Brooks Range

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.

Swift Travel by Caroline Van Hemert

We are making our way down the Noatak, now more than 150 river miles from its head waters.  Along the way, we passed a grizzly sow lounging with her cub on the river bank, saw dozens of Dahl sheep grazing on rocky knolls, and woke a sleeping musk ox with a startled snort.  Harriers and rough-legged hawks float above the tundra and flocks of snow geese pass noisily overhead.  On a rare clear night, we heard wolves yapping under a nearly full moon as shadows danced on our frosty tent. The boxes we packed half a year ago contained most of what we remembered and we’re loving the luxuries of a stove and plenty of food.  The only intruder on an otherwise pleasant river trip is the weather.  It has now been three weeks since we’ve seen a day without significant precipitation – mostly rain, sometimes sleet, snow or hail.  On the few occasions when the sun peeks out, it’s often raining at the same time.  Where is all this moisture coming from?!  It’s tough to stay warm while paddling, even with our many layers – insulated jacket, fleece tights, two hats, three hoods, rain gear, garbage bag poncho for when the jacket gets saturated.  The wind seems to blow mostly upriver, adding to the chill.  With so much rain, the river is high, its sod banks collapsing into the muddy water, gravel bars fully submerged.  The upside of the wet weather is that the current is flushing us swiftly downriver towards the coast.  We’ve managed to stay just ahead of the snow so far, but it is creeping ever closer down the mountainside, reminding us that winter in the arctic is not far behind.

Still Waiting by Caroline Van Hemert

The 16th day of rain and still no resupply flight.  We got flooded out of our first site so moved to higher ground in a downpour.  Because we were already stretched thin on the last leg with a two day delay from snow and route change rations are down to one granola bar per day.  This awful waiting game is not the reward we had anticipated.  But so far we're doing ok, just very hungry and dreaming of food.  

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.

Turned Back by Caroline Van Hemert

The peaks and talus covered passes of the Arrigetch are plastered with snow and yesterday’s 12 hour window of good weather has shut down again.  Although we are only 16 miles from the Noatak, Ariel Peak is too snowy to go up and over and we got turned back by wet slabs on Escape Pass.  In strong winds and rain we are heading down to brush again, forced to backtrack and try a long and ugly route that we hope will lead to the Noatak.  At least rationing food has been easy since we don’t have firewood to cook our meals.  Hands down, this is the worst stretch of weather we’ve had since the storms of the Inside Passage.  Although our venture into the Arrigetch turned out to be a costly side trip, seeing this spectacular valley has been a treat nonetheless.  In a certain way, we’ve come to expect that things often get harder before they get easier – so the easier can’t be too far off!

Aggressive Rain and Bear by Caroline Van Hemert

Just when we thought we were on the homestretch, we encountered record rainfall and a stalking bear.  Leaving Anaktuvuk Pass, before the rains began in earnest, we found ourselves hiking through mud and tussocks boats on our backs, the water too low for paddling.  Ten miles downriver we were able to put in and bounced along the boulders of the John River.  The river rose overnight under a deluge and we shivered our way through an otherwise fun day of rapids and swift water.  At the confluence with Wolverine Creek we began hiking upstream, searching for the game trails that would ease our passage through the brush and spruce forest.  On this road-less and mostly trail-less journey, hoof prints and claw marks are our road signs, leading us to the best terrain and fastest travel.  We had heard glowing reports of the smooth walking up Wolverine Creek, but the steady rain led to high water and game trails ended abruptly at the creek’s swollen edges.  We crossed the frigid thigh to waist deep water more than thirty times in eight hours before reaching a smaller tributary (for anyone interested in repeating this section, if there’s high water lower your expectations) and the rain continued. We’ve long since adjusted to wet shoes and socks as part of the morning routine but soggy shirts, pants, sleeping bags and tent are harder to embrace.  Using our paddle blades and inflation bags we cajoled smoky fires out of wet willows.  Along the creek we saw many bears including a grizzly sow with three yearling cubs and the first black bear since the Peel River.  From here we worked our way over low misty passes to Nahtuk River.  Tired of walking in water, we floated the upper section of this rocky creek before hiking to the dense drainage of the Pingaluk.  Here we met our second black bear whose acquaintance we could have done without.  Crashing through the last of the willows towards the main river, I heard a rustling in the bushes behind me.  I turned to see a pointed nose and cinnamon coat barreling down and had only enough time to raise my arm and shout, the other hand reaching for my pepper spray.  The sudden motion gave the bear a moment’s pause and it stopped six feet from me, turned sideways, and took a few steps back.  Hearts racing, we pointed our canisters and yelled.  With its advance from behind, clearly it had been stalking us but we didn’t know for how long.  Unconvinced by its reluctant retreat, we watched as it circled around and began to return, heading slowly and deliberately our way.  This time it didn’t stop until Pat sprayed and it ducked away, catching only the edge of the pepper cloud.  This encounter turned into a protracted standoff lasting nearly half an hour – the bear advancing, us yelling, throwing poles, moving towards it.  Somehow we had to change its perception of who was the aggressor.  Eventually, it decided that this meal wasn’t worth the trouble and slowly began to move away.  We hated to leave without a definitive end – we didn’t get close enough to spray again and its predatory behavior will likely continue, a threat to other backcountry travelers in the area.  We crossed the river as soon as possible, looking warily over our shoulders as we moved through the forest.  Among the dozens of bears of we’ve encountered in the backcountry and on this trip alone, this one was an anomaly.  Perhaps it hadn’t seen people before, perhaps it thought we were something else.  But it looked healthy and fat, not desperate or starving, and its behavior was terrifying.  When a human is perceived as prey a large black bear can be a very dangerous adversary.

