Sheenjek River, June 17-July 20, 2017
Our big adventure for the year was a 5-week hike and paddle trip on the Sheenjek River in the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The river flows south from the eastern Brooks Range for 200 miles down to its confluence with the Porcupine River, a major tributary of the Yukon. There were four of us: Tom Choate, Phoebe Proudfoot, Mike and me. We chose the Sheenjek because Mike wanted a long, Arctic river we could navigate with the Pakcanoe; I wanted to do a trip with Tom; Tom wanted to do the Sheenjek—he had done most of the other Arctic rivers; and Phoebe was thrilled to join us.
We flew Wright Air from Fairbanks to Fort Yukon (Tom and Phoebe) and Arctic Village (Mike and I). Kirk Sweetsir, a bush pilot out of Fort Yukon, flew us in two loads into the airstrip across from Double Mountain on the upper Sheenjek. After setting up a base camp there, Mike and I hiked for six days up to the headwaters and back. We were disappointed to not make it up to the pass where we could look over to the Arctic Ocean, but had
other worthy sights and side trips, including a pass over to the headwaters of
the Kongakut. The hiking was pretty rough. Sometimes we had good caribou trails
to follow; sometimes it was tussocks, or marsh, or mud. The best walking was on
the aufeis, but it was rather like navigating a crevassed glacier to avoid
uncrossable stream cuts or getting stuck mid-river and unable to get back to
shore. Rarely were we able to walk on a river bar.
|Choate the mountain goat|
The four of us spent 17 days, interspersing layover hiking and fishing days with travel days, to paddle 118 miles to the Koness River. There were some class one and two rapids, some shallow bars where we dragged, and some challenges with sweepers. One chute took a 90-degree turn at the bank, right into a sweeper. Mike and I had a more agile boat and were able to skirt it, but Tom and Phoebe got caught. Between good luck and quick thinking, little damage was done, but it took a
while for the adrenaline to subside.
|Phoebe the rap queen|
The best hiking was at the first base camp, then in the vicinity of Last Lake, and finally a peak and a hill northeast of Table Mountain. Down river was flatter, more forested, and the high points were farther away. We were mostly able to camp on river bars away from the mosquito-infested vegetation and damp ground on shore; flies were a bigger nuisance on the bars. While the logjams in the middle river were nothing short of amazing, the landscape views were better in the upriver mountains and tundra.
The wildlife was spectacular everywhere, but with greater variety in the forested regions. Mike and I saw a couple lone caribou in the high country. Mid-river we saw moose, brown and black bear, wolves, and a wolverine. Beaver became more and more numerous as the forests became denser and more complex. And there were lots of birds everywhere. It was spring, so there were lots of chicks and hysterical moms upset at our presence. Tom kept us well supplied with grayling.
The weather was unrelentingly hot—in the 90s, with a couple days peaking in the low 100s—with several afternoon thundershowers. We also had several forest fires in the region which at times
blanketed us with smoke. A
couple times we could actually hear the “whoosh!” of the fire and got some
ashfall, but we never saw any flames. In the vicinity of the boundary between
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge there was a
fire encampment with about 35 crew.
|Rauxa i Seny|
Our read-aloud selection for the trip was from Margaret Murie’s Two in the Far North, the chapters about their pioneering naturalist work on the Sheenjek in 1956.
Tom and Phoebe flew out from the landing strip below the Koness with Kirk, while Mike and I paddled five and a half days to take out at Fort Yukon, another 160 miles. That stretch was mostly flatwater—including 50 oxbows—with a headwind. Pure drudgery, in unrelieved heat.
For the blow-by-blow account, read my daily log below. Our poetry slam entries can be found here.
Friday, June 16, 9pm. We got to the airport with hours to spare. I congratulated us on getting out of town, finished with packing and prep, on our way. Mike said “we’re not gone yet.” Checking the six bags—exactly 50 lbs each—went surprisingly easily; just paid $150 for the two extras. We were TSA pre-check, so security should have been a breeze. But it wasn’t. I’d never seen such a long Pre-check line. Even the regular line was faster. Then the TSA officer wanted to check Mike’s bag, because he saw a multi-tool on the screen, in Mike’s drybag. Mike swore a little but was unusually mild-mannered about it. He had to go back and check it. The mistake cost him $75. I cracked open Two in the Far North while I waited. Even with that set-back, we still had an hour to wait before boarding.
The view at the gate: crowds of portly men with their magic fish wands; coeds with long hair and short shorts; burly young men with crew cuts; grandmas on vacation; young moms with sleeping infants; young dads with amped-up toddlers; and not one in business attire. This is the cheap flight: it will arrive after midnight in the land of the post-midnight sun. The wingtips are upturned like a thumbs-up.
Saturday June 17. We slept in the United gate at the Fairbanks airport: very quiet after the last flight and the last employee. We were on the floor under and behind a row of seats. Not bad with an eye mask and ear plugs and a pad we’d brought for the canoe. Arose ~5:30 and went to collect our bags. A ticket agent left her post to help us fetch them from the locked baggage room. Hung out for a while waiting for possible contact with Tom and Phoebe, then secured a taxi over to Wright Air. Arrived with the first employees. In no time they had our 340 pounds of baggage weighed and checked in.
Phoebe didn’t answer her phone until about 7:15. Tom with all his futzing, putzing and endless shuffling of gear is driving her crazy. They finally arrived about 8:15. They had 530 pounds of gear! We had to put some on our plane to not overload Kirk Sweetsir’s super cub. They are flying to Ft. Yukon and Kirk will fly them from there; we are flying to Arctic Village where he will pick us up in a second trip.
Waiting in AV we talked with elder Edward in the visitor’s center, but I offended him by interrupting with a clarifying question before he’d finished what he was saying. He didn’t accept my apology; he just walked out and wouldn’t talk to me again. I then struck up a conversation with Eileen, a Gwitch’in woman about my age waiting on her ATV to pick up some packages from
the next flight.
|Double Mountain and purple vetch|
Kirk landed about 1:15 to pick us up. Though we’d emailed and talked on the phone a number of times, this was our first meeting. He was lean and young-grey, with an easy smile and manner. He’d decided it was safer to put us all in at Double Mountain; he was concerned about Phoebe and Tom’s limited agility, strength and endurance (and skill—Phoebe) for the upper river. I said that’s fine, Mike and I will hike from there.
