Week at Serpentine, part 1

Jul 28, 2012 | 0 comments

Monday morning I found myself once again traveling the long, dusty dirt road to Quartz Creek, the airstrip where we were to meet our bush plane to be dropped off at Serpentine Hot Springs in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Also known as Iyat in Inupiaq (meaning “cooking pot”), Serpentine is one of the most visited areas of the preserve, as it has an old bunkhouse and bathhouse pumped in with water from the hot spring, and has for centuries been known as a place of healing and spiritual energy. 

Although the weather was perfect on Monday, it took all day to get to Serpentine. We had to take 3 plane loads full of our maintenance supplies and the 4 of us staff members, as our main job for the week would be to paint the floors and built a bunk bed.
I went out on the second plane, which was so tightly loaded with plywood and fuel jugs (great combination, right?) I got to sit up front in the copilot seat. As we came in for landing on the small Serpentine airstrip, I was once again breath-taken by the beauty of the landscape. 
Tors across the hot spring

There was another small Cessna (I think a 182?) tethered down off to the side, with Australian flags on it — evidently we would be sharing the bunkhouse this week with some other travelers. There was little time to explore at first though, as we had to unload the plane and haul everything down to the bunkhouse and wait for the final load and our last coworker to arrive.

Not long after we had everything unloaded, the Australians showed up, an older-middle-aged couple whose first question was, “What day is it?”

Turns out they had been at Serpentine for 3-4 days. They travel around wherever and whenever they want, exploring AK and the US in their plane. Must be nice! They had been to Serpentine 3 years earlier and had come back for some hiking, unsure of how long they would stay.

I spent the rest of the evening taking pictures, since the forecast was that it would be rainy all week. Naturally, the most striking part of the landscape were the great tors that pushed up through the hills as far as the eye could see. Tors are basically huge, free-standing rock formations formed by a combination of erosion and I think volcanic activity underground.

The Bathhouse

Wildflowers, the stream, and the tors

Wind sock off the airstrip

The bunkhouse and bathhouse

Incredible views all around

Every tor cluster is different

Shadows and light

In the middle of nowhere

We cooked up dinners of dehydrated soup and pasta on the Coleman camp stove in the bunkhouse and settled in for a surprisingly comfortable night. I’ll post pictures of the inside later, but the bunkhouse rooms are lined with little cots with thin mattresses on which we put our sleeping bags.

The next day was only partly sunny, and I spent until about 2pm cleaning and painting the floors with one of the other interpretive rangers. Although my back and arms were aching by the end of it, I was too excited to explore Serpentine, so the two of us decided to spend the rest of the afternoon hiking as far as we could.

Prime bear territory

There are two main things you need to know about hiking in the tundra.

1) Avoid willows as much as possible. Willows are prime bear (and other large, dangerous mammal) habitat, so when you absolutely have to pass through them, you have to make a lot of noise so as not to surprise anything you stumble upon.

2) Stay up on the rocks — not just to avoid the willows, but also the avoid the tussocks that make up the tundra. I didn’t know what these were before, but you quickly learn what they are after twisting your ankles on them a few times. Tussocks are weird, round little clumps of grass and moss that make up the tundra ground, ranging in size from 1-2 feet in diameter; if you step on them, they roll you off, if you step between them your feet sink deep into the wet squishy moss between, so no matter what, you end up having to step higher and father than you normally do. It’s a pretty miserable, painful experience after about 3 hours of hiking.

Knowing these two facts, we quickly made it up to the ridges with minimal willow- and tussock-crossings.

Old skull
Small antler
Good sized caribou rack

There were treasures to be found on every ridge. Each tor cluster was different from the last; some were tall and smooth, others short and rough, some had deep divots and holes, and others formed inverted shapes and strange cracks.

One of the coolest things we found was a rough-legged hawk nest that had been partially built with antlers!

We hiked for over two hours out before I finally caved in to the exhaustion that had been nagging at me for the last hour after going up and down mountains and across tussocks. I felt kind of bad for asking to cut our hike short, but in the end it was a good choice since the hike back was just as difficult as it had been getting out there.

Fortunately, we came across tons of fresh, ripe blueberry patches, and stopped often to gorge ourselves on the fruit and take some back to the bunkhouse.

Not long after we got back, finished dinner, and I had soaked my sore muscles in the hot tub for a bit, our crew leader came running inside yelling, “WE GOT A GRIZZLY!”

Grizzly foraging

Instantly, all four of us, plus the Australians, were at the window, peering up the slope behind the bunkhouse. Sure enough, a little blonde spot stood out on the tundra, moving quickly downhill towards us.

This is about what it looked like to the naked eye

The bear was right where we had hiked that day, eating the same blueberries from the patch we discovered. It was pretty exciting, and a beautiful animal, but a striking reminder of the wildness of this place and the fact that we are totally alone out here and defenseless except for a couple cans of bear spray and a shotgun. We watched the bear until it disappeared back over the ridge.

Green-winged teal

So our first two days went well. Got a lot of work done, some good hiking in, and enjoyed the natural hot springs and the solitude of being literally out in the middle of nowhere.

I’ll post part 2 later on!


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