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Pushing the Limits

Near the end of a 4,000-mile human-powered journey to the western Arctic, two WWU alumni catch a lucky break — they run out of supplies

By Caroline Van Hemert | ('05, M.A., Creative Writing)

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| Photo by Patrick Farrell
| Photo by Patrick Farrell
| Photo by Patrick Farrell
| Photo by Patrick Farrell
| Photo by Patrick Farrell
| Photo by Patrick Farrell
| Photo by Patrick Farrell
| Photo by Patrick Farrell
| Photo by
| Photo by Cartography by Stefan Freelan, GIS Specialist, Huxley College of the Environme

After a night of shivering, the morning arrives like a gift. As the sky begins to brighten I can make out Pat’s form next to me, head buried under his sleeping bag, body curled into a tight ball. Anxious to shake the cold from my veins, I unzip the tent and reach for my shoes. They are frozen solid, laces encased in ice. I reach for my socks, hanging overhead, and frost shatters onto the tent floor. As I force one battered foot, and then the other, into the rigid wooden boxes that were once my shoes, I wince in pain.

Winter in the Arctic has advertised its impending arrival in no uncertain terms.

A week ago, a late August snowstorm on a critical mountain pass nearly signaled the end of our journey. As we retreated down the icy slope, squinting through a squall that had become a blizzard, I felt our shared dream slipping away.

But yesterday, we completed what had seemed impossible – an 80-mile detour through thick brush and flooded creeks. When we finally crested the last ridge, we whooped and hollered in triumph and then stared out at a sea of snow-covered talus. The north-facing slope below us held a jumble of refrigerator-sized rocks covered by a thin layer of ice and several inches of snow. Beneath the haphazardly arranged boulders were holes that would swallow a leg or a torso, could snap a tibia like a twig. In a remote valley of the Western Brooks Range of northern Alaska, more than 100 miles from the nearest community, we had no margin for error.

But we also had no other alternatives. So, slowly, we began to descend, dancing like marionettes, bodies jerking wildly about as our feet slipped with every step. When we reached the heather below, bruised but amazingly unhurt, shadows began to darken the peaks and we pitched our tent by headlamp. I shut my eyes against the blackness and heard the characteristic quieting of rain turning to snow.

When I step out of the tent into the frosty morning, I blink at a scene so stunning that I momentarily forget my discomfort. Streams of water and ice cascade down towering granite slabs. The snow-covered pass shimmers in the bright morning light. Below, I gaze at a red-gold valley, painted in every shade of autumn.

But what I see is more than a colorful landscape portrait, more than beauty itself. Because this is not just any valley. It is the valley, our valley. The Noatak Valley. For the rest of the day, my thoughts alternate between the toil of what has become an ordinary routine and the realization that, after nearly six months and more than 3,500 miles, we are nearing our goal. Once we retrieve our final resupply by bush plane and paddle down the Noatak River to the Chukchi Sea we will have completed a human-powered traverse from Bellingham, Wash., to the coast of northwestern Alaska.

But by the next morning, the sky has darkened to the same steely shade of gray we’ve scowled at for weeks, and rain showers blow through like flocks of angry birds. I call the pilot on the satellite phone only to hear what I already know. No flights until the weather improves. By evening, water is pooling on the floor of the tent and our shoes float in puddles inside the vestibule.

This is the only time on the entire trip when we have been dependent on outside support and our vulnerability suddenly seems acute. The recent detour around the mountains added several days of travel and forced us onto half rations. Now, our reserves are frighteningly low. I empty the meager contents of our last food bag – only five granola bars, less than what one of us would normally eat in an afternoon. We collect the few shriveled berries that remain on the adjacent hillsides, but they do little to assuage our aching bellies.

The Arctic is a land of extremes, and, now, after summer’s warmth has departed, birds have headed south, and leaves wither and fall to the ground, there is little opportunity for foraging. As one impossible day stretches to three, I waver between moments of heart-thumping anxiety followed by the sort of acceptance that borders on defeat. “What if the plane doesn’t come?” I ask for the 30th time. “It will,” Pat says. “It has to.”

The fourth morning greets us with more drizzle, another call to the pilot, another day of hateful waiting. Around noon, the tent’s beige, mosquito-pocked fabric brightens and I shut my eyes against another round of false hope. The clouds have remained low and stationary all day, and the forecast is for more rain. But when a harsh yellow light probes my closed lids and refuses to go away, I sit up and unzip the tent fly.

Pat is alert now, too, looking at my face expectantly. For the first time in days, my cracked lips stretch into a smile. Pat smiles back.

Within minutes I’ve reached the pilot with a weather update. “Please come. NOW.” I plead. “We can see all the way over the tops of the peaks, the sky is blue, the winds are light.” When he promises that he is on his way, we sit outside and listen for the drone of a distant plane, willing insects, birds, anything that moves, to be the sound that will save us.

