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Monthly Archives: July 2013

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COLD! Thirty-five degrees and fog doesn’t really motivate one to go paddling. It took warm cups of coffee inside the tent to spur us into action above the Nilik River, a major tributary of the Ipewik. By the time we got to the confluence, low overcast had broken into a cheery blue. The Nilik nearly doubled the flow. That extra water was appreciated since the Ipewik had dropped significantly following the flood.
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The Lisburne Hills, grey and snow painted and taller than anything in days, poised on the horizon as our goal. A tail breeze provided welcome respite from the incessant paddling in our slow little boats, allowing us time for a hike at the edge of the mountains. From a ridge in the Hills, the scene was empty and vast, revealing the Arctic Ocean marine layer advancing from the northeast, wisping over hilltops like a grey smoke.
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Ushered downstream with the polar wind at our backs, we passed a scraggly fox. It watched us, motionless, with a vacant axe-murderer stare. Perhaps this was one of the rabid foxes the region is known to harbor? Around the bend, a sheltered camp appeared, where only swirling whiffs of wind found their way ashore from the biting gale that sluiced down the river. Upon mountain tops to our east, the Arctic fog knocked at the door.
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The northeast wind escorted us downstream past orange lichened cliffs, through a couple small class II rapids, and out of the Lisburne Hills to the Kukpuk River. This was the site of an abandoned village called “Kayak.” For us kayakers, a stop was mandatory. As the river carried us farther from the Hills, the wind died, and fish camps sat empty along the banks, the first sign of civilization in almost two weeks. It felt as if this journey was coming to a close. Just then, a grizzly bear ambled along the skyline downstream. Govi and I looked at one another and conjured a line from one of our favorite movies, Deliverance. “We’re not outta this.”

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I awoke to Govi’s voice with a start, ready for a bear in camp. “There’s water in the tent,” he stated matter-of-factly, working through his sleepy confusion. I unzipped the front door to see a wave train roaring past. The brown water lapping at our feet was an eddy, and it submerged a third of our tent. I looked upstream. “The boats are still there,” I said, and then grabbed my two food bags from under the water and chucked them to higher ground.

The Ipewik was no longer a shallow river of bothersome gravel bars. Now it raced past brown and humming. Before setting out, we let it drop from its peak, enjoying two cups of coffee beside a hard-won fire that we started with athletic tape.
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Caribou grazed in groups of ten, thirty, fifty; almost always visible grazing the river bank or laying in respite on a field of snow. We probably saw 500 of them throughout the course of the day. Birds were plentiful: golden eagles, curlews, geese, Eider ducks, peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, rough legged hawks, ptarmigan, gulls and of course, Arctic terns. A fox with a huge bushy tail trotted past, unaware of us. A chill west wind had us racing to bed just before midnight.

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Blustery and gray as it was, changing into dry clothes was our priority, so I didn’t make my customary binocular scan before we called it camp. Then Govi and I both heard a whirring sound. I quickly glassed the basin above us. A peculiar shape caught my eye, far up on a ridge. I watched. It moved ever so slightly. “No,” I thought, “that was just my imagination.” I watched harder, steadying my field glasses on a paddle. Two pinnacle rocks near the shape-shifter clearly moved, and then I could see them running about, sparring and playing. “I think there’s a mama bear and two cubs up there,” I said to Govi. “Then let’s get the hell out of here,” he replied.

I packed promptly before taking another look through the glasses. Clearly, there was a creature perched on the ridge that occasionally shifted its position. Even more clearly, there were two smaller creatures, brown in color, that raced about, playing tag. I thought I saw a tail on one of them. “Wait a minute, those might be wolverines.” But it was too late. This camp was ruined. We got on the water and kept paddling. It was a rather inglorious first-sighting of a wild wolverine, but I’m grateful for it just the same. Add it to the list of first’s for me on this trip: caribou, trumpeter swan, gyrfalcon, the Ipewik River, Arctic wilderness. We’re definitely not in canyon country anymore.

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The upper north fork of the Ipewik River was 50 cfs. Marginal. Still, compared to walking under a heavy pack, floating is almost always better. We launched, scraping over gravel bars and occasionally hoisting our boats to deeper channels while walking alongside.
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For an hour and a half it was slow progress down the uppermost Ipewik, and then came the much anticipated south fork. It tripled our flow, and brought a moment of elation. Now we knew that the Ipewik, unknown and unrun, speculated to be too low, would go. This was a runnable river. Our walking was over. So many unknowns vanished at that moment, our relief produced a burst of shouts and high-fives. We still had a hundred and something miles of Arctic wilderness ahead, but it would be a river trip from this point forward. We can do this!