Not all our AV bags got on the plane in Fairbanks, so Wright Air sent them on a second flight. There was some confusion after we left about which bags go to FY and which to AV, so we ended up with more than our share of the gear. So we were over-weight. But Kirk packed it all in—light in the tail, heaviest up front—and said it’d be fine.
|Unloading at the Double Mountain airstrip|
Sunday June 18. We slept in until the sun hit our tent about 7:30am. Spent the morning on more organizing chores: putting the boats together, organizing the food, moving the cook/bug tent a little to better use the topography…
After lunch we spied a grizzly with two cubs crossing from the river on the aufeis below our camp. As soon as she smelled humans she changed course aiming for the far woods. They all looked teddy-bear brown and glossy in the sunlight. The wind picked up and blew in some grey rain clouds and we got a little sprinkle, just enough to put on jackets, not enough to retreat to the tent. It was over soon. Tom and I went over to the copse of willow where I’d seen a kill site and bear scat. Tom narrated his naturalist interpretation—listen to the audio log here. Mike and I
walked over the
aufeis looking for the bear tracks. He eventually found them, after I’d headed
down the creek and found some cub and wolverine tracks in the mud. There is a
heavily-used game trail running along that bank, and plenty of fresh scat.
|Griz and cubs|
In the Arctic, it goes from too hot to too cold in five minutes. Too hot is not good, because if the breeze isn’t blowing the mosquitoes and gnats are so prolific they drive us (and the caribou) crazy. It will be especially challenging when the day comes to bathe.
Monday June 19. We got up at 8, but didn’t get gone until almost noon. Mike and Tom spent well over an hour trying to get their DeLorme InReaches to talk to each other. Finally gave up and resolved to send messages via a third party, like Kirk or Peter Haley. (Later we discovered that the direct message did get through, with a lag of an
hour or more.)
|Hiking up valley on good ground|
We took Kirk’s advice and stayed high, taking the upland shortcut around the headland, the way the caribou go. But it was mostly rough going: lots of tussocks and wet ground, some brush whacking, and a stream ford sans boots. It was hot and sunny most of the day, but we needed to keep long clothes on for bug protection. Though we’ve been hiking this year, we’ve not been back-packing. My pack felt fine at first, but after two hours it felt like the gremlins had added rocks: it got heavier and heavier. My metatarsalgia on my right foot started acting up, but a couple soaks in ice water relieved it. We stopped for lunch about 2,
and again at 5 when we got back to the river.
|Crossing a cut in the aufeis|
The last 1.5 hours hiking along the river and on the ice was faster and easier. Leaping surface streams and circumventing slush ponds was a bit like navigating around crevasses on a glacier; route-finding was not straight forward. The aufeis was beautiful and fun to walk on. The surface streams snake through, sometimes deep cuts, sometimes shallow, sometimes narrow enough to jump across. One cut had a beautiful blue ice lens. Sometimes the edges, especially near the bank, have beautiful needle ice. Sometimes it is hard and slick, but mostly firm snow underfoot, strewn with slush patches. We heard lots of groans and whumps of melting, slumping ice, plus the music of the flowing river and bird song. Sometimes the river channel pushed us on to the bank or bar.
|A baby robin|
The wildlife highlight of the day was we saw two juvenile birds, just sitting still, near our route. They never moved, though we approached within three feet.
Tuesday June 20. It stayed warm all night. It was clear and sunny from 4am on. We arose at 7:45 and were packed up by 9:45—a record early start. Mike and I are a good team hiking and in camp tasks. It’s good to be away from Tom and phoebe’s constant talk and arguing.
We walked on the aufeis for an hour, then ran out of ice so we trekked on shore, following caribou trails across the bars, over headlands, through the willow and over the tussock slopes. We lost the trail in a spruce thicket. I was getting tired, hungry, bug bitten and cranky. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful little stream. We soaked our tired feet, added more DEET and reconnoitered with the map. Most of the afternoon was traveling the upland slope, making steady progress toward our destination drainage. I was tired, just wanting to get there. We saw another group of four hikers reconnoitering, choosing a campsite and setting up their tent. We pressed on. A light rain shower motivated us to put on our rain jackets and cover the packs, but it was still so warm I was quickly too hot and took it off again at each lull.
|This is what tussocks look like.|
The valley opened up wide and gently sloping; no level ground. Down below it was all wet and tussocky. We dropped our packs and crossed over to the stream, and finally found a dry, level patch of tundra just at the edge of the willow above the raucous stream. By the time the tent was set up the rain began in earnest. We were warm and dry in the tent, but hungry. The bear barrels were outside in the rain. We had quite the thunder and lightning storm! And steady heavy rain. We finally ate a little bread and cheese at 10:30pm.
Wednesday June 21—Solstice! It dawned—that is, the sun rose above the mountains—at 4am. Beautiful! We slept 12 hours. Up ~8am and hiking ~10:20. It was great to have only day packs! We
stayed out all day, arriving back ~6:30. Felt great! We climbed up to the pass on the south side of the valley. The walking was mostly tussocks and wet—i.e. bad and tiring. We were mostly following caribou trails above the stream on that side. We watched birds and photographed wild flowers. We reached the pass about 12:30. We saw a lone caribou at the pass! He looked at us several times with a mix of curiosity and wariness, walking a stopping, eating a mouthful and looking up, then prancing gallantly and easily over the tussocks to cross the divide and settle on the far slope.
