The problem is stated simply; how far can you go, on foot, and self-contained?
No food drops, no foraging, no wheels, no motors. Everything you need, including food, you carry on your back. How far can you go and how long will it take? We can call this your maximum range.
No doubt you will say, "My maximum range depends on a whole host of factors." And I will agree, that, yes, it depends, but it will depend on less than you think. And by that I mean the predictions will meet with observations surprisingly well and without all the messy details that most of us would insist should be included.
In some ways this question of "How far how fast?" is a variation on adventure racing. However, as far as I know, nobody has organized a competition to see what the extreme maximum range might be: 50 people toed up at the start line, the only rule that everything needed is in the pack and the race is over after all racers have run out of food and marked their distance would help answer it. I offer some predictions.
My interest in maximum range stemmed from Alaskan "wilderness racing" during the early 1980's. It was then, before the Eco-Challenge, Raid Gauloise, the Southern Traverse in New Zealand, or even Ray's Way or GoLite - that a handful of us raced across large blocks of Alaskan wilderness, mostly un-trailed, over mountains, across rivers, past bears. These were big chunks, with straight line distances between roads in the 75 to 100 mile range. And we traveled very light.
The rules for the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic were brutally simple: start here, go there - where "there" was 150-250 miles away - carrying everything needed, including food, with you from start to finish. No help, no roads (usually one road was crossed), no motors, no pack animals. Instinctively I knew that a heavier pack meant a slower pace, and to a competitive person, a heavier pack meant a lesser chance of winning.
Like everyone who races more than once, I discovered that weight kills speed. Not only does weight kill speed, I found that weight kills distance. And by 1984, after three seasons of wilderness racing, I'd uncovered a ruthless calculus: it appeared that every pound dropped from my back increased my daily maximum by a mile.
"If the remotest place we are walking to (i.e., a bench overlooking the Ipnavuk River) is more than 119 miles from the nearest town (i.e., Umiat, Ambler, and Atqasuk) or road (i.e., AK haul road) in every direction, then we will be in the heart of a wilderness that is bigger than a dozen Yellowstone National Parks. To surround a point with wilderness 119 miles in every direction requires 28.5 million acres, and that is actually just a piece of what the wilderness is where we are headed....
I emailed Ryan Jordan the winter before, and sent him a little graphic: "
No doubt Ryan you have been to Yellowstone’s remotest corner, the Thorofare region, 30 miles or so from the road. That requires a wilderness of 1.8 million acres to surround it, so in some sense the place we are going is more than 15 times wilder.
See the graphic: the little circle is the Thorofare wilderness (2 million acres). The middle circle is the wilderness surrounding the remotest spot in America (radius = 119 miles). The outermost circle has diameter equal to distance we hope to walk. I hope we are not biting off more than we can chew — or rather, knowing that we are biting off more than we can chew, I just hope we can swallow it."
June 11 -- Day 1 Getting started out of Kivalina.
June 12 -- Day 2 Bear killed moose carcass.
June 13 -- Day 3 Aufeis.
June 14 -- Day 4 Ryan in camp.
June 15 -- Day 5 Wolverine.
June 16 -- Day 6 Bog slogging.
June 17 -- Day 7 Jason ridge walking with Brooks Range in background.
June 18 -- Day 8 Jason and Ryan cross the Kokolik River
June 19 -- Day 9 Waiting for Peggy to find Ryan a pilot to fly him out with his twisted ankle.
June 20 -- Day 10 Cabin on skids at the Utukok airstrip, where Ryan flew out.
Welcome to the Colville
High winds carved black clouds into fantastic shapes that spit rain on us all day. My camera stayed in the pack.
We charged up a fine ridge - firm, level, and dry, marching uninterrupted for four hours. (Save a one hour detour to pass two bears digging for lemmings in the patchy tundra.) Then the ridge ended - dead ended - into a plateau marking the head waters of the Colville River.
Four hours of tussocks and bog slogging across an endless moor followed. The tussocks were big, like gallon size paint cans on 12 inch centers, and wet beneath. The marsh grass between the tussocks was endless.
The plateau at 2100 ft was still thawing from the late spring, and the marsh waters were only two inches deep. But walking on the overlaying ice, our feet went numb.
We hustled out of the marsh to follow the edge of a lake toeing a "lemming runway", the only dry and level walking we found in that four hour stretch.
Heading south to escape the tussock sea, we climbed higher and looked north. Tussocks as far as we could see.
...and Ryan is gone, it was the worst day of the trip.
