Fred’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

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The dunes came into view over five miles out from the entrance to our 57th park, Great Sand Dunes Naitonal Park and Preserve in southeastern Colorado. Almost in unison both Laura and I saw them for the first time and had a similar reaction: WOW! Looming behind the dunes, which cover around 30 square miles of terrain, was the dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountain range with peaks exceeding 14,000 feet. As we pulled into our campground just outside of the park and made our way to our site, we were treated to a sweeping vista of the dunes and the mountains behind them. This would be our view for the next five days.

Besides seeing the park, we also rendezvoused with friends whom we met two years ago when we were camping outside of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Like the two of us, Ron and Tina enjoy everything that is the outdoors, and Ron and I in particular share an interest in photography. We had a wonderful time catching up with them and shared a number of delicious meals during our stay. Ron, Tina and I also took on the challenging hike to the summit of High Dune. Laura did not go as she was still recovering from a bout of giardia, picked up during our time in the Alaskan backcountry.

Looking back on the experience, I really did not think that it would be that challenging of a hike. After all, it could not have been much more than two to three miles to the peak of High Dune (the second highest dune in the park) with around only 700 feet of elevation gain. Normally, a hike with this profile would take no more than a couple of hours. It took us five. Granted, we did take many photos, took our time at the summit to enjoy the incredible view, and lingered on the way down to watch a few folks descend the dunes on snowboards (photos of one such individual are in the photo group below entitled, “Wipeout.”), but this was one tough hike, with much of the trek through loose sand with no best route to the top defined. Did I also happen to mention that the hike started at an elevation of 8,200 feet and topped out at almost 9,000 feet. Pretty thin air at that altitude for flatlanders like the three of us. But nonetheless, we made it up and back and had not only an incredible experience to show for our efforts, but also a few decent photos to share. I also took advantage of ideal conditions a couple of nights to star gaze and photograph the stunning milky way that was clearly visible at such a high altitude in the pure, dark sky.

Having never done this before, Ron was kind enough to lend me both the perfect lens for such an undertaking along with providing some helpful tips on how to set up my camera. So at 0300 my alarm went off, I gathered up my gear, and quietly drove our car out of the campground into the park and total darkness. When I stopped and got out of the car I looked up and, my oh my, what an extraordinary sight: a night sky filled with stars from horizon to horizon and the milky way painted through the heart of it all. I just stood there in the absolute quiet for some time gazing up trying to take it all in and comprehend what I was viewing, but not being able to wrap my mind around it. It is estimated that in our galaxy alone there are between 100 and 400 billion stars and over 100 billion planets. Further, estimates put the number of galaxies in the Universe at between 100 and 200 billion, with a recent supercomputer simulation upping this estimate to 500 billion. Yes, this farm boy from central Illinois was having a bit of difficulty fathoming what I was experiencing. As I slowly scanned the night sky, it was as if all of the grains of sand that comprise the great sand dunes were illuminated and tossed up into the air.

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A collection of photos from our visit to Great Sand Dunes NP are below. Note that when you view the photo group entitled “WIPEOUT,” I would suggest that you listen to the song of the same name as you cycle through the photos. 

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


THE GREAT DUNES








A PANORAMIC PERSPECTIVE





WIPEOUT





CHANGING LIGHT





IN BLACK AND WHITE

A Couple of Weeks in the Rear View Mirror

The posts we are sharing here on our travel blog are on a delay with our current location; in other words, we’re behind with posting about our adventures once again!  I’m writing this from Flagstaff where tomorrow we pick up Claire & Kyle from the airport to commence our rafting trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  But a lot has happened between our last post and today that we’re trying to capture because this travel blog also serves as our personal trip journal.  Fred has some great photos and is finalizing a couple of posts on our visits to Great Sand Dunes NP and Rocky Mountain NP — places we’ve been in the past two weeks — but before we get to those, let me share a few of our other adventures, albeit viewing them in the rear view mirror.

Fort Laramie NHS — Yet another fort we have had the pleasure to visit, this one in eastern Wyoming, Fort Laramie’s history dates back to 1834 when it was established as a fur-trading post bringing trappers and traders together.  By the mid-1800s, as weary westward-heading pioneers followed the North Platte River along the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, they found Fort Laramie a good place to rest, repair their wagons, and resupply for the next portion of their journey.  The fort was acquired by the U.S. Army in 1849 as tensions with Northern Plains Indian tribes grew.  Finally, it was abandoned in 1890 and homesteaders took over the upkeep of the little settlement until local public agencies came along to protect it permanently.  Today, Fort Laramie National Historic Site tells the story of commerce, westward expansion, and the Indian Wars; it is a blend of beautifully-restored buildings and foundations of what once was.

