50 Shades of White

Tree People in Tundra

***  This post was written in 2015 and accidentally not published, here it is now!

David and I consider ourselves to be tree folks.  We use trees for many of our most basic needs: housing, heating, bowls and spoons, flooring, etc.  We feel safe and confident with trees around.  But when we got an e-mail from Arctic Wild LLC, a Fairbanks-based guiding company who had a client that wanted to walk from the Haul Road to Nuiqsut and needed some dogs to pull it off, we jumped at the opportunity.  While I have always loved the expansiveness of the tundra, the idea of doing a winter trip on the tippy top of Alaska, some 150 miles north of the nearest tree taller than my waist (no joke: Farthest North Spruce: Dalton HWY MP 235, Franklin Bluffs, this trip’s starting point: Dalton Hwy MP 383”) was an intimidating challenge at first.  As our friend Jeff so aptly described Galbraith Lake, just north of the Brooks Range “the world doesn’t make sense anymore.”

My unease with traveling in treeless terrain was about more than gear.  The first time I had spent on the Coastal Plain in winter was on the East side, on a trip up the HulaHula River with a friend from Kaktovik.  We were pulled in a giant sled behind a snowmachine across the 40 miles of coastal plain and my main feeling was that of disorientation.  Were we on ocean? River? I couldn’t tell which way was up.  It’s pretty white up there.

Old Dogs, New Gear

Its not just about aesthetics- our whole winter traveling setup is dependent on a good grove of spruce.  We cut poles to hang our wall tent from, use boughs to make a floor, tie our dogs to trees, and depend on the nearly endless supply of dead standing wood to heat our tent and cook our meals.  Traveling without trees meant we had to carry at least 150 lbs of gear that we don’t usually take: a big, heavy tent (Arctic Oven), fake logs (duralogs), a propane cookstove and fuel (which was actually really great).  We had to carry stakes that we would normally just make out of branches, had to pre-cut small poles to tie the dog picket to, and even carried a spare ski pole when we would normally rely on trees to fashion one if ours broke.  This gear would not fit in the dog sled.  Luckily, not having trees means you don’t have to mush dogs between and over them, so David made a sled we named “the barge”- 10 ft long and 20 inches wide, it rode between the dogs and our usual dogsled and was packed each day to the gills with all of our “tundra gear.” 

We did our best to prepare.   We bought a brand new GPS with topo maps (thus David’s transition from a man solidly in the “map camp” to a mildly obsessed “GPXpert”).  I practiced a GPS game of Marco Polo around town, learning how to follow the GPS.  The client wanted to walk from the haul road, some 70 miles to the village of Nuiqsut and to do so in the straightest line possible.  To make that trail, we had to take turns walking, skiing, or snowshoeing in front of the dog team, compass around our neck and GPS warm in pocket, picking tiny bits of reflected snow or tundra to walk towards and checking our position constantly.  When conditions got really white (20 feet or so of visibility, we let the dogs try their luck at going in a straight line and were amazed at the results.  For the first 30 minutes or so (until they get bored or distracted) they would plod ahead without a trail and go almost exactly, eerily, straight.  

Tuning Our Eyes

And so we plodded ahead, straining in the moist, coastal air to make sense of our surroundings.  With each day, my eyes grew more accustomed to the landscape.  I began to notice patterns in the wind and sun-shaped snow.  It became a fun game to scrutinize every dot of exposed tundra.  Without depth perception, it was hard to tell exactly how far away something was or exactly how large it was.  I once stopped and put a Bear flare in my pocket for what turned out to be an overly-active Goose (“it’s moving like a bird, but is that an arm? The black spot of a Polar Bear’s nose?”)  Another memorable bear sighting of David’s turned out to be a dirty chunk of snow expelled by an industrial vehicle on the road to meltwater (“It looks too big to be a Bear, its not moving…”) While our sense of up and down was certainly getting toyed with, our awareness was also growing.  On the trip back we saw Fox, Arctic Ground squirrel, hundreds of Ptarmigan, a Snowy Owl and all kinds of patterns in the land that we hadn’t noticed on the way out.

