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Monthly Archives: July 2017

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We deflated the rafts and rigged our packs over lunch. It was time to go hiking again.

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Onto a long ridge, we walked over clay and flat rocks. The smoothness of the footing was contrasted by the coarseness of the wind. It blew steadily from the south, howling across the ridge at 40, 50, perhaps 60 miles per hour. A gust in Pt. Lay was recorded during the period at over 60 mph, and winds were surely stronger atop the ridge where we walked. Each of us were nearly knocked over more than once.

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Dropping over the edge of the ridge, I felt the wind drop. There was some flat ground here too, so we pitched tents as a rainbow formed over the valley below. When our tents weren’t rippling from spillover gusts, we could hear the wind on the ridge above us, roaring like the rumble of a big rapid.

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Another long day brought us to the Kukpowruk, and the first blue sky in 36 hours. The clearing skies had no effect on the wind. We surfed and ruddered downstream with relative ease, but always on guard to not get sideways and flipped by a powerful gust. At a severe left bend, we were forced ashore. Here the river ran southwest, meaning the wind raced upstream. There was no paddling against it. We deflated our boats.

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Fortunately the bend only lasted a half-mile. Small grizzly tracks led down the beach and across the tundra to a small gravel and mud cove where we re-inflated, and paddled onward.

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The snow dappled Brooks Range faded behind us as wide vistas of tundra beckoned ahead. Camp came on a breezy gravel bar. A long mesa called Poko Mountain glowed in the northwest. We sat by the fire past midnight, unwilling to say goodnight to the beauty.

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Slow but steady, we floated the small upper Kokolik with plenty of wildlife distractions. A golden eagle soared nearby. A peregrine falcon flapped overhead. A red fox stared from the bank, then dashed away upstream. When Lisa turned and pointed, I fumbled for the shotgun, but somehow I knew it wasn’t a bear. A musk-ox stood up from its bed, staring at us with droopy eyes and a dangling coat, a helmet of horn and curved yellowing tusks.

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Wildlife watching was at a minimum the next day as we hunkered beneath our raincoats, chasing Lisa downstream through cold rain and occasional hail. After the river penetrated some hill country near Tupikchak Mountain, a bedrock shelf appeared. Chilled, we pulled ashore, grabbing handfuls of driftwood.

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When the rain stopped, the wind began. It pushed us downstream, out of the hills and into a transverse valley that the river cut directly across. Jer pointed out a group of caribou on a hillside, then fifty of them crossed the river in front of us.

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Two hundred feet above the river, we stood in the wind and looked over a valley sprinkled with migrating caribou. The nearby herds caught our eyes first; 50 here, 100 there, 20 crossing the river over there. Then as we looked farther across the broad valley with binoculars, the movement of white and tan animals seemed to appear everywhere; in the bottoms, on the slopes, a long string of them trailing out of sight over the eastern horizon. My rough estimate came to 5,000 ungulates.

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Lisa and Jer were already past the bear. Had I not said anything it would’ve let us stroll on past, its head buried in the bushes. But my instinct was to warn my companions, so when I called, “bear,” it looked up. I clambered for the shotgun, struggling with my pack, my tangled binoculars, a tricky fast-tex buckle. Fortunately there was no need for that. The bear looked in our direction quizically, then turned and romped away.

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Flying from Kotzebue to the south side of the Brooks Range with pilot Eric Sieh of Arctic Backcountry Flying Service, our goal was to access the highest reaches of the Kokolik River. To do so, we would have to cross the DeLong Mountains (named after George DeLong, profiled in the bestseller In the Kingdom of Ice). After hours of Google Earth study, I reconciled our proposed route with topographic maps to find we would be penetrating an escarpment called “Inaccessible Ridge.” That title made the endeavor virtually irresistible.

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Waking in bright dusk at 3 a.m., I felt a wetness at my feet. The rain had picked up, and the tent fly was leaking. Droplets of water hung on the mesh inner tent before plummeting onto our sleeping bags, and soaking in. I reached for the rain jackets and draped them over us as a desperate second barrier. The storm backed off to a mist just soon enough. Once we got a fire going, we lingered.

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A tributary one mile below camp provided enough water to float our pack rafts. We were glad for that. Hiking on that misty morning led across a boggy seeping earth, step by squishy step. By comparison, river travel was easy, even if we had to drag past the occasional gravel bar. With any luck, we’d soon be floating full time, riding the Kokolik beyond the Brooks Range, and onto the vast tundra expanse of the North Slope.

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