We decided to walk over to the Kongakut side and follow it up to the headwaters in a narrow valley surrounded by rugged peaks and snow gullies. A thunder and rain storm came through. It was chilly and I wished I’d brought my gloves. Fortunately, it only lasted an hour, so our side trip
Kongakut ended up being quite pleasant. We were following goat trails over
flaked shale, like a giant pile of crumbled croissants. All the slopes were the
angle of repose. We had intermittent clouds and sun the rest of the day.
|Headwaters of the Kongakut|
After our foray and lunch in the sun—beautiful—(yummy tuna on olive bread with mustard and seaweed garnish) we returned to the divide and followed it north, over a hill, to the northern pass at the head of our valley, then followed the bluff over that branch of the river back to our camp. We took a mini splash bath in the creek, including rinsing my hair, and it felt great to be almost clean.
Thursday June 22. Last night (solstice) was so sunny and hot, we were naked without sleeping bags until ~2am, with predictable enjoyments. We got up at 1 to check out the “midnight sun” which was behind the mountain, but shining brightly on the clouds and other mountain tops. We didn’t sleep well and stayed in bed past 9—with a few more enjoyments along the way. Left camp for our day hike about 11. We felt lethargic all morning, so
along less than ambitiously. Stopped for lunch ~2 at the crest of a large
alluvial fan. It was a gorgeous vantage point, inspiring us for exploration in
three directions. We left our packs. Our first choice was to head down to the
river bar. From there the view up to the confluence made us want to go there.
We had fresh energy, no packs, and the bar then trail were excellent and fast.
We saw a caribou. After the first rise I wanted to go to the second, which
overlooked the confluence. We got there in just 38 minutes. It started to rain
and thunder and we had no coats. We took our pictures and skipped back in 20
minutes. It stopped raining and the sun came out.
|Confluence near the headwaters of the Sheenjek|
In the course of the day, Mike found five moose antlers, plus a skull and teeth. Took the teeth, but
the antlers were too heavy to carry. We did bring back a beautiful caribou antler. Hiking, I stick to the caribou highway while he prefers the high route. Lots of bird song in the willow thicket on the near-shore slough and bar. Saw a few ptarmigan take off suddenly with their characteristic cuk-cuk-cuk. Heard a bird that sounds like a cousin to the redwing blackbird. Lots of robins too. And sparrow with black and white eyebrows.
We were very pleased with our capstone adventure and views and ready to head home. Got back ~7pm quite tired. Looking at the map, it looks like we hiked 15+ miles round trip! What a difference no packs make! Dinner and in bed by 9:15. The evening is cool and windy. We should sleep well.
Friday June 23. Up at 7:45. Packed up for 10:15 departure, heading down valley on the long slog
back to base camp. Our packs
were not any lighter: Mike had picked up many bones and antlers, and I
consolidated the rest of the food into my bear barrel. I nevertheless thought
we had plenty of time and enough energy for prospecting a new route back, down
along the river bar. We never got there: the willows were too thick and the
ground too swampy. In the afternoon we got some good bar walking and even a
little snow and aufeis next to the bluff. That was part of my salvation. It was
windy and gloriously sunny all day. A little chilly at lunch on a hilltop, but
hot down in the willows. And of course the mountains and clouds are perpetually
spectacular. So all in all, it was a good day.
|Mike packing out bones and antlers|
We spent very little time on caribou trails, so route finding and walking were more difficult. Some spots were brushy; sometimes we had to climb the embankment with our heavy packs. Down on the bar sometimes we had to cross small streams; twice we created our own stepping stones by placing large rocks in the channel. That was fun.
Since I only planned five days of food and we are going into our sixth day, we are starting to eat our emergency rations. It’s a little skimpy and irregular. One more adversity: Mike didn’t sleep well and
was a little irritable off and on all day. To which I reacted with a mix of pig-headedness and dismay: we hadn’t had these tiffs for several months and I thought all that was past.
By 4pm I was pooped and dispirited, and we saw that we still had two difficult miles to go. I was almost ready to weep in despair. Two energy bars, a hunk of chocolate and a nap in the sun raised my blood sugar and raised my spirits enough to go on. Shortly after that we found we could get on the ice and go fast for a long way, about ¾ mile, and our destination was visibly much closer. I felt great walking on the level instead of on tussocks or lumpy, soft, irregular ground, which is hell on my feet and Mike’s ankle. We also got in a little easy walking on over-flow channels on a “beach” bar with low, sparse willow. The only remaining set back was that when we arrived at the shoreline where our campsite is located, we didn’t find it, and walked an extra half mile past and half mile back before we found it ~7pm.
Saturday June 24. Hiked from 9:45 to 4pm and not much to show for it: covered only ~5 miles. I was a whupped puppy, dragging ass, walking slowly. The pack was too heavy. The only part I enjoyed
was walking on
the aufeis, but that didn’t last: we got stuck in the swamps at the edge of the
melting ice. The last time, we took off our boots and waded barefoot. The ice
on my feet, then the soft mud, then the mossy tundra felt wonderful on my sore,
tired feet. Then we ate a late lunch.
|Wading through the swamp|
Thinking it was a short cut, we took a long detour over a hill; it turned out it would have been shorter and easier to follow the shore. We had debates about exactly where we were and where base camp was and how much further we had to go.
When we got to base camp, Tom greeted us warmly. He estimated my pack weight at
38lbs—too much for me (though I carried a lot more
than that in my youth!). He estimated Mikes at 50 lbs (Mike and I estimate it
at 48)—about right for Mike. He still had spring in his step and interest in
everything he saw, and picked up more bones: a ground squirrel skull, breast
bone of a duck or grouse, a large caribou femur, and the crown of a caribou
skull. And he hiked much faster than I.
|Arriving at base camp|
Tom and Phoebe cooked us a late lunch and we read aloud. Tom is now out catching grayling for a late dinner.
