ALASKA STORIES: 250 MILES 8 DAYS 300 MILLION YEARS INFINITE MEMORIES

Two brothers hike, unassisted, across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Gates of the Arctic.Over the past year we’ve run several accounts of winter-time mushing over this amazing patch of the globe. For this installment of the totally non-mushing related “Alaska Stories” we have chosen an equally adventurous summer “stroll” across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-no tents, no radio, no safety net, no kidding. The 6,000 foot pass between the Atigun and Itkillik Rivers in Gates of the Arctic grinds me down like my daughter’s incessant begging for car keys, particularly after the day’s 30 miles and two previous 5,000 foot passes. August in the Brooks Range doesn’t get any better, however: t-shirt and shorts weather, sunny blue skies, hanging glaciers, and everywhere, rock faces with smiles of tightly folded and thrust-faulted brown sandstone and light gray limestone. And to top it off, the companionship of my endurance-endorphin addict brother, Sitka-Steve. Though he’s used to three to five foot diameter trees, hanging moss, evil devils club, and perpetual mist, Steve loves the open vistas and sparse vegetation of this ancient arctic terrane.As we pound out the final 1,000 feet to the pass, my calves howl like the winter gales through this pass, and my mind is drifting from the task at hand. I consider that our 250 mile, eight-day hike from the Hulahula River to Anaktuvuk Pass with its 33,000 feet of elevation gain is our typical yearly “go till you blow” epic trip or race. It seems like we won’t have it any other way. I momentarily consider what motivates us to push 15 to 20 hours a day, with minimal amenities and call it fun. Sure, the hardware works, but could there be a software glitch? My mind drifts to some 40 years ago. This hill then seemed as impossibly steep and long as it does now. My lungs and legs were fire and jelly as biggie brother and I raced up the hill in tandem. Slowing or stopping was not an option. My father’s orders just moments earlier: “under no circumstances will you stop running until you get to the top. And you better get there before Tracy,” (my year-older, foot-taller, captain-of-the-basketball-team, big-mouth cousin). Unbeknownst to us, our dad had wagered Tracy that he couldn’t beat Steve and me racing up this mile-long dirt road to our hunting cabin. In retrospect, my Dad’s “you can do anything if you try hard enough” had become ingrained. Now I sort the synapses hoping it’s still there after 34 miles of ankle-twisting, river-cobble and tundra miles. As we crest the pass at midnight, the visual feast of the 20 mile-broad panorama is served up. Itkillik (‘Indian’) Valley comprises a massively wide and long, glacially-sculpted, tussock-covered thoroughfare between North Slope drainages which empty into the Arctic Ocean and the North Fork of the Koyokuk River. This feeds the Yukon River and empties into the Bering Sea. Pain and discomfort are distant memories, overshadowed by unforgettably superlative views and sensations. I can nearly hear my folks’ words now, “difficulty and adversity will make you a stronger person.” I’m getting stronger every day.Revisiting the bet, gratuitous one-upmanship became interwoven into the fabric of our early childhood, but through thoughtful introspection and marrying-up we were able to cut away and cast off this destructive baggage. Still, embracing a challenge provides a rewarding and natural high, and Cousin Tracy did learn some humility. The lesson had merit. Humility is deeply felt in the heart of the Brooks Range, and it creates a more profound impression the longer you stay. The vastness of the Brooks Range, along with its isolation, its stark nakedness and its ear-ringing, mind-altering silence never fail to impress: God’s canvas before human meddling. Traveling with machines is too easy, damaging, and detached in our modern world, and can breed complacency, arrogance and sloth. The effort and slow passage of heart, lungs, and legs connects you to the soul of these ethereal mountains and makes the land and its effect more powerful. The plane ride to the range was our necessary homage to the machine. One of the innumerable, impressive lofty peaks, named by Bob Marshall in the middle of the last century, dominates the view as we turn west. Upturned rocks in a fold a mile across look like a giant deformed anvil slammed into the ground. The sight is powerful and unforgettable, sucking you in, as though the vacuum created by such force is still present. Walking is more difficult now because neither of us can lift our eyes from the banded, jutting stratigraphy. Entire skylines of ancient rock are contorted, and slash improbably at the heavens. The overwhelming power of the tectonic plates that created this fold and thrust mountain belt of the northern Phillip Smith and Romanoff Mountains also humbles us. How easily and quickly this emotion would disappear if Route 66 happened to rip down this valley. Standing here, that seems impossible. At the same time, we remind ourselves