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Approaching the Unavoidable, Bittersweet Finish

For the last 12 months, my life has revolved around a singular purpose: to complete the Alaska-Yukon Expedition. In the first six months I planned how to do it, which entailed intricate spreadsheets, goodie boxes from sponsors, and Sam’s Club shopping carts overflowing with food. And for the last six months (168 days, to be exact), I’ve actually been doing it: I skied along the Arctic Coast and through the Alaska Range, I paddled my 4.5-pound inflatable boat across terrifying Icy and Yakutat Bays, I endured the Yukon’s ravenous mosquitoes, and I traversed the length of the Brooks Range.

But now that I’m just 200 miles and 7 days away from finally achieving my goal, I find myself pouring over maps looking for ways that I could extend the experience–side trips, detours, and even backtracks. I just don’t feel entirely ready to finish yet. The journey really is the most important part, not the destination.

It’s been so good out here recently that it’s no wonder why I’m hesitant to stop. Three weeks ago I rolled into Coldfoot all charged up after completing the most difficult leg of the trip: going 600 miles and 24 days without crossing a road or seeing another person, carrying up to two weeks of food, and overcoming horrible bugs and major floods. And my route across Gates of the Arctic National Park was a joy–fall foilage, great game trails, fun raftable rivers, airy granite peaks and passes, abundant sunshine, northern lights, and good companionship for most of the way. A month of favorable weather still lies ahead and some of the world’s greatest wilderness is reachable if I could pull together some food and some better maps. Why not go for it?

The idea is appealing but I think I’ve come to terms with the finish to this trip being both unavoidable and bittersweet–I can’t extend it forever, and it’ll always be somewhat disappointing to finally return to Kotzeube. All good things must come to an end, right? I may be finishing one chapter but I’m starting another. So my plan from here is to continue mostly as planned: float the Kobuk River downstream to the village of Kiana; take a water- or land-based route to a put-in location on the east side of Hothan Inlet, weather depending; paddle about seven miles across the inlet to the Baldwin Peninsula; then walk the shoreline to Kotzebue. I should be done by early next week.

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