82 miles hiked
I wake in the hot tent at 7:30 a.m. and tear off all my layers. This 2pm sun always seems clearest in the morning. I make tea naked, basking in the warm greenhouse effect of my shelter in the cloudless light.
“Wolves!” I hear Bunny say quietely, outside. I pop my head out just in time to see two grey heads, wending away through the willows.
“It’s so interesting how wolves aren’t afraid of us but they don’t see us as prey, either,” says Bunny. I think about this for a while. What DO wolves think of us?
Bunny’s ankle is fucked. The pain she was in yesterday is more acute today, and I feel certain that she’s developing an injury. The first part of the day is tussocks and then a steep climb that involves a lot of side-hilling and asks much of the ankle, and she’s in so much pain afterwards that she can barely walk. We sit on the bank of the river and talk about our options. She is devastated by the possibility that she might have to get off the route. Getting off this route means scheduling an air taxi to pick you up in a little bush plane. It’s expensive and very very final. We text Kirk- he can pick Bunny up at our Sheenjek river cache, twenty miles away. We tell him that we probably want the pickup, but will text him in the morning to confirm. Then we both just sit on the river bank, feeling sad. I think about the challenges ahead of us- we still have to make it twenty miles to the cache, and with Bunny’s ankle like this? And then, I have to finish this route alone, navigating all these stream crossings by myself?
To mitigate stress on Bunny’s ankle we stay low in the gravel braids of the Kongakut, even if it means multiple two-person crossings of the strong main channel, where I stand behind her, holding her pack, and we step in unison. The icy water is good for both of us, actually. The pain in my arch is much less today, and I know I’ll be ok. But still the mandatory icing in the river helps. I’m hungrier today- I can feel the train of hiker hunger approaching, getting closer around the bend- and I think about how Kirk said the Sheenjek would be one of our toughest crossings, how we might need to walk up it for a whole day to find a place to cross, and how I should start rationing my food. I wonder if I should fly out with Bunny- it’s the same price whether he takes one or both of us. But no, I’m not injured, that wouldn’t be right. And if I got off I just know I wouldn’t get back on. That would be the end of it. And I can manage these stream crossings solo. Can’t I?
“The Brooks Range: where time is meaningless and distance is arbitrary,” says Bunny in the afternoon, when we’re taking a break in the infinite 2pm light and we realize we haven’t gone as far today as we initially thought. We follow the Kongakut up towards its headwaters and it enters a gorge- in a normal year there might be a bit of bank here, or the water would be mellow enough to walk in, but this year neither of those things is true. We walk on the steep talus along the edge of the water, occasionally walking with one foot on the talus and one foot in the murky, roiling water, and in this way we make it through. We leave the Kong for another drainage just before our pass. In all our time with the Kong, it was never anything less than raging. “These rivers need to chill,” I say.
We camp on a windy bit of tundra just below the continental divide, next to a stream that is almost too silty to drink. We’re nine miles from our cache, 7.5 from where we’ll attempt to cross the formidable Sheenjek.