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Revisiting A Dream, 20 Years Later: Hiking From Valdez to Prudhoe Bay Along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline

Ned Rozell chronicles his second trek across Alaska. Will be updated as new chapters are released. First published serially in 2017 as part of the UAF Geophysical Institute's Alaska Science Forum.

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1. Revisiting a dream, 20 years later

Photo courtesy Ned Rozell

Twenty years ago, I was 34 when I walked away from a chain-link fence near Port Valdez and headed east. Those were the first steps on a summer-long trip across Alaska.

In a few days, I will begin to retrace those steps. This summer, I will try to again walk from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay along the gravel path that parallels the trans-Alaska pipeline.

The first journey, with my chocolate Labrador retriever Jane, occupied my whole summer of 1997, from early May until the end of August. With Jane, I ascended and descended the Chugach, Alaska and Brooks mountain ranges. We drank from creeks and rivers, fed a million mosquitoes and slept in a new place every night. We shared miles of trail with friends and family and did not set any speed records.

We walked for 120 days, from the time the geese were touching down until they left in big Vs. I wrote about that summer in a series of newspaper columns and a book, “Walking My Dog, Jane: From Valdez to Prudhoe Bay Along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.”

I’ll again be traveling with a dog, but my life is not as wrapped up in Cora as it was in Jane. This time I’ll also share some trail with wife Kristen and daughter Anna.

Why do it again? A few years ago, former UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers suggested I hike the trail at the 20-year anniversary. I had not thought of repeating the experience. For the most part, I agree with Talkeetna adventurer Dave Johnston’s philosophy: It’s a big world. Why do anything twice?

But I like returning to places, the nostalgia of remembered smells and sounds and images. Being outside is always appealing. I’m blessed with good health at 54. And, in 2017, my daughter is 10, just like my dog Jane was 10 during the last hike. Even if she’s not sure what to make of sometimes joining Dad’s summer plan, Anna comes alive when she’s outside and moving.

Like last time, I will try to send columns out every week. I haven’t yet figured how I’ll do that. My current plan is to bring an iPad mini and find a Wi-Fi signal when I can.

To again walk the trans-Alaska pipeline right of way over 800 miles of Alaska, I registered under what Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. calls a Right-Of-Way Use Guideline. It’s a piece of paper that allows me to access the right of way at my own risk, while requiring permission from private landowners the path crosses.

The loose plan is to cover about 8 miles a day, an increase from the 6 I averaged in 1997. I’ll hike with Cora, a peanut 3-year-old Lab-heeler mix. I’ll share miles with my girls and a few friends, some of whom covered the same ground with me in 1997.

What was it like in 1997? The Montreal Expos still existed. Bill Clinton just started term No. 2. The internet was a hatchling; answers came from a library rather than a touch screen. Spruce trees along the route were 20 feet shorter than they are today.

I’m maybe a little shorter now. Every cell in me has replaced itself since then. The biggest change from then to now is me as daddy and husband, both for more than a decade now.

And Alaska? I’ve been writing about the oversized peninsula for 20 years plus. I’m excited and anxious to get out and see the country pass at 2 miles per hour. Next week I’ll report from the tent, somewhere north of Valdez.

2. First steps from Valdez, in the snow

Photo by Ned Rozell

We have launched on the pipeline hike version 2.0, 20 years after the first time.

I’m now sitting on the muscled root of a Sitka spruce by the pleasant rush of a creek. A bald eagle shrieks from the top of a tree nearby while a diesel ship engine thrums from the Valdez Marine Terminal a few miles away.

These rainforest woods, so different from my boreal forest home, have already given us shelter from cool, misty rain and a peek at the chestnut-backed chickadees’ few seconds of mating. Stately Steller’s jays have reintroduced themselves. Robins on their way north have practiced their songs a few notes at a time. The air smells salty, familiar and exotic at the same time to someone from middle Alaska.

To begin this trip, we have hiked all of two miles. “We” are my friends Chris Carlson and his son Ian from Fairbanks, along with their Labradoodle Freya. My dog Cora is thrilled to have her best friend along, untethered.

People we talked with in Valdez referred to this time as late winter. We are seeing why, with up to two feet of snow on the ground in places. It’s easy enough to tramp through but makes one wonder about the path through Thompson Pass, looming ahead.

My wife Kristen looked at the Valdez forecast on her phone as we drove to our take-off point.

“It says wintery mix of snow and rain the next few days,” she said. “No one likes a wintery mix.”

That forecast led to one more panic purchase of a light coat at The Prospector in Valdez and some new hiking boots for Ian.

So far, the wintry mix has stayed away. It is cool, and we’ve been walking through snow a lot, but Chris has also hung a speaker off his backpack and broadcast a Yankees game off his phone connection for me as I walked in his footprints. Life is good.

As I’ll be hiking up the ski-jump wall of the pipeline’s path up Thompson Pass soon, I expect no such magical cell tower connection. So, I’ll send a short column before I climb out of the rainforest and into the alpine.

Soon, I’ll say goodbye to Chris and Ian, who will drive back to Fairbanks as my family, Anna and Kristen, did a few days ago. I will walk alone with Cora for a while, maybe on the Richardson Highway to avoid some snow.

I’ll connect again when I can. By then, I will pitch the tent faster, run my mind slower and have more stories to tell. A slow trip across Alaska has begun. Thanks for coming along.

3. Mountains full of snow and birds

Photo by Ned Rozell

In the early going of my second hike across Alaska along the route of the trans-Alaska pipeline, I chose to walk the highway rather than the pipe’s route to get up Thompson Pass north of Valdez. The road added six miles to our day. But I tried the pipe route up the pass 20 years ago and it was like trying to climb a 90-meter ski jump.

Most of my mileage so far on this trip has been on the shoulder of the Richardson Highway. The pipeline pad here in the mountains is still deep with punchy snow. You’d think a guy would have checked that out before starting.

