Text by Bobby Lewis & Photos from Cameron Martindell
The Helio bush plane lifted off the Fairbanks field after it’s short throaty roll out and banked north towards the Kongakut River headwaters 300 miles away across the Arctic/Pacific divide.
Thirty six years ago, almost to the day, we had taken off with legendary Alaska bush pilot Walt Audi from Kaktovic heading towards what we hoped would be the first full kayak descent of the Kongakut from the headwaters high up along the Canadian border out to the Arctic Ocean. Most groups today run the middle 40 or so miles from Drain Creek to Caribou Pass, but boating a river in it’s entirety is such a rare opportunity and we were determined to start up in the boat dragging initial trickles near the pass and take 16 days to pull and paddle our way 80+ miles to the sea.
It had been a family trip in 1976 with my Aunt Jo and Uncle George and a couple of friends. This one was too with my wife, daughter (who has heard Kongakut stories all her life) and a small group of friends.
That first flight with Walt we had spotted grizzly and wolves on our way in and chased them along the ridge lines 100 feet off the deck in his tail dragger. That’s probably taboo today with the protections that ANWR offers it’s animal inhabitants from human invasiveness, but it sure was fun as a 12 year old. Walt has now retired to running his hotel and grill and Wright Air loaded our 400 lbs of boats, fuel, food, and camp gear, and gave us the scoop on river conditions, coastal weather, and pick up coordinates. Three hours later we were on the ground below the divide and there was work to do.
June 23rd -Night Watch 3a.m.
Grizzlies evoke a feeling unlike almost any other animal when one is on foot – awe, alarm, and respect mix together in a way that slows down moments of interaction into frames captured in a way that allows life long replay (and embellishment). In ’76 my closest encounter with a Grizzly was about 15 feet when I paddled near what I thought was a boulder on the gravel bar and found myself quite surprised when it stood up and proved itself to be a big boar sleeping on a caribou kill. I don’t think surprise is a recommended approach in the bear safety tool kit but I looked back after paddling furiously towards the middle of the stream and saw he was a long way gone with tundra still flying out behind him. In ’76 we had no firearm or even bear spray if it existed then. Now, with a child of my own on this trip I carried a .454 on one hip and pepper spray on the other. Some security yes, but I still place more confidence in harmonious interactions coming from one’s approach than defensive firepower.
The grizzly sow this morning caught my eye across the river as I sat and meditated in the shadows from the peak above. She took no notice of me but was busy instead with snacking on ground squirrels. Blond fur rippled with her movements – dig, spin, hop, repeat – as she matriculated up the slope and out of view down a side drainage. Perfect interaction. One of observance, no conflict, just beauty.
Shelling out $1750 per person for bush flights for the 3 of us was no easy decision for us as a family on teacher salaries. In 76 it was car washing and yard work $s which had bought my part of the ticket. This time around it’s donkey racing money. The only sport indigenous to our home state of Colorado and for running 30 miles with donkey and mining gear, crossing the 13,000 foot pass and breaking the tape in town first it pays mightily!
Arctic Char and Grayling every third night was our food plan for this trip. That and packets of leftover freeze dried from a climb down in the Alaska Range prior. We had an idea in 76 that Grayling might be abundant, which it was, but the first Char I caught as a 12 year old scared the socks off of me. 200 yards down the gravel bar from camp I casted for grayling and landed a 20″ 4lb Char which fought like mad and looked fully capable of taking a finger off. Not having a clue what to do I drug it down the beach to camp on the rod. At that point we’d been out near a month and my uncle was beyond excited for the fresh meat. Catching that fish is my first clear recollection of being proud of doing something. Last night we are Char over a smoky fire glazed with miso brine. The connection to 36 years out was palpable, the fish heavenly, and a char hitting the line still makes my neck hairs tingle.
Onions are my other memory from that first run. Aunt Jo had brought a bag of local onions as our non-perishable fresh food. Onions sliced with peanut butter for lunch, diced into freeze dried everything, onions that made my eyes water and nose run, onions that everyone was excited about except me. I looked in our food bag this morning and had to smile – onions.
We boated through the overflow ice with big sheets calving off and the river carving a channel unique to this year, this season and day. No guidebooks are available for the Kongakut and none needed or practical since it is ever changing, cutting, flowing, and renewing. Noticeably less ice now than in 76 though. Also different are the 20′ high cottonwood tree groves along the banks. Deciduous trees high in the arctic? I don’t when they migrated in or the what’s behind the changes in climate that allowed it but it makes for nice smoky fires at night to keep the bugs down and the socks dried out.
