Monday, September 29, 2008

Goodbye forever

This last post on Sam McGee is Dead ideally should be something similar to the last chapter of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in which, after months spent brooding by himself over a desolate forbidding landscape, he unapologetically explains that he now wants to walk manicured city streets illuminated at nighttime by Christmas lights in store windows with countless strangers passing by on every side.

Don't let the title of this post fool you. I still reserve the right to post again on this blog, and I do want to come back and visit Coldfoot again someday, maybe even soon. The trouble is, I hate summing things up. I'm not someone who hates goodbyes, but some of you may have noticed that I have a talent for making them disappointing and unspectacular most of the time.

One question I got asked many times by people taking my tours was Why did you come up here? I still don't have a concise answer for that. The remoteness was appealing. I also wanted to get out of a rut I felt developing in Utah. Coldfoot gave me a generous offer. It's Alaska. It adds to my mystique and credentials. Those are just some of the reasons I had.

I will say this though. About two or three weeks ago as I was waiting for some one of my last tour groups to finish looking in the Wiseman museum, I stood on the bank of the Koyukuk River, which flowed at a small fraction of what we used to raft on. I was cold and the sun had set much earlier than I have grown accustomed to. The water slid along lazily in the dim light like it was dying, and without being sad, I felt like I could relate. I cried. It wasn't sad at all. It seemed as ordinary as if it were a yawn. The tears just sort fell out without any effort or resistance, and I was glad.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Friday, September 12, 2008

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008


You all realize that having been to ANWR, I now automatically win any discussion we have about whether or not we drill there. It's simple; I just say "Have you ever been there?"

  The argument is that the area that has oil, compared to the rest of ANWR is like a postage stamp on a football field.
Well, sure, but what about all of the roads, traffic, and another pipeline? And what about all those other oil leases that you guys still need to drill?

  To be honest, it probably would make little or no difference to nearly all Americans. These photos aren't even from anywhere near the section that they want to drill.
The thing that worries me is the precedent it sets. If refuges suddenly aren't refuges as soon as someone finds oil, gold or uranium, then will the same go for national parks, national monuments, state parks, and so on? (National Forest already means very little.)
  Anyone who knows me would probably have already guessed where I stand on this issue, but I thought I'd let you know anyway.
(That white lichen takes 50+ years to grow. It's what caribou eat all winter long.) You can't take fossils, plants, soil, or anything at all from this wildlife refuge. The only thing you can take is wildlife, as long as you have a hunting license. Strange, eh?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Part 4: Epilogue

I'll keep this one short. I slept wonderfully and woke up here.

I walked 10 miles.

Then I got a ride for the last 60 miles. He asked me if I cared if he smoked. I told him, no, I don't mind if he smokes (which was actually a lie). He said that he wouldn't have given a damn whether I cared or not anyway.

In total, I think I walked about 35 miles over those 27 hours. What a great trip. Nothing like uncertainty about the future to make you care again.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Part 3: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Arctic

So hitchhiking is no problem, right? As we saw earlier, I got this thing down. You stick out your thumb and some crazy person gives you a ride. Easy.

Maybe. Here's a mile-by-mile account of what happened:

412: Left Deadhorse camp at 11:00 am. Walked five miles.

407: Steve stops. He works at Atigun camp, 165 miles to the South. This is a good start.

334: This happens.
 And so did that thing where you can't get the wheel off even after removing all of the lugnuts (remember that, Tracy?). After a while hammering it with the wrench, it came off and we changed it.

324: It happens again, on the same wheel we just swapped. The Visitor's Guide to the Dalton Highway recommends always bringing two spare tires with you. We only had one. Steve flags down an Alyeska semi truck, who radios pump station #3 (forgive the jargon). They send vehicles for us. Each vehicle only has room for one of us, so I get in one and Steve gets in the other.

320: I'm riding with Paul, who gets an update on the plan for their two new passengers via his CB radio.

k-k-k-k-k (radio noise)
Paul: Yeah, Pete's got the CH2M guy and I have the hichhiker.
Other Guy: The other one's a hitchhiker?
Paul: Yep.
Other Guy: Hold on a sec.
(several seconds later)
Other Guy: Send him on his way next time you stop and bring the CH2M guy into the pump station.
Paul: OK. (to me) Sorry, dude.

