Western Arctic

dec 25 011

When I close my eyes, I can trace Alaska’s western Arctic in my mind.  I know the major drainages by heart- a result of spending far too much time day dreaming over maps.

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When I picture it, I always start at the Koyukuk- the first place I knew.  I see it reaching north, hands spread like arteries towards the divide and then diving south, south, south past those regal Endicott peaks and Phillip Smith Mountains, past my old haunts in Wiseman and Coldfoot, forks joining and then twisting all the way down to that bend around Koyukuk Mountain where the river meets the Yukon.

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Leaving the Koyukuk and traveling up the Alatna, you will find yourself nearing the Schwatka Mountains which feed the great Kobuk River.  The kind of healthy, clean river that has helped sustain entire villages for as long as anyone can remember.

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A hop north from there lies the Noatak which swings west and then south, sharing the same terminus as its sister, the Kobuk, in Kobuk Lake at the Chukchi Sea.

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Even further north is the mysterious Colville River which sweeps out from the DeLong Mountains west and then north to the Beaufort Sea.

I am beginning to understand where the road to Ambler would fall.   I hate to think of it, so sometimes I try not to.  I can barely look at its map to see how close the mine would come to Nakmaktuak Pass and places that I fell in love with during my time in the Brooks Range.  With funding cuts, the project isn’t moving forward as quickly but it is not over.

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It was not more than a generation ago that wilderness conservationists were talking about keeping all of the land north of the Yukon River untouched by development.  There has already been so much compromise.  After another generation, what will be left?

“In response to people who say you can’t go back. Well, what happens when you get to the cliff?  Do you take one step forward or do you make a 180 degree turn and take . . . one step forward? Which way are you going? Which is progress?” – Tompkins

“The solution might be to turn around and take a forward step.” -Chouinard

(http://www.npca.org/about-us/regional-offices/alaska/ambler.html)

On Foot Insoles

I remember playing barefoot one summer on my grandparent’s porch when I was a kid.  My Grampa, Alfred Gates, was sitting in his rocking chair reading a book.  He took one look at my bare feet, shook his head and said “Kristin.  You have Gates feet.”

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I didn’t know what that meant but my chest swelled with pride.  Gates feet!  I have Gates feet.  Feet like my Dad, feet like my cousins, feet like my Grampa!  Gates feet. 

 

Lots of “Gates Feet” on my Grandparent’s porch

 

I bragged about the finding to my Dad later that evening.

“Dad!  Grampa says I have Gates feet!” I confided excitedly.

“Hmmm.” My Dad looked thoughtful “I don’t know if Gates feet are a good thing.”

It turns out “Gates feet” aren’t the ideal pieces of equipment to work with.  Especially when you are a long distance hiker.  They are over-pronating, flat feet that are prone to a host of issues including tendonitis.

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Over 12,000 miles of long distance hiking, I have had plenty of time to figure out how to keep my feet and legs happy.  I quickly discovered that I preferred trail runners over hiking boots but found that they didn’t always offer all of the support that I need with my over-pronating flat feet.

I have experimented with taping and a number of different insoles to help with this.  You can buy insoles at most stores that sell running or backpacking equipment and they are used in place of the more flexible insoles that come with the shoe.  Many of my friends like to use Superfeet, but I found that they didn’t fit my foot quite right.

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I recently discovered FootBalance’s QuickFit which you can mold to the shape of your foot in about ten minutes with the help of an oven.  With this method I was able to get a fit that works great with my foot and it offers the little bit of extra support that I need.

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They are very simple to fit:

Step 1: Trim the insole to match the factory footbed.

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Step 2: Warm the insole in the oven for 5 minutes at 175 F

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Step 3: Put the insoles in your shoes, lace up and walk around for five minutes to allow the insoles to adjust to your feet.

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On long trails, I have definitely been guilty of using shoes well past their expiration date to save money- using the same pair for 700, 1,000, even 2,000 miles- until the soles are near paper thin and I can feel the whole world underneath them.  In order to extend the life of a pair of shoes, I have found that replacing the insoles can also be helpful if your feet do need that little bit of extra support. 