June 21 -- Day 11 Peregrine falcon.
We camped high on the Colville, Alaska's longest clear water river (all the other are murky from glacial silt: the Yukon, the Kuskoquim, the Copper).
The weather was brilliant and the walking began fine. We had a tail wind and cruised downstream, criss-crossing the river at will. But then the tussocks started and they were essentially unavoidable. At least 20 minutes of every hour was spent in soft,wet and lumpy tussocks. There were also excellent miles of firm dry and relatively level terrain. But always, eventually, tussocks.
The rest of the animals seemed to enjoy the longest day of the year too. It's not been dark here, at 69 degrees north, since April. Nor will it be dark until August. Still, today marks the day of the Sun's zenith.
I measured the length of my shadow at noon, when the Sun was due south and comapred it to my height. The two were about equal, making the Sun's angle close to 45 degrees. The highest it will be here all year.
We see caribuo practically always, they are always in view. Many bands were bedded down during the heat of the day with their sentinal bull and a collection of cows and choclate brown fawns seemingly no bigger than tussocks. Birds of all sorts distracted us from their nests. Passerines and ducks exploded from underfoot, revealing clusters of eggs, hidden in the tundra. Rough legged hawks reeled and screeched. While a peregrine plunges alarmingly close with explosive wooshes by our heads. Ptarmigan males cocked and flew in their still white plumage. Shorebirds dragged a wing, a convincing ploy, while jagers looked like slacking students of shorebirds and haphazardly flapped, distracted.
Yes it was a fine and beautiful day and I was walking with a cheerful and strong companion. The only thing wrong with the day, tussocks.
Tomorrow we'll try for the last line of good walking, Lookout Ridge.
June 22 -- Day 12 Jason readies the load to head up to Lookout Ridge.
31 Miles In A Day
The morning was wet and windy. The wind amplified the rain, depressing us, as we are a day and half behind schedule.
We headed 10 miles north, dropping 500 feet off the boggy rim of the Colville's sour smelling, tussock infested plateau, and down to the base of Lookout Ridge. Lookout Ridge stands 500 to 1000 feet above the surrounding terrain and runs east for 80 miles. A narrow potential highway that will lead to within 15 miles our destination, the remotest spot in mainland America.
Lookout Ridge is the end of an extensive ridge system. The long and narrow ridges offer dry, firm tundra and barren rock along the eroded tops of synclines in the Utukok, Kokolik and Kuparuk upper rims. These ridges offer some of the best wilderness walking in the entire state of Alaska.
Fine views of the Brooks Range and the north slope stretch uninterrupted. Interesting geologic features and amazing skyscapes, wildlife and wildflowers abound. The landscape recedes as new vistas emerge with such delightful and exhilarating walking.
From our camp on the Colville, we made good time to the base of the massive Ridge. We dressed in all of our traveling clothes to deal with the wind and the rain and the exposure of the high ridge. Once on top, we marched on firm level ground, well drained even in the rain. My feet followed the rhythm of three miles an hour, my trekking poles swinging forward with each refrain.
Jason marched forward fearful of the weather getting worse but it didn't - it got better.
Seven hours from camp, we'd made 20 miles.
Twelve hours from camp, we'd made 31 miles. We made a new camp, a cold one this time, as there is no wood.
Our feet sore and our shoulders aching, we will rest 12 hours and follow Lookout Ridge again tomorrow, hopefully for another 30 miles.
June 23 -- Day 13 Jason walking a low, tussocky portion on Lookout Ridge
Today started like any other day.We slipped our tired feet, into our tired socks and laced up our tired shoes. But, unlike the dozen mornings before, we had no cream of wheat, no hot drink, no fire.
We had camped in a gap in the ridge where there was no wood. We drank cold water and had milk and granola for breakfast.
Angling up to the ridge, the ground was firm, dry and level. We reached a broad ledge that paralleled the ridge top. The sky was high and overcast, the wind to our backs.
"Wolverine!" cried Jason.
I looked up at the ridge crest 50 yards away and saw a marmot.
"It's a marmot...no look!"
And it turned, showing it's white stripe, low stocky body and true size, maybe twice the size of a marmot. It climbed through the rocks and bolted, pausing once on the crest to look back at us.
