13 September, 2002
A Day to Explore
Once again our plans for the day were changed. Fortunately, for today they changed in our favor. The morning started of quite a bit warmer than it has been for the last few days. The day started somewhat overcast, but began to clear up by lunchtime. When we arrived in the lab after breakfast we discovered that we had completed nearly everything we had scheduled for our trip to Toolik. A few more tests to run and by lunch we were done. Our two principle investigators, Dr. Jack Duman of Notre Dame and Dr. Brian Barnes of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks arrived after a long trip up the Haul Road to find that almost all of the work here had already been completed. So with little else to do for the day, we were able to take the afternoon off.
What do you do with a free afternoon in the Alaskan Tundra with nice weather? We decided to go exploring in ANWR (Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge). The southwest corner of ANWR comes with one half of a mile of the Dalton Highway a few miles south of Toolik Lake. We had been told that there was a very nice mountain waterfall about three miles into ANWR. The water falls almost 150 feet from near the peak of a mountain in the Brooks Range. Feeling that a six or seven mile hike was well within our abilities, we headed for a turnoff from the Dalton Highway at a place called the Atigun River. The Atigun form a river valley that cuts through the Brooks Range and passed deep into the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. To get to the waterfall we needed to hike along the edge of the Atigun Valley until we found the stream that lead up to the waterfall. Once at the stream we would have to hike up the rocky, boulder strewn streambed (all uphill) to the falls itself.
I have made much longer hikes and have backpacked many, many miles, but I knew within the first half mile that this would be one of the most strenuous hikes I had made.
The area we had to hike over was all similar to tundra lowland. It was covered with streams and potholes hidden under the grasses and groundcovers and the terrain was even spongier than the areas where we had walked previously. At times I sank knee deep in the tundra grasses. The sinking meant that every step was an effort to lift out your leg just so you could make the next step. Often the grasses would sink to a point where the underlying water would soak my boot. Still three miles did not seem a great distance so we pressed on. I will be posting some of the photos of the hike below and I must admit that the scenery along this hike was some of the most impressive I have encountered in Alaska.
Once we finally made it to the streambed, we climbed our way up and over rocks and boulder to the waterfall. While a little tired, we found the waterfall area to be well worth the hike. The water, which is all meltwater from the mountain snow, comes through a hole near the top of the mountain. From there the water drops down along a high rock wall to a small pool of perfectly clear, very cold water. The pool and falls made a perfect spot for an extended rest before making our way back across the mountainside to the road. In any other location, this area would be crowded with tourists taking photos under the falls. In the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, we were the only humans for miles
and we were grateful for the privilege to see this beautiful place.
Unfortunately, as with all things, good things must come to an end and we had to cross the same ground on the return hike. The terrain that was challenging on the way into the falls, was now daunting. Somehow it seemed that I stepped in every possible tundra pothole on the way back. About two-thirds of the way bake realized that I was very tired, so for that last mile back to the road I felt as if I was dragging myself over the grassy hummocks of the tundra. As I sit here now, I can feel the effects of the days hike in every muscle of my legs. It is really impossible to explain how hard it is to walk on spongy tundra ground without speaking to others who have experienced the same thing. The best analogy I can come up with is to imagine walking several miles in one of the inflatable moonwalks that we often see at festivals and fairs.
So, while I sit here with aches that I know will be worse tomorrow, I can also state that every sore spot was well worth the effort. I had the opportunity to see a place that only a small handful of other people will ever see. I also got to share that experience with Val and Todd who have become invaluable friends. How can a day off ever get better than that?
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