This summer, my friend Bunny and I will traverse the Brooks Range in Alaska. The Brooks is a mountain range that runs across the Alaskan arctic from the Alaska/Yukon border to the Chuckchi sea. Treeline in the Brooks is very low; for this reason, much of the range is treeless open tundra, with some impenetrable tangles of alders in the lower elevations. We’ll follow drainages close to the continental divide where the rivers are smaller and easier to cross on foot- walking will be wet and squishy but generally straightforward in the deep, spongy moss and gravel river braids, with the occasional morass of difficult brush and several sections of steep talus and scree when we have to cross the continental divide (which snakes east-west across Alaska, forming the spine of the Brooks range). Several of the river crossing will be sketch, but which rivers and how sketch there is no way of knowing, as so many things depend on the weather and other events. We are fully prepared to walk miles up (or down) stream of our original route to find a more chill place to cross a stream if need be or, as Bruce “Buck” Nelson did on his Brooks range traverse, to tie some logs together to make a raft. We’ll cross just one road in our two months in the arctic- the Dalton Highway, or Haul Road, which was built to carry supplies north to the oil drilling on the north slope. We’ll walk through one village, the indigenous village of Anaktuvuk, which can only be reached by plane. At approximately mile 700 we’ll reach the headwaters of the Noatak river, where we’ll pick up the inflatable kayaks that were stashed for us there, via bushplane. The last 300 miles (approximately) we’ll float the Noatak river. Our route will end on the west coast of Alaska, at the Chukchi sea.
There are no trails in the Brooks Range. Our one-thousand mile route is entirely cross-country. I know of only three people who have traversed the Brooks Range in its entirety in one go, although I am positive there are more, especially as the rich culture and human history of rural Alaska is more IRL than online, and I’m sure that as the summer goes on I’ll learn about more people who have done this traverse. Two of the people I know of who have completed the traverse, Bruce “Buck” Nelson and Andrew Skurka, have been invaluable in helping me plan my hike. (Buck has done so much cool stuff, check out his website– in particular I really love this book of his about chilling with the bears in SE Alaska– it’s unlike anything else I’ve read. Andrew Skurka- yall probs know who Skurka is. He’s had the most insane adventures! And is a wealth of knowledge and information.) Even though others have traversed the Brooks range, routes in the arctic should not be shared, as too many people walking one path can damage the tundra for a long time, so I had to create the actual route we will walk myself. This idea intimidated me greatly, at first- while I’ve hiked a number of routes in the US that others have created using nothing but google earth, caltopo.com and their own imaginations, I have less experience looking at a tangle of mountain peaks on a topo map and deciding for myself which drainages to follow. As soon as I opened caltopo.com, however, and decided on my layers, I fell into the topo lines as though dropped from the sky onto a very real and tangible landscape, and I realized that I have enough experience with cross-country navigation on other peoples’ routes that a topo map feels very much like home, at this point, and the ability to make my way across one is very much a skillset that I have. While Skurka and Buck couldn’t straight up share their routes through the Brooks range with me, they did agree to look my route over after I was finished to help make sure that my passes went and my rivers were likely to be fordable. They both gave me a good amount of feedback and advice on my route once it was completed, and for this I am extremely grateful. No route is created entirely alone; we all rely heavily on the collective body of knowledge about a landscape that already exists- the understanding of which pass goes and which rivers are likely to be fordable is knowledge that is cultivated over hundreds of years and passed down through many generations. In the Brooks Range, this knowledge has been traditionally held by the Gwich’in, Inupiaq and Koyukon people, who have been living and traveling in those mountains for thousands of years, and whose body of knowledge about the landscape and how to live within it is the only reason that white people where initially able to survive there at all. As a white person, claiming that I “created” a route scrubs this large and very important history and its people from the conversation entirely.
Our eastern terminus, the Alaska/Yukon border, is also the eastern border of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is the largest intact wilderness left in the united states. The first part of our hike will be a traverse of ANWR. Like most of the land through which the Brooks range runs, ANWR’s 19 million acres have never been developed, and all of its original species (including predators like wolves and bears), are intact and doing well. Arctic Alaska in general, and ANWR in particular, embodies a wildness so rare it’s nearly incomprehensible to the modern imagination. Rivers that have never been dammed! Forests that have never been logged! Thriving populations of grizzly bears and wolverines and musk ox and salmon!
Every year in spring, the porcupine caribou herd, which numbers around 218,000, migrates 1,500 miles from the boreal forests of Alaska and northwest Canada to the coastal plains of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to birth their calves. The mosquitoes and flies where the caribou spend much of the year are so thick by calving time that they would endanger the newborn calves; the breeze at the arctic coastal plains creates a peaceful, less insect-dense place for the caribou to give birth. Unlike the rest of ANWR, the 1.5 million acre coastal plain where the caribou have their calves, designated area 1002, does not yet have wilderness designation, and has been contested for decades as a site for potential oil drilling. Republicans have attempted to allow oil drilling in area 1002 fifty times since 1977. According to estimates by the USGS, the amount of oil available in area 1002 is hardly more than the amount of oil required to power the US for a single year. (From this wiki article: “The DOE reported that annual United States consumption of crude oil and petroleum products was 7.55 billion barrels (1.200×109 m3) in 2006. In comparison, the USGS estimated that the ANWR reserve contains 10.4 billion barrels (1.65×109 m3)”). This fact hasn’t stopped oil companies from going after area 1002, as even short term boom and bust resource extraction that permanently alters one of the last intact wildernesses on earth can still make a lot of money for a very small group of people and their friends. Last December, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which included a rider to finally open up area 1002 for drilling, was signed into law, and so the fight to protect ANWR has begun anew.