While the landscape was what some might call barren, over the course of the trip, we saw it come to life.  When we arrived in Nuiqsut we had just started noticing the migrating white fronted geese who were arriving alongside us, to the joyful anticipation of local hunters.  Soon they were joined by ducks, sandhill cranes, Canada geese and the always-present ones like raven and now (in mating season, we read) exceptionally fearless ptarmigan.  In truth, I don’t think I have ever seen so many birds in my life.  Ptarmigan chatter was absolutely endless, their alien-like voices echoed day and night.  Flocks of geese flew low and circled us.  In the two weeks of our traveling, we got to watch all sorts of life forms return to this rich tundra nursery and the celebration was a joyous one.  We wondered what on earth all the birds would do with all the snow, but when we reached the haul road we understood.  On both sides of the dirt and gravel road, a layer of dirt and dust sometimes 5 miles wide had accelerated the thawing of the snow and each side of the road was hosting a giant trough bird bath.  

Weathering the Storm

Luckily, while we had some very white days and some very blue days,  on the way there we avoided any major storms.  On the way back, however, we found one.  It was our first night on the trip back and we had made good progress, easily gliding over our own trail.  As we hunkered in for the night we noticed the wind picking up a bit, so we took some precautions, using the sleds as a windbreak for the dogs and guying out the tent with another layer of stakes.  Soon the wind grew into a full-on snow-flinging storm.  We went outside repeatedly to check on the dogs and unbury their pads and when we did we’d get blasted with so much snow that we were wet by the time we made it back into the tent.  It seemed highly illogical to travel in this weather, so we read every word of the Tundra Drums newspaper that we’d acquired in Nuiqsut as well as a Dan O’Neil book to stave off tent fever.  David did some snow sculpturing with the marvelous hard pack snow that we were melting for water.  He carved large cylinders to fit over the water pot and slowly melt in.  The next day was more of the same.  We let the dogs run around and warm up, but the idea of packing up and pitching the tent in this weather was not palatable.  Around 8pm, we went to check on the dogs and were stunned to see the storm lifting and a gorgeous sun dog blazing in the sky.  Taking this as our cue, we began packing up and made a break for it around 10.  Traveling in the cold wind was a little tough, and we appreciated our fur ruffs like never before, but were able to get through the storm to calmer country.  As is often the case in the north, the contrasts are what makes the landscape really beautiful.  We could read the storm on the snow as we traveled, seeing where it had struck and blow and where it had been calmer.  Good weather, in contrast to the storm, became a gift and we would gladly take what we got.  Amazingly, the dogs could still manage to follow our trail, although we often couldn’t see it.  As the sun came up around 3am we settled into a nice camping spot in a protected little valley.

Adjusting Our Clocks

Each night when I got up to pee I noted the time and lack of darkness- 1:00 still light, 2:00 still light.  It never- literally never- got dark.  We took advantage of this on our return trip when the increasing sunlight meant daytime temperatures were too hot for the fluffy dogs and too sunny for the Alaskan redhead to move without groaning.  After the day stuck in the tent for the blizzard, we adjusted to an evening travel schedule, moving from dinner time until around 3 am, setting up camp and going to bed by 5 am and sleeping until past noon.  Moving this way, we got to watch the sun set and rise.  As it was setting our shadows elongated over the snow until the landscape was small and our dark reflections were giants.  There was a feeling of calm in the 1-2am stretch, when the sun was in hiding but the light lingered and an incredible feeling of uplift when the sun started stretching back up for the day around 2-3.  

I should mention that it was also perhaps the best cross-country skiing I have ever experienced.  One big carpet of seemless, smooth snow.  You could go anywhere you liked on the wind-beaten terrain, no trails, no fuss. 

And so, slowly, the treeless world began to make sense to us the way a camera adjusts focus until an image is clear. A big thank you to Arctic Wild for giving us this wonderful job and being such great partners.  We can’t wait to pack up our truck next winter and go north again!