My friend, Amy Downing, was killed in an avalanche on January 21, 2017. Amy was a powerful personality, and had a habit of nagging until her friends followed her into the backcountry. I was already toying with the idea of doing a long traverse in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and it suddenly seemed fitting to follow a route that Amy had done in ANWR with a group of friends two years prior.
Shannon Kuhn and I planned and executed the 230-mile traverse within the Arctic Refuge from June 10 to July 2, 2017. Brian Olsen and Catherine Bodry joined us for the first ten days of the trip, and our route interwove with that of two other friends, Luc Mehl and Sarah Histand. We had planning advice and encouragement from numerous people in Anchorage from Amy's group including Matt Rafferty, Mary Krusen, Becky King, Tony Perelli and Sarah Heck. By proxy, we were also building off routes pioneered by Roman Dial, Brad Meiklejohn, and Ed Plumb, who have explored in and around ANWR many times and whose experiences and advice trickled down to us through countless other people.
We started our trip in Deadhorse, Alaska, a dust-covered outpost of hangers and transfer stations. An Arctic logistics company (70°North) picked us up from the airport, and shuttled us and our gear south down the Dalton Highway. Built and maintained for the oil industry, the haul road goes from Fairbanks to Prudhoe and became the main trunk for nearly all goods that head into the Arctic, which are trucked to Deadhorse and then flown to the villages. The 110 mile road trip took 4+ hours due to constant (but typical) maintanance on the gravel road.
We got dropped off near Pump Station #3, and our driver, Doug, waited for us to all safely cross the Sagavanirktok River. We used two rafts to shuttle the four of us and our gear across, and then we made one last crossing to give Doug one of the packrafts so we wouldn't have to carry it. We collected ourselves on the far side of the river, checked the map one more time, put in a waypoint, and began walking.
The Ribdon River Valley was wide with good visibility and minimal tussocks. I.e., pretty easy going. Luc had relayed Ed Plumb's assessment, who said "It's like mall walking." The main hazard was the sun on never-ending blue sky days. I got a little toasted on our first day and had to retreat to long sleeves and buff over the ears. I was well prepared for rain, but the Arctic sun almost never faltered over the course of our trip.
It almost seemed a little too easy at times. The one thing that kept us from pouring on the miles was navigating sections of wide, cloudy river crossings and/or aufeis. The river wasn't steep or fast, but the icy thigh- to waste-high crossings still felt strong, and one day we had ~20 wades through the braids. The aufeis was riddled with meter-deep channels, slushy spots, and surface melt features. An occasional "BOOOM" would echo through the valley, letting us know it was in active breakup. But it was neat to see willows' catkins poking up through all the ice. We camped on the bluffs above the ice and had great views across the valley.
The first three days of the trip had cool temperatures, no bugs, and a lot of water. Higher up on the Ribdon on days 4-5, the river dove underground leaving behind wide, hot, and completely dry gravel bars. We scouted up side valleys to look for small water sources and became more careful about planning camping spots. We saw a caribou, one bear (moving fast away from us), and a lot of birds on their nests. We also saw evidence of an arctic fox — distinctive teeth marks in one of our food bags that had been dragged off the bluff overnight.
On June 15th, 5 days after we started, we reached the top of the Ribdon. Jellyfish clouds hung overhead but didn't do anything to diminish the sun. The pass wasn't steep, and the water was once again above ground, turning the pass into field of flowers.
We descended pretty steeply following a narrow stream bed. The stream cut across a lot of interesting geologic layers and coral, lamp shells (brachiopods), clams, and snails were littered everywhere. Catherine began a lifelong obsession with preserved spirals. A small side stream brought in water the color of rust from acid rock drainage somewhere above. We filled up with water just above the stained rocks.
We camped on the Ivishak River, at the edge of big mountains. The next morning Shannon poked her head out of the tent and announced that we should pack up before breakfast. I was vocally skeptical, but I included a photo of the face she made when our gear was packed and it started to snow.
We had given up on trying to keep our feet dry, but crossing the Ivishak in the morning snow still felt icy. We climbed the valley wall on the other side and the white-capped mountains got prettier and prettier as we ascended. Shannon and I talked about our next trip, maybe something in a Nordic country around the winter holidays: skiing hut to hut, Christmas markets, hot and hearty meals — sehnsucht and the desire for hygge was in the cold Alaskan air that morning.
We built in a weather day, but it had so far been so nice that we just took the day "off". Catherine used it to explore the base of the Continental Divide, Brian spent it birding throughout the valley, and Shannon and I climbed up a side gully towards one of the layered peaks.
Initially, she didn't like my route, which followed a thin sheep trail above a rocky gully, but afterward she said, "from now on I know to trust the sheep!" From the top we had commanding views of our camp and the valley.
When we got back down, Brian revealed that our friend, Tara Wheatland, had packed us a nalgene filled with Manhattan mix. It was the only time that alcohol sounded even remotely appealing on our trip. That night I got up to let out the booze around 2 am and saw the low-angle sun pouring across our campsite. It only lasted about 30 minutes, but I couldn't stop watching the shadows move.
Energized from our layover day, we sent a message to Luc and Sarah (who we knew were hiking fast behind us) telling them our plan to camp at the top of the Marsh Fork of the Canning River that evening. Then we hiked out of the large valley and into a narrow channel with easy walking along a small, clear stream.
On the far side of the pass, the stream was a little larger, and the valley was much narrower. Occasionally, the channel in which we were walking was squeezed between cliff faces and often filled with snow and ice formations. Navigating the pinch points required slowly climbing around them on scree or choss.
As the day grew longer the water level rose, and after a serious discussion (closed and re-opened twice) we decided as a group to climb a talus slope out of the channel and explore our options. We emerged onto a beautiful, flat, grassy wedge that looked down the valley and across to a five-tiered waterfall. About 20 minutes after we arrived, Catherine saw Luc and Sarah further down in the channel and we whistled them back. After an intense day, it was really nice to see familiar faces. That night was the first time we had mosquitoes. Knowing what we know now, it's funny to think we thought they were bad.
As a group of six, it was sometimes an awkward stand-off to see who would be the first to start hiking, but it was fun and instructional to see how Luc and Sarah camped, hiked, and navigated the terrain. For example, they didn't carry water while we hiked down the stream, instead just using a nalgene to scoop up water whenever they wanted. I felt too used to my old habits.
Our canyon dropped into a wide valley, the Marsh Fork of the Canning River, and it was back to easy walking over gravel bars and through shallow streams, fields of saxifrage, and pockets of willow. We chatted about satisfaction in our jobs and lives, and we shared ideas about how to use our experiences in ANWR and what kind of statements we wanted to make. Luc was working on a dance video, and we found a large boulder and he filmed us dancing on it.
When we saw our destination in the distance, a flat stretch of grassy land accommodating a short runway, we stopped to wash in the stream. Then we camped near the strip which also hosted a few guides and their groups. For Catherine and Brian, it was their last night in the backcountry so we set up our tents close by and read the final chapters of our group book aloud.
From Ready Player One: "Going outside is highly overrated."