Rained in at Kuzitrin

Aug 24, 2012 | 0 comments

The week started out promising. By noon on Monday my supervisor and I were suited up in our flight gear and walking across the tarmac behind the Bering Air hangar for our first helicopter trip out to Kuzitrin and Imuruk Lakes. It was partly cloudy, but the ceiling was high with a vivid blue sky above. 
My view

When I saw the chopper we were flying in, I couldn’t help but laugh — it was smaller than the car we had driven to get here, with a big bubble window around the cockpit, giving the two front seats a wide view all around. As the photographer, I got copilot’s seat.

I have to admit, it felt like my heart jumped into my throat when we first took off. It was extremely smooth, but just seeing the ground drop away under my feet and suddenly feeling as if I was hanging under a giant swing was a little surprising.

Terrible picture of grizzly and cub (the black spot)

Once we got going I was able to relax and realized it was 10x smoother than any of the bush planes I’ve been traveling in. The pilot was friendly and chatty, and pointed out various landmarks and wildlife we passed over, including about 5 grizzlies and cubs!

Heading over the Kigs

The views all the way to Kuzitrin were simply breathtaking. Over each mountain range brought picturesque vistas that could easily have been painted masterpieces.

Fresh snow covered peak

The best part was seeing the change in seasons finally occurring. For what we lack in colorful fall trees here, we make up for in beautiful orange, red, and yellow tundra hills, splashed with the vibrant hues of berries, bushes, and lichens.  Many of the taller mountains even had a fresh dusting of snow on top.

Cutting around another snow covered peak

Incredible views

More fall landscapes

Kuzitrin Lake

At last we made it to Kuzitrin Lake, which stood out in the brightest blue I have ever seen, reflecting the sky and contrasting with the orangey tundra coming right up to its shores.

Crystal clear water, even from the air

Shoreline beach

Our pilot was kind enough to fly us over the area, not only to scout out where we wanted to camp, but also to get some aerial shots. Over the lake, I could see dozens of bear and moose tracks; we opted to camp on the opposite side. Before we landed, we did one flyover of the Twin Calderas and the ancient cairns that stand along their rims.

One of the Twin Calderas

Chopper taking off

Finally, we landed on a nice wide chunk of beach, unloaded our gear under the gales of wind thrown by the rotors, and waved goodbye. As the distant hum of the helicopter faded away over the mountains, I was struck with that familiar feeling of solitude.

Making our customary calls in to Central Dispatch

Mountains over Kuzitrin Lake

Energized by the beautiful weather, we set up camp and our cook tent about 100 feet away, and then set off to hike up to the calderas.

Ptarmigan taking off

Although it was only about a mile and a half, the hike was somewhat strenuous due to the terrain. We alternated between soggy willow and blueberry bogs, and the rocky, unstable lava flows coming down from the calderas. At one point we were both nearly scared to death when a flock of ptarmigan exploded out of the brush right at our feet, drumming their air loudly with their clumsy wings.

Super sweet blueberries!

Lava flow

Small cairn and elk antler

When we eventually made it to the rim of the first caldera I was totally awed by both the incredible views and the rock cairns, or monoliths, built on top. The cairns are currently dated to about 300 years old, although they’ve been used probably up until the last 100 years.

Another cairn

It was on top of this ancient volcanic rim that the thought struck me: I am one of the only people to have ever come up here to photographically document this place. I mean, you could say that about a lot of places, but even back at the office in Nome, we literally only have one folder of photos from Kuzitrin, and those were taken last year. Even if you Google it, hardly any photos of the lake or calderas come up.

Although this wilderness is far from “untouched,” it is almost totally undocumented publicly, save for a few archaeological and geological studies that have been done here. For the first time, I felt almost like a real explorer, setting foot on a land traversed only by a few locals, and the very occasional researcher.

Looking into the caldera

Adorable random caterpillar 

Looking over the rim

Larger cairns

Standing in front of a windbreak

We hiked on top of the calderas for a while, but just as I was setting up to take the first panorama, we noticed a huge curtain of rain coming towards us from the direction of the lake. I tried to quickly set up the pan, but totally screwed up the exposure with the now cloudy skies from the oncoming storm. The pan finished just as spits of rain were beginning to fall.

