Monday, July 1, 2019

Dalton to Anaktuvuk Backpack - June 2019

Flying home from Dutch Harbor in June, I looked down at the Neacola Mountains still buried in snow. It was almost time for our Lake Clark trip, but a week of wading thru waste-deep soft serve didn't sound like vacation.

After frantic brainstorming, beta from Fairbanks Ken, and a chauffeur offer from Emily's mom, we were driving north. In the Subaru were three dogs, four people, and a week of Oreos. The plan was to get dropped off on the Haul Road, backpack to Anaktuvuk Pass, then take the mail plane back to Fairbanks where Mary would drop our car.

We pit-stopped for a cookie in Coldfoot before waving goodbye to Mary at 3 PM next to the Dietrich River. A true alpine start.

The banks of the river were covered in the tracks of wolves.

They'd been busy eating the snowshoe hares who'd girdled the willows in the valley bottoms. I'd heard how hares will eat, and eat, and eat, until they've killed all their forage, but had never seen vegetation so thoroughly strangled.

With a mile of hiking, we were out of sight of the road, and animals immediately started to appear around us. Up the valley, a large tan blob of brown bear was rooting in the bushes. And not far past was a bull caribou taking his siesta.

We crossed the creek and headed towards the pass to the Kuyuktuvuk River. Even with significantly higher water this creek could be crossed safely.

Curious caribou pranced cautiously closer, hastily retreated, then restarted their game while we took a calorie break on an overlook above the Kuyuktuvuk.

Refueled, we followed easy benches to the creek bottom and the land of giants:

Travel along the braided river was easy as we worked up-valley towards Oolah Lake.

Around dinner time we passed a large land slide complete with many large ice-debris cones.

In the angular evening light we did dinner appetizers and a photo shoot:

Shivering in the cold evening breeze, we arrived at Oolah Lake at 10:00, fumbled around for a dry campsite, boiled dinner, and crawled into our sleeping bags. The breakfast view was wonderful.

Full of instant potatoes, bacon bits, and cheddar cheese powder, we crossed Oolah Pass.

And skirted rock glaciers down the Itkillik Valley.

Everywhere we went there were flowers. Yellow, white, blue, and purple:

Under another landslide and its piles of debris, we sat against boulders tumbled by the slide and ate lunch. There were wandering bear tracks all around us; it was easy to imagine an oblivious bear blundering into our private picnic.

The afternoon brought more easy walking, mountain views, and flowers.

When the Itkillik flowed into the Oolah Valley a group of caribou materialized out of the landscape.

It was hard to say who was more interested in the other as they jogged over to get a closer look.

I fantasized about a grilled backstrap or roasted shoulder as we continued west towards Thunder Valley. Another braided river of gravel bars and flowers lead us forward.

From our camp that night, the foreshortened peaks were just out of reach. Too bad the Brooks Range is the epitome of a shallow and faceted snowpack, but one can always dream.

In the morning, we dropped our packs below the hidden valley, hoped the bears wouldn't find our food, and went for a hike.

Under the huge vertical walls of the Thunder Valley, we ate a lunch of shot blocks, salami slices, and cheddar cheese chunks.

Lang and Chris Williams, if you're reading, this picture is for you.

Done eating under the towering limestone cliffs, we descended to our backpacks and continued up the U of a valley towards the pass.

Next to us was the tilted layers of seafloor that make up the gray walls of Thunder Valley.

In the crisp mountain air of the upper valley we refueled before the wet climb to the snowy pass.

We climbed into the dense fog, and towards the pass that was somewhere above. In the fog we found the isothermal snow of the Brooks Range. Its funny, I really enjoy bootpacking in the winter;  not so in summer.

Everyone was overjoyed to complete the cold swim thru the unsupportable snow and into the evening sun of the ridge. We watched the clouds climb up mountainside only to disappear into whispy fingers as they dropped over the far side.

Even high up in this desolate place, life had carved out a little niche.