Sunday June 25. Ah! Blessed layover day! It was cold overnight and in the am--much colder than our other camps. Not only because it was clear, but also there is more aufeis here and the mountain casts a shadow on the tent until after 8:30am. We had pancakes for breakfast, with rehydrated raspberries and real ample syrup. It of course took a long time to cook 12 individual small cakes—a very convivial morning in the cook tent.
|A lens of ice crystals in the aufeis|
The conversation is always interesting. A favorite topic is asking Tom about birds, flowers and insects. He identified the skull Mike found as a juvenile ground squirrel—juvenile not only by its small size, but because it didn’t yet have the full complement of adult molars. He identified every bird Mike and I asked him about without seeing a picture, just from our sketchy description. He can even imitate their calls. Phoebe was talking about Kay and Joe and how well matched they were and yet they split up, and talked about the Hendricks’ theory of IMAGO in relationships. I asked, “where does that word come from? What does it mean?” Mike said he was a character in Shakespeare—Merchant of Venice maybe? Tom said imago is a life stage for the May fly and similar insects with a 24-hour life span. Oops that is Iago he thinks.
This afternoon is sunny and breezy. Phoebe and I took the laundry up the hill to the mountain
stream coming out of the mountain cirque behind
camp. It is perfect perfect perfect, with hot sunny rocks and sparse willow to
hang the clothes to dry. There is also a perfect pool for bathing, though it is
VERY cold and I couldn’t immerse myself: had to do it in parts. The worst was
washing my hair because the cold water on my scalp makes my head shrink, and I
was dizzy when I stood up and almost fell off my rock. Plenty of mosquitoes
here, but they stay away when you’re ice cold. And of course
I have my DEET at the ready for when I warm up. So now I am clean, and with clean clothes too!
|Laundry hung out to dry|
I have my DEET at the ready for when I warm up. So now I am clean, and with clean clothes too!
We are eating well. For lunch Phoebe and I ate real onion bagels with real cream cheese and the best Trapper Creek smoked salmon. But only because I couldn’t find the PB&J I’d been planning to eat. After a late lunch, Phoebe retreated to read
and I walked out toward the river, then
circled counter-clockwise back up the little stream we had washed in. Mike and Tom had gone off with no food because
they didn’t know where to find anything. They had a great time exploring and
looking at birds and bones and such. Tom caught more grayling. He let the
biggest one go because he thought it would be more than we four could eat, and
it was the biggest he’d caught or seen in many years, and it put up such an
admirable fight, the granddaddy deserved to live. We fried and ate the smaller
one for dinner, plus we had salmon falafel on pita with cabbage and sour cream
(Pack-It-Gourmet), and short bread cookies for dessert. But I couldn’t find the
tea. Tomorrow will be a food organizing day.
|Catch of the day|
Monday June 26. Mike and I woke up late and shared our dreams. Mine were centered in planning, organizing, problem-solving, and frustration. His were erotic, giving rise to a problem I was uniquely qualified to solve.
It was a smoke-hazy and broken cloud morning. The four
It was a smoke-hazy and broken cloud morning. The four
|Sharman climbing up the talus gully|
of us rendezvoused in the cook ten for a hearty breakfast of bacon and bagels, and scrambled eggs with onions and smoked salmon. After great frustration that I could not find the PB&J, I threw some crackers and cheese in a plastic bag and Mike and I headed out.
Rather, we headed up: straight up the side of the mountain. It was mostly talus, with one pitch up a small ravine with a smear of water. He climbs faster than I and disappeared from sight. I plodded along steadily at my own pace, keeping my eyes on the loose jumble of rocks in front of me and my mind musing about this and that. We got separated and it was a while before we found each other, cleared up the misunderstanding, and ate lunch at the false summit. The summit from there was easy. We returned a different way, down a side ridge and a gully that led to the beautiful stream up the slope from our camp.
The Stream. The crystalline water luged around elephant boulders, laughed and leapt off the slides, danced in the
sun, and poured into
seductively deep pools. The boulders were mis-matched—nothing like the crumbly
shards of limestone and shale that flowed off the mountains in great skirts.
They were conglomerations of color: most were Appaloosa grey, but there were
also green, and yellow, and orange, and black with white veins, and the best
one of all—and one of a kind—was kidney red. it was a marble collection left by
the glacier children.
|Our favorite boulder|
We spent a long time wandering downstream looking for a pocket-sized sample of the red one, but never found one.
Tuesday June 27. Today Tom and I did a walk-about. His naturalist interpretations are in the audio log. Mike climbed the next two peaks to the
south. Phoebe hung in her tent mostly, and walked up to
the stream to bathe. Tomorrow is the big day we are all dreading: packing up
and loading the boats, lining them down the slough to the river, and our
inaugural paddle in the current.
|The naturalist at work|
Wednesday June 28. Got up at 7. It took us until 3:00 to pack up a load the boats. Tom and Phoebe had way too much stuff and weight, so we took 70 pounds of their stuff. Mike didn’t like it, but at least we didn’t take the bloody electric bear fence; Tom took it. We had to line the boats down the slough to the main river. It was running fast and required our full attention. Paddling went pretty smoothly, though we did scrape a couple bars. About 5:30 we scraped out a little campsite on a small slew between a willow bar and the shore, just south of a pack of aufeis. The wind was blowing hard all afternoon and it rained a bit as we were eating dinner, but after that the wind shifted and died and the sun came back out for a lovely evening. Phoebe grew
tired of Tom talking so much, I was tired of
Phoebe talking so much, and Mike was tired of me talking so much, so we all
|Loading the boats|
Directly west of us is a “twisted and tortured” mountain—Choate’s words. I should describe it, but its 11pm and I want to go to sleep.
Thursday June 29. Tom and Mike spent a long time last evening comparing their GPS readings and looking at the map. We saw that Last Lake was just east of the river and about one mile south of us. And there looks to be some interesting hiking up the mountains there. (Had we planned ahead, we would have paddled there yesterday.) So we resolved to get up in the morning, pack up without breakfast—we had not set up the bug tent—and find a camp site near last Lake where we could layover a day to hike.
|Our cook tent at the camp near Last Lake|
The first place we stopped was not a good camping or hiking option, but it was a beautiful gravel beach for eating a cold breakfast: leftover rice and curry, crackers and cheese, and biscuits. We continued on, hoping the river would bend back to the east to get us closer to our target.
