Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kongakut River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Wow, what a trip! These big weeklong+ trips are harder to write about than I thought they would be. So much stuff going on and too much to cover. Therefore I will write only a "brief" synopsis and let the pictures do the talking.

After I left Juneau I took the ferry from Haines, AK and then drove thru British Columbia and the Yukon back into Alaska. I met my rafting counterparts and the guides in Fairbanks. Aside from the guides, which I was (happily) mistaken for by other clients - a sure credit to my beard, I was the youngest by far as all others were retired.  Despite the age difference, we really gelled as a group. My favorite people on the trip were the other "bachelors" (wives opted out of Alaska). As a retired ecology professor, Earl from Michigan was a wealth of Arctic knowledge. And my "raft buddy" Jacek, was a hilarious Polish-American with a rich accent and some of the best stories I've ever heard.

We flew from Fairbanks to Arctic Village to meet our bush planes. Last post I mentioned that I set a record with the smallest plane I've ever been on... well that was promptly broken when I boarded a 4 seater. The planes (and pilots) were amazing. These things could land on gravel bars beside the river and only needed about 90 yds to take off and land fully loaded. Yes, 90 YARDS. The hour and a half flight from Arctic Village took us over the Brooks Range and the Bearing/Beaufort Divide.

Kongakut River from the air

Rafting the Kongakut River was far more "engaging" than I expected. We all paired off in inflatable canoe-raft hybrid craft that handled like fat pigs. The guides were only in the front boat (navigating) and rear boat (picking up flippers), so it was completely on us to take the channels indicated by the guides and to maneuver through Class II-III rapids and dodge the rocks. I relished the chance to really paddle the river myself. Happy to say that Jacek and I proved a good team and we didn't flip.

The pigs
Heading down river
Me and Jacek 
River overflow would freeze in sheets along the bank called aufeis ("off-ice"). Bet I could bottle this and sell it for $4. 
Looking ahead to the third day's paddle. We entered the "canyon" and the rapids increased to Class III.
We would paddle for a day and then set up a camp and hike the next day. This allowed us to take a nice leisurely pace since we weren't packing up each morning. The hikes were great, giving views of mountains, tundra, wildlife, and the river ahead. Hiking in the tundra was a novel experience, the ground was very lumpy due to the permafrost and very boggy in the spots between humps. Made for hard going from time to time. And the scale of the terrain is something that cannot really be conveyed. It was amazing. Everything was so open and grand, but lacking any real trees or objects to provide any reasonable reference point and making it difficult to gauge the distance or elevation of a hike.

My favorite hike was a scrambly adventure up what is likely a previously unclimbed rocky outcrop 2000ft above the river.

Our climb took us up the highpoint on the left side of the ridge. Second pinnacle counted from left to right.

Jacek had the wonderful foresight to smuggle along some beer and let me tell ya', a river-chilled Alaskan Amber at the end of a steep hike or hard day of paddling was the best.

And the wildlife was AMAZING. We were right in the heart of the migration of the 100,000 strong "Porcupine Herd" of caribou. Not a day went by that we didn't see any caribou. They were often in groups of 20 to 200 and all seemed to be in a hurry to keep heading north. Very fast creatures.

Caribou crossing the Kongakut

They always travel in single file, presumably to save energy when tromping through snow. And both male and female caribou have antlers. The females shed them once they give birth. Then mice eat the antlers and poop out the calcium, which is then absorbed by the grass, which is then eaten again by the momma caribou, which gives her calcium-rich milk for her calf. Basically they import the extra calcium they need from the rest of their feeding grounds. Isn't nature cool?

Toward the end of the trip (we were floating north toward the coastal plain and their calving grounds) I saw at least 1,000 caribou from a small rocky outcrop above the tundra. (Hard to see in the picture below, but they are in there).

This photo was taken at about 11pm. The sun never set the whole time we were up there (overlapped with the solstice). It was hard to get used to.
And we saw a ton of wildlife besides caribou, including Dahl sheep:

A Grizzly (the blonde dot, about as close as I care for).

Grizzly tracks by camp!
And a wolf. Just kidding. I wish. These tracks by the river were as close as we ever came.