The road, surprisingly, is quite pleasant. Cora doesn’t seem to mind being leashed. And only about 10 cars and trucks pass us each hour. Is Alaska becoming the land gone lonesome, with people headed down the Alaska Highway and moving out? I’ve seen a good number of U-Hauls. Or is it not Memorial Day yet?

If the people are still on their way in, the birds have beat them to the party. One, the Wilson’s snipe, forced me to stuff in earplugs while camping near Worthington Glacier.

On a crisp moonlit night, the snipes sliced through the mountain air with their winnowing call. It’s a bit spooky, like hysterical laughter that starts and ends soft but is loud in the middle. I’m pretty sure Cora never heard it before. She sat up a few times with pointy ears trying to figure it out. She gave up after a few hours.

A snipe makes that sound not with its throat but its tail. During breeding display swoops, the bird forces air through its outer tail feathers and generates sound. Anna’s hummingbirds generate a musical pop in the same fashion during their courting arcs through the air.

So what’s a shorebird like a snipe doing at the toe of a glacier, where most of the ground is covered in two feet of snow? These birds with beaks as long as pencils, some from as far south as Panama, are in the alpine to feed on the creatures living in the mud of the marshy areas up here and to have their babies. Summer is short.

Migrant birds are flooding into the high country of Alaska, and everywhere else in the state. Sitting here at an airstrip near Worthington Glacier, I hear the first three notes of the Sesame Street theme (“sun-ny day”). It’s the song of golden-crowned sparrows fresh up from the California coast. A fox sparrow that might have wintered in Pensacola, Florida, is doing his part to fill the soundscape, too.

The ptarmigan, cackling manically, must wonder what to make of all these visitors.

I’m all for them, even if they keep me awake. They are flooding the territory, and from the ground this country feels pretty big.

I’m happy to report a few successful encounters with one of the most dangerous animals we will encounter. Cora’s dog friend Freya returned to us early in the trip with a solitary porcupine quill protruding from her nose. We pulled it out with a set of hemostat pliers, but it took Chris, Ian and me holding her.

Since then, we’ve seen a few more porkys. They have Tina Turner hair of quills and seem as big as small bears.

Those hardy guys survived without hibernating all winter, clinging to spruce trees and eating their needles and bark, which are toxic to most other organisms. That is obvious when you crunch a needle that fell into your oatmeal.

So far, Cora has only barked at them and has come back when I called. Maybe she saw her buddy being wrestled and came to the conclusion that some things aren’t worth sticking your nose in.

4. Gear has come a long way in 20 years

Photo by Ned Rozell

When I walked this same path 20 years ago, I averaged six miles each day. After a few weeks in 2017 of hiking the path of the trans-Alaska pipeline, it seems easy to do 10 miles a day.

Back then, sometimes my backpack weighed 60 pounds. I’m trying to keep it half that weight now. I started from Valdez with a load of 32 pounds.

Most of the reduction is due to clever people who have engineered lighter gear because consumers wanted it, and because of breakthroughs in materials available to designers.

Jay Cable of Fairbanks pointed me to a few of my biggest weight savers. He recommended a single-compartment backpack that resembles a stuff sack (no extra bag on top, few pockets, not much padding on the hips or shoulder straps). It is about one quarter the weight of the external frame pack I used in 1997.

Jay also recommended my three-person nylon tent. It’s roomy enough to squeeze in three people and has been a luxury for just me and Cora in the early going. The fabric is breathtakingly delicate, not much thicker than tissue paper. The zippers seem like they belong on a windbreaker. I’ve held my breath a few times while shoving it into its bag, but so far so good. The tent weighs less than four pounds.

Another weight saver has been my water purifier, a sterilizing pen that magically kills bad things in the mountain and swamp water I’ve been drinking. It performs this function with a dose of ultraviolet light. It’s one-third the weight of the pump filter with a ceramic core I used last time.

Because we live in a golden era of worldwide shipping, when I sit against a black spruce, I eat apricots from Turkey and dried mangos from the Philippines, almonds from California and cranberries from Massachusetts. I bought them all at Fairbanks stores and made them part of my food drops.

My menu is quite similar to 20 years ago, with two notable improvements. One is instant coffee in single-serving packs. The other is Alaska-based freeze-dried foods; there is no treat that tops smoked sockeye salmon chowder at the end of the day.

For all the innovations I carry, my communications equipment weighs three times as much as it did in 1997. Then, I had a palmtop computer that ran on AA batteries. I needed to find a phone line to send these columns, but the computer was the size of a paperback book and weighed less.

Now I’m carrying my first-ever cell phone, a tablet that doesn’t like the cold and a pocket camera. All are hungry for electricity, which my friend John Arntz gifted me in the form of a portable battery charger the size of two cell phones pressed together. All of these electronics are much heavier than the setup 20 years ago but allow me to send columns from the tent when there is a cellular signal.

My right front pants pocket holds a digital camera. With a large memory card, the number of photos I can take seems infinite. That’s quite a change from 20 years ago, when I shot slide film in groups of 24 and 36 and did not see the shots until weeks, sometimes months later.

My favorite new gizmo by far is my pocket GPS with color maps installed. It also allows me to communicate by satellite anytime, anywhere.

The GPS has been my little orange friend on lonely stretches. It sends a blip to satellites every few hours so people can track me. It has also allowed me to check in with my wife every night, and chat during the day with John and other friends. Biologist Susan Sharbaugh has faithfully sent me baseball scores every night from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Yay.

Twenty years ago, there was no help available from intelligent hunks of plastic and metal orbiting 500 miles overhead. What will the next 20 years bring?

5. Sharing the trail with born Alaskans

Photo by Ned Rozell

Who is this girl, hair in braids, emerging from the tent with a full backpack?

She is 10 years old, a recent fourth-grade graduate, out here with a friend from her class. Within the 20-year-old tent they share, they stay up for hours, chatting and giggling. It is mountain music.

The girl, my daughter Anna, spoke to me a few days ago as I walked beside her.

“I’m never coming out here again to hike the pipeline,” she said. “You made a bad decision.”

