We fly into Fort Yukon the morning of June 14th via Wright Air, a tiny airport near the larger Fairbanks airport that operates flights to several Alaskan villages. Fort Yukon is not on any road system; you have to fly in or come a long distance by boat or otherwise. My friend Tara grew up near here on the Colleen river, on a remote subsistence trapline in what is now part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She lived with her parents and sister in a cabin made of spruce poles. They got around by dogsled and boat, and the mail came every six months by plane. (Here’s are two interviews that Tara did with her mom, on the blog she used to have- interview one, interview two. Tara is one of the coolest people on the planet, if you didn’t already know.) As a kid, Fort Yukon was “town” to Tara, and she grimaces when I tell her that we might be hanging out there for a day or two if there’s bad weather and our bush pilot, Kirk with Yukon Air, can’t fly us to the start of our traverse. I think about all the different things rural Alaska means to different people, all the different things any one place can mean to a group of different people. I think about class and race and privilege and access and history. I think about how amazing it would be to grow up on a subsistence trapline; I think about how terrible it would be to grow up feeling trapped in poverty someplace so small and isolated.
There’s a winter storm warning for Joe creek, where we’ll start our traverse at the Alaska/Yukon border. It looks pretty bad but when I call our pilot Kirk to ask him about it, he laughs it off.
“I tell you what, never look at the weather forecast,” he says. “You can’t actually really guess what’s gonna happen. If I can’t get you out to Joe creek I’ll drop you somewhere else and you can camp, I’ll pick you up and take you the rest of the way when the weather clears.” Kirk has been flying in the Brooks Range for 35 years, and I trust his nonchalance. Still, it’s interesting to think about being dropped somewhere in the Brooks range that’s not on our route just to like… wait a few days until he comes back? I love how rural Alaskans think things are totally chill that lots of other people in the western world would think are either impossible or insane. I also like how Alaska isn’t really on the internet (“It’s because there’s not actually any wifi!” says Bunny, exasperated, after we spend three hours looking for, and failing to find, internet speeds in Fairbanks fast enough to download maps) and all information is still held by individuals and books, ala 1995. If you want to know something about an area you want to hike or raft or whatever… you have to call someone on the phone. If they don’t have your answer, they’ll know who does. And eventually you’ll land a kindly individual who holds a veritable encyclopedia of rare and special knowledge within them, and they’ll help you out. It’s magical.
I feel delirious from my five hours of anxious sleep the night before (and the night before, and the night before that,) but morale is high when we land at the small, faded airport in Fort Yukon. The inside of the airport is like a time capsule from previous decades- a single, wood paneled room that smells of diesel with a long table, a stack of used paperbacks, a humming vending machine and the excruciating presence of the small group of people who are waiting for their flight and have no reception to stare at their phones and so revert to the timeless human entertainment of staring at each other. People stare at me and I stare back, cataloging them like characters in a novel; the small but surprisingly strong old man with the very loud voice, the woman who has raised her own children as well as everyone else’s and who is tired now and would just like a quiet place to sit and not be bothered, the two young men from eastern Europe, one with a broken leg, who are here I do not know why, and the man in military fatigues who’s anxious, tapping his foot as he looks out the window at the dirt runway and the boreal forest beyond.
Kirk, our pilot, finds us and brings us next door, where he operates his business out of a freight container with a small desk inside.
Kirk looks like a hollywood actor playing the part of a bush pilot. His tiny plane sits on the grass out front- I know nothing about planes but this one seats just a couple of people and has huge fat tires, “tundra tires” as he calls them.
In another freight container he sorts our caches into bear barrels. I look at the other caches there- here are a couple with Buck’s name on them!
“It’s Buck!” I say to Kirk.
“Yeah!” says Kirk. “I’m not sure where he’s headed this time. I’m dropping a cache for him.” He looks at another bear barrel. “You ever heard of Foxtrot?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I have.” Foxtrot was on the short list of names recommended to me when I was looking for information about traversing the Brooks. His wanderings up here are legendary. Like many rural Alaskans, though, he’s just not online, and I never did track him down.
