By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 21, 2002
My watch warbles me awake at five minutes before midnight. It's an upside-down time to get up, but things get inverted at 300 miles above the Arctic Circle. It's noon all night. It snows all summer. The trees rise only to your sock line.
I peel open an eye, blinking against the blue nylon glare of the tent wall. After a week and a half on the upper fringe of Alaska, we've logged almost 250 hours of continuous daytime. The sun never sets on 69 degrees north, at least not this time of year. From April to July, it just rolls 'round and 'round the horizon like a roulette ball, a 90-day windup for the permanent frozen night that will descend in the autumn. And tonight is the actual solstice, June 21.
Normally only a screaming bladder could pull me from the amniotic comfort of my tent into the chill of an Arctic "night." But at 11:59 I wrestle sluggishly out of the warm, silky clutch of my bag, unzip the tent and lean out into the cold midnight glare. It's one minute to summer, the last seconds of the longest day in America's most controversial public land, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It's certainly peaceful now. We're camped beside the rushing, ice-flanked Aichilik River, a glacial flow that enforces the quiet with a constant jet-engine shushhh. The river bisects a great, wide basin between the northernmost toes of the Brooks Range. Our tents -- puny in the wide valley between two ridges -- lie on the green tundra like a handful of gumdrops. It's already much greener than it was when the bush pilot dropped us off 10 days ago, such is the speed of the compressed Arctic growing season.
I hug myself in the cold as spring officially gives way to summer. I can see a half-dozen caribou a hundred yards across the river. Females and youngsters graze lazily, while a male with fuzzy black antlers lies on his belly, head up and looking my way. They're hoping I won't get busy around camp and force them back on their migratory way. We've seen caribou everyday, everywhere, thousands in all. Almost every one of the 60 miles we've walked has been mid-river of the massive annual migration of the Porcupine caribou herd, 150,000 reindeer on the hoof to their ancestral calving grounds on the coastal plain.
Before I duck back into the tent, I take a last uneasy look at the clouds churning around the mountain passes. Our pilot will have to thread those passes if he's to make our rendezvous here tomorrow morning. There are no guarantees. Our lead guide, Leslie Nicholls, was four-days stuck with a group last year. Our own weather has been reliably poor, and I'm not hopeful as I look around the surrounding wilds. But I am, once again, awestruck.
These 19 million acres represent some of the last truly undeveloped wilderness in the country. To the south towers a rank of snow-marbled black peaks, a majestic Jersey wall between us and all the peopled latitudes below. To the north, under a cobalt tureen of sky, the valley opens into a broad prairie of tundra extending out to the Beaufort Sea 25 miles away. This is the 1.5-million acre coastal plain, where the caribou are headed. It's also the so-called 1002 Area, where the oil is.
For now, though, no derricks or airports interrupt the flawless flatness that seems to unroll not just to the sea, but on to the ultimate North, the icy top of the world itself. There are no roads here, no trails but caribou trails, no ranger stations, no huts.
There is only a near-perfect wilderness under a for-now eternal sun.
I'm part of a 10-person Sierra Club backpacking trip that had convened the night before in Fairbanks, Alaska. This morning had been a steady progression toward the untamed: a 200-mile prop flight due north from Fairbanks; a day of waiting in the rain on the gravel airstrip of an off-the-grid Indian town Arctic Village; and, now, a 90-minute barnstorm into the wilderness proper in a 1952 DeHavilland Beaver on its 10th engine.
Pilot Dirk Nickisch munched potato chips with a map of the refuge in his lap, scanning the narrow valleys for a clear route though the clouds. He had already ferried half our party out to the Aichilik River, but we suddenly found ourselves flying low in a snowstorm, pressed down by a lowering cotton ceiling. Ridges and peaks faded behind a scrim of white, and Nickisch peeled up like a fighter pilot when another route closed up.
"We may have to put down on the Sheenjek [River] and try again in the morning," Nickisch warned us. He keeps food and a sleeping bag in his plane and spent 109 unplanned nights in the wilderness two seasons ago.
