Brooks Range Expedition: Alaska 1984

The story of our 1984 journey to Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range of far north Alaska in words and in photographs. Below the story there are many more photographs that you can click on to enlarge and also see photo captions.

“You guys might want to get out of the tent … there’s a Grizzly out here.” Denis Davis startled us out of our perpetual twilight dreams with that simple statement, and we’ve rarely gotten dressed so fast. The Griz was several hundred yards away on the Arctic tundra and was steadily traveling up the treeless valley. If it smelled us–which it probably did given that we had been backpacking for a week–it didn’t stop to check us out or even look our way. For that we were grateful, given that we had no protection in the era before real bear spray.

This two-week backpacking trip in Alaska’s Brooks Range originated in Denis’ Christmas card for 1983, in which he suggested several possible adventure trips for the coming year to a number of his friends. We were the only ones who responded, and we liked the idea of backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park, which was at that time a newly minted national park. 

Karen Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

We began planning for the trip in conjunction with Denis and his wife at the time, Elaine. We needed to carefully consider every aspect of our equipment for weight and usefulness. I needed camera gear, including a 500mm lens for wildlife, a macro lens for wildflowers, and a wide-angle lens for landscapes, plus 25 rolls of Kodachrome film. Tents at the time were limited, and we needed a tent strong enough to withstand possible snow, so we brought the legendary North Face VE-25, a favorite of Mount Everest expeditions, but which weighed 12 pounds! Karen brought a hiking staff that was actually a beaver-chewed stick from the Adirondacks; she had to check it on the cross-country flight because the gate attendant said it looked like a weapon. Our clothing was in the pre-fleece era and included items Karen sewed from Frostline kits. We had jeans, army surplus wool pants, wool shirts and sweaters, long underwear, rain-resistant pants, and Frostline parkas. We also each had an insulated Frostline vest; these would also serve as pillows. Plus stocking caps and Frostline mittens and heavy wool socks for hiking. Water-resistant hiking boots were essential to combat the wet tundra and snow. 

Lee Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

Considering food, we had to keep it light. Karen used our dehydrator to dry all sorts of precooked meals, not all successfully. Dried shredded cheddar cheese was crunchy and tasty, but melted away needed fats. For lunches we ate Pemmican Bars, which were an early protein bar from the 1980s. For breakfast and dinner we cooked on a Svea stove that ran on white gas. Our simple meals included a commercial beef stroganoff, rice and beans and dried cheese and chocolate. Breakfast always included hot drinks: our standing joke on this mosquitoey trip was that when a mosquito would land in the hot chocolate, we would fish it out, but any leftover mosquito legs would just go down the hatch. We lost weight on this trip because our calorie intake couldn’t possibly keep up with our exertions.

At the start of the trip, Lee’s backpack weighed 78 lbs, with Karen’s about 59. Karen had a full bright orange daypack lashed on top of her backpack; she sewed it from a Frostline kit.

After all our preparations, the time for travel came in late July, 1984. We flew from Syracuse, New York to Anchorage, Alaska. There we boarded a flight to Fairbanks, and then a smaller plane to Bettles, a tiny Alaskan bush town on the Koyukuk River. This is where we did our final planning and packing for the trip, with our gear splayed across the runway’s edge. We talked to some guys who were heading into another part of the Brooks Range who had long rifles with them for protection and hunting; we felt quite naked by comparison. But at the time, it was illegal for hikers to carry a gun in a national park, so that wasn’t even a possibility for us.

With our packs finally stuffed, we walked to the office of the bush plane to give them our final itinerary. We were to be dropped off by float plane at a small lake in the western part of Gates of the Arctic National Park, then we would hike for about two weeks and 50 miles through Arctic tundra, following rivers. Our biggest challenge would be a climb over unnamed mountains, hoping we could get to the crest, then down the steep cliffs on the north side. This was all uncertain, because it was possible no human being had ever traveled this route over the mountains and the available topographic map was not detailed enough to confirm cliff locations. This was real, raw wilderness in the extreme. If all went well, we would follow a drainage from the mountains, hiking north until we reached Kurupa Lake, where we would be picked up by float plane.