Video Episodes from the Yukon River Expedition

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Reading about the Brooks Range with Bishop (he’s the one chewing the tennis ball)

 

The last few months have been consumed with research and writing.  I have also been able to keep busy by giving a couple of talks, putting together an article for Adventure Kayak Magazine (coming out in their spring issue!) and helping with a photo campaign that will be released in February.

I have more adventures up my sleeve for 2015, which I will start writing about on the blog soon!  In the meantime, I finally got around to editing together footage from the Yukon River adventure.  I have been posting a new Episode every Thursday here.

A BIG THANK YOU!  To my friends, THE CURRYS for allowing me to use their fantastic music with my video footage.  Be sure to check out their youtube site here and listen to more of their music here!

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I have posted up to episode 9 so far and there are 15 altogether.  Click on the Episode number to be linked there!  Here is the list:

Episode 1- Preparing for the Yukon River Expedition (in fast motion)

Episode 2– Traveling to Skagway, Alaska via the Alaskan Marine Highway (living the good life on the inside passage)

Episode 3 Part I– Hiking the Chilkoot Trail to reach the headwaters of the Yukon River (bear sighting!)

Episode 3 Part II– Hiking the Chilkoot Trail to reach the headwaters of the Yukon River

Episode 4– Paddling from Lake Bennett to Carmacks

Episode 5– Carmacks to Selkirk (Covered in forest fire soot while searching for morels and trespassing around an abandoned village)

Episode 6– Reaching Dawson City! (and I have no idea what day it is)

Episode 7– Yukon-Charley Preserve

Episode 8– The Yukon Flats and Independence Day at Fort Yukon (where the heck is the rest of my dinner!?)

Episode 9– Leaving the Road System (and it is raining)

Episode 10- Tanana to Ruby (and it is still raining.  190 miles to Quiznos)

Episode 11- Galena and Nulato (The sun is out!  Kind of . . . )

Episode 12- Holy Cross

Episode 13- The Devil’s Thumb (and I’m nervous)

Episode 14- Paddling through the Yukon River Delta to Emmonak (nearing the sea!)

Episode 15- Reaching the Bering Sea (!!!)

Post Yukon

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It has been a couple of months since I made it to the Bering Sea after 2,000 miles of paddling from the headwaters of the Yukon River.

The end of these adventures is always a strange thing.

For months, for hundreds of miles, you have this wonderful purpose, this single goal to work towards.  It is just you and the river and your kayak.  You and the mountains and your boots and every adventure within reach.  Your job is to see the world.  To learn from the wild.

To make your own story.  To live.

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The end goal isn’t the point.  You don’t hike the Appalachian Trail just to summit Katahdin, you don’t hike the CDT to see that slab of concrete at Crazy Cook, and you don’t paddle the Yukon to see the Bering, just like you don’t live to die.  You live to live!  It is the journey that is everything.

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When I look back at the beginning of the Yukon River trip, I can’t quite believe how everything fell apart and fell together.

After losing an expedition partner days before the start, the trip seemed near impossible.  Too much for just one person.  Too much to figure out and afford.

It would have been easier to quit.  Easier to be comfortable and safe.  Easier to stop right there and not deal with the stress of having to find a boat and figure out how on earth to afford the adventure alone.  Easier to find work and stay inside.  Easier to not try so as not to fail.  It was tempting.

Going on a solo adventure just one year after the Brooks Range expedition was too much and I was afraid to kayak such a formidable river when I had never been on a kayaking trip before.  There were plenty of things to be afraid of- drowning, hypothermia, whirlpools, high waves,  wind- what would happen in 2,000+ miles of paddling? . . . but most of all, I was afraid to be alone again.

 

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There are so many reasons not to follow a dream.  It is too impractical, too difficult, too dangerous.  I almost gave in to comfort.

