Aufeis Day: Lunch on the ice

Cameron found a place where we could walk onto the aufeis, and that’s where we had lunch: smoked salmon and brie cheese, canned Greek dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), dried figs, almonds and bars and dark chocolate. And hot coffee and tea. Talk about a cool place to eat, literally.

It was fun then walking around on the aufeis, which was dotted with melted pools and holes caused by stones melting in. I found I could scrape up a pile of aufeis needles, long glittering crystals in my hand. How they sparkled in the sun like a handful of diamonds.

The dark smoke turned out to be silt from silt bars, blown up in the breeze.

Aufeis Day, late morning

Then we were gliding into a 30-foot channel between 12-foot high walls of ice, white with blue patches where some had recently split off. There were slabs broken off and little waterfalls pouring down. It was immensely cool! 

It was a long channel that eventually led to the placid lagoon. We paddled leisurely through the lagoon with Brooks Range mountains to the south stretching further than the eye could see. To the north was the long narrow spit scattered with driftwood.

Aufeis!  (Saturday, June 28)

What a day! Clear weather, breakfast burritos, packing up tents, loading and we were on our way. The goal was to finish the Kongakut River, get through the aufeis, visit Icy Reef and camp somewhere on the lagoon that iie between the northern coast of Alaska and the long, narrow Icy Reef. (Aufeis is like a horizontal glacier. It’s ice—in this case, twelve-foot-thick ice—that builds up along a far northern river.)

We were prepared for cold, but it was a lovely ay. Steam rose from gravel bars. I paddled beside Martha as Cameron guided us down the channels of the delta There was more water now. We could see a strip of white aufeis in the distance with odd dark smoke rising from it.

Midnight Sun (Friday, June 27)

The fog had lifted by morning and we could see the mountains behind us. We had arctic char and grayling with our hot cereal, and Martha admitted she was starting to tire of fish, even very fresh fish.

We broke camp, loaded rafts and headed into the shallow, braided river. Steve’s boat kept getting hung up, which requires having the guide step out and push. We saw no wildlife except for a pair of caribou running in the distance and some mergansers and big white glaucous gulls.

There were welcome hints of blue sky when we pulled over for lunch on a gravel bar. The guides walked to scope out where we were and announced that we’d camp just across a stream. They lined the boats over and we carried gear over a gravel bar and across a shallow channel to a place with lots of willow, with little clearings like rooms for our tents. It turned out to be the last willow cover we’d have.

The cool thing was that we were on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, where so many animals come to give birth. Steve and I took a stroll on the wide plain with some tussocks and boggy spots, dryas and moss campion and other little flowers. The Brooks Range looked lovely in the south. No wildlife in sight.

There was blue sky and sunshine, very welcome, for our 9 PM dinner of bean burritos. We hated to go inside but it was also getting chilly and a bit buggy.

A few hours later, Steve stepped out of the tent and discovered a rainbow in the west and lovely light on the mountains. I emerged and found Martha and Larry up also, admiring the view. I’ve been sleeping so much with all the rain that now I’m wide awake in the tent under the midnight sun.

Into every life some rain must fall (Thursday, June 26)

It was still spiting rain in the morning. Cam said there was no need to take down the tents in this weather; we’d hang out and see if it changed. So we read in the tent until the rain stopped and we could get going.

iIt was a damp, cloudy day on the river. This was the day we left the mountains behind. The foothills got lower and lower as I paddled along beside Samantha, with Cameron and Martha in the rear. Because Cameron was trip leader, our raft was always in front, sometimes waiting for Larry’s raft to catch up. There were more and more channels.

I got chilled in the damp wind. It was a longer day on the river than before. We were glad to finally pull over and make camp on a gravel bar. It was so foggy we couldn’t see the mountains or get a sense of where we were: just rocks and willows and water. Dinner of chili thickened with polenta was just right. I finally got warm in my sleeping bag as rain fell all night.

Scenes from June 25 hike.

Wednesday, June 25

Today is Tim’s birthday and Dan & Carolyn’s ninth wedding anniversary. Our family is far away, but not far from our minds.

Breakfast seemed like dinner: Arctic char, mashed potatoes with onion, rehydrated green vegetables. It was a sunny breezy morning. (The camp photo shows rafts serving as windbreaks. Wind is our friend, where mosquitoes can be bad.) I did some laundry and washed my hair. Larry fixed the zipper on Steve’s sleeping bag, which had broken in the night.