We climbed to the crest, hoping to catch another look but instead, only smelled it's musty smell. And, we found a highway. A buffed out animal trail on soft ground followed the ridge top weaving through rock outcrops. Rumpled green landscapes, ridges and folds, drainages and draws in the Utukok watershed reached as far as we could see. To our right a vast yellow plain of the Colville's tussocks stretched uninterrupted except by ponds, lakes and lazy looping creeks to the Brooks Range. Ahead the ridge rose and fell to a gap where it looked like the Colville's yellow tussocks had spilled over and infected a slope of the Utukok.
We made good time.
At the crest, we saw our only sign of humans in three days: a surveyors’ shed and benchmarks with the word "Out" and "1955" stamped on their disc shaped heads.
"Jason, there are fresh bear tracks on the trail."
He asked, "Which way are they going?"
I responded, "The same way we are, and they're biggest we've seen"
"You grabbed the bear spray from Ryan, right Roman?"
I spun around to see Jason grinning, the bear spray securely fastened to his shoulder strap.
After 3 hours and 10 miles, we hit the tussocks spilling over the ridgeline. For the next four hours and 10 more miles, we would spend 10 to 20 minutes in tussocks, then 20 to 40 minutes on good ground, sometimes on dry rocky ground no wider than a country road.
Jason, who is red-green color blind seems particularly adept at picking out the good ground from the terrible tussocks. And as we'd fan out to seek our own ways it was he who usually called, "Hey Roman, it's good over here..."
We saw no caribou all day, for the first time since the beginning of the trek. Here, there were fewer birds than anywhere else, with the exception of plump white snow buntings with ebony wings, and eagles with white patches at the base of their tail feathers.
By the end of the day, 12 hours and 30 miles from our cold camp of last night, we hobbled down to a campsite with willows, dry ground and a beautiful crystal clear creek looping around our campsite, and the midnight sun shining on the peaks of the Brooks Range to the south.
It's only two days from here to the remotest spot, but tomorrow we must cross the Colville.
June 24 -- Day 14 Jason approaching the Colville River
Swimming the Colville
Today we encountered the crux of the route and the question that has been nagging us all winter: will we be able to cross the Colville River? Without a packboat, like an Alpacka packraft, or even a small Curtis Designs boat that can be used to ferry heavy packs, we knew the Colville would be a difficult crossing.
As one old Alaskan hand has noted to us, "Swim the Colville? You ain't gonna swim the Colville!" she laughed.
We reached its brushy north bank at about 4:30 pm this afternoon. The Colville, now some sixty miles downstream of where we left it a few days ago so that we could have easier walking on Lookout Ridge, was like a new river: a gigantic version of itself. Its valley floor was twice as wide. Its banks, three times as high. The willows, thick. Its bankside marshes, wide.
Strong west winds blew river dust and clouds that flew down the valley in waves.
The map indicated a braided section, and below us, indeed, were three channels. The first two braids looked as serious as any other river crossing we'd made to this point, and the third channel, well, it required special preparations.
After scouting our route across, we hunkered down in the lee of the wind and packed for the crossings. We loaded heavy things, such as food, on the bottom, then our insulating sleep clothes, sealed in ziplock bags inside our dry bags. Above those, we blew air into our water bladders, including the one-liter Nalgene Cantenes we used for water, and our Platypus Big Zips, now only partially full of foods such as olive oil and almond butter.
We each loaded our pockets with survival gear, in case we were forced to let go of our heavy packs. My Aloksak, contained in the kangaroo pocket of my Patagonia Specter pullover (rain jacket), contained maps, 1000 Calories of food, firestarter, satellite phone, and first aid kit. Jason carried a lighter and firestarter in his rain jacket pocket.
Finally, dressed in our raingear (Patagonia Specter pullovers and Montane Featherlite pants) over our travelling clothes (Patagonia Cool Weather Tights and Smartwool Hoody Pullovers), we rolled the seals over on our 65L dry bags, harnessed them into our packs, and blew air into the dry bag valves to inflate them as much as possible - like giant pillows - to aid flotation of the pack during the river crossing.
Nervous about the contraption, Jason tested the bouyancy of his 35-40 pound pack in a nearby pond. He pushed down on it, turned to me, and gave me a thumbs up.
We marched down to the river, and scrambled down its fifteen-foot high cutbank.
The first two channels went surprisingly easy - hip deep, they took just two minutes. I reinflated my dry bag on the island, before the third channel, because the cold water cooled the air inside the dry bag, causing a reduction in volume of air in the bag. The third channel was wide - maybe 30, 40, even 50 yards. I couldn't throw a rock across it at all. A submerged gravel bar angled diagonally across the deep channel. If we could follow this gravel bar, we could make our way at least two thirds across the width of the channel without swimming.
