April 11, 2010
I think about this expedition in three major legs: Kotzebue to Nikolai (mile 757), Nikolai to Dawson (mile 3,091), and Dawson to Kotzebue (mile 4,720). Leg one is now over. It’s been characterized by flagged snowmachine trails, frequent resupplies (two per week), few days without seeing another person (just three out of 29), casual mileage goals (in order to accommodate severe weather and/or early overuse injuries), and relatively bland scenery.
I’m happy that I successfully skied from Kotzebue to Nikolai, and it worked for the purposes of this trip, but I probably wouldn’t do it again. The pros: the villages were extremely welcoming; I developed new thresholds for cold; I saw several new landscapes (e.g. the Arctic coast and Interior taiga); and I’m a much better cross-country skier. But there were a few too many miles on icy snowmachine trails though unspectacular scenery, and a surprising non-wilderness feel, to bring me back again.
I begin leg two tomorrow, and I expect the trip will quickly take on a different character. For one, the wilderness qualities will improve. Nearly all of the miles are off-trail—instead of mindlessly following a beaten path, I’ll have to read the land (and my maps) and pick the best lines: the most supportive snow, the least brush, the shallowest river crossing, the shortest distance, the best game trails, etc. Also, the distances between resupply points increase—about one per week on average—and seldom are there road-crossings in between.
Another difference in leg two is that I’ll no longer be in “Rural Alaska,” i.e. I will no longer be passing through isolated native villages. My resupply points have bigger populations (that are more white), more services, and more tourists.
Finally, in leg two the intensity of the trip increases—the schedule is not as flexible, and I’ll have to perform at my highest levels in order to keep up with it. The next six weeks, in particular, could be among the trip’s most challenging: two weeks across the western Alaska Range (including Denali National Park), 2 weeks across the eastern Alaska Range (“Hayes Range”) and through the Mentasta Mountains, and 2 weeks through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park out to the Gulf of Alaska. Spring and early-season snowpack will hinder progress; rivers will be high; and cold-and-wet conditions will be common.
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