 

Some unplanned down time — During the last few days of our stay in Glacier NP I was feeling a little tired and weak; feelings I attributed to some physically taxing hikes.  As it turned out, I had picked up a water-borne parasite called giardia up in the backcountry in Alaska.  Taking about two weeks before symptoms show up, the timing of me feeling punk was just about right.  In short, the bugs won and my gut lost.  Acute dehydration meant a 40-minute ambulance ride down to a hospital in Colorado Springs where I spent the next four days and three nights.  It took eight IV bags before my body would keep anything in — not pleasant days no matter where you spend them!  The one silver lining in this terrible episode is that I was in the hospital when my Badgers played LSU, so I got to watch the game!  If I was in our campground where I was supposed to be, I wouldn’t have had a TV signal and would have missed the epic upset!  So all’s well that ends well — I just completed a two-week cycle of antibiotics yesterday and am happy to be back at full strength.

 

Friendly meet-up in Colorado — Two years ago we met a couple, Tina and Ron, who happened to be camping next to us at a state park in Pennsylvania.  They rolled in one night and unfortunately we were rolling out the next morning, but our quick connection with them was strong enough for us to keep in touch.  Over these past two years they’ve followed along with us here on our website and have taken a couple of nice trips themselves.  We’ve compared notes and shared stories, and about a year ago we made plans to meet up this year in Colorado.  On September 3rd, Fred sprung me from the hospital and we got back to our campsite in Woodland Park within minutes of Ron and Tina pulling into the campsite next to us — pretty good timing as they had just spent the last three days driving from Eastern Pennsylvania to meet us there!  While I wasn’t my normal, chipper self, seeing them did put a smile on my face and we were able to spend five days in total at two different places, dining together, hiking together (most of the hiking was just Fred, Ron and Tina as I continued to rest and recover), laughing together, and making some more memories together.

We’re not “selfie people” but we did want to capture the four of us sharing a little happy hour time together.  We struggled some with the selfie stick someone had given us — we never would have purchased one ourselves and this was only our third time using it! — but we did have some good laughs over it all!

 

Florissant Fossil Beds NM — Camping in Woodland Park allowed us to visit the nearby Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, an area in Central Colorado where ancient volcanic eruptions buried redwood trees, plants and insects in 15 feet of ash, mud and volcanic debris.  These mudflows, called lahars, preserved these remains for 34 million years.  Today Florissant features one of the world’s richest deposits of fossils from the Eocene Era, and fossils from here are in museums and universites throughout the U.S. and U.K.  In addition to seeing fossils in the Visitor Center, visitors can also stroll along the mile-long Petrified Forest Walk, viewing stumps of giant redwoods that were preserved in the lahar — they’re as wide as they are tall.

 

Making new friends — At our second stop with Tina and Ron we met another couple, Randy and Althy.  Four of us quickly became six, and over the next couple of days we shared food and wine, swapped stories, and exchanged addresses and phone numbers for future rendezvous.

Randy, Laura, Althy, Ron, Tina and Fred at the Zapata Falls Trail
Randy, Laura, Althy, Ron, Tina and Fred — rendezvous on the Zapata Falls Trail

So there’s our view from the rear view mirror.  Fred’s next post covers our visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and we’ll get that up in a couple of days.  We’re slowly getting caught up….

Fred’s Glacier National Park

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Laura has already written a wonderful piece on Glacier, so I will simply tell my Glacier story with photos. I will echo Laura that it was really wonderful being able to share this experience with our good friends from Chicago, Bill and Lisa. It was the second time that they have come out to meet up with us on this odyssey, and it is always great to see friends from back home. Glacier is indeed a stunningly beautiful park, one that in many respects defies one’s ability to capture its grandeur in a simple image. But I’ll have a go at it.


A collection of photos from our visit to Glacier NP are below. 