We finally found a beautiful gravel bar with willow to camp on, with a beautiful 360° view of mountains and sky, but there is still a half mile of muskeg, willow and tussocks between the river and solid ground. It is very buggy here, but tolerable on the beach when the wind is blowing. Mike and Tom took off to explore the fishing and hiking options for tomorrow. I scouted the beach to find the perfect spot for the cook tent. Then Phoebe and I got out the bug tent to cover us as we lay on the beach waiting for the boys to return, unsure whether they would decide to stay or go. When the sun was on us it was way too hot, like the low 80s, so I took off my shirt: the
cool rocks felt good on my back. As they returned, Choate said, “Looks like
a hen party.” “Are we staying or going?” we asked. “If you like walking in
muskeg,” was the less than definitive answer. So we concluded we were staying
and started hauling stuff and setting up camp.
We were pretty hungry by 3:30. Tom was in his tent, immobilized with hip pains. Mike was feeling poorly too, with a headache and earache. Phoebe cooked mac and cheese, miso, and a carrot salad for all of us, which we ate in stages, interspersed with other chores, like purifying water and securing the boats for the night. We read a chapter about the Murie’s visit to Last Lake in 1956. Everyone retreated by 7:30.
It is a beautiful evening, but too mosquito infested to sit outside and enjoy it. I feel like a prisoner in my hot tent. The floor is littered with mosquito carcasses.
Friday June 30. Today was marked by three cooking disasters. The couscous for breakfast was not instant, and was taking too long to cook, so we gave up and ate leftovers and granola. There was also a back and forth about how much water to use. Phoebe was insisting on the eyeball method, even though it was Mike cooking it, and I told her Mike is
cooking, he gets
to do it his way: measuring. Phoebe started to cry that she is always wrong.
Tom insisted in his emphatic voice that its not wrong, just a different way,
but she felt yelled at a bullied and defensive. Mike joked that, well, she has
only 10 more days of torture. She started to laugh, and the tension was gone.
We had to bring the boat around to get our hiking stuff, then I got delayed helping Phoebe sort food, so we didn’t actually get out of camp to hike until 11:30. Tom left before us, but we caught up with him at the little hill half way across the flats heading to the base of the mountains. We hiked with him a while and poked around taking pictures. He said his hip was hurting and we should go on our way without him. He was heading over to the rocks.
|The view from the ridge|
We climbed up to the low pass, then up the ridge to two small summits. We ate lunch on the first, rounder, more easterly one. Mike hasn’t been feeling well and wanted to take a nap. We were wearing head nets and rain jackets for bug defense. Mike slept an hour and a half; I mused and took pictures and wrote prose and poetry in my head.
The view from the ridge: A silver-edged cloud cast a blotch of shadow on my mountain, but the valley below was in full sun. A classic glacial valley, it is wide and flat-bottomed, with steep mountains on the sides. The grey Sheenjek River twists through it, entangling grey gravel bars and icy remnants of last winter’s overflow. The cut banks are velvety green. The valley floor looks plush from here, but I know from personal experience it is a marshy morass. The alluvial fans spreading out from the cuts in the mountains are a little higher and drier, and some are old enough to support spikey spruce. From
here it looks like stubble in need of a shave.
|Limestone dust residue from the snow melt|
The most distinctive feature of these mountains is that they all have broad skirts of talus, limestone shards in rhino grey, uniformly at the angle of repose. The older, more stable slopes have a thin veneer of green tundra. While some of the ridges and summits are rounded, the tallest ones are spiked with jagged outcrops, like fossilized reptiles with horny heads and dragon tails. The cliffs and columns reveal tortured strata pock marked with caves, like bullet holes left by a firing squad.
Mike got up about 4 and we walked over to the western, pinnacle summit with the valley view. Then straight down a 70-degree slope of tundra. We had seen a lake over by the small hill, so that is where we headed. It was a kettle with no inlet, no marsh, no
mud, just a very organic bottom.
Claimed by one duck. We took off our boots and went swimming with our clothes
on—double duty rinse of our bodies and our filthy, dusty clothes. Mike came out
with tiny leeches on his feet.
|Damsel flies mating at the kettle|
We got back to camp about 7pm and Phoebe was glad to see us. Tom wasn’t back. I tried to finish cooking the couscous for a salad, but ended up burning it, then without the proper pot gripper I spilled it on the ground. Nothing was salvageable: it all smelled burned. I scraped it up and threw it in the river. We started sautéing onions and carrots, then added the lentil soup that had been in the solar cooker all day. It needed more cooking. 10 minutes. 20 minutes., 30 minutes. An hour! It never got done. After an hour and a half, we turned it off and ate it very al dente. It had too much red pepper flakes too.
|Beautiful ice crystals|
It was 9:30pm and Tom was not back. We did all the cleanup and waited till 10:30 to check the Delorme for messages. Nothing. We debated when to do something more. I finally said “Let’s just walk out to the spruce tree where we can get a better view and see if we can see him.” Sure enough, at 11:30 he was coming through the willow. I chastened him for not communicating, but he brushed it off. He had climbed the rocky ridge facing the valley. He fell once and bruised his rib or pectoral. His hip gave out and he was laid up for two hours waiting for the paid meds to kick in. Then he resumed climbing. From that summit he proceeded along the ridge over a second small summit to the highest peak. From there he descended the tundra slope. The muskeg and stream crossings down on the flats gave him more trouble than the mountain.
|An exotic flower|
I was a little mad at him and went to bed, leaving him to fend for himself in the cook tent.
We were waiting for Tom to make a joint decision about the plan for tomorrow. Since he didn’t know how he’d feel until the morning. I decided for myself I’m not leaving tomorrow. I want to know before 10pm if we plan to pack up and paddle. Phoebe wants to stay here another day. Mike would never express an opinion.
Saturday July 1. The trip is half over. After breakfast Phoebe and I walked through the willow, over the muskeg,
stream, and up the little hill by the lake. We crossed the outlet stream from
Last Lake and headed up the alluvial fan. She stopped at the base of the hill
for a nap, while I climbed to the top for a look see. Mike meanwhile climbed
the high mountain that Tom had climbed. Mike saw a wolverine and a wolf. Tom did a walkabout and went grayling
fishing for dinner, which Mike grilled over the fire.