Then we hiked up the steep slope, dotted with flowers, including pink moss campion, new this camp. I saw yellow arnica, too, and something that looks like creeping phlox The snow buttercups have a perfect pentagram in the center. 

There were scree slopes to pick our way over. It was especially tough going for Martha, who decided to stay in a sheltered rocky spot. Not too much further we reached a saddle with views in two directions, mountain panoramas. We could see stretches of aufeis along the braided river. (Aufeis is ice that builds up along a northern river—sort of a horizontal glacier)  We had lunch there, with chèvre cheese and dark chocolate.

Just as Steve and the others were setting off to climb the mountain, Martha appeared. she and I relaxed awhile, then played rock bocce. The sky had clouded and the wind picked up so we decided to start down. It was slow going, with rests, but we enjoyed swapping travel tales. We were very glad to get down and in our tents right before the rain started.

Steve returned an hour later, really excited that he’d managed to hike to the top. He’d seen the Arctic Ocean across the coastal plain, with a distant shipwreck. This, he said, was why he’d lost 40 pounds: to be able to take the hardest hike. 

We snoozed and read until Thanksgiving dinner, with canned turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberries, in a little dining tent because of the rain. Our own tent was cozy and warm all night as the wind blew and rain fell.

Second Rafting Day: Tuesday, June 24

Morning came, cloudless and warm. I was first up: time for morning ablutions. Steve was coming down with a cold (that stuck with him the rest of the trip. I got it on the last day.) Breakfast was oatmeal with toasted almonds, berries, bananas, cream. That sticks to your ribs.

Then packing and waiting to get on the river. These guides don’t often permit us to help.

I rode in front of Cameron’s raft with Martha. It was a swift ride with a tail wind, but calmer than the first one. She and I talked about colors: the translucent teal of the river (so unlike the gray Tatshenshini and Alsek), the varied browns of the mountains, cocoa and mushroom and burnt umber, with some patches of eggplant and lavender. The greens, grass green and sage.

As I write, I’m sitting outside our tent in our new two-night camp. It’s really windy out here, but pretty hot in the tent where Steve is napping. We’re on a broad grassy bench dote with mountain avens nodding in the wind. Behind me the foothills rise up green and gravely. There’s a broad rocky beach, and across the river more green foothills streaked with snow patches. I can see some distant Brooks Range peaks, blue-gray streaked with white. I see friendly puffs of cloud low over the mountains.

The afternoon was leisurely. steve emerged to walk with me downriver a ways on the grassy bench. Then we read together in the tent, out of the wind. (Wind is our friend; it blows away mosquitoes.) Our read aloud is “Ordinary Wolves” by Alaska writer Seth Kantner, a novel about a white boy whose family ives in the old style of the Inupiat, while the Alaskan Inupiat are adopting white man’s ways. It’s all about identity and wilderness.

Dinner was fish chowder. Really tasty! Nice on a windy day. (The rafts are standing up to block the wind.)

Scenes from Second Hiking Day

Sometimes one of the thousands of migrating birds flies up from the grass. Take a look and you can find her nest.

Second Hiking Day, June 23

This was another layover day. Breakfast included blueberry pancakes and fresh Arctic char. Yum! 

The day’s adventure involved hiking back up the steep slope, then across the tussocky ground to a hilltop. We say a herd of about 50 caribou not far away—yearlings, apparently, with no antlers and no babies. We watched them as we picnicked on the hill. 

After awhile, various groups went for hikes from thee. While Martha enjoyed staying put. I read with her an hour or two then perched on a rock outcropping abloom with yellow snow buttercups, white and purple mountain avens, blue forget-me-nots, pink azaleas and orange lichens. Did you think the Arctic was all snow, all the time?

Steve climb up to lichen-covered outcroppings to take pictures, then up to the knobby top of a mountain.

Sig and Sandee joined Steve and me as we climbed two more formations, one of which had an arch, and the other a patch of snow. We enjoyed a nice conversation up there, before trudging across the broad tussocky expanse (this is hard to walk on) and back down the steep brushy slope. We all just relaxed in camp. This is nice having layover days for hiking alternate with rafting days.

Larry asked if we were tired of fish and we assured him we were not. So he caught another lovely Arctic char—it just takes five minutes—and served it with pasta and fresh steamed broccoli and carrots. Always packaged cookies for dessert, as the logistics of this trip don’t allow a Dutch oven,