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


SOARING MOUNTAINS, STUNNING VISTAS











TEEPEES NEAR GLACIER

Glacier National Park

Glacier NPSo often people ask us what is our favorite national park.  Fred has a good answer to that question, “The next one,” for he really does relish in the anticipation of what he’s going to see and photograph in the next park we’re visiting.  My answer has fluctuated over these past couple of years, as we keep discovering new parks that vault to the top or near the top of my list.  Acadia National Park in Maine comes to mind — our visit there in the fall of 2014 was fabulous and for awhile that was my favorite park.

With our visit to Glacier National Park, I now have a “Top 3 for sure” park… although it’s funny, because I don’t think I could name #1 and #2 — there is just so much beauty out here in all of the parks and it’s honestly too difficult to pick a favorite.

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Bill, Lisa, Fred and I on the famed Grinnell Glacier Trail

We were supposed to visit Glacier NP last year when we were in the Pacific Northwest, but the region’s forest fires and smoky, hazardous air conditions kept us away from this area at that time.  But lucky for us, our friends from Chicago, Bill and Lisa, had Glacier NP on their bucket list, so we coordinated a visit to Glacier together this year.

There are two sides to Glacier NP — West Glacier being more commercialized and offering more services, and St. Mary on the east side being more scenic with better, more accessible hiking and greater photo opportunities.  Going-to-the-Sun road bisects the park and offers absolutely incredible scenery.  This engineering marvel is a national historic landmark, and for good reason!  The four of us took one day to travel it from east to west, spent the night in the beautifully-restored Belton Chalet in West Glacier where we enjoyed a fabulous, fine-dining experience (I haven’t done much of that lately and truly miss it!), then returned to the east side the following day, stopping to add one more “must-do” hike on our list.

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Fred on Piegan Pass on our tough but invigorating hike that had us ascending 2,240′ and descending 3,440′ over the course of several hours and 10.1 miles — another epic hike!

On the subject of hiking, we were hiking machines!  Our hikes included three 10+ milers including the Swiftcurrent Pass at Many Glacier, the epic Grinnell Glacier Trail, and the even more epic Piegan Pass and Siyeh Trails down to Sunrift Gorge.  Altogether we tallied just over 44 miles of hiking, including over a mile of climbing and nearly a mile of descending, which, as our hiker friends know, is every bit as tough as the ascents.

The hiking: incredible!  The scenery: spectacular!  The wildlife — moose and bears and goats and sheep and many others — so wild and cool!  All of this and so much more makes Glacier National Park AMAZING!  But all is not good here.  The sad truth about this park is that the namesake glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and global climate change scientists predict that under the current warming trends, all the park’s glaciers will be melted by 2030.  Climate change: for real!  The results: tragic….

A couple of other interesting tidbits about this park:

  • The Continental Divide runs through Glacier, and water from here can flow into the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans.
  • Glacier is the 8th National Park, established in 1910 at a time when, thankfully, concerned conservationists worked hard to protect places in the untamed West from wealthy travelers who abused the resources found in wild areas such as this.
  • Glacier National Park in the U.S. shares both a park border and international boundry with the Waterton National Park in Canada and they collectively go by the name of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first of its kind in the world.  Linked together by both country governments in 1932, this peace park “represents a vision of a world in which people set aside their differences to work collectively in the interest of all life, for all time.”

George Bird Grinnell, early advocate of the park and founder of the Audubon Society and of the Boon and Crockett Club, referred to these mountains as “The Crown of the Continent” and the name is appropriate.  Glacier National Park is a wonderland of mountain summits, glaciers, alpine meadows, coniferous forests, subalpine lakes, waterfalls, wildlife, birds… the park truly has it all!  Yep, Top 3 for sure…!

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Grinnell Lake in front of the melting Grinnell Glacier — destination and lunch spot for one of our epic hikes in Glacier National Park

Fred’s Kobuk Valley National Park

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In my previous post I wrote about the first six days of our recent ten-day trip above the Arctic Circle to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park. That first portion of our Alaskan adventure found us kayaking down the Noatak River for around 80 miles through the Alaskan backcountry and camping on the beach each night along the way. We were visiting these two parks with eight other adventurers and two guides from Alaska Alpine Adventures (AAA). These were our last two parks to visit in Alaska out of the eight in the state as we saw the other six on our trip north last summer.

At the conclusion of our time on the river in Gates of the Arctic NP, two planes flew in and landed on a piece of gravelly tundra near our camp. All of us and our equipment could not fit on these relatively small planes, so we split up into two groups and made our way to our next destination: Kobuk Valley National Park, which is west of Gates. In Kobuk we visited the great sand dunes in the southeast portion of the park. These sand dunes cover an area of over 30 square miles and can reach a height of 100 feet. From the plane the dunes can be seen from a great distance and as we came in it became apparent that we were going to land right on the sand, being able to do so given the planes were rolling with oversized balloon tires.

