ITKILLIK RIVER ADVENTURE

There are places where it’s hard to travel. There is terrain that’s not easy to cross – deep punchy snow, glare ice, overflow, no trail, gravel bars, side hills, snowless frozen tundra tussocks. There are situational factors that make for hard travel: a small dog team pulling two sleds, an injured dog in the basket, the always in the back of your mind fear and uneasiness of traveling alone in a remote wilderness. Of course there’s always the unpredictable forces of weather that can hinder forward progress over the landscape: high winds, ground storms and whiteouts. All of this came into play last April on a trip up the Itkillik River in the Brooks Range on the North Slope of Alaska.The plan was to mush 50 miles up the Oolah Valley, which is the glacially carved canyon through which the Itkillik River flows on its way to the Arctic Ocean. It is a deep canyon with a wide, flat bottom running through high mountains from the continental divide to the arctic plains. The idea was to go up one of the forks at the headwaters of the valley and pick out a big mountain to climb. I had eight days.The first day got me across deep snow in the wind shadow of the mountains and down into the wind scoured Itkillik Valley. We turned upwind, trudging miles across the snowless tundra and pinballing off the wind sculpted drifts on the clear blue ice of Itkillik Lake. We dropped down onto the river, and after a disheartening struggle over gravel bars, glare ice, overflow and pressure ridges, I tucked the dogs into the sheltered gully of a side creek. I had run the dogs in two three-hour shifts and had come 20 miles. The sun was shining, but the wind was blowing and the mountains up-valley were concealed in a grey wall of storm, the peaks above me hidden in swirling mists.The next day I cached my heavy rifle. The caribou were not here and I wasn’t going to hunt until the way back anyway. The bears were awake. I had seen tracks in the mud. The fact that I was carting around a big stinky load of half frozen meat nearly gave me cause to reconsider, but I was desperate to lose some weight. I also left some fuel and hung small bundles of dog food in the tops of the spindly willows that were sheltering us from the wind. The dogs enthusiastically blasted out of our oasis of windlessness, but we were soon being blown sideways across the ice towards a long river bar of skull-sized rocks, which we bounced across for a while before heading up a bluff onto the barren tundra, hoping for easier going. Unfortunately the head wind and frozen tussocks made for slow going and required me to do a lot of clumsy running in my giant waffle-stomper pack boots. We headed back onto the river ice, and gradually made our way up valley. My leaders are generally pretty good at this kind of terrain. They often chose their own route through the maze of braided channels, pressure ridges, and gravel bars, but were eager to heed my advice when I called out commands. They knew what they were doing and we had the same goal: get up the river as quickly and easily as possible.The stormy grey wall at the head of the valley remained centered in the same place as yesterday, but it pulsated, surging and retreating, sending legions of clouds and wind to obscure the upper ramparts of the mountains above me and blot out the sun. The advancing clouds would then dissipate, withdrawing into the gloomy storm ahead, which loomed ever more ominous as we approached it from down-valley. The three-hour morning run had covered a very satisfying 15 miles and now, instead of clattering along ice and rocks, the dogs were able to thread their way along snow drifts as we got further into the mountains and there was more snow. I parked the dogs out of the relentless wind on the lee side of a steep riverbank and started melting snow to give them a snack. The big grey stormy blob up-valley gave out a mighty belch, and we were soon being blasted by wet flakes mixed with a stinging ground storm of icy sugar snow. Occasionally, the sun peeked through and the wind died down, giving me hope for an evening run, but the grey wall remained. I was on the edge of a stationary storm and to enter it would be unwise. After an optimistic but futile wait, I dug in and camped.Next morning started out unsettled and degenerated into a ground storm. The dark mass of grey nastiness loomed above me up-valley, sunshine and blue skies down-valley. I started heading back. After a short run with the wind at our backs we were far enough from the beast that the wind decreased, and it was pleasantly sunny. I camped to wait and see what the weather would do tomorrow. In the morning the storm remained up-valley. I was hoping the weather would improve so I could continue on towards the head of the valley where the mountains jut dramatically from the earth as naked slabs of solid rock. The goal was to find a route to the top of one of them, one on which I felt confident climbing alone. Not only were the mountains more spectacular further up-river, but I was also hoping to cover more miles with the dogs. This was after all, a mushing trip. Ten miles up-valley the world disappeared into the clouds. I was running out of time. If I didn’t cover some serious miles today, even if I got to the end of the valley, I wouldn’t have time to climb. I looked up at the peak we were camped next to. It was the highest peak around. I checked the map. It even had a name, amongst the dozens of unnamed peaks around it: Thibodeaux Mountain. A mile hike would take me to a ridge, which rose 4,300 feet to a 3/4 mile summit ridge with three peaks. The last one being the largest, a 400-foot pyramid at the end of the ridge. I had yet to see the summit’s top, which since the start of the trip had been capped with an angry dome-shaped cloud, as it was now. The horizontal rays of the 5:00 AM sun lit upon the upper slopes of the mountain, the cloud cap glowing almost peacefully. The wind blew down the Oolah Valley at a strong and constant clip. Blue skies above. What to do? “The wind is going to be raging up there,” I thought.Five hours later and almost a mile above the valley, I was picking my way across the shattered rock of the long horizontal ridge leading to the final 400-foot summit pyramid. The summit was bathed in perpetual storm. Clouds appeared out of the clear air on the windward side of the mountain, whipped over the summit and spewed a stormy comet’s tail down the mountain’s leeward side. Up-valley was the great grey beast, and its farthest-reaching tendril ended here, exactly where I wanted to go. I needed a miracle. I didn’t get one. I was tired of the constant battering of the wind and turned back. The descent brought higher winds, clouds and blowing snow. I took a wrong turn at a false summit half way down the mountain, got onto the wrong ridge, and had to do some unplanned rappelling.I trudged into camp, beaten and tired, and let a few dogs loose from the picket line. We went for a stroll down river to look for overflow so I wouldn’t have to melt snow for the dogs. The wind was at my back. The level, even ice was pleasant to walk on, and the relatively calm and secure environment lulled me into a dreamy state. Then we had an encounter with one of the very rare North Slope porcupines, which promptly adorned my lead dog’s nose with quills, and there I was in the wind on the ice, straddling the struggling dog, pulling out quills while the poor bastard screamed, loose dogs ran circles around me and the rest of the team in the distance raised hell. I finally let him go and collapsed on the ice, and laughed in the wind, dogs licking my face. The next day was sunny, but the storm still sat there, taunting; daring me towards it. I resisted and headed home, carrying a gimpy dog in the sled. If I had a tail it would have been between my legs.

Share:

More Posts