As we got further downstream and eventually began to paddle we breathed a bit easier.  When we finally reached the broad Alatna River, under rainy skies of course, the anxiety had melted away, followed by a deep weariness.  But when we arrived at the serenity of Takahula Lake late in the evening, we couldn’t have met a more wonderful surprise.  Francesco, whose cabin we used as a resupply point, met us with open arms showing us incredible hospitality and kindness.  We have enjoyed a day here to dry out, regroup and find enthusiasm for the next leg through the Arrigetch to the Noatak River.  By chance, we happened on two other travelers turned fast friends and we offered a bit of help hauling gear in exchange for the generous use of their boat.  Sometimes things have an uncanny way of working themselves out.

Anaktuvuk Pass by Caroline Van Hemert

"This is hallowed ground--use of it is a privilege."  Theodor Swem's words ring very true for us as we pass through the dramatic landscape of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. The most consistent and powerful emotion we have felt as we travel across this vast stretch of largely protected wilderness that flanks the Brooks Range (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Gates of the Arctic & Noatak parks) is that of gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to experience a wild place where caribou migrate in the tens of thousands, where tiny Northern Wheatears make their summer home after a long trek from eastern Africa, where we can remember what it means to be humbled.  Gratitude for the foresight of key individuals and a conservation movement born largely of reverence and respect.  These public lands are a gift to us all and provide the backdrop for the age-old drama of the arctic to continue. We camped just outside of Anaktuvuk Pass last night and  hiked into town this morning under a light drizzle. Steep rocky peaks dressed in fall's yellows and reds jut up all around us.  The weather the past few days has been sunny and warm, and our bodies have loved the relatively light loads and firm walking.  Abundant blueberries provide a welcome excuse for an occasional sprawl on the tundra--I think we enjoy the soft moss bed as much as the taste of tart berries!  For the first time on this journey, we didn't camp alone last night. We met another hiker at the Anaktuvuk River and enjoyed swapping stories before a rainstorm sent us to our tents.

We picked up our packrafts and food resupply from the post office (thanks Ash!) and are getting geared up to head out on the John River tomorrow morning.  This is our last planned town stop before Kotzebue so we're enjoying a few amenities before leaving. What we will miss most in the next few weeks is not a shower or a proper meal (though they are awfully nice!), but the pleasant surprises of town visits.  In every community we've visited, we've found kindness and generosity, often in unexpected places.  We've learned so much from people with different lifestyles but shared human values.  And hearing from all of you via the blog (a new experience for us), email, phone, and thoughtful notes in our resupply boxes is such a treat.  It's not that we feel lonely when we're out but simply that the input from others has helped to shape our journey in a very positive way.  For me, this has been the biggest surprise of the past 5 months.  I didn't expect that venturing out into the wilderness would provide such a strong sense of human connection--but many of the best things in life are impossible to predict.

Sag River by Caroline Van Hemert

The snowstorm of August 7th lingered on the peaks and ridges, making for difficult travel over loose scree as we climbed over a 6500’ pass.  This turned out to be a fitting day for our anniversary as we crested an impressive viewpoint and picked our way down to the glacier below.  Light footed on the ice and rock, we hadn’t expected to encounter winter again so soon.  That night, camped alongside the Sag River we woke to a curious shrike and a chorus of howls.  Five wolves bedded down on a bench above us, watchful as we ate breakfast around the morning fire.  Traveling over passes and along their drainages, we’ve found good and varied walking.  With light packs we can move quickly and are feeling strong, the mountains whipping us quickly into shape.  Yesterday afternoon we hit the dust of the haul road – it’s strange to see rumbling trucks after so many miles of wilderness.  Ducking under the pipeline we felt out for our resupply barrel, left out by friends on their way to go caribou hiking.  We gorged ourselves on the treats within (thanks Dan, Mom and Dad, Eleanor and Rich) and are ready for the next push to Anaktuvuk Pass.