We also had some aquatic creatures. Earl and Mario, our guide caught a couple Arctic Char that we ate for dinner one night. Excellent meal. I caught an Arctic Grayling later in the trip but it was small so I let it go. But I've finally outdone my father - that grayling will probably be the only species of fish that I've caught that Dad hasn't!

And not to leave out the Arctic flora, Mario and Earl knew their plants and passed along some of their knowledge. Too early for berries, but we snacked on some colt's foot, like a salad green. And we found lots of these guys - lapland rosebay, a member of the rhododendron family. A little WV in AK!

As I said, we were heading north. By the end of the trip we were within a dozen miles of the Arctic Ocean. We didn't paddle all the way down because the river braids out and gets heinous to navigate and paddle in the shallow channels. So we hiked up a peak and were able to lay eyes upon the Arctic and the pack ice! Great way to finish out the trip.

Heading down to Denali next. The bears will have their choice between a soft Matt-taco (me in a sleeping bag) or a hard Matt-taco (me in my fiberglass truck canopy).

Monday, June 9, 2014


Before and after my Glacier Bay trip I spent time in Juneau. I want to thank James and Crystal Dooley for putting me up for a few days and feeding me. We had a few beach campfires, I had my first taste of moose, I got my fill of the Alaskan Brewing Company, and I met a number of their friends in the community, including some fellow CGA grads that I didn't know were in town. 

Juneau has a rich history, most of which deals with mining. Crystal and I toured the old mine sites and learned that Juneau was the most productive hard ore mine in the world, mining $158 million in gold by the time everything shut down in 1944. We also did a walking history tour of Juneau. It was designed for locals so a lot of it was over my head, but the most interesting factoid that stuck in my brain was that Juneau's streets were once made of wood. Yes, the streets. Seems like a terrible idea. 

We took advantage of a great sunny day to hike to the top of Mt. Juneau. Killer view of town. Popular cruise ship destination as well, and the downtown area was again filled with t-shirt and junk stores for the tourists. 

One of the coolest thing I did in Juneau, besides a ride along with JPD's finest (Officer Dooley), was a hike to the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves. You've probably seen these things on "top 10 places you won't believe" or some other Internet list like that. The hype exists for a reason. The ice caves are AWESOME. I hit these up with Jason before he flew out.

Everything about the caves was surreal. They were amazingly blue and the dense ice was polished smooth, like Mother Nature's stained glass. Don't miss these if you are ever in the area. Get a local to show you the way, it wasn't the most straightforward. Thanks Dan!

Now it's off to the Juneau-Haines ferry where I'll link up with the continental highway system. After a drive thru Canada, I'll arrive in Fairbanks on June 11th to start my ANWR rafting trip! This drive will be the first test of my truckbed camper set up.

Glacier Bay National Park

This adventure in Glacier Bay began with a Facebook post. I needed a partner, as all the kayak rental companies refuse to rent to solo paddlers, I'm sure for risk and liability reasons, and I really didn't want to be on the water by myself anyway. So I solicit for a partner a couple months ago on Facebook and Jason Acuna comes thru. Jason is the kind of guy down for any adventure at any time and was great fun to have along. We are CGA 09 classmates and have had identical Coast Guard careers. We were roommates for 7 weeks during tactical training in Camp Lejeune, NC so I knew we could get along under high stress and in crappy places.

Jason flew up to Juneau from his current post in Hawaii. We left on the Juneau-Gustavus ferry early the following morning on May 28th. That afternoon we picked up our rental tandem kayak, packed our dry bags, and reviewed our route. 

On the 29th we boarded the MV Baranof Wind, the national park shuttle and tour boat, for a drop off at the base of Mt. Wright and the entrance to the East Arm of Glacier Bay.

After a good paddle with a following wind and tide we set up camp in Goose Cove under fair skies.

Our first meal was likely the best - chicken fajitas with home-dried beans and peppers. For the remainder of the week were were on a diet of instant oatmeal, dried fruit, dehydrated vegetables with couscous, and some leftover MREs. 

With a tasty meal in our belly and not another soul in sight, we were in good spirits to finally be out in the wilderness following the intensive planning and logistics that go into a weeklong kayaking expedition. The good weather helped too. Little did we know that it was all about to change, and that we'd be spending a lot more time in the tent...

