The sun lingers over the horizon at 11:30 p.m., creeping toward a narrow strip of orange light that appeared hours earlier. Everything moves slower out here – the sun, the time, the progress of life. The end of May. Everyone has hit a one-month lull. The novelty has worn off now. This is our life now. Putting up tents and making pancakes is our job; the remote dirt road through this continuous expanse of wilderness is our commute.
Jen plopped down in camp last night and said, “Everything here looks the same.” Nothing to look at but black spruce, wavering fields of aspen and the glowing blue sky that no longer fades to black. I miss the night. I miss sleep. Last night I lay on my back at 2 a.m. in the glow of a late evening twilight knowing that the sun would rise again before the light fully disappeared. In two more weeks it will not set at all.
Routine. We are still civilized creatures and it follows us everywhere. And we move along, into the endless day, never quite knowing what these unwatched hours will bring. On May 28 we arrived in Dawson City, home of the Yukon Gold Rush, a place where population once topped 50,000 and now lingers around 2,000. The locals held their heritage even as the city shrank. Tin boxes with wooden western facades on short stilts form most of the buildings – saloons, gambling halls, motels and liquor stores are more relevant than the invading restaurants and gift shops. We drove up Bonanza Creek and stood at a gravel pit that was once a town of 10,000, Grand Forks, plowed over and buried in the still-moving grab for gold, now the work of bulldozers and dredges. Mining ripped up everything in this canyon. Giant piles of former paydirt lay wasting on the shoreline, picked through and abandoned. Chris and Geoff grabbed Frisbees and tin plates and panned for gold right on top of the former site of Grand Forks, in the very creek that started it all. I walked up the hill and surveyed the remaining buildings – collapsed and corroded wooden cabins leaning over the steep slopes above the creek. The gold rushers once lived here. The people that traversed barren snowfields in the rigid cold of endless night, seeking a dream. I’d like to think I’d do the same, but I’ve never had a dream so intense, so overpowering, as to drive me into the glacial dark with only a faint glimmer of hope for success.
Chris and Geoff gave up on their dream after about 45 minutes, miniscule flakes of sparkling “gold” still stuck to their legs and arms, mud dripping from their hands. Discovery is not preemptive. This is the frustration of gold panning. This is the frustration of traveling. At this moment we drive along the top of the world highway, across the Yukon River and less than 50 miles from the Alaska border. Our destination. And perhaps the cause of our discontent. We could turn the van around right now and never be the worse for it. There may be nothing on the horizon save the reluctant sun, but we’ll never know until we go.
posted by Jill at 2:23 p.m. on May 30
Friday, May 30, 2003
Today we actually got to Alaska. So far it looks about the same as Canada has for the past three weeks. Lots of trees, mountains, water, and animals. The highlight of our 12 hours in Alaska has been the 2 hours we spent in the small town of Chicken, Alaska. All we really did was go into the old style bar in the middle of what they call “Downtown” Chicken. Most people would consider it a strip mall dressed in turn of the century façade, but the locals get some pleasure out of calling it downtown so we decided to see what all the fuss was about. The bar door was open when we drove up but there was no one inside. Not a single customer or even any employee. A man in front of the café nearby assured us that we could go on in and that he’d be over in a bit if we wanted a beer. We walked in cautiously and skeptically but quickly became enthralled by the décor and comfortable setting, which was punctuated nicely by the slow, continual music on the jukebox in the corner. The inside of the bar was completely plastered with random memorabilia from past travelers. Business cards, baseball caps, pictures, letters, drawings, paper currency, and most unique: women’s underwear that had been stuffed into a small canon in the corner of the room, packed with gunpowder and ignited, shooting the panties and bra’s into the air. They were then attached to the ceiling and walls with a staple gun, all torn and mangled from being fired out of a canon. The man from in front of the café came over shortly and served us drinks and told us that this was how the underwear ended up on the walls and ceiling. I thought for sure that he was joking at first but as we looked around more and talked to this man more I realized that he wasn’t joking at all. This was really what they did for entertainment in “downtown” Chicken.
We shot some pool on a table that was short three balls and enjoyed some more conversation with the bartender. Fun old man who told us stories about times he had spent in Dawson, Chicago, New Hampshire, Vermont, and most interestingly, Baffin Island. After an hour, or maybe two, we loaded back into the van and were on our way. It was very pleasant though to sit and talk to a local for a bit. The past several days have gone by in a blur and since we’re camping every night and cooking nearly all of our own meals we don’t find ourselves interacting with too many locals. When we do stop for gas or food or whatever else we do that brings us in touch with other people we usually end up allowing our limited desire and ability to interact with strangers to get in the way and we’re back on the road again before we really learn anything from these people. Today though we ended up staying for awhile and learning a bit about where we were and the person who happened to be there at the time. Definitely something I want to start doing more in the coming weeks of this trip.