At the time, it was hard to debate with her. Forty mile-per-hour winds shoved us, drilling raindrops into our cheeks. The girl is good at arguing. I tell her she would be a good lawyer, though I hope she does not pursue that line of work.

The two girls, Anna and Salak Crowe, were hiking the path of the trans-Alaska pipeline with me, their moms, and my friend Andy Sterns. For nine days, they joined me through the Alaska Range, from Meiers Lake to Black Rapids.

Their 60 miles of trail featured the worst weather I’ve felt in one month of hiking. Sub-freezing temperatures each night. Rain, wind and graupel pellets during the day. One morning we woke to 3 fresh inches of snow.

We adults were freaking out. How are we going to keep the girls warm? The first three days, we broke the golden rule, handing the girls bowls of oatmeal through the tent flap. We fretted about hot chocolate spills on sleeping bags.

But when it came time to hike, the girls popped out of their tent with backpacks full and boots on. A ready adult carrying bear spray would get them striding down the trail to warm up.

And there was one of my favorite images: the girls, leggy as newborn moose calves, walking hip to hip, talking, singing, never running out of things to say. Anna walks with a bounce in her step that reminds me of my younger brother. Salak has a light, pigeon-toed stride that looks like her father’s.

Their smiles and happy chatter warmed my wind-chilled heart. There were other times, of course, when Anna whined at the wind and her cold feet. She vocalized exactly what I was feeling. I had to walk away sometimes and let Kristen take over.

Our girl does not “suffer in silence” as my mom often requested of her five children. Anna is a lot like me, which leads to perhaps greater understanding but also a lower tolerance to our shared impatience.

During nine days of Aleutian weather, both girls impressed us. There is perhaps something to growing up Alaskan. River trips with real hazards of bears and splashy water. School playgrounds where 20 below is just something to dress for. Endless summer days with no school!

I didn’t have those elements growing up in a New York mill town. My parents did, however, take the five kids on camping trips to the Bertrands’ upstate property, and somehow to Maine in a Volkswagen bus. There the outdoor seeds were planted.

But this open-air world has been thrust upon Anna and Salak. Regardless of where they end up (Anna says she likes Brooklyn, where her aunt lives), the girls will be shaped by this place.

On this trip, they showed they belong. Led by Salak, who has a great sense for outdoor living, (shown when she placed rocks on her mittens so they wouldn’t blow away), they pitched their tent and lit the cook stove. Their hiking pace was as fast as the adults. They weathered the elements with less alarm than we did.

Hiking alongside Anna, I told her I want to be on the trail with just her and Cora later in the summer. I don’t want to force her along, and I’m indebted to Kristen allowing my selfish mission, but I think time alone with her will be fun for both of us.

“No,” Anna said. “I’m not coming back out with you. This is your trip, not mine.”

I did not argue with her logic. However, just like me, “no” is often her immediate response to a proposed plan. She needs a while for a notion to cook. Sometimes, she changes her mind.

A few days ago, I said goodbye to Kristen, Salak’s mom Jennifer, and the two girls, snug in the car as the wind rocked it where it sat next to the old Black Rapids Lodge. Just before I continued down the trail with Andy and Cora, the car door swung open.

Out ran Anna. She jumped in my arms for a hug.

“So, will you come out and see me again?” I asked.

“I’m thinking about it,” she said, squeezing me before climbing down. “Love you.”

6. Roadhouse provides a rest along the trail

Photo by Ned Rozell

Sitting in the shade of a poplar, I watch the Tanana River flow by. It’s flat and tan, dimpled by eddies and darted over by swallows that sound like they are chewing rubber bands.

I slept last night with my wife, daughter and dog in the upstairs of a handsome, two-story log structure that has stood since before World War I. Tonight, my dog Cora and I will sleep there again.

Judy Hicks, who lives here in Delta Junction and works for Alaska State Parks, invited us to stay at Rika’s Roadhouse. She heard about my walk along the path of the trans-Alaska pipeline and thought it natural for someone who arrived on foot from Valdez to catch a bit of rest here. It happened so many times in the past.

We are happy for the break. During a snowy, rainy, windy trip through the Alaska Range (much of it with my wife Kristen and daughter Anna), we seemed to be walking back in time. As we gained elevation, leaves turned back to buds and temperatures not felt since April reappeared.

With our recent hike past Donnelly Dome and into green flats came dry, hot weather. To Cora and me, 68 and sunny felt like a summer day in Badwater. And, because we descended from mountain hills to the drained gravel and sand left behind by glaciers, there was not a puddle to be found.

If it wasn’t for a security guard named Travis at Pump Station 9, we would have gone a day without water. He gifted us as many bottles as we wanted. Cora drank a quart right there at the entrance to the pump station.

After a similar day yesterday of hiking crunchy dry ground from Jarvis Creek to here, it was nice to have refuge. Kristen and Anna came from Fairbanks to spend a night and resupply me with food and a packraft for the crossing of the Salcha River in a few days.

The grounds here remind me of the town of Eagle: a split-rail wooden fence on the edge of a lawn overlooking the river, breeze through the new leaves, minty scent of balsam in the air, songs of yellow warblers and white-crowned sparrows.

Alaska State Parks operates the Big Delta State Historical Park. State budget cuts may cost Judy Hicks her job in July. Then, management of the site probably switches to “passive,” meaning there is no money for employees. The roadhouse, now a museum, will be locked.

Too bad. This place has been a waypoint for travelers for a long time. Lt. Henry Allen found Native structures here during his epic trip in the late 1800s. The huts were part of fish camps used by Athabaskans to catch chum salmon as they returned in fall. The Native Alaskans then spent all winter here with their new food supply.

Because this spot lines up with the low pass through the Alaska Range and places north of here, people have been walking it for thousands of years. Rich archeological sites dating back more than 11,000 years dot some hilltops nearby.

This landing on the Tanana near where it meets the Delta River became the site of a roadhouse in 1904. John Hajdukovich, a Yugoslavian who has a splendid mountain east of here named for him, built a new roadhouse. It became a stop for travelers along the route from Valdez to Fairbanks.