Seeing and observing an animal you have never seen before is just entrancing. In 76 it was wolves denned up in the river bank which allowed us to sit on the bar below and watch them. Today, descending from one of the multitude of unnamed peaks in the British Mountains daughter Jess spotted a wolverine amble out below. It hunted along the stream channel, saw us after a time, and moved up across the tundra out of site. A magic moment of being a part of that which is natural and untouched.
The Kongakut is mellow Class I&II, but in the 10 mile long canyon section occurred the most oft re-told rapid story I have. A lifetime spent as a boater and guide on rivers worldwide and “Out Bobby Out!” is my favorite still. You see Jo and George had proper arctic river gear, wet suits, paddle tops, gloves and all that. As a 12 year old I had fishing waders and a K-Mart windbreaker. Someone may have mentioned that waders were a bad idea but probably didn’t know why or more likely, didn’t listen. Today we paddled by the rock wall at the end of the canyon and it all came back. The Kongakut was running bigger that year in terms of CFS, but there was no doubt that was the spot.
We’d scouted the drop and I was moved from the kayak into the little gear raft Uncle George was rowing. Fairly simple run. Down the wave train, and then pull hard right before the water piled up into the rock wall on the left. We dropped in and I was white knuckling the chicken line. A kayak drifted in too close and complicated our move off the rock. George cursed and then yelled “Out, Bobby, out!” In my only moment of obedience in years I pleaded “But Uncle George!” and then flipped back out of the boat into the whitewater as we collided with the wall. 38 degree ice melt water and that’s when the waders kicked in. Filling instantly with water they took my 80 pounds to the bottom in a hurry. I did get one breath when I fought back to the surface, but it was just enough to hear George yell “No dammit!” before I sank for good.
Apparently it was Uncle George who then found me down with the Char and drug me back top side. I don’t know. Next I remember was white gas being flashed onto a brush pile, steaming Russian tea from Aunt Jo, and promising myself never to own or wear a pair of waders for the rest of my life. Later I learned George’s oar had popped out and he was alerting me to re-set it. The instruction sequence being a bit slim I had taken him for his word and hardly and Thanksgiving or Christmas goes by without someone asking for a re-counting of “Out Bobby, out!”
Some days pass quietly with seemingly empty tundra slipping by along the banks. Other days teem with the sheep, caribou, moose, wolves and grizzly’s the refuge shelters. Today we sit at Caribou Pass with fire shrouded arctic sun casting beautiful light across the landscape. In 76 caribou by the 1000’s or maybe 10,000’s rolled across the hills in this spot and swam the Kongakut fords as boated through. Full moon hangs now low across from the midnight sun as we sit around the fire waiting, watching, hoping.
Just called into Wright Air on the sat phone for a pick up check in on Icy Reef a week or so from now. It’s comfortable to have an electronic leash when you are this far out, but it changes things too. After walking up the Sheenjek River and over the divide in 76 we arrived at the re-supply point to get the boats and food flown in by Walt. Having carried packs for the first leg on foot we had cut it pretty close and were counting on food dropping in from the sky that day. Sitting under clear skies we had no way to know that Kaktovic was fogged in and Walt grounded. Day one passed. As a 12 year old my first day in my life without all the food I wanted. The following day was clear skies for us again but no Walt and no food re-supply. Inner panic for a boy used to the American lifestyle of all you want, when you want it. Day 3 was watercress from river shallows and a feeling which for the rest of my life allowed me to empathize with those around the world
Having left the mountains and foothills behind we crossed over open tundra towards the sea ice looming ahead. After a 20+ mile day on the water we pulled over for some afternoon tea and a leg stretch. Before launching for a final hour someone leaned down for a flat stone and sent it skipping towards the far bank. Within moments all in the group were skipping the perfect, flat, dense stones and the far shore became the collective objective. Right there, along the banks of the Kongakut Uncle George had taught me how to skip stones. Long hours were spent skimming them out there together assessing each stone’s weight, size, shape, density, and evaluating the throwing banks, run-up, and water conditions. All these things matter in seeking that long, fast, rhythmic skip.
Jo and George had also taught me to kayak. Summer of 75 prior to heading to the arctic they took my sister and I for rolling lessons in the Seattle pool, sea kayaking in the straights of Juan de Fuca and I got on local streams with some moving water. George built their own fiberglass boats and they were pioneers in the early whitewater kayak scene ( a 1960s National Geo on the new sport featured a photo of Jo). Once home in Colorado after that summer I perfected my roll by sneaking down to the local lake at night, pulling a board off the back of the old boathouse and helping myself to someone’s boat, paddle and skirt for late night solo practice sessions. There’s nothing like being alone, at night, in freezing water at 7,000 feet to motivate success in rolling up. Drowning was the other very real possibility. The result however has been 35+ years of whitewater descents around the world with a total of one missed roll and swim.