We followed this bar across and downstream to our bellies, the wind, and river current, to our backs. Occasionally, I would step too far right and feel the deep main channel.
Our plan was when the water became too deep to wade, we would slip off our bouyant backpacks, and kick swim in a ferry position to the gravel bar. After about two to three minutes of this, passing the cutbank on the far shore, I stepped into the channel, and lost the bottom, immediately slipping the backpack off and to my downstream shoulder. Towing it in my left arm, I kicked and swam for shore. Jason, right behind me, did the same.
Unfortunately, the wind caught my pack - too buoyant - and me - back to the central current and away from shore. Never out of control, I stroked harder for shore, and after a minute or two, I could feel the bottom with both feet again.
"Roman, it's good! Stand up!" Jason was already standing.
We shouldered our packs, and waded to shore.
With a big, toothy grin, Jason put up his hand for a high five. We'd done it. We crossed the Colville!
Jubilant and excited, we walked on, drying our clothes in the wind and sun, and continued preparing to reach America's remotest spot, now less than two days away.
June 25 -- Day 15 First willow brush.
Today we walked 29 map miles. We walked the high banks of the broad, meandering Colville River through a virgin green landscape that was flat, not unlike the midwestern U.S. We saw no animals and few birds. On the high bluffs, we found chips of flint from ancient hunters who sat, and scanned for game, while chipping their stone tools.
Between the broad river marshes, and big tussock heads with weak necks, we found a thin strip of late spring: a band of brown vegetation and leafless willows below the melting snowbanks on the bluffs and above the green, marshy willow flats of the river. This strip made for good walking.
Around 8:30 PM, Jason spotted a band of Caribou bulls, strutting on the high bank. We climbed to their trail. Jason pulled out the GPS and read, "Hey, 9.2 miles, that way, to the remotest spot."
"That way" was in a direction perpindicular to the river, across what looked like an ocean of tussock heads and marsh, up, and then down, through two drainages. It was a gamble.
"Are we going for it?"
For four hours, we marched through knee-high tussocks, packed with green moss between them. Still, we made two miles an hour. We were amazed.
"Hey, let's just follow the GPS to Anaktuvuk!" joked Jason.
We crested the final hill, and there it was: the remotest place in America, situated in the mouth of a shallow draw, with a gravel band above, and a cluster of pretty mountains behind it, and a hundred-foot cliff bank below it. It was a beautiful scene. A clear water river rushed past the cliff and across gravel bars. Really, an idyllic setting, complete with willows and fine grained beaches for camping.
"I thought it was going to be in Tussock Hell," said Jason.
We made camp, fixed a big meal, and slept, only 1.2 miles from our Ultima Thule - that farthest place from anywhere.
June 26 -- Day 16 Roman patching wear holes in his shoes -- remotest camp.
The Grand Arrival of Mosquitoes
Yesterday must have really taken it out of us.
Maybe it was that last nine mile push in a straight line after 20 miles, running, practically, through the tussocks and the willows up and down two drainages to reach America's remotest spot.
Anyway, we slept in late.
I patched a shoe, where holes had worn through the outer baby toe area, using a patch fabricated from a webbing accessory strap sewn with dental floss.
In any event, we didn't get started until about 3:00 PM.
The Ipnavik River was surprisingly deep, and cold. We had to "float" it, like the Colville.
An hour later, we were standing at the remotest spot in the U.S.
We snapped some pictures, were buzzed by mosquitoes, and bee-lined it for a ridge.
The willows are now fully leafed out, and even if they are only knee high, they are slow going. Leaves cause the branches to interlock, providing more bushwhacking resistance. It slows us down considerably.
We now prefer tussocks over willows!
With the green-up, have come the bugs. It's like somebody flipped a switch.
There were no bugs on June 25, and now, on June 26, there are many ... many ... many ... bugs. And by bugs, I mean mosquitoes - clouds of mosquitoes. I write this in the smoke of our campfire, to keep them somewhat at bay.
We had a close encounter with a band of twenty caribou yesterday, who also were obviously harrassed by the bugs. They were belly-deep in tussocks, and heading up to the same set of ridge trails we were descending.
We followed their route down a grassy draw to the Etivluk River.
It was late, we were whupped. We decided not to cross the Etivluk tonight. We called it an early day - only 15 miles, but it's been seven days since we last made less than twenty miles in a day.
We need the rest.
