It was a gorgeous 69 degree morning the day of my departure in Plainfield. The grass was green, flowers were blooming and the skies were clear and blue. Eighteen hours after arriving at the airport, I finally arrived in Kotzebue, Alaska from Indianapolis with brief lay overs in Chicago and Anchorage. Summer was eight days away and yet it appeared that winter had not left Alaska. There was sea ice on the Chukchi Sea.
Kotzebue is located 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle along the shores of the Chukchi Sea near where the Kobuk and Noatak Rivers discharge into the Kotzebue Sound. More than 90 percent of its residents are of Inupiat Eskimo descent and still use a hunting and gathering lifestyle to help them survive. Kotzebue was known by the Inupiat as Qikiqtagruk, which means "almost an island" which is a reference to the 3 mile long sand spit at the end of the Baldwin Peninsula ranging in width from 1,100 to 3,600 feet where the community lies. The city started out as an Eskimo trading center and is now the headquarters for Northwest Arctic Native Association (NANA), a regional corporation that oversees everything from mining and drilling operations to hotel management.
On the morning of our departure, our group of 9 wake to fog obscuring our route through the mountain pass. Patiently, we wait and roam the streets of Kotzebue. I spy herring, char, sheefish and seal skins left to dry on racks. Standing beside the Chukchi Sea tossing rocks at the candle ice, an Inupiat approaches and asks if I want to see something cool. I am taken to his boat. Two ugruk, bearded seals, shot on the sea ice are about to be unloaded from his boat.
After a 36 hour fog delay; Cynthia, the lead guide, and I are the first to leave. Immediately after take off we see how extensive the Sound is filled with ice emanating from the Noatak and Kobuk Rivers. Our trip begins with a flight over the Noatak River and into the Brooks Mountain Range. We fly northward beneath the low hanging clouds. Shrouded mountain tops rise high above our wings as we near Red Dog Pass, a two hundred foot wide gap at the apex of our flight. Despite the romance of float planes, Alaska is best accessed by wheel plane with tundra tires. Thus, our Cessna 206 smoothly lands on a gravel island beside the Kokolik River on rocks ranging in size from marbles to grapefruit. With haste, we off load our personal packs and group gear. We set up our tents off to the side in order to make room for the next incoming flight. It will take a total of three flights to get our party of 10 onto the river.
That evening, Rich, Nils and I go for a hike. We strip to our skivvies and ford two ice cold streams fresh with snow melt, push through thick, chest-high willows while chanting "Hey bear" and walk between the tussocks. For about a two week period towards the end of June through the first week of July, one can view the aggregation of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd with numbers reaching up to 400,000 give or take a few thousand. To view this amazing natural wonder would be nothing short of remarkable. Our hike is difficult but well rewarded with numerous sightings of small caribou herds.
Starting from the mountain headwaters, we paddled northward then westward towards the sea. Slowly the Kokolik River grows from a large creek to a meandering river flowing fast and cold. She cuts through many small sub-ranges of the Brooks Range and in between, gravel and sand bars fill the broad floodplain valley. Ideal campsites are plentiful and easy to find.
Daylight is a constant companion. There is no shade. Ever so slowly the air and land become hot and dry. It hits 90 degrees. Snow up high in the mountains melt, filling the river with ice cold water. Like the tidal waters that ebb and wane with the moon's gravitational forces, the Kokolik ebbs and wanes three feet in sync with the intensity of the sunlight.
Halfway into the trip we experience the summer solstice, the longest day of the year when the sun never sets for 24 hours. During the day, the light is bright and harsh but at night the light turns golden when the sun sits low on the horizon. Wildflowers like purple and tufted saxifrage become more vibrant in color. We take advantage of the never ending day and hike from 10pm to 2am when the lighting is a photographer's delight and the temperatures are cooler. Hiking along the Kokolik River is wonderful. There are seemingly endless stair step terraces running perpendicular to the river where the views are unstoppable. In between the terraces are valleys, a panorama of green rolling prairie, where tussocks grow. Attached to the ground by narrow pedestals, the tussocks are impossible to walk on. Throwing you off balance, they tilt to one side when you place your weight on them making it impossible to walk on and tiresome to step between. It is better to hike the stony wind swept ridges or a caribou trail. While not a land of dramatic peak ascents and white water, this is a place of wildlife, beauty and long vistas.
Archeology and paleontology in this area is profound because this area escaped the last Ice Age and was ice free while the rest of North America was buried beneath glaciers. Wooly mammoth and saber toothed tigers roamed here as well as early man. Terrestrial and marine fossils can be found in the cutbacks. The normally fast flowing clear water of the Kokolik is silt laden by the clumps of peat torn from the banks. Permafrost is exposed and embedded fossils wash down steam. One evening in the midst of preparing dinner; Greg, our second guide, found a mastodon tooth partially buried in the sand beneath the cook stove table.
