On our first morning on the Hulahula, I woke to the sun and the howling of wolves. The day before, close to camp, we had spotted their fresh tracks, prints bigger than my hand.
I noticed that Dave, Chris, and my dad were all facing southwest. Chris had his binoculars out. He let them fall and turned toward me, motioning for me to come forward slowly.
“Just below the ridge,” he said, pointing. “Three of them.”
I held the binoculars to my eyes, and scanned the hillside. Then, I spotted them. A trio of wolves throwing back their heads, their bodies curved like crescent moons. They were calling to one another. The sound rolled through the valley.
For fifteen minutes, we stood at the base of the hill just listening, thrilled.
The conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
On the seventh morning of our trip across the Arctic, I awoke to the sound of rain. Ugh! Another day without sun. July 31st marked a full week of cold and clouds. Even my joints moaned and groaned. I pulled my clothes out of my sleeping bag. They were still wet and, even worse, smelled like stinky feet. Each night I stuck them inside, allowing my body to heat and dry them while I slept. But, somehow they had gotten pushed to the bottom. I grit my teeth and slid the shirt over my head. Boy, what I would give for dry clothes.
At the cook tent, my dad had just finished making oatmeal. And this time, he hadn’t added dried berries or whey. As we neared the end of the backpacking portion of our trip, our supplies were getting low. We’d hoped to catch fish on the Chandalar River, but the rain kept coming and the water was high, so the fish weren’t cooperating. I was starting to get “boat-eyes,” fantasizing about what I would eat when we got to where the bush pilot had dropped off our folding canoe and two bear barrels of food. In one of those bear barrels, I knew I had a bar of dark Lindt Chocolate. That alone kept me going.
Now, my dad was cursing. He’d spilled his bowl of oatmeal. When he stopped swearing, he grabbed his spoon and then, without hesitation, began eating off the ground. “Five minute rule,” he said, grinning. Before we did dishes, Dave passed around the oatmeal pot for us to scrape. “When did scraping the oatmeal bowl qualify as a treat?”
An hour later, after taking down the tent and packing up our backpacks, we were off. The mist hung low over the mountains. I imagined myself walking through the Western Highlands of Scotland–Campbell country. The tundra was like a sponge beneath me. With each step, my boots filled with water, until finally I had to stop to dump them. As soon as I plopped myself down, I realized my mistake. I had just soaked my butt, too.
Finally, after seven miles of steady marching, we got our first glimpse of the Hulahula River. From, the distance it looked like a snake, curving back and forth until it reached the horizon. I imagined the mountains slowly falling away, the land leveling out, the tundra turning to sand and gravel. The river would lead us to the coast, to the Arctic Ocean.
That night I fell asleep to the cold roar of the river.
I woke up to the sound of my dad celebrating. He was hollering like he had just seen the Packers win the Superbowl.
“Get up, Aidan! Come out!” he shouted.
I was not in the mood for optimism. I closed my eyes and tried my best to ignore him. Even in the Arctic, I needed my beauty sleep.
“Get up,” he yelled again.
I crawled out my sleeping bag, rolled my stiff shoulders, cracked my neck, and stumbled out of the tent. I looked around trying to figure out why my father had woken me.
When 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.
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.
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.
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?
This 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.
When we arrived at the Fairbanks airport, with our backpacks and fishing rods, an airport employee took a look at us and asked where we were headed. “To the Arctic,” I said. He grimaced and then proceeded to launch into a bear story, sparing us none of the gruesome details.
“My friend and I were hiking in the mountains,” he began, “and we saw this bear in the distance, but you know, it’s Alaska, this is bear country, so we just kept walking. Anyway, I hiked up ahead a bit, and then I heard a scream in back of me. I turned around, and there was a 800-pound grizzly attacking my friend. The bear took a swipe at him and he went down. I ran back yelling as loud as I could and somehow I chased the bear off. It saved him, but his face is a mess now.”
The brutal story was one I didn’t need to hear. I already had bear on the brain. Even before we left Wisconsin I was having bad bear dreams; they were following me through the woods, stalking me. I’d wake up whimpering and clutching at my pillow.
My dad told me, we didn’t need to worry, unless we came across a grizzly guarding his kill, or a sow and her cub. Bears, he said, would be more afraid of us than we’d be of them. It was cold comfort. So on our first morning in Fairbanks, I woke early and surfed the internet, determined to learn everything I could about Ursus arctos horribilis before heading for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My goal: to have a bear-proof plan for survival.
What I learned was unnerving at best. There is little hope of out-running, out-swimming, or out-climbing a bear. An angry grizzly can out-sprint Usain Bolt and swim faster than Michael Phelps. As for climbing, there are few trees at 67 degrees latitude that a grizzly in hot pursuit couldn’t uproot as fast as a bulldozer.
Later that day, we talked with a bush pilot who laughed when he heard that I would be wearing bear bells. “That’ll help us with identification,” he said. When I gave him a puzzled look, he added, “When we find a big pile of bear shit with bells in it, we’ll know it’s you.”
On our second day in the Arctic, I learned that the wide, well-packed trail we were camped near, was neither a caribou trail nor Heimo’s snowmachine path, but a veritable bear highway. I felt like Goldilocks, but instead of three genial porridge-eating bears, I had a big, bad, potentially man-eating grizzly to worry about. I could only hope that Papa Grizzly wouldn’t find me asleep in my tent, and wonder, “Who’s camped on my trail?”
That night, before I went to bed, I placed a can of bear spray next to my pillow. Nevertheless, I tossed and turned until finally I rolled over and whispered to my dad on the other side of the tent, “Daddy, you up?” He groaned in his sleep, and slowly opened his eyes.
And that was when I had my revelation. I felt guilty because it was so foolproof, my ace-in-the-hole. And I slept well for the rest of the night. I knew that if we encountered a charging grizzly, I needed to do only one thing to stay alive: I needed to out-run my old man.
I find myself at the beginning of a journey, bound for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the world’s last great wildernesses. My father will be my travel companion and together with my dad’s cousin, Heimo Korth, a veteran of the Alaskan bush, we will learn how to survive life in the wilderness.
In Alaska, my home will be my tent, my bed will be a mat, my bathroom will be a hole in the ground, my water will come from the river or from a spring, and my food will be whatever we manage to kill, catch or gather. Over the course of the next year, I will be making four trips to the Alaskan Arctic, staying for one month each season. For my first trip, we will help Heimo Korth build a new cabin from scratch and then head for the high country in search of caribou.
And, so, unlike most kids my age, I will not be spending my summer vacationing at a summer-house, tanning at the pool, shopping with friends on State Street, or binge-watching Pretty Little Liars for hours (as I may have under normal circumstances). Instead I will be 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, 3 hours by bush plane from Fairbanks, in one of the most remote and isolated places in the world, swatting clouds of mosquitoes, and praying I won’t encounter an angry mother grizzly (a sow) protecting her cubs or a territorial moose. In other words, I will be in the middle of nowhere. There is a better chance of reaching Santa at the North Pole than reaching Aidan Campbell in the Arctic.