Camp was established at the bottom of a tall dune amongst a stand of pines and near a clear stream. As it turned out, we also shared the area with a multitude of mosquitoes and both Laura and I were glad that AAA had suggested that we bring bug netting to cover our head. Over the course of our four days in Kobuk we struck out from our base camp on three hikes over the dunes that ranged from five to ten miles in length. One of these excursions took us through a pine forest where the ground was covered with white cladonia and other lichens that gave the appearance of snow, quite appropriate for this part of the world.

But this incredible adventure in Gates of the Arctic NP and Kobuk Valley NP would have to come to an end, so we all broke camp, packed up our gear, and trudged back up a tall dune to the landing area for the planes that would take us to Kotzebue for our return trip to Anchorage. We would have a long day of travel ahead of us as we made our way back to Anchorage and a hot shower and a clean bed. We finally arrived at our hotel around 1100 p.m., did in fact luxuriate in a long, hot shower, and then watched our first Olympic coverage since the start of the games from a spacious bed buried in clean sheets and a fluffy duvet. Heavenly.


A collection of photos from our visit to the dunes of Kobuk Valley NP are below. As with my post on Gates of the Arctic NP, I have included more photos than normal in an effort to provide a broad perspective on what we saw and did in Kobuk Valley NP, as well as sharing a number of photos that I took of the park from the air. Finally, I have also included photos of some of the beautiful flowers and vegetation resident in the park. 

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


ON THE DUNES














KOBUK VALLEY FROM THE AIR




THE FLOWERS OF KOBUK VALLEY


Fred’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

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Visiting national park numbers 54 and 55 would be the most adventurous excursion that we had undertaken since we left on this trip over two years ago. Granted, our backcountry trip into Denali last year was certainly Out There, as we camped for four days near a glacier about 20 miles into the park. But this was a whole different level of Out There. On this trip Laura and I would end up spending 10 days in the backcountry of Alaska above the Arctic Circle experiencing the extreme wildness of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park. Further, this was not a case where we simply established a base camp and then worked from this post over the 10 days exploring and doing hikes. While our exploration of a portion of Kobuk Valley NP was centered in a base camp at the edge of its great sand dunes, our time in this park was preceded by a six-day trip traveling over 80 miles down the Noakak River through Gates of the Arctic NP on an inflatable two-person kayak, making camp each night along the river. In this post and my next I will provide a collection of photos that chronicle our visits to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park. Normally, I would only feature a group of select photos from each of these parks, but for these two national parks I have decided to share a more comprehensive perspective on what life was like making our way down the Noatak and then amongst the dunes.

In many ways, this was a trip of firsts. To start things off, it was the first time that we ever had to make an emergency landing in a plane, which was a bit unsettling to say the least. For a description of the circumstances surrounding the need to land our bush plane in the middle of the Arctic wilderness, I’ll refer you to Laura’s previous post where she vividly describes the events surrounding the experience. Moving on, this was also the first time that Laura and I had spent an extended time above the Arctic Circle. Granted, we had fairly recently made our way to Barrow, Alaska, the northern most town in North America, but that had only been an overnight trip, and we stayed in a hotel and ate in restaurant where we could sit at a table and did not have to take our meals on the ground. In the backcountry, our bathroom facilities amounted to a trip into the bush where we would dig a hole and do our business as we swatted away mosquitoes and kept our head on a swivel always on the lookout for grizzly bears that might wander into the general area. While traveling on the river, our longest trip of this kind on water, we saw around 20 grizzlies and every place that we set up camp along the Noatak there were large paw prints made by large bears in the sand. In fact, one morning as we were loading up our boats, a grizzly came out of the brush and walked right through the area where our tents had been not more than twenty minutes previously. That caused a bit of a stir.

Over the course of our trip there were no showers and if you wanted to bathe, a frigid river was your only choice. While we did not take the polar plunge, on a couple of occasions I did strip to the waist and quickly sponged off. The river was also the perfect place for a little fishing, and even though I did not have any fishing equipment, Nate, a fellow explorer, did have his fly reel and was kind enough one evening to give me a lesson. This was actually my second lesson, but far better than the first one that occurred in the alley behind the Orvis store just off Michigan Avenue in Chicago. On that occasion the only thing that I caught was a Starbucks grande coffee cup. With Nate in the Arctic, I only got the lure caught in the bushes a couple of times and ended up catching three or four small graylings, which we then released after a picture or two.