Exactly one century ago, Hajdukovich hired Swede Rika Wallen to manage the roadhouse and use her creativity to improve the property. She raised cattle and grew vegetables and fruits. When visitors rolled in, they drank fresh milk and had a breakfast of eggs laid the day before.

Rika Wallen bought the roadhouse from Hajdukovich in 1923 for “$10 and other considerations.” She ran it until World War II. She died in 1969 at the age of 94. She is buried on a small hill a pleasant five-minute walk from here. A white fence surrounds her grave.

One year before Rika died, exploratory geologists discovered oil at Prudhoe Bay. Less than 10 years later, workers routed the trans-Alaska pipeline within a few hundred yards of Rika’s Roadhouse.

Rising above Cora, who is snoozing on the lawn, is that silvery pipeline, suspended across the big river and pointing our way into Alaska’s Interior.

7. A wilderness feel along an industrial path

Photo by Ned Rozell

This clear waterway running through boreal swampland marks the farthest Cora and I will be from a highway during our summer hike along the route of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

If we chose to bust overland southwest toward Banner Creek, we would have to cover at least 9 boggy miles before we reached the Richardson Highway. Backtracking to the nearest pipeline access road would require a hike of 20 miles.

What’s the significance of the most remote part of a pathway that is itself a manmade disturbance? Good point. Living out here this summer with lots of time to think, I find it interesting to be in a spot far from the distant hum of engines.

What is here? Swainson’s thrushes (the flutey sound of summer), olive-sided flycatchers, gray-cheeked thrushes and the thrush with the song that never gets old, the American robin.

Ice, in the form of aufeis over a few creeks, formed by the cold air of winter, is enduring well into the heat of summer. One such mini-glacier prevents truck or four-wheeler travel, making this spot feel even more isolated.

And the mosquitoes are here. They emerged in numbers sufficient to make me pull out the repellent. The blessed liquid that messes with the bloodsuckers’ carbon-dioxide detectors allowed me to enjoy dinner by Gold Run Creek. After 39 days without needing protection, I was due.

This country, bounded by the Salcha River to the north and Shaw Creek to the south, was the outer range of John Haines, one of the finest writers Alaska will ever inspire. His poetic essays about trapping and existing in the hills west of here define Interior Alaska.

The late storyteller once sent me a letter in response to a column I wrote about the shipping network that allows Alaskans to eat fresh broccoli in midwinter. Haines reflected on life in Alaska decades ago, eating honey created by northern bees, moose meat and potatoes. And about the lean times, with not enough skinny hares for the pot.

He was not thrilled with the prospect and then reality of this pipe running through his wilderness. But it came, is here and always has been in my Alaska.

Gold Run Creek seems wild, even though I’m leaning against a vertical support member made of steel. It’s quiet enough for me, anyway. I get to see songbirds up close all day and, now through 40 days, have yet to see a bear.

That’s a sighting I can do without. John Haines wrote in his spare, slow cadence of shooting at a grizzly that charged him from a small creek bed not far from here. He perhaps wounded it. He didn’t know, and he found no blood. The bear retreated to the alders. Haines crossed the creek with his trusted sled dog and continued to one of his trapline cabins. Later, he needed to again transit the creek and head for home at the Richardson Highway.

“If that bear was still somewhere in that dense green cover, nursing its hurt and its temper, waiting for revenge, it would have its chance,” he wrote in the essay “Out of the Shadows” from the book “The Stars, the Snow, the Fire.”

I think about bears many times each day, and more at night, when I stuff in earplugs to disable my radar. It seems to be the only way I can sleep. Then, I depend on Cora’s ears and nose, with my canister of pepper spray to the right of my pillow.

Everyone I meet seems to share a bear story. But I’m starting to think that the pipeline itself is a bear deterrent.

Biologists once collared a wolf near the Yukon River and followed its movements for a summer. The animal crossed the Yukon and Porcupine rivers, wandered to the Beaufort Sea coast, and drifted westward. Before it was found dead of starvation near the Kanuti River, that wolf had walked to the edge of the Dalton Highway a dozen times. But it never once crossed that road.

Maybe the association of manmade things with bad consequences keeps the big predators away from the pipeline. Wolf tracks are hard to find out here, as is bear sign. Moose tracks and encounters are plentiful, and we’ve seen several caribou. Hares and songbirds may be attracted to the shrubs and grasses along the pipeline.

Why is the pipe so far from the road here? I don’t know. Looking at the map, it seems pipeline designers used about 10 miles less of the four-foot diameter, half-inch steel pipe than if they had followed the Richardson Highway over the same distance. That material savings was probably trivial in a project of this size, but the decision has made these gurgling creeks and ancient black spruce part of the quietest landscape so far along the 800-mile route.

8. A restock and recharge along the pipeline’s path

Photo by Ian Carlson

I left my home here to begin a hike along the trans-Alaska pipeline in late April. Returning in June, I am stunned by the green of it all. It’s like winter to summer in one day.

I’ve been in Alaska’s second-largest city for a few days now, resupplying for the trip north as I hike with my dog on the path of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Three hundred fifty miles down, 450 to go.

Walking with my friend Bob Gillis, we left the gravel road that parallels the pipeline in the hamlet of Moose Creek, just north of Eielson Air Force Base. In a driving rain that didn’t let up all day, Bob and I reached his car after seven miles of hiking. We happily got in and cranked up the heater. After lunch in North Pole, he drove me home.

Because I did not get permission from the many people whose land the pipeline right-of-way crosses in North Pole and Fairbanks, I will resume my hike at the pipeline tourist viewpoint in Fox. Since my many detours from the pipe to the highway in the past month have my official walking distance at 356 miles compared to the pipeline’s 350 miles from Valdez, I feel OK about skipping the 20 miles of private land.

Stopping at one’s home with its comfy bed and sunny deck is a hazard during a trip like this. My last hiking day with Bob was wet and quite buggy. While in town, I’ve played softball in the evening heat with my Northern Shrikes, sat in the sunny bleachers for a Alaska Goldpanners game and watched mom and dad nuthatch feed their chicks in a birdhouse visible from the deck.

