10 Days Living Amongst the Caribou

by Greg Kinman

Nothing inspires you to conserve the earth’s beauty more than spending time in true wilderness. Josh, my supervisor, and I just returned from a ten-day off-trail backpacking trip through the upland wilderness of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in eastern Interior Alaska. We traveled by bush plane, landing on tall grass in an area near Copper Mountain and the upper Charley River. It was an amazing experience; we shared the landscape with the caribou, the wolverines, the marmots, and the bears (although we saw none; not even tracks or scat). And, we brought cameras. The sole purpose of our trip was to visually document the area so that others can be inspired to come enjoy and respect the landscape. Josh, my supervisor, packs up his gear after landing in the bush plane. We landed in a Helio Super Courier on a relatively smooth bush airstrip in a lowland field. Immediately surrounding the strip on all sides is ferocious wetland, filled with tussocks, moss, and watery, squelchy ground. Note to anyone traveling off-trail in Alaska; try to travel with a light pack so that you can wear lighter shoes, such as trailrunners, that dry quickly. Even if you wear the top-of-the-line Gore-Tex backpacking boots, your feet will still get soaked, so you might as well give up on trying to keep your feet dry and instead wear shoes that don’t stay wet. You’ll also travel faster and easier with a lighter load. Nowhere else other than in Alaska is this so important. Wetland sedges and moss surround the bush strip_ expect your feet to become soaked through! We slogged through the tussocks up to higher ground, where the water drains well enough to allow spruce trees and brush such as dwarf birch to grow in dense thickets. Wear long sleeves and gaiters in these sections, or your arms will be scratched and your pants will get ripped! As elevation increases, however, the trees and brush reduce in size significantly until they are no longer present. Josh crouches to get a shot through the thick brush. We had had our heads forward for so long, sweating and slogging through thick brush uphill, yelling “Yogi!” constantly to notify any bears that might be in the area that we were passing through, that we hadn’t looked back behind us for a while. When we did, we saw the beautiful basin that we had left. This is a view of the basin in the which the bush airstrip is located. The strip is the strip of grass in between the two red lines that appears slightly lighter in color than the surrounding area. We noticed that the airstrip, which is about 800 feet long, looked like a tiny speck compared to the rest of the landscape. It’s amazing how small we began to feel after being immersed in a wilderness like Yukon-Charley. Humans can’t even hike over tussocks without occasionally breaking an ankle, but wolverines hop around like Michael Johnson among toddlers. This is the plant known as monkshood, among many other names, such as wolfsbane. It is highly poisonous- one petal can kill a human being. It grows like a weed in upland areas where water is present. Once we were above the tree line, the landscape moved to grasses and flowers in the wetter areas and low moss, rock, and berry plants in the drier areas. Sadly, we were a few weeks too early for berry season; we only found about three blueberries that were ripe enough to eat. This is where we camped the second night. Copper Mountain, our summit goal for the trip, is the highest peak on the right side of the frame. For the first two nights, we camped under the shadow of Copper Mountain, 6367’, our hiking objective for the trip. It’s quite a rugged mountain above 5500’, with sheer scree slopes littered with huge, loose rocks and boulders. We had not predicted this level of ruggedness, however, and we realized at about 6000’ that we had taken the wrong direction of approach. Another mossy buttress other than the one we took would have been a much better (and safer) choice. The risk of the route we had chosen was too great. Next time! However, the fact that not even we, the National Park Service, had been aware of the level of ruggedness of the second highest peak in the preserve, goes to show the deep level of wilderness that abounds in Alaska. Alaska’s wilderness areas are absolutely untouched compared to designated wilderness areas in the contiguous United States. Here’s a closer look at Copper Mountain as we saw it from near our second campsite. As we hiked up the ridge on our summit attempt, we had a few encounters with bull caribou. They made experienced hikers like us look like crawling babies what with their ability to prance around on mossy and rocky ridgeline slopes. Throughout the trip, we saw around five caribou on the ground, as well as an entire herd of at least fifty on the flight out of the preserve. The nice thing about seeing lots of caribou is that their presence precludes that of bears for a few hours! While hiking up to the ridge, we encountered four or five caribou, a few of which appeared very close to us. We spotted two Dall sheep on a ridge across the valley towards Copper Mountain, and we heard an enormous amount of marmots and pika squeaking with disapproval at our presence on the alpine rocky slopes. Listen to the marmots; their squealing calls may be letting you know of the presence of an unwelcome creature (a bear) near your camp. The icing on the wildlife cake, however, was the sighting of two wolverines on two consecutive days near the end of the trip. Most wilderness travelers go their entire lives without seeing a single wolverine, and we saw two. The Athabaskans, the natives of Interior Alaska, consider the wolverine their chief animal for its strength, agility, speed, and ability to inspire fear in all other animals, despite its small size. Seeing the wolverines, although only for a few seconds each, was an amazing experience. Josh even got video of the first one that should be up on the Yukon-Charley Rivers website soon. After the rain cleared up, this is what we saw at our alpine valley campsite - pure beauty. Who wouldn’t want to conserve it? After we made the call to abandon the summit attempt of Copper Mountain, we descended over the other side of the ridge into a picturesque high alpine valley, complete with crystal-clear snowmelt-fed lakes and streams. It was the most captivating place that I have ever spent time in. Unfortunately, it rained for at least three of the four days that we spent there; though we were still able to get some good shots. We were sad to leave when it came time to hike back to the airstrip. Here is Josh ready to hike back to the airstrip. Look at how small and light his pack was on a ten-day trip. He’s an ultralight enthusiast. After having eaten four more days of food, our packs were significantly lighter heading back up the ridge than they had been coming down it. We backtracked our incoming path relatively quickly, making our way back to the airstrip in two days. We had set up camp at the airstrip the night before our pickup date when we heard the hum of a plane propeller. We looked up in the sky out of our shelter, and circling the airstrip was a small bush plane, but not the one that was to come pick us up! We quickly removed our tent from the middle of the airstrip and let the plane land. A local bush pilot, Dave, was simply resting at the strip for the night before continuing on to get some more fuel. Early the next morning I shot a video of his takeoff. Enjoy!

It wasn’t long after Dave took off that we did as well. As we flew low and weaved through the mountains on the flight out of the preserve, I was looking forward to some fresh food, but I was also sad to leave such a pristine wilderness. It’s a place for reflection, and it’s a reminder that, without technology, humans are simply inferior to wildlife in their natural environment. Hopefully my images can convey that sentiment. Thanks for reading.