ANWR day 4: foot pain and an enchanted rockslide

Mileage: 13
42 miles hiked

It’s marginally warmer in the night and the gentle patter of sleet on the tent puts me right out and when I wake in the “morning” (same 2pm light as always) my feet, which are nestled in all the trash compactor bags I stuffed into my footbox, are truly warm for the first time in what feels like days.

And they hurt. So fucking bad.

I hobble out onto the tundra to find a place to take a shit. My feet are swollen, painful stumps that yell at me with every step. I guess this is what happens when you struggle-bus your way through foot-wrenching tussocks in icy water that make your feet too numb to feel. You end up hurting them without even realizing it. Bunny’s feet hurt quite a bit too- the icy stream we’ll cross all day will help, at least.

The lichen within arms reach of my vestibule is too spongy to balance a popcan stove on and I’m too lazy to hang out outside in the cold while water heats so I have caffeinated crystal light instead of tea, forgetting what a dirty high that is. Soon my heart is racing in my chest, but not in a good way. The gorge we’re walking up narrows and we plunge ourselves in and out of the icy stream to cross it, following muddy caribou trails along the scraps of bank and then we reach an opening to the right and behold- a low, easy saddle wherein we can cross from this drainage into the next. The first pass on our route, the first pass I picked from caltopo and google earth. And it goes, just like I thought it would. It goes! My route really works!!! At least so far…


Just then a clump of caribou comes into focus, loping across the field of tussocks below the pass. I think about how much the caribou must love this weather- warm enough to have things to eat but the mosquitoes and flies that will plague them more than seems fair, really, have yet to appear. And there’s a bunch of dall sheep, climbing up the scree to the right! We make our merry way to the pass, sinking into the tussocks as we go. In my head, I make up a tussocks scale.

Type 1 tussocks- not tussocks. Anything but tussocks.

Type 2 tussocks- like a room full of wet car wash sponges. Tedious, but makes for a good story. (Thanks to Bunny for the imagery.)

Type 3 tussocks- a room full of wet car wash sponges and hairy basketballs. The hairy basketballs are affixed to the ground via springs. You’re trying to walk on the basketballs, but you keep falling off, wrenching your foot and rolling your ankle. Never fun, not even in retrospect.

No matter, we make it to the pass and stand in awe at the county before us- another stream dropping down amongst soft brown mountains, growing braided and larger as it grows, towards sheer, snow-capped peaks in the distance.

We leave the tussocks for the banks of this new stream as it meanders downward- the banks are populated with well-spaced, chest high willows that make for chill, if slightly bearanoid walking. I play Bomba Estereo on my phone at max volume (“bear music,” Bunny and I call it- to soothe the bears) and the sun is out mostly and I hardly need to wear all my layers. We take a lunch break next to the stream and it’s finally warm enough to wash my ass, which will help halt the chafe that was creepin up, thank god. I eat salami and look at the tundra mountains and wonder about their secrets. We see more wolf and grizzly tracks in the mud.

There’s an expanse of aufeis where a tributary joins our drainage and we cruise across it, skirting ambiguous blue shadows in the thick ice and wondering, is this dangerous?

We reach a rockslide that is as ancient as it is large- dark, bus-sized boulders stacked towards the sky, squeezing the river into a roiling mass. We don’t really want to try and cross the river here so we follow animal trails up into the kingdom of rocks that is so ancient it is slowly being subsumed by moss and the tiniest, most delicate flowers- we step on the small moss bridges between the boulders, hoping we don’t break through. Bones are scattered about on this animal trail, and I imagine all animal dens hidden in this massive labyrinth of stone and empty space.

Bunny and the enchanted rocks

A little scramble down the other side and we’re nearly at the Kongakut, which is a real river! In that it is wide, flat and silty, and makes its way through a huge valley that gathers the light and bounces it off several formidable ridges as well as the requisite lower, browner mountains.

We work our way up the south side of the Kongakut, which we’ll follow all the way to its little baby headwaters. We alternate more or less between type 3 and type 2 tussocks, and at seven p.m. we reach an arctic prehistoric approximation of a grassy meadow- a large flat area flush with horsetail. We’re below 2k feet now and the sun is gentle and warm. The mosquitoes have begun to appear but so far, only like two of them. This is the perfect place to camp.