Rain...heavy at times by Caroline Van Hemert

We're in Yakutat getting ready to head out for a ski/packraft traverse in the morning. Definitely more folks here looking for steelhead fishing than skiing. With a deluge outside, everyone is talking about the spring "monsoons"--at least the weather is predictable!

If all goes according to plan, we hope to end at our cabin outside of Haines in 3 weeks or so. Fingers crossed for some sunshine.

Back by popular demand...Northern Limits show April 30th by Caroline Van Hemert

We are partnering with the American Packrafting Association to present another showing of Northern Limits on April 30th, 7pm at the Snow Goose Theater. The box office will open for ticket sales at 6pm. We hope to have advance ticket sales available online soon, but for now, please email me with your reservation request: caro_van@yahoo.com.

Hope to see you there!

Northern Limits show update by Caroline Van Hemert

Thanks to everyone who came to last night's presentation at the Snow Goose! And many apologies to those of you who weren't able to get tickets after the show sold out. Because of the huge turnout, we are planning another event for the end of the month. Please stay tuned, we will have more information coming in the next couple of days. In case you missed the recent article in the Anchorage Daily News, you can find a link here: http://www.adn.com/2013/04/13/2863873/extreme-trekkers-anchorage-couple.html

And a radio piece on APRN: http://www.alaskapublic.org/2013/04/09/alaskan-couple-completes-mega-traverse/

Nat Geo Weekend & other highlights by Caroline Van Hemert

Our journey from Bellingham to Kotzebue is featured this week on the National Geographic Weekend radio program. You never know what someone might ask! Check it out via XM radio, Podcast, local stations or listen here: National Geographic Weekend March 3, 2013

We had a blast presenting at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival and several other locations in BC and Washington. Thanks to everyone who attended and for the great feedback! We're working on organizing a spring show in Anchorage and possibly Fairbanks (any leads on venues would be appreciated). Please stay tuned!

Several recent articles about our trip and the "Northern Limits" show:

Cascadia weekly Feb 2013 ARTICLE ONLY

Cascadia Weekly

Bellingham Herald

Vancouver's North Shore News

Presentations in Pacific NW by Caroline Van Hemert

We will be hosting presentations about our recent journey at several venues in the Pacific Northwest in February. Please join us if you're in the area or share this information with others who might be interested.

We hope to organize an Anchorage show soon, so please stay tuned.

Dear Gram and Gramps by Caroline Van Hemert


Dear Gram and Gramps,

We find ourselves on an airplane, the Alaskan landscape slides by below, and the tears well in our eyes. 4,000 miles across this land, what a journey it has been.

Love, Pat

Landscape and movement have been the essence of this experience. As the canoe slid past gravel bars on the Noatak River we retraced our route from Bellingham Bay, past islands, up misty fjords, over glaciers, down rivers, along sandy beaches, and between mountains. We recalled each campsite with the exception of only three that we will have to look up in our notes. It was fun to take turns helping the other recall a place we slept. The names of bays and creeks often escaped our memory while the shape and space of our surroundings came easily, usually prompted by experience and conditions. “Remember, there was a cliff behind a rocky beach? We were worried the tent was too close to the tide line…Oh, right, with that beaver swimming along the shoreline. And in the morning the winds shifted south again.”

I first came to Alaska in 1999 straight from high school.  The year I spent remote and alone, building a cabin and experiencing one area through the changing of seasons, had been a dream as a boy. Along our journey I often thought back to this experience 12 years ago. Both were rooted in a desire to leave the tangle of roads for wild places. Such solo experiences are powerful, but, the aloneness can also create a sense that they happened in a vacuum. Caroline and I collectively came up with this one, a joint dream realized by both of our strengths. I shaped wood into boats while she researched our route and counted calories. Separately we carried our loads and rode the backs of waves. Together we navigated our way, fought off a bear, and stayed warm.

Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes it seems like a snowpack—each storm cycle laying another layer of memories and experiences over the previous, the new pushing on the old, deforming and bonding. Weak layers from the past can threaten the stability of the present. Over time, the edges become softened and muddled with new and old. The challenges downplayed, and sense of wonder and awe faded. The beauty of this journey is shared, a joint memory between Caroline and me that hopefully many years later we can prompt each other to recall and relive. And the feeling of the experience will always be there. No doubt we will try to find it again. I hope we do. For me it’s the movement, the always going, never the same camp, laying back on the oars in the morning or shouldering a pack. Mind consumed by the texture of the landscape with a glimpse ahead. Each wave and tussock and creek and ridge negotiated, always another horizon. The enormity of the challenge too big to comprehend so focus on holding this caribou trail.


ImageThis blog started as an uncertain, last-minute affair, published only hours before we pushed off from Bellingham Bay. We figured it would serve mainly as an outlet for informing our friends and families about our progress. Somehow, over 6 months and 4,000 miles, it evolved into something much more meaningful.  Often, it was a challenge to send updates—we relied heavily on borrowed computers and spotty internet connections, my brother’s patience for deciphering garbled satellite phone messages, and the generosity of village offices and community centers.  But there has always been so much that we wanted to tell, an urgency to sharing our experiences.  As we walked or boated or lay in the tent straining to hear the drone of a plane engine that would signal the end of our hungry wait, I imagined an endless stream of stories.  My journal entries grew exponentially longer as each day I noticed something new about the landscape or heard yet another incredible tale of grit and survival. Even after six months of near-constant companionship, we still had so much to talk about, both to each other and to others.

We wondered at the movements of hawks and caribou, traced the changes of permafrost in slumping banks, wrestled with the complex cultural and subsistence issues faced by rural Alaskan villages. After several years of graduate school (my PhD defense and submissions to scientific journals still fresh in my mind) I felt that I had entered a crash course of another sort. One that demanded all of my attention, reintroduced an awareness that only children seem to know. Naturally, our excitement found its way into our blog entries, which, like my journal, grew longer and more detailed. In return, to our delighted surprise, we heard from many of you. This interchange offered a sense of connection that has been quite a gift.

But now, for the first time, I am finding it difficult to write an entry. Perhaps it is simply too easy to slip back into the comforts that we usually take for granted; perhaps our parting from this experience is still too raw to acknowledge. Being out on the land, in wild, sparsely populated places, it seems perfectly reasonable to whoop with excitement or relief, to cry from frustration or joy or pain, to spill your guts to a stranger. The moment dictated the response. I felt a deeper sense of love and affection for people I know well, and for those I’d just met, than I can even begin to describe. I felt the purpose of movement as caribou streamed past, heedless of our presence.  I felt the heady rush of summer in the Arctic, a flush of life that would disappear almost as quickly as it arrived in a flurry of wings and hooves. I felt the breath of winter as it swept down the hillsides. I felt the power of the sublime each day. I felt the embodiment of humility and grace. Many days I also felt cold and tired and hungry and occasionally scared. But in every moment of every day I felt so very alive.

This was planned as a journey, so we knew it had to end. But this didn’t mean we would ever really be ready.  I can’t help but think that the bad weather and bad bear and hungry wait conspired to help make this transition easier—a little dose of tough love.  As the string of challenges seemed to stack up over the past month, my sister knows us well enough to think with a bit of relief, “Well, at least they won’t decide to keep walking to Nome.”  And she was right. As we paddled the last stretch, my dad silhouetted on the bridge to town, we knew we had made it to the end, at least for now. Somehow, we had managed to walk and boat and ski the thousands of miles that, six months before, had existed only as a line drawn on a series of maps taped to the walls, snaking from one room to the next. But of course it’s not the goal that truly motivates the journey, and the final destination becomes just one more stop along the way. Except that, suddenly, everything has to change. Many of the changes are incredibly welcome—family, friends, fresh foods, ceramic mugs, answers to some of our burning questions. Others are harder to accept—the usual backlog of administrative tasks, the absence of birdsong, the burden of too much stuff. Our next challenge is to carry with us the patience and kindness and humility we experienced over the past several months. We have thank you cards to write, emails to return, gear to clean, and many hours to share with friends and family, who have made us feel so welcome already. We have tears to brush away as our feet meet carpet rather than tundra, as we wake with a start to unfamiliar sounds and recall the thousands of swans that converged for our final morning crossing.

