Saturday, November 10, 2012

Almost Home from the Brooks Range

Caribou Bar Creek

Some of my last hours in my seven-month trek across the Brooks Range.

Instead of continuing around on the ridge, I come right off it on a direct course toward the mountain hoping to save some time. It’s lower in elevation and likely brushier, but shorter. The terrain turns out hellish. I get right into the thick of ten-foot high brush and boggy ground for hours, and then a burned area miles long that has left tall grass and swamp in place of what used to be a lush spruce forest. I have to step up a notch again to match the difficulty of the terrain. The only thing that keeps me going is my clear view of Shaltah Mountain to remind me how close I am to Old Crow. I’m almost home, so I plug away, staying calm and exerting the same constant effort.  I continue to make progress though, and keep at it, step after step, sloshing through the arctic swamp and weeds. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and this gives me motivation to keep going.

     At Caribou Bar Creek grass and brush are everywhere. It’s swift and over my waist from all the rain in the last week. Later I will learn that this has been the wettest summer on record. I set up camp for the night. I cook black beans over an open fire until close to midnight, but just as I finish a hail storm starts so I take the pot of beans into my tent for the night. The hail storm is the worse I’ve ever seen and the ice particles hit my tent so hard I’m afraid they’re going to punch holes in it and tear it to shreds. I wait and worry, and start gathering up my gear in case everything gets wet and I have to spend the night without a tent.

     And I wait, sitting up and not sleeping until the storm passes, with Will curled up in a ball watching me. “Enough already,” I yell at the top of my lungs. The hail still falls hard, and lightning flashes over my tent with a bolt touching down one hundred yards away. I duck down, covering my head with my arms. It’s like the earth is shattering and ripping apart in a thundery volley of mega bombs and spraying shrapnel. The hail falls for a solid hour, and then suddenly, it’s all over. To my relief my tent is still intact. During the night it gets so cold that I have dreams of shooting down an Olympic bobsled course on my belly.

     When I wake up the next morning my tent is now at the creek’s edge. It has risen a foot or more during the night, and the sides of my tent are buried in a foot of hail. I have to dig out. I start out the day in my rain gear, wading the creek to my waste in some rapids, which is the shallowest place. Then I hike for three hours through more brush, tall grass, and swamp. My feet are soaked from the first few steps of the day, and within an hour they started hurting from the wet cold and ice - swamp grass, and frigid water for several miles. I pass a duck looking for her baby after the storm, and a minute later the baby waddles right by Will and me in full view, like he’s too cold and worn out from the storm to be cautious. I leave the baby in peace so the mother can find him.

     Later in the day as I climb up what I thought was the last pass before descending the other side into Old Crow, I start to warm up and stride out. I’m hiking fast like I’m doing a day trip in the mountains of Oregon when I was twenty-five. It feels great to finally be slim and in shape and to now have a light pack, almost empty of food. I’m almost home and nothing can stop me now, or so it seems. After days of despondence, suffering, and self-doubt, I’m invincible now. “Get out of my way,” I keep saying. “I’ve just hiked the Brooks Range. What you think of that.” I’m talking to all the obstacles I’ve crossed in the last four weeks, and even the ones on my previous trips: rivers, lakes, bogs, brush, grass, mountains, cliffs, wild animals, starvation, exhaustion, biting insects, and forest fires. I’ve beaten them all, becoming the kind of person I’ve always dreamed I could be: a man of the mountains and forest, walking to Old Crow.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Tasman Sea by Kayak

While canoeing down the windy waters of the Porcupine River this summer in Canada and Alaska with my dog, wondering if I would capsize and have to struggle for shore in the massive current, I knew it could be worse.

Australian adventurer Andrew McAuley disappeared while kayaking alone for thirty days from Tasmania to New Zealand in an attempt to be the first person to make the crossing in a kayak. It was the treacherous southern ocean really, 1600 kilometers of probably some of most terrifying waters on the planet, and experts of sea travel said it couldn’t be done – suicidal for anyone who tried. But Andrew was no ordinary man, driven on for his love of testing himself in nature’s most inhospitable places.

     To sleep, he had to lay in his kayak during the night, in a confined mummy position – one arm across his body because there wasn’t room for both his arms to fit alongside. He had built a bubble out of some tough industrial plastic that enclosed his cockpit and protected him from the waves while he slept, and if he capsized the bubble would displace the water underneath and force his kayak to right itself. In a sense his vessel became like a self-contained bubble, bouncing around and rolling on the high, perilous Tasman seas, with him sealed safely inside, but being thrown around violently. Waves ten meters high, massive hummers, gigantic enough to sink a destroyer, tossed him around like a spec of sand. He fell out more than once. But toward the end of his journey, one of the lever arms of his bubble, which moved it into place as needed, broke, spelling tragedy.

     With the coast of New Zealand in view trouble arose. He sent and emergency radio transmission, which was picked up by rescue agencies and his support team. In the message you could hear his garbled desperation, and the last words of a loving father, husband, and remarkable explorer. His mayday call went like this, muffled and slurred by the water and wind:


Do you copy? This is kayak one. Do you copy, over?

I’ve got an emergency situation.

I’m in a kayak about 30 kilometers from Milford Sound.

My kayak’s sinking.

Fell off into the sea.

And I’m going down.


      When rescue workers reached his last position, Andrew was gone – only his battered kayak was found. And missing was his dry suit. Some say he was surely caught by a rogue wave, the size of a building, which were notorious along the coast of New Zealand, and that he probably died from drowning after getting hypothermia. His wife was in shock and distraught after hearing the news and his young son would grow up never really knowing his father. But all those who knew him, had great respect for his kindness and willingness to take on such challenges, to really live even though we all must die.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tribe on the Run

The Awá know their forests intimately. Every valley, stream and trail is inscribed on their mental map. They know where to find the best honey, which of the great trees of the forest are coming into fruit, and when the game is ready to be hunted. To them, the forest is perfection: they cannot dream of it being developed or improved upon.
As nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Awá are always on the move. But not aimlessly wandering, for it is precisely their nomadic way of life which nurtures a fundamental bond with their lands. They cannot conceive of moving on, of leaving the place of their ancestors. - Survival International