to never, never take this landscape for granted. Another lesson from the old man: “if you work hard for something it will mean much more.” Well then, this hike will qualify as the highlight of the year. Six days earlier we touched down at ‘Grassers Bar’ on the Hulahula River, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 15 miles north of the continental divide. Landing is rough on the narrow, unimproved, gravel strip. The Maule fixed wing airplane lurches to a stop. After unloading, the plane disappears over the distant horizon. Deep silence pervades except for the nearby river riffle, more lullaby than noise. Hulahula was named by the whalers of the early 1900s who spent winters whaling in Hawaii. I guess whalers pined for equatorial climes rather than the chilly Beaufort Sea. Hiking, hunting and rafting make up common goals of most visitors landing on the river now. Weather is rather Hawaii-like upon our arrival, and we’re overdressed. All of our clothing is Patagonia. Our winter/summer wilderness racing and treks have proved that light, dependable, versatile and comfortable gear is a necessity. Our arctic ensemble begins, on the outside, with a breathable rain shell as the primary barrier against the elements. Beneath it are Capilene turtle neck and undershirt. On the bottom are shorts, tights and rain pants. For sleeping we have a ‘Puff Ball’ jacket, turtleneck, extra socks, gloves, a couple of balaclavas, sleeping pad, and a two person bivy bag. We’ll cover the 250 miles in Montrail shoes, liner sock, Gore-type sock, outer sock, and gaiter. Due to thousands of stream crossings our feet will be wet, but not cold, while we’re hiking. We’ll dry our dogs at night. Food is generally high fat, yummy, ready-to-eat fare. We’ll heat water in our one water bottle over a meager camp fire for hot drinks and dehydrated potato mix. Steve brought his home caught and smoked King Salmon, and killer cookies (the size of his head). One night he caught me cookie plundering while I thought he was passed out (a Cookie Monster in the bivy sack). Caloric intake will be about 5,000/day. Caloric expenditure will be substantially greater. The result? The famous Brooks Range diet: hike 35 miles/day, add a couple of mountain passes, sprinkle with insufficient food; lose weight. Piece of cake, so to speak.Stripping off clothes, and clad only in shorts, t-shirts and shoes, we immediately head for the 6,000’ pass that crosses the highly glacier laden Mount Chamberlin ridge system and drops into the Canning River headwaters. We stumble upon a camping sled in the tundra. It’s a 15’ long snow machine sled with a Plexiglas window, door, Coleman stove, and assorted gear. A bear has done some housecleaning and redesign. Much of the gear has been destroyed by claw and tooth. Leading to the pass is a slot canyon in the smoothed and slick Lisburne Limestone. Rushing water in the upper slot is cold, but warm air, sun and quick pace offset intermittent foot numbing. Fossilized horn coral and colonial coral heads two feet across are common, as are broken crinoids. But a rare fossilized fish is my grand prize. When these limy coral reefs were deposited some 325 million years ago the shallow waters of the warm seas would be just over my head. Now uplifted, this dramatically layered limestone is stacked thousands of feet high. During those early Paleozoic times, animals making up vast coral reefs around the world began to pull carbon dioxide (CO2) from the Earth’s atmosphere, locking it up in reef systems. CO2 fixing, in concert with increasing numbers of oxygen-producing green plants, changed atmospheric composition and paved the way for oxygen-sucking humans like us! Similar durable, marine-deposited rocks occur near the top of both Mt. Everest and Denali (uplifted 10s of thousands of feet above the seas that spawned them). At our first night’s camp we marvel at our luck in seeing a wolverine slowly but deliberately rooting around in the tundra. For dinner we polish off the arm-size sub sandwich that I had constructed in Fairbanks. It took a beating in my pack, but tastes far better than it looks, particularly as it was the end of catered deli food. Sergeant Steve shakes me: it’s 4:00 am and sleepy time is over. The local ground fog must be slowing my synapses, but I soon realize we need to get moving. Steve was always better at math, but even I understood that we had to average about 35 miles a day and walk briskly for some 15 hours a day to make it to Anaktuvuk Pass in our remaining seven days. That will still give us plenty of time for lots of pictures, and a luxurious hour break at midday for writing notes and map annotation, to rest legs, and maybe a short snooze in the sun. We decided against a GPS in favor of 1:250,000 scale topographic maps. A map is a book on one page, showing the landforms, shapes and drainage patterns, and they are always fascinating and instructive for understanding the country. We ditched the satellite phone for reasons that are endless. Like most animals in the Brooks Range, movement and migration comprise the greater part of our daily