Hopefully, tomorrow, we'll have enough energy to make maybe, 30 or 35 miles.
June 27 -- Day 17 Jason hiking above the Etivluk River.
On the Edge of the Brooks Range
Today we hiked our last ridgeline, this one a skywalk connecting the Etivluk River and its east fork.
As Jason said, "This is awesome - it goes right down to the river. We saved the best for last!"
And it was true. For ten miles, we commanded panoramic views of the north slope, and Brooks Range, with firm dry footing, and not a bear in sight.
Our food is still plentiful, in spite of eating 1,000 calories every ten miles while hiking (for me, this means a 4.5 oz Cadbury Bar, a 2.5 oz mini-bag of Doritos or other chips, and a squirt or two of almond butter from a Platypus bottle).
We are also less concerned about eating more dinner and breakfast now, not so much because of hunger, but to lighten our packs.
Nevertheless, our packs seem surprisingly heavy for having been out for 17 days, and we just can't seem to break the 30 mile-a-day barrier by much. Today was no exception. After the dozen miles between the main and east fork of the Etivluk River, we hiked up the cobbles of the east fork's braided channels for another 18 miles, hobbling a bit at the end for our efforts.
We made camp on the only smooth, un-brushy place we could find. A dozen miles away lie the glacier-draped peaks of the Brooks Range.
We saw our first jet contrails of the trip, high over the peaks.
Today was the first day in three days we'd seen any sign of other modern-day human visit other than ours.
Tomorrow, we'll start our first day hiking in the high mountains. We are excited for the change.
June 28 -- Day 18 Bad weather on the Arctic Divide
Into the Brooks Range
The fine weather is gone, replaced by rain clouds obscuring the mountains.
To lighten our loads, we've been eating bigger dinners. I overdid it last night with the olive oil. All day, I've felt ill, like I wanted to throw up.
Most of the day we trekked into a headwind with rain.
First we followed caribou trails over one pass, and then descended. The wind was chilling, and the rain intensified, swelling the creeks.
As we headed for the second pass we were forced to dress in all of our clothes: three layers on top, two layers on the bottom, plus our shells. We even shoved our foam pads under our raincoats, like a vest, for additional insulation.
Rain overflowed creek banks, and water spilled onto the bankside caribou trails.
We reached the head of the valley with the ridgeline obscured by clouds.
Consulting the map was not very informative. First the scale: we carry 1:250,000 scale maps to minimize the weight of the maps required to cover the vast area through which we are trekking. One inch equals four miles (one quarter inch per mile). Topographic details are further obscured under the protective plastic bags we use to house our maps. Water droplets on the outside of the plastic, from the rain, make map reading a difficult chore.
Up to here, wherever we wanted to go, there were game trails. In the absence of game trails, we didn't go there.
We climbed higher, and it began to sleet and snow. The game trail we followed dead-ended in steep, sharp, loose, and slimy talus.
I tried to push the route farther, but it was slow going.
Eventually Jason asked, "Roman, shouldn't we go back to the caribou trails?"
So we descended, and took another trail, this one directly up the wall of the cirque.
We stuffed our mouths with food to fight hypothermia and fatigue.
After fifteen hours of travelling, we finally crossed the divide and descended to the valley below. We made only twenty-six miles, but they were the most difficult twenty-six miles we've made yet.
Our food bag is dwindling fast. My feet are hurt, blisters are now infected.
But birds are hatching, little ones, running around the tundra now. This area we passed through today had neat ice lenses, shoving big turfs of grass upward, looking like beach grasses planted atop pickup-sized loads of turf.
Also, we saw many caribou skulls - big, bull caribou skulls, antlers and all, buried in the tundra, with just the antlers and shovels exposed.
It's neat to be in the Brooks Range now.
June 29 -- Day 19 Heading for the Killik drainage
Signs of Civilization
According to our original schedule, we were supposed to be a day beyond Anaktuvuk Pass today. Realistically, we will reach Anaktuvuk Pass in about two more days.
Each day, we are able to trek for 10 miles pretty quickly. The next 10 miles come a bit hard. The final 10 is tough.
Right now, we do not have the emotional, mental, or physical ability to push for 10 more miles to accomplish 40 mile days.
As Jason says, "We aren't motivated for a race pace."
Personally, an old rock climbing injury forces my right foot to supinate (lean outward) while walking. This wore a hole in my sock, my shoe, and my baby toe the first week, back on the Wulik River. It took another week to clean up the minor infection that resulted from the blister there. This funny stride later blistered the second toe on my right foot. The two toes became infected, as our feet are wet all day, and often from marsh mud. So, to take care of ourselves, we make "12-hour camps" each day, and walk only 30 miles per day in about 12 hours. For everyone else out there, Jason has no blisters, his feet are awesome.