Rainbow over our hideout

Since it made no sense to hike back down the caldera into the oncoming rain, we decided to seek shelter in one of the large windbreaks. It turned out to be an excellent plan — the wind was cut out almost completely, and we barely even got wet in the 20 minutes or so we hunkered down. As it turned out, the worst of the storm had taken off in another direction, leaving us almost totally dry.

Ominous weather over the cairns

By the time we made it down though, the weather really had taken a turn for the worse. The windspeeds had picked up, and our cook tent was collapsed in the sand — though fortunately our bear barrels and stove were heavy enough to remain where we’d left them.

We hauled it all back up, fighting against wet, sandy gusts, and staked the tent back down before managing to enjoy a meal of chicken and rice and hot tea. After dinner, we took it down again, as gales were now ripping the stakes out of the ground and pushing over the center pole. We were chilled to the bone and quite damp by the time we made it into our own tent.

Stormy skies over the lake

If only we’d known this was just the beginning…

We both expected the weather to improve overnight, but in fact it did the exact opposite. The gusts increased to probably over 30mph, hurling rain at our tent all night long, the rain fly beating against the walls with epic force. For hours I lay in the warmth of my sleeping bag, watching the yellow ceiling wobble violently above us, like being inside an unsteady lump of jell-o.

The next morning was even worse. Calling for our daily check-in to Central Dispatch, we found that conditions were the same in Nome and had no sign of improvement. And so we waited. And waited. And waited. And it rained, and it rained, and it rained. The entire day passed by. We read a lot. We slept. I did some crosswords and wrote a little. I braved the elements a couple times to go to the bathroom behind the dunes and grab a soaking wet bite to eat from my bear barrel, but it was miserable to come outside the tent.

We managed to get the cook tent up for dinner, but its walls were billowing in like a huge sail, and it was too gusty to even boil a lot of water (we managed just enough for tea, and filtered the rest into a bottle). It was a quick meal before we tore the tent down again, stuffed everything back under a tarp with painfully cold hands, and returned to the safety of our yellow tent.

Even after sleeping all day, I managed to sleep quite well the second night. When I awoke around 8am, the wind had died down somewhat, although I could still here a patter of rain on the tent. I calculated we had been in the tent for about 36 hours straight, not counting our short excursions out for necessities. My body ached from lack of movement.

It took a few hours before we worked out a plan with our helicopter manager, but in the end we made the decision to cut the operation short and return to Nome. No point in wasting more government money to sit inside a tent for 3 more days — or longer if the conditions worsened. And there might be an opportunity for a day trip out to Imuruk later in the week if the weather improved.

Getting ready to pack up

Around 2pm we jumped up at the sound of the helicopter coming near. Miraculously, the weather had cleared at least to a sprinkling of rain and a light breeze, although temperatures hung in the 30s.  We loaded up, and once again were off, although this time I took the back seat.

Imuruk lava beds 

Our pilot was nice enough to offer a quick flyover of the Imuruk lava fields, since we wouldn’t be camping there. Fortunately I managed to get some decent aerial shots, even from my tiny side window.

Lava flows and caves

View out the front

More cool lava flows
Looking out over Kuzitrin River

We hit a lot of rain in the hour ride back, but once again I found it a lot more enjoyable than a bush plane flight. We tracked along rivers and roads when the fog was too thick to see through, and an hour later, we were back in grey, rainy Nome, a little cold and wet, but otherwise quite happy to be back.

In some ways, I’m a little disappointed in the trip — or more so in my portion of the work. I’m kicking myself for not getting any video footage, for not getting a better panorama, or more shots along the lake and the archaeological sites. But in other ways, I guess there’s no way I could have known that we would be stuck in a tent for 36 hours unable to take any equipment out into the rain. I’m certainly disappointed in myself for not having been better prepared and I’m not sure how that will reflect on me now, but what else is there to do? There really aren’t any “second chances” for anything in this job, which is something I’m learning the hard way.

The new tentative plan is for me to try to go out again tomorrow for an afternoon trip to Imuruk, possibly film, and take photos if the weather improves (though it looks like it won’t). I really hope we can though — not so much for a second chance, but at least an opportunity to expand our documentation of the preserve in some way.


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