The Gwich’in Athabascan people of interior Alaska call ANWR and the Brooks range their traditional home and have subsisted on the land there for forty thousand years. For the last several decades, the Gwich’in have been deeply involved in the fight to protect the sacred birthing grounds of the caribou, to which they depend on for survival and to which their culture has deep spiritual ties. I’d like to use this hike as an opportunity to raise awareness around the current threats to ANWR, as well as support for the native-led organizations that are working so hard to protect their land. I’ve created a fundraiser for Defend the Sacred AK, which is a coalition made up of members of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, Native Movement AK and other Alaskan native-led organizations. Defend the Sacred AK works to protect sacred wild lands in Alaska that are under threat of development and resource extraction by outside interests, in particular the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Defend the Sacred AK is a small organizations with limited funds, and they need our help as they move forward in the fight to protect ANWR. Join me in supporting this awesome org, y’all! All money goes directly to the org. I’ll be creating incentives to get people to donate throughout our traverse, as well. Click below to be spirited away to the fundraiser:
Alaska Traverse for Defend the Sacred AK
Here’s a sweet video Patagonia made about the Gwich’in Steering Committee:
Finding a hiking partner for the Brooks range traverse was no easy feat. I first met Bunny around the new year, when she was visiting Tucson. Bunny had been wanting to get back into nature adventuring after a long hiatus from the outdoors world; we have many friends in common in the queer community and a couple people had suggested that we meet. I’d been feeling desperate to meet more queer folks who were also into the outdoors; the heteronormativity of the long-distance hiking community had been bumming me out for some time. Meeting Bunny was like a breath of fresh air, and her story was captivating- for years in her twenties she’d worked as a backpacking guide, a mountain bike guide, and a whitewater kayak guide. She has a masters in geography, has cycled across the country twice, done forty day expeditions in the Alaskan backcountry and guided in the Grand Canyon. But Bunny was ultimately fired from guiding when she started her transition. This experience burned her so badly that she left the outdoors community altogether. She ended up in the Bay area, where she and Phos Ivestei founded the nonprofit Trans Assistance Project, which provides microgrants to transgender people, and where she currently works as the director of Trans Lifeline, the nation’s first transgender crisis hotline.
Bunny and I were hanging out at the airstream I was renting on the edge of the desert in Tucson, drinking La Croix in the sunlight. Our dogs were sprawled in the dirt like lizards. Bunny was telling me about her outdoors adventures, and how she’d been missing that world lately, and how badly she wanted to get back into it.
“Do you want to walk across Alaska with me?” I asked.
“Yeah, actually,” said Bunny.
Her answer took me by surprise. I’d been looking for someone to join me on the trip for a while- I’d asked everyone who I thought might be interested, no matter how tangentially, but so far, no-one I’d asked had said yes. The trip was too arduous, too remote, too expensive, required a skillset that was too niche. Bunny had a full time job, a dog, a life. I was certain, when I asked her, that she would say no, just like everyone else. I’d been starting to give up on the idea of the trip happening at all, because I couldn’t find a suitable partner and I didn’t want to traverse the Brooks range alone. But Bunny said yes, and in that moment I realized how perfect a partner she was for the trip. Bunny has extensive experience in the Alaskan backcountry and has also worked as a whitewater kayak guide. The last three hundred miles of the route we’ll be floating the Noatak river in inflatable kayaks, and I have no boat experience or knowledge at all. Zero. None. Bunny said yes, and suddenly I had a partner with the exact knowledge required to cover the holes in my own experience, and for the first time the Brooks Range traverse seemed real, as though it could actually happen, and we were both so, so excited.
I was born and raised in Alaska, in Anchorage, but have spent very little time in the arctic. Poverty and homelessness is a huge issue in Anchorage, and I grew up as part of that world- cycling with my brother and schizophrenic mother, who was unable to work, between low income housing, homeless shelters, friends’ couches, and foster homes. Like many people who grow up in poverty, my childhood was spent focused almost entirely on basic survival, and my understanding of the outdoors was limited to what I could find in my neighborhood (which was a lot, relatively, since I was in Alaska,) and how far I could ride my bike. I spent five summers in my twenties reclaiming my relationship with Alaska, working in a different part of the state each year, and in this way I finally had a chance to explore the wild and sprawling landmass that is so dear to my heart. I discovered long distance hiking in 2013, and with that obsession came a deeper understanding of public lands, how and what is protected and why, and who does and does not have access to/feel welcome in the outdoors. In the outdoors community there is a longstanding narrative of who “belongs” in the outdoors- a certain demographic is presented, generally, in media pertaining to outdoors culture- this demographic is white, thin, able bodied, heteronormative, wealthy, mostly male- and the pricing and design of outdoors gear is also tilted heavily towards this demographic. In reality, though, we are all from/of the Earth, all of our survival depends on our relationship with wild lands, and we all belong in wilderness. And as whitewashed as outdoors media is, many different demographics have been responsible for/crucial in the protection of/creation of public lands in North America, not to mention the native peoples who had been caring for the land for thousands of years before Europeans came over and stole the land/fucked up the land, as well as the long human history of spiritual relationship with wild lands that had already existed for eons all over the world before the modern westernized idea of “outdoors culture” was born.