Dramatic arctic landscape between the Arctic plain and the high summits of the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, USA

We finally shouldered our heavy packs and walked to the Koyukuk River, where our float plane magic carpet awaited. This was a Canadian-made bush plane, a De Havilland Beaver, that was and is the workhorse of the far north. We took off from the river–our first experience on a float plane–and followed the river west for a ways, with us watching for Moose among the Black Spruce trees along the river. Eventually the pilot left the river and turned the plane north, taking us over turquoise tarns and rugged, sharp peaks where the trees eventually dwindled to none, leaving us over a treeless tundra. We came to a broad opening in the mountains where several lakes shimmered, and one of those was our destination. The pilot descended and made a smooth landing on the lake, then taxied over to the shore. We didn’t even get our feet wet while unloading our gear. After confirming our final meeting point for a rendezvous two weeks later, the pilot taxied into the center of the lake, then took off with a roar, leaving us feeling lonely on the vast tundra. The pilot had been instructed to pick us up at Kurupa Lake, but if we weren’t there, then he would look for us at our drop-off lake in case we couldn’t make it over the mountains.

Two things happened within minutes: we found a distinct fresh Gray Wolf track in the wet soil between tussocks, and mosquitoes descended upon us in Biblical multitudes. We were in the Alaska Wilderness!

After a few minutes of gazing out over the lake, we pulled out our mosquito head nets, shouldered our lead-filled packs, and set out on a two-week journey through one of the wildest places in North America. We consulted our topographic maps, then headed over a ridge that looked down over a long valley stretching toward a line of mountains in the distance. Our route would take us down the valley along an unnamed river past unnamed mountains. 

Our trip took place at the warmest time of year in the Brooks Range, with temperatures hovering above 70°F. At our feet, arctic wildflowers bloomed in profusion–most of them hugging the ground to avoid the drying winds–while along the river Arctic Fireweed was vivid. In this warm weather, the clouds of mosquitoes were legendary. To cope we wore head nets, plus applications of DEET-containing Jungle Juice. Karen had sewn the placket gaps above our sleeve cuffs shut to keep the bugs out. But we discovered that they could still bite through our jeans, so we ended up with a lot of itchy welts. During the first two days of hiking along this long valley, we saw no large charismatic wildlife, so we focused upon cool birds we had never before seen, such as a Wandering Tattler on its nest site, an American Golden-Plover, and a Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch.

We set up our first campsite on the lower flanks of a mountain high above the valley. This was northern Alaska during the height of summer, so the sun barely set, making the inside of our yellow tent look like perpetual dim daylight all through the long night. We thought it might be hard to sleep in these conditions, but we were so worn out from hiking with heavy packs that sleep was not a problem. As we gazed up the valley the next morning we could see where we would camp the next night; an expansive view.

Grizzly Bears were always on our minds, but not enough to keep us from sleeping. Without bear spray and without guns, our defense lay in our numbers–with four of us, that should work as a deterrent against daytime attacks. At night, we needed to protect our food supply from bears, but there was no place on the open tundra to hang our food. Each night we took our packs and placed them together about 100 yards downwind from our tents. Atop the packs we placed our cooking pots with stones in them, so a raid on the packs would alert us with noise. We also had little mesh bags made by Karen containing mothballs that we hoped would cover up the scent of food, or at least serve as a repellent. While hiking, the mothballs were triple bagged to contain the strong fumes.

The next day we hiked further along the river, coming upon a spot where there was enough shade from the mountains that river ice several feet thick had not yet melted; it resembled glacial ice, with its aqua-blue color. Later, we were setting up camp when we heard the blowing and galloping of a mammal coming our way. It was our first Caribou, and it appeared to be running in terror. But nothing was chasing it, and it was possible that there was a parasitic larva called a nosebot driving it crazy. Or maybe it was the ever-present mosquitoes.

The third day out, we left our broad, open valley and began ascending a steeper route into the mountains. This was the drainage we hoped to take over a high pass at the northern crest of the range. As the day wore on, the cloud cover increased and there was a noticeable chill in the air. We set up our tents high in a cirque, with sharp peaks rising around us, then finished our camp chores and wriggled into our sleeping bags. A drizzle began, followed by rain, then silence.

