Welcome to Gates of the Arctic

Day 1

I awoke to the first cloudy morning I had seen in Bettles in a while. It was sprinkling here and there as I got up excitedly. The trip my coworker and I had been planning for a month was hopefully coming to a realization today. I made sure all my things were packed and carried them over to the front door before biking to our office to pick up a truck. I drove the truck back to the house to pick up my coworker and we loaded stuff into the back. We said goodbye to our roommate and we drove to pick up our boat. We chose the Ally canoe. It is a collapsible canoe, which I know sounds like something you should never trust in the water. But we knew Ally would be a trusty steed on our journey as she floats relatively high on the water and travels well on lakes as well as flowing rivers (up to Class III, I believe). We grabbed the Ally and all the boating gear and drove to find our pilot for our flight.

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Our trusty steed

We arrived at our vendor and worked out all the details of our flight. We would be able to fly out first thing in the morning! After a ride out to the float pond to the float planes, we loaded all our things into the Cessna (now the smallest aircraft I’ve been in). I would sit up front so I could keep in contact with our dispatchers following our flight. My coworker (let’s call him Leo, for ease) sat in the back with all our things and the pilot’s dog, who is inseparable from her master.

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Walker Lake on the left and the Kobuk River headwaters on the right

During the 30-40 minute flight we flew over the John and Alatna Wild and Scenic Rivers, both of which have their headwaters in the park. All too quickly the expanse gave way to a large lake. I looked up toward the headwaters of the Kobuk River and gasped at the scenery around me. Jagged, yet somehow soft-looking peaks rose away from Walker Lake and back into the Kobuk River. Clouds gave everything dimension as we moved closer back to the Earth. Our pilot landed us on the lake on a nice sandy beach where we had space to put our canoe together.

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Our flight leaving us to fend for ourselves

We unloaded all our things from the plane onto the beach and waved as our pilot floated and then flew away from us. I never would have imagined that he would be the last person we would see on the ground until we got picked up 8 days later.

Work started right away on putting our Ally canoe together. That kept our minds off of the solitude that could have crept up on us. We laid out all the pieces and then began the process. Everything was going smooth, as it did the day before when we practiced putting it together. We started putting the bottom piece of the canoe that has clips for the cross bars. In order to get these pieces into the correct position on the boat they are bent (like putting tent poles on your tent). N yelled it me to stop putting my side in. “It broke,” he said. My heart sank. I knew I quickly had to ignore that and started asking questions.

“Where is it broken? What does it look like? Can we fix it?” I went over to look. It had broken near where a clip was screwed into the bar as well as where that piece connected to the next. We got to work trying different options and troubleshooting. It began to rain lightly during this time. We bounced a lot of ideas around and tried a few different things before deciding our best option was to splint the poles together with a short pole that is larger diameter from our repair kit. Luckily we had decided the day before to pack some gorilla tape to tape the splint in place. So we again placed the piece into its place on the boat and taped the splint into place. We put the rest of the length pieces and then started putting the cross pieces in. This part takes “strength and finesse” as we were told by our mentor. I took off my boots and got in the boat so we could begin the process. When we reached the part that had broken we put the cross-bar in as best as we could then placed the clip back on and gorilla taped it on. The clip couldn’t be closed because the closing piece would not fit over the splint, so we had to hold the two pieces together somehow.

Luckily I had paracord and a boy scout with me. He lashed the cross-bar and length piece together where the clip would have been. It looked great and sturdy, but we would need to keep an eye on it and be conservative the rest of our trip. We finished putting the boat together and felt satisfied so we took a break and ate lunch on beach. The wind had picked up slightly and waves were crashing on the sandy beach. Rain was still continuing on and off.

Soon after we brought the boat down to the water and started to load our stuff in and then ourselves. We pushed off and were finally on the water. We decided to go to the other side of the peninsula to check out a site that people had been known to camp in, plus it would be nice to get out of the wind. On the north side we were greeted with a view up the lake where the mountains edged toward the lake. Clouds added a mysterious nature to the view.

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View looking north on Walker Lake. Our Ally in the foreground

Now we began our long journey to the outlet of the lake. We had had quick stop at an NPS cabin first.

When we arrived on the beach and exited our boat a loud thunk noise came from the cabin. I jumped and swung around to look. Something had just been thrown or flew against the window. Human, bear, maybe a bird? I couldn’t be sure. We waited cautiously down by the beach to see if it would happen again. What was that? Was a bear stuck in there throwing things around? Another thunk. I got a decent view this time. A bird was stuck in the cabin. I still felt cautious. Was it being tossed against the window? One more thunk. I felt surer that the bird was in there alone desperately trying to leave the cabin.

N has a great interest in birds so he was definite that we had to get the bird out of there. I agreed, but I would let him do it. As much as I wanted the bird out of there, I wasn’t really interested in trying to catch it. So N and I went up to the cabin and opened the door. The duck was desperate and flung itself toward the open door only to be foiled one last time by mosquito netting. She then retreated to the far corner of the cabin and hid well enough that we couldn’t find her. I thought she would perhaps try to leave on her own if we gave her some space and left the door and mosquito netting open.

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Waiting for the duck to leave the cabin on its own

So we left the cabin and had a look around the area for garbage or areas where people may have camped. We needed to leave the area soon so we went back down to the cabin to see if we could find the bird one last time. By the time I finished going to the bathroom and got down to the cabin I heard N say, “I got it!” I grabbed the camera as quickly as I could and rushed over. I got a picture of him with the duck for proof of our ventures. In my head this sounded like a terribly cliché Park Ranger story, so I couldn’t let people believe this was made up.

N released the duck and she spread her wings satisfactorily gliding down to the lake and then to the south. She must have been so relieved. We hoped she hadn’t been stuck in there too long.

We left the cabin knowing that we weren’t going to lose sleep wondering what we could have done. What a long day it had already been and yet there was still more to go.

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The sun came out!
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Looking north

The sun had come out and the wind had settled for our final canoe ride across the lake to the outlet. We began our paddle and the sun went behind the clouds. The wind died completely and the lake was dead still. The black, glassy lake looked ominous and beautiful. It was so quiet.

After a couple hours and some poor canoe steering on my part (which likely extended our journey) we made it to the shore near the outlet of the lake. We combed the area for a good spot to camp and eat. We found a few areas to check out the next day and settled in for our first night. It was hot! Would that damn sun ever go down?

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Walker Lake
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Looking towards the headwaters of the Kobuk on Walker Lake
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