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.)


Laverna said...

Okay, so that's a little disturbing. I guess it would be a little too early to find out if they're dead?

T.R. said...

No idea. I don't think they'll die; they'll probably just have a miserable time and possibly end up needing an expensive search and rescue.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching Into the Wild less than an hour ago, and was reminded of the mini-botany lesson we received on the drive from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. And T.R., you may have reiterated the sweet pea / wild potato story along the Brooks Range drive too, 'can't remember.
There seems to be some debate on his actual cause of death though, and I won't rehash the different viewpoints here.
Meanwhile I'll keep my eye out for Northen Alaska news reports about Super Dave and Capt. Morgan being rescued, thanks to the GPS receiver they were carrying.

And congrats on the nugget,