When we awoke the next morning, there was about four inches of fresh snow on the tents. It was cold, and we decided it would be too treacherous to make our climb over the pass in these conditions. So we took a snow day, mostly napping and reading inside our tents, waiting for the weather to pass.

We hiked to a snowy, high, unnamed pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park, in the northern part of the Brooks Range, Alaska, USA [No model release; available for editorial licensing only]

The following morning the weather had again changed, with sunny blue skies appearing between clouds still hanging in. We decided this was our day to face the biggest challenge of the trip, so we loaded up and headed straight up the snowy steep and rocky slope toward the pass. When we reached the pass, the view straight north to the Arctic Plain greeted us. The wind was blowing hard over the pass, so we took shelter against a rock buttress and ate lunch. Then Denis and Lee split up to try to find a safe route down from the pass. Denis went to the east and Lee ascended to the west, each looking carefully at our chances. When we got back together, Denis said his side of the pass was not feasible, but Lee decided we had a good chance of making it if we carefully went in his direction. It involved climbing higher, then going sidehill in snow while hugging a cliff above a steep, snow-covered dropoff. If we went far enough, we would reach a scree slope leading all the way down to the valley at a steep angle.

Lee turned to Karen, who gets nervous with exposed heights, and said “You’re going to have to be brave.” She was, and we carefully inched along the cliff face without mishap, then began our steep descent. The scree slope was snow covered, but we forcefully stuck our legs through the snow to the soft rocky debris (almost like a fine gravel dune) and felt almost entirely safe. When we made it to the bottom, it was with a sense of triumph and relief that the most difficult part of the journey was behind us. We celebrated by making a no bake boxed cheesecake chilled in the snow, and all was right with the world.

The bad weather closed in again the next morning, and we hiked down the length of a lake with wet snowflakes steadily falling. Very briefly the mosquitoes were too chilled to move. The mountains were gleaming with their coat of fresh snow. We climbed out of the valley into some foothills. Then, while eating lunch we saw movement in the distance. Binoculars revealed one of the most amazing sights of our lives: thousands of Caribou traveling across the rocky terrain! We changed our route to intercept the herd and over the following days we watched and photographed them extensively, burning the sight into our memories as well as on film.

We camped that night on a ridge in the path of the Caribou, and all night we could hear the clicking of tendons in their ankles as they walked past our tents. It is a fascinating phenomenon, and apparently it serves to keep herds together as they travel–even in the clouds and fog of the mountains they can hear each other enough to stay together. The Caribou traveled well-worn paths along mountain slopes and through wildflower meadows. There were bull Caribou with huge antlers, as well as females with smaller antlers and young of the year racing around. These were part of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which migrates twice yearly between the calving grounds on the Arctic Plain and the wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range. When we saw them, they were gathered together in a huge group, but not yet beginning their fall migration south. Our days among the Caribou were wonderful, as we saw them crossing streams and silhouetted against snowy mountains.

Caribou, Rangifer tarandus, migrating through the mountains of Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

On another morning about this time in the trip we saw our first Grizzly Bear; fortunately it didn’t pay us any attention. It was astounding to see how large it was and how prominent was the hump on its back. One advantage of hiking in the tundra is you can see bears from a long way away. We still remember Denis and Elaine talking about being first on the scene of a near-tragedy in Glacier National Park. A family of four had been hiking together when they surprised a Grizzly in the forest. It attacked, and had one child’s head in its gaping mouth when the father jumped on its back. The bear broke the man’s arms but then called off the attack. But enough about scary bear stories. 

Our packs were now a bit lighter from the food we had consumed, and our still-young bodies gained strength as the days wore on. One day Denis proposed we go off on our own and he and Elaine do the same. That sounded good, and we ventured into the Kurupa Hills. Our highlight was seeing a young Dall Sheep lying on the tundra, and later seeing some adults crossing a talus slope. At our campsite we enjoyed watching an Alaska Marmot, though not-so-much an Arctic Ground Squirrel who chewed through one of our plastic water containers. During the second half of the trip we saw Peregrine Falcons, which were truly rare in the lower 48 during the 1980s because of the effects of DDT, as well as a Long-tailed Duck on a tundra pond, and Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers, which flew at us aggressively when we got too close to their nesting grounds.