The downhill from the pass brought 1,000 feet of gleeful scree skiing, and we were soon crossing piles of moraine and ice to our campsite over the East Alapah Glacier.

Perched on a rocky nose, the campsite was incredible. Caribou bones buried in the lichen around our tent were a reminder that we weren't the only creatures to dine here.

The next morning we hoped that an early start would add a supportable crust to the isothermal mank. No luck.

But it was gorgeous.

High above, windows in the rock wall peeked towards Alapah Mountain. Its easy to imagine troublesome goblins from Mordor peering down at us from above.

The descent past Limestack Mountain and into Graylime Creek brought salvation from wallowing in the snow, and a new set of views.

We stopped for lunch where a old bull caribou had stopped for the last time. The tips of his antlers had been mined of their calcium by the nibbling locals.

As we sat quietly, a group of caribou filtered up the drainage.

Two of them appeared to be twins.

My twin sister Lindsay, and I never act this much alike!

These twins must be identical,

Where Graylime Creek joined the Anaktuvuk River, we passed out of the the deep V-shaped valley and into the endless plain that would lead to the flight home.

Before continuing west, we turned east for a short detour to Ernie Pass. We ate smashed Oreos, dreamed about future adventures, and looked into the Valley of Precipices.

Done dreaming, and back on track, we walked across easy tussocks before merging onto a highway of aufeis.

The smooth and firm remains of the previous winter were the fastest traveling yet; we walked on the glacial surface for a mile before finding an Argo trail towards town. After days of off-trail travel, the faint double-track was a cruise.

Although we didn't see them, the bears and wolves were sharing the trail with the Argos too.

Under Point 3845 we found a campsite next to the river and soaked in evening light. As we ate dinner, a ridiculously fat ground squirrel continued his months-long feeding marathon next to us. He must have been worth at least 5,000 calories.

In the morning, we left our tents and climbed through fields of wildflowers towards the point.

At the top, the overlook was offset from the valley walls, and we looked back on the river of braided gravel bars and aufeis that we'd followed the day before.

We celebrated my birthday with party favors, unicorns, and a Moscow Mule before packing our tents and moving on.

A sudden flurry of paws, claws, and fur drew our attention to where 5,000 calories were doing their best to live another day.

Well, at least all those calories will be living on as a beautiful cross fox.

Disturbed from lunch by the rude humans, the gorgeous creature scampered off to her den.

She decided we were harmless, yawned,

...and curled up for a nap.

The fox was yet another incredible birthday treat, and we smiled as we moved on. Just like the days past, this one brought new flowers persisting in improbable places.

Under Napaktualuit Mountain we crossed the Anaktuvuk River, found a campsite, and bobbed naked in the crystalline waters.

Spread across the wide, flat valley, the river could be easily crossed at higher water levels. Meanwhile the locals were headed out for a little Thursday night fishing.

On the last morning there were only four miles of easy walking to go.

One last climb and we could see Anaktuvuk Pass nestled under the big arctic peaks.

Early for our flight home, we explored town, shot hoops, and went to the museum. There we met an incredible local historian. From a time when his people were still nomads, he'd been born in a camp in the mountains. He was in the process of creating a hand-drawn 50-foot historical map of the Anaktuvuk people's routes, hunting grounds, and winter watering holes. It was amazing.

Our special time with the historian was the icing on the cake of our trip. We walked to the runway, loaded into the Caravan, and watched the landscape melt away below us.


  1. Big beautiful country! Even has Montana beat. And I enjoyed the very well written narrative. I could pick up some new vocabulary! But it makes me long for summer, a long ways off from November 30. Dick Thweatt

    1. Thanks Dick. Hoping to see you one of these days.

  2. Such a pleasant story!! Loved it.

    1. Thanks Ethan, looking forward to the next adventure I get to do with you!

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks Jen. Maybe I'll get to see y'all at Xmas?

  4. Thanks Ethan, looking forward to the next adventure I get to do with you!