I keep meaning to post another Russia TR, but once again I got sidetracked.
Last week I traveled to the far north and took a journey of exploration into the arctic Brooks Range.
After traveling in the arctic and seeing Alaska’s Brooks Range in the summer months a few years ago I have had visions of backcountry skiing possibilities there. As you can see the prospects available in these pure white mountains are ponderous.
I had recently read the book entitled ‘Arctic Dreams’ by Barry Lopez in which he describes the arctic as a last great wilderness, an environment teeming with life and a complex ecology. Lopez points out that the stereo type of the arctic being merely a cold, desolate, unfriendly, and even evil, place in the minds of western man is entirely inaccurate. He begs us to witness the Arctic’s true beauty. As I traveled across the frozen tundra and ice, witnessing herds of caribou likely numbering in the thousands, flushing out flocks of willow ptarmigan in size reminiscent of the immense bird richness described by the first colonial explorers of North America, I came to know something precisely of what Lopez called upon us to witness.
I kept charging on, away from the setting sun, seeking to establish a camp some five miles from the road. I had been informed that there would be a dog mushers trail to follow which would provide speedy and minimal effort travel. This was not case. I found myself breaking trail through consolidated and drifted snow. I was rewarded, however, with several sections of solid ice where I could move quickly, somewhat making up for the slower travel. Nevertheless ice travel always requires diligence. Native peoples of the arctic are experts at traveling on ice, both sea ice and river ice. The phenomenon called ‘overflow’, where water from under the ice seeps above the surface establishing open water in places which often continue to look from afar like solid ice or snow, presents a considerable navigational challenge. After immersing my skis, and very thankfully not my boots, in open water a few times, I became familiar with how to identify possible sections of overflow from afar and thereafter did all I could to avoid them.
As dusk settled in, and temperatures began to drop drastically, I made haste to set camp. As I was doing so, the valley suddenly erupted into a chorus of wolf song. From all sides the packs called to one and other. I stood stunned, listening intently. I attempted to capture the sounds. Turn your volume up and listen carefully here.
I knew the wolves were all around me, some very close by. I glassed the surrounding hillsides and located a pack of twelve, grays and blacks, embedded on a knob not more than a half mile from my camp. As I cooked and prepared for sleep, I tried to remain confident that the wolves would not find any motivation or interest to bother with me.
I had experienced a few wolf encounters before. A few summers ago I exited my tent to urinate at 3am to find a lone wolf staring at me motionless at no more than twenty yards. It quickly darted away into some brush. Suddenly it returned but this time from the other side of the tent, now at ten yards and closing. I made a slight yell and the curious wolf turned away and trotted off down a creek bed. I never felt threatened in that situation, rather it was quite enjoyable.
This time, however, it was mid winter and rather than a single wolf, I was surrounded by entire packs. I recalled that an experienced woodsman once had told me that the only time one need worry about wolves is when you are alone and you are confronted by an entire pack. Thus, being that I was alone and I could see a pack of arctic wolves from my camp, I was somewhat intimidated. This, alongside the sub-zero temperatures that my -20 F down sleeping bag seemed not be handling very well, made for an interesting overnight. Nevertheless, I held fast.
I was awoken in the night by the sounds of my tent flapping in the wind and snow accumulating on my tent. In the morning it was flat light and snowing. While somewhat thwarting my motivation, I rationalized that the only way to get warm would be to get up and get moving so I brewed up and got my gear together to continue traveling up river.
As I skied up river, the weather began to clear up and I stopped periodically to glass the hill sides for caribou. Scanning the drainages, and even some of the high alpine bowls, small herds of grazing caribou flourished. While I was told numerous times that downhill skiing in the arctic was often infeasible due to a an extremely dry and faceted continental snowpack, the caribou seemed to have no fear of traveling across steep, dangerous looking slide paths and terrain traps. Their tracks marked many of the bowls and faces which looked most appealing for a ride. I contemplated ascending numerous of these slopes. Yet I had reasons not to do so, and I continued looking for an ideal situation in which to direct my efforts.
