Chapter 1: Entering New Terrain
Late July in Alaska’s Central Brooks Range. Camped alone a few miles from the Arctic Divide, I huddle in my sleeping bag while wind-driven sheets of rain soak the landscape, pelt my tent. It’s been raining like this, off and on, for at least 10 hours. Five of the trip’s first seven days have now been mostly rainy and overcast. Strange weather, it seems, for a so-called “Arctic desert.” Depressing.
I began the day with ambitious goals. But plans to scramble up a nearby mountain were themselves scrambled by prolonged downpours that quickly waterlogged my aging and not-so-water-resistant rain gear. Being a flexible sort with no strict schedule to keep, I retreated to my dry and snug shelter, which has so far proved marvelously rain proof. Instead of ridge walking, I’ve napped, re-read parts of Robert Marshall’s classic book about the Brooks Range, Alaska Wilderness, written copiously in my journal, and fretted about my journey.
I hate to admit it, but Dad apparently was right: I am a worrywart. “Just like your mother,” he’d hasten to add if here with me. Too much time spent holed up in a tent, especially when alone, inevitably leads to too much thinking and consequent anxieties. I worry that I haven’t brought sufficient food and fuel for my two-week trip. I worry that animals – ground squirrels as much a grizzlies – may discover and invade my food stash. I worry that my blistered feet will worsen. But mostly I worry about the difficulties of fording the rain-swollen North Fork of the Koyukuk, a major river crossing that is still four days away.
Bob Marshall, I’m certain, wouldn’t be plagued by such uncertainties. In fact he would probably be out exploring this valley right now, soaking wet or not.
Thoughts of Marshall are interrupted by muted conversation that drifts into the tent with the splash of rain. I’ve already heard human voices, or something like them, a number of times while marching alone through these mountains, so I figure my imagination is acting up again. Until I hear shouts.
Craning my neck, I peek out the tent’s mosquito netting and glimpse four ghostly shapes approaching from the south, an amazing sight. They seem to be zeroed in on me. “Hey,” one yells, “anybody in there?” A couple of minutes later, four bedraggled guys stand beside the tent. Normally I feel let down when meeting other parties in remote wilderness, my desire for solitude compromised. Not tonight, though. I’m intrigued by any group of trekkers who’d be traveling on a stormy night like this. And these guys seem a good-natured, jovial bunch, even in their drenching.
Poking my upper body through the partly unzipped door, I introduce myself, then ask their names and where they’ve come from, where they’re bound. The answer shocks me: Thor Tingey, Phillip Weidner, Sam Newbury, and Dan Dryden are in the midst of a 500-mile, 46-day expedition. They began their Brooks Range crossing July 3 at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Canning River and will end it Aug. 19 at the Eskimo village of Kobuk, far to the west. Led by Thor, a recent college grad, the group’s primary aim is to see lots of country while going light and fast. “We’re taking what you might call a minimalist approach to gear,” he explains. “And we want to see how fast we can push ourselves.” A series of food drops allows them to carry 40- to 60-pound packs, loads that include small pack rafts and two firearms. My gear, to start, totaled nearly 70 pounds, minus any raft or gun.
Backpacking and sometimes floating rivers, they’re moving eight to ten hours a day, averaging 12 miles. With few rest days in its schedule, the group doesn’t have the flexibility to sit out storm-wracked days (or nights), unless conditions become severe. Even then, it depends on how you define severe. Tonight, for instance, is pretty darn miserable, but these spirited twentysomething guys are shrugging it off. I’m impressed. And delighted I don’t have to be anywhere else in this downpour.
We compare notes, exchange tips. I tell them what I know about the Anaktuvuk River Valley, which they’ll reach just a couple miles from here. They tell me not to fret about the North Fork; there’s a braided section where the river didn’t come much above their knees, even after several days of rain.
