ANWR day 2: the fourth season

6/15/18
Mileage: 9
17 miles hiked total

After the 50 mph winds pass and I get my tent re-staked I pull my hat down and sleep amazingly in the cold 2pm night, waking now and then to smack to sides of my tent to rid them of accumulating ice. I wake in the morning (feels like 2pm) and boil water for tea as far outside the vestibule as my arm will reach without forcing me to get out of my sleeping bag. I eat granola in protein powder “milk” as freezing sleet alternates with gentle hail outside. It’s so cold out there, and still snowing- I repurpose the two gallon ziplocs I used around my feet yesterday as bags to pee in, so I don’t actually have to leave my tent. I knock more ice and snow off the walls. Finally I have to poop, and I discover that the world is incredibly beautiful outside. Did you know?

I check the forecast again on the inreach- the snow should get lighter soon. And tomorrow it’ll warm up to a balmy forty degrees! Bunny and I decide to hunker down for a few more hours, in hopes that the storm will in fact peter out. I scoot all the way down into my quilt, dragging my phone after me, and listen to podcasts. I mend the hole in my glove and the one in the back pocket of my pants with dental floss. I text Muffy. I update the forecast on the inreach a dozen times.

Finally at 1:45 pm we pack up- it’s grown a shade warmer and it’s barely snowing. We’ve got three season gear- we can hike in this but only for a little while, and only if we’re careful. I rinse out the pee bags and pull them back over my feet, closing the top with a hairtie. These will keep my feet from reaching “level 9 on the pain scale” cold while we’re crossing Joe creek again and again in the falling snow.

We set out. The mountains are breathtaking blanketed in white. Hiking warms us and soon I feel great- I slept last night (because I almost always sleep great in the nature, but terrible in towns?), we’re in one of the most epic wildernesses on earth, my feet are wet but not terribly painful. We walk on the gravel bars or on the tussocks, the snow falls gently around us.

The sheet of aufeis we walked on yesterday is even more beautiful today. The icicles on its edges sparkle, now and then it rends itself in two with a boom. It’s wild to be walking out here in what feels like winter- winter in the arctic! I wasn’t expecting that at all.

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We reach the airstrip where Kirk dropped us off and sit in the cold wind eating snacks before continuing on for a few more miles, now up a tributary of Joe Creek. The ground is tussock swamp so we ascend to a ridge and walk higher, less swampy tussocks with a view of our entire icy kingdom down below us. It’s hard to conceptualize all of this- being in ANWR, hundreds of miles from the nearest road or human settlement, in a wilderness so intact as to be incomprehensible. The real wonder of it will, I think, set in later.

ice tussocks

Tonight the temperature is supposed to drop to 28Β° again, and we can already feel it cooling as we stumble among the tussocks, looking for a flat spot to camp. At last we find one on a saddle, and pitch our tents in the snow. I dig a little hole in the snow down to the frozen tundra, and set my alcohol stove there, hoping the heat of the stove won’t melt the tundra further, making it tip. While I usually carry an alcohol stove, we’d planned on bringing canister stoves for this trip, to save a bit of hassle in an environment in which no gear must ever malfunction or break, because “town” is just not a thing. But bringing the butane canisters for the stoves on the bush planes was a huge logistical hassle of its own, with each air taxi having its own regulations, processes and fees around them, so we went with alcohol in the end. It takes many tries before my alcohol stove lights- alcohol doesn’t like the cold, it turns out- but then it does, and I set my little dinner on to cook, and gather tannin colored water from a tussock hole, and then I’m in my quilt eating hot noodles in all my layers as the wind howls in the river below, and everything is right in the world.

“night”