18 Days in the Arrigetch: Part 1

From July 12-July 30 2018, I was part of a climbing expedition to the Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range of Alaska. This is the Part 1 of a series of essays I am writing about the trip. These essays combine details from my journal, photographs I took, and research about the area. I hope you enjoy!

Moments after a smooth  touchdown on the black water of Circle Lake, our Beaver pilot urges us off the plane so that he can unload our gear. He seems like he’s in a hurry to get going. From my vantage point standing on the plane’s pontoon float, I can see that there is no getting off this plane without walking through mud and water.

Stepping off the pontoon and into the wilderness. 

Not wanting to look like just another tourist, unprepared for the north Alaskan bush and afraid to get his feet wet, I shoulder my 90lb pack and confidently step off the pontoon with my shoes on. My foot sinks ankle deep into the mud and the water rises up my calf. “I guess I’ll have wet feet today,” I think to myself as I plod through the mud to drop my pack on a slight rise 10 yards from the bank.  I quickly return to the plane to help unload more gear.

Once all of our gear was unloaded, the pilot quickly restarted the engine, maneuvered the fifty-year-old plane away from the bank and took-off. No goodbye, a terse “meet you back here on the 30th,” and suddenly we are alone in a seemingly infinite expanse of wilderness, more than 100 miles from the nearest road.

The de Havilland Beaver takes off from Circle Lake in the Alatna River Valley.

A few minutes later, we can no longer hear the distinct, low-pitch drone of the Beaver’s engine. All we hear now are our own voices and the constant buzz of flies and mosquitoes. Our climbing trip to the Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range of Alaska has quickly become so real that it’s palpable. We’re in it now.

The Arrigetch Peaks form one of the most visually striking regions of the Brooks Range. Sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle, these steep, sharp granite spires, clustered tightly together in an area encompassing only 20 square miles, contrast dramatically with the more gentle-sloped mountains surrounding the region.

The tallest peaks in the region are a mere 7000 feet above sea level, but the harsh Arctic climate makes these peaks truly alpine. But we cannot see any of this. Our views are blocked by dense vegetation and a long, low angle slope, rising over 3000 feet, that we must walk around.

Slender Black Spruce trees dominate the taiga forest. Dark winters and extreme cold slow their growth; saplings only a few feet tall can be upwards of 30 years old and the biggest trees, reaching 50 feet, were saplings when Captain Vitus Bering, namesake of the Bering Strait, became the first European to see Alaska. Where there are no spruce, willow and alder bushes tangle the landscape with long, flexible branches growing more horizontally than up, making travel through the taiga slow and tedious.

An unnamed river winds through the taiga in Gates of the Arctic National Park. 

Circle Lake is a long, semicircular oxbow in the Alatna River valley. It is less than 1000 feet above sea level and the terrain here looks more like a jungle than I imagined the Arctic to be. It is hot, humid, and wet. To access the Arrigetch, we must bushwhack through a dozen trail-less miles of wet taiga. After half an hour of repacking and edgy debate over who isn’t carrying their fair share of gear, we get to work.

Each step feels like walking on a giant sponge. My foot sinks a few inches into the thick moss and lichen. Water pools around the base of my foot as if I just wrung out the sponge. After removing my foot, the pith slowly rebounds and reabsorbs the water. No footprint left behind.

Sometimes the moss and lichen covered ground gives way to grass tussocks and mud. A tussock looks like a basketball sized tuft of grass growing in a dense clump a foot or two above the surrounding mud. Stepping on one is like stepping on a balance board blindfolded. The tussock will roll over if you don’t step on it just right, sending your foot into the mud, possibly twisting an ankle, or worse, in the process. Tussocks dominate the terrain for hundreds of yards in some areas. I opt to avoid potentially ending our trip with a broken ankle and step in the mud. My feet are already wet and muddy anyway.

Bushwhacking through the taiga. 