314: Paul drops me off, it starts raining and I start walking. Here's what pump station #3 looks like.
312: I see one of our tour vans pulled over to watch a herd of Muskoxen. I talk to the driver for a few minutes. Unfortunately, he is Northbound.
309: A pickup truck pulls over. Their cab is completely full of people dressed in camo, and the bed is full of compound bows, plastic storage boxes, and tarps. One says "You can ride in the bed until we see caribou." I ride, and it's really cold.
286: We see caribou, and I start walking again.
281: Neil stops. He is driving a familiar looking red pickup. Stopped behind him is Steve from mile 407.
"You're the one Steve gave a ride to earlier. He's not supposed to give rides to hitchhikers. I'm his supervisor. I don't mind. I like Steve. Steve is a good worker. We work at Atigun Camp. I'm in charge there. Get in."
I wave to Steve and climb in with Neil. He continues.

"Yeah, I'm in charge at Atigun Camp. Have you eaten dinner? Do you have food? We'll give you dinner. We eat well there. You can't spend the night though. Security would never allow that. Do you have any weapons? I'll take the knife. Do you have ID? I'll take your ID. Be careful out here. There's a grizzly that stays near Atigun Camp. You need to be careful if you don't have a gun. ThatYeah we'll give you dinner. I'm in charge there."

Dinner at Atigun camp was rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes, meatloaf, and steamed vegetables. There was about six kinds of dessert and every kind of drink. Neil insisted that I have some tea or something. And that I take some more food with me. I chose a peach and a Twix.

"Come back next time you're passing through and tell them you're here to see Neil. We'll feed you."

Not bad hospitality for a place that looks like this.

(Since the photo was taken, the place has grown to about 4 times its size and is surrounded by a 4000 volt electric fence which "will knock you on your ass", according to Neil.)

250: Back on the road.

249: A northbound pickup pulls over. "Hey, careful, there's a grizzly just off the road up ahead."

248 and 1/2: The grizzly and I make eye contact. He is probably 400 yards away. He goes back to digging, and I go back to walking and watching, with pepper spray in hand.

248: Another northbound pickup. "I heard there was a grizzly bear out here. Do you know where?" I point. "Oh my gosh! Do you have a gun?" I show her my bear spray and she just shakes her head. "Be careful!".

248: (still): She comes back. "I'm taking you just two miles back the way you came to get you away from this bear. I don't feel good about leaving you here."

246: "Be careful. Are you climbing the pass tonight? You're crazy. How are you going to sleep? Be careful! Good luck!"

At this point, I thought it was time for a photo.

That's bear repellent in my left hand, a day pack in my right, and a garbage bag wrapped around my frame pack since I left my pack cover in Steve's car. Taken at about 9:00 pm.

245: I crest the continental divide at about 4,752 feet and latitude 68° 7min 46sec North. It's snowing, and I'm tired. I decide to call it a night.

Stay Tuned for part 4! (yes, that's right. part 4.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Just to tie up some loose ends before the exciting conclusion, here is my gold nugget. Looses some appeal in its true perspective, but looks great in macro!

Dave and Morgan made it back safe, sound, and on schedule. Dave said it was "long, hard, and kind of cool". Morgan hated it.

And here is an interesting article about Anaktuvuk Pass getting back to its roots.

Part 2: Tundra Tom and the Seismic Sleeper

At Deadhorse Camp, sometimes we sleep in a house on stilts and sometimes we sleep in a trailer on skis. I was in the latter. They hook those things up to caterpillar tractors and pull them across the tundra. The seismologists get out during the day, do their research, and then at night the tractor pulls them to their next camp. Weird. Well, I got to sleep in one even though it was sitting on gravel in a parking lot. Here's the scenic view from the window:

Sorry I don't have a photo of the outside of those things, but the house on stilts is visible in the last photo from the previous post (in the background on the right).

The next day it was time for an Arctic Ocean tour. You see, one used to be allowed to drive all the way to the Arctic Ocean, but ever since 9/11, the only way to see Prudhoe is to take a tour with a security guard who would rather be doing something else. Ours sounded like a bored Rod Decker. It made me bored, as I took boring pictures of boring oil drilling equipment.

And then a stop at the Arctic Ocean, where we weren't even allowed to get out! Rod Decker said that there had been polar bears in the area and that it wasn't safe. He pointed over to a hill where he insisted that a wounded polar bear lay. "That little white spot is the polar bear's shoulder", he said. Whatever, Rod. I'll count it on Megafauna Monday even though you're just trying to get us to forgive you. Here's what the Arctic Ocean looks like from the imprisonment of a bus.
I was really annoyed at that orange thing for being there, but now I kind of like it.

I guess sometimes you have to make your own tour if you want to enjoy it. In fact, you almost always have to make your own tour, so here was mine: Walk across the tundra and look at animals. The Muskoxen were out that day...
Here they are a bit closer.

