Waiting / by Caroline Van Hemert

Boots, thermos, stove, warm clothes, canoe, more food.  These are the treats that we hope will arrive via floatplane today as we wait for our resupply on the Noatak River.  After our last post we decided to give Ariel one more try, dreading the alternative and hopeful that the rain had melted some of the snow up high.  It soon became apparent that this was not the case and rain turned to sleet and then a full blown blizzard as we reached the 6300 foot summit ridge.  With dense, knee deep snow and heavy fog, we didn’t feel we could traverse down the other side safely.  A slip could be fatal and we worried about avalanches from the slabs above so were forced to retreat.  That evening, as we left the Arrigetch valley, it poured and snow line dropped to 3500 feet.  Clearly this wasn’t the sort of weather we could afford to wait out. So we crashed through the bushes, finding occasional game trails but mostly slow laborious travel as we climbed up and down many thousands of feet across drainages.  With continued rain and snow, the hillsides gushed water and we inflated our rafts to cross the flooded Awlinyak Creek.  Finally cresting out of creek, we reached a beautiful ridge and passed caribou grazing in the high country.  For the first time in many days, we ate dinner without rain.  By the next morning the drizzle had started again and it rained on and off as we hiked up an unnamed creek to Akabluak Pass.  Here we headed west over a steep rocky 5000 foot gap that would lead us to the Noatak drainage.

Bad enough when wet, this big, loose talus felt downright treacherous covered in 4-5 inches of snow.  The descent was much worse, taking nearly two hours to slip and slide our way down a seemingly endless jumble of refrigerator to car sized rocks.  By the time we reached the tundra below, a bit bruised but with joints intact, the fog had rolled in and it was nearly dark.  We hiked down a bit and then decided to camp, exhausted and cold.  We were only three miles downhill to the Noatak River but the fun wasn’t over yet.  In the tent, we heard the characteristic quieting of pounding rain turning to snow as we shivered our way through a mostly sleepless night.  We rose to a layer of ice and snow, our socks and shoes frozen solid.  As we picked our way gingerly down the rocky slope, we wondered if winter had come to stay.  Though a bit of snow and cold is not normally a crisis, we are traveling light and are woefully underdressed in wet running shoes and thin jackets.

When we finally reached the stunning Noatak Valley, we felt rung out but relieved and happy – this had turned out to be quite a hurdle.  We made our way down the river to our resupply point at 12 Mile Lake, alternately walking in the sun and then boating in the rain.  Today the clouds have lifted a little bit and we are hopefully the skies will clear in Bettles so that our plane can arrive.  In the meantime, we’re watching a grizzly dig up roots on the other side of the lake and trying not to eat the last of our food.