For over 6 hours we thrash through willow and alder thickets, occasionally passing through densely packed lanes of aspen, following drainages down the hillside. In that time, we walked less than 3 miles. On a trail, we could easily cover more than 10 miles in that time.

Eventually, we begin rounding the broad hillside to walk up Arrigetch Valley. Through its center runs Arrigetch Creek, more akin to a raging river than a gentle stream. Water melting from the last remaining glaciers in the area, combined with a recent deluge of rain from a tropical storm, feed Arrigetch Creek. The creek has carved a deep gorge and although we cannot see it, we hear the sound of water thundering down, on its way to the ocean.

The Alatna River Valley. 

I continue thrashing through an especially dense area of willow, alder, and spruce when I unexpectedly find a use-trail heading in our intended direction. Oh the joy! The incredible elation and relief I felt finding a path after hours of bushwhacking is nearly indescribable.

This path is not an official trail and is not maintained by anything other than human and animal traffic. Its presence is a testament to the growing popularity of this area. Walking along this narrow path, whose tread is no wider than a 6 inches, is tremendously easier than bushwhacking, but still requires one to constantly duck and weave through branches. As I walk along, I feel a tinge of ambivalence, elated to know that walking will now be easier, but disappointed that this area may not be as wild as I once thought.

Soon, I see a small ridge outcropping with a flat top that will make a suitable campsite. We trudge the remaining distance, exhausted from a long day with heavy packs. Now the camp chores begin: fetching water, unpacking, setting up the tent, and cooking consume the next 3 hours. We eat dinner under full sunlight at 10pm and enjoy our first views of the Arrigetch Peaks, their jagged spires forming the skyline up valley.

Our first night’s camp. The sun is still bright at 9pm. The Arrigetch Peaks form our skyline to the west. 

I crawl into my sleeping bag at 11pm. The sky is remains fully illuminated, although the sun has sunk behind a ridge to our north. My shoulders and back ache from carrying the pack, but my knees and legs feel fresh. The soft terrain must be easy on the legs. I write in my journal, accounting for all the days trials, tribulations, and wonders. I fall asleep dreaming of the surprises tomorrow holds.

Mapping the Arrigetch Peaks

I am obsessed with maps. I love how they can display huge amounts of geographic, cultural, and political information in a way that is both understandable and aesthetically pleasing. Visually scanning a map takes me on a mini-adventure. I discover where I want to go, recall places I’ve been, and attempt to visualize what the area may look like.

I often thought about making my own maps, and had even attempted making a few using Adobe Illustrator and Inkscape (an open sourced vector graphics application). But I was always disappointed with the results and frustrated with the process.

In July 2018, I was fortunate enough to go on a climbing expedition to the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska. This far-off mountain range is one of the most remote in North America and it encompasses more than 100,000 square miles of terrain, about the size of Colorado. The total number of visitors to the area each year is unknown, the region is likely visited by a few hundred tourists and adventurers every year and is inhabited year-round by Athabascan, Inupiaq, and other Inuit peoples in small settlements. The Dalton Highway, a lonesome unpaved road, is the only road traversing this rugged terrain.

Gates of the Arctic-Alaska-trekalaska-credit
Map of Alaska and Gates of the Arctic National Park. Image credit: http://www.trekalaska.com

Our expedition focused on the Arrigetch Peaks region of the Brooks Range, located in Gates of the Arctic National Park. When researching the area, I sought out topographic maps that would suit our needs.

The 7.5’x7.5′ USGS “Quad” maps are readily available, but it would take at least 4 separate maps to cover the terrain we were interested in. In addition, these maps had few features labeled, which would make them less user-friendly in the field.

The Trails Illustrated produces a map encompassing all of Gates of the Arctic National Park, but the scale was much too small to be useful for climbing. While beautifully made, it’s hard for me to imagine this map being useful for anything other than river rafting.

Faced with this predicament, I decided to make my own maps that would include the information we needed for our trip at a useful scale and manageable size. I knew doing this would require a level of precision not possible using normal vector graphics software. I would need a dedicated cartography application and the skills to use it effectively.

