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Arctic Trekking with Scott Hed
Part One:
Backpacking Along Thousand-Year-Old Caribou Trails

Let Me Introduce Myself
Here I am with my backpack deep in the Brooks Range
Credit Scott Hed
My name is Scott Hed and I live in Sioux Falls, SD. I had an incredible experience in the land of the Porcupine caribou that I wanted to share with students of Journey North.

I have visited Alaska many times starting in 1998, but the most amazing trip I’ve taken in Alaska was spent in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the summer of 2001. I figured this would be my chance to see the Refuge for myself decide whether it should remain protected or whether it should be opened to the oil industry for development. The trip led me to a new career and a new way of working toward a goal I am passionate about.

The Trip Begins On Foot
My trip started in Fairbanks, AK, in June, 2001. I met my companions the night before we were to leave. There were six of us that planned to backpack for 40 miles in 8 days across the crest of the Brooks Range. The Brooks Range is the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains and it divides the coastal plain in the north from the boreal forest in the southern part of the Arctic Refuge. At the end of the backpack trip, I would join a group of eleven other people and raft on the Kongakut River from the foothills of the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. The Kongakut is located in the Eastern part of the Refuge and flows into a wide delta as it empties into the Arctic Ocean.

Moon rise over Arctic Village
Credit Last Great Wilderness Project

Early in the morning, we boarded a 12-seat plane that left Fairbanks and flew north over some very remote country. If you look at a map of Alaska, there are not many roads. Most places are accessible only by small plane or boat. After 45 minutes we landed at Fort Yukon, a small Gwich’in Athabaskan native village on the banks of the mighty Yukon River. A few of us got out in Fort Yukon, while the others continued to Arctic Village, another Gwich’in village that lies right on the southern border of the Arctic Refuge. From Fort Yukon, we boarded a smaller plane.

Me with part of our group at the landing
Credit Scott Hed

We crossed river valleys too numerous to count and flew into the heart of the Brooks Range. The lush forests and river valleys gave way to rock, snow and ice as we flew higher. We flew into a remote valley and saw a few scattered bands of caribou grazing on the tundra grasses and bushes. When our pilot found a piece of flat ground to put the plane down, we landed and unloaded our gear. The pilot then returned for the others in our party who were waiting in Arctic Village.

Once the plane left us, we were the only people for many miles. There are no interpretive centers, bathroom facilities or trails in the Arctic Refuge; it is a true wilderness. You are on your own, and there is no one to come pick you up if you get hurt or just want to go home. We knew the plane would pick us up on schedule. Other than that, we had no other contact with the outside world.

On the backpack trip we needed to carry all of our gear – tents, sleeping bags, clothing, cooking gear, food, etc. It is impossible to predict what the weather will be like. It can snow in any month of the year in the Arctic, so we were prepared with lots of warm weather clothing. But for most of the time I was there, we had beautiful weather….with almost no mosquitos- which was a real bonus! The temperatures at night dipped to a little below freezing but in the daytime it warmed into the high 50s and low 60s.

Caribou Every Day
An everyday sight in ANWR
Summer in the Arctic means daylight 24-hours-a-day; the sun never goes down. , It is dark only when you close your eyes. This takes some getting used to, but it’s nice to not be regulated by a clock, and it’s not difficult to fall asleep especially after carrying a 70-pound pack for miles across a trailless landscape. I should correct that statement, and say that there are no “man-made” trails in the Arctic Refuge. We did have the benefit of following trails that had been worn even into sheer rock over thousands of years of migrations by the Porcupine caribou herd. We were fortunate to see caribou every day of our trip. They were making their way from their wintering grounds further to the south in Alaska and to the east in Canada to the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, where they traditionally spend the summer months giving birth to and raising their calves.

Refuge is Safe Home To Many Special Animals
In addition to the Porcupine caribou herd (the herd that is tracked on this site), there are many other types of animals, fish, and birds that call the Arctic Refuge home for all or part of their year. There are 35 other land mammals including polar, black, and grizzly bears, wolves, foxes, musk oxen, moose, Dall sheep, ground squirrels, and many more. There are 12 types of marine mammals including bowhead whales and several kinds of seals. 180 species of birds have been observed in the Arctic Refuge, including 130 species that specifically use the coastal plain (the area at risk to oil development) of the refuge. These birds travel from every state in the United States and every continent on the planet. The long distance champion is the arctic tern, which travels to and from the Arctic Refuge from Antarctica every year! To learn about birds that use the Arctic Refuge from your state, visit Defenders of Wildlife.

caribou_HedLoon caribou_HedOwl caribou_HedLayser02 caribou011
Red-throated Loon
Credit US Fish and Wildlife Service
Snowy Owl
Credit US Fish and Wildlife Service
Long Tail Ducks
Credit Earle Layser
Grizzly Bear
Credit US Fish and Wildlife Service

Meeting the Kongakut River

A view of the Kongakut River
Credit Amy Gulick

On the evening of June 21, the longest day of the year in locations where the sun actually does go down, we backpacked across the Kongakut River at midnight. The current was fairly strong and the six of us linked arms as we crossed the river that was waist-deep. And cold. It was the last night of our backpack trip and the plane was coming in the morning to pick some people up and drop off the rafting party. Setting up the tents that foggy night a wolf howled and I thought it didn’t really matter if the plane came in the morning. I wasn’t leaving anyway, and I was as happy as I’ve ever been just to have the chance to spend time in such an incredible place. When I woke in the morning, the fog had cleared and it was a blue-sky day. The planes came in and some people left and some others arrived for the rafting portion of our journey.

Stay tuned for Part 2! >>

Journaling Questions
  1. In his journal, Scott Hed writes, "On the backpack trip we needed to carry all of our gear – tents, sleeping bags, clothing, cooking gear, food, etc." Scott leaves out a lot of detail in his description of the things he has packed. If you were planning a trip to the Arctic in June what are some of the things you would want to include in your backpack (remember- you have to carry everything!)?
  2. Out of the 180 species of birds who migrate to the Refuge, which ones also spend time in your state? Visit the Website of Defenders of the Wilderness and click on your state to find a list of these birds. Get to know 3 birds you don't know much about.
  3. Using a good map of Alaska, locate the outline of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Find Fairbanks, Fort Yukon, Arctic Village and the Kongakut River. Outline the course of the Kongakut northward to the Arctic Ocean.