And a loon or the Loch Ness Monster or something...

And then, are you ready? Arctic foxes!

They barked at me a lot. Tours are so much better when they're free. Two more of the Tundra:

Stay tuned for Part 3.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Part 1: He's Got a Digit to Ride

On Saturday, Aug. 2, I thought it would be a good idea to hitchhike to the Arctic Ocean. And it was, but that wasn't always apparent during my trip. It was a journey fraught with peril and hardship but ultimately fruitful beyond my second-wildest expectations.

Leaving was easy. I just made this cool sign, stuck it to the back of my pack, and started out the door of the Coldfoot Cafe in the rain. It was about 10:00 am. I hiked for two miles before Ben stopped for me. Here's the inside of his truck.

The first thing he asked me, before where I was headed or my name, was "are you running from the law?"

"Me neither", he assured me.

We exchanged a little conversation before "Do you have a camera?" (Yes) "Does it take video?" (Yes) "Make a video of this" (OK). I recorded a few seconds of Ben driving a truck and he said "Are you going to put it on youtube?" (I don't know) "Put it it on youtube" (Um...ok) "Sweet".

Yeah, it was only minutes before I realized that Ben is quite mad (as in crazy). I should have known as much when he stopped his oversize load on a blind curve so that I could climb into the cab of his rig. I hadn't even had my thumb out.

Ben is 29. He has been married to Anastasia, his Russian email-order bride for one year. He says she's the greatest. "Does your camera let you view the video?" (Yeah. I'll show it to you when we stop) "Show it to me now." (....Ok) He watches the video, glancing at the narrow gravel road now and then as it speeds by at 70 miles per hour. Wanting to devote his full attention to a boring video on a small screen, he stops his rig in the middle of the highway and holds my camera. "Cool". Another trucker zooms past heading South. He asks Ben over the CB radio if everything's alright. Ben's voice drops two octaves as soon as he picks up his own CB mic to say "Yeah I'm watching a video." The entire 4 and a half hour ride he doesn't once fail to use his extra manly CB voice when he pushes that button.

Ben brings up a series of topics that make me uncomfortable, including Why Mainstream Christianity is Better than Mormonism, Which Girls at Coldfoot Like to Sleep Around, Things that Could Happen to a Hitchhiker, and What is the Best Way to Hide the Body of a Hitchhiker if One Were to Murder Him. He asks if I have any weapons, and I show him my skinning knife and my bear spray, which I have kept handy since leaving Coldfoot. Then he brings up a topic that will last us the rest of the ride: Hilarious Conspiracy Theories, from which I learn that:

1. George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, and a bunch of other former presidents are Illuminati, and they orchestrated the death of JFK who was anti-Illuminati, but still deserved to die as he was a known attendee of The Church of Satan. Our entire government is run by Illuminati. They will kill Obama soon.

2. Benjamin Franklin was a "fag", even though he did many good things.

3. Every time you drink a soda, a little bit of aluminum enters your body and ends up at the top of your brain inside your skull. It collects there over time.

4. Every tetanus shot contains 59% mercury (which I thought was more than enough to kill several humans) and, guess where it ends up? Right next to the aluminum.

5. These metals form a sort of antenna which receives transmissions from the government, who controls all of our thoughts.

(And Ben probably thought that I wasn't paying attention.) He makes me promise to type "Illuminati JFK" into youtube and watch all of the videos that come up. These topics were so distracting that I almost didn't notice the herd of 20+ muskoxen that we zipped by at about mile 330.

Finally I saw what I was looking for.

I say to Ben: "Thisismystopthanksbye" and he lets me out. I grab my things and never look back.

**Coming Soon**
Parts 2 & 3

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gold Nuggets, The Animals are Back, and One Epic Jouney

Q: How big is the gold nugget you found.
A: To the untrained contiguous-state eye, it doesn't look very big. But the more bits of Gold I find here the bigger it looks. I'll post a photo sometime.

The animals are back! These last two weeks I have seen: One black bear, one grizzly bear, about thirty dall sheep, about fifty muskoxen, four artic foxes, thirty-eight caribou, three moose, a wolf, and a polar bear! (Yeah, I know.) Spreadsheet and revised score forthcoming...

I have found the secret to seeing all these animals: go North. I hitchhiked to the Arctic Ocean this weekend (and back) and met many colorful people (that means some really cool and some really crazy people) and many misadventures. Can't wait to give you the full version. Here's a teaser: some of the best conspiracy theories I have ever heard were from a trucker I met on Saturday.

