require any river crossings. The area had been popular with caribou hunters so we knew there would be caribou. This year a moratorium had been placed on sport hunting in this unit so we would also be safe from hunters. Jared our pilot decided to make an attempt for the Ambler but if the Noatak looked too swollen we would head toward the secondary site.
On Our Way
On the way up the flying along the Noatak the river was obviously very high so we decided on the contingency site. These flights are spectacular. For an hour or more one sees a landscape completely untouched by human beings. The colors range from muted browns, greys, greens, and maroons to brilliant reds and fiery oranges and yellows of the deciduous trees in their fall colors. We saw bear and wolf on the flight up.
By Tuesday at dinner time tents were up and the stoves were cooking. Hundreds of caribou slowly eating and walking were drifting southward past our campsite. On Wednesday we started our hike that would take us up a creek through a pass onto the North Slope and into the National Petroleum Reserve. After a two nights in the reserve and two more passes we would be back on the South Slope and a stream heading back to our landing spot.
Most of the walking would be good but one can never seem to escape patches of tundra hummocks or tussocks. These features are a product of freezing ground. They are mounds of dirt and plants about the size of a human head and they are everywhere at times. They are too fragile to support your weight so each step must be placed in between the tussocks (that area is sometimes a puddle of water because of the permafrost) and lift your leg high to take the next step. It can be very tiring.
Heads are down in this type of terrain and that reveals the abundance and variety of plants underfoot. A few centimeters above the ground is several degrees warmer than even one meter up and many plants remain close to the ground. In June this ground would be covered in wildflowers. We step over dwarf birch trees that could be 100 years old. Often we pause and sample the tiny wild blueberries shining in the autumn sun.
There were many caribou. We saw caribou every day. At times it seemed in every direction. At other times none. We did have a grizzly bear investigate our campsite several times. We take precautions and store our food and toiletries in bear barrels. These plastic cans are designed so bears cannot open them. We also carry bear spray. Fortunately, we stayed together, waved our arms, and yelled “hey bear”. Once they realized we were people they either wandered or high tailed it away. They run really fast. These bears are not used to seeing people and it must not be worth the risk to them.
A wolf was spotted one morning. A red fox was happily hunting in the midst of all of at another campsite. A beautiful creature.
It takes about four or five days for our hurry worry modern lifestyle to wear off and fall into the rhythm of this landscape. That is when the true value of these adventures really take hold. Being without computers, phones, papers, mail, money, TV, and radio you become more in tune with the surroundings. Many people, including myself, report dreams that are more vivid during these times.
The last few days the weather was clear and we were treated to the amazing aurora borealis. These are as difficult to describe and walking through tussocks. It seems that curtains of light are being swirled or blown across the sky. For me it was pale green with tinges of red. It is fascinating to watch. Because it is late at night at this time of year, sometimes I fall asleep with my body and sleeping bag halfway out of my tent.
Front Line of Climate Change
This is one of the last intact ecosystems on earth. It is also on the front line of climate change. Already occurring are native communities having to move because of changing sea ice, polar bears summering along the arctic coast, and the northward migration of trees and shrubs. The probability of what will happen if we do not take action on climate change is much worse. The release of methane stored in the permafrost and the changing of ocean currents due to melting ice will affect the whole world. The physiology of how arctic plants and animals conserve and maximize energy can teach us how to maximize energy efficiency and reduce our contribution to climate change.
I have been lucky to experience the arctic as often as I have. My hope is that future generations also have the opportunity to experience this spectacular place.