“He works on a crabbing boat in the winter and hikes the rest of the year,” says Kirk. “He spends three months every summer in the Brooks. If anyone could write a guidebook on the Brooks, it would be him. He doesn’t carry a PLB, a GPS, a phone, anything. He likes to get dropped off somewhere, and then he just goes. He doesn’t even know where he’s going. I drop his caches for him- junk food mostly, like cheese balls. I don’t know how he does it on that stuff. Sometimes he drops a letter in his caches, and I mail it for him. He comes out when he runs out of food. He’ll walk to the Haul road or have me pick him up, if he can swing it. He wouldn’t have been much help to you in planning your route, though- he would’ve just said ‘You can walk anywhere in the Brooks, there isn’t anywhere you can’t walk'”.
“That’s amazing,” I say. I like that idea, that there isn’t anywhere in the Brooks you can’t walk. I guess you could say that about most places. It’s a cool perspective from which to see the world.
“Foxtrot was bitten by a bear once,” says Kirk. When people say “bear” when talking about the Brooks Range, they mean a grizzly bear- there are no black bears up here. “The bear bit clean into his leg before he managed to find his bearspray, which he’d tucked out of reach. He sprayed the bear right in the face, and that was the end of that. He was about a mile from the Haul road. Luckily a park service plane flew over not long after. Once he healed up he went right back out. Now he carries two bear sprays.”
“Bear attacks in the Brooks are actually extremely rare,” Kirk explains to us further, as we fly above the slow, snaking Yukon river, the shining roofs of Fort Yukon growing smaller in the distance. “There have only been three bear deaths in the Brooks in recorded history. When someone dies in the Brooks, it’s always by drowning. Drowning is the biggest danger.” We’re each wearing ear muff headset things that cover the sound of the engine, with little microphones so we can talk to each other. In the background of the headsets I can hear the chatter of the other pilots, tracking storms across the arctic, updating each other. I watch below, fascinated, as the boreal forest thins on the tundra and the flat land turns to hills, and those hills rise up into mountains. Kirk affirms my suspicion that more people have done this traverse- from the Alaska/Yukon border to the Chukchi sea- than the handful you can find documented online.
“I drop off at least two groups each summer who do the whole thing,” he says. “Even more who walk just from the Yukon border to the Haul road. I dropped a group of three Swiss guys about a week ahead of you, who are walking to the Haul road.”
And of course, there is the long human history of walking in the Brooks in general- tens of thousands of years of indigenous folks traveling to hunt, to fish, to visit, to explore, to get from place to place. Holding an entire body of knowledge about the area within their culture and a relationship to all the plants, animals, rivers and passes. I think about this as I watch the ridges below the plane grow steeper, snow blanketing their tops. As a white person, I am just a visitor here. A colonizer. With my fancy space gear to protect me and my lack of deep knowledge and relationship to the area, stumbling around, knowing very little. The real heroes of this story are the indigenous folks of the arctic, who have always been here.
“The rivers are really high so far this year,” Kirk tells us. “Summer is late. It’s been cold and it’s raining far more than normal for this time of year. The rain leads to increased snowmelt up high, which makes the rivers rise. The caribou aren’t really here yet. Everything is late.”
I think about the rivers being high- the river crossings along this route are the most dangerous part of the route in a normal year. What does it mean that they’ll be higher? I try not to think about it too much. I look down at the caribou trails that line the scree below even the highest ridges. We reach the “primitive landing strip” at Joe creek- a big field, really- and Kirk banks the plane, swooping in a circle and then lands, and the big tundra tires roll along the tundra for a while, bouncing.
The sun is out though the mountains are edged in clouds and I feel happy and free as I hoist my pack with eight days of food onto my back. Though it’s noon the sun sits at about 2pm and will stay at this angle all day and night, no matter the actual time, tracing a slow circle in the sky. As if on cue, a small group of caribou startles and scatters across the tundra in front of us. We take a few photos and then watch as Kirk’s plane disappears into the sky. We’re in the arctic! In the Brooks Range! On the eastern edge of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge! And we’re about to walk across it! Well. Here goes nothing.