After Goose Cove we paddled to the far end of the East Arm, roughly 30 miles in two days. We wanted to put in most of the effort in the front end of the trip while we were fresh and so we could have a leisurely paddle on the backside. Or so went the original plan. This shot of another party in the Muir Inlet sums up the majority of the weather for the next 5 days. Despite the adversity we kept high spirits. Luckily we had a few moments without rain or clouds to cook dinner on a couple nights and attempt to dry out gear. 

The Muir and Riggs Glaciers reside in the far reaches of the East Arm. They are large and have carved cool fjords, but they are both grounded out now and don't reach the water. We were impressed until we entered McBride Inlet and saw our first tidewater glacier. Here Jason celebrates momentarily in front of Riggs Glacier. He stopped celebrating when the 25mph winds kicked up two foot waves that we had to paddle into to get to our next camp. I was in the front of the kayak and got pretty soaked.

McBride Glacier and Inlet was the most interesting feature on the kayaking portion of our trip. It's receding fast and routinely calved icebergs. We watched as a block about the side of a house fell off. It threw up a decent swell in the inlet (that's why we didn't venture much closer than this photo) and sounds exactly like "white thunder" to use the native phraseology. It echoed off the fjord walls and we'd hear calving all night from the tent. So cool. We enjoyed McBride Inlet so much that we camped for two nights.

As a byproduct of all that calving, McBride Inlet was chock full of icebergs. It was surreal to paddle in and around them (watch out for rollers!). During low tide many would get stranded on the beach, making for interesting exploration of all the different shapes and hues of blue.

Thoughout Glacier Bay we saw humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, mountain goats, lots of seabirds, and a brown bear (safely from the shuttle boat). It was hard to photograph wildlife; many of the encounters were fleeting.

The seals were my favorite. They were very curious and often approached the kayak. This guy nibbled on the bowline and then played with the rudder.

The birds were my least favorite. The arctic terns and black oystercatchers were very territorial. If you stumbled across a nesting site along the beach you were mercilessly dive-bombed and attacked. And the ruckus they made was loud enough to wake the dead. 

After McBride Inlet we decided to "beast mode" just under 20 miles in one day. We wanted to find a great spot on an island next to the pickup point to set up a two night camp and relax away our last day in the wilderness. But another cloud settled in the fjord and we instead spent 24 hours straight in the tent. We slept, read, slept, played cards, and slept.

We were awoken at 0400 by screeching birds, following shortly by a 5.7 earthquake for 30 seconds. It was my first quake. Thankfully no tsunamis filled the bay or we would have been helpless and screwed. Post-quake we had the best weather of the trip, which I was very thankful for. Since we used the sightseeing boat for the shuttle, we actually got the full 6 hour tour of Glacier Bay's scenic West Arm after our pickup. So we gorged on the donuts and coffee, learned some cool stuff from the onboard naturalist, and soaked in the sun and the sights. The "normal" tourists on the boat were impressed with our manly feats of courage and fortitude, but probably less impressed with our smell. Mt. Fairweather, the tallest peak in British Columbia, and taller than anything in the lower 48 at 15,300, is below.

The glaciers of the West Arm were frankly more impressive than anything in the East Arm. However, this comes with a price. I'm very happy that we chose the East Arm for kayaking - it was more intimate and secluded, a true wilderness paddle. Cruise ships, personal yachts, and the park tour boat all ply the waters of the West Arm. And for good reason: check out this glacier - it's taller than the cruise ship! A few good sized bergs and the accompanying "white thunder" broke off during our tour.

The park boat finished its rounds and we returned all our rental gear. After another night in the campground with a raging campfire and some new friends we flew back to Juneau (problem with the ferry schedule) on June 5th. The six-seat Cessna was the smallest plane either of us had ever been on before. But there was no TSA at the airport, so that was a plus!

It was a great trip. It's impossible to capture everything in the blog and part of the point of my travels is to spend less time on the computer. So I hope this will suffice. Jason is a great amateur videographer and is making a video of the trip that I hope to post soon. I'm looking forward to it - we got some good footage and funny clips. After a week of challenging paddling, hit or miss weather, too much tent time, and countless life list sights, we were still good friends. Thanks for coming along buddy. Looking forward to more adventures down the road.