Monday, June 23, 2014

Gates of the Arctic. June 12th 2014

We went out of Wiseman, in the southeast corner of the park.  Photo credit:
Today we passed into Gates of the Arctic National Park, one of the largest and most remote parks there is.  Much of the Brooks Range, where this park is located in northern Alaska, is protected, making the whole area one huge wilderness.  You may have heard of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, because of the ongoing controversy regarding oil drilling there; its western border lies just a few miles east of where we are.  There are no roads or trails in Gates of the Arctic, but because of its fairly recent designation as a park 34 years ago, some old mining roads are not yet so overgrown that they can't be followed on foot.  Still, it's pretty remote.  Most access is by bush plane.
Old mining road and winter trail just inside the park.  Too marshy for us.
We spent the night last night on some tundra just off the Nolan Road, where a small-scale mining operation continues to this day right outside the southeast park border.  Thus we were not officially in the park, but the location of the boundary was of little importance to us; here, or in the park's center, or twenty miles outside of the park, we would still be in the Brooks Range.  We were very excited about that and spent a luxurious night on the tussocks even with fierce mosquitoes, persistent rain, and freezing cold happening outside the tent.  Luxurious?  In a tent?  On tundra?  Yup.  Under our sleeping pads was sphagnum moss, a spongy surface that no mattress could compare to.  We went to sleep at maybe 2 am (it doesn't get dark north of the Arctic Circle), woke up to the sound of heavy rain around 11 am, then went back to sleep and emerged well-rested after the rain stopped around 2 pm.  Not having darkness to tell us when it's night threw us off at first, but after awhile we started eating when we were hungry and sleeping when we were tired.  Settling into ancient rhythms, according to Sigurd Olsen, and really beginning to live.

Normally the sphagnum moss springs right back up after you step on it, but 12 hours under a tent is a different story.  I hope we didn't kill a 5x8 patch of tundra; we will do our best in the future to camp on gravel bars.  That wasn't an option last night, but tonight we are camped on firm mud in the middle of the aptly named Glacier River.  Another soft bed, and this time without mosquitoes!  We got here, maybe 7or 8 miles away, by tromping through miles of tussocks.  Tussocks are raised patches of vegetation perhaps 6 to 24 inches high and similarly wide.
tussocks!  Photo credit:
 Some are large enough to step on, so that at times it's possible to step and hop from tussock to tussock, but frequently the grass and moss hides where the base actually is and your foot rolls to the front, back, or side.  Other times the tussock simply keels over, or your foot plunges straight through to the shallow water below.  They're nicknamed "ankle-breakers."  It's not easy hiking; remember there are no trails.  We were able to avoid the tussocks a little bit at the end of the day by hiking through thick willow scrub, but that can be risky due to the possibility of surprising a bear.  We took necessary precautions to avoid that, namely loudly and horribly singing our favorite country songs.  Tomorrow we are hoping to continue to keep our ankle ligaments intact.
camped on the Glacier River

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