Sunday July 2. Today was a paddle day. Up at 7, but didn’t get camp packed up and out on the river till 11:30. Phoebe was the first to be ready; Tom was the last, by an hour, even with help. A thunder and lightning storm harassed us shortly after we departed, with squally winds and 20 minutes of heavy rain; then intermittent, light rain for another hour. We kept paddling with only a
snack and pee stop until the sun came out
about 4pm, then ate a nice lunch and admired the view. Another two hours of
paddling took us to River Camp #2, a nice beach. We had a nice, quick dinner of
ramen with onion, squid and wakame—a real hit with all.
When we first set out we saw a fledgling sparrow that wasn’t strong enough to fly across the river, ended up in the water desperately trying to fly/swim. Down river we saw it again, floating upside down. The natural world is a hard place.
The paddling was great: wonderful views of the changing light, the dramatic clouds, the changing landscape, and especially the hard rain water droplets splashing up tiny crystal balls that sparkled in the light. Phoebe and Tom were slow and tired; Mike and I led and declined to stop early. Made camp ~7:30.
Mike is the boatman extraordinaire, whom we all depend on and look up to. He is the lead
navigator: he stands up in the boat to survey the
waters ahead and choose the channel and line. He has excellent eyesight and
deep experience canoeing and kayaking (as well as sailing), so he reads the
water well. He is so commandingly handsome standing there with his perfect
grace and balance, in the stern of a moving canoe, with the paddle as a rudder,
like a gondolier. He narrates what we will do: “Left channel, right side, down
the vee, cut the bar, sharp left at the bank before the sweeper.” I follow his
direction and Tom follows his lead. Tom also relies on him to check the balance
in the boats, both fore and aft and right and left. (This is critical for boat
handling and performance in whitewater.) He fixes all the gear—like the seats—and
instructs us on proper handing and care of the boats.
|The boatman extraordinaire|
Monday July 3. Paddled about 13 miles, with 3 breaks. Got a late start ~11:15 because Tom was slow packing his boat, then had to unpack to make a repair, then repack. The three of us just sat on the beach to wait. There was nothing anybody could do to help him. It all has to be done his way. And he was getting tired lifting and placing the bags three times over.
Mostly cloudy with shifting winds and beautiful cloud-scapes in every direction. All the rain showers managed to miss us until just after our last (sun) break, then we got wet, then we went straight into a series of rapids. We never found the stream we were looking for in the vicinity of Table Mountain, so pulled over for reconnaissance. I took a long walk looking for a clear stream and a campable beach, but never saw anything on the east side of the river. When I got back, Tom had cased the beach and found a few tent sites in the willows, so we stayed put. It was after 7. A thundershower hit just as I was setting up the tent—Mike had gone to fetch his rain jacket—and everything got wet. I was hungry and tired and despondent. We set up the cook tent, then I went back to see what I could do to make our tent dry inside. It had a lake in it the size of Lake Erie! I pulled out the Tyvek footprint so everything would drain, and put it back; the Tyvek and the bottom of the tent were
smeared with wet sand. I dried the floor with a boat sponge, then with my dirty socks and underwear. I didn’t want Mike to see the deplorable consequences of my stupid, stupid action. (I should have waited till the rain was over to put up the tent.) I went to the cook tent and felt like crying.
When I returned to the tent it still looked like a soggy mess because you could see the black, fine sand through the floor, but I discovered when I touched it that it was actually not so bad: it was dry inside. So I brought our gear in and set up the sleeping pads and bags. I felt better after a good dinner and a dry bed. But I was still too “shut down” to take care of the dishes or move the food away from the cook tent—standard protocol in bear country.
|Breakup ice scour|
Tuesday July 4. Layover. Slept late. Reorganized food while Mike and Phoebe cooked eggs and hash browns. Helped Mike move the boat, then proceeded with my priorities: laundry and a bath. Mike departed for the long hike to Table Mountain about 2:00, planning to return ~10pm. If we haven’t heard from him by midnight, check the DeLorme for messages. Tom went off heading for a closer hill, but with no clear communication. I wanted to go with them, but these housekeeping chores were my first priority. I hope one of them will hike with me tomorrow.
Wednesday July 5. I got up at 7:15 to hike the craggy mountain northeast of us. Mike was tired and a grouch from his long day yesterday, but got up anyway. Tom wanted to go too, but we were done
with breakfast and packed up and
ready to go before he even started breakfast.
|The craggy mountain we climbed|
It was already hot at 9am when we headed out across the outwash plain—some tussocks, but not too bad. We went into a spruce forest and up a low ridge, then traversed to a steep slope to the top. It was an easy climb, with varied and interesting terrain and views. We reached the summit just before noon. After pictures and such, we saw some thunderheads moving in, so we were anxious to get down off the mountain before risk of lightning and rain. It passed us by. We stopped half way down for lunch and to admire views of the lake. We went down to check out the amazing color in the
lake and found
algae-covered muck. The muck was the deepest and softest we’d ever seen! Gentle
pressure on the trekking pole sunk it over a foot with no resistance.
|The strange lake|
We went to the other end of the lake to find a firmer shoreline and go swimming. The sun came out.
After we left the lake, we parted ways: he went back to camp to do his laundry, while I climbed another small peak—the same one Tom climbed yesterday. I got back about 5:30—in time for a nap in the tent before prepping dinner. Saw a moose momma and calf in the river upstream from camp.
|Some easy rapids|
We saw a pair of Hardin hawks defending their nest, and American widgeon momma trying to distract us from her six ducklings near the shore, and lots of loons. Too tired to write more.