We were well north of the treeline now. A few stories below, we saw our first caribou trotting along the macrame webbing of rivers and streams that drain these mountains of snow and glacier melt. On the foggy slopes -- sometimes above wing level -- Nickisch pointed out dall sheep clinging to the scree. "Your friends saw a grizzly on the Aichilik about a mile above your camp," he reported over our headphones.
The snow was heavier now, but suddenly the landscape opened up. We were over the coastal plain. "I think I can get you in, but I'm not sure I'll be able to get out again myself." He banked around, flew low over the scattering caribou and back upland between two low ridges. A mile upriver, we buzzed a cluster of snow-covered tents next to a gravel bar. He came around and dropped smoothly and quickly onto the tundra, coming to a stop with a neat pivot 30 yards from the endmost tent. We were in.
Making camp in a snowstorm was a good primer for the days to come. It would be one of the rainiest early Junes in recent memory here, part of an emerging climate-change crisis in Alaska, where the permafrost is sagging and the weather is all akimbo.
Over the next week and a half, we would endure two more winter storms (one of which would keep us pinned in our tents for a day and a half) and a lot of cold chronic rain. The Sierra Club opens this trip only to experienced backpackers not because it demands any particular skills. It just wants people who have learned to endure -- and perversly enjoy -- some of nature's sulkier moods.
"I tell people this trip is all mental," said our assistant trip leader, Andrew Nicholls, Leslie's husband. The snow has eased to a chilly drizzle, and we huddled outside the cook tent, clustered in glistening parkas like a dripping "Burghers of Calais." "The miles we do aren't that tough [between six and 10 a day]. The elevation gain isn't that much. It gets just as cold in Montana or Wyoming. The thing here is the true sense of wilderness. Once you're in, you're in."
The hot carbos of a taco glop dinner worked their mood alchemy, and we became officially oblivious to the slackening rain. It finally stopped and unveiled a shaft of sunglass-worthy daylight, at about 11 p.m. I shook the snow off my tent, pulled on my Thai Airways eye mask and dozed off to the rush of the Aichilik.
There was no dawn, but the breakfast pots marked 6:30 by clanging through a valley that was very nearly sunny. We downed our daily communion of hot cereal and tea, and looked around for the facilities. Trip protocol is to find an out-of-the way nook, cover the goods with moss and burn the paper. But here, out-of-the-way doesn't mean out-of-sight. The wide open terrain lacked even a shrub of modesty. On this first morning, people tended to hike and hike and hike. That distance would shorten day by day, particularly on mornings of blowing snow.
We struck camp and set out with Leslie at the point. A small, suit-wearing contracts analyst from Fall Church by day, out here -- on her fifth Arctic trek -- she proves a bulldog hiker and a scratch navigator. (On one trip, she had to suture a gash in her own knee. Try that on K Street.) We headed down river, straight north, kicking snow from the heavy grasses.
It was a botanically inclined group, with most IDs snapped out on the fly: white mountain avens, purple mountain saxifrage, whole bonsai forests of dwarf birch and willow. But sometimes the Committee on Taxonomy had to hunch around a helpless specimen, loupes out, counting stamens. "Some kind of sweet pea I think," murmured Tim Tilton, a political science professor from Bloomington, Ind. "Leslie, we need the book."
A few days later, by the time we had turned back inland and were crossing over a series of ridges, even I could identify pink woolly louseworts well enough to eat them whole (they're best after the snow, little arugula Popsicles). I was hungry most of the time.
It felt good to work hard every day, to hone what Eric Brazil, a retired journalist from San Francisco, called the "wilderness edge." But as the weather soured again, the evening meal became more than an item on the itinerary. It hovered on the day's horizon as a haven, a steaming Tabasco-soaked bowl of asylum.
On Day 4, we spent the morning on a boot-wide caribou trail on a slope of loose glacier scree, 700 feet above a green and foggy valley. I trudged through the steady rain with eyes locked on the trail, a constant plumb line of nasal drip swinging unattended from my face. A hot shower was still more than a week away, so I fixated on dinner.
The first order of business in every camp was to set up the high-peaked cook tent and gather the rapidly shrinking bags of common food Leslie had given each of us in Fairbanks. They started out at about 10 pounds apiece, enough for five days. At a designated spot on the Jago River, we collected a cache, another 100 pounds in bear-proof canisters dropped by a bush pilot. Leslie had spent months planning, shopping, drying and packing 33 portable, protein-augmented meals. To her credit, it was 10 days before I began hallucinating cheeseburgers.