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A welcome river breeze cooled us as we drifted and spun in lazy circles down the swift Kukpowruk. By 2 pm we pulled in at the clear Sooner River confluence, having made over twenty miles in just four hours. Just like that, we were back on schedule. With an odd mix of reluctance and anticipation, I packed up my raft and re-tooled for hiking mode. This was the start of our link route between the Kukpowruk and the Ipewik, the crux of the trip.
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Climbing a gentle ridge, the green snow-dotted Arctic expanse opened around us. Peaks of the Brooks Range rose far to the south. Northward, flat topped mesas hemmed massive valleys. It could’ve been the Colorado Plateau, but it was all green, and there were bugs.
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The mosquitos really didn’t get a foothold until we stopped to watch, and wait, for two bears. They spotted us from a half-mile away, and started trotting in our direction. Govi and I dropped our packs as the bears disappeared in a gulch a quarter-mile distant, and enough time went by to make us think they’d veered away. We were thinking of continuing our hike when they re-appeared—too damn close in my binoculars—at 200 yards.
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The yearling made me chuckle as it shook and romped. The mama bear zig-zagged toward us, slowly approaching at an angle. For an instant, her head dropped and she came straight at us. I said to Govi, who carried the shotgun, “get ready to fire a warning shot.” But then she swerved off again, the youngster wheeling about cluelessly. Mama bear stood and sniffed. I held up my arms and called, “hey bear.” They paced and grunted, eighty yards now. For a dozen seconds everyone—bears and humans—seemed to be wondering what would happen next, nobody really in control of their own destiny. I moved to my pack and back, trying to help her figure us out. They started to angle away, then trotted over the ridge. We breathed a sigh and discussed our next move, as the bears were now directly in our route of travel.

They re-appeared a half-mile above us, sat down, and started watching. It was a stand-off, both parties waiting for the other to leave. After several minutes, we shouldered our packs for a new route around the opposite side of the mountain. The mosquitos followed us in swarms. At a breezy edge that provided some relief from the bugs, we glassed the next valley carefully, finally deciding that the two bright spots in the distance were grass hummock, and not our bears. Into the evening, we strode across the vast grassy landscape.plateau or arctic

At 8 pm, a flat of exposed dirt offered an opportunity to bug-proof our floorless tent. We spent the next half-hour digging a trench in the hard-pack so we could bury the tent edges. As we dug in a relentless searing sun, skeeters buzzing around our heads, Govi said, “strangely enough, I’m enjoying this.” Miserable as it was, I couldn’t disagree. This was the biggest country I’d ever seen. Long open valleys were flanked by sharp edged mesas and dome shaped hills rising a thousand feet above the plain. To the north, a flatness in the far distance indicated the Arctic Ocean. Westward, mountains faded into the horizon.
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When Govi crawled into the bug-sealed tent at 11 pm, the sun still beamed relentlessly. I asked him how it was in there and he replied, “sort of like a sauna.” It was at least 95 degrees inside. We both lay on our backs totally naked, dripping with sweat.

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I fell asleep as our dinner bear slowly ambled downstream, still close, but sufficiently fed and uninterested in us. Morning brought us to a tributary basin straight out of Hobbitt-land. Towering snow draped peaks reflected in meltwater ponds, and a small river raced down the middle of the scene.
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It was early afternoon by the time we crested the Brooks Range, and caught our first glimpse of the Kukpowruk. The view was instantly disheartening. The river emerged from a gully of snow, only to cut a slot canyon beneath the whiteness. It was mostly runnable, but there was no escape from the cleft, and the occasional death-sieve lurked. Our walk continued.
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The change in environment on the north side of the Brooks Range was immediately apparent. Hills were rounder. Strange swooping birds were prevalent. A cold Arctic breeze blew past whenever we stopped at creek confluences.
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We were wearing down. Plunging through rotten snowfields, our shoulders were screaming for relief from the packs. At last we saw no death traps ahead on the river, and we put in. The joy of floating was as real as I’ve ever felt it. We zoomed past scenery that was previously gained only with step after agonizing step, and we watched the river grow from 300 cfs to 1300 cfs in just six miles. Buoyed by the realization of a runnable river, we floated until 9 pm before making camp.

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From my journal: “As I sit to write this, a grizzly bear has taken up residence as our neighbor, separated only by a shallow braided river and 300 yards of foot, or paw, distance. Govi, somewhat unconcerned after regularly seeing bears for two days now, is busy cooking over a fire. For its part, the griz hasn’t yet noticed us. Or perhaps it has, and could care less.”

The arrival of a grizzly at dinner should have come as no surprise. On our first scan of the place we would dub “valley of the bears,” I spotted a bear steadily marching down the middle of the wide green boulevard. Once past, we continued. Pausing at the next rise to see if the coast was clear, we found it wasn’t. A white-headed grizzly lolled along, a half-mile away. When it came across a snowmelt puddle amidst the green expanse, it took a cooling dip, shaking like a dog afterward.
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“Now, as shadows fall on our valley, the bruin has apparently had enough, because it has hunkered down for a nap. I wish we could. A greater nagging concern is our schedule. We have been behind from the start. We’re pushing hard, and tonight we’re cooked, again. Will we make up time tomorrow? With the crossing of the Brooks Range before us, it promises to be a slow and difficult morning. Will we launch on the Kukpowruk soon? Will there be ice portages? There are many unknowns, and they don’t even include the grizzly bear, snoozing away just a 3-iron shot from camp.”

