Thursday, December 14, 2017

Karen's High Arctic Adventure

Last June Karen fulfilled a long held dream — traveling to an Arctic wilderness.  A guided trip rafting down the Kongakut River draining the north slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range enabled her to savor one of the wildest parts of North America free from the accouterments of civilization — OK, mostly without.  She brought along her toothbrush.

Prior to Karen setting off on that adventure with a close friend, four other soon to be friends and two guides, I restrained myself from encouraging her with suggestions such as: she gets airsick on small planes (she didn’t ), she’d be under siege by trillions of mosquitos (she wasn’t), and she was sure to get lost (she did).  One out of three — that would be a good batting average for a New York Yankees left fielder.

So, in mid June Karen departed Petersburg on an Alaska Airlines jet, downsized in Fairbanks and further downsized in Kaktovik on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.  The only additional downsizing came when she disembarked the tiny bush plane supported by tundra tires that enabled it to land on a gravel bar in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  There, far up the Kongakut River, she downsized into a full-to-capacity raft to set off down the river — traversing some of the wildest, most remote country in North America.

The Kongakut River originates in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the north slope of Alaska's Brooks Range.  From there it winds it's way to the Beaufort Sea at the top of the North American continent.

                                                  The drop off spot -- an Alaska-style "airport."

The big question, of course, was now how do you fit four people in that thing?  The answer is once the planes have departed you have no choice.

Each day of rafting was interspersed with a day of explorations via foot.  During those sorties mountain tops held the strongest allure for all of the group -- except Karen.  There’s no way mountain tops can come close to competing with treasure hunts for rocks and bird photographs.  Of course it was on one of those treasure hunts for rocks, when she rarely glances up to see where she is going, much less what direction, led to me being successful in one of my predictions — she spent three hours walking away from camp in a effort to get to it.  Only Karen!

                                                                          Off for a day of exploration

Carolyn surveys the upper Kongakut River from a vantage point on the way to the next vantage point one step further upslope.

So, how did Karen manage to get lost when the encampment is to obvious?  Hint, Karen, it's over on the left side of this photo.

So many choices!  Karen wanted to bring all of them home, but wait.  They had to fit in the raft and plane, even Karen's pack.  Can you guess which one of these now resides in our living room?

                           Of course she wanted to bring this family of Arctic Ground Squirrels home, too.

And this semipalmated plover.  Then again, it may well fly to Petersburg every spring and fall during it's north and southbound migrations.  Perhaps it's image even resides among Karen's 90,000 photographs on this computer.  We'll have to check on that.

            Ah, a critter she may have actually brought home residing among the cells that constitute her body.  

A bull caribout that chanced upon Karen while she was visiting the trench that functioned as the camp loo.  Inspired by Karen, the caribou emulated her action.

Somehow politicians depiction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as being a wasteland doesn't jibe with our definition.

Aufeis, Kongakut River overflow that built up in layers of ice last winter greeted the intrepid explorers as they approached the Beaufort Sea.

The final destination:  a gravel bar separating the Beaufort Sea (on the right) from a lagoon at the mouth of the Kongakut River.

                            Remnants of last winter's Arctic Ocean ice pack line the shores of the Beaufort Sea.

Just shy of the sea, aufeis lingers on even after summer solstice.  Can it ever melt before winter?  We won't know.

It’s with great sadness that we now watch tax reform wrangling in Washington.   Politicians, whose main concern is rewarding the oil industry for funding their campaigns, are on the threshold of turning parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the Kongakut River into an industrial zone.  To add insult to injury, anyone who isn’t employed in the oil industry will be barred from even accessing the area.  Politicians claims that effects on the refuge can be mitigated is total nonsense. 

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Seemingly so barren and yet it's the nursery for the Porcupine caribou herd as well as a myriad of bird species.  Turning it into an industrial complex can't be mitigated and once lost, it's lost forever.