Also on their way: lots more photos!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Found a gold nugget.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

If There's One Thing I've Learned from Survival Movies,

it's that if you don't respect the land you're in, it will kill you.

In May or June I visited the Eskimo village of Anaktuvuk* Pass. It is a windswept valley located miles above the northern timberline in the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Only 400 people live there in pipeline-funded diesel-generated comfort, with a high school that cost more than the entire state of Alaska and the school's heated, Olympic-sized swimming pool. (This was all part of the Native Claims Settlement Act of the 1970's, a deal from which the Alaska Natives are still making a fortune.)

One of the buildings I noticed during my two hours there was a tiny National Park Service office, and asking our tour guide, I learned that every once in a while hikers will travel from Anaktuvuk Pass to Wiseman, 60 crow miles over moutainous, soggy, tussocky, mosquito dominated terrain. I did an overnighter in these mountains this month, and two days in that country is enough suffering to wash away weeks of work-related stress. Still, I have thought off and on how fun it would be to buy some topographic maps and make that trek as well. But not enough to plan anything. For one thing, I don't own a satellite phone or emergency search and rescue beacon, and wouldn't risk the trip without one of those things.

I have a friend here at Cooldfoot named Dave who washes dishes in the kitchen. Here he is on Michelle mountain last month:

Dave came up here from Buffalo with his friend Morgan and they have discovered a new hobby this summer which they hadn't really tried before: hiking. Dave ran track in high school and he trudged up Michelle mountain in about half the time as the rest of his group. Based on this and other day hikes, Dave and Morgan decided to try their first backpacking trip. From Anaktuvuk Pass to Wiseman.

Morgan has never backpacked before. He is an avid smoker and a diabetic. Dave was asking around for a compass 30 minutes before his flight was scheduled to take off. Dave's pack weighs about 50 pounds. One of the items in his pack is a 6 lb. can of peanut butter. His sleeping bag is rated to +20 degrees, a temperature reached regularly overnight in Anaktuvuk Pass. On Friday I brought my handheld GPS receiver to where he was packing and tried to give it to him, but he refused. "I want to have my own little 'Into the Wild' experience", he said.

I haven't read the book. Did it have a different ending than the movie?

I brought the GPS to Morgan instead and showed him how to use it. I am not sure whether he was paying attention or not. I told him to keep it at the bottom of his pack if he wanted, but to at least bring it. He did, or pretended to.

(Anaktuvuk: Yupik Inupiat Eskimo for "land of lots of caribou droppings". No joke.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Megafauna Monday (and other failed goals) weeks 8, 9, 10, 11?

I think we're up to 11. The trouble is, all of the animals have moved farther North and to higher elevations. Migration and all, you know? These last four weeks I have seen like 4 moose, a bear, a porcupine, and a red fox. Pathetic. Here's my spreadsheet. (Sorry to let you down, Billy.)

But while we're on the topic of goals, there are several I have accomplished so far:

-Solo trip through Gates of the Arctic National Park.
-See Arctic Ocean
-Eat caribou
-Pan for gold

But those are far outnumbered by things I still need to do:

-Swim in Arctic Ocean
-Bear encounter on foot
-Solo trip through ANWR
-Go hunting for the first time ever
-See a wolf
-See a musk ox
-Eat moose
-Find Gold
-See Aurora Borealis
-Bigfoot sighting
-Marry an Eskimo girl

To be fair, here are things that I have accomplished that I hadn't planned on:

-Go to Barrow
-See a lynx
-Watch the entire first season of Flight of the Conchords

Which are very worthwhile things in their own right. But still, the season is half over now, and I have a long list ahead of me. Wish me luck.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

To Atone for my Truancy

Well I'm sorry that I am not painting a better (or at least more consistent) picture of Coldfoot for you. You know how it is. Maybe. But one person's picture is always incomplete anyway. I don't really paint, but whenever I draw pictures I tend to focus more on shapes than on light or on proportions (this is another way of saying that I am a lousy artist). So you're always better off looking at several different pictures anyway. I mean, isn't it the disagreement between our two eyes that gives us depth? Both pictures are different but both are accurate.

Wait! Don't go to sleep, I'm getting to the point of this post. Here are two other blogs kept by my coworkers here.

Maxwell Vincent Crabb tells of his merry exploits as a cook in the kitchen.
"Of course, I do have mosquito netting, but I took it down, as Courtney kept referring to it as 'Princess canopy'."

Kari Rasmussen has a blog as well, with a very clever title.
"The lack of darkness feels like it is one long day with naps, work, and hiking at any time you please."