Hiking further, we approached our destination, Kurupa Lake. Denis didn’t tell us at the time, but later said an early oil prospector’s report described the “herds of Grizzly Bears” at Kurupa Lake. Fortunately, we encountered no herds, but we did see a second Grizzly Bear on the other side of the lake, where it paused to furiously dig up an Arctic Ground Squirrel’s burrow. It is astounding how fast those massive muscles and claws allow a Grizzly to dig. We assumed it got the squirrel. 

We stayed two nights at our last campsite, giving the bush plane plenty of time to retrieve us. While we waited, Karen and Denis both fished, each catching a Lake Trout and observing Arctic Char. Denis released his fish, but Karen was determined to eat ours. So we cleaned the fish and boiled it, tossing the carcass into the lake to reduce the scent. It was good, but the scent from the cooking would have clung to our wool clothing, undoubtedly acting as a lure for a bear. Fortunately we didn’t attract any bears to camp.

There was always a chance the plane would not appear on our pickup date; if fog or other bad weather delayed previous days’ retrievals, people would be picked up in order and they would get to us as soon as possible. We were getting low on white gas and food and speculated that if we were delayed by days we would be eating raw fish.

We were entranced by the whole experience, and Lee could have turned around and stayed in the wilderness for another two weeks if we had the time. Alas, work called and we needed to return. On our last day we needed to pack early and have our gear ready to go. In the afternoon we heard the whine of a plane approaching, and it turned and descended to our lake. The pilot had instructed us to leave a tent up so he could spot us along this large lake. As soon as we knew the pilot had spotted us, the tent was quickly collapsed and we hoisted our packs to trudge down to the shore, then loaded our gear onto the float plane. When we took off, it signaled the end to one of the signature experiences of our lives.

The photographs below show a map of our route, final packing on the runway in Bettles, our flight north through the mountains, and our first moments on the arctic tundra. Click on any of the pictures for a larger view and more information.

As we hiked across the tundra with our heavy packs, the Arctic revealed itself in beautiful wildflowers, distant views, Caribou antlers, fast streams, and campsites with glorious views.

We identified and photographed wildflowers and lichens and ferns that we had never before seen. The tundra plants are short, hugging the ground to stay out of the wind and take advantage of the warmth near the ground; most of the wildflowers are pollinated by flies, since bees are scarce in the Arctic.

When we reached the end of a long valley and several days of warm temperatures, our route next led us into the mountains. After setting up camp, rain turned to snow. After a rest day, we climbed steeply up into the mountains, not knowing if we could cross the range here. It turned out that we could, although there were challenges of negotiating ice and snow and a steep scree slope.

After the steep mountain crossing we hiked down a long valley in rain and snow, passing alpine lakes and crossing a stream. Here our wildlife sightings began in earnest, with Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and birds we had never seen before. Seeing thousands of Caribou was a highlight of our lives.

After all our time in the wildest wilderness we had ever experienced, it was time for a float plane to pick us up at Kurupa Lake on the north side of Gates of the Arctic National Park. We arrived two days early and spent the extra time fishing and hiking. Alas, we heard the plane overhead and quickly packed up, ending one of the premier adventures of our lives.

Wilderness and adventure in far off places would lure us to distant locations and backpacking trips during the ensuing decades, but nothing would be quite the challenge as this trip to the Brooks Range. Looking back now, nearly four decades later, we both think of it as a highlight of our lives.

To see more of the work of Lee Rentz, go to http://leerentz.com.

DESIGNATE MOUNT BAKER AS AMERICA’S 64TH NATIONAL PARK

If you agree that Mount Baker would be a fine addition to the National Park System, please let your national congressional representative or senator know your feelings. National Parks have been called “America’s Best Idea,” and it is time to expand the system to include all the other great areas that represent the best nature of America.

