Many colors of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are displayed as we head into the Guilbeau Pass.Date Posted: 05.01.06
Location: 70°07'N 143°36'W
Weather Conditions: Partly cloudy with a breeze 15F / -9C
Dogsledding through the very heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge we saw first-hand how this place is home to breathtaking vistas, a myriad of animals, birds, and tiny plants of many colors. "Colors in more than one sense, this is indeed the Arctic, and as such this unimaginably beautiful, but harsh, nature has shown us its many colors," Mille thought to herself, standing high on the mountain, trying to scout the route down the summit of the Guilbeau Pass; more than frightened by what she saw ahead – high to climb, deep to fall…
Jens is ‘doing dishes’ with a sheet of toilet paper. The plastic bag in front of him is about the amount of garbage we have everyday while on the trail.
As it turned out, first getting to and then standing on top of the pass, what we had known all along to be the crux of the expedition presented us not only with the challenges we had expected – but a few others as well. It was again clear and sunny as we broke camp the day after Education Day and headed for the pass. Overnight the herd of caribou that had been lying just behind our campsite, on the bank of the mountain, had moved on. They were nowhere to be seen as we peered toward the entry of the pass. It looked like our dream of running through the pass behind the caribou had passed. To make sure we would hit the entry point of the narrow passage across the Brooks Mountain Range, Henry was out in front of the dog sleds, skiing a trail. He recalls, “At first I saw this fast moving animal running across the slope ahead me, it was large and seemingly alone, so I thought maybe it was a lone wolf. I looked further ahead into the valley of the pass – and right there, straight ahead of us, moving like a wave across the foot of the mountainside were hundreds of head of caribou. Awed by the site, and our fortune, I was quickly jerked by the sounds of Mille’s voice shrieking through the air, 'Disko!, Nazca!, Ruby!, Sable!..caribou, caribou, caribou, caribouuuuuuuu, gotta’go, gotta’go.' And so they did!"
Watch Mille’s bumpy ride as the Polar Huskies are on the lookout for caribou.
Jens continues, “We were just coming to a stop, catching up behind Henry on the valley bed. At the sight of the caribou moving in the distance, the Polar Huskies, with ears pointing and tails waving, were pulling with all their might to make the heavy sleds fly across the rocky bottom. On our left was a bunch of high willow bushes that Henry was working to navigate us around, on our right were the steep footings of the mountains; straight ahead was a little creek. All of a sudden running caribou – a continuous caravan of them – appeared out the willow bushes, leaping across the creek, up and onto the steep footings of the mountain – right in front of Mille’s team. The Polar Huskies took off full blast. Henry lost hold of the sled and Mille threw her body-weight across the handlebars while hanging onto it with all her strength.” Mille adds, “The dogs were actually pulling me and the sled with such power that when the sled went flying over a bunch of smaller boulders and the big break on the back-end of the sled smashed into a rock, the break just flung into the air, ripping the bolts on one side from the runner of the sled; bending it like it was a piece of clay – not heavy-duty metal – while the impact almost catapulted me to whirl through the air.”
Watch hundreds of caribou moving effortlessly across the tundra.
With such power we were soon by the narrows of the pass. There leaders of the caribou herd decided it was time to split from the strange wolf-pack-looking-caravan-slowed-down-by-something-trailing-behind-them-and-very-loud-woaaaaav-sounding-noises, so with a uniform sway and flow, effortlessly moving, the hundreds of caribou turned to run past us, back from where we had come; the Polar Huskies looking far behind them.
Lunch at what we call “the Gates of the Guilbeau Pass.”
“The Guilbeau Pass has lurked in the back of my mind for almost two years,” shares Paul. “Finally, at its entry point I was struck by the sights. Tall mountainsides narrowed to what looked like a huge gate formed by two cliff sides, one the shape of an enormous pillar, towering 40-50 feet in the air. Smaller rocks were tumbling down the vertical cliffs surrounding us, making for a very hushed approached as we told the Polar Huskies to be quiet and kept our own voices low to not aggravate any rock slide coming down at us.”
Narrow cliff walls, huge drifts, and glaring ice were the first obstacles of the Guilbeau Pass.
Watch Henry and Jens, hard at work, planning a snow drift for the sled to move up.
Watch Jens chopping ice steps while Paul prepares to move his team forward.
The sheer, deep, narrow cliff walls witnessed this passage, having been shaped by fast, flowing water, moving through for ages and ages. As we soon found out, this time of the year the water is frozen into a path up through the pass, with no snow coverage beyond huge drifts, formed by drops in the rock formations. Going up and up made it very difficult for the Polar Huskies to lean into their harnesses and pull the sleds because they could not get a grip on the surface. Instead they would slide all over when launching forward. The sleds would then get stuck on boulders and rocky areas, tipping down or raming into the steep drifts. At one point, to get to a plateau on top, we were going up a very steep drift, barely the width of a sled length which then dropped in a funky angle, straight down with a sideways slope of twenty-feet or so onto a narrow piece of ice – not long enough for the entire team of dogs to stand there – before it headed up another funny-angled vertical drift; cradled by a vertical cliff wall. On the other side of our path the snowdrift continued straight up and down but with loose boulders two-to-three times the size of the dogs. The dogs had to hug their bodies to these boulders. Or, do as Timber did, basically inching his way over the boulders, by first pulling the sled up the incline, then stopping, waiting for us to push the sled forward and down the decline, so that he could pull it up the following incline. Once we mastered getting one sled through, it was turn for the other. But, right at the top, where we were to stop the sled and push at an angle, so it could go down without going into the sheer cliff wall – the sled kept sliding forward at the pull of the dogs. Before we had any chance to slow it down, it tipped over the edge of the drift, ramming full-power into the cliff. Luckily enough it did so sideways, instead of head on, or we doubt we would still be traveling with two complete sleds! That said, thanks to lots of teamwork, among two-legged and four-legged alike, we slowly crawled our way up the passage, with shovels at hand to dig and flatten out the drifts and axes to chop steps in the ice, giving the dogs some footing and a chance to pull the loaded sleds.
Mille’s blistered, swollen, and infected lips from the strong reflections of the sun in the mountains.
Watch Polar Husky Disko and the team plow forward as they fall into snow up to their chins.
It took us most of four hours to travel the first four-to-five miles of the pass. Taught by earlier experiences on this expedition, we did stop early that day, although we reached a large area that was flat and good for camping just before another narrowing of the pass. We did not want to risk making it to the top of the pass in time for camping; then having to start out on the ‘downhill’ with rested dogs eager to go full speed the following morning. It turned out the 'slow go' was just a taste of what was to come. The last couple of miles the pass widened out to open, sweeping fields – with snow so deep we sank in up to our waists and armpits, crawling on all-four or treking on our snowshoes to push the sled. “Being too close to the sky,” as Mille put it (while desperately applying white zinc oxide to her blistering skin and lips, then swollen from oozing infections), the sun was hammering us from a blue sky with blinding light and sweltering temperatures, making the snow not just deep, but wet, heavy, and slow. The Polar Huskies were working hard, sinking into the snow to their heads for every step forward in order to move the sleds the last miles up, up, up to the summit. At lunch we stopped – just a mere 200-to-300 yards from the summit. We were hot, exhausted, and ecstatic!
As no motors are allowed in ANWR, we are using only our solar panels to power computers, cameras, and all other electronics.
Once at the top, Mille skied to the edge of the horizon and started down the mountainside to scout the route ahead. “What I saw terrified me in a way I have never been frightened before during my years of traveling in the Arctic. Being faced by a polar bear, or a sled breaking through the ice calls for such immediate and intense action that one does not really have time for a split second of fear. Standing on that mountainside, no longer in view of the dogs or the rest of the team, but looking at what we were supposed to travel down, I feared for our lives and safety. The snow would 'woof' as it settled underneath me and looking up behind, to the very peak of the mountain, I could see snowballs forming and growing in size as they tumbled toward me, making trails behind them. I could see no real options of travel. Directly ahead was a deep gorge with straight walls that seemed like a hundred feet in the air. While it was the most obvious route to call a 'pass,' I really saw no way we could travel through it. It was too steep, too narrow, and too twisted. Maybe there was a way over and around it on either side that I just couldn’t phantom. I made my way back up to the summit, beaconing Paul to come down and see it with me. As we looked, carefully gliding to the edges on our skis, going around on the right side was a tumbled mountainside not possible to pass. The left side, if we could get there, had the least slope, but once we came to the edge – it was a straight wall down, though there were no visible large boulders or cliffs.”
An inukshuk (the stone marker in the background) tells us we are on our way, now on the land of the Inupiaq Eskimo people and following their traditional routes. Maybe we missed the Inukshuk at the pass!?
We contemplated, for less than a minute, the option of letting all the dogs run free, and simply pushing the sleds over the edge, hoping for the best as they would tumble the hundreds of feet to the bottom. Not an option! Mille thought to herself, "This cannot be the Native way, and this is not where I want to end my days. I am afraid of heights you know!” Racking her mind, at lunch she told Paul that she thought she had seen an opening in the mountains, much steeper and not obvious – but maybe the descent was actually feasible on that side. She goes on, “With deep concern we returned to Henry and Jens to break the news. Though we were thankful we had scouted ahead, I felt a calmness that of course there was a realistic way down this pass, knowing that the Natives of this land had traveled here for generations and generations and never would travel through anything like what we had just faced. But the experience sure reminded me that one cannot conquer the Arctic, only dance with her rhythms. We are so small and insignificant out here.”
Henry made the best of the day, finding some last energy for some GoNorth! snow art!
We just made it back down what we had thought was the last stretch of mountainside to the summit when we decided to make camp. The horrendously deep snow made it hard work to turn the sleds and even more difficult to descend. While Henry and Mille worked with the dogs, Paul and Jens skied out ahead to scout the other option Mille thought she had seen. There was a way! At first it would be tough to get the sleds through the deep snow to the summit, and the descent was still significant, but it was a long slope without any steep walls like what we had just seen – definitely. That night we camped a stone's throw from where we had lunch and about two miles from camp the night before. But we were safe – and knew which way to get across the pass.
From left: Jens, Baffin, Henry, Paul, and Lipton at the summit of the Guilbeau Pass.
“It was a magnificent feeling to finally be at the summit – 5,000 feet above the ocean level,” says Paul. “I didn’t think much of it, until we were down,” Mille adds, “but as we came to a stop for lunch, after four hours of work that morning to make the mile or less up and across the summit, it dawned on me that the Polar Huskies had just crossed Brooks Mountain Range! Wow! The ancestors of these guys have been to both poles and now they have reached for the sky as well. And, now I know for sure that I belong in the lowlands where the water flows. Perhaps this is not so strange as there are not many mountains in my home country of Denmark.”
Traveling down the Hula Hula River we passed a pingo! The Danish connection on the Hula Hula is that these geological formations were first described by Mille’s great-uncle, Doctor Erling Porsild.
Traveling on riverbed with snow that became less deep and less soft by the mile, that afternoon we descended more than 2,000 feet. We were heading for the Hula Hula River to take us the last 3,000 feet down to the community of Kaktovik, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. With down-right hot temperatures and the baking sun of the mountains, we all had come to anticipate our journey ahead on the Hula Hula River as being a bit of a 'sunny, vacation ride' with warm Hawaiian undertones of celebration. We were right so far as the name of the Hula Hula River really does have a Hawaiian connection. It was named by a Hawaiian whale captain who, when venturing up the very shallow river, with its twisty ways, thought it reminded him of the twists and flow of the hula hula dance! For us, though it was certainly not blistering cold traveling down the river, it was not an all-sunny experience either.
The storm tearing at the tents. We had to move our tents in the storm to be diagonal with the wind which is always a tense situation with the risk of damaging them – our homes!
Watch the wind tearing at the tent.
Listen to the increasing winds from inside the tent.
It was spectacularly beautiful. The Polar Huskies seemed as thrilled as we were to be down from the pass. They kept a high speed, crusing down the riverbed; enticed by many animal signs – not least the tracks, fresh kills, and smells of grizzly bears. Traveling with such ease, Kaktovik seemed close by and Paul phoned Kari Johnson, the 5th and 6th grade teacher in Kaktovik who has offered such great support to GoNorth!, to let her know that we were ‘just around the corner.’ She was thrilled to hear from us – but was a bit surprised that we thought it looked like easy travel. Kaktovik was engulfed in the second day of a full-out storm of high winds! The next morning we knew just what she meant. It was not a blizzard but quickly became a whiteout with winds high enough that they lifted even this heavy snow off of the ground, creating ‘sandstorm-like’ conditions with limited visibility.
Mille, Paul, and Polar Huskies in the wind, making the decision to end it for the day.