I’ve also purchased a ton of food and arranged it in 11 cardboard boxes. Friends will deliver those boxes via the Elliott and Dalton highways in the days and weeks to come.

In conversations here, friends have asked me the differences I’ve noticed since I walked the line 20 years ago. Here are some obvious ones:

Spruce bark beetles, creatures about the size of a grain of rice, killed a good number of white spruce in the upper Copper River Valley in the late 1990s. Their larvae girdled the trees from within, beneath the bark. Walking through there in 1997 was like walking through a graveyard of gray trees. The beetles only attacked mature spruce, though. The trees no taller than me at the time survived the beetles. They are now healthy and 40 feet tall.

Tamaracks, delicate-looking conifers with needles that turn orange and fall off in autumn, were in a similar troubled state in 1997. The wormlike larvae of the larch sawfly stripped almost all the adult trees of their needles in the mid to late 1990s. Deprived of their solar panels for several summers, most of the adult trees died. Like the spruce, tamaracks have come back in a big way, with healthy young trees now lining the border of the pipeline road through swampy sections of the Interior.

And, as researchers have found in permafrost areas all over Alaska, the ground surface is subsiding. This is a hard thing for me to visualize, but a pipeline security officer who has a homestead near Glennallen stopped me one day and pointed it out.

He said he remembered the gravel road next to the pipeline was a seven-foot hill he needed to climb 30 years ago. Now the road is level with the surrounding terrain. The frozen ground beneath it has probably thawed during the 40 years since the road’s construction, which is consistent with most permafrost areas in Alaska that are reacting to warmer air temperatures.

9. High summer along the pipeline’s path

Photo by Ned Rozell

It’s high summer, past the solstice. Everything is alive here on the path of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Since I started this hike across Alaska on the last day of April in Valdez, the country has softened, greened up and started flowing. Before we blink and it’s winter solstice again, here’s a description of this north-south line across the state at the time of light.

Light is a good place to start. I dropped the headlamp from my pack while in Fairbanks. Here, 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the sun drops beneath the hills to the northeast for a few hours. That time sort of resembles the minutes after the sun sets on winter solstice, with enough light to read a book outside. But now it is a temporary lull, just a few hours, followed by the coolest part of the day.

The upcoming few weeks are often the hottest of the year, due to the ground’s lag between releasing all that solar radiation it absorbed. The minimum temperature last night was in the 60s, which is warmer than the maximums we felt for more than the first month of the trip, through the Chugach and Alaska ranges.

The peak of summer heat has enabled other life forms to spring to existence. Most notable are the mosquitoes, making the most of their two-week lifespans on the creek bottoms and everywhere else with leaves and coolness. This has inspired me and my recent hiking partner — veteran from 20 years ago Andy Sterns — to carry creek water up hills in plastic jugs. Along with great views, we camp on top for stronger breezes that shove the devils back to the brush. Sometimes it works.

The billions of summer-visiting birds are doing their life’s work of replicating themselves in this land where the kitchen is suddenly open. Chicks of all species are making bold leaps toward the boreal forest floor, learning the magic in their wings.

A pair of red-tailed hawks was riding the breeze above Erickson Creek, screeching with the raptor sound familiar to most Americans. There, I had a deja vu moment looking at a man-size clump of twigs 20 feet up in a fire-killed spruce. I remember back to 1997. In that same nest were red-tailed hawk chicks, mouths yawning open.

The 2017 adult hawks seemed quite concerned at a small dog crashing through the bushes beneath that nest. I wondered if one of those birds was perhaps born in that nest 20 years ago. Because the birds can live for more than two decades if lucky, it’s possible I was seeing one of those chicks born in 1997. Or, maybe those two were the same parent birds that fly to Costa Rica in the winter and return to this swampy subarctic valley each spring. They are here at a good time, one of newborn snowshoe hares, pint-size new grouse, voles darting the grasses and infinite daylight to hunt.

10. Daily breaks from bugs ease summer-long walk

Photo by Ned Rozell

On this cobble bar north of the Arctic Circle, it is a fine day. The sky is a sheet of blue, a breeze wraps us with clean air, a sandpiper mom shrieks over her hatchlings. They are gray-blue puffballs, extra cute and almost invisible amid the stones.

In short, this is a perfect morning for the human creature, with its narrow range of comfort regarding temperature and insects. Along my hike on the path of the trans-Alaska pipeline this summer, these moments are the exception. But they always seem to happen, at least once a day.

This Jim River campsite is perfect for its two acres of bare rock next to a clear mountain stream. Its distance from the greenery offers respite from the female mosquito and her search for blood protein.

Sometimes, there is no break. A recent morning, I was camped in lowlands near Prospect Creek. That is the spot of America’s all-time low temperature record of minus 80 F, which happened Jan. 23, 1971. The recent July day when my friend John Arntz and I waded the creek, the air was 160 degrees warmer.

After John caught a ride back to town near Prospect Creek, I looked for a place to camp. I settled on a patch of crunchy lichen in a black spruce forest near the pipe. There were few mosquitoes active, probably because of the warm temperature.

The next morning was a different story. The bloodsuckers perched on the tent screen, waiting for my dog Cora and me to emerge. We rewarded them by pulling up the tent stakes in the coolness of 7 a.m. I ate breakfast standing up.

An insect biologist once said that extreme cold and biting flies maintain the circumpolar North’s low human population. I agree. Even after spending 70 nights outside this summer, my tolerance goes back to zero when I enter a dark patch of vegetation and feel the pinpricks.

And although the pipeline pad — the road that follows the pipe for almost its entire 800 miles — is wide and gravelled, the route dips into many swampy valleys. Those wetlands are full of mosquitoes, and when it is hot, moose flies with their saber mouth parts.