For more information about my photography or to purchase a print, go to leerentz.com. Or contact me at lee@leerentz.com or on my Lee Rentz Photography Facebook page.

APPALACHIAN TRAIL MEMOIR

The Appalachian Trail winds through the lush forest of the Great Smoky Mountains

Memories of our formative years can remain incredibly vivid into old age. This account tells the story about my hiking trip along a section of the Appalachian Trail with Dowell Jennings Howard III after our spring semester concluded in 1970. Back in the University of Michigan dorm that winter, I had talked with my friend for a long time about how America’s young people needed to incorporate more adventure into their lives, so I pumped him up for the possibility of a May hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail where it passed through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We agreed to do it, and set the plan in motion.

I was a forestry student, while Dowell was studying mechanical engineering. He came from a family in the Cincinnati area that had deep roots in America, and his father worked for Procter and Gamble. His personality was a contrast to my shy and introspective traits; he was friendly and outgoing and was the kind of person who would run for office in student government. These traits were good for making connections while traveling.

We planned the trip, divvying up food purchases and making sure we had appropriate gear for a spring trip in the mountains. We purchased dried eggs and dried sausage that had to be rehydrated before cooking. There were dried noodles and beef and chicken, some packaged in cans instead of plastic. We packed socks and long underwear and warm hats and hiking boots and rain ponchos and matches and all the rest of the gear we thought we would need. I’m sure we hiked in jeans, which few would dare to do today because cotton is slow to dry and doesn’t keep a person warm when wet, but we didn’t know better.

After the semester ended, I flew from Detroit to Cincinnati on an old propellor-driven commercial plane, met my friend for a ride to his parents’ house, then we headed out on a Greyhound bus trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. The overnight bus ride was an experience in itself. The bus curved around constant mountains in the dark, stopping for a break in the middle of the night at a diner in Corbin, Kentucky. I still remember the clank of china and the harsh overhead lights and green walls that looked like they could have been the setting for an Edward Hopper painting.

After a transfer at the Greyhound Bus Station in Knoxville, we next rode a bus to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we stayed at a motel overnight and were interviewed on the street by a local television station about what we were doing in Gatlinburg; Dowell was a natural for television interviews with his politician’s aura, while I stayed in the background. The next morning we hitchhiked to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park campground. There we set up a tube tent that I had made, since I didn’t have money to buy a real backpacking tent. My tube tent was made from a sheet of clear plastic sheeting. I took a piece of plastic maybe 18 feet long and 8 feet wide and taped together the ends. When we set it up, we ran a parachute cord through it which was strung between two trees. It gave us shelter from the rain overhead, as well as a floor, but the ends were open to mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

At the campground we set up our tent, had dinner and told stories, then strung up our food to keep it away from bears and raccoons. Alas, we were virgins in the ways of clever bears, and the next morning we awoke to find that a Black Bear had raided our backpacking food before we could even start our hike. The cans of dried meat were opened as if with a can opener by the bear’s teeth and claws and there were tooth puncture marks and bear saliva slime on plastic food pouches. Now we had a dilemma: not enough food for our backpack. A kind man offered us a ride back to Gatlinburg to get a new food supply, but he decided halfway there that a convenience store was good enough. So we shopped there and ended up with a big jar of combined peanut butter and jelly, some canned meats, probably Vienna sausages, and crackers. The meals were going to be a bit more haphazard than we had planned, but we were young and adaptable.

After that we repacked our backpacks and started up a steep and rocky trail to where it intersected with the Appalachian Trail. The pack was heavy and the hiking was really hard after a year of studying at college with not much physical activity. It was a relief when we finally reached our first trail shelter, which was a three-sided structure made of ancient logs that smelled of years of accumulated smoke from wet campfires. One feature of the shelter that we both liked was that the front was closed off by ground-to-ceiling chain-link fence–designed to keep out marauding bears. We cooked over a smoky fire from downed wood gathered in the surrounding forest; most hikers at that time cooked this way because few had lightweight backpacking stoves. The Appalachian trail shelter had two platforms inside that spanned the width of the shelter, one upper and one lower, where quite a few people could sleep side-by-sde. We settled into our flannel-lined sleeping bags early and slept pretty well, considering all the mice scurrying around the shelter in the night.