Tomorrow we are heading into Fairbanks. From Fairbanks we’ll head north to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. This will be a 1,000 mile out and back journey to the north, but something I find myself very excited for. Not only will we be going 500 miles further north than I have ever been in my life, but we will be traveling into the Brooks Range and on into a completely different climatic zone. I’ve only ever read about the tundra and seen pictures but I think it’ll be really interesting to actually go there. First though is Fairbanks.
I’m actually excited to go into a large city for a bit. This will be the largest town we’ve been to since Vancouver three weeks ago and our first chance to feel somewhat connected to the outside world since then. We’ve only on rare occasion been able to pick up even a single radio station and since somewhere in the middle of British Columbia we’ve not once been able to get our hands on a daily newspaper. At this point I have virtually no knowledge of what’s gone on in the news for almost two weeks, and even though this was part of the reason for wanting to go on this trip I’m actually quite excited to get a little more in touch with some things in Fairbanks. Not to mention how nice it’ll be to get a shower and do some laundry. Not that we couldn’t have done these things at many places over the past several days, but we’ve gotten in the habit with every potential errand of saying, “let’s wait until we get to Fairbanks.” And so tomorrow “we get to Fairbanks” and prepare for our travels north to the Arctic Ocean. Prepare for our journey further away from being in touch with the outside world then we will be at any point during this trip. This then I think is why I look forward to our time that we do spend in Fairbanks in the next few days. A nice change from what we’ve had and even more so from what we’ll be moving on to.
posted by Geoff at 2:19 p.m. on Wednesday, May 30
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
Color has faded now to primarily two: brown and white. Patches of snow still linger in the late arctic winter and all else for the time being is brown. The rivers flow near flood stage, brown with the murky silt of whatever soils and sands have thawed from the sun, which has been a continual presence here for almost a month now. The mosses, grasses, and tussocks which make up the ground cover now are several different shades of green, red, and gray when examined closely, but from a distance of more than a few feet blend together to form a quilted brown carpet stretching up over the horizon in all directions. The wildlife we encounter now has become even more plentiful. Moose, Caribou, Grizzly Bear, Musk Ox: all brown and virtually hidden in the landscape around them. In the higher areas where white is still the predominant color we find dall sheep, blending almost perfectly in with the snow behind them. It’s hard to look out over the landscape here and picture the green, red, yellow, and blue that will be here shortly when winter breaks fully and the short growing season finally comes. It feels for some reason that this that we see now is the way the arctic always is: a beautiful mix of brown and white. The consistency in landscape that we’ve viewed over the past twenty four hours combined with the consistency of the sun shining down has created in me a feeling of permanence in what I see. It’s become impossible for me to picture this region in any way other than what I see before me right now. In my mind I know that it looks much different than this most of the year but I find it impossible to envision any of this, instead I continue to see only this beautiful mix of brown and white.
Thus the scene as we head north to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Several miles north of the Arctic Circle now and shortly we’ll come to the end of the northward road. If things go as planned we will be gazing out over the Arctic Ocean some time tomorrow afternoon.
posted by Geoff on June 4, 2003
Thursday, June 5, 2003
Well, we’re in the Arctic – the Arctic! I never in my life felt a desire to come here until I did. Now, it feels strange to think about leaving. Where the Arctic Circle begins, the landscape is blooming with the intensity of an organism that knows it will only see three months of life. Caribou and moose dodge the black spruce and birch in full gallops. Where they are, the grizzlies follow. The rivers swell with spring snowmelt, raging toward places that human eyes have still never seen.
We crossed over the Brooks Range and down the North Slope in a flurry of snow, a deep chill holding the air at 4,700 feet. Below the mountains is the rolling tundra, which, still clinging to winter, looks eerily like Nevada in November. At closer look, though, life is emerging from the melting permafrost, which now blankets the landscape like a marshy swamp. Due to detrimental weather, we barely left the van yesterday. We camped near an abandoned cabin right off the Dalton Highway, in a gray, dreary place known as Happy Valley, mile 334. Still, I felt immersed in wilderness. Muskoxen grazed near camp with now care our no fear at our presence. We approached them for a closer look as they stood there indifferently. A muskox, we determined, is a ball of long brown shag with curly horns poking out of one end and tiny little hooves on the bottom, about the size of a small cow. So exaggerated is their hair versus the rest of their features that they look more like a cartoon than a real animal. We walked up the shoreline of the river, just barely freed of its thick winter ice cover. Chunks the size of a J-rig river raft charged through the swift riffles and crashed into shore, sending shards of ice skidding across the rocky banks. Some were more than two feet thick, their interior still a deep shade of icy blue – a color I have only before seen in pictures.
We went to bed last night as the sun slipped to its lowest point on the horizon before climbing again, just after 1 a.m. The sun does not set this far north. It won’t again until July. I struggle to find my way to sleep every night, but I still enjoy the fact that time no longer matters.
posted by Jill on June 5, 2003
Friday, June 6, 2003
Well, things did go as planned yesterday. By 4:00 pm we we’re standing on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, even walking a bit out on the ice that still covers the shallow water by shore. This though after an incredible drive up through the last bits of the tundra leading to Prudhoe Bay.
In our first 10 minutes on the road yesterday morning we saw a herd of musk oxen, a grizzly bear, a moose, and a herd of caribou. As we drove closer to the coast the tundra became a wetland with waterfowl flying around in every direction. Ducks, Arctic Swans, Canada Geese, and dozens of other birds that I’d never seen before and quite possibly never will see again. This scene eventually gave way to the industrial look of the oil fields of Deadhorse / Prudhoe Bay, where We forked out $37 each for an oilfield tour (this was the only way we could get to the ocean) that turned out to be almost worth the obnoxious price, but not quite. After the 2 hour tour ended we had nothing else really to do except turn around and retrace out path. And thus began the southward journey that will continue for the next two months.
The best thing so far about heading south has been the avalanche that closed the road down for an hour or so today just below the top of Atigun Pass. In the time it took us to change a leaky tire and eat some lunch the road was clear again and we were on our way back down into the forested and much warmer landscape of the Koyukuk River valley. In the morning we plan to set out on foot for our first backpacking adventure of our trip. Directly in front of where I sit now, on the other side of the Koyukuk River, sits Sukakpak Mountain, still somewhat snow covered, towering about 2,000 feet above the river valley. Our plan is to head around the back side tomorrow and reach the summit sometime the following day, after exploring the drainage off the eastern side of the mountain that pushes toward Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
I look forward to getting away from the road and the van for a few days. Although our pace on this trip has been slow, it’s also been very steady. We’ve taken very few breaks from traveling at least a bit each day. Since we got to Washington on the third day of this trip we’ve likely not had a single day in which we’ve driven more than 250 miles, but we’ve also only had about 5 or 6 days in which we didn’t drive at all. So now then it’s a nice feeling to have pulled into camp for the night knowing that it’ll be a few days before we’re on the road again.
posted by Geoff on June 6, 2003
Tuesday, June 10, 2003
On June 6 we dipped our hands in the shallow puddles atop an ice-coated Arctic Ocean, an abrupt and frigid end to our month-long northern journey. The North Pole sat some 1200 miles in the distance, now getting further away as we now move south – homeward, in a way. An avalanche blocked our passage over Atigun Pass, where we had to wait for an hour before a plow freed us.
We moved south quickly, but made a three-day layover in the Brooks Range to backpack around Sukakpak Mountain. In the Brooks Range, there are no trails. The ground is covered in basketball-sized clumps of hard moss called tussocks, interwoven by a soft spongy bog. The tundra groundcover is extremely difficult to traverse, especially when covered by a thick network of brush and black spruce trees. We worked our way up the ridge and back down, lugging heavy backpacks loaded with what we referred to as “bear bombs,” plastic barrels that hide food from bears. We camped near the shoreline of the Bettles River and soaked up our first warm nights of the trip. Every day new signs of spring emerged – bright green seedlings, white and pink flowers, and fresh blades of grass poked up from the brown moss coating the ground. Spring comes quickly up here, and we easily noticed an abundance of new life pop up during our three-day trip.
Geoff, generally not a minimalist backpacker, packed surprisingly light for the trip. When he grabbed all the food, he admitted, he had in his mind an amount that was actually better for two people than four. We carefully rationed each morsel, quietly appreciating our allotted quarter of tortilla with ounce of cheese, and ate up every last bite save a small package of sugar and some salt. On day 3 we ate a small amount of oatmeal and set out for what we thought would be a short half-day hike back to the van. We were wrong. The Bettles River veered too far to the north and we were forced to climb a ridge over 1,000 feet above the river. When I moved back down the ridge I made the mistake of dropping back to the river too quickly. Instead of a rocky shoreline I found a nearly impassable jungle hanging over a steep cliff. Across the river I could see the road, but the swift current of spring runoff and chunks of ice racing through the river made crossing seem suicidal. I had no choice but to whack my way along the shoreline – at a rate of about half a mile per hour – through the brush and spider webs and spongy moss and clouds of hungry mosquitoes. My water had long since disappeared- I had packed very little anticipating a short hike. At one point my pack got hopelessly stuck in a thorny bush and I stopped cold, watching the water rush 50 feet below and contemplated, very seriously, making the swim. Luckily, blind fear prevailed, for I had long since shed common sense. I decided that people like me must do backpacking hikes like this in hell. It’s a nearly perfect form of torture. In my heart I knew that it should be fun, but all the beauty I had seen on the ridge was gone. Salvation lay in direct view, only to be blocked by certain death. All around me was discouragement and frustration, pain and itching from cuts and mosquito bites, a chocking thirst and gnawing hunger with no way to satisfy it. Many people who are stronger than I am experience this kind of discomfort and relish in it, even seek after it. When I finally emerged from the brush, I was extremely grumpy and it took most of the evening to wear off. An all-you-can-eat halibut buffet with rootbeer and cheesecake in Coldfoot helped quite a bit.