 

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Just as quitting was sounding most appealing, my Dad said this:

 

What did you do when a forest fire burned across your route on the Pacific Crest Trail? 

What did you do when the rivers were too deep and swift to cross in the Brooks Range? 

What did you do when three feet of snow buried the Arizona Trail?

You found another way around. 

Find another way around.

 

Find another way around.

When things get tough, work harder.  Don’t give up if it means something.

 

 

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In the end I knew that if I didn’t kayak the river now, I was in danger of never seeing its length.  Of never following this dream and having to live with that disappointment.  Having to always wonder “what if?”  Growing old with “what ifs” sounded more painful than anything.

Once I decided to go for it, once I surrendered to the idea of making the Yukon Expedition happen no matter what, things fell together as quickly as they had fallen apart.  In just a weeks time, Folbot saved me by helping out with the Kodiak, Tarptent helped with a shelter, Windsails with a sail, Vasque with shoes and Patagonia with rain gear.

I bought my plane tickets, printed the maps, figured out a re-supply strategy.  Everything fell into place.

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I’ll tell you the big secret.  The trick to these long distance expeditions is to forget the end entirely.  To keep it far from your mind, to lose yourself in the adventure.  You can’t look at the whole picture.  2,000 miles of paddling!  That’s impossible.  That’s overwhelming.  The sort of weight that would send you into a panic attack.  You can’t focus on the whole when you’re taking the first steps, just focus on the pieces . . . little step by little step, stroke by stroke.  Then, all of the sudden, you’ll see that all of these tiny pieces can add up to something great.  You can do something impossible.  You can.

 

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I headed out to the headwaters of the Yukon knee shaking kind of scared with a pile of fears squashing my hopes.

And what do you know but once things got going, the Yukon River turned out to be one of the greatest adventures of my life.

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Going solo turned out to be a good thing.  I met more people, made more friends and took more side trips than I would have had I been in a group.  I was able to follow my whims and spend a day picking mushrooms with a First Nations Family near Carmacks, I was able to see the length of the Dempster and visit the Arctic Village of Inuvik, I was able to take my time at 40 Mile and Selkirk, I was able to visit with families in Fort Yukon and Marshall and Holy Cross.  I was able to experience the Yukon in a meaningful way.

It was perfect.

Trade comfort for adventure.  Trade inertia for wildness.  Trade in the couch for LIFE.

 

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An enormous thank you to all of the good people who cheered me along and helped me out on the journey.  Every note, package and donation I was sent meant so much on such a mentally challenging trip.  Thank you!  I am one lucky kid.

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After these trips it is hard to sit still, hard to stop moving.  Once you’ve built up all that momentum, you are in danger of rocketing right around the world, never able to stop.  After finishing the Yukon, I wandered in a whirlwind from Alaska’s Deltas to Idaho to the heart of the grasslands.  Now it is time to hunker down and give writing a book about Brooks Range adventures my very best shot.  It is another undertaking that scares me!  But if I try my hardest, at least I’ll never have to ask myself “what if?”

 

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I will be in New England for the next couple of months, so if your group would like a presentation about the Brooks Range or Yukon River, send me an e-mail!  miles4breakfast@gmail.com.

To follow new adventures and hear about the next big trip, visit Miles for Breakfast on Instagram and Facebook 

And don’t forget to live.

NOW!

Now is everything.

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“Sometimes you have to go ahead and do the most important things, the things you believe in, and not wait until years later when you say, “I wish I had gone-done-kissed.” . . . What we most regret are not the errors we make, but the things we didn’t do.” –Audrey Sutherland

The Bering Sea

Low Tide: 10:36 am

High Tide: 2:45pm

I wrote the times on my hand.

 

I left the fish plant barracks just after 4 am.  I wanted to give myself more than enough time to get to the ocean before the tide came in.  11 miles there and 11 back.