So here we are. Moving forward, especially under Trump, it is so important for all of us to reclaim our relationship with the land. And it is so important that our relationships with the outdoors be intersectional, as all systems of oppression are interconnected, and so one system of oppression (exploitation of wilderness areas for ill-advised resource extraction by large oil and gas corporations, for example) cannot be successfully opposed without addressing other systems of oppression as well (environmental racism, erasure of native peoples, etc) if we want real and lasting change. I am interested in shifting the narrative of who has access to/understanding of/is deeply invested in the future of/protection of wild lands. I am interested in the question of who belongs in the wilderness/who does wilderness belong to.
(If you’d like to read more about environmental racism and the need for conservationist movements to be intersectional, check out this surprisingly great piece from Outside Mag- The Green Movement is Talking About Racism? It’s About Time as well as this piece- If You Care About the Environment, then You Should Care About Black Lives.)
We’ll have no cell phone reception or internet access for the entirety of our two month trek, with the exception of when we cross the Dalton highway in mid July, at which point we’ll hitch into Fairbanks and take a week off before going back out. My intention is to write a blog post for each day of this hike (which is what I’ve done so far on every one of my long hikes, even when I’ve decided not to, ha) and I’ll save these blogs to my phone. When we’re in Fairbanks I can schedule the first batch of finished posts, and one will post each day, even after I’ve gone back into the Brooks. I’ll start posting the second batch of posts after completing the route. (If you’d like to be notified via email every time a new post is up, you can subscribe to this blog entering your email into the box at the bottom of this page.)
Although the walking itself will be more chill than some routes I’ve done (squishy tundra, wet feet all day, multiple creek crossings, occasional scrambling on talus and scree), not having any access to the outside world for two months, excepting our week off in Fairbanks, will be an entirely new experience for me. We’ll have a delorme inreach with which we’ll be able to send and receive texts as well as a second PLB, but otherwise this trip will be full Farley Mowat-style “dropped in the arctic via bushplane with nothing but the supplies on our backs waving goodbye to the tiny plane as it slowly disappears sure hope we can find our caches and that nothing goes horribly awry.”
We’ll be dropped at our eastern terminus, the Alaska/Yukon border, by bush plane. All of our resupplies, with the exception of our resupply at the Dalton highway and the box we’ll pick up in the fly-in village of Anaktuvuk, the one human settlement through which we’ll walk, will be dropped by bushplane. At the end we’ll fly out of the small village of Kotzebue by bushplane. We’ll be carrying about a week’s worth of food at a stretch. We’ll cover about fifteen miles per day, for the walking part of the trip. There will be 24 hours of sunlight when we begin the route in mid June, although night will have returned by the time we finish, in mid august. We’ll be hiking in peak mosquito season. Depending on who you ask, the Alaskan arctic has the highest concentration of mosquitoes on earth. There will be many, many grizzly bears, although the arctic, being generally north of treeline, is a less sketchy environment in which to encounter a grizzly, because the land is open and you can more often see the bear from a long ways away and give it a wide berth. When I asked Bruce “Buck” Nelson about the grizzlies on his Brooks range traverse, this is what he told me:
“A grizzly would see me from a long ways off, and, thinking I was a prey animal, it would come running straight at me, full speed. Down the mountain, across the valley- it would even swim across the river. Anything it could do to get to me. Meanwhile, I’m just standin there. The bear gets closer and closer, and I’m just standin there. Finally, at the last second, the wind shifts and the bear smells me, and it turns on its heels and runs away. I had lots of encounters like that.”
Bunny and I will both be carrying bearspray which, according to Buck, works much better than a gun, unless you’re some sort of sharpshooting ninja. Avoiding brush whenever possible helps protect a person from sketchy bear encounters as well. While I try not to be bearanoid in general, I am terrified of grizzlies as they kill humans on the reg, and that’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t want to do this route solo- I don’t think I would ever relax enough to be able to sleep, if I was alone? Also, I feel like if a grizzly came running at me full speed from a long ways away I would shit my pants? I don’t know. Only one way to find out!
My next post here will be about the gear we’ll be using on this trip, and the food we’ll be packing in our resupply drops, as well as more logistical stuff. Don’t forget to subscribe if you want to get an email notification every time I post- scroll to the bottom of this page (on yr phone) or click the link in the sidebar (if yr on a computer).
Lastly, you get one (1) laugh about the funny coincidence of our names- Carrot and Bunny. Just one laugh. And then we must never speak of it again. 🙂
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