Now we are back on the road and will be in Fairbanks later today – it has been 10 days since I’ve seen the kind of civilization I’m used to – fast food restaurants, chain gas stations, and suburbs. And I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I kind of miss it. Arctic Alaska is such a pure form of wilderness that this highway feels like sacrilege. That paltry backpacking trip I took was a tiny drop of water in a sea of wild, untouched land. The landscape along this 500-mile stretch is diverse and frightening; it commands joy but demands respect. Everything borders on extreme – daylight, temperature, seasons and life. Survival out here is also extreme, something I don’t feel adequately designed and conditioned for. My body is too weak and too susceptible to sun and bug bites, too unaccustomed to hunger and thirst and cold. Maybe this is the cause of my discomfort, my nostalgia for strip malls and cookie cutter suburbs. However, it is also the cause of an extreme respect and fascination with this place they call the Arctic Circle.
posted by Jill on June 10, 2003
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
Sukakpak Mountain turned out to be every bit as relaxing and soothing as I had hoped it might be. We ended up hiking a loop around the entire mountain, summiting the first day and then spending all of the second day relaxing at a nice camp we had made along the shore of the Bettles River, completely out of view of the highway and the pipeline for the first time in almost a week.
The hike around to the van on the third day proved to be a bit harder and more frustrating than we had expected, but when we finished we jumped quickly in the ice cold river and drove away with a sense of gratification in my mind that I had not felt for several days.
Today we return to Fairbanks. It’s been 10 days I guess now since we left Fairbanks to head north - 10 of the most adventurous and memorable days of our summer thus far. For the first time on this trip we were traveling to an area and down a highway that I had never traveled before. One of the bad things about having done all the traveling that I have done is that it becomes really hard to go to places that I’ve never been to. It seems that no matter how little I remember of a place it’s never quite as exciting as going somewhere that I’ve never been at all. When traveling to a new area or down a highway I’ve never driven there’s always that novelty and anticipation that this may prove to be one of those truly fascinating and majestic places that make all the planning and driving and cost of a trip like this seem entirely worth it with no regrets whatsoever. And this is precisely what this drive from Fairbanks north to the Arctic Ocean did for me. The adventure and beauty of these past 10 days alone has made everything about this trip make sense and be entirely worth the time and money we’ve put into it. Even more so knowing that we still have 2 months of adventure and beauty ahead of us.
posted by Geoff at 5:17 p.m. on June 11, 2003
Sunday, June 15, 2003
Today, along the Stampede Trail, just north of Denali National Park we invented a new sport. We’re calling it stream biking, and well, that’s all there is to it. You find a nice smooth bottomed stream and you bike right down the middle of it. When you find a stretch that you can ride for several hundred yards it gives you a unique and exhilarating feeling. Sometimes the water would get so deep that it’d be shooting up in all directions from the bike, but somehow by just keeping the pedals moving forward you could keep moving through the water that was sometimes two or three feet deep. In the really deep parts you’d begin to feel this weird sensation where you’re bike would be almost floating on the water but always staying straight from touching just a bit of the bottom. Rocks that would normally be impossible to ride up and over without going over your handlebars suddenly became no big deal to ride right up and over. The flotation created from the air in your tires just kind of pushes you up and over the rocks as you go. Working downstream is certainly easier than up but either way can be traveled, and some pretty irregular and rocky stretches of river can be negotiated once you get the hang of it.
I guess the most difficult thing about stream biking is just how much muscle exertion it takes to ride very short distances. A few hundred yards feels more like several miles of regular riding. You need to be almost continually pushing hard against your pedals to maintain your balance and momentum. Another difficult thing about the sport of stream biking is that Alaska may be one of the only places in the world where you can consistently find the kind of stream and river beds that you need. For whatever reason the river beds here are very even and made up of mostly pretty small rocks in comparison to those of other places. Stream biking as we did today, over rocks the size of baseballs with some random basketballs mixed in was challenging but entirely doable. When we bring our sport back to the lower 48, and specifically Utah, I think we’re going to find that stream biking down river beds with rocks more the size of bears is going to be a bit more difficult. I guess if we get enough practice in up here though we should be ready to tackle the more challenging stream biking terrain of the lower 48.