Sometimes, on this slow traverse of Alaska, there is nothing you can do to avoid biting insects. A few weeks ago, my friend Andy Sterns and I descended into Isom Creek as the day cooled. There, the pipeline gravel road disappears, as it sometimes does at what Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. calls a block point, and turns into a winter trail. There, you walk on wet, spongy plants and wait for stabbing sensations.

Isom Creek was the “deep, deathlike valley” described by Robert Service. Full of muskeg, leafy willows and crooked spruce, it had the turpentine scent of Labrador tea. The creek bottom was sluggish and meandering. The dense, claustrophobic brush promised a large mammal encounter.

We crossed serpentine, muddy Isom Creek three times, adding our sneaker tracks to the bear and moose prints and gaining an ever-larger entourage. I pulled on a bug jacket in order to dip a few jugs of Isom Creek to carry away to higher ground. The headnet blackened with tiny bodies.

I tried not to look at Cora, who hosted a party on the bridge of her nose. After taking off my bug jacket because it’s too hot for hiking, I squirted repellent on the backs of my hands, which held the water jugs. We headed uphill.

Engineers did not design the pipeline’s route for walking. In some places — and for much of the way from Fairbanks to the Yukon River — the path is steep as a double black diamond ski slope. You lean into the hills, Achilles tendons stretched like cables, heels hovering. So it was into and out of Isom Creek. There, as it neared midnight, we crept up the hill at 1 mile per hour. The mosquitoes applauded.

We reached a hilltop gravel pit and pitched tents, too late to beat the cool air favored by bugs. A great horned owl perched on a spruce snag and watched us swat through dinner. Finally, we found the sanctuary of the tents.

In a few hours, the sun again popped over the hills. The temperature rose to the debugging point, perhaps 70 degrees. We crawled from the overheated shelters to a different, bugless world.

11. Dog partner enhances hike across Alaska

I suspected my brief dogless period was coming to an end when my wife and daughter were looking at puppies on the internet.

We had a few months earlier lost Poops, a Labrador retriever mix, to a tumor on a front paw. Though it was strange not to have a creature greeting you with socks in its mouth, I was enjoying the break from responsibility.

But Kristen and Anna found a crop of puppies being given away to a good home. One day we surprised Anna by taking her to the home of John Eichelberger. There was a floor full of wriggling black bodies. Some of them were hovering over the pee pads at the right moment.

Anna chose the smallest dog and identified her by tying blue yarn around her collar. Cora first showed us her big voice as John carried her from her siblings and handed her to Anna in the car.

I wasn’t sure what I thought about the puppy. Her nose was stubby, like a boxer’s, even though she was the product of a Lab mom and a neighborhood blue heeler who was there when opportunity called.

And she remained the runt, not topping 40 pounds even after a year of growth. Plus, she was remarkably loud, especially when she saw another dog through the window or heard a knock on the door. She has cost us a few measures in our range of hearing with that piercing bark.

But those traits are nice in some situations. And she is small enough to sleep with Anna without crowding her. I found her to be a great canoe dog — her weight-shifts on the boat are easy to compensate for. She clings to the gunnels like a housefly, even when I try to instill a lesson by rocking her off.

I have had a good number of human partners on this summer’s walk along the path of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. But only Cora has been there for every step. I can’t imagine the trip without her.

She is now pressing against my lower back as I type while sitting next to a mountain stream. She prefers to be on your lap. Some nights, when it’s chilly, she will wake me up. I open the sleeping bag flap and she crawls in, somehow turning around at my feet.

That is not the protective position in which I prefer her. I like to turn off my radar and depend on her nose and ears to alert me to gravel scuffs outside the tent. But sometimes she’s in the bag, or just too tired from a day of chasing hares and squirrels.

And that’s what she gets out of the deal. Total freedom, every day, except when we’re close to trucks or groups of people, or we have to walk the highway. Then, she gets on the leash.

But she’s a leader who will pull Anna skijoring, so she keeps the line tight as we walk down the road. We cover those miles fast.

And she minds. When I see a bull moose ahead and she does too, she comes toward me when I give her that command. Some dogs, like one that joined us early in the trip, cannot resist the call, and sprint after caribou and bring angry momma moose back to the people. Cora seems to know these big creatures are not to mess with.

We have not seen a porcupine in a few hundred miles. But the last one she saw, she barked at but did not chase. She got pets and a good girl after that one. “Good decision you made.”

She has short hair and loves the water. This keeps her clean and cool on the hot days. She suffers in the bugs, but when it’s real bad I’ll squirt deet on the back of my hand and apply it to the bridge of her nose. She takes it with stoicism.

She has been dinged up a few times: a red chest from a maladjusted pack and a thorn in her foot pad. I carried her pack in my hand a few weeks as she healed from the first. I pulled the thorn with tweezers.

She is just 3, at the peak of life. I see an energy contrast between her and Jane, the chocolate Lab who accompanied me on this trip 20 years ago. Jane was 10 then. Cora recovers faster, it seems, never shying from the dog pack and mauling sticks when it’s time to go.

Since this 800-mile summer was not her choice, I’ve been prepared to let her take a break and let her go back to Fairbanks for a summer of playing with her best friend neighbor dog. But so far she seems to be enjoying the untethered life, chasing hares and red squirrels all day. And I would not want to go on without her.

12. Crossing the divide into a new world

Photo by Ned Rozell

Goodbye, red squirrels.

On our summer-long hike along the path of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, this morning my dog Cora and I left the last tangle of boreal forest along America’s highway system. We walked away from a campsite of white spruce and balsam poplar that shielded us during a rain and wind storm the day before.

The squeak we heard from a red squirrel, whose diet is mostly spruce seeds (but occasionally fledgling birds and baby snowshoe hares), was the last we’ll hear until we return home to Fairbanks when this adventure is complete.

Following the Dalton Highway and heading north, we walked up a few thousand feet to Chandalar Shelf. Willow shrubs and alder, yes. But the large trees were no more.

It took a long time to out-walk the boreal forest. Since we first saw aspen trees along our route just south of Copper Center, Cora and I have been moving for two months to transit that band of large plants. On this continent, the boreal forest extends from western Alaska all the way east to the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

As we followed the pipeline’s path through Atigun Pass and crossed the Continental Divide at about 4,500 feet, we stepped into a new world.

