A Women's Journey on Alaska's Kongakut River with Equinox Wilderness Expeditions
We've been flying over a seemingly endless range of mountains for more than one-and-half hours -- dark, brooding gray and black ridges, and golden peaks streaked with orange, while dark green swards of green spread across the valleys and sinuously twisting ribbons of water shimmer in the sunlight. In and out of clouds, rain splatters and wind buffets against our tiny plane and suddenly, there's a rainbow rising vertically into the sky; below it, where the pot of gold might be, a small herd of caribou wanders across a stony ridge. "There's nothing down there at all," one passenger exclaims. And I think, "There's something down there -- our wildest wilderness, a 19.1 million acre wildlife refuge in Alaska's northeasternmost corner, along the ice-choked Beaufort Sea. Nothing down there? No, not if you seek cities, the acoutrements of civilization, and signs of the human hand upon the landscape. But if it's vast untrammeled space, wildlife, and mountain ramparts that you seek, then the Arctic Refuge is the place to be.
Our adventure begins with a farewell. Our pilot, in a 3-passenger Cessna-185, lifts off the rough gravel airstrip for the last time, leaving us to the silence and embrace of the upper Kongakut River valley. After standing spellbound at the beauty -- and realizing how far north we've come -- we organize our mound of gear into neat piles -- boats, paddles, life jackets, food bags, personal river dry bags, tents. Our party of six pairs up and wanders down the long gravel bar to put up the tents. "Wow," someone exclaims, "There are caribou grazing RIGHT THERE." A mere 100 yards away, a herd of 25 caribou nonchalantly nibbles at low willow bushes and lichens pocking up out of the tundra. Because of the extreme northern latitude, the vegetation in the Arctic is similar to that encountered at much higher altitudes in other mountains in the world. This land is treeless; that means if a bear comes, we can see it a mile away.
It doesn't take long to lose track of what time or what day it is. Here, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the sun is up constantly, only dipping ever so slightly late in the evening, enough to suffuse the land with a golden alpenglow that makes it seem gilded. Our guide, Karen Jettmar, bends over a couple small expedition stoves and in the time it's taken us to settle into our homes along the banks of the Kongakut River, she's whipped up a hearty pot of angel hair pasta with fresh pesto, a big salad and fist-sized chunks of garlic bread. We gather in a close-knit circle, sitting atop food buckets, and indiscriminately stuff carbohydrates into our mouths, while Karen points out the wolf tracks loping off toward the river. "She came along here, " she tells us,"then veered off to the east; it looks like she swam the river."
I stand staring out at the country, wondering where that wolf went, and whether it had a successful day of hunting. It's to let go of the day, to actually turn in for the "night," but I know tomorrow holds the promise of an exciting day of paddling lively rapids and hiking to high perches where Dall sheep rest.
And so it is, that for 10 days, we hike and explore, looking for grizzlies, golden eagles and wildflowers. We raft through the mountains, paddling 80 miles through deep canyons and spacious valleys to the last foothills looking out over the coastal plain. We crouch down in the tundra like animals while thousands of caribou stream across the valley, then plunge into the river, emerging on the other side to go prancing through the tussocks. Even the calves, less than a month old, possess the speed and stamina to run with the herd. By night, the caribou wander past our tents; by day, we parallel their own journey down the valley. Each day, our community of women grows closer, everyone helping with the cooking and cleaning and loading of boats and paddling. Now I know what it's like to dance with caribou under the midnight sun.