life. So we klink and klunk our way down the cobbles of the Canning River and over a 4,000 foot pass to the Marsh Fork of the Canning River. During too much of that time I pontificate on the spread of ancient seas and deposition by huge rivers of tens of thousands of foot thicknesses of sand and gravel that would morph into hard rock. I mutter about tectonic plates, and kilometer-thick thrust sheets. I also discuss some of the escapades of my wayward, nubile college daughters, Alexis and Kirsten. Not to be outdone, Steve relates recent sagas of Max and Ivan, his pre-adolescent boys (though I always described Steve’s boys as feral children because long-time exposure to similar Alaska playgrounds allows these modern children to revert to ‘wild things’ when on our outings.) And Max and Ivan showed their stuff last year in ‘Gates’, when we covered 60 miles in seven days At camp every evening and morning while we rested, they built dams, created caribou antler forts, tried to ambush ducks, and spear unsuspecting fish. Steve and I recapture some the same youthful exuberance, excitement, and abandon, on our trek-time together. On a game trail between the Canning forks, Steve spied some bear prints in the tundra. ‘These are exactly like the scrapings that I’ve seen brown bears dig out on Baranof Island. These depressions are made by brown bears for marking their territory. And they are not impressions resulting from repeated passings, as some biologists claim.” Some years ago Steve showed several sets to naturalist Richard K. Nelson of Sitka. Nels agrees, so that’s good enough for me. I pause long enough to capture yet another image of a kilometer-scale chevron fold, which looks like a sergeant’s stripes, and a fault in this 390 million year old Devonian Kanayut sandstone and conglomerate. These low angle thrust faults are now silent testimony to the violent birth of the Brooks Range. Two hundred million years after these kilometers-thick sands and gravels were deposited by ageless, powerful, sweeping braided streams. They were then deeply buried, and the resulting rock was shoved north 100 kilometers, forming a large part of the Brooks Range. This mountain building now forms the backbone and continental divide of North America from the Bering Sea to south of Mexico. I get out of hand, and begin yammering about juxtaposed allochthons, but my captive audience looks delirious so I knock if off for a while. To bring him back I ask which trip is more difficult and dangerous: this one or our hike on the Appalachian Trail 35 years ago. Not a lot of discussion on that one, Steve agrees it was our first trip; outfitted with blue jeans and cotton sleeping bags, when we weathered wet snowstorms, hypothermia, with never-say-die teenage optimism. We laugh half way to the next pass.Our stress level is high during today’s mountain pass traverses because rain, fog, wind, low clouds, and poor visibility obscure all reference points, like seeing under water. But a little fear is healthy, teaches humility and respect, erases the cancer of arrogance, and pops the bubble of hubris. For us, it taps and develops our collaborative wilderness savvy. We feel vulnerable, and consider options, percentages and safety. Whether a high pass will ‘go’ is never a certainty, particularly in Lisburne Limestone bedrock. Knife-sharp, contorted, massive limestone beds commonly form cliffs, and often spawn waterfalls. Here in the continental divide vicinity, the topographic paradigm has shifted, and high passes commonly end in insurmountable headwalls. The final set of passes (5,900 and 5,200 feet) take us past Cocked Hat Mountain, across the headwall glacier of the Nanushuk River, then up and over to Graylime Creek. Then we’ll pick a route between Alapah (cold in Inupiat) Mountain to the north, and the Yosemite-like, 1,500-feet-high vertical face of Limestack Mountain to the south. Cocked Hat is phenomenal, and looks surreal as the upper peaks are enveloped in roiling dark gray clouds. The massif is a ½ mile wide structure of wildly folded, layered limestone. The 1,000 foot pinnacles forming the north and south flanks are the upturned brim of a gargantuan hat-like form, the center of which is a grand, barren valley, such that some Brooks Range giant might use as a throne. But thick heavy, stinging and pelting rain is falling; the ceiling falls along with it. Full foul-weather gear graces our ensemble for the remainder of our trip.The good news: the final 1,000 foot head wall is not route-stopping Lisburne, but soft, black, fine-grained pieces of Kayak Shale. The bad news: the 40 degree slope is an elevation-gaining nightmare. Each step up is a ¾ slide back down, and we’re in a pea soup fog with occasional sleet. I send the climbing machine ahead, and Steve begins sending small landslides downward to their new angle of repose. Finally across the pass, the west side is more of the same, but it now makes for a soft, euphoric descent. The sea-blue ice of the Nanushuk glacier is intimidating without crampons. Strewn about the ice are bleached bone piles and chunks of caribou fur. Many probably