While snowboarding in the Brooks Range was a side goal of this endeavor, the primary objective was to obtain a supply of meat to supplement my dwindling supply of last year’s bounty of moose, bear, and salmon. To access this game rich valley, one is legally required to travel in a non-motorized fashion. Additionally, if one wishes to take a caribou with a rifle, one is also legally required to do so at a distance no less than five miles from the vehicle access road (bowhunting is legal within five miles, but presents considerable stalking challenges with the sounds produced by walking in the snow). My hypothesis: rather than walk in five miles on dry ground during other seasons, which means I would have to walk out with a very heavy load over those same miles, why not use the snow and ice pack to one’s advantage, as the Eskimo hunters had always done with their dog teams. A splitboard’s utility certainly goes beyond recreational backcountry skiing. In my mind it is the ultimate non-motorized, non-wind powered, winter travel tool. Thus I shall ski in on my split and then haul out my harvest using a sled and my skins to provide traction for pulling the weight. I began dreaming of this plan quite some time ago and a few weeks back I got motivated and began preparing myself for the task.
Because the best ski mountaineering conditions and the heli-season in Alaska would be starting up over the next coming weeks, it became pertinent that I go into the arctic to hunt as soon as possible. While conditions in early March are likely less forbidding than those of December, January, and February, it is still the dead of winter and I must admit that I was intimidated to travel on this journey alone. Still, I don’t need any distractions once the good downhill season starts up in the more southerly ranges, so if I am gonna do this, the time is now. So here I am, standing on my skis, 30-06 strapped to my pack, almost six miles down the river valley, contemplating a strategy to stalk a small herd of caribou off in the distance.
While I could see many animals grazing high on the mountain sides, I knew that the effort required of me post-harvest dictated that I avoid travelling uphill if possible. I kept telling myself “be patient, keep looking, something will appear in the flats”. And it did.
I suppose that eons of being relentlessly pursued by wolves have given caribou an adaptive trait of great alertness, a deep sense of distant movement, which supersedes a similar senses of alertness found in the other members of the deer family. Caribou all around me seemed to be easily aware of my presence and would scatter at notice of the slightest movement on my behalf. However the caribou never run too far, they do not disappear. As if I were a stalking wolf, they run just far enough from me to be out range and then peacefully resume their grazing activities again. Essentially, they do a dance, a fluid movement across the tundra.
I assessed the situation and made an attempt to sneak around a low hillside and approach the herd from its crest, using it as a blind. I did not make it fifty yards before I was detected and they were blazing away from me. Knowing that fleeing animals often circle back I made the decision to counter them and sure enough they were crossing the river ice just as I reached the river. I made the choice that it was all or nothing now so I crossed the river ice a few hundred yards above them and aimed for a small thicket of willows where I hoped to get a long, but decent shot. They quickly noticed me and dodged farther away and behind a small rise. Even though they were out of my view I knew the direction they were heading and I recognized this moment of visual obscurity as my opportunity to act. For now they could not see me, but I knew that quickly they would come into my view, and me into theirs, so I skinned as fast as I could in an attempt to gain as much distance as possible between myself and the location where the herd would emerge. Just as they came around I drove my BD Whippet pole in the snow, using the top of the ice axe as a perfect gun support. I scoped for one of the mature bulls I had noticed earlier and caught him walking directly through my sight at about 200 hundred yards. He stopped and looked directly towards me. Bang. He dropped. The herd scattered towards a distant mountainside. I had hit him good, but not good enough, as I could see the bull trying desperately to regain its feet. It could not stand. I skinned patiently towards him. At about 25 yards I said ‘I’m sorry, and I thank you’ and finished him quickly by a direct shot through the neck. I paused for some quiet contemplation of the world and my place, the caribou’s place, the wolf’s place within it.
