First night in the backcountry

Jul 22, 2012 | 0 comments

Made it back from my first two-day-one-night stay in the backcountry. Headed out again tomorrow morning so I will attempt to be brief with the highlights from my 530 photos I took. 

Solid wall of fog on our drive to the pickup location

Short-Eared Owl on roadside

L to R: Myself, Jen, and Neal (both from Canyonlands NP)

The weather cleared up just long enough for us to get out of Quartz Creek on Friday and we headed northwest for the hour and a half ride to Wales.

The archaeology camp

Unfortunately, the north coast was totally fogged in with high winds — impossible to land in — so we had to turn around partway to Wales and follow our contingency plan, which was to camp with a team of archaeologists stationed on a beach just south of Ikpek Lagoon.

The archaeologists were apparently out in the field when we landed on the beach, so we spent most of the afternoon walking around and taking photos, video, and sound recordings. It was really hard to know what exactly we should be doing, since our backup plan wasn’t exactly clear; now that we weren’t interviewing the Inupiat elder in Wales, we had to come up with some other way to make our time in the field worthwhile.

Hoof prints in the mud


Not long after we arrived, a second bush plane landed and dropped off a couple more archaeologists. (As a side note, just as they landed a whale surfaced briefly out in the sea! My first whale!) The new arrivals told us we could set up camp anywhere and we were welcome to share their cooking area. After that, we spent the rest of the day setting up and taking more photos.

Jen and Neal recording the bush plane

Unidentified wildflower

Gorgeous colors

Whale vertebra

That night, we had our oh-so-delicious dried backpacker dinners in the kitchen tent. After washing out my mess kit in the freezing cold ocean I decided to huddle in my tent for the rest of the evening (also by then the weather had gotten really bad with strong gusts and fog threatening to blow over my damp little one-man tent).

I had planned on doing some reading and writing that night, but I was so cold I fell dead asleep still bundled up in my jacket, gloves, hat, and two layers of pants with all my backpacks and camera equipment piled on top of me. I woke up groggily in the middle of the night with the sun glaring into my tent, feeling as if I’d gone into hibernation. It was only 1am. I debated changing into more comfortable clothes, but the icy wind beating through my thin tent walls begged otherwise.

I woke up again briefly a few hours later before falling back to sleep and having a very random dream that I was directing a children’s play in Cuba. It was in the middle of this dream that I sat bolt upright at the sound of my name. “Andrea? We’re getting ready to go in 20-30 minutes,” said Jen gently from outside.

With a steady stream of curses flowing under my foggy breath for sleeping in, I scrambled up, grabbed my gear and to the kitchen tent I trudged with numb feet and my eyes still feeling like they were half-closed or crossed. The archaeologists were already packing up to head to their site.

There was no time to worry about how god-awful cold I felt and the fact that I had no feeling in my feet as we followed them out for their morning routine. Fortunately, the clouds were beginning to burn off and the sun was peeking through the gloom.

Morning sunlight

Archaeologists surveying

The archaeologists had agreed to let us follow and interview them for the morning. They showed us some of the sites they were surveying, which were small, grass-covered dwellings dating from about 800 years ago to the present (people used and reused the same houses for hundreds of years).

Whale mandible that once stood upright as a marker

Unfortunately I can’t give too much information since their work is still unpublished, but basically their current work is focused on what sites are still preserved along the beach, and how erosion is affecting them.

Small, recently found blade attachment artifact 

Seward Peninsula pottery

The driftwood wind block we built for my tent

 By noon the sky was devoid of all clouds, the wind had died down somewhat, and the temperature was beginning to warm up.


After breaking down camp, we spent our remaining couple hours taking more photos and footage. One of the most interesting things we found were a set of fresh bear tracks about 70m from our camp that hadn’t been there the day before.

Fresh bear forepaw 

Around 3pm our plane arrived, and we got to work making the required check-in calls on the satellite phone and loading our gear.

Our ride

I was on the phone going through the go/no-go procedure with the Fairbanks flight manager when a dark mass appeared through the heat mirage down the beach. “There’s a bunch of reindeer down there,” said our pilot casually. I quickly finished up the call and tossed the phone to Jen so I could go grab my camera.

Reindeer herd

As they came closer, we realized there was not 100 or even 200 animals, but probably close to 300 head of reindeer in the herd, lumbering along in a dense pack and making weird mooing/grunting noises.

They took over the entire beach

The herd, with the Russian island in the background

The herd came almost up to our plane but then chickened out and ran away a few yards, before coming back to check us out and running away again. They did this a couple times, and then eventually they all turned around and headed back to the direction from which they originally came.

With our beach runway finally clear, we were able to take off and take the two hour flight to Kotzebue as planned. The weather was perfect and we made it back just in time. The pilot even gave me a ride to the Alaskan Air terminal so I could check in for my commercial flight back to Nome.

And now here I am a day later, packed up for a week in the backcountry.  This job sure isn’t easy, dealing with weather, logistics, your own physical limitations, working with various people, etc. But the payoff in experience is more than worth it.

Hopefully back by Friday night!


Leave a Reply