Here on the north side of the Brooks Range, the misty mountains spill clear-running creeks. From where I sit with my back against an industrial metal shed related to a pipeline valve, I hear the worried shriek of a peregrine falcon. It is a greeting to a land with yearly temperatures cold enough to prevent the invasion of trees, a place where winter is the norm and summer visits for just a few months.

I live in the boreal forest and am comfortable in the poplars, aspen and spruce and on the rivers that wind through them. Crossing the pass, which is the highest point on the pipeline’s route but far from the steepest climb or descent, I entered a rainy, cloudy, treeless world. Mystical is a word that keeps coming to mind. It is the same sensation I remember from 20 years ago, when I crossed over with my brother-in-law James Hopkins.

On the other side, in that Iowa-sized part of central Alaska known as the Interior, I leave the 80-degree days we experienced from the Yukon River all the way to the base of Atigun Pass. Goodbye moose flies, dunks in clear rivers, hot nights in the tent and tanned kids and their parents arriving by riverboat from fish camps on the Yukon.

And goodbye thunderstorms. A few days ago, near the site of the old Dietrich pipeline construction camp, lightning struck so close to my wife Kristen, daughter Anna, cousin Heather Liston and me that we heard the crackle of static and instantaneous thunder. We took cover under two U-shaped forms of concrete sometimes used to weight the pipeline as it goes under rivers. Lightning happens here on the North Slope side of the mountains, too, but it’s rare compared with the heat-driven convection cells of the Interior.

What to expect here, where the Atigun River flows northward, joins the Sagavanirktok and heads to gray saltwater through the bumpy flats of the North Slope? Stunning mountains, for a bit. Cold feet, because I’m still wearing wet running shoes. Caribou chewing lichen. Wind. A visit to Toolik Field Station, where my neighbor and University of Alaska Fairbanks grad student Jason Clark will warm the sauna.

And of course, more mosquitoes. Though the wetlands of the Interior were impressive when traversed with improper timing, the North Slope mosquito is the queen of them all. She is the type that inspires competition. How many can you kill with one slap?

Out of respect for her, I did not rush to the north side of the divide. With my family and cousin from San Francisco, I walked slowly through the spear-like spruce, sculpted white mountains and aquamarine water of the Dietrich/Koyukuk river country. I wanted them to see what I considered the nicest part of the trek 20 years ago (Coldfoot to Atigun Pass). And I wanted the North Slope mosquito to be on the waning end of its few-week life cycle before I dropped in. I hope I’m late for the party.

13. In fifth month, trans-Alaska hike nears end

Photo by Eric Troyer

August, here so soon.

And we just passed trans-Alaska oil pipeline mile 100, which means that distance remains on our summer hike from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay. My dog Cora and I started walking on April 30, which means we’re in our fifth month of sleeping outside.

For this week, I’m hiking with Eric Troyer, who ran the White Mountains 100 race in less than two days this spring. I did the same thing a year before. I guess that means we can wrap this journey up by the weekend.

Not really. We’ve been walking about 10 miles each day. So, about 10 more days should do ‘er.

There are incentives to finish. Like when the wind dies, and the North Slope mosquitoes swarm and the gnats kamikaze your eyes and mouth. We were not late enough for the first freezes of Arctic fall to thin out the herd. Instead, we’ve had days reaching 60 degrees, when the convertible pants again revert to shorts. I did not think that would happen out here.

Now, it’s warm and spitting rain on the bank of the aquamarine Sagavanirktok River. The wind is strong enough to push the insects beyond my eddy. My seat is a cushion of moss, lupines, bearberry and nearby blueberries now ready to pick. Looking across the river, I see a bench covered with the variety of plants that make up tundra. It’s a carpet with a dozen shades of green. Crossing it is a group of 17 caribou. Their dark, moving dots resemble bison on the Great Plains.

Thirty miles away at Toolik Field Station, where manager Justin Johnson of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology hosted Cora and me for two nights, more than 100 scientists are studying tundra and other living things of the North. Associate professor Donie Bret-Harte and her crew were about to do their annual harvest and analysis of tundra plants. In the recent past, she has found a great increase in the biomass of this northern life.

The thickening of tundra plants has been one of many changes that have happened since I walked this route 20 years ago. Like many other differences, it has escaped my notice, too subtle for me to detect. I’ve forgotten many things since then, except for places I photographed and have looked at a few times over the years.

But some things long buried in my brain spring back, like the name of Oil Spill Hill on the Dalton Highway. It came to me just as we descended the pipe’s parallel path. I had not thought of that phrase for 20 years.

This big, burly river has cut a V to the south that allows one last glimpse of the Brooks Range. Today, we will perhaps outwalk the view of those gray-purple mountains. Then, there will be the chalky bluffs of the river and the endless green-turning-yellow of tundra on all sides.

Soon, we will run out of even the infinite tundra. And then it will be time to go home.

14. Final steps to Mile 0 of summer walk

Photo by Ned Rozell

I said goodbye to my final hiking partner today outside a van on the side of a gravel highway. For the remaining 40 miles in my summer hike along the path of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, it will be just Cora and me.

When I walked away from Eric Troyer and the muddy Northern Alaska Tour Co. van that was taking him south, I wondered if he was relieved or bummed not to keep going.

I don’t know, but for other partners I have not had to guess. My daughter, cousin and wife all seemed pretty happy to be jumping in a guy named Pat’s pickup headed south after a day of road walking in a big wind and pouring rain. But just like 20 years ago, John Arntz wanted to keep hiking with me rather than catching a van from Prospect Creek on a sunny day with many curves in the path ahead.

Though I’ve missed all of my partners after they’ve left, I’ve savored my alone time. I can sing, and I like stopping and not having to talk or listen.

Alone with Cora the dog is where I am now, in the tent next to the Sagavanirktok River with pale white cliffs rising from the far bank. They are the last bumps before the land flattens into an immense green pocked with hundreds of lakes.