Our food is disappearing alarmingly fast now. We brought about 42 pounds of food each, or so, and we are down to less than 10 pounds each now. Our packs are now under 25 pounds.
I'd like to describe our sleeping system, because it's pretty neat. We have a 14 ounce floorless tarp made of a racing sailcloth. It's held up by our two trekking poles, which we share, each carrying one pole during the day; they are held together by lashing removable accessory webbing straps from our backpacks. The poles are single piece poles made of carbon fiber. They are very strong, very stiff, and very light - excellent trekking poles for the difficult terrain of the arctic - and late in the day, we wouldn't be able to walk (hobble) without them. The lashed poles are then used to prop up the center of the tarp, like a pyramid.
The bottom of the pole passes through the center of a hole sewn into our two-person sleeping bag - which is a quilt, actually, with insulation on top, and a sheet of fabric on the bottom. It weighs only 20 ounces and provides about 1.2 inches of insulation over us. Between the quilt and the wet ground, we lay our pack harnesses and 3 oz torso sized foam pads for ground insulation. We use our dry bags, full of our food, as pillows.
We sleep in a lightweight insulated synthetic layers that stay packed in our dry bags all day. This is our camp and sleep clothing, dedicated dry wear since we often come into camp wet from weather and river crossings. The garments are of Ryan's design - a half-zip hooded Cocoon Pullover, and pull-on Cocoon pants. Combined, they provide an amazing amount of warmth for only a pound. We sleep very warm, even with such a thin sleeping bag on nights with temperatures near freezing. We are fortunate to have the first production prototypes of these pullovers. Sometimes we sleep in a headnet to keep the bugs off us. Altogether, this sleeping arrangement keeps us warm and dry in inclement conditions, in spite of its very light weight.
The hiking today was awesome - 20 miles of continuous caribou trails.
At one point, we came upon a foraging grizzly bear - digging holes in the ground, moving upwind from us. Jason, as usual, spotted him first, far away. We were able to slide into some gullies, and hide - duck, cover, and run slowly uphill to avoid being seen by the bear. Otherwise, we knew he'd run over to us to check us out. This is why we do our best to circumnavigate any bears and "sneak" by them without being seen. We were successful this time as well. We felt like we were in war, sneaking by the enemy.
After the 20 miles of continuous game trails, we came upon the Killik River valley, a broad, immense basin. Proceeding along the Killik River itself required us to navigate through multiple sloughs and channels, followed by a final 10 miles to camp in the rain.
We pass alder bushes, moose, and robins. We haven't seen robins since the Wulik River valley at the beginning of the trek.
We saw and heard multiple planes today, and we came across human footprints - the first we've seen in weeks, since the first few days of the trek. We had interesting feelings about these footprints. We are excited that people were nearby and the possibility of seeing them, and talking to them, was exciting to us. The footprints probably belonged to rafters, at their put-in location for a Killik River float trip.
Altogether, with footprints, trash on the lakeside, airplane drone, and jet contrails, we realize that we are nearing civilization again.
June 30 -- Day 20 Bugs by Easter Creek.
"Asking Why?" at the Arctic Divide
The Arctic Divide is an imaginary line that separates waters that flow into the Arctic Ocean from those that flow into the Pacific Ocean.
This is a good time to ask the question, "Why did we come here?" Why have we left the comfort of home and subjected ourselves to grizzlies and river crossings, mosquitoes and tussocks - why visit the most remote spot - and why not do this trek in an easier style?
Well, first, wilderness travel is therapeutic. It's a form of recreation, meditation, and contemplation of personal goals and spirituality. Jesus, and other wise men, visited the wilderness for insight. Others, not so wise, do it for the thrill. I'll admit that standing and holding your ground against a grizzly, or swimming a river, is a thrill, but it's not why I'm here (but it does keep things exciting). Even dealing with hardship and deprivation keeps things stimulating in an existential way, it strengthens us.
But what about the most remote spot? Why here? Well, it is the wildest place that we Americans have left. It's the deepest interior, the heart of the last frontier. It's a place set back in time, where the only signs of man are stone-aged man. It's a place where we saw no airplanes, where we heard no signs of civilization. We saw no footprints, we saw no trash. It's a place where we walked through and across intact ecosystems, functionally essentially as they have since the last ice age.
