I Survived!

Yep, that’s me – fully decked out in rain gear, life vest, rubber gloves and boots, and a bunch of warm layers – and having a blast! I got the front row seat on the raft. Well, actually it was the back row seat, but since you spend most of the time floating with the stern forward, I had the best seat in the house.

It was absolutely mesmerizing watching the geologic patters of the mountains slide by, catching glimpses down tributary valleys with distant peaks behind, seeing sheep and caribou on the hills.

It’s true that when we hit the whitewater I was the one to get splashed head to toe, and when we had to pull the rafts over shallow water, I was the first one to have to jump back in the boat before I got swamped by deep water, which I did with varying amounts of success. But it was all one long grand bit of fun, including the part when the raft got caught in the current and hit a canyon wall head on. I don’t remember a lot of it, I was busy making myself as small and flat as possible so it wasn’t my head as well.

The trip was amazing. The Refuge is stunning in scale and beauty. I am going to have to work very, very hard to find ways of describing to you not only the physical beauty but also the feeling of being in a place so vast and wild.

The trip was also very different than we imagined. We ended up only travelling 25 of the 75 miles we had originally planned. The water was too shallow in places and too rough in others for our over-weighted rafts to navigate. We spent our first day pulling the rafts over shallow water as often as we were actually floating, and the second day of rafting, after a day’s rain in between, the water was so high that we couldn’t safely navigate a boulder-strewn section. The extra water had turned our sleepy little Class I river into something between a Class III and IV – with the potential to capsize that earns the classification. We ended up spending two days carrying our twelve hundred pounds of gear and both of our rafts two miles over the tundra before we could find a spot where it was safe to get back on the water.

Twelve hundred pounds of gear, you gasp! Yep, that’s right – what WERE we thinking? Not about the rafts, that’s for sure. We were all so focused on not going over the weight limit of the bush plane that we weren’t really thinking about how much weight the rafts could hold. So what we ended up with were one raft with 4 people and another smaller raft with 2 and all of our gear piled to the heavens in both. It made the rafts ride low in the water – hence all the pulling over shallow water that a more modestly loaded raft could have floated over. It also made the rafts incredibly hard to maneuver – hence our inability to navigate the boulder field safely. As Fran described it, it was like rowing a refrigerator down the river.

So instead of trying to make it the whole 75 miles which, after the delays of rain and portaging around the boulder-field, would have meant rafting every day for the remainder of the trip, we unanimously decided to use the satellite phone and arrange for the pilot to pick us up at the only other place on the river for a plane to land, just a few miles from where we were.

We were all disappointed not to see more of the river and to not see any of the Coastal Plain, but what it meant was that we had glorious days hiking in the mountains, fishing in the river, bathing in swimming holes, swapping tall tales, and discussing the philosophical value of wilderness.

My favorite moment? There are many, many to choose from. But if you push me, I have to say it was the wolves. The first night at our camp on a bluff above the confluence of the Marsh Fork and the Canning River, Jeff and I hiked up the hill to our east. We were sitting on a rock outcropping, watching the late evening sunlight sweep across the glowing tundra plain below us, when we saw them – three of them in triangle formation, a black wolf in the front and two grays, a large one and a smaller – at angles 25 feet or so behind. Clearly, they were heading directly for the promontory where we had pitched our tents. Then they caught wind of our camp. They stopped, sniffed, thought for a few moments then changed direction a bit, so that they were heading towards where Jeff and I were seated 50 yards away.

Jeff and I tried to remain as still as possible, but the large gray noticed us and stopped, looking straight at us. She (I have no idea if it was a she, really) climbed up the small hill below us and stopped again, still looking at us. The smaller gray joined her there, then they both went over the crest of the hill and out of sight. Soon the black wolf came up the hill and joined them over the ridge.

They must have had a strategy session on the other side, for the next thing we knew all three of them came back over the ridge, went down the hill onto the tundra and crossed the plain at a new angle. It took them away from our camp and out onto the gravel expanse along the river. We finally lost sight of them in the islands of willows out amid the braids of the river.

Those few minutes capture the essence of the Refuge for me. Sitting in absolute grandeur, the sweep of the world vast on all sides of you, the evening sun throwing long gold light down the valley, the earth beneath your feet spongy mats of lichen and moss, no sound but of the distant river, the scentless air with just enough bite in it to remind you that you are in the Arctic. And then the wolves appear reminding you that you are in their territory, an intrusion into their lives. You are an imposition there, unimportant in a landscape that needs nothing from you. All you need to do is remain still and quiet and it will give you it’s gifts.

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