I had completed what I came to do, however, the crux of the journey still lay ahead. As I began skinning, quartering, and processing the animal a black wolf whom seemed to pay no attention to me or the smell of blood in the air travelled across the valley in the distance. I worried that the wolves would come, so I moved quick. I placed all of the meat on top of the Brooks Range mountaineering rescue sled I pulled from my pack.
With sled secure and the rack on the pack, I was ready to begin the hauling process. I had retained the tounge and the heart for eating, and the brain for tanning, but I ended up discarding the hide due to it being filled with warble fly larvae.
Which was likely a blessing in disguise due to the heavy weight of the meat and the very difficult hauling conditions. I struggled for hours dragging the sled through two feet of sugar snow sitting on top of tussocks and dwarf willow tundra. I prayed the wolves would not come. I just needed to get the meat down to the river and it would be much easier to drag on the ice. Finally I attained the river, but it had taken me most of the day and the ice sections were sparse as most of it was covered by soft snow.
I still had a long ways to go and the load was much much heavier than it looks in the photo. The sun was going down, the temperatures were quickly dropping, and I was desperate to reach my camp. By the time I arrived I had bonked. I was freezing and could barely keep moving. I stashed the meat sled in some willows about 100 yards from my tent and covered it in snow. It was getting dark quick. I quickly got some snow melting, made tea and Mountain House, stripped off my bloody, frozen sweat laden clothes and climbed into my sleeping bag. The wolf packs began there nightly howling ritual. I prayed that the wolf song was not being directed towards me or my kill. It was a rough night. My toes and my nose kept tingling and would not get warm, I shivered, I worried that they would come for me, desperate for any easy winter meal. I recalled that the same woodsman who told me about the danger of wolf packs also told me that wolves always look for the weak, the sick, the feeble, and kill it. Tonight the weak, the sick, the feeble, not to mention the blood-soaked, was me. Yet I rationalized that I had never heard of wolves attacking or killing a person, that fear of wolves is a myth perpetuated my different human cultures over multiple generations. I told myself that because I was one who opposed the mechanized, aerial killing of wolves for predator control in Alaska, that because I had always defended wolves and the role of predation in an ecosystem, I would be spared from any aggression. Plus I had just left the wolf pack a wonderful meal of entrails and bone marrow at my kill site. I hoped that they would appreciate that. I was so tired I eventually passed out cold and did not wake up until dawn. I had made it this far and now I needed to begin hauling my meat and gear to my truck some four miles to the road.
I knew there was no possible way that I could haul everything at once so I devoted my efforts towards first getting the meat out. I surmised that if I moved quick I could get the first load to the road and then have time to return to camp for another nights sleep. I knew that my stove fuel supply had been diminished by repeated snow melting, but was quite surprised to find that I was only able to melt about half a bottles worth of water for the long and arduous journey to the road. This was a problem, because in this cold environment without fuel you certainly have no water, and you are left to try and gain nourishment by chewing on frozen hard energy bars and what not. There is no wood for fire. With the task which confronted me, I would certainly need stove fuel to properly nourish myself. I was not sure what to do, but I knew that I must get myself and the caribou to the road above all else. I knew it was going to be a difficult and painful task hauling the meat out. Even though I had made a skin track coming in two days earlier, the blowing snow had filled it in entirely so I would be breaking trail. I needed to find as much solid, clean ice as possible to utilize for dragging the sled, while at the same time be very cautious about accidently skiing into sections of overflow. For over seven hours I slogged. I would skin ten to twenty steps and then rest a minute or two and repeat, and so it went. At least today I had the weather on my side. I only managed to hit overflow once. Nevertheless, the impact on my hips and shoulders from dragging over one-hundred pounds through the snow was severe. I would be lying I told you it was not difficult. I don’t recommend it to others.
