There is so much I haven’t told you yet! There is so much more I wanted write about before I headed into the Refuge.
About how pathetically long it took me to figure out that I wasn’t going to see the Aurora Borealis. It will never be completely dark in the Refuge. The day we arrive, the sun will dip below the horizon for 25 minutes. The day we leave, it will be 4 hours. Even with the sun below the horizon that long, the most we will experience is a bright twilight.
About how over 100,000 caribou migrate thousands of miles to give birth to their calves on the Arctic Plain in late June and early July because, among other things like nutritious plants and the relative scarcity of predators, the mosquitos haven’t hatched yet. Once the mosquitos hatch, they can drink over a quart of blood per caribou a week, a drain on the new mothers and a threat to the lives of the newborns. So when the mosquitos arrive, the caribou head back up into the mountains to find relief – they’d rather face other predators, the four-legged, terrestrial kind. Just to be clear: we will be arriving right AFTER the caribou leave. A billion mosquitos vs six humans. Not a pretty thought.
About how we have changed our pull out point on the river. We’ve decided not to go all the way to mouth of the Canning at the Arctic Ocean. Over the past 20 years, the sea ice has receded dramatically, and the polar bears are spending more time on shore than out at sea on the ice. This year has proved to be no exception. One little fact you might not know: polar bears are the only bears who consider humans prey. Black bears and grizzlies will attack when given reason, usually fright or protection of young. Polar bears will actively hunt you for dinner.
It would be one thing if we could pull out of the river and the bush plane would be waiting for us. We could make a mad dash to safety, ala Indiana Jones. But the there is a high likelihood that if we went all the way to the coast, our pick up would be delayed due to fog. The prospect of the six of us standing back to back in a circle with fingers on the triggers of our bear spray canisters as a great white predator paced the perimeter of the electric bear fence didn’t sound too appealing (funny, but not appealing), so we have decided to pull out 18 miles inland from the coast. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed not to be able to say I touched the Arctic Ocean, but the pilot promises to fly us out over it on our way home.
About a last minute change in Expeditioneers. Bill Tweed has had personal responsibilities arise that can’t withstand 15 days of complete communication silence. We have a new Expeditioneer, Andria. She’s got a ton of wilderness experience and seems really nice. This poses a serious problem for me, though. She’s young. And fit. And she could definitely take me in the 100 yard bear dash. Hum….maybe Jeff is slower than he looks….
After a hearty breakfast, The Expeditioneers have spent the day repacking food, buying warmer clothing – the forecast is for snow at our put-in point – and then repacking gear. We leave Fairbanks in the morning to drive to Coldfoot and fly into the Refuge Tuesday. We are scheduled to be back in Fairbanks August 15. Between now and then, there will be no connectivity, other than the emergency satellite phone.
Which means I’ve had to have another conversation with my mother. “Mom, please don’t worry. I know I’ve said this before, but it is really true. No news is good news. If you hear from me before the 15th, it means something went wrong. And if you don’t hear from me until a couple days after the 15th, it only means that the pilot is being cautious and not picking us up until the weather is safe. We even have extra food just in case.”
So this is me signing off. The arctic part of this adventure begins in earnest tomorrow. I will try to absorb every experience to share with you in the weeks that follow my return. In the meantime, please know how happy I am to have you along on this journey.