The sky took me by surprise when I stepped outside.  Seeing a good starry sky after an Alaskan summer is a special thing.  Imagine it.  24 hours of day all summer and then, that first night it is dark enough to see the stars.  It is pure magic.

The village was quiet.  I tip toed down the wooden pathway onto the muddy road and followed it to the boat landing.

Even in the dark, I could tell right away that someone had gone through my gear.  I had left my kayak upside down as usual to guard against the elements but it was flipped over . . .  cockpit open to the sky and my belongings in a disarray.  I hadn’t left much in the boat.  I keep my valuables with me but I still had my life vest, bilge pump, seat and repair kit in the boat- and those are all pretty essential.  Superman was there too of course.  I always leave him with the kayak as a guard, hoping that any passersby who get a little too friendly with my gear might have a sense of humor and leave my stuff alone after seeing my sentry.

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Nothing was taken.  Phewff.  Everything was soaked through from an evening rainstorm.  I turned the boat upside down to drain out the water and then carried it down the beach to the edge of the Yukon.  It always makes me a little uneasy to leave my kayak at boat landings but I can’t carry it around town with me like a pocket book.  This was the only time any of my things had been touched the entire trip and I would not be surprised if it was just some curious kids.

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I was on the river before 5.  I looked back to see the silhouette of the village against the morning sky.  It was perfect.

To the Bering!

There was barely a breeze, so I stuck right in the current which carried me west.  A few seagulls circled overhead, curious.  One followed me for a couple of miles, squawking with disapproval.  I had some trouble navigating the mud bars – which change so often, no one bothers mapping them -but my Kodiak has such a shallow draft, that I was able to escape quickly.

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And so the current carried me past a bend in the river, past a handful of islands.  The sun rose in a clear sky and then it came into sight.  The Bering Sea.  Water forever.

I was planning on parking on a spit of land on the left bank but it was so muddy I ended up paddling to the island that divides Kwiguk Pass.  A good solid island.  Grassy, firm ground.  I paddled to where it met the sea and hauled my gear on a bank well above the water.

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I stayed for a few hours.  The edge of the world is quite a place.

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I decided to start heading back an hour before the tide turned (since there was no way I’d make it all the way back to town in the 4.5 hours between low and high tide).  I carried my Folbot back down to the water and readied my sail.  There was a eastward breeze now.  Enough to help me back up river to Emmonak a little bit at least.

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I started paddling up river.  About ten minutes later, the wind changed and what do ya know but a head wind was slapping me in the face.  Couldn’t help but laugh.

The going was slow against the current but I stuck like glue to the banks, taking advantage of the occasional slough, and was able to make progress.  Some locals heading out on a beluga hunt passed by and paused to say hello.  I had met two of them in town and they said they’d rescue me if I hadn’t made it back to Emmonak by the time they returned.

I crossed back to river right to be on the same side as Emmonak and hugged the inside of a bend.  Emo finally came into view hours later.  It was a relief to see town.  It was still miles away, but once the village was in view, I knew I could make it.  I inched closer and closer and before I knew it I was paddling past the camps on the far edge of town.  It was a hot summer day.  Kids were swimming all over the place and everyone I paddled by waved and said hello.  “Welcome to Emmonak!”

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It was good to be back!

My arms were dead tired by the time I made it to the boat landing.  But I made it!  I pulled my boat out of the water and brought it to an out of the way spot where I could pack up.  Before jumping into that process, I walked up to the village store and treated myself to a half liter of ice cold lemonade.  Yum.

Then it was time to pack and that was that.  I organized my gear and unassembled my Folbot.  Here is a picture of the skin and frame before I put it in my bag to fly out.

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Not bad for a first kayaking trip.  I like this river travel business.

Koyukuk?  Porcupine?  Tanana?  Nigu?  Alatna?  Kuskokwim?  I’m coming for ya!

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Emmonak

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“Go find Jack.”

That’s what everyone in Emmonak kept telling me.  I wasn’t sure exactly who Jack was or why I should go find him and ended up following this advice quite accidentally. I somehow ended up at the fish plant while I was exploring town and two workers brought me over to his office.