A willow strewn slope of three-hundred feet or so blocked easy access to the road side, so once I reached the base of the slope I divided the meat into two separate hauls. It would be much too strenuous to haul everything up the hillside, thrashing through willows and sugar snow, in one haul. With dedication and perseverance I had made it, just as soon as the late afternoon winds had picked up and the bitter cold of evening had begun to lay its claim on the valley. I was completely dusted; there was no way I could safely travel back to camp; it may have very well meant suicide. As tired as I was, as undernourished and dehydrated, and with the temperatures rapidly dropping I may have never made it to the tent, and if I did make would I be able to get myself sufficiently warm? No, I must stay at the road for the night and make the final haul of my gear in the morning.
In a recent discussion of this website intiated by Sufferfest describing his situation of becoming benighted in Canada, some topics of survival were discussed. My situation here has given me something important to add to the discussion. For a number of years I have kept an extra sleeping bag in my truck for emergency purposes. Until this day I had never needed to rely on it. I was damn lucky to have it stowed away. While the bag was not a modern, cutting edge, down sub-zero bag, it (along with the fact that I was able to start my vehicle and turn the heater on periodically) saved my life. I struggled heavily through the night; toes and nose tingling with frost nip, shivering. I suspected that I may have attained irreversible frost bite and that I may go hypothermic. I would wake up shivering fiercely and let the motor run for twenty minutes, which really did make the difference. Still, I will always keep an extra sleeping bag in my car. So I just want to add that to the previous discussion regarding survival. I think its very relevant to all of who drive around a lot in the mountains in the winter; say you slide off the road in a remote area, you run out of gas, something happens and you cant drive etc. Good idea to have a warm sleeping bag stowed away. Of course, I could have always given up and just started driving, and I would have if I truly felt my life was in danger, but I had a mission to accomplish and I was not going to leave $800 worth of gear out there on the ice. So I knew I could make it and I stayed put. I ended up pouring unleaded fuel in my stove and was able to get it fired up, which also allowed me to complete the mission. I was on the ‘ice highway’ and in the morning the ‘ice truckers’ would be passing by periodically as well, and I knew that I could get help from them if I needed. Nevertheless, it was a very trying experience.
In the morning I awoke to precisely what I did not wish for, high winds, blowing snow, and a storm. I became worried that the wonderfully packed in sled trail I had made the day before would become filled in, or that I could not find it in the whiteout conditions. I also continued to worry about encountering hostile wolves on the trail. I ended up picking up the trail, which made for quick travel and I easily reached my camp. The weather cleared up miraculously. I packed up and made haste back to the road. No wolves, but they were around, as I discovered fresh tracks on the trail.
One of the most demanding trips of my life and I had made it.
I kept reassuring myself that wolves do not kill people and that I was just being paranoid, yet upon my return to civilization I found that on the same day in which I hauled my meat to the road, wolves had killed a woman our for a run on the Alaska Peninsula; http://www.adn.com/2010/03/10/1178020/r ... ck-of.html
My original plan was to hunt for caribou and to do some snowboarding in the Brooks Range in tandem. All in all, especially after killing the caribou, the snowboarding aspect of my plan became unfeasible for me. Nevertheless, I discovered that the arctic certainly has some beautiful opportunities for downhill glisse; here are some photos of the mountains.
It was hard to turn around and drive away without making at least one run somewhere, but I had truly hit the wall. I will be heading back to ride there in the near future, no doubt.
Seeing all those amazing peaks had me freaking out to ride asap. Thus as soon I had my meat put away, my gear organized, and had recovered physically (even though my feet and finger tips are still tingling and somewhat numb from the arctic cold, a week later), I was ‘schwackin’ my way through willows in approach to a new line in the Alaska Range with my newfound split partner of the far north, Joey Slo.
This is another of Panorama Mountain’s multiple south facing couloirs. This one is approximately 3,400 ft. long from col to road. While its tough to get perfect snow on this peak during winter, especially on such a low snow year, it is a spectacular mountain with limitless mazes of skiable chutes and couloirs worthy of exploration. It has beautiful, aesthetic rock and affords wonderful views of Denali and surrounding peaks throughout the climb and ski. The conditions we had were chalky wind pack with occasional pockets of protected powder.
