Two rainy days in Fairbanks

We’d scheduled a bit of extra time in Fairbanks because we could have been fogged in on the coast. It was raining, so we limited ourselves to a car museum, a nice restaurant meal at the Pump House, sourdough pancakes, a return to the cultural center to see Inupiat and Gwitch’n kids dancing, and a visit to the Large Animal Research Center.

This last was to see musk oxen because we didn’t see any on our raft trip. They’re not actually oxen and they don’t have a musk gland, but they’re really cool Ice-Age mammals built to live in cold places. 

The center had both caribou and reindeer. Fun fact: reindeer are domesticated caribou, domesticated thousands of years ago. Their legs are shorter, their bodies chunkier, and they see no need to migrate. But genetically they’re the same. Our guide told us these were the first domesticated animals on earth. Before cattle and goats? Amazing.

The last shot is Mount Denali poking out of the clouds.

All of which brings us to our next Arctic Adventure, a cruise in the fjords of western Greenland and the islands of arctic Canada. Leaving today, as I type. In less than an hour. So tune in again in just over two weeks (August 4) for what I’m confident will be spectacular photos of mountains and enormous icebergs. Colorful Greenlandic villages and Inuit communities. And, we hope, polar bears, walruses, whales, musk oxen and more.

Kaktovik  (Sunday, June 30, evening)

When we landed in Kaktovik, an Inupiat community on Barter Island just off the northern coast of Alaska, a police car pulled up and out stepped my sister, Martha! That was a surprise. Turns out the officer had nothing much to do, so he’d taken the first three to the one restaurant and on a tour of this colorful little community.

The officer game Sig, Sandee, Martha and me a ride to the Waldo Arms, a funky cafe and hotel where we got burgers and onion rings, with to go boxes for Steve and Cameron. Tasted wonderful. Then he picked us up to return us to the airstrip, where the charter had arrived.

Soon we were all flying south, over plain, then gorgeous mountains, then forest dotted with lakes, then more mountains, 800 miles south to Fairbanks. We flew over the immense Fort Knox open pit gold mine, with a gargantuan truck the size of six school buses crawling along at midnight.

Bill, one of the owners, picked us up at the Fairbanks airport and delivered us to our hotel. It was still rainy. We loved the hot showers.

Final afternoon  (Monday, June 30)

Martha was really excited when the plane arrived on a gravel strip marked with streamers, one tied to a caribou antler.

I was on the second bush plan shuttle, flying over the river, the aufeis and coastal plain. I saw a swan flying below us. (The one above Steve photographed from the ground.)

Final day in ANWR  (Monday, June 30)

The plane was to come maybe around 2 PM, but Martha, Larry and Samantha had to be ready by 10. Steve volunteered for the third shuttle, which could be delayed for a day or two if fog rolled in. Another day or two on the Arctic coastal plain? Cool!

Steve and I took a walk along the creek, sandbars and tussocky grass, watching gulls, geese and other birds. 

On a tiny lake, Steve photographed a Pacific loon, eventually joined by its mate. He shot a couple hundred photos. He seemed supremely happy to be on the Arctic coastal plain with Brooks Range mountains as a backdrop, shooting pictures of loons that seemed to be posing. One got on her nest and turned over her egg.

Quesadillas tasted wonderful for lunch. Sometimes the simplest things…

Tags: ANWR loons

Turner Creek  (final camp, June 29)

We unloaded beside the perfectly clear creek, with a broad golden tundra plain on the other side, and set up tents for the last time. I couldn’t wait to get out of the damp clothes and hang everything on the tent to dry. (No trees in the Arctic, and this far north, no brushy willows, either.)

After dinner, we all listed our favorite experiences of the trip. mountains, caribou, aufeis, the spit. The guides have done really well, and we’ve enjoyed the camaraderie. 

And those are fresh grizzly bear prints.

A grim ride across Demarcation Bay

Not long after we left Icy Spit for Demarcation Bay, a bush plane circled overhead. It was the first we’d seen in 10 days. Cameron broke out the radio to ask the pilot if it was for us. We weren’t to meet our plane out until tomorrow “I have Ron (another Arctic Wild guide) with me. Are you going to Turner Creek?” “Yes.” “I’ll see you there.”

This was concerning. When a plane appears unexpectedly, it could mean bad news, such as a death in a guide’s family, or a client’s. So the next two or three hours were pretty grim, no one talking, because of the tension and uncertainty. The bay was splashy and I got rather damp and cold just sitting there (the two rafts still connected side by side). Samantha paddled like a champ against the headwind, Sig & Sandee traded off, the guides paddled and the rest of us felt helpless.

Finally we arrived and the guides had a chance to see what was going on. It was just logistics. It had been raining non-stop in Fairbanks and Denali—made national news—and Dirk, the pilot who was supposed to pick us up the next day, was booked up flying people out of Denali, where they were stranded by a washed out road. Daniel, this new pilot, was here to pick up our rafts for a second Kongakut trip that Ron was to start the next day. Daniel would come back early in the afternoon to shuttle us to Kaktovik on the coast, where a charter plane would pick us up for our return to Fairbanks.

Well, that was a relief! We paddled around to Turner Creek, then walked the rafts upstream. Arctic terns, those amazing white and black birds that migrate to Antarctica for the southern summer, attacked us. We were apparently too close to their nests. We waved our paddles overhead to fend them off. One hovered over me, its wings and tail spread, squawking fiercely. Wish I had a photo of that!

Demarcation Bay, Sunday, June 29

Cameron announced that for our eight-mile paddle across Demarcation Bay to the takeout on Turner Creek, we’d connect the two rafts side by side and have the stronger paddlers on the outside positions while the other four relaxed and relieved as needed. Martha and I did not qualify as strong paddlers. We started with a jolly party boat atmosphere, much joking and laughter.

It was another remarkably sunny day, cool as one might expect but unexpectedly bright and blue. We stopped for lunch on Icy Spit. Steve and I waded barefoot in the Arctic Ocean. (Of course it’s cold, but it’s all about the pictures.) I thought you’d appreciate this Arctic pinup girl.

As several of us crossed the spit, Samantha scared up an eider, one of the chunky Arctic ducks we’d been seeing. Her nest was lined with feathers (eider down) nestling three perfect, oversized sage green eggs.

Aufeis Day, late evening

For dinner there was minestrone and grilled Spam on English muffins, which tasted surprisingly good.

Steve and I walked across the tussocky grass to a pingo, a hill formed by a rising core of ice. Pretty spring flowers scattered about and little ground nesting birds, horned larks and Lapland longspurs. 

The sky was golden with the midnight sun. It was indeed midnight. Soon after we zipped ourselves into our tent, rain fell from the golden clouds. Larry, who was still up, saw a double rainbow,

Aufeis Day, evening

Continuing down the lagoon, we arrived at our campsite on a point where derelict log gains stood. Tese were fishing cabins built in the 1920s by an Inupiat family whose three children lie in a little cemetery with two other graves.

We pitched our tent on a grassy spot, and as usual I went to help Martha with hers. We walked around to see the graveyard, cabins and a 1945 iron artillery sled, whose purpose here puzzled us.

Aufeis Day, afternoon

We went ashore on the spit and walked across the sand and gravel to the Arctic Ocean, where a lot of low ice floes had collected. Martha was excited because it was her first time seeing the Arctic Ocean. We had fun taking photos.