We traveled with a group of eight wonderful fellow adventurers and two great guides. Coincidentally, each of the others in our group were on a similar quest to see all 59 national parks. As such, we were all kindred spirits on this journey, all looking to take away memories that would be indelibly pressed on our minds, as opposed to the way that others generally experience these parks by simply flying into them, setting down briefly for a quick look around, and then heading back to civilization. How fortunate we all were to be able to immerse ourselves in this grand, wild land above the Arctic Circle where summer days are chilly and the sun never really sets.


Photos from our adventure down the Noatak are below. Photos from our time in Kobuk Valley NP will be in my next post. 

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


A TRIP DOWN THE NOATAK














THE FLOWERS OF GATES



Unplanned Adventure in the Backcountry — a.k.a. “The Alaska Factor”

Disclaimer on the AAA website:   *While Alaska Alpine Adventures endeavors to follow our itineraries as written, odds are in fact slim that you actually will.  The expeditionary factors at play quite often compel our guides to deviate from the written itinerary.  Guide considerations could include weather conditions, group preference, individual ability, specific safety considerations, or unforeseeable circumstances; collectively what many have called “The Alaska Factor.”  Therefore we strongly suggest that you approach any adventure in Alaska with an open mind.

Open mind, indeed.  To adventure in Alaska.  We were certainly open to — in fact, looking forward to! — adventure when we signed up for our 12-day combination paddling/hiking trip with Alaska Alpine Adventures to visit our final two national parks in Alaska; Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park, both of which are above the Arctic Circle.  But so it started… with a bit of unplanned adventure that was more harrowing and heart-stopping than many might term “adventure.”

On Day 1 of our trip, our group of 12 — two very capable AAA guides plus 10 gung-ho guests, most of whom are endeavoring to see all of the national parks like we are which is undoubtedly why we all chose this more challenging trip — boarded three bush planes in Fairbanks and traveled 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle to Bettles, Alaska.  [When I say challenging, I do mean this is not for everyone.  Take the rigors of 80+ miles of paddling in Class II/II+/III whitewater (28 miles in one day was impressive for us novices if we do say so ourselves!), hiking on the semi-soft tundra, schlepping gear, nightly tent set-up and morning tent take-down, sleeping in a cozy tent on a thin pad when it doesn’t get dark and most of the nights what’s underneath that thin pad is a rock bar along the river, morning and evening kayak packing & unpacking, good food (thanks AAA, Nick and Sean!) but all served out of the same bowl and eaten with a spork which isn’t for everyone… and bundle all that up with rain showers for the first seven days but no bathing showers for 10 days which, for some, like me, is definitely a hardship and certainly a challenge!  Oh, and don’t even ask about the steps you take when nature calls!!]

But back to Bettles… with a population of 12; seemingly a few more during the summer “tourist” (HA!) season, Bettles is just a little airstrip left behind after World War II that is now used as a commercial air strip.  From here folks launch into the backcountry of the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle.  It is also home to the Gates of the Arctic NP Visitor Center and backcountry check-in office, so NP passport stamps for all of us in our books plus permits to be in the backcountry and route filed with the park service in case of any emergencies — so far, so good.

Our itinerary called for us to get to Bettles on wheel planes, then truck about a mile over to the lake and board float planes to continue our journey on to Pingo Lake.  Pingo is at the headwaters of the Noatak River on the east side of the park and serves as the place from which we launch the paddling part of our journey.  But recall AAA’s note about itineraries… odds are, in fact, slim that you [will actually follow the itinerary.]

So on bush plane ride #2, five of us in our de Havilland Otter were cruising along for about 30 minutes, give or take, when we heard a loud BAM! (think super-loud gunshot) followed by a message from Sean, who from the right seat informed us that we’d “blown a mag” and we were going to bring it down on the lake that we just happen to be flying over.  Talk about adventure… and then some!!  “The Alaska Factor”… indeed!!!

Before this day, I had never even heard of a mag, and I certainly didn’t know the importance of one in a plane.  Short for magneto, this is apparently a critical piece in the functioning of an aircraft engine — it fires the spark plugs which makes the engine run.  I didn’t know either, then, that if you blow one of the two magnetos on board your little Alaska bush plane, this is not good and you therefore need to look rather urgently for a place to land your plane!

