Yesterday turned out to be one of those days. Swatting bugs and shivering, we wondered if perhaps we’d taken the wrong channel and returned mistakenly to the Mackenzie Delta. Our grumpiness stemmed from heavy, cold rain and flashbacks of endless packrafting through muddy sloughs. The landscape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has changed dramatically over the past 10 days, and after delighting in the alpine tundra of the high country we’ve stumbled back into black spruce wetlands.
Leaving the arctic coast from Kaktovik felt a bit like saying goodbye to a friend, with no plans to see each other again soon. The transition from ocean to tussocks seemed sudden and rushed. Before I’d had time to contemplate departing this magical interface between sea & sky, the last mirages of light on ice had disappeared from view. A lonesome caribou calf, thin and harried by warble flies, approached us curiously and echoed my melancholy sentiments. Though it seems hard to imagine in our fast-paced modern world, sometimes even walking feels too fast. But with the end of summer quickly approaching, there’s only so much time to wax philosophically. Yesterday’s chill reminded us that we’d best keep moving. It won’t be long before rain turns to snow up here and there are still many mountain passes to cross.
We shed our angst about leaving the coast as we began to climb toward the peaks of the Brooks Range, growing larger with each step. The enticing whitewater of the Hulahula beckoned below, but our path carried us south, back toward drainages of the Yukon River. Shifting assemblages of birds and wildlife mirrored the changes we saw in the landscape. We left jaegers and plovers behind as we climbed up toward Gilbeau Pass. Dall sheep traversed steep scree above us as tattlers and wheatears greeted us at the crest of the divide. Dropping back down the other side, we followed caribou trails over seemingly unlikely routes that proved to offer the smoothest travel. We’ve learned to trust this animal intuition, moving forward with a bit of faith rather than balking at deeply rutted paths up hillsides and across rivers. It’s hard to imagine that several thousand caribou have got it wrong for all these years.
The perfect alpine tundra ended far too soon as we hiked down to the Chandalar River. Nearly 50 miles north of Arctic Village, we saw trees again. In this beautiful, broad valley, signs of moose reappeared and Spotted Sandpipers flitted along the riverbank. Where we began paddling, the river was fast and fun and we covered miles through the braided channels quickly in the warm sunshine. That night, a full moon rose over the gravel bar as we relaxed by the fire. Perfect. A day and a half later we weren’t loving it quite so much. Several large flocks of Rusty Blackbirds and a caribou swimming the river provided welcome distractions from the slow meanders as the rain dripped down our necks. Our raingear has seen better days, especially evident when sitting in a puddle of water for hours on end. But it can’t be pleasant ALL the time or it would hardly be an adventure. We were lucky to find the tribal council office still open in Arctic Village and we’ve since dried out at the school, ready for the next leg to the Haul Road. This is the first road we will cross since the dirt of the Dempster Highway more than a month and a half ago. Lovely wild places for us all to roam.