Emmonak is the last stop on the Yukon before you reach the Bering Sea.  It has an airport with weekly service to Anchorage and regular service to St. Mary’s and Bethel.  It is the end of the road.  Or the end of the River rather.

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“So you need a place to stay?” Jack asked  once I was in the office.  “We have an extra bed in the dormitories.  You’re welcome to join us for meals and do your laundry here too.  And there is a computer in the other room if you need a place to book your flight out.”

Wow.  Every single thing that I needed and hoped for was handed to me by the manager of the fish plant in Emmonak, Jack.

Just before I left his office my stomach dropped . . . what on earth would they charge for all of this?  Hotel rooms in rural Alaska (even the ones with just the bare essentials) can cost $200 a night . . . add in meals and laundry and a shower . . . oh no.  What did they expect me to pay?  Surely I couldn’t afford all of this.

“Ummm.  What will the room and everything cost?”  I asked Jack tentatively.

“Oh.  I don’t know, what do you think?”  he said, turning to a woman who was working at a desk.  She smiled “don’t worry about it, just be sure to mention us if you ever write a book!”  And with that, they sent me off to the manager’s dormitory to eat lunch.

Off I went, practically speechless by this unexpected hospitality.  Lunch was a feast.  Hot food, salad, fruit “there is ice cream in the fridge if you want any” several people informed me.  I cleaned my clothes and myself, booked a flight out and watched “The Big Bang Theory” with some new friends.

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But there was still work to be done.  About 10 miles (11 to be exact) still lay between me and the Bering Sea, between me and the end of the Yukon River.  The weather for the following day was supposed to be good.  I found out the tide timing.  My plan was to ride the tide out to sea and then back into town.  The river current was still quite persistent even in the Delta, so I knew that paddling back up River to Emmonak would be a struggle, but planned to stay close to the banks and hoped that after 2,000 miles of paddling, I’d be strong enough to make it 11 miles back upriver.

 

To Emmonak

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From Mountain Village it is only 80 miles to the sea.  The weather took an unexpected turn and not only did the sun come out, but it was forecasted to stay around for a couple of days!  Can you believe that?

I paused briefly in Mountain Village in the evening to fill up on water for the final stretch.  I was greeted by a kid named Clayton who was running around the town’s boat landing holding the first fish he’d ever caught. He set it down only to investigate my kayak.

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After a quick dinner and a trip for water, I hopped back into my Folbot and paddled away.  70 miles to Emmonak.  80 miles to the sea.  It never really sunk in.

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The following morning I awoke to blue skies above but a thick fog all around.  Luckily it was very still and I was able to stay in the current and make good progress.  The fog did not burn off until noon.  A barge past by but the river traffic did not start to pick up until late in the afternoon.  More than I’d ever seen further upstream.  I’d see a couple of boats every hour zipping this way and that.  Most of them would drive over to check me out without slowing down, leaving wild wakes to bounce me around and I’d have to maneuver carefully to prevent myself from tipping.

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I had not planned on reaching Emmonak that evening.  I ducked into a side slough to get out of afternoon wind and lazily paddled down enjoying the contrast of a smaller space to the river which is now miles wide.  I love looking at the shallow root systems in cut banks.  I took some pictures and just floated enjoying the sun.

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I heard a boat coming down the narrow slough from up river.  Three people were aboard.  A father, his daughter and an Englishman working at the Fish Plant in Emmonak.  They had been out exploring that afternoon just for fun.  They insisted I take their extra food and past me an egg sandwich along with a soda.  It was around then that I realized I was only a couple of hours from town and that I could make it there that night.  No good camp sites presented themselves, so I ended up paddling all the way to the village of Emmonak.  It was around 11 pm by the time I arrived.  I set up my tent a little ways above the boat landing and carried my Folbot up on the beach.

Emmonak.

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Just 10 more miles to the sea.  Unbelievable.