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.] Continue reading

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

The Parks of The Dakotas

We have visited three national parks in less three weeks — that’s hardly enough time to write about each of them as well as the other national park units we have visited [Devils Tower NM, Mount Rushmore NMem, Jewel Cave NM, and the other ones I wrote about in my latest post], let alone enjoy them all as they should be enjoyed.  And we’ve been making final arrangements and packing for our big Alaska trip — I’ve got so much to post about and so little time!

While each of these three national parks deserves its own spotlight, I’m going to have to lump them all into one post — sorry about that Wind Cave NP, Badlands NP, and Theodore Roosevelt NP!  Here are the highlights of each of our visits to these three parks:

Wind Cave NPWind Cave National Park — As the name suggests, this park protects a cave system of twisting mazes and passageways that exists beneath the ground, and that was the original mission of this park that was established as our nation’s seventh national park by Theodore Roosevelt — one of five he created — in 1903.  But it also protects a lush and beautiful rolling prairie above the ground.  

The original Wind Cave entrance
The natural entrance to Wind Cave, this small hole blows out nice, cool 53-degree air

While the cave was known to Native Americans as a sacred place for centuries, it was first discovered by white America back in 1881 by two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, who heard a loud whistling noise which lead them to a small hole in the ground — still today the cave’s only known natural entrance — and the wind coming out of the cave is said to have blown Jesse’s hat off.  Once known, others took to exploring the cave and more of it continues to be mapped to this day.  Based on barometric wind studies, it is believed that only five percent of the total cave has been discovered.  Presently, the cave is the world’s seventh longest, with 143 miles surveyed.

Boxwork, the unique speleothem found in Wind Cave
Boxwork, the unique speleothem found in the cave system that is Wind Cave NP

A ranger-led cave tour was the main highlight of our visit to the park.  Ranger Earl guided us through this underground labyrinth to view the many features and underground formations, or speleothems, in what is one of the most complex cave systems in the world.  Unlike most caves with which we are familiar, this one has very few stalactites and stalagmites.  Instead, there is a profusion of “boxwork” — thin, 3-D honeycomb-shaped calcite structures — which is not found in any other cave in the world.

Above the ground, the plains of Wind Cave are right at the edge of the famed Black Hills of western South Dakota.  The entire region was once home to millions of bison — some sources say upwards of 60 million! — the enduring symbol of the Great Plains area.  But changes in human population patterns and over-hunting drove them to near extinction.  Thanks to conservation efforts on the part of the park system, bison herds roam freely and beautifully here once again, along with other wildlife such as prairie dogs, pronghorn, coyote, mule deer, and elk.  

And so it is at Wind Cave — one park, but two distinct places.

Badlands National ParkBadlands National Park — As the name seems to suggest, this place may not be to everyone’s liking, particularly those homesteaders, “sod busters” as they were called, who tried to settle in the area but found it too difficult to tame.  But we found Badlands to be a big, wonderful, beautiful surprise.

The area was first established as Badlands National Monument in 1939 to protect the colorful tiered cliffs, buttes, and pinnacles that extend out as far as the eye can see.  It was later designated a national park in 1978, and today not only protects these geological wonders, but also features one of the most complete fossil accumulations in North America, evidence that ancient, often strange (by our terms today) creatures once roamed here.

The Yellow Mounds of Badlands NPThe Badlands draws visitors from around the world, many of whom simply drive the loop road through the park, stopping at the various overlooks to look off in the distance and admire the rugged beauty of the rock formations seemingly growing out of the mixed-grass prairie.  Others, like my photographer husband Fred, or Fransel [Adams] as I like to call him, repeatedly went into the park to watch and photograph the way the light shines upon and casts shadows on the infinite peaks throughout the park.

Life in the otherwise harsh BadlandsWhile the summer sun bakes this land and it seems, and often is, quite harsh, particularly in the 100-degree weather we experienced during our entire visit here, the natural elements of this park are wonderful.  Erosion carves these buttes so they are ever changing.  And while it appears that no life could be sustained here in the blistering sun and endless winters, more patient visitors notice life all around.

Fred’s prior post features wonderful photographs of pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs — rewards for all the time he spent in the park.  

Fred & Laura at Badlands NP

Badlands National Park is actually comprised of three units, but with two being in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, most people, including us, just visit the North Unit, where there is more than enough to take in and enjoy.

Theodore Roosevelt NPTheodore Roosevelt National Park — This is the third in our trifecta of national parks in the Dakotas featuring grassy plains, noisy prairie dog towns, wandering pronghorn and grand bison herds.  But one thing that makes this park stand out is the name itself: Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park that is named after a person.

Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States [1901-1909] came to North Dakota as a 24-year old to hunt bison, but he returned to the area regularly throughout his life.  He mourned the loss of his young wife (she died in childbirth) and his mother here; tragically, the two dying hours apart.  He even entered into a ranching business here.  The time Roosevelt spent in this area gave him an appreciation of the hardships of life in the Badlands and a passion for conservation that informed his presidency.

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” Theodore Roosevelt  proclaimed in 1918.

Known as “The Conservation President,” Teddy Roosevelt did more for the national park system than any other president.  He doubled the number of sites within the system, creating five national parks including Crater Lake NP in Oregon, Wind Cave NP in South Dakota, Sully’s Hill NP in North Dakota [which was later designated as a game preserve], Mesa Verde NP in Colorado, and Platt NP in Oklahoma [which is now part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area.]  But much more enduring, he enacted The Antiquities Act on June 8, 1906, enabling the President to set aside for protection “…historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States….”  These protected areas were then designated as “national monuments.”

Below are a few photos of our time in Theodore Roosevelt National 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 the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.