A half-hour quickly passes. Now cooled and shivering, they’re eager to get moving again. I watch them merge into rain and fog, four phantom figures walking slowly, stoically, side-by-side, bundled up against the storm. Finally they top a rise and drop out of sight, as if swallowed by the gloom and wilderness. Something akin to an eerie, haunting loneliness rises in me as they disappear. We’ve had a momentary crossing of paths, then resumed our separate journeys and destinies. Yet I feel a kinship with them. As I contemplate these notions, mythologist Joseph Campbell comes to mind, particularly his descriptions of “the hero’s journey” and the quest for a Holy Grail. There is something heroic in what those four are doing.
My quest is modest by comparison, though it poses its own set of challenges and risks. At 50 years old, I am doing the longest backpack of my life: fifty miles in two weeks, across mostly untrailed wilderness, much of it wet and tussocky. And I’m doing it entirely alone. Never have I gone so long without human company (though once, in graduate school, I considered becoming a hermit). So I’m pushing personal borders, entering new terrain. The landscape is new to me, too, although I’ve previously flown over these hills and valleys and spent time in neighboring drainages. Much of my route roughly retraces Bob Marshall’s explorations through the Graylime Creek, Ernie Creek, and North Fork valleys in 1929 and 1930, with one key difference: I’m approaching from the opposite direction, moving north to south. Marshall began his travels at Wiseman, an early 1900s gold-boom town along the Koyukuk River’s Middle Fork. My starting point, the Nunamiut Eskimo village of Anaktuvuk Pass, didn’t even exist then.
Some have called the Brooks Range the continent’s “ultimate mountains,” with good reason. Largely because of their remote, far-north location, these mountains are among the most lightly touched by humans. For most of their history, they’ve been beyond the reach of most people, except for the hardiest of explorers and treasure seekers and even hardier indigenous tribes. And since 1980 their wild character has been protected by a string of parks, preserves, and refuges that encompass many millions of acres of wilderness lands and waters.
Though I’ve explored its eastern and western portions, I feel most closely connected to Central Brooks Range, first made famous by Marshall’s writings and wilderness advocacy. This is where I first entered the range and where I fell in love with far north landscapes, with Alaska. On this trip I will see for the first time many of the places that Marshall mapped, named, and so vividly described in Alaska Wilderness, a book that helped to reshape my life so many years ago: the Valley of Precipices, Mount Doonerak, Boreal Mountain, Frigid Crags.
Born and raised in New York City in the early 1900s, Bob Marshall was an exuberant, people-loving person who felt a life-long pull to wild, unpeopled, and unexplored places. He came north to the Central Brooks Range in 1929, drawn by “what seemed on the map to be the most unknown section of Alaska.” The Brooks Range fulfilled and inspired him, while deepening his vision for wilderness preservation, a vision that greatly influenced America’s 20th century environmental movement.
The route I’m following passes through the heart of Marshall country, now one of the grandest areas within 8.4-million-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, widely considered the preeminent wilderness of our nation’s system of parklands by those who’ve come to know it. If I am to fully appreciate the magnificence of Gates, I can hardly ignore Marshall’s “Koyukuk Country.”
There are other reasons I’ve come here, less easy to articulate. Just as it did with Marshall, and arguably more so, the Central Brooks Range has played a pivotal role in my life. In a way, this landscape turned my life around, set me on a new and unexpected path, while crystallizing for me the importance – and power – of raw, immense wilderness. Over the past quarter century, it has remained a source of hope and inspiration and challenge. So this journey is both something of a celebration and a quest for greater understanding. I want to better comprehend why wilderness matters so much to me and other like-minded (and hearted) souls. And, immersed in wildness, I hope to better know my own wild nature.
When Marshall came here, few people had ever set foot in these valleys. Those who did were usually Nunamiut hunters or solitary prospectors, sometimes never heard from again. Nowadays, scores of wilderness adventurers pass this way each year; though that’s a small number by Lower 48 standards, it’s heavy usage for the Alaskan Arctic. Many begin their travels at Anaktuvuk Pass, backpack to the North Fork, and then fly or float to Bettles, a remote outpost and regional transportation hub south of the range. But even along this well-established route, it’s possible to go days without seeing another person. The four who passed through my camp tonight were the first humans I’ve encountered in a week of trekking. Now, once again, I’m alone with my thoughts and notes and questions. Alone, deep in the wilderness. For all my earlier worries, that simple thought now calms me.
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