After a lengthy but enjoyable flight over the Arrigetch Peaks I landed on a gravel airstrip in Anaktuvuk Pass, a native village just on the north side of the Brooks Mountain Range and inhabited by the Nunamiut, the only inland Iñupiat (Eskimos) in Alaska. Anaktuvuk Pass is often reported as the coldest place in Alaska during the winter and although experiencing the midnight sun is pretty awesome they also have 72 straight days of no sun in the winter, which is hard to even imagine. The Nunamiut were a nomadic people following the Caribou and didn’t settle down until the 1950s.
Although it is gaining popularity as a place for hiking and even rafting (the John River and Anaktuvuk Rivers are floatable), visitors are still rare and the General Manager of the regional native corporation (most villages are set up as native corporations in order to provide an ability for them to be – or at least try to be – economically independent) saw me fly in and met me at the airport. He started as a tour guide and explained they have a store, café, etc. and a bit about the history. However, when he found out I’ve worked in an Alaska native village before and I’ve also worked with some native corporations in my business life we are soon in a lengthy discussion of the challenges and woes of native life. A fascinating discussion that we’ll continue over lunch when I return from backpacking.
We did agree it is a wonderful place for outdoor activities (even backcountry skiing in the spring) and they need to somehow get the word out. The village is in the process of remodeling their “lodge” from something best described as a “man camp” for construction workers to something more pleasant for tourists. Ultimately they would like to build a new lodge on a bare ridge above town.
I’m a little late heading out of town on my planned solo backpacking trip, but heck, you can walk all night if you want in the sun so I finally hike out of town at about 3:00 pm and put in 6 miles before stopping for the “night”.
I suppose you can easily tell the passage of time during the night by how far the sun travels across the horizon. For me it was a little disorienting so I’m glad I had a watch so I knew when “morning” was. I started the day on the banks of the Anaktuvuk river in the bright sun, ate some oatmeal for breakfast and then hiked upstream a ways. Then I turned up a tributary toward high ground to climb some of the nearby peaks. I like peaks.
After climbing a lower peak and identifying a good high peak to climb the next morning, I just sat in a high saddle, with a nice breeze to keep the bugs off with a forever-view of the Brooks. I stared at the view for a bit and read my kindle for a bit. It was one of those magical moments and I’m glad there was a rock I could balance my camera on to get a photo. It didn’t last though, as the clouds got lower and lower and finally turned the forever-view into a two-foot view. And darn cold. I went to bed, read some more and listened to the drizzle on the bivy sack. The unzipped bivy sack. Also a pretty fine moment.
Next: Day Ten – Escaping the Weather
The next morning, day ten in Alaska, I climbed the peak next to my camp, about 7,000 feet (Anaktuvuk pass is about 2,500 feet) for some great views. However I was starting to think about flying again and I was able to get some basic text-based weather on my satellite device (DeLorme InReach) and that showed storms were coming in. I wouldn’t know it yet, but within a few days it would be snowing around here. I also had this crash report in mind from June. I decided to hike out that day and even fly out that evening to get ahead of the storm.
I dropped down a different valley into the John River valley and followed that back to Anaktuvuk Pass. There I met Brad again, the general manager of the village corp., and he wanted me to experience the great burgers at the café. Interesting, because previously he said they had a restaurant but from walking around I never found it. This time he drove me the two blocks to get there and it turned out to be an unmarked and rather unappealing trailer with a sewage problem. I couldn’t help but suggest maybe they put a sign on it for tourist’s sake. It was a great burger though and I even saw they had halibut and all kinds of stuff. I wouldn’t say it was a romantic sort of restaurant, but it was clean (inside) and had good food.
For the sake of being a good tourist I bought an Anaktuvuk Pass jacket at the store, then preflighted my plane and took off. Unfortunately, because of numerous fires just south of the Brooks Range the visibility soon went to almost zero and I was flying on instruments. There were also increasing clouds and I was in the process of trying to figure out where they were so I could fly under them if possible, or over them – keeping in mind the freezing level of about 9,000 feet. Not really a problem but certainly a time of high concentration.
Then a red light came on and warnings started to flash on my engine monitor display. Oh my, what timing.
Next: Inflight Emergency