But four hours pass and the sky remains silent. A few high cumulus clouds settle on the adjacent peaks and I feel as though I’m being suffocated. Only after the plane eventually comes into view and heads directly toward us do I jump up and begin to tremble. The sudden motion draws a momentary blackness over my eyes and I stand quietly until I feel my pulse return again. As the plane circles and then lands on the slough, we are waiting to meet the pilot on the bank.

By the time we unload the boxes that contain extra food, warm clothes, and the foldable canoe that will carry us downstream, it has started to drizzle again. We inhale one dinner, and then another, before collapsing in the tent, our bellies satiated, our minds at rest. I wake in the early morning hours to a chorus of wolves; when I peer outside a nearly full moon rises from behind the clouds. Just before dawn, a skein of migrating snow geese passes overhead.

In the morning we tug the loaded canoe through standing reeds to the riverbank. I glance back at our campsite for a final time before the current carries us away. With the recent storms, the snowline has crept further down the hillsides, and the air temperature hovers just above freezing. The flooded river flushes us downstream with purpose; even under fierce headwinds, we cover almost 150 river miles in three days. We stop frequently on the bank to warm ourselves with jumping jacks and push-ups. Weary from the weather and the nagging cold, I focus most of my attention on the murky water as it swirls beneath the canoe – hood up, head down, and paddle.

As we round a bend in the river, I notice what appears to be a branch floating downstream. And then another. When Pat points to the bank nearby, my breath catches in my throat.

Dozens of caribou stand at the river’s edge, poised to cross. Quickly, we search for an eddy and pull to the side. Within moments, we hear splashing. Cows and calves pair tightly in the swift current, floating head to tail, exchanging quiet grunts of reassurance. The bulls’ antlers, fresh with the velvet of their new growth, protrude skyward. When they reach the other shore, the animals prance and shimmy, water flying in beads off their pale coats.

After the last caribou has crossed, we haul the canoe up the bank and walk over to the flurry of tracks that they have left in the sand. The trail leads up a small rise into the bushes. Here, we smell their musky barnyard odor and see hair and scat plastering the ground. As we stare down at the tiny tracks of a calf, a low ripple of sound approaches like wind across the water. Instinctively, we duck into a stand of willows and, within seconds, are surrounded by animals.

The tendons of their legs click audibly and their breath comes in huffs and throaty snorts. In single file they pass in front of us, so close that I am tempted to graze their flanks with my fingertips. Instead, I close my eyes and feel the steam rising from their bodies. A large bull steps gingerly over Pat’s outstretched legs. A curious calf sniffs us, its face mere inches from ours.

Limbs frozen in place, Pat and I communicate with raised eyebrows and whispers. “This is the single most amazing thing that I have ever seen,” Pat mouths to me. A dozen feet away, we hear the splash of one caribou, and then another and another, as they plunge off of the sheer, 6-foot bank into the current below. Their purpose is absolute –they must move.

For hours, we sit motionless, embedded in the intricacies of the herd’s migration. Each time the bushes quiet for several minutes and it seems that there can’t possibly be any more animals, another wave arrives. We lose count after the first several hundred, but thousands pass. Finally, our stomachs begin to protest in hunger and the sky darkens to dusk. On hands and knees we sneak back to the canoe. As we pitch our tent, make a fire, and eat dinner, the caribou continue to cross. When we can no longer make out the silhouettes of their antlers bobbing along the surface, we crawl into the tent. I lie in my sleeping bag and listen to the splashing and quiet grunts. Hours later, I wake in the dark and hear them crossing still.

By morning, they are gone. At the river’s edge, caribou hair swishes in dense, floating mats. We sit quietly and strain to hear the thrumming of hooves or the sounds of bushes snapping. I scan the slopes carefully with my binoculars. But we are alone. The pulse of thousands of bodies moving as one has vanished.

Suddenly the snow and rain and hungry wait seem like strokes of perfect luck. For months we have traveled in the shadow of caribou. Their rutted tracks, extending like arteries across the landscape, have guided us over foothills and peaks of the Brooks Range, across hundreds of miles of Arctic vastness. Again and again, they led us away from steep cliffs and treacherous slopes, showed us the way through terrain that seemed impenetrable. We learned to trust their wisdom over our own intuition. But never had we seen a herd in migration, nor witnessed tens of thousands of hooves trace an ancient route across the tundra.

Now, only days from the end, our journey, like the caribou’s, feels complete.

Caroline Van Hemert ('05, M.A., Creative Writing) is a wildlife biologist and Patrick Farrell ('04, Art - Sculpture) owns a design-and-build company. The couple lives in Alaska and has climbed, skied, paddled, and explored together for more than 10 years.