This party is almost over. From a last-day-of-April start in Valdez with my neighbors Chris and Ian to dry camping in early August on the great coastal plain. The trip started cool, with many nights in the 20s. It seems to be ending warm, with sunshine, nights still in the 50s, and lime-green leaves on the northern willow bushes, including a 20-footer I saw today.

Right now, the trip is slanting toward the manmade in the odd industrial/natural mix it has been since the start. Eric laughed at our campsite on a manmade dike of the river complete with the Sherman tank sound of a bulldozer working nearby on the Dalton Highway. He also was happy to point out a long-tailed jaeger, a musk ox and a magnificent bull caribou he watched for an hour through his monocular.

And that is this journey summed up: a summer outside, never more than a few hundred steps from the snakelike steel driver of Alaska’s economy. Out here, you get all of the songbirds as well as the backup beeps of diesels.

When I could, I chose campsites on rivers close to the pipe. On the best nights, it was as if we were on a canoe trip. I’ve also camped beneath a bridge and several times beneath the pipeline.

Soon, I will stuff the tent for the final time. Tonight is number 92, and I think no outdoor equipment is a greater invention than the portable shelter that keeps you dry and keeps the bugs out. It’s a miracle of design from the most clever of species.

Perhaps it is time to stop. Yesterday morning, Cora shot out of the tent and in propelling herself ripped a 4-inch gash in the air mattress I borrowed from my wife. I also found the gas canisters in my last two food drops do not work when the air temperature is below 50 degrees. But Eric cheerily loaned me his mattress and cookstove for the remaining days.

And, finally, we saw a bear. On day 89, a blond grizzly moving fast across tundra a quarter mile away. That night, 10 miles down the trail, Cora awoke, sniffed the tent screen and growled. I let her out of the tent. She ran barking to a mileage post from which we had hung our food. In the morning we saw grizzly tracks with diagnostic claw marks in the mud.

That fine dog and I will walk to pipeline mile zero soon. Where things go from there, I don’t know, other than I will soon return to my family in Fairbanks and something resembling the life I left when snow was on the ground.

15. Hike across Alaska ends with after-dinner bear

Ned Rozell

A few days ago, Cora the dog and I walked across a footbridge spanning a natural moat flowing through northern tundra plants. There, we reached Mile 0 of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the finish of a south-to-north walk across Alaska, most of it on the service road that parallels the pipeline.

Though the orange-and-black mile markers along the pipe read 800 in Valdez and 0 near Prudhoe Bay, due to our diversions my GPS tracker recorded more than 850 miles walked from April 30 to mid-August. Cora, of course, probably logged 100 extra miles though the boreal brush that wore out one dog pack and did a pretty good job on the second.

Since late April, those chestnut-backed chickadees we saw mating in the Valdez rainforest have raised at least one brood of chicks. The migrant birds, including the millions of ducks and geese on Alaska’s North Slope, will lift from northern lakes for the final time soon, to spend winter far away.

Cora and I are home in Fairbanks now, appreciating chairs and dog beds, getting back to the busyness of real life and missing the daily charge of the first few steps. Before I get back to some real science writing (and thanks to my boss Sue Mitchell for accepting a summer of semi-science writing), here are some closing thoughts about the trip.

Our final evening of camping was on cobbles underneath the Mile 10 sign of the pipeline. There, Cora and I were on the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean — wet tundra and big rectangular lakes a few feet above sea level.

We had just diverged from the Sagavanirktok River and nearby Dalton Highway, which is loud with the beeps and groans of graders and compactors. Heading north toward Pump Station 1, the pipeline bends a few miles away from Alaska’s farthest-north highway. The scenery changes from river gravel to green tundra grasses and plants. The dominant sounds are the laughter of white-fronted geese and the croaks of sandhill cranes.

That final night, I camped in the exact spot I had 20 years ago, my tent footprint covering the same gravel. The evening was stunning and unlikely: warm, with no breeze and, somehow, no mosquitoes.

There, as I was heating water for my second cup of tea, I noticed a blond smudge on the tundra.

Grizzly. Just the second bear seen in 95 days. It was far enough that Cora did not notice it, but a primal thrill ran though me.

The breeze was blowing from the bear toward us. It had not yet detected us but was wandering closer. To push the action, I banged a rock on the half-inch steel of a pipeline vertical support member.

The bear raised its head. I walked 20 steps and back so the bear could see movement. It seemed to be studying us for a second. Then its head lowered to the ground, perhaps sniffing out a ground squirrel.

I continued to prepare for the night in the tent. As I did every night when the pipeline was above ground, I threw a length of parachute cord over the four-foot tube. I attached the cord with a slipknot to the bag that held my food and Cora’s dog pack. Then I pulled the bag atop the pipeline and tied off the cord to a vertical support member.

I spent the next hour watching the bear wander. It then disappeared over bumpy tundra, heading for a lake the GPS said was three miles away.

My heart rate slowed as Cora and I entered the tent. The bear had made the decision I hoped.

And so it ended: Ninety-six days of summer 2017 sleeping in the home of black and grizzly bears. No unpleasant encounters. Add that to the 120 days of my trip 20 years ago and that’s more than half a year of uneventful living in bear country.

Last night at dinner, a friend pointed out that we know at least seven people (including my wife Kristen) who have been attacked or have otherwise had bad interactions with bears. One terrible episode involving a friend happened this summer near Pogo Mine, not far from where I was walking.

Why did Cora and I dodge bears all summer, as Jane, my dog companion for the previous trip, and I did 20 years ago? Having a dog along might be a factor, as none of those other encounters featured one. Perhaps it helped to be hiking along the human infrastructure of the pipeline, traveled by workers in trucks and people on four-wheelers. But there have been plenty of documented interactions in places not so wild. Securing our food away from us and out of reach probably helped. And — this might be the most important factor — we got lucky. We didn’t run into the ursine equivalent of the disturbed human, the one who does not act like the others.

So, I’m grateful for good fortune. And to