ANWR day 3: tussock town, USA

Mileage: 12
29 miles hiked

It’s so cold overnight- I stuff my trash compactor bags and my extra shirt into the footbox of my sleeping bag for more insulation and still, my feet stay icy. I feel like they’ve been icy for the last 24 hours. I curl into a ball and cinch my quilt closed over my head and think, oh, why didn’t I bring my two pound western mountaineering sleeping bag that had a hood, or at least something with a zipper? Because I didn’t know it was still winter, that’s why. And it’s good I didn’t know, really, because I would’ve waited to come out, which would’ve thrown off all the flights I’d booked and maybe the trip wouldn’t have happen at all.


It’s not so bad out here, actually, I think the next morning, after sleeping nearly ten hours and drinking two cups of hot tea. We finally start walking at eleven, when it warms up a few degrees. The earth smells of thawing tussocks and the lightest, most delicate snow is falling. It’s so still and peaceful and enchanting in this world, this nebulous place between winter and summer. I can sense everything waiting- waiting to burst into life. To bloom and fuck and get fat in the bright 2pm light. As soon as this snow stops falling…

Tussocks! Tussocks are terrible, but also funny. Tussocks are these round lumps of grass, just high enough to roll your ankle, and you think you can hop from one to the next but instead you fall off, and plunge your foot into a low-key bog that is also partly crusted over with ice. Do this hundreds and hundreds of times, over the course of hours, and you have the first part of our day. My feet are numb so I don’t feel much of the wrenching, at least.

The tussocks don’t last forever, but then, nothing does. Gravel braids return to the river, bless those gravel braids! With their clumsy, bread-loaf size stones and infinite water crossings! Still so much better than tussocks. And we walk these braids, to an unnamed drainage where we turn south and head for a pass I’d selected when planning this route- a pass that will take us to another unnamed (at least by white people) drainage that will take us to the Kongakut river, which we’ll follow to the Sheenjek river, where our first cache is.

I know nothing about this pass I’ve chosen other than what I could discern from topo maps and google earth. I cannot see the pass from where we’re walking, crossing this new icy creek over and over and following short bursts of caribou trails along its banks. All around us are gentle green squishy lichen slopes and beyond that, sheer rocky precipices blanketed in white and draped in dark, ominous clouds. It’s hard to have fancy footwork with numb feet, and I stumble over the rocks in the river bed. I wonder what sort of damage I did to them on the tussocks that I can’t even feel. We see moose sheds, caribou sheds, bear poop, and a huge hole in the hillside that is… some sort of den? The lightest, gentlest snow is still falling.

We go a half mile up the wrong drainage (this is what happens when I don’t check the map every 10 minutes) and by the time we’ve righted ourselves the temperature has begun to sink again (things to google: why does it get cold at night in the arctic in summer when the sun stays the same height all day) and an hour later we’re looking for a place to camp. I check every stretch of bank along the stream but they’re all too squish and low key bogs so we keep hiking, tired and cold, and then low and behold there’s a small flat area that’s somehow dry, and we erect our shelters in the deep vibrant lichen and put on all our layers and cook our dinners just outside our vestibules, right as the sleet begins to fall.

You know it’s cold when your olive oil gets this hard

I text Muffy on the inreach, as I’ve been doing every night. Texting on the inreach is actually really fast once you sync it to the app on your phone, and I have long conversations before I remember to try and conserve battery, and grow too sleepy besides, and then drift off in the diffuse 2 pm light of a winter that refuses to give way to summer. It’s a bit warmer tonight, and the sleet isn’t sticking. That’s nice.