After another smoky meal the next morning, we started hiking the Appalachian Trail, which would take us some 70 miles through the park, doing about ten miles a day. Painted Trilliums and other wildflowers bloomed along the trail on our May hike, and we had frequent glimpses through the trees of hazy mountains in all directions. We had learned that the blue haze was not smoke or pollution, but instead consisted of vapors given off by the incredible concentration of trees: the Indians called it the “Land of Blue Smoke.”

Memories of the vast forest

One guy we met at a trail shelter said that he had organized the first national Earth Day that spring. I told him that I had worked with the Environmental Teach-In at the University of Michigan earlier that same spring, so we had something in common. He was out for a dose of nature after finishing all that planning and coordination.

Along the trail I found out that my borrowed backpack was too lightweight for the heavy load I carried, and the aluminum support structure bent and broke when I repeatedly set the pack down on the ground when we took a break. To salvage it for the long trail ahead, I borrowed two dead spruce branches from the forest and lashed the broken aluminum to them. A bit crude-looking, but it worked. When in the wilderness, invention and adaptability are crucial. 

On we hiked through a forest of deciduous trees just leafing out. We came to Charlies Bunion, a bare block of rock with steep drop-offs that terrified me, a flatlander. That night we stayed at the Mount LeConte Shelter, with the intent of having dinner at the legendary and rustic LeConte Lodge just a short distance up the trail. We dropped our packs in the shelter. Dowell wondered if we should hang the packs but I was tired and said no; we were just going a short distance to make dinner reservations. We walked up to the lodge and got our reservations, then hiked back to the shelter–just in time to see a mama bear and her two cubs biting into our packs to try to get at the food inside. We chased them away by throwing rocks, but Dowell’s pack was pretty bitten up. I apologized to him for not hanging our packs, but it does give me something to write about 50 years later!

The high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains seem to go on forever

We had our meal at LeConte Lodge, which was hearty and filling but nothing fancy, then watched a sunset from the mountain, where the legendary blue ridges of the mountains go on and on. It was the best view along the trail, and the light was magical. 

The next day we crossed the only road through the mountains at Newfound Gap, where a woman made up like Dolly Parton, and her husband, offered us beer and took our pictures. By that time on the trail we were a pair of grubby young mountain men on an adventure that seemed exotic to the tourists.

On to another trail shelter, this one occupied by two grad student bear researchers from the University of Tennessee and a troop of Girl Scouts from Knoxville. The scout leader, Mary, was a wonderful young woman who was taking the girls on an adventure of their lives. None of them knew how ugly it would get. 

A few minutes after we arrived, half-a-dozen men in their 20s walked up to the shelter. They had been drinking heavily on the trail, with at least one of them carrying a gallon jug of Gallo red wine with his finger curled through the loop on the jug’s neck. Almost immediately, this guy and others started making sexual comments to the young girls, which was among the most inappropriate scenes I’ve ever experienced. It looked like these guys were going to spend the night at the shelter, but the shelter was already full. Were they going to physically kick us out?

These guys, one of them explained to us, had just returned from Vietnam where they had been involved in combat in the jungle. They were tough, and big, and dangerous, and they didn’t like college students, who they would have thought of as protestors with deferments (which we were!). Combined with the alcohol, the discussion among them got ugly. Fortunately, one cooler head among them convinced them to hike on to the next trail shelter, so they left. Crisis averted. 

We made friends with Mary, and agreed to look her up when we passed through Knoxville on the return (which we did, and stopped at her apartment for a nice candlelight spaghetti dinner on her kitchen table–which was one of those wooden cable spools popular among college students at the time). We were impressed by her leadership of the Girl Scout group and how she believed in mentoring girls in outdoor experiences.

On we hiked along ridges with stunning views of the great Appalachian forest, lush with growth. We stayed at the Silers Bald shelter, high along the trail, which gave us a view of dark and ominous clouds. At this shelter we talked for a long time with an old and grizzled mountain man from nearby Bryson City who had hiked