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It was late morning before the clouds lifted, and Eric bellowed from behind his desk, “Well, Tyler, you wanna go?” We looked over our landing options once more, quickly, and loaded into a Cessna 206. He swerved and banked as we flew up the Kelly River, looking carefully for backup landing options. There weren’t many, but our grass bench, fortunately, looked okay. After circling the flat, Eric glided in and put it down. Govi handed him several one-hundred dollar bills for his share of the flight. With a “good luck,” and a handshake, Eric was off, a tiny humming speck against a backdrop of snowy mountains.
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Walking was a mix of pleasant grassy flats, soggy bunch-grass tussocks, and river crossings. We managed sketchy waist-deep wades at two of them, but inflated the pack rafts for the main Kelly River channel. Straining beneath too-heavy loads (50+ pounds for me, 60+ for Govi) we followed a small drainage toward a pass; linking caribou trails across steep slopes, crossing slick snow slopes, tip-toeing over snow-bridged creeks above the sound of rushing whitewater. At the pass, we took a break in warm afternoon sun. It was 7 pm.
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Camp overlooked an un-named valley with an isolated peak rising within its crescent, reminiscent of Colorado’s Crested Butte. After dinner, I spotted a grizzly in the binoculars, probably two-miles away by land. Two caribou grazed lower down the valley, and a second griz wandered along a willow-lined creek on the far side of the basin.

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The low throttle and dropped flaps of the 737 told me it was landing time, but looking out the window I couldn’t see anything but white cloud. Land suddenly burst into view at three-hundred-feet. I saw airplanes anchored along an airstrip and immediately thought, “we’re not gonna make THAT runway.” Seconds later the engines gunned to full and we again entered the cloud. The pilot explained the obvious—it was too foggy to see the airstrip. We would go around for another try. You could feel the tension throughout the plane, entangling each of us strangers into a web of shared wire-tight nerves. The second go-round was a repeat of the first, and this time the pilot said we were leaving Nome behind and heading for Kotzebue, the next runway northbound, my destination. I tried to keep my fist-pumps concealed from the Nome-bound passengers.
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Even if it was 48-degrees and raining, I was plenty happy to be on the ground. Govi, who came in on the earlier flight, walked me over to Golden Eagle Aviation, where pilots Jared and Eric stood beside a giant topo map that hung on the wall. I explained our route in the type of detail that can only be conveyed with a map before you, and they gave us options. “This is all iced up,” Eric pointed, “and that gravel bar is still flooded.” Our best option looked to be a grass bench near the Kelly River. It was several miles upstream and east of our intended drop-off, but it would work. In any case, we weren’t going anywhere for a while. The rain continued, and the clouds remained glued to the mountains.
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We passed the evening at the flight service, gobbling up leftover spaghetti from an Arctic Wild canoe trip who waited on the weather with us, and hanging with our new guide friends, Greg and Cynthia. I ran Grand Canyon with Cynthia fourteen years ago, and hadn’t seen her since. We caught up while stirring the pasta. Such is the life of a guide.

at the seaWe planned on twelve days, and gave ourselves fourteen, so when we finished in ten and a half with only one day of lunch food left, we were plenty pleased to be ahead of schedule. After waiting on the weather for twenty-four hours at the start of our trip, we started out behind. Then include a landing farther afield than our proposed drop-off location due to high water that submerged gravel bar landing sites, and we were behind further. Two and a half days later, we remained behind schedule. I began to analyze “escape” routes out of the Arctic wilderness that might deliver us to an Inupiat village before we ran of of time, or food. As I scanned the map, I realized our entire trek was an “escape.” Altering our route might have saved a day or two, and then again, maybe not.
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So, on day four when we disembarked the Kukpowruk River ahead of schedule, the relief was real. Our route would go after all. We just had to keep pushing. Camp was pitched at almost 10 pm that evening. Twenty-four hour daylight is a nice luxury to have when you need to make miles.

In the end, John Govi and I walked into the tiny village of Point Hope, Alaska a day ahead of schedule. The Lisburne Traverse—we’ll call it a success.

Much thanks to our sponsors who made it a heck of a lot easier to pull this little adventure off: Kokatat watersports wear, Osprey packs, Werner paddles, Sazzi sandals

The Stats
River Miles: 185
Hiking Miles: 35
Total Miles: 220

Source to Seas: 1
First Descents: 1 ?*
Days: 10.5
Highest Temperature: 85 degrees
Lowest Temperature: 30 degrees
Lowest CFS paddled: 50
Highest CFS paddled: 5,000
Number of caribou spotted: 600
Number of grizzly bears spotted: 9
Number of wolverines spotted: 3

*We did find a piece of fiberglass along the river, several miles upstream from the Kukpuk confluence on the Ipewik’s lower reaches. Whether it was from a plane or a canoe, we know not. Also, the Ipewik is a low gradient river, and natives almost certainly paddled upstream and down on hunting forays, for centuries. Although we might be the first party to travel this river from its source, and possibly the first outsiders to run it, we were hardly the first to travel on the Ipewik.

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