Before heading west, however, we must hike east along Joe creek towards the Canadian border, which is about eight miles away- we want to tag it before turning around and starting our traverse. All our daily mileages on this route will be approximate, determined via zig-zagging a line on gaia, and we never will know exactly how far we’ve walked, or exactly how far we have yet to go. This is strange yet freeing, and I definitely feel as though I’m on an adventure unlike anything I’ve ever done. I’ve never hiked something with such little beta- all I have is the knowledge that all my passes go, some mileage approximations I made myself, information about the terrain that I can discern from staring at the map, and a half dozen one-sentence notes from Skurka and Buck. It’s wild and exciting and I’ve already learned so much, just getting myself to this point.
We walk up the gravel banks of Joe creek, crossing the stream, which is small and manageable, again and again. Around us are low, treeless mountains, clouds, and sun. The water is icy and soon my feet are numb- Bunny brought neoprene socks, which was smart. I do the next best thing- I put gallon plastic bags over my feet and secure them at the ankles with hairties. The bags don’t keep the water out entirely but they are insulating, with helps with the pain of the cold water. I know from my week in the Brooks in 2016 and from talking to others that our feet will be wet the entire trip- more or less all day every day as we walk up one drainage and down another, again and again. As long as the water’s not too cold I know I’ll be fine- I wear trail runners that dry quickly, and I can dry my feet out at night. On cold days in icy water, though, it’s going to be a bit of a bummer. I have a feeling I’ll be using these bags a lot.
We reach a long stretch of aufeis, which is the thick, blue glacier-like ice that remains on some of the rivers here through the entire summer, while the water melts and flows beneath it. We walk on this ice, which is surreal- we can’t quite figure out if it’s dangerous or not to walk on. But the creek underneath is shallow and the ice seems really thick, and after a while we don’t fall through, and we relax. Water runs in clear blue rivulets across its top, and icicles cluster on the sides. Now and then we get cliffed out where the ice ends abruptly and we can’t get down off the edge and we have to walk back a bit and climb off the sides, but otherwise it feels like easy walking.
We see a few grizzly tracks and wolf tracks, and lots of caribou tracks. We reach camp at 5 p.m. and there’s a perfect flat spot, on a bench of dry tundra above the creek. We set up our shelters and sit next to the creek in the warm sun, happily cooking our dinners. There aren’t any mosquitoes yet- they’re late too, on account of the cold spring.
“I feel like we just crossed through some invisible veil into this reality and now we get to live here for a while, where the bullshit can’t reach us,” I say to Bunny.
“Yeah,” says Bunny.
The rain begins to fall exactly as we duck into our shelters around 6pm. Dark clouds that were gathered around the peaks of the mountains have amassed above us, and presently a strong wind whips up and begins to batter us. The rain is mixed with hail and the wind intensifies, and next thing I know the front stake of my tent has been ripped from the ground and I’m holding up my front tent pole by leaning all my body weight against it, and clutching my vestibule closed with my other hand to keep the rain from pouring in. The roar of the wind and the hail drowns all other sounds, and I hang onto my tent with all the strength that I have. What is this, fifty mile per hour winds? I remember the ominous winter storm warning from the forecast. Well, here it is.
After a half hour the wind lessens, although the sleet continues to fall, accumulating on the ground. I jump out of my shelter and restake it, and check in on Bunny- her front stake ripped out as well, and she wasn’t able to keep the rain out of her tent. She’s got enough layers, though, to sleep warm, even though some of her stuff is wet. We both bought extra fleece layers in Fairbanks before starting this trip, on advice from Buck- I got a sweet fleece camo pullover on deep discount from fred meyer, and now I am so glad to have it. In my shelter I put on all my layers and check the weather on the inreach- low of 28 tonight. Dang.
I curl up in my sleeping bag wearing everything, even my rain jacket, and drift in and out as the sleet alternates with rain and snow. I knock the tent walls periodically to shake off accumulating ice. What does this weather mean for the rest of our trip?