Also notice that they need to update even more than I do! And in case you missed it, a fellow named Travis came through Coldfoot recently, and gave us all a shout out on his travel blog. There's photos of the Dalton Highway, the Pipeline, the man himself crossing the Arctic Circle, and one of me straining against the wind, just a few days before cutting off my hair. What a grand day out that was.

Yeah, sorry, I cut off my hair.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Not a City in China

A friend and I were discussing different questions we sometimes get asked while guiding, and one that has come up for me several times is "How much do you get paid?"
Now that's a question you normally would hesitate to even ask a close friend, let alone a stranger. So we decided that a bold question deserves a bold answer.
"It's a moderate hourly wage, plus room and board, plus tips. It's a great way to save money because there is nowhere up here for me to spend it."
Well, maybe they were planning on tipping anyway, but now I've reminded them just in case they forgot. The last guy who asked how much I make ended up handing me a $10 bill just moments later as he got on his airplane. Now I don't mind when people ask anymore.

Monday, July 7, 2008

He is so 1982!

I don't know but I've been told, if you keep on dancing you'll never grow old.

--Steve Miller Band, "Dance, Dance, Dance"

    Alright, if you haven't already been put off by a quote from Steve Miller Band, then read on. Yeah, I turned 26. The thing I have been hearing the most from people is some variation on the theme of me having peaked, and now being past my prime. Well I just want everyone to realize that Haile Gebrselassie set the marathon world record when he was 34 years old, and still competing today at 36. That gives me like, at least 8 more years, so get off my case already. Oh, and Ann Trason set the women's record for the Wasatch 100 mile race when she was 38. Her time has been undefeated for ten years.

    So the thing about being 260 miles from any sort of store is that you have to improvise and make things out of other things. Now imagine how great a costume party would be under such circumstances. In fact, rather than imagine, check out these photos (we live in a visual world and I am a visual girl).

I chose "ninja" for reasons ranging from comfort to plain old awesomeness.

 This costume drew many compliments until I stepped outdoors into the light and someone said: "Are you just wearing your underwear?" Sadly, the answer was yes.

Andrew, my tent-roommate chose the timely "Saudi sheik" costume, complete with machete for beheading infidels (too soon?).

We briefly discussed whether or not it would be a good idea for him to run 1/2 mile down the road to the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and start climbing on it in that costume. The infidel in that photo (Max) is dressed as The Unicycler.

There were many other inventive costumes including Morgan as a knight ...

Jeff as a highly suggestive unicorn ...

The '80s were a recurrent costume theme, as you can see from several costumes in this photo ...


As well as in Phil's choice of costume, "Prince" (my favorite one of the whole night).

Seriously, where does a guy get a purple cape in the middle of the Arctic? (Also note the wristband.)

There were a couple of geographically specific costumes as well: Andre as a trucker and Chad as a bear attack victim.

There were some other great costumes which are too numerous for me to chronicle. The thing about costumes, though, is they beg to be danced in! 

There are many things of note in this one, particularly 1. Rambo drinking vodka mixed with Cranberry juice, whatever that's called. In just a few minutes, he will spill it all over the floor. 2. Me dancing with my arms in the air somewhere in the back, intoxicated by pure rhythm and 3. Lancelot chatting up Flava-Flave.

 But if that wasn't enough, there was also Pin the Horns on the Musk Ox.

And a PiƱata! This one is meant to look like me, and I was little frightened to see how accurate it was. It's even creepier when hanging from a tree.

It made me a little uncomfortable beating that hideously handsome thing to death. So I had my eyes covered to avoid developing PTSD.

And was spun around for an added challenge. (By the way, these photos were taken at midnight under an overcast sky).

I tried my hardest, but my the thing was nimbler than I expected!

It even managed to elude my signature move, the Flying Uppercut of Fury*!

Eventually I conceded victory to my disembodied likeness, who hung mockingly, gently swaying from the breeze and the slight graze he suffered at the end of my wiffle bat.

Luckily the Purple One rescued us all from a night devoid of sugar, and charged the fake TR head with unrestrained, unblindfolded rage! (And a machete.)

What an ordeal! Well, back to dancing... 


Yeah, sorry, that's the same photo from before.  

Anyway, what a great party. Mr. Frodo sure seemed to think so!

Oh and thanks to Kari for taking all of these photos and sharing them with me, and for helping put this ridiculous party together. She's the one dressed as a reverse cow in these photos.

*To execute a Flying Uppercut of Fury, hold down the X button while pressing up and down repeatedly. It helps to hold your breath as well.