And, if you are going to visit a place that is as far from technology as you can go, you might as well walk there - because walking is as close to animal travel as we can get. When you are walking, without skis, without wheels, without sleds, without boats, we have just our feet, and everything we need on our back, and in our heads. Then, it feels like you are matching the wilderness on your own animal terms.
In some way, we were able to express a deep respect and regard for this nation's wildest place by walking in, and walking out, independent, and self-reliant.
It's also a full-body challenge. On this journey, we put all of our years of past experience to the test. For me, at age 45, it's kind of like a "cure for baldness", to borrow an expression from Jon Krakauer. It's the time between the strength and speed, but possible recklessness of youth, and the experience and wisdom, but probable frailty of old age - it's truly a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
I guess that's why we're here.
We made 33 miles today. We started in buggy, 70-degree weather, walking past potentilla, rose hips, and what looked like aspens on a hillside. Across the wind-swept plateau of the lichen-covered tundra of the arctic divide, the temperature is in the 40s. In between our two camps, the usual terrain: tussocks, low brush, creek crossings, and caribou trails.
Tomorrow, we will walk the final 44 miles to Anaktuvuk Pass, and civilization.
July 1 -- Day 21 Moose skull.
530 Miles from Kivalina
After 23 hours, and 44 miles, we've reached Anaktuvuk Pass.
En route, we crossed the Continental Divide twice, struggled through the worst five miles of the trip, and stopped to take off our packs only five times.
The third time we stopped, we built a little fire, at 4 am on July 2. We took a "French adventure racer's break", removing our shoes, brewing tea, and making cream of wheat. It was a refreshing stop. We'd come about 24 miles in 12 hours, stumbling through flooded willows and struggling through a variety of willows, tussocks, and talus for the last four hours and making only five miles of progress during that time.
We'd given up caribou trails for a more direct line, but the line was slow.
After our two hour break, I was passing through birch brush and rocks, when I heard a "Squeak!" - and then again - "Squeak! Squeak!" - the squeak of persistence.
Expecting a rodent, I looked down to see two small ermine kits - little baby weasels. They were curious, so a pursed my lips, and squeaked back with a smooching sound. They coaxed their bodies out of their hole - milk chocolate on the top of their bodies and yellow custard on the bottom. Cute little creatures, they had short tails, short ears, and even furry little feet. They were very curious - darting around, only a yard or two from our feet. We guessed they must be young because they were so curious, and cute. We squeaked, they squeaked, and they darted in and out for at least five minutes while we talked with them. It was a great experience.
We moved on, climbing higher in search of good ground. Our super light and minimalist gear, and perhaps two days of food, let us move quickly, and at will. Jason commented, "These packs are so light, they're like nothing at all. Except, maybe a windbreak for our backs." And, he's right.
July 2 -- Day 22 Jason enjoying a "French adventure racer's bivouac" 20 miles from Anaktuvuk Pass.
From a higher vantage, I looked ahead, and my spirits sagged. No end in sight of this horrible combination of brush, water, tussocks, and rocks. Then, looking down, I saw a linear feature that could only be one thing - an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trail. We descended and found it, leading 20 miles to Anaktuvuk Pass. It was a veritable "tussock-tamer" and we made the distance in seven and a half hours.
Now, at Anaktuvuk Pass, a village of perhaps 250 mountain Eskimos, and others, we take stock of our situation. We are four days behind our original schedule. Jason has prior commitments to keep, and because we are late, he must leave from here. He's also out of lunch food. He has breakfast, for two people, for one day. I have dinner for two for one day, and two days' lunch remaining. We decide to split the dinners and lunch, and Jason will fly out tomorrow, back to Anchorage. Meanwhile, I will push on.
My feet are sore, but the infections, which I've treated with antibiotic ointment and nightly scrubbings, have seemed to curtailed somewhat. So I plan to finish the final 70 miles to the Dalton Highway (Haul Road), giving me an even 600 mile trek, in perhaps three weeks, and three days' time.
We'll see, and I'll keep you posted.
July 3 -- Day 23 Dial heading for the road from Anaktuvuk.
Monkey See, Monkey Want
Well we pulled into Anaktuvuk Pass today at 2:30 pm. The first person we saw was across the airstrip - a hooded figure pushing a baby stroller.
"That's appropriate for this trip," said Jason, "since we've seen so many babies - caribou, birds, flowers, it only makes sense that the first person we see would be pushing a baby too."