"Oomingmak" which means "The Bearded One," the muskox is an ancient animal. Muskoxen once coexisted with the mastodons and mammoths. During our midnight hikes across the tundra we would pluck qiviut, their soft under wool, from the willow trees. On one hike, standing high on a ridge, we spied a rare sight of one hundred or more far off in the distant valley. Throughout our travels we would encountered small groups of two or three feeding along the brushy shoreline.
Ancient creatures can also be find in the water. Almost all of Alaska's freshwater rivers, streams and lakes contain arctic grayling. Grayling branched off from a common ancestor with the charr, trout and salmon some 60 million years ago. Their identification is easy due to their vibrant colors and incredibly large dorsal fin. The flesh is very white, firm and delicately tasty.
Alaskan weather is unpredictable. "Expect nothing and be prepared for nothing," we are told. I arrived in the arctic with clothing for winter and early spring. I am not prepared for temperatures soaring into the upper 80 and 90�s. It is oppressively hot. I take to sleeping with the rainfly partially down and nude. Days later, I realize I run the risk of receiving a sunburn while I sleep. But by expedition�s end, we lose the arctic high that is making it so warm. The weather turns. Paddling into the wind becomes difficult and tiring for all. We paddle past floating mats of peat torn from the steep banks and the substitute sweepers and deadheads they eventually become. Rich and Nils catch one of these deadheads and go for a swim. It is subtle but the fast flowing current piles the water high at the base of the gravel bars on the inside turns, making it appear deeper than what it really is. The water then spills sideways and slightly backwards towards the center of the river with large ripples betraying how shallow it has become. The approach to the outside bend is fraught with extremely strong swift currents. Entering the turn here will pin a canoe against the high bank or drive it beneath an undercut bank or into partially submerge brush. The turns need to be approached high on the inside and timed to ride the eddy line towards river center before cutting to the outside bend mid-turn. Mistakes continue to be made. Bea and Paul briefly pin their canoe against the willows. The combination of cold and fatigue take their toil and the mistakes become more frequent. Paul, Bea, Rich and Nils tangle and grind their tandems to a stop in the middle of a S turn. Jackie and I have no where to go. The current carries us backwards high into the outside bend. Upon hitting the eddy line mere inches from the willows, we paddle forward and use the current to nudge the bow downstream before paddling away from shore. Soon thereafter, Rich and Nils encounter another shoal and Rich goes for a second swim. The weather is quickly deteriorating and we need to get off the river. We stop at the first available campsite and call it home on a miserable muddy island. I set up my lightweight tent in the willows with the hopes that it will not be blown away or worst, shredded by gale force winds. That evening the rain and fog come. It is cold.
There are over 40 species of mosquitoes in Alaska. "Snow mosquitoes" are the big, sluggish mosquitoes that come in the first wave. There are six species. Some call them "training mosquitoes" because they get you ready for the next wave that are smaller and much more faster. It is oppressively hot upon our arrival and their numbers are few. Upon losing the arctic high, their numbers and size quickly increase in the cooler temperatures. They are fastidiously hungry and go for the tender areas, between the fingers, the palms, behind your ears and knees or scrotum if you dally too long with morning ablutions.
The expedition ends with one satellite telephone call. Cynthia contacts our bush pilots and gives them our coordinates for a pick up for the following afternoon. Throughout the day we watch large herds of caribou pass by, lie in the snow and occasionally cross the river upstream from us. By late afternoon the planes arrive and make several discouraging touch and goes. Their landing is a joyous surprise. But unbeknownst to us, the gravel bar is too soft and too short for a fully loaded take off. We are left behind. After reassembling the Aly canoes, we eventually meet up hours later.
The weather is deteriorating and it is late. We waste no time in unloading and disassembling the canoes. Quickly the planes are loaded and all depart but the two guides, Rich and I. We patiently wait in the cold blowing mist and watch the cloud base drop. We are close to being fogged in when the planes return at midnight. With crazed urgency, we load and board the planes before we become stranded and forced to spend another night or two in the Alaskan arctic. Unlike the first group out, we leave the river flying low below the fog unable to see the herd of 10,000 caribou a mile away.
The caribou is a mystical, magical, illusive animal of the North. It is the sustainer of life whose dung fertilizes the soil that keeps the plants and trees alive, whose blood feeds the mosquitoes that nourishes the birds and fish, whose flesh feeds the predators, scavengers and man. Hardship and starvation comes to those who miss the annual migration. Without malice or prejudice, this is the way of the North. Although I did not see the main herd and my quest could be deemed a failure, I am okay with that. I now share with past Inupiat similar disappointments and the exhilaration of sighting a large Oomingmak herd. In Kotzebue I spied a glimpse of Inupiat culture. Past and present come together and I am reminded that: