“We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”

100_0739100_0720100_0734When I was child, my favorite book was “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” Every night before bed, I’d make my dad read it to me. I got so good that I could finish the sentences for him. To this day, I still remember it: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day. We’re not scared. Oh oh! Grass. Long, wavy, grass. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve gotta go through it!

In Alaska’s Brooks Range, the words came back to me, but with a few new twists. This was my version: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a miserable day. I’m sure scared. Oh oh! Mountains. Towering, jagged, cold, rugged mountains. I can’t go over them. I can’t go under them. Darn it! I’ve gotta go through them.”

I’d tramped through tundra, waded through rushing glacial streams, and wrestled my way through willows, but July 30, 2014 was the pivotal day–the Continental Divide. And, there was only one way to get over: through Gilbeau Pass.

The sky was dark and daunting. We were walking high up in a gray mist, following caribou trails through snow fields and talus slopes lining a cliff edge. I refused to look down. One misstep and I would be over.

Behind me, my father teetered back and forth, trying to balance his 70-pound pack and a 10-pound shotgun that was lashed to the side of it. His march was that of an oversized penguin waddling up the slope. Compared to him, I looked like a mountain goat. But, no matter how many times I offered to carry the shotgun, no matter how many times Chris and Dave, our backpacking companions, offered, he refused. He’d brought it along, so he was determined to lug it. Plus, if we saw a bear, he wanted to be the one holding the gun. “No bear in his right mind would be up here,” I told him. He smirked, “No person in his right mind would be up here.”

Coming down from Gilbeau, I spent a lot of time skidding on loose rocks. When the ground leveled out, I was eager to put distance between me and the high mountains, and I drifted ahead of the group. As I rounded a turn, there in front of me was the huge, brown-haired, hump-backed form of a grizzly. Ursus Arctos Horribilis! I wanted to yell for my Dad and Chris and Dave, but the words wouldn’t come. I felt like I had just fallen into “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” “OH NO IT’S A BEAR!” Except this was the real thing. I couldn’t hide under the covers. I couldn’t bury my face in my dad’s chest and beg him to protect me. I couldn’t skip to the end, because this time I didn’t know the end. And, unlike the characters in my book who ran back to their house and hid, I had nowhere to go. My only escape was up the side of a mountain, but I knew I couldn’t outrun the bear.  Even Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a bear.

Rather than chasing me up the mountain, however, the grizzly took one look at me, turned, and fled up the 60-degree slope, looking more like a prima ballerina than a 700-pound giant. I had just come face-to-face with my worst fear, the monster of my childhood nightmares, and what had it done? It ran. I never would have guessed.

100_0708100_0727

A Bear!?

IMG_2969

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prior to this trip, I’d never actually seen a grizzly. I’d been in bear country and had seen fresh tracks and steaming scat, but never a bear. So, on this trip, I was intent on spotting a grizzly. I didn’t need a long look at one, and I sure didn’t want one close up, but I was not going home without catching sight of a griz.

As we hiked up the Chandalar River toward Gilbeau Pass, I was constantly on the lookout. We tramped across gravel bars thick with willows, and I scanned the branches for a bear. When we stopped for a break, I looked downwind to see if one might be tracking us. While my dad, and Chris and Dave ( our two companions) quizzed each other about old 70s and 80s music to pass the time, I stayed silent and focused. They could have their fun, but I would be the one to spy the bear in the thicket ahead or to send out the warning call when one came stumbling out of the brush.

But after 4 hours of steady hiking over the tundra, always climbing higher, I grew tired. The only things on my mind were if we’d stop, how long we’d rest, and if I might dip into the trail mix or the hummus when we did. So, when I came up out of a ravine, I was not prepared for the brown-haired, humped- back form of a grizzly.

“Bear!” Dave yelled, turning to my dad who was carrying our only shotgun. Startled, I jumped into action. I pulled out my pepper spray and put my thumb on the trigger. I was prepared to stand my ground. And then, the bear turned.

It was then that I saw two very un-bear like horns emerge from the animal’s enormous head. This most definitely was not a bear. In fact, we had stumbled upon an even more unlikely beast — a muskox, thrashing its head back and forth as it browsed among the willows.

I felt surprised, thrilled, and then a bit disappointed. But I needn’t have worried. I was going to see grizzlies – a number of them – and quite possibly a polar bear, too.

Stay tuned for more bear sightings.

 

The Summer That Never Was

 

Brrr!

Brrr!

In previous blogs, I’ve written about a condition called “bush-eyes” in which I dreamed perpetually of food I could not have. On this trip, a three-week trek/paddle over Alaska’s Brooks Range and to the Arctic Ocean, I developed something I call “summer longing.”

On the second day of our adventure, I awoke to snow. It was July 26 and all around me I saw – snow! My hiking boots were frozen solid, my clothes, left in the corner of the tent, were cold and wet, and my water bottle had a layer of ice an inch thick. Had this been winter, I would have shrugged my shoulders. No big deal, just another day in the Arctic. But, this was supposed to be summer; yet, here I was buried in a 0-degree sleeping bag, wearing a winter hat, ski gloves, thick wool socks, and four layers of clothing. The Arctic cold scratched at the walls of the tent. As I unzipped the rain fly and stood looking at the icy mountains, I tucked the T-shirt I had set out to wear that day into my pack. In the following days, I would dig it out and hope that summer might come. But, day by day, that hope dwindled and I pushed my shirt farther down into the depths of my pack. By day 5, I realized that summer, despite my fervent wishes, would not come, and I contented myself with little fantasies — lying in the hammock, a cool dip in the spring-fed creek across from our house after a hard midday run, picking blackberries in our back field, and eating watermelon, fresh from the garden. I could not banish the cold, but for a few minutes every day, I could have a small slice of summer.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My Home Is On My Back

 

Looking out over the Chandalar River Valley

Looking out over the Chandalar River Valley

On the outskirts of town, in the shadow of a great white pine, my farmhouse awaits my arrival–my bed with its fluffy pillows and summer sheets, the screened in porch safe from the bugs, from where I can watch the fireflies floating over the meadow, the pantry with my secret stash of dark Lindt chocolate. But, for now, and for the next 3 weeks, my home is on my back: 55 pounds of my dearest possessions. It’s basically like carrying around a less winy version of my little sister. When I’m wearing it, I’ve got a hump akin to the Hunch Back of Notre Dame. But once the beast comes off I feel the spring in my step return, and I assume the posture that would make my mother proud. But we have mountains, rivers, bogs, and tundra in Alaska’s Brooks Range to cross. So that leaves the question: Will I get stronger or will I break?

My Backpack

The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

IMG_2116This year, 2014, marks the 50th Anniversary of The Wilderness Act, a landmark legislation that set aside an initial 9.1 million acres of land for preservation and established our current definition of wilderness. In honor of this, my dad and I will be embarking on our 3rd and final trip to the Arctic. Once again, we will be heading into Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My dad and I, along with two friends, will be hiking over the Brooks Range to the mouth of the Hulahula River and then paddling our canoes north to the Arctic Ocean.

Before heading out, I’d like to leave you with a little history on the Wilderness Act and its connection to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What was to become the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was the inspiration for the Wilderness Act. The northeastern region of Alaska was regarded as one of North America’s last great wildernesses. But it was unprotected.  Olaus Murie, a native Alaskan and director of the Wilderness Society, recognized the necessity of preserving this land. Accompanied by his wife, Mardy, he led a summer-long biological expedition into the heart of the region, in the hopes of obtaining scientific evidence to support his campaign to protect it.

He was awestruck by the areas wildness.  In the foothills of the Brooks Range he discovered thousands of free-roaming caribou, wolves, grizzly bear, and Dall sheep.

Emboldened by their experience, the Muries roamed Washington D.C., lobbying Congressmen, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Thanks to the Murie’s efforts, the Arctic Refuge was established in 1960. Four years later, the Muries celebrated another victory, the creation of the 1964 Wilderness Act.  While campaigning for the creation of the Arctic Refuge, Olaus Murie was working with his Wilderness Society partner, Howard Zahniser, to craft a bill that would protect wild lands across the country.  Murie understood that few people would have the privilege of traveling to Alaska. What they needed was the opportunity to interact with nature in their own backyards and experience it’s physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits.

Today, Murie’s dream is a reality. The Wilderness Act has set aside over 109 million acres of recreational land in over 25 states.

Growing up, I dreamed of going to Alaska, but the places that I loved, where I hiked, camped, canoed, hunted, and fished were close to home. Tomorrow, I will be traveling to the largest wilderness refuge in North America, but it was those formative childhood trips with my family that instilled in me a love of the outdoors.

Blood and Guts at 35 Below

Downriver hunting for caribou. We were two weeks into our winter trip, and the Korths were low on meat. Only one caribou foreleg hung from the meat rack. And Edna, in particular, was worried. Not only was she cooking for Heimo, who like a caribou seems to have four stomachs, but for my dad and me, too. She announced that unless we wanted to eat beaver tail and porcupine for the next week, we were gonna have to kill a caribou.

At first light, Heimo, Edna, and I headed downriver to hunt. Dad had hurt his back when the snowmachine rolled on him and he was still in pain, so his job was to stay at the cabin and tend the bannock bread and the goose roasting in the slow cooker. Besides, Heimo could only take along two people, one behind him in the snowmachine and one in the sled.