GIS software, short for Geographic Information System, allows one to view, create, edit, and analyze geographic data for cartography. A quick search for GIS mapping software came up with two choices: ArcGIS and QGIS.

ArcGIS is a paid software used by most professional organizations involved in cartography, including the USGS. Unfortunately, it costs $100/year for the basic personal use license. I was not prepared to spend money on software just yet.

QGIS, an acronym for Quantum Geographic Information System, is a free, open source application designed to accomplish the same tasks as ArcGIS. Open sourced applications are often not as user-friendly as paid analogs, but in this case, there are many tutorials and troubleshooting information available online for QGIS. Even better, many of the “advanced” features available with QGIS are blocked by paywalls with ArcGIS.

Over the course of 3 weeks in June 2018, I watched innumerable tutorial videos, visited Stack Exchange (a technical question/answer site with a dedicated GIS section), and read much of the QGIS Training Manual. I also learned how to access and use much of the freely accessible geographic data available from the USGS.

Amalgamating research on approaching the Arrigetch Peaks with my nascent GIS skills, I was able to create two customized maps I hoped would be useful for our expedition. It required maybe 30-40 hours of work from start to finish, including time spent searching for data and learning the software. Not too bad for a novice!

The first map encompassed the entire region we could possibly visit, from bush plane drop-off to every peak in the region. When scaled to fit on a 24″x36″ poster, 1.5 inches on the map was equivalent to 1 mile. Through a local commercial printer, I was able to print this map for $0.29/each in black and white using their “Blueprint” printing service.

On our expedition, we found this map most useful when we were bushwhacking to and from the peaks from our drop-off site. I also used it to plot our courses and points of interest for later reference. I liked that it gave a grand, top-down view of the whole region and allowed us to see where we hoped to go, where we had been, and where we were all on the same map.

Arrigetch Peaks Map 1 grayscale OnlineImg
This 24″x36″ whole area map was printed in black and white to make it affordable. Notice that North was rotated 30 degrees clockwise to obtain a better fit at this scale on the paper size. [The resolution of this image has been reduced.] Copyright Ryan Strickland.
The second map went through several iterations before printing. I wanted a map that could be folded small enough to fit in my pocket, encompassed all the peaks in the region, was of useful scale, and could be printed affordably in color. After speaking with the printing service, I learned that 11″x17″ full color prints would be the best bet, costing about $1.50/each.

Once the print size was settled, my work was just a matter of scaling the map data to fit in a way that was legible and useful. I also wanted to make an attractive title block to include the area name, distance scale, magnetic declination, and projection information.

Arrigetch Peaks Map 5 OnlineImg
The 11″x17″ Arrigetch Peaks color map. When folded, this map was only 4.25″x5.5″. [The resolution of this image has been reduced.] Copyright Ryan Strickland
Overall, we were very happy using the 11″x17″ color map in the field. Our base camp and all other possible camps within the Arrigetch Peaks are within its boundaries. The small size made it easy to handle and color graphics made it easy to read.

We wished that there were more contour elevation labels because we often had to tediously search the map to find an appropriate contour elevation. I also should have included summit elevations and lake elevations to make it more convenient to use. Stylistically, I thought the peak name label and contour label font sizes were a point or two over-sized. I also thought the contour lines were slightly too thick, causing them to run together too much on steep slopes. Now that I am back home, I’ve edited the maps to reflect those critiques.

This was a great introduction to GIS for me. The project was personally relevant and important, which made the learning process much more enjoyable. I think the project was complex enough to teach me a variety of GIS mapping skills that I can apply to other projects.

This project taught me how to find and download GIS data from the USGS, add vector and raster layers to my project from that data, manipulate the visibility of different layers and attributes, create labels, and produce a finished product for printing. Most importantly, it was fun! I found this kind of work challenging and enjoyable.