Our story has a happy ending, as depicted by the photos, below… and, I suppose, by the fact that I’m alive to be writing this post.  As good fortune would have it, we just happened to be flying above Iniakuk Lake when our mag blew, which just happened to be the site of the idyllic Iniakuk Lake Lodge which is an exclusive little fly-in wilderness lodge.  Pat Gaedeke and her son John Gaedeke run this gem of a place that was “built by hand, one local log at a time” by Pat and her late husband, with later additions to the compound built by John — this place is truly a wilderness wonderland!

Our capable pilot landed the plane without issue.  John met us on the lake when we landed — I doubt many guests just “drop in” like this; he must have been just a bit curious.  He welcomed us up to the lodge and Mom/Pat offered us coffee and tea.  When it became apparent that we’d likely be there for awhile (a mag isn’t something you can just fix or replace on the spot), she insisted we eat dinner with their other guests — now how many people/places would so willingly accommodate five extra guests?!  We offered to pay but she would have no part of that.  So we just sat back and ate her delicious baked Parmesan chicken, green beans, homemade biscuits, fresh greens grown in their seasonal greenhouse, and we topped all that off with a decadent dessert topped with fresh berries.  Talk about hospitality!

We stayed in the lodge and conversed with Pat, John, and a film-making crew who happened to be there, as well.  Very interestingly, this team of five is working on a documentary called Paving Tundra, through which they want to bring awareness to the proposed 225-mile Road to Ambler that would benefit an open pit copper mining company, but, in doing so, harm secluded Interior villages and their centuries-old ways of life, and disturb the quiet rivers, wetlands, forests, and migrating wildlife for which Alaska is best known.  Check out a couple of their websites:  Paving Tundra and Miles for Breakfast to read more about this group and their initiative.

So a couple of hours after we made our semi-emergency landing on Iniakuk Lake, another Brooks Range Aviation pilot flew another plane in — a de Havilland Beaver this time — that picked us up and took us the rest of the way to Pingo Lake where the other half of our group was waiting for us.  They had very kindly set up all of the tents, and we decided it best not to rub it in too much about the generous hospitality with which we were met, nor the delicious dinner that had been shared with us.  [I guess our secret will be out once they read this post.]  But reunited once again, and with our first day nearly behind us, our planned itinerary backcountry adventure could finally begin….

Open mind, indeed.  To any adventure in Alaska, but preferably the fabulous ones and not the crazy ones known sometimes as “The Alaska Factor”….

By the way, I only told Mom this story yesterday as I knew she’d read about it today when she checked out our website — no sense worrying her over nothing!

** All photo credits to Fred R. Jolly, a.k.a. Fransel; photographer extraordinaire

The True Northernmost Extreme Point: Barrow, Alaska

Barrow, the top of the worldWhen we started planning our return visit to Alaska, we knew that in addition to visiting our final two national parks up there we also had to trek to Barrow, Alaska.  Why?  Because our visit to the previous “northernmost city” in Minnesota [see Northwest Angle post] had an asterisks behind it — it was only the northernmost city in the contiguous United States.  If we wanted to make the claim that we visited the true northernmost place in the whole of the U.S. on this road trip (which we did/do!) then we had to trek all the way up to Barrow, Alaska; for Barrow is the true northernmost north point — the ‘Top of the World’ as they claim.

Barrow is 330 miles above the Arctic Circle; it’s right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean where the Chukchi and Beaufort seas meet.  It’s the undisputed northernmost city in the U.S.; the ninth northernmost city in the entire world.

Barrow is so far north that trees can’t grow up here.  One of the photos I’ve shared below shows an interesting perspective of this native village as we approached it from the air, and you can see how flat all of this land on the North Slope is — it’s permafrost underneath tundra that’s covered with snow for much of the year.  Barrow is not on the road system; the only way to get up here is via plane, barge, or an ice road in the wintertime.  Incidentally, said barge (also in the photo mosaic below) makes just one trip per year, bringing goods people order and need to have shipped up here in shipping containers — trucks, 4-wheelers, non-perishable food, etc.  Then once the natives empty out their containers, they use them for additional storage for their households.  Photos also show a lot of re-purposed shipping containers dotting the village.

Nighttime in Barrow, AK
11 o’clock at night in Barrow and still lots of light.  Note the lack of grass and trees.  See also the roads — asphalt would get too warm in the summertime and destroy the permafrost just below the surface, so roads are gravel and kick up a lot of dirt.
Locals all seem to bring their cargo limit of three 50# containers every time they come up here
Locals bring their cargo limit of 150# every time they come up to Barrow

As we checked in at the Anchorage airport for our flight up to Barrow, we were a bit befuddled when we first observed everyone with coolers and boxes of cold/frozen food that they were checking as their baggage.  My initial thought was why would they be coming down to Anchorage to fish and ship that all back up to their village which is right on the ocean?, for the Anchorage airport is full of people flying freshly-caught Alaskan fish back to the Lower 48.  But then we learned that it’s cheaper for Barrow residents to fly from Barrow to Anchorage when Alaska Airlines offers cheap fares, purchase food there (there are two Costco’s in Anchorage that are wildly popular), then bring their limit of 150 pounds of cargo (three 50# containers are allowed per person) with them on their flight back to Barrow.  And that now makes sense to us after a visit to the AC Co. store, which carries everything from basic groceries to Carhartts, from sofas to housewares.  Let me tell you, food up there is E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E!  Transportation costs are the primary drivers, and short-shelf-life items are particularly pricey.  A gallon of milk will run you about $16; a very small pineapple flashed a price of $10.39; a 5-pound bag of carrots will set you back $14.39; and 1.75 gallons of Tide detergent (slightly bigger than what Costco offers) costs a whopping $58.99!  We wondered how people could afford to live up here and pondered the paradoxical notion that these Iñupiat natives, of all folks, could arguably least afford such outlandish prices.

Laura & Fred at Whale Bone Arch in Barrow, AKOur Top of the World hotel offered a 4-hour tour, lead by a lovely Iñupiat native.  Seven of us joined in, stopping to see the icons of Barrow including the Whale Bone Arch, the school, the Iñupiat Heritage Center, the big blue football field [made possible because of a very generous benefactor from Florida who saw that this eager team had no field and instead was having to play on the rocky, sandy Arctic road; ESPN profiled this story – check it out:  E-Ticket: Save The Whalers], and several other spots.  We had the opportunity to take a true Polar Bear Plunge in the Arctic Ocean, but passed — I was happy enough just feeling the cold water with my hand; Fred braved a short wade in the waters for a photo op then quickly got out of the frigid sea.

Fun fact: when the sun sets here in just a couple of months (around the 18th or 19th of November), it doesn’t rise again for 65 days.

Here are a few more facts about Barrow:

§  Barrow is the 8th coldest place in the world to live — the lowest recorded temperature is -56ºF

§  On average, Barrow’s high temperature is above freezing only 120 days per year, while temperatures are at or below zero 160 days per year

§  Barrow has around 4,200 residents, most of them native Iñupiat whose ancestors have lived here for over 1,500 years

§  Native Iñupiat survive largely by hunting whales, seals, polar bears, walrus, waterfowl, caribou, and catching fish from the Arctic Ocean

§  Scientists say the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and Barrow has been called “ground zero” for climate-change science

Here are some photos from our visit to the very unique place that is Barrow, Alaska:

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.



These photos are from the wonderful Iñupiat Heritage Center, one of the stops along our Barrow tour:

While our visit to Barrow was a short 24 hours, I think we packed in all that we could, short of joining one of the more than 40 whale crews to pursue a Bowhead whale or row out to the ice floats to see polar bears.  [For the record, the ice was still 10+ miles off the shoreline, and so, too, the polar bears.]  Happily, we can now claim unequivocally that we have been to the true northernmost north of the United States!

Back from Alaska!

Creekside in Denali

We’re BAAACCCKKK!  We’ve been back for a couple of days now actually, but we are still catching up on missed sleep and three weeks of “stuff” that we hadn’t been able to attend to from the Alaskan tundra.  But alas, that trip is behind us and we’re now into our next park visit.

We’re working on getting all our photos sorted — and there are a bunch of good ones! — but until we get through them all and get a couple of posts together, let these couple of photos be a teaser for what’s to come.  It goes without saying that this year’s trip to Alaska was another fabulous one!

Creekside in Denali

Kobuk Valley NP

Kayaks tied up for the night in Gates
L&F grabbing some shore along the Noatak River in Gates of the Arctic NP