Here is the line we skied on Saturday.
In this photo the line lookers right, highlighted in red, I skied last year and the line we got into this weekend is highlighted with blue arrow on the lookers left.
Good on you snowsavage, the brooks is an unforgiving place in summer or winter and your accomplishment is no small task. Congratulations on your success. I have only been up there in summer and believe the area to be one of the greatest of my life experiences. I know DOT blasts Anaktuvuk Pass to keep haul traffic flowing and I have sat at the pass dreaming of returning in winter. Traveling 5 miles off the Dalton in any season is highly commendable. While the coastal ranges in AK are the gem of the snow sliding world, the remoteness of interior AK ranges are worthy to the most dedicated in our sport
Post subject: Re: Arctic Dreams and Splitboard Subsistence Strategies
Posted: Tue Mar 16, 2010 5:35 pm
Joined: Fri May 13, 2005 8:05 am Posts: 1510 Location: 395
Crazy TR man. I'm jealous as I've never seen a wolf in the wild. Maybe this year! You definitely are pioneering splitboarding to a whole new level. Sick adventure and one of the best TR's I've read. Hopefully you make it on an episode of Ice Road Truckers!
Post subject: Re: Arctic Dreams and Splitboard Subsistence Strategies
Posted: Tue Mar 16, 2010 6:03 pm
Joined: Fri Feb 17, 2006 10:10 am Posts: 1187 Location: Denver
Epic adventure there savage. First splitboard hunt? How did you skin that thing in the bitter cold? The wolf experience must have been amazing, I have yet to see one in the wild, though I hear there may be a mating pair near Debeque, CO. Lets hope they make it happen.
Hike for Turns; Yeah first Splitboard hunt; maybe the first in history? Good question about the skins sticking. I could not get my skins to stick so far all season around here, I was duct taping them on!! But just for before this hunt I applied gobs of new BD Gold Bond to em. They were extremely difficult to get pulled apart (no protector interface was used) after that but they stuck on no worries with all that fresh glue.
I have seen a few CDOW videos of the black wolf hanging around on the WYO border, and then read a bunch about the sightings and photos from RMNP, as well as the wolf hit by a car on I-70. Amazing to see the wildness coming back. I am with you on backing up their plan of restoring themselves in CO. I certainly fear the attitudes that will come with it, especially since I have been witnessing the extreme hostility towards them in Alaska.
Ale Capone; I hear ya on the Sheep thing. It has certainly crossed my mind. Problem is that there is no winter Sheep Hunt I know of so you’d be knee busting your way down the mountain instead of shredding it. This is why I got amped on the caribou thing, because it’s the only winter big game hunt I know of (at least when there is sufficient snow to ride). Yet you could potentially get a winter moose license in AK if you won the lottery. My original idea was to incorporate riding lines into the process here, but it became unfeasible. I even saw a bunch of em way up on a peak but knew that it would be extremely difficult to deal with so I went with the more doable option at the time. Maybe next year I’ll ride pow with my loaded ‘rescue sled’ !!!
Thanks to everyone for commenting. For real; I wont lie; I was scared shitless laying in my tent all bloody listening wolves howl and knowing there was absolutely nothing I could about it but wait it out until daylight.
Post subject: Re: Arctic Dreams and Splitboard Subsistence Strategies
Posted: Thu Mar 18, 2010 11:37 pm
Joined: Wed Nov 17, 2004 11:42 am Posts: 2388 Location: California
Awesome report Snowsavage. You're one tough bastard. I would have said fuck it and drove to Safeway and bought a steak long before I was laying in a tent with blood all over and wolves howling.
The other day I was getting discouraged while traversing through hollow snow, wet slides happing around me, out of water, etc. and I said to myself this ain't shit, WWSSD (What Would Snowsavage Do). I answered to myself, he'd charge out of here and definitely wouldn't be whining. Next thing you know I found a decent path out, filled up my water container with the best tasting and refreshing water ever and was in high spirits whistling back to the truck. Right on.