Ben Bederson's hiking trip in Alaska

Summer 1992

I flew to Anchorage and within 24 hours, my brother Geoff and I were in the plane again up to Barrow. We landed in a fog with a balmy 35 degrees and strong wind from the North. We gritted our teeth. The next day, we met our old friends, got prepared, and got the latest word on the tundra. Heard that it was wet. We'd have a lot of rivers to cross and that we were out of our minds. Fortunately, we had our nice pile clothes, new down/gortex parkas, and we had bought a 3 1/2 pound inflatable raft along with 500 feet of parachute cord for crossing rivers. We had a 1 1/2 pound .22 pistol, one can each of cayenne pepper bear repellent good at 35 feet, and 27 pounds each of food. We figured 9 days of hiking plus 3 emergency days of food at 2 1/4 pounds per day to be on the safe side since it would probably be ridiculously cold. Thinking about hiking in marshes, we gave up hiking boots and got 18 inch high water boots. Our packs totalled 72 pounds.

The first day was pathetic. Somehow, we didn't get out until 4pm. We planned on hiking along the beach for 12 miles that day to the Will Rogers and Wiley Post memorial - the site where they crashed about 50 years ago or so exploring the arctic by plane for the first time. I was so excited that our trip was flat - at sea level with all that nice thick oxygen, I thought it would be a breeze. Well, I neglected to calculate that each step on the soft sand on the beach pushed away about 3 inches of sand - meaning that I had to climb 3 inches on the next step. And this happened every step. I calculated that 12 miles at 3 feet per step with 3 inches elevation gain per step works out to about 5000 feet vertical elevation gain. But at least we'd have plenty of water, we thought, crossing at least 3 rivers emptying into the ocean. They were all dry. Half way there, we were so tired, Geoff and I would look at each other and would see each others tortured looks and break up into hysterics. My mouth was so dry, I couldn't eat anything, and we just got weaker and weaker. But we were driven to get to the monument because it was right next to a huge lagoon. Finally, we arrived at the lagoon at around midnight, ran to the lagoon and I could honestly say that we were slightly disappointed to find out that it was salt water!!! We set up our tents. The sun was setting, and went onto the tundra in search of water. The 1955 map showed some tiny lakes a half mile inland. Searching around awhile, we found one. Beautiful. 20 feet long. Crystal clear smooth surface. Only one problem. It turned about to be only 1mm deep with no way of extracting any water without a huge amount of muck. Kept on searching to find another lake - this one deeper. Filled our water jugs, and were so disgusted by the thick brown goopy water that we looked at each other, grunted, and threw out the water. Searched some more, and after about 45 minutes of water-hunting, finally found some not too thick, yellow water. Two pills, 30 minute wait in the cold, and we drank. Ate some macs and cheese, and went to bed at 2am. It was getting dark.

After that, the trip was easy. We ate two pounds of food and were happy to carry our packs, nice and light at 70 pounds. We turned inland and were on the tundra! The tundra is an amazing and beautiful place. At first glance, you might think it is empty, but you start to look closer and you see so much life, and so much color and texture, it becomes at least as beautiful as any mountain range we saw in Wyoming. The tundra comes in all kind of varieties. Small lakelets. 3 mile long huge clean lakes. Marsh. Thick bog. Dried out flat lake beds - either black and muddy, or grassy. The entire trip was under 100 feet of elevation, so although our topo maps weren't too useful with that, they showed the bigger lakes fairly accurately. There were higher, dryer sections of tundra 5 or 10 feet up that we would usually walk on. The lower stuff was too soft and wet. The high ground has surface unlike anything else I have ever seen on this planet. I can only describe the land as something from Dr. Seuss' books. There are hummocks which are little hills, 3 or 5 feet high, and maybe 10 feet in diameter. The hummocks, strangely enough, are all polygonal. That is, their sides are all straight. It turns out they are formed by cracks in the permafrost (frozen ground) which form in straight lines. On the hummocks are tussocks which are little lumps of grass growing on lumps of dirt. They are often top heavy, and you tend to slip off of them. Sometimes, there are even tussocks on tussocks (on hummocks on tundra).

The next days, we hiked about 10 miles a day in about 10 hours each. The tundra was even harder to walk on than the beach, as it was very soft and springy. Fortunately, once we got inland, there was plenty of water and I would hike with my water bottle empty - filling it up at rest steps, waiting 20 minutes and drinking on the spot. 10 miles inland, we began to see caribou. They were one of the highlights of the trip. Caribou look kind of like deer-sized moose. They are very friendly and playful. They hardly ever walk, preferring to run around. They are basically bouncy creatures. The little ones were quite curious, often coming within 10 feet of us to say hello. As the trip progressed, so did the caribou. There were times when you couldn't look around without seeing a caribou somewhere.

On the fourth day, we got to the Inaru River, and found a spot where it was only 75 feet wide (but over our heads). We very easily crossed it with our raft, using the string to pull our packs across on it. The weather cleared up and we had an arctic indian summer. It was sunny, the wind died down, and temperature was in the 50's.

After the first day of hiking in layers of pile, it was wonderful to hike in shorts and a t-shirt. After crossing the river, we decided it was time to split up. Geoff stayed, and I hiked another 6 miles that day by myself. At first, it was a very strange feeling being alone on the tundra. I could see quite far (especially standing on a hummock) in every direction and there was nothing. I was definitely alone. At first, I was too nervous to stop, so I hiked those six miles with only one short rest stop. Then the next day we had decided that we would both take a rest day. I was exhausted and very ready for it. I woke up, ate breakfast, and slept all day in the sun. Then I woke up, ate dinner, and went to sleep for the night. The next day I felt better and went on.

Well, this description is getting somewhat longer than I expected. Basically, I made it the rest of the way to Atqusak with no problems (except getting a little tired sometimes). Atqusak is a very small village (about 150 people) with a 30 million dollar school - so that's where we went to warm up. As you might imagine, it's not every day that someone walks into Atqusak from the tundra. So within about a half hour, every single person in town knew who we were, and many people came by to chat. The plane couldn't get in that day because of low fog, but we flew out the next day.

Back to Barrow for one more quick adventure. We borrowed three-wheelers (souped up fat-tire all-terrain vehicles) from some friends and rode about 40 miles along the shore in search of some clay cliffs that the Eskimos used traditionally (mostly to trade with the indians). We found a huge amount of very high quality gray clay, 65 pounds of which I brought back to Barrow and shipped to New York. The real highlight of that trip, however, was my discovery of a gigantic clean and bleached whale rib washed up on shore. It probably is from a Bowhead whale killed by the Eskimos, and is at least 5 feet tall. I carried it on my shoulder the last 15 miles back to Barrow and took it back with me to New Jersey. We also found an entire spine of a whale. With much difficulty, we cut off some vertebrae, and we each took one. Mine is on its way here now via the post office where I plan on using it for a chair - it's quite big!

P.S. I forgot one adventure in our tundra trip. The time we were walking through a marsh - trying to step on the grass tufts to stay on top. Well, one time there was no more grass and I tried walking on top of the mud. Big mistake. I immediately got slurped into the thick and oozy muck. As I was sinking I wondered if this was going to be my fate: fossilized Benjy in a bog. Fortunately, I hit the permafrost and stopped sinking - about 1/2 inch to go before it went over the tops of my boots! It was so thick, I could barely turn around, but I did, just barely managing to keep my boots on my feet!