Chandalar River by Caroline Van Hemert

Looking across the Chandalar River, we wondered if mailing our packrafts to Anaktuvuk Pass had been the best choice.  A morning swim suddenly didn’t seem so appealing.  Eventually I waded in and began to work my way across, using a contorted breast stroke that allowed me to push my pack with my chin.  Pat employed a different technique that involved a lot of splashing; he claims it was a hybrid between a side stroke and a one-armed crawl.  With the cold water and our awkward loads, the swim felt a lot longer than the equivalent three to four laps in a pool.  Once across we spotted several grey headed chickadees, an Arctic species about which little is known. The next day, a grizzly caught our scent and lumbered away across the red-gold valley.  Hunkered down behind a spine of rock, we rose to meet the gaze of two grey wolves working up the ridge below us.  When possible we opt for the high routes, trading tussocks for sidehilling, burning calves, and solid ground.  For anyone who hasn’t had the joy of experiencing tussocks firsthand, they deserve a mention.  Tussocks are mounds formed by cotton grass and are a common feature of arctic tundra.  Hiking through this deceptively attractive groundcover is like balancing on lopsided medicine balls interspersed with stepping in pools of muddy water. The “controlled stumble” is a very fitting description of this motion.  We spent last night camped in a valley with 200 caribou grazing nearby.  Today it is snowing.  Each day is full of surprises.

Arctic Village by Caroline Van Hemert

Yesterday turned  out to be one of those days.  Swatting bugs and shivering, we wondered if perhaps we'd taken the wrong channel and returned mistakenly to the Mackenzie Delta. Our grumpiness stemmed from heavy, cold rain and flashbacks of endless packrafting through muddy sloughs. The landscape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has changed dramatically over the past 10 days, and after delighting in the alpine tundra of the high country we've stumbled back into black spruce wetlands. Leaving the arctic coast from Kaktovik felt a bit like saying goodbye to a friend, with no plans to see each other again soon. The transition from ocean to tussocks seemed sudden and rushed. Before I'd had time to contemplate departing this magical interface between sea & sky, the last mirages of light on ice had disappeared from view. A lonesome caribou calf, thin and harried by warble flies, approached us curiously and echoed my melancholy sentiments. Though it seems hard to imagine in our fast-paced modern world, sometimes even walking feels too fast. But with the end of summer quickly approaching, there's only so much time to wax philosophically. Yesterday's chill reminded us that we'd best keep moving. It won't be long before rain turns to snow up here and there are still many mountain passes to cross.

We shed our angst about leaving the coast as we began to climb toward the peaks of the Brooks Range, growing larger with each step. The enticing whitewater of the Hulahula beckoned below, but our path carried us south, back toward drainages of the Yukon River.  Shifting assemblages of birds and wildlife mirrored the changes we saw in the landscape.  We left jaegers and plovers behind as we climbed up toward Gilbeau Pass. Dall sheep traversed steep scree above us as tattlers and wheatears greeted us at the crest of the divide. Dropping back down the other side, we followed caribou trails over seemingly unlikely routes that proved to offer the smoothest travel. We've learned to trust this animal intuition, moving forward with a bit of faith rather than balking at deeply rutted paths up hillsides and across rivers. It's hard to imagine that several thousand caribou have got it wrong for all these years.

The perfect alpine tundra ended far too soon as we hiked down to the Chandalar River. Nearly 50 miles north of Arctic Village,  we saw trees again. In this beautiful, broad valley, signs of moose reappeared and Spotted Sandpipers flitted along the riverbank. Where we began paddling, the river was fast and fun and we covered miles through the braided channels quickly in the warm sunshine. That night, a full moon rose over the gravel bar as we relaxed by the fire. Perfect. A day and a half later we weren't loving it quite so much. Several large flocks of Rusty Blackbirds and a caribou swimming the river provided welcome distractions from the slow meanders as the rain dripped down our necks. Our raingear has seen better days, especially evident when sitting in a puddle of water for hours on end. But it can't be pleasant ALL the time or it would hardly be an adventure. We were lucky to find the tribal council office still open in Arctic Village and we've since dried out at the school, ready for the next leg to the Haul Road. This is the first road we will cross since the dirt of the Dempster Highway more than a month and a half ago. Lovely wild places for us all to roam.

Signs of Fall by Caroline Van Hemert

As we left the ocean and headed inland, the coastal plain felt deserted but for a few orphan caribou calves and the shrieks of jaegers defending their young. Now, hiking up the Hulahula River, we are nearing the continental divide, following the tracks of thousands of caribou.  It seems strange to be traveling south after so many months of northward progress and already we notice the first signs of fall, blueberries are ripening and the sun dips behind the mountains each evening, the closest thing we’ve seen to a sunset in weeks.  Yesterday, we watched a wolverine watch us, got stung by ground nesting bees, and listened to the liquid calls of upland sandpipers.  We feel humbled by the scale of this giant glacial valley, where boulders and bears have a way of disappearing into the hillsides and broad peaks stretch beyond view.