Jess and my bird count stands at 40 and we have not yet reached the ocean where the coastal birds will show up. It was Aunt Jo who first shared the pleasure of birding and wildflowers together with me and we carry her books and notes on this trip. It’s never been about checking something off, or a count or life list for Jo, but rather for the moment of observation and beauty. There’s a book titled “God in Small Things” and birding and flowers evoke for me that sense of awe in the natural creation.
July 4th – Polar Bear Fort
After paddling through miles of fog across the coastal plain we connected mid afternoon with Icy Reef which serves as a barrier between the Kongakut’s fresh water estuary and the jumbled, rumbling sea ice graveyard of the Arctic Ocean. Stepping out of our boats we were greeted by massive polar bear tracks along the waterline and edge of camp. Having seen a lot of grizzly tracks over the years I was under the impressing that polar bear tracks would be similar in size, but no, the girth of their tracks brought the homeland security threat level straight up to red. In 76 Uncle George had explained that grizzlies had not been hunting us but now most likely the polar bears would be. Nice to know. But not noting any change in the security plan I was convinced that being in a tent with two other smelly, tasty, unarmed humans was a bad idea and I moved out into a fort I built with MacKenzie river driftwood. Under the 12 year old delusion that I was now safely sheltered I tucked in and slept like a babe. I looked for remnants of that fort today which storms would have long ago claimed. Tonight I’ll sleep with one eye open, both out of respect and because there is no animal I’d like the chance to see more (other than maybe a musk ox).
July 4th – Independence Day
Bicentennial Independence Day in 1976 we woke to a foot of snow. Jo had discouraged food fantasizing prior on the trip, but as sat around the tents the question of what you would most like to eat when you go back came up. Each gave their input from fresh salads, to burgers, fries and ice cream. When it came to me, in all seriousness as a child of the 60’s and 70’s I said ” a loaf of Wonderbread.” Jo, as a gardener, baker, and natural foods junkie just howled. To this day she teases me about craving Wonderbread, but to this day I’ll hold that two slices with some pb and marshmallow fluff is unbeatable.
Today in celebration we raised a red poncho for a flag, gave Nathaniel a mullet with some safety scissors from the 1st aid kit to evoke americanism, and then fired the .454 at an expired i-pod to kick off the Beaufort Sea Games. Natalie scored a direct hit off hand from 10 paces with the .454 and held the lead through rock skipping, joke telling and horseshoes. The final nude swim to the ice flow and back was interrupted by the appearance of fata morgana, the floating columns and spires of sea ice mirages to the north.
It’s occurred to me as this trip draws to a close that a big difference between the 1976 and 2010 trips is perspective. As a 12 year old I saw all the events through the lens of myself and most of my memories were about me. As a 46 year old my reflections of this time and the meaning of the experience have more to do with others – the joy of exploring a peak as a family, watching a daughters face as she sees her favorite animal a wolf in the wild for the first time, seeing friends scramble up the reef and laugh and splash in the Arctic Ocean, handing a friend a steaming mug of coffee in their sleeping bag as we pass the watch, reading around the Sunday morning fire together, simply finding one’s own in another’s joy and good.
It was my early morning watch as the others slept after a late night up enjoying conversation and camraderie around the fire. I had scanned the reef up and down with binocs since we knew the polar bear was in the area and then sat back down for a few minutes of warming up my hands by the coals and reading a chapter or two with a cup of joe. I did hear a bit of a snort at one point and looked up but didn’t see anything. Then we I heard breathing right next to me I realized that I had gone terribly wrong. Exactly how 14 musk oxen could have swum over from the mainland, snuck into the camp and showed up about 10 feet away will perplex me for years to come. But there they were, 7 mamas and 7 calves literally a few feet away mixed in among the tents bellowing and snuffling. So much for my retention of all that good USMC training back in the early 80s.
In any case, being flummoxed aside, I did see them before being stepped on and alerted the camp. Our great hope to see some of the only 250 musk ox in North America was answered by them fining us! We then spent the morning following them down the reef collecting the hair ejected during their hasty retreat once everyone came piling out of the tents with cameras in hand.
Someone asked last night as we sat side by side and watched the terns and jaegers dive if this trip and place in 76 set the direction of my life. There can be no doubt. Beyond the activities themselves, the time in the arctic sparked a feeling of possibility and fulfillment that I’ve spent my life seeking to replicate, deepen and understand.
Jess and I also did a climbing trip in the Alaska Range prior to meeting up with other for the Kongakut section. Text and Photos of the climbs are on her blog.