***MORE PHOTOS ARE ON THE WAY! Now that we have reliable and easy computer and internet access, we will be adding more to the blog—a better trip overview, maps, captioned photos, many thank yous. And this venture has inspired us to post photos and trip reports from some of our previous adventures.  We plan to put together a slide show soon and will work on related projects in the coming months (video, writing). Please let us know if you are interested in this or have suggestions for venues. Also, we know many of you already but if we crossed paths with you only briefly, or not at all, it would be a pleasure to say hello.

Kotzebue by Caroline Van Hemert

We paddled in sunshine to the very last town stop on our journey. It was impossible to prepare for the wave of emotions that touched us in the final miles--joy, relief, nostalgia, sadness, love.  Our small but poignant welcoming party waved from the bridge above. What a lovely treat to have my dad present to celebrate this moment with us. Many thanks for all your kind words & positive wishes. Stay tuned--we'll post more thoughts & photos soon. And we promise to add these before wading through a mountain of mail.

Chukchi Sea by Caroline Van Hemert

From 9/8/12 Sunshine & seawater! After weeks of gray, today our eyes remembered the colors of a big arctic sky.  As we neared the Chukchi Sea, hundreds of swans with golden necks and wings on fire gathered in the setting sun. We poked out into Kotzebue Sound but were turned back by wind chop and the fading light. So we are waiting until morning to cross, hoping for calm weather. Looking out at the aurora dancing above what should be our last campsite, it is hard to believe the end is so near.

Homecoming by Caroline Van Hemert

The adventure is finally coming to a close. Caroline and Pat will be arriving in Anchorage on Monday evening. They'll be having an open house at Willy and Rose's house beginning at 6:30. They look forward to sharing their excitement and stories. We hope to see you tomorrow. Blog entries from their final days on the river should be posted soon. 

Noatak by Caroline Van Hemert

We are on a quick stop for coffee and conversation at the Noatak Bingo Hall before heading out on our last 78 miles to Kotzebue.  Yesterday, in heavy rain and wind, the smell of wood smoke beckoned from the first cabin we’d seen on the river.  Ricky Ashby welcomed us with hot tea and caribou soup as we relaxed in his hand carved chairs.  He lives here alone for most of the year with no motors, no communication, subsisting on berries, fish and caribou.  He knew the many stops along our journey well, his extended family scattered throughout the arctic.  He told us a story of travel that would humble any modern day adventurer.  In the 1930’s, his grandparents, Inupiat from Noatak village, took a dog team to Wrangell Island in search of fox furs.  While on this reconnaissance  trip the Russian border closed and they were stranded on the wrong side.  They were forced to make their way around the globe, an epic journey that took them through Moscow, Tokyo, London, New York and Seattle.  Finally, two years later they returned home.  We never cease to be amazed.

Delayed for a reason by Caroline Van Hemert

Yesterday, our journey perfectly intersected a movement of life so powerful and awe-inspiring that it will stand out as an experience of a lifetime.  The days waiting with empty stomachs and detours around snowy mountains suddenly seemed fortuitous.  We had been delayed for a reason. We heard tendons clicking and brush cracking as more caribou moved towards us.  We crouched down to hide beneath a willow as they came from all sides.  A calf sniffed us, curious, and we could have reached out and touched it.  Several others stepped carefully over our outstretched legs.  As we sat motionless, brown eyes glanced sideways, muscles flexed beneath skin, bodies steaming in the cool air.  Wave after wave of animals converged at the river bank, plunged in, and swam across.  They floated head to tail, cows and calves tightly paired in the swift water.  We were embedded in their migration for hours, hearing them snort, seeing them react to the obstacle ahead, and smelling their presence.

The western arctic caribou herd is said to be a quarter of a million strong – as we watched, perhaps a couple of thousand passed.  A nearly constant stream of animals continued until it was too dark to see and we could only hear their splashing and quiet grunts.  Over the past several months we have grown to admire the caribou, our clumsy steps constantly in search of their routes.  The privilege of witnessing a herd in such an intimate setting with their dynamics and decision making unfolding in front of us, has brought a sense of completeness to this experience.