Refuge Part 4 -- Sunset Pass

Dear Readers:  I hope you are following and perhaps enjoying the series of posts about the trip to the Arctic Refuge that Tom, Diane, Brian and I made in August 2001.  It was an important time in history and an important trip for us.  In other blog “series,” like Whose Land? or Missions and Niches, I have interspersed other posts between the segments of the series  My intention in doing so was to keep things varied and hopefully even interesting.  However, some of the feedback I received from readers like you indicated that this made the arc of the series hard to follow.  Do you like the sequential approach of the Arctic Refuge posts better?  Please let me know!  Also, following next week’s conclusion of the current series, stay tuned for a new series of posts about the Murie family, the Murie Ranch in Wyoming and related topics.  -- Bob

(Continued from previous posts in this series about an Arctic Refuge trip in August 2001.)

Eventually, Walt’s other business was concluded and we loaded up his little Cessna for the first of two shuttle flights into the short gravel strip at Sunset Pass.  This was to be a loop hike.  We would travel every day, make a new camp each evening, and circle back to the landing spot five days hence.  We had lost one day from the original plan due to our sojourn in Deadhorse and the Waldo Arms, but it was easy to adjust our route and the digression had been so interesting that I had no regrets about it.

The Sadlerochit Mountains are not high.  They are ancient and eroded.  I doubt we were ever much higher than the 2,000-foot elevation of Sunset Pass, although we occasionally had views of more commanding peaks far away, possibly including Mt. Chamberlin, which at 9,000 feet is the tallest mountain in the Brooks Range.

The mountains make up in ruggedness for what they lack in elevation.  We were of course far above the tree line, and open tundra rolled away for miles on all sides as we stuck to windswept ridges in order to have the benefit of firm ground and good walking. 

Caribou were much in evidence.   Although we were in territory frequented by the Porcupine Herd, we never saw really large gatherings of animals at once, usually just singles or smaller clusters of five or six or up to about a dozen at a time.  Soon, these small groups would be collecting into herds of hundreds, then further aggregating into thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands for their annual fall migration away from the arctic coastal plain.  

One view forever etched in my memory was the silhouettes of three bull caribou, splendidly antlered, trotting directly across a river valley from our position.  The surefooted animals were unfazed by the knife-edge of the ridge and stood out boldly against the sapphire sky behind them, proudly displaying their magnificent racks.

We saw several grizzly bears, mostly at a considerable distance that required the use of binoculars to get a close look.  One bear was an exception.  Shortly after leaving camp for an exploratory morning hike before taking down the tents, etc., we had crossed a stream only to observe a grizzly on the other side heading straight for our camp.  We had to scramble back for a show of force to defend our food, which of course was secure in backpacking bear canisters, and other possessions.  Cue the bear, indeed. 

About half way through our trek in the Refuge’s Sadlerochit Mountains, Diane’s eagle eyes spotted a small shape moving in the distance, traversing along the side of a far off slope.  The binos came out and we focused on the figure, which turned out to be another hiker, apparently traveling solo.  He was well beyond communication distance.  We waved, but received no acknowledgement in reply.  Apparently the hiker, who was the only other person we encountered on the trip, had not seen us.

The frequent animal encounters gave us plenty to talk about.  So did the weather, which was steadily deteriorating.  Soon, we were pulling off the cotton gloves that we wore for mosquito protection and replacing them with heavy woolen ones.  Our sun hats gave way to knit caps, and we cinched up the wind gussets of our rain jackets.  Although only in August, it was getting cold, and quickly. 

Sure enough, we had snow one night toward the end of the trip, listening to the granules beating against the fabric wall of our tents and needing to push the small drifts aside when we crawled out the next morning.  Autumn, and winter, come early in the arctic.   

This is the fourth in a series of 5 posts about a trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in August 2001.  Previous posts in the series can be found at the Blog Index here:

Legacy of Wilderness

Prudhoe Bay