Since Jason's flying out tomorrow, his first order of business was finding a place to stay, and eat, and it wasn't going to be in our pyramid tarp.
"What are you going to do?" he asked, "while I eat my bacon cheeseburger and sleep in a bed, Roman?"
"Monkey see, monkey want," I replied.
So I ate with Jason, trading in the olive oil and noodles I carried from Kivalina for a bacon cheeseburger at the Nunamuit Camp restaurant.
Jason's boyish good looks had gone ruggedly hansome with his three-week beard, and soon, every high school girl in Anaktuvuk Pass (pop. 300) was in the place.
The biggest group crowded the table next to ours, giggling.
Jason left to call his girlfriend.
We each got a room, for $160 per person. We took showers and washed our clothes, and were asleep by 7:00 PM.
Day 23 - Almost Out
I put Jason the 10:30 AM flight to Fairbanks, then traded out cream of wheat, brown sugar, and butter, for hash browns, two eggs, and blackened reindeer sausage back at the Nunamiut.
I left town at noon.
It was soon 75 degrees under a sunny, calm sky.
I hurried along an ATV trail, unburdened of my camera, and my load, only the size of a day pack.
I had my sleep clothes, my cook pot, the pyramid tarp, firestarter, first aid kit, water bottle, satellite phone, and two days of food.
I made 22 miles in 7 hours, and a total of 38 miles in 15 hours, climbing over a 5400 foot pass en route.
The twisted and folded limestone mountains here, cut with gullies, spires, and waterfalls, are the most spectacular mountains on the route. This is the region that early wilderness advocate Bob Marshall named "Gates of the Arctic", and what an apt name it is.
As the alpenlight glowed, I hurried down through frosty meadows with ice on the ponds. I was thinking a lot about my wife, Peggy. Twenty years ago to the week, we spent a romantic month in these mountains, hiking and rafting. She was pregnant with our first child, a pregnancy barely two months old. I miss her, and my two kids.
I'm really glad to be almost out.
Day 24 - The Finish
July 4, 2006: Dalton Highway, Mile Post 226
The cabin at Summit Lake, astride the Arctic Divide, is little more than a hollowed-out framed shell. Both windows were missing all their glass. The door, held shut with a rock, was missing its bottom quarter, eaten through by ground squirrels and bears.
I brushed aside some squirrel turds and settled on a plywood bench, exhausted. The temperature was in the 20s.
I climbed into my sleeping clothes and got a fitful five hours of cold, uncomfortable sleep. Nearby were two sets of tents. In the morning, I found that one held a trio of geology graduate students sampling lake cores for a climate change study. The other set of tents was filled by ten Boy Scouts, who didn't get up until after I'd left.
Today was sunny with building clouds. I hurried over tussocks to the far side of the pass. Without Jason, it was hard to judge my speed.
Doonerak, the most prominent peak in the area, loomed its menacing north face over my walk. I cut a corner and tried to stay high, but was forced into brush and sidehilling. There were no caribou trails, just thin, multi-use trails used by moose, wolf, bear - fresh bear. It made me nervous. In fact, all day I'd been nervous - criss-crossing streams, stumbling over rocks, charging down bear trails - alone. Alone, even the simplest mistake here is potentially serious. A swim, a trapped foot, a bear.
My feet ached deeply.
My infections healed, but a new problem had arisen in Anaktuvuk Pass - one inch splits on the soles of my feet, making them tender. All day, when faced with walking over fat, hard cobble rocks, or soft, slow sidehilling, I chose sidehilling. Until near the end, when I thought about Jason. During our long walks together, when our destination was near and the walking bad, Jason would fire it up and say, "I just want to get this one over with!" So I shook off my self-pitying limp, and fired it up, strided out.
I reached the Dalton Highway just after midnight, some 600 miles and 23 days, 8 hours, since Kivalina.
This walk, if ever to be considered a "record", likely needs an asterisk, since while not resupplied in Anaktuvuk Pass, I did swap "camp food" for "fresh food".
And so be it.
No doubt, some Kiwi, or Scandinavian, could have skipped the temptation. But as Jason said, "I'd think there's something wrong with you, Roman, if you didn't eat in Anaktuvuk."
And besides, I did finish with two dinners and a breakfast remaining, although I ate my last chocolate bar an hour before the highway.
In fact, it seems that 600 miles may not actually be at the limits of human endurance.
So, I think I'll walk another mile or so down the road before I start hitchhiking.
I'm going home. I can't wait.