101 miles hiked
I sleep wonderfully and wake to the hot sun (my tent was in the shade of the ridge for much of the night but then the sun moved in its circle above us) and go about my morning chores- drinking tea, eating granola in protein powder, pooping in the willows. Soon I can hear Bunny stirring. I’m low key terrified that she’s leaving today, even though I know it’s for the best. Her ankle is injured, and we happened to be close to this airstrip, where she could schedule a flight out with the pilot who brought us our cache. If she’d continued on into the next stretch it’d be ten days until the next cache/potential place where our pilot could land, and what if one day she found that she couldn’t walk at all? Everyone’s body low key breaks on their first long distance hike, it’s just a question of how. And there’s no way of knowing how your body in particular will break, until you do it. And when you do get tendonitis, or hurt your ankle or knee etc, it’s good to be able to take rest days, to go to town, to look up information about your injury, try new shoes, etc. To figure out what you need in particular in order to heal your injury and keep walking. The near impossibility of getting off this hike for any reason makes it perhaps one of the worst long hikes to learn about what sorts of overuse injuries you might be prone to, and I am kicking myself for not thinking of this beforehand.
(I keep saying airstrip, but what that means in the Brooks, as far as I can tell, is a flat place large enough for a plane to land. Our Sheenjek cache is on a massive alluvial fan, the size of a football field and consisting of small pea gravel, between the mountain and the river. If it weren’t for the bear barrels and fuel jugs arranged tidily in the middle, you’d never know that planes landed here at all.)
I should hike out- the weather is clear and my first tricky pass, Gilbeau pass, is in 40 miles, and I’d like to set myself up to be over it and down the other side three days from now. Bunny is still using the inreach to text with our pilot, though, so I set about packing and repacking my pack, trying to figure out how best to get ten days of food in there, while savoring these last few moments of being out here with another human being. Best case scenario, Bunny will go the the lower 48, get her ankle strong on a trail where she can access towns and take rest days, and rejoin me at the haul road or, barring her ankle healing, she’ll join me for the 20 day Noatak portion at the end of the trip.
I’m still low key terrified that Bunny’s leaving, though. I tell myself that nothing changes once I’m solo, and my perspective doesn’t have to change either. The tundra is still a fun, magical place, full of laughter and jokes. It’s just twenty-one days to the Haul road, where I’ll take a week off and see people again. I can do this, right?
I finally hike out at noon, just before Kirk is scheduled to arrive. I’m a bit envious that Bunny will be in Fairbanks this evening, eating real food and hanging with my friends Allison, AK and Tara, but I try not to think about it. I have the rest of my life to hang out in towns. Too much time, really.
The day is sunny and warm with light clouds of mosquitoes. My pack feels so heavy but the walking is good, in the loamy spruce forest above the river. Besides 10 days of food I’m also carrying a heavier solar charger now, as Bunny gave me hers- I hadn’t used mine since 2013 and it wasn’t working very well. A strong working solar charger is important out here, to say the least. Always test your solar charger before you go, kids!
Today’s miles are a straight shot south along the river to double mountain, where I’ll turn north along a tributary to the Sheenjek, and take that to the east fork of the Chandalar river. To my left, the Sheenjek is almost entirely covered in aufeis, and the afternoon is punctuated with deep, startling booms as chunks of the aufeis calve into the river. I will never grow tired of looking at the aufeis- it’s like ice floes I’d imagine on the arctic ocean, but on a river! I know if Bunny were here she’d want to walk on the aufeis, but I’ve decided I won’t do it solo unless that’s the only option. It just seems dangerous- although the edges are six feet thick, what if there are secret cavities and crevasses? I just don’t know.
I watch a thunderstorm roll in from the south as the walking alternates between springy open spruce forest, gravel riverbank, and three kinds of bog- tussock bog, spongy moss bog, and flooded, caribou-monched willows. Everything seems flooded today- each step fills my shoes with water. The tributaries coming down off the mountain are raging- each time I reach one I have to follow it down to the river and cross where it spreads out across the gravel to join the Sheenjek. Then I walk alongside the aufeis for a while, watching it steam, until the gravel ends in a deep channel and I am forced back into the swamp and forest.
It’s a real treat to be low enough to be in spruce forest. Treeline here is low- I’m not sure how low but maybe 1,000 feet? And most of the route is between two and five thousand feet. Willow forest, when the willows aren’t monched low by the caribou and are able to grow to their full height, is a nightmare- an impenetrable tangle of trunks and limbs. But the widely spaced black spruce in the spongy moss with its tiny wildflowers and delicate clouds of mosquitoes feels so incredibly familiar and safe to me. The boreal forest is what raised me; black spruce are essentially my parents. I take a break in the forest, leaning my heavy pack against a bank of moss, taking the weight off my shoulders. Thunder claps as the clouds march towards me above the river. I don’t move again until the first drops start to fall.
I reach the flanks of double mountain at 6 and pitch my tent on a flat, dry spot next to a tiny pond- just a hole in the moss filled with meltwater, really- as the light rain turns to heavy, consistent rain. I cook dinner in my vestibule for the first time, which is something I’ve heard of but never actually tried, for fear of condensation, and find that aside from the very real danger of setting my tent on fire should my popcan alcohol stove tip over, which it sometimes does, the experience is otherwise pleasant- it fills my tent with warmth and only a little condensation, and I get to be lazy. I’ll add this to the list of ways not to have to leave my tent in incliment weather or bad mosquitoes, in addition to the double gallon ziploc bag that I pee in at night.
As I eat my hot noodles and text with Muffy on the inreach, I say my bear mantra: “Bears are not out to get me. Bears are afraid of me. I am safe here.” The mantra helps when I’m solo. The constant rain reveals that the seam sealing on the ridgeline of my tent needs to be redone- a little puddle forms up there, and a drop of two gets through. Nothing to worry about, really, and I can fix it after this trip. Otherwise I am warm and dry and cozy. I wish that Bunny was camped next to me. I try to stay awake long enough to finish my blog but the rain is too soothing, and soon I am asleep.