After staying put for a day, it cleared somewhat the following morning, and we headed out. Henry explains, “It is hard work running the leading dog team in really windy conditions because the lead dog needs a lot of support to find its way and battle the wind. Mille and Jens traveled with their team in the lead for the first part of the day, and after lunch we switched around so Paul and I were in lead with Freja. The winds were getting increasingly stronger, limiting our visibility. We had to travel very close to ensure we would not loose sight of each other. When the wind makes the snow really drift, it wipes out any trails of skis, dogs, and the sleds within minutes after we go across the snow. Heading into the wind to follow the riverbed, we decided I should ski out in front of Freja to lead the caravan. Within a mile we could no longer keep sight of each other and agreed to make camp and sit out the storm. That left us with more than thirty miles, as the crow flies, to Kaktovik – and we had to be there on Friday for Education Day and for Jens to catch his airplane!
Jens hangs on to his sled while he plows through deep water ‘overflow’ on top of the ice (Yes - he was wearing rubber boots).
Watch Jupiter and the rest of the team enjoy the benefits of ‘overflow.’
It was Friday afternoon when, in the far distance, we saw the silhouette of town come and go in the drifting snow, still being kicked around by high winds – now from the northwest. The Polar Huskies were roaring and we were smiling with pride. They had done it again; pulling through to the end. A whirl of snow with a light shining came at us. It was Don Burns, coming to find out how far from town we were, and then go let everyone know when to expect us! “Don shaking my hand, as an old friend, and telling us we were awaited, was one of those moments I will always carry with me, ” recalls Mille. “…then within minutes asking – ‘where is Ruby? I have been looking at her picture at my house for a long time now!”
Friday night, Mille, staying with the Burns family, was shown some of the incredible traditional mukluks sewn by Nora Jane Burns' mother and grandmother. They are made from seal, moose, caribou, and wolf skins.
Greeted by people on trucks and snowmobiles, and kids running at us (who have been working throughout the program keeping the Kaktovik Blog updated for all of you to enjoy) we simply enjoyed the warmest possible welcome here in the small community of Kaktovik. With a little more than 300 people living here, Kaktovik sits on the Barter Island and is the only community within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Though the community as it exists today has actually moved three times in less than 70 years (!!) Kaktovik has been a traditional gathering spot for the Inupiaq Eskimos, native to this area, for thousands of years. Incredibly rich in resources, it has been a spot of trading and ‘barter,’ which gives name to the island itself: Barter Island. In Inupiat Eskimo language the word ‘Kaktovik,’ means 'drowning' and the story goes that the community is so named because of the drownings that have happened here as the island is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean.
Polar Husky Superstar, Khan.
Speaking of the meaning of names. Two dogs with different names, but the same meaning – ‘prince’ or ‘ruler’ – are Buttra (Cambodia) and Khan (Asia), both of whom earn this week's title as Polar Husky Superstars. Grown to be an impressive dog who carrys himself with distinct pride, Khan is as sweet as can be with people, though very temperamental and all-demanding towards the other Polar Huskies. Khan has a great pull and a fast gate (especially impressive for his size) which makes it possible for him to run pretty much anywhere in the team. At first we thought Khan had great lead dog potential, but being a bit busy getting into quarrels about ‘ruling the roost,’ he can't keep his concentration up there. That said, going across the summit through the deep snow, Khan was in point, breaking the trail with his great chest leaping forward behind Disko – whereas on most of the expedition he has been running in wheel with the youngster Jupiter, teaching him the ropes of the Polar Husky kingdom.
This week’s second Polar Husky Superstar, Buttra.
Khan was also Buttra’s Polar Husky mentor the first couple of years he ran expeditions. But with Buttra’s nature being much like Khan, though they can still be great running partners, they do have a tough time figuring just who IS the ruler now that Buttra has grown older and is more mature. This week’s second Polar Husky Superstar has a nature so much like his Dad, Canyon – who has passed away – that at times we catch ourselves almost calling him by Canyon’s name. Canyon was one of the largest dogs of the Kennel, whereas Buttra is the smallest male in the Kennel today. However, just like his Dad, Buttra is very shy with people, a bit of a trickster at times, and sometimes downright lazy. But once Buttra decides it is time to move that sled forward, a bark so aggressive roars from him as if he is commanding the sled to move forward while pulling it himself with fantastic technique and finesse. That’s the kind of attitude that got us across the most northern mountain range of North America to the coast of the Arctic Ocean; the kind of attitude that makes Polar Huskies rule!