Dinner No. 6, on a tundra bench over the ice-choked Jago, was spaghetti. Leslie sat in the opening of the cook tent conducting a duet of collapsible cookstoves. We milled around in our chatty evening caucus, bowls in hand. We had changed into clean duds, which meant exchanging today's soaked clothes for yesterday's slightly damp ones. The curled chevron of a musk ox horn lay on the grass nearby. The ground was pocked with holes where a bear had been digging for a ground squirrel, its massive claw marks clearly visible.
Andrew called out from the river, where he'd gone to drain the spaghetti: "Leslie, there's some pasta on the tundra," as if he'd discovered an artifact. He's a big guy, with a linebacker's build and a broadcaster's voice. But he sounded meek now. In fact, all the pasta had tumbled down the sandy riverbank as he'd tried to pour off the water. We rinsed it off, more or less, and served it up. I had thirds. Backpacking is a great cure for fussiness.
We climbed steadily for most of the next two days, hopscotching across rushing creeks, clinging to steep slopes. We camped one night in the midnight shadow of a pingo, a three-story hillock formed by an upthrust of subterranean ice. Finally, with a promising sun behind us, we topped out on a 4,000-foot pass and beheld our highest and best view of the route: a crowded, glacier-packed peakscape of the Romanzof Mountains.
This was the continental divide of our route. We dropped down the other side of the pass, following the waterway that would loop us back to the Aichilik. At the bottom of a wide draw, the swelling creek was lined with the biggest willows we'd seen in this land of leprechaun plants. We bushwacked through, shouting and clapping to give any grizzlies plenty of time to flee our approach. The valley was full of bear tracks and scat.
These were salad days, 50 degrees and restful. We took a day off -- the only one of the trip -- at a wide, dry camp next to an ice field on the river. Leslie heated water and we washed our hair. We dried out our perma-damp socks, the victims of many river crossings. We spent hours in blissful repose, spying on the caribou, swapping novels, letting our ligaments uncoil.
Finally, we packed up and headed down the river. By 9 a.m. we were hiking in a steady rain. By 11 it was wet sleet. By 1, we were flirting with hypothermia, head-down in a driving snow. We pitched a frantic camp in near whiteout conditions and I dove in, hopelessly soaked. I peeled off layer after layer of saturated synthetics, trying desperately not to shed water over my sleeping bag. The snow didn't stop all day, and except for dinner and two "necessaries," I wouldn't emerge from my coffin-size tent for the next 16 hours.
Surrounded by hoofstock, we climbed one final pass and found ourselves back in the Aichilik River Valley. The temperatures had climbed back into the high forties, the sun was cutting certified shadows on the tundra, and this was beginning to feel like a done deal. But the wilderness had one final test for us: tussocks.
Tussocks are grassy mounds that form in the Arctic soil, the result of constant freezing and thawing. As little pedestals for wild flowers, they are charming. As a place to walk, they are diabolical. Usually surrounded by bog water, they wobble and shake like semi-deflated soccer balls, forcing you to teeter from one to the other with your backpack wrestling you for every footfall.
We had endured plenty of tussocks on this trip -- and had the taped ankles and searing tendons to prove it. But the last two miles proved the worst. By the time I'd staggered my way to our last camp, I was seething. Meanwhile caribou mothers and babies glided by in an effortless pas de deux. If one of them had bounded over to nuzzle me at that moment, I would have whacked it with my trekking pole.
But nothing seems to last long in an Arctic summer, including frustration. A snit here is as fleeting as a tundra flower, or a shaft of sun, or a writ of wilderness protection. By the time we made camp and gathered for our final supper, tussocks had joined snowstorms and river crossings as unfun things that we already missed. And so on that evening of the solstice -- under clearing skies with a flask of booze we had stashed on our way out -- we only needed solace for two things: We were leaving, and we didn't know what we would find when we came back.
Steve Hendrix will be online tomorrow at 2 p.m. to discuss this story at www.washingtonpost.com during the Travel section's weekly chat.
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