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Price of admission and survival on Alaska's North Slope: Attitude

Doug Hissom
UAF Water and Environmental Research Center photo

Editor's note: The following article was first published by the Baltimore (Md.) Post-Examiner and is republished here with permission.


COLVILLE RIVER, Alaska -- The chest-heaving dose of adrenaline running though the veins wasn’t even close to subsiding as the DC-6 roared to the south. Minutes earlier we were embracing the horsepower and the monstrosity of the plane as it swooped over our camp at less than 100 feet. The ground shook. The intensity of the flyover left a power surge in us that had nowhere else to go but come out in laughs and shouts of amazement. It was a most surreal companion to the morning coffee.

We may have been in one of the most remote spots in Alaska, but we certainly weren’t alone.

Geographers put us some 90 miles from the nearest settlement, but the air and the waters of the Colville River were active on a daily basis. The fuel-laden DC-6 wasn’t the only plane that would buzz the tents that made up our geology team’s camp. Helicopters, jet-props, Cessnas all got in on the fun. Even an Alaska State Trooper flew in for a quick hello and handed out a “junior trooper” badge after writing down who we were in his notebook.

Our camp was about 20 miles downstream from Umiat, a small air base that serves as a jumping off point for corporate oil and gas explorers. It’s quite convenient for that since it sits on the border of the National Petroleum Reserve, the North Slope’s contribution to U.S. oil independence. Tourists in the form of hunters, kayakers and fishermen jumped off there as well.

I worked with a team of geologists who studied  rock faces and stratigraphy in rivers and shorelines about 65 million to 90 million years old. We found them on the sides of 200-foot tall bluffs that tower over the Colville south of the Arctic Ocean by about 70 miles and about 350 miles north of Fairbanks.

For 29 days I camped along the Colville with geologists Dolores van der Kolk, Peter Flaig, Steve Hasiotis, and Annie Miller; I ran into a tandem kayak with Scandinavian occupants, a solo canoeist and his dog, another paddler on a travel quest. Paleontologists -- dinosaur bone scientists -- camped downstream. Power boats from the native village of Nuiqsut -- about 90 miles north -- would show up now and then, especially toward the start of the Sept. 1 moose season.

Going to the North Slope for tourism isn’t cheap. Commercial flights from Milwaukee to Fairbanks check in at about $1,000. To get from Fairbanks to Umiat requires a private charter from the likes of Wright Air Service for about $3,000. A trio of hunters (from Pennsylvania and Kansas) who boated up to our camp with their guide Ray, paid around $4,900 apiece for a week’s worth of shooting caribou and living in tents. A grizzly would have cost an extra $8,500. Or they could have gone for a 10-day solo grizzly hunt for $16,000 with “The Grizzonator.”

The two-hour flight from Fairbanks to Umiat is a scenic wonderland as flying goes. The flight path winds through the Brooks Range and the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, a wilderness area the size of Switzerland. The mountains spike vertically up 9,000 feet from the tundra floor, with snow and glacier-covered crowns. If the weather is clear the plane will go through the mountain valleys, making the cliffs look close enough to reach out of the window and grab a rock.

But the price of admission does keep the crowds down.

Money -- and attitude -- are the two main components needed for travelling the North Slope, because there is little margin for error between having a safe trip and a full-blown adventure.

The weather is a major factor affecting the attitude. One travel day in our 14-foot inflatables was spent in a sandstorm. The wind picked up into the 40–mile-per-hour gust range and we were chased north by the southern gale featuring sand clouds the likes of those from the set of “The Mummy.” Reading the river was impossible at times.

Howling sand would block the view between our two little craft while white-capped waves crashed over the sides making for a North Sea adventure. Grit-filled teeth, hair and gear were the reward and we finally pulled over and ducked into a grove of willows to set up camp out of the wind.

After the winds calmed and dinner was served, Darrell Gardner, a nurse from Santa Fe, paddled up in a kayak that looked more like an inflatable bathtub and asked if he could camp with us. He was finishing a seven-year on-again off-again 5,700-mile solo trip by foot, bike and boat when he got to the Arctic Ocean. (He has a website for his venture. The wind pummeled Gardner, who said he was too tired to go on. It was obvious, though, he wanted to talk to some humans.

Besides weather, other reminders reared up to raise that margin of error. During a rainstorm a wrong turn put us up the wrong stream. Low on gas, fighting blackening skies, we had to paddle our heavy inflatable for a few hours back onto the Colville to save gas. No map, we called camp on a satellite phone with GPS coordinates to find out where we were. Satisfied we were back on the Colville, we motored through the stress of possibly running out of gas. What was supposed to be a four-hour cruise turned into an 8.5-hour ordeal of the mind.

The stress was what the future would hold if the gas supply failed. Prepared if the tank went dry? Yes. We had brought space blankets to rig a shelter, a stove, cook pot and food, a satellite phone, ground-to-air radio and flares. The best-case scenario after the gas dried up would be a fine little shelter with a fire amidst the willows for the evening. (The reality was that it would have been a long, cold, wet night without sleep.) The next day would have been a walk back to camp through impassible scrub willows and across mud flats from creeks and streams.

Calling a helicopter for assistance may or may not be expensive. Folks working on the North Slope tend to keep an eye on out for each other when they can. When it was thought we were running low on fuel to complete the work, a call was made to Striker Overly, owner of Umiat-based Alaska Arctic Adventures. He sent his guide Craig with 10 gallons for us. Out on the Slope that would be about $10 a gallon, but in a conversation while he was flying over our camp, Overly, circling, said “No charge.”

For those wanting the wilderness experience, it’s certainly here. The vast expanse of the tundra holds captivatingly stark beauty. As we entered September and it would finally get dark enough at night, Northern Lights would readily come out and dance waves of green, red, and purple glowing curtains of light across the sky. The occasional haunting screech of a peregrine falcon could be heard. An arctic owl would come out in the evening to hunt across the river from camp. There was a seal in the water as we got further north and closer to the Arctic Ocean.

And of course, plenty of caribou, a few moose and some grizzly bears roamed in this wilderness.

We were lucky to have a caribou in our camp. He was old. His beard was grey and blew with the breeze as he walked through the willows on our gravel bar. Some locals from Nuiqsut knew it too. They pulled in at high speeds on their boats and proceeded for a few hours to hoot and holler around the shrubs trying to scare up our caribou. We waited nervously, because we liked the guy. They didn’t find him since the 'bou was later spotted swimming across the river.

The weather had one more hurdle as we packed up for our getting off the slope. The plan was for a Helio Courier -- a non-descript, but extremely functional craft -- to make about five trips from our gravel bar to the airstrip in Nuiqsut, a native community of about 450. Waiting there was a larger Cessna Grand Caravan to deal with our one-ton-plus load of motors, boats, gear and rocks.

The previous four days of rain had raised the river level overnight to the point that it wiped out our proposed runway for the Helio. Wright Air Service wanted 1,000 feet, and we could only offer 500. We spent seven hours moving the camp one boatload at a time about a mile upstream where we found the requested 1,000 feet of gravel runway.

We sat waiting like refugees on the gravel bar, exposed to cold, rain and high winds until the happy drone of the Helio was heard. It was time to head south and out of the winter weather that abruptly arrived.

Doug Hissom writes a weekly environmental column for Baltimore Post-Examiner. He has covered local and state politics in Wisconsin for more than 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper. An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe. Contact the author.

The preceding article was first published by the Baltimore (Md.) Post-Examiner and is republished here with permission.