Dad was worried about me. A freak warm-up, which had sent the mercury climbing to minus 5 just days before, had opened large leads in the river ice. If the sled tipped and I fell in the river, the current would suck me under the ice, and I’d be a goner.

But today it was 35 below, so he bundled me up like a child. By the time he was finished, I was buried fiver layers deep. All that was left were eye slits.

“You take good care of her,” Dad said to Heimo.

Edna caught the edge in his voice. “Oh gosh,” she laughed. “Jim’s like a mama grizzly. Don’t wanna mess with his cub.”

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting in the sled, skidding through the black spruce trees and nimble willow branches that slapped at me like whips. Heimo stopped the snowmachine, after one long section.

“You alright?” he yelled back.

I gritted my teeth and gave him the thumbs up.

After weaving between gravel bars, we headed straight south along the river. It was so cold and the wind was so strong that my eyelids froze shut. I couldn’t see, but I could still hear, and when I heard the sound of open water, I clung to the sled and listened for cracking ice, praying that I wouldn’t fall out.

Finally, after two hours, Heimo and Edna spotted a caribou crossing, the tracks still fresh. Heimo slowed and studied them. My eyelids thawed, and I noticed wolf tracks weaving back and forth across the trail, predators following their prey.

“You guys post here,” he said, stopping the snowmachine. “And I’ll go down river.”

Edna and I sat with our backs to a willow thicket that helped to cut the wind and in the gray light we scanned the woods and the river for caribou.

Thirty minutes later, we heard a gunshot. We waited and then we saw the snowmachine. Heimo had a dead caribou in the sled. He pulled it out of the sled, yelled something to us, turned around, and hit the accelerator. Then he headed downriver, hoping to get another, leaving this one for Edna and me to butcher.    

I’d help field dress and butcher deer before, but butchering a caribou at 35 below is cold, hard work. My job was to hold the caribou, moving it into different positions so Edna could make her cuts. She began with the hind legs and made her way up to the forelegs. Then she moved to the intestinal cavity.

I watched her make a shallow, cautious cut, taking care not to puncture the intestine or one of the four stomachs and taint the meat. After opening up the gut, from the caribou’s anus to its diaphragm, she handed me the knife and plunged her hands into the steaming carcass and held them there for half a minute.

When she pulled them out, they were wet with blood, and the snow around us was stained red.

“Now you try,” she instructed.

I drew a deep breath and stuck my numb hands into the opening and kept them there until I could feel my fingers again.

“Okay,” she said, as I pulled my bloody hands from the caribou, “Now for the organs. Just wait till you eat the heart and the liver. They’re so good.” 

Once we finished with the butchering, we piled the meat and the heart and liver on the caribou skin. Then Edna pulled a needle and thread from her pocket and sewed it up. She made her last stitch just as Heimo arrived.

Edna and I lugged the 40-pound legs into the sled and Heimo slung the skin, bulging with meat, over his shoulder. When we were done, he looked at me. I was spattered with caribou blood and shivering.

“You gotta be tough up here, don’t yah,” Heimo said.

Edna put her arm around me. “Don’t tease her. This girl did good today.”

Later, back in the cabin, we sat back after a supper of bannock bread and speckle belly goose. Edna sipped the last of her tea.

“If there’s ever a caribou butchering competition,” she announced, “I want Aidan as my partner.”

I smiled. “It’s a deal!”

grittygal at 35 below

 

 

 

Au Naturel

What I’ve found about my adventures in the Arctic is that they make the most amusing party stories. People are endlessly interested in Alaska, full of questions and curiosity. But, there is one subject, despite their interest, I refuse to talk about: the bathroom ritual.

It just so happened that on one particular occasion, it came up, at the dinner table, of all places. An effusive woman in her 60s said that she would gladly give up material comforts and live in the wilderness if it weren’t for the “bathroom situation”. Then, she leaned across the table, and asked, “Now tell me, what was the bathroom situation like? Did your little tushy simply freeze? Was there indoor plumbing or an outhouse? Or did you go au naturel?”

I almost choked on my pasta, struggling not to laugh. I tried to imagine this woman with her diamonds and pearl necklace and bright red lipstick, squatting in the snow to do her business.

Then I remembered what it was really like: crouching to pee in the woods behind the cabin at 2:00 A.M. while the wolves howled in the distance; baring my butt at 35 below and trying to balance it between two spruce poles, shaped like an inverted triangle, hanging over a 4-foot hole of human excrement. “Au naturel…” the woman called it. What I wanted to say was, “Does a bear sh*t in the woods!?”

But, that is not how a young woman at a dinner party responds. So, instead I laughed and put on my most ladylike smile. “The bathroom situation,” I say.  “It’s what you could call…” I thought for a second. “Rustic. Yes, very rustic.”