slipped on the ice, jammed into it, and broke a leg. There are an alarming abundance of skulls and bones. Birds and other small animals have contributed to this eerie graveyard. Uninterested in joining the locals, we carefully pick our way across the rivulet-dissected, slick surface. Nearly at the second pass, the fog clears momentarily, revealing a view of our descent from the previous pass. Across the mile-wide cirque valley head we see our zigzag descent line in the steep slope of soft black shale. North of our descent line, just two hundred feet, is a huge shear vertical face which we would have encountered with a slightly different choice of route. Survival is all about paying attention to details, as well as some luck. From my childhood, I remember another reminder from ‘Big Bob’s’ litany: “you make your own luck.” I believe it more than I disbelieve it. After a night of pelting, thick drops of cold, blowing rain we set out for our last pass: Anaktuvuk Pass. Over the last 20 years I have spent many weeks working in this friendly town located in a storybook-beautiful valley with snow capped mountains accessible in every direction. Snow is falling on the peaks right now. After seven days of superb weather, our eighth is clearly August. We walk quickly and closely, knowing that in seven hours the gripping spell of the Brooks will be broken. Too soon daily life will ring just a little hollow in comparison to our time in the ultimate mountain range. Sure, we’ve seen some bear, lots of caribou, a porcupine, and even the rare wolverine, but we’ll take home much more.Geology, like a lifetime, begins with the primordial core of igneous bedrock and birth: igneous is the elemental material, as is genetics, sedimentation is layers of experience and childhood development, and finally metamorphosis is the hard-knocks molding of adulthood.  Time changes everything, including rock and flesh. Initially, the layering of strata and human emotion form a myriad of dimensions and depths that reach down to the impressionable core. Some layers are hidden and unknowable, some puzzling, some weak, and some prominent and resistant to change. We can divine their cryptic meaning by turning a stone or turning a memory. Earth history and strata are revealed by seismic investigations. Cerebral layering is infinite and more delicate, and by peeling that infinite onion, we can discover personal nuances. Socrates wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Another notable quote is, “lack of fear breeds complacency.”  Both apply to the powerful silence and difficulty of eight days and 250 miles in the un-trailed Brooks. After sharing 50 years of mundane and exalted times, as well as the nadirs of life, we have metamorphosed into imperfect adults. Time away from distractions, from electronics, and from inane demands that flatten emotions, is a cherished gift. Self and familial examination develops easily and honestly with a trusted and unconditionally loving brother. While aware of the other’s foibles, each seeks understanding and strength in the strong bond.  Be it fear, risk, temptation to quit, or even love, I never have a strong emotion grip my mind and body without feeling the strength created from an infinity of intense, fraternally shared memories. Our Brooks Range trek together has created yet another timeless layer.   Rocky Reifenstuhl came to Alaska in 1977 when big-brother-Steve insisted it the most inspirational place to live.  After two seasons in southeastern Alaska, Rocky moved to Fairbanks where he was raised by his wife, Gail and their daughters, Alex and Kirsten. Rocky has completed remote geologic mapping in every part of Alaska, particularly the Brooks Range, as a field geologist. He has raced the Iditarod Trail and Yukon Quest Trail by bike and foot for 20 years (winning 8 times), medaled in biking championships, at State, National, and World venues, and currently races for Bianchi.  Rocky and Steve continue to love their wilderness treks after 40 years, and have no plans to stop.  Rocky has written nearly 100 geology publications, and has also written for Velonews, Bicycling, Mountain Bike Action, Alaska, and Bike magazines.Steve Reifenstuhl came to Alaska after college in 1974. He lives in Sitka, works as a private-sector salmon biologist since 1978, is married with two boys: 14 and 16 years old. Steve has spent extensive time in remote areas of Alaska with only minimal gear. He moonlights as a Patagonia product tester (15 years), is a member of the Montrail Racing Team and has competed in races of one kind or another all his life. Steve has the Iditarod Trail Alaska Ultra Sport Race foot record (from Knik to McGrath, 350 miles: 4 days, 15 hours), and has won it 3 times. Steve and his brother, Rocky, have won the Alaska Wilderness Classic 3 times – twice across the Wrangell/St. Elias Mountains and once across the eastern Alaska Range. Steve has made six trips to the Brooks Range, covering some 750 miles, all with Rocky. Ocean kayaking and ocean kayak racing are also Steve’s passion.

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