ANWR day 8: Sheenjek

Mileage: 9
91 miles hiked

I wake at 5 a.m. because I’m anxious; what if we can’t make it across the Sheenjek? What if it’s too fast and deep to cross where we reach it and we have to hike ten miles upstream towards its headwaters, then back down the other side? I have no idea what that terrain headed upstream along the Sheenjek is like but the map shows green, which means forest, which I’ve heard is very slow going in the brooks. I have six bars left and some spoonfuls of sunflower butter. I would make it, but it would suck.

The other source of my anxiety is the fact that Bunny is leaving. Kirk, the bush pilot who brought us in and who is dropping our caches, is picking her up tomorrow at our Sheenjek cache. One part of me thinks I’ll be fine out here solo, and will even have fun, becoming one with the tundra. The other part of me fears the echoing silence that will be left behind after that plane carrying Bunny disappears into the sky. I was terrified of doing the river crossings solo, but we’ve had so much practice this past week and she’s taught me so much, that I feel confident I can find a safe way to cross most rivers out here. And if not, I’ll turn around and hike back to the nearest airstrip and text Kirk to schedule a flight out. That’s always a possibility as well.

tundra is magic

This morning’s pass is a massive, gently sloping sodden tussock field that hangs between snow capped spires of rock; our first pass on the continental divide! I enjoy the tussock plod in the bright sunshine; not every pass will be as easy as this. There are some passes on the map that seem pretty hairy; I try not to think about that, and how I’ll be doing those alone. We reach the top of today’s pass and there, way down below us, is the Sheenjek, knotted into what looks like eleventy billion braids. I fill my water bottle in a tussock puddle, eat another bar, and down we go.

tussocks 5ever and our first view of the Sheenjek

It’s hot in the valley below, and there are clusters of spruce trees and a handful of mosquitoes. We’re lower than we’ve been since we started this trip. I’m feeling wiped by the sun already today, which feels like it’s turned up to 100 when there aren’t any clouds. Bunny and I cross the first few channels of the Sheenjek easily, where they twist, silty and opaque, through the huge gravel floodplain. Silty rivers always seem scarier- you can’t see the bottom to tell how deep it is. We reach our first large channel and stop on a gravel island to put every single thing inside the trash compactor bags in our packs. I empty my water bottles so they’ll make my pack more buoyant, and put those in there too. If either of us lost our balance and went for a swim, it actually wouldn’t be that bad- we could just paddle to shore and find our packs downstream. That’s something Bunny taught me- always cross in a place where if you fell it wouldn’t be super dangerous. No undercut banks, no strainers.

We walk separately, with our toes pointed upstream, in a diagonal along the “zipper” of rocks where this channel splits from the one we just crossed. It’s shallowest here. I keep my eyes fixed on a mountain in the distance (don’t look at the water or you’ll lose your balance, says Bunny) and stab my trekking poles to test for depth. Before I know it I’m across- we didn’t even have to do a two person crossing! We repeat this with the other large channels, amazed at how chill it is to cross at this spot, about 1.5 miles north of the cache- it’s easier than other streams we’ve had to cross in the last week! Once we’re across all the large channels we continue towards the mountain on the other side of the floodplain, and I count all the small leftover braids of the river as we cross them- 4, 5, 6, 7… by the time we’ve reached the strip of forest on the other side, we’ve crossed 30 braids of the Sheenjek. 30! I can see how if this river was a single channel, it would sometimes be impossible to cross.

The forest is dense and dim and tangled and impossible to walk in if you’re taller than three feet so we take some beautifully built caribou switchbacks up onto some small talus (large scree?) that then dumps us… onto a massive tussock field. In the distance we can see the barrels that hold our cache, black cylinders plopped in the middle of a large, barren-looking expanse of land. How strange, to see a manmade thing out here? What even is the world.

Tussock struggle leads to great reward and in this case it is the barren-looking land, which turns out to be a massive alluvial fan which has gathered just enough topsoil to grow a thin coat of lichen. “In 500 years this will all be tussocks,” says Bunny. This land is the easiest walking we’ve had on the trip so far, and I watch those black barrels grow closer as if in a dream.

The treats I’ve left myself in the barrel, besides the 10 days of food, are a can of peaches and a can of chili. I eat these sitting in the hot sun and become immediately sleepy. As for the food, I have no idea how I’ll fit it all in my pack. I should’ve gotten the ULA catalyst for this trip, like Bunny, instead of the circuit. I just have like… a lot of gear. A fleece layer I got in Fairbanks, a two person shelter (the zpacks duplex), two ursacks, Bunny’s larger solar charger that she just traded me for my smaller one because hers actually works, four trash compactor bags in case one gets holes because I need them to work really well in case I fall in a river? I don’t know.

I’ll figure that out in the morning. I lug the extra food in my arms over to the one likely spot to camp on this broad plain (the alluvial fan is too gravelly)- a patch of weird flat mud lumps surrounded on all sides by tussock fields. The flat lumps are roughly body shaped, so one could potentially orient one’s tent so that one’s sleeping pad was comfortably arranged on one of these lumps. I’m pitching my tent when Bunny notices something weird about her spot- the hard mud ground moves up and down beneath her feet like the surface of a waterbed. She jumps, and we both watch in awe as the ground ripples below her. She picks another spot, this one harder. I gather water and go about washing my entire body with my washin’ hanky and a bit of dr. Bronners, for the first time in eight days. I wouldn’t bother, but I’m getting some weird rash on my legs from being too dirty? The water is icy but soon the arctic sun dries me and it feels amazing to stand naked in the warm out of doors. I rinse out my hiking clothes in the stream, and carry everything back to camp in my arms. Just as Bunny is blowing up her sleeping pad the ground turns into a waterbed under her new spot. And then it happens under my tent too!

“We gotta get out of here!” I say. We joke that this is how mosquitoes are born- the liquid moving slowly under the hard mud is actually mosquito larvae, and they’re about to burst forth in a huge, suffocating swarm. We scramble down the embankment to the stretch of forest next to the river and pound our stakes into the soil that is mostly gravel. It feels strange to be in trees- almost pedestrian. I love the tundra. So spongy and open. Like if the moon was made of lichen!

our campsite before we had to move