Friday July 7. New record: departure at 10:50am! More wind, more sun, more rapids. All in all, a good paddle day: more than 25
miles. We tried to camp at the Eskimo Creek outlet, but found neither any creek—only a dry bed—
Saturday July 8. Layover day. Lots of smoke in the air from a forest fire somewhere. My mylar
rescue blanket makes an excellent
sunscreen on the tent, keeping it a bit cooler inside for longer in the
morning. Slept till 10. Still a little out of it until three cups of water,
juice and tea rehydrated me, and three pancakes boosted my energy. Bathed in
the creek with my clothes on, both to defend myself from the caribou flies and
to see if the clothes got any cleaner. Not noticeably.
|Our smokey camp|
It’s way too hot today—in the 90s at least. I am hiding out in the shade of my tent. It was a low key, too hot and tired day for everyone. Tom made one small effort to find a grayling—nothing around our island. We had a good curry dinner with cheesecake for dessert. Wind was very blustery and changed direction. At least the evening was a little cooler.
Sunday July 9. Paddle day. Record start: 10:45 am. We had lots of drama today. Incredible amounts
of trees and brush and log jams and
sweepers in the river! The trees lining the shore are scraped and splintered.
The banks are caving and collapsing. It was cooler today—good paddling. The
smoke lifted—good breathing. Tom and Phoebe had a misadventure with a sharp
turn ending in a bunch of trees leaning over the rivers. But no loss of life,
limb or property, although Janet's Pakkie suffered a 4" curve in the stem fitting, so all is well that ends well. They were resourceful in that
Phoebe cushioned the impact with her foot on a branch, then was able to lift
the branches over the boat to extricate themselves. But the adrenaline rush
exhausted them and we took a break.
|Trees in the river|
The river continued with harrowing sweepers, confusing choices of channels and shallow riffles over gravel bars. The last session was a little more tame. We saw three beavers, two Bohemian
four ravens chasing one crow, eagles, hawks, a kingfisher, loons, Harlequin
ducks and chicks, and baby gull chick with a very upset mother, and Mike saw a
Little Red Riding Hood-sized black wolf. We chose a camp on a river bar near a grayling stream about 7pm. Made 24
|Hawk in flight|
Monday July 10. Layover. A day for walking, writing, drawing, fishing, cooking and taking it easy.
Tuesday July 11. Paddle day. Every day a new record for our start time: 10:15 am today. Good paddle day—enough challenges to keep it interesting and riveting, not so much to be stressful. We brushed one sweeper branch—my mistake—and Tom and Phoebe got stuck on a bar a couple times.
We stopped at the Koness River
for a late lunch, then spent two hours going down to the airstrip six miles
south, stopping at every bar to check it out for our pickup airstrip, since we
weren’t sure exactly how to find it and certainly didn’t want to pass it by and
have to line our boats or carry gear back up.
We saw two white wolves today on the river bank as we paddled by! And lots of beavers and ravens and loons and juvenile merganzers, and after dinner we heard a great horned owl.
Wednesday July 12. Layover. Cool weather; a little sprinkle of rain, but it cleared up. Slept in, leisurely
Janet’s boat. Washed clothes in a lake down the bar, plus a pits, groin and
hair wash. On the way back to camp it started to rain again, hard this time. I
hung the clothes in the tent. It cleared up for a very pleasant evening around
the bonfire for our famous Sheenjek Poetry Slam! Tom took first place, but
won’t be around when we are in Anchorage to collect his prize. We all enjoyed
it immensely. Phoebe and Tom and I drank up the Drambuie while Mike drank
whiskey, and we toasted each other and the great trip. I offered a toast to the
boatman extraordinaire, who led us through each and every rapid and kept the
boats in good repair. Mike very
graciously toasted “the women.”
Thursday July 13. Mike and I bid farewell to Tom and Phoebe and paddled away. Started ~11:10; made camp ~ 7:30pm, just at the border between Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge. There are people here! A whole construction camp and crew! [Wrong—it turned out to be a fire crew.] They were using their chain saws until 9pm, then they all congregated at what appears to be a mess tent (they are ¾ mile down river from us.) then started yahooing it up around the bonfire.
We saw lots of beaver today, including a really big, fat one that must have weighed 80 pounds. Also gull chicks in the river with mom and dad screaming overhead, and a small family of ducklings with mom.
The river is slowing down: long stretches that are almost a lake, with shallow gravel bars at the end. We grounded several times. Some navigational challenges picking the right channel and finding the
deepest route over the bar. Still plenty of sweepers and wood pile-ups at the junctions, but it nevertheless looks different that up river. We paddled 32 miles today; we were hoping for 40. We’ll see how tomorrow goes.
|Fire crew heading out in smoke|
Almost forgot to mention the SMOKE! The river took us within a mile of one of the several forest fires in the area, and at times the smoke was quite thick. I put my wet bandana over my mouth and nose like a bandit. At our lunch break we could actually hear the whoosh of the fire.
Friday July 14. On the river at 9; off at 7pm. Only 33 miles paddled. Disheartening. We have another 127 miles to go! We took 6 breaks, including a bath-break in mid-afternoon, in a warm pond we found behind a bar. Kirk flew over us about 10, and back again presumably with Tom and Phoebe about 10:45.
|Fireweed from last year's fires|
We saw 20+ firefighters marching off to work. There was a huge encampment of them! Mike saw a great horned owl today. I never saw it, but I heard it. Also saw a black duck we didn’t recognize: big, orange eyes and feet, white wing patches. Fat. Saw plenty of eagles, ravens, loons, beavers, more ducklings and moms, seagull chicks and seagulls.
Lots of amazing woodpiles and snags and sweepers. The wood piles look like a giant version of woven twigs in a bird’s nest. Also saw a red salmon!
Saturday July 15. Up at 7, on the river by 9, and made camp ~7:15. 37.5 miles today. The river current slowed down a lot after lunch, so I switched to the kayak paddle—much more efficient on flat water. Though the winds were light most of the day, including an hour of tail wind this morning, late in the day we heard thunder and a big squally head wind hit us. No smoke today, except
for the lingering odor on the tent,
but we heard helicopters. Also saw a military fighter jet fly over.
|A typical pile up|
We like whitewater paddling. Mike likes the challenge, the focus of reading the water and responding with decisiveness and requisite strength and skill. I like the teamwork: the communication and coordinated action. I like the physicality of paddling, and the focus of constantly adapting. We get bored with flat-water paddling.
Today we saw a black bear, a cow moose with two calves, another salmon, a king fisher, a grey jay, and the usual beavers, eagles, hawks--two beauties circled above us a few times-- ravens, gulls, least sandpipers and swallows. We continue to be amazed at all the wood! I’ve never seen anything like it! Whole
woodlots a half mile long, piled with a giant’s
log-sized kindling; log jams a thick as birds’ nests; not just sweepers, but
all manner of trees and sticks rooted to the bottom and leaning down current at
an acute angle—whole forests of them.
Sunday July 16. Fifty oxbows and no rapids: need I say more? We went 30 miles today. On the river at 9:10, off at 7:10. Smoke moved in overnight. Light rain in the morning, just as we were packing up. Good paddling day: not hot, light winds, gradually clearing. The morning was just drudgery, but our attitude improved in the late afternoon as the scenery, weather, current and animal sightings improved. Our campsite—the last on the Sheenjek—has a pleasant vista.
We saw a young black bear today: very skinny. He stared at us for a long time trying to figure us
out long after we passed by. We saw a
tiny frog at our camp beach. We saw a martin (or mink?), several eagles
including a gorgeous immature, some kind of “sea eagle” or something?, grey
gulls, the usual squawking gulls, seven ducklings with momma, and a
gorgeous eagles nest. Oh, and kingfishers. A big bird that might have been a
different kind of loon. A gorgeous view of a great horned owl about 6pm, and
three of them calling around camp. Afternoon, thick hordes of dragon flies.
|Alaska wood frog|
Monday July 17. 26 miles, 9:30am to 7:30pm. Bad headwind and no current all day. Grim. Hard work. Saw a young, skinny grizzly walking across the broad, hot beach to cool off in the river. He
was totally oblivious
of us. Took a drink then went in to his neck. Mike wanted him to acknowledge
us. He yelled at him and slapped the water with his paddle. The bear looked at
us, but showed not the slightest concern. Enough mild curiosity to watch us as
we paddled away, but not the least inclined to interrupt his cool bath. We
heard another crying animal. We also saw three river boats, more eagles and
ravens and ducks with ducklings, one loon, the quarter moon, king fishers,
terns, gulls, and at the confluence with the Porcupine River, the most gorgeous
white sand beach that went on and on. The water color changed from clear to
green to muddy brown. Plenty of wood on the bottom. Hot and sunny. I plunged into
the river at our afternoon break to cool off. Lots more sand bars on the
Porcupine than the Sheenjek.
|Young bear crossing the beach|
|Sandbar at the confluence of the Sheenjek and Porcupine|
We have no mosquitoes or flies on this beach, but lots of no-seeums. The most beautiful thing I saw was the golden evening light making everything iridescent, especially the vibrantly green grass and the gull-spectrum clouds. The shadows heighten the contours of the washboard sand. The sound-scape: ravens; sandhill cranes; and frogs overnight. The big sound pollution is the rushing wind in my ears and the camp stove. No river noise here. The occasional hum of a distant plane. When it is totally quiet on the water, it is eerie. Passing our “ghost” logs sunken in the water, rising from the mud, is eerie.
The spiky dark spruce contrasts with the fluffy willow; the cracked pattern in the dried mud mimics the complex lines of light and shadow in the log jams. The skin of mud is dried, cracked and curled into little dikes and dusted with blown sand. The transition from clear water over multi-colored stones. The refraction making everything over-large and over-close, to the bottle-green water making it all obscure, to the murky depths of mud.
Tuesday July 18. Paddle in to Fort Yukon. We hit the river at 8:55—a new record. The wind had abated somewhat, so the paddling went faster. We stopped to photograph a pair of sandhill cranes on
the sand bar near
what looked like it should be the mouth of Sucker Slough, but wasn’t. Sucker
Slough was hard to find, even though Kirk’s GPS coordinates were right on the
mark. The entrance was very hard to see. It was an amazing long, narrow channel
lined with mud, green grassy plants and horsetails, overhanging cottonwoods,
lots of water bugs and ducks. It was also too shallow, and we ended up pulling
the boat through the mud at the first take-out: the second was unreachable. (We
later learned that the ATV road now goes all the way to the river, so we could
have taken out there more easily. )
Mike disassembled and packed the boat and gear while I walked two miles to the airport to talk to Wright air and find a taxi to help us haul our gear. Simon Thomas showed up to help us: a nice,
Gwitch’in guy with a four-wheeler and trailer. His day job is running a
construction crew rehabbing houses. We took the gear to an old hangar to repack
and store. The last employee to leave the airport called a B&B for us. We
found her house with lots of help from the locals. She is of German descent,
came to Fort Yukon in the mid-sixties to teach school, ended up marrying a
Gwitchin and raising five kids. She now has 11 grandkids. She is a voluble,
interesting woman and chain smoker, with her own opinions on all things
Alaskan. Her son Sam was here with his new bride—both have advanced degrees and
teach at UAF. Sam has a lot of local knowledge about the Sheenjek, Gwitchin
language, the fish runs, how to do things—and all around competent guy in both
|Sucker Slough, Fort Yukon|
After a shower and a bite to eat we took a long walk down to the Yukon River and back through town.
Wednesday July 19. We were able to fly out space available on the late afternoon flight to Fairbanks. Returning to civilization is fun too, indulging in all our favorite things that we missed. The first pleasure was in Ft Yukon: when I walked into the tiny airport terminal, I went into a restroom with a real sink, soap and (cold) running water, to wash my hands. Aah! Then at Jenny’s I went straight to the bathroom and took a hot shower, complete with soap, shampoo, and a clean, dry bath towel. Oooh! Then at the AC store I bought a cold bottle of pink grapefruit juice. Ummm. In Fairbanks we rented a car, loaded all our gear, and drove, fast and effortlessly with few navigational issues—wow!—to the north side of town for craft beer and pizza. Smack! That’s the ticket! Yessss… Tomorrow we will look for scones.
We are now behind a truck stop where we came for pie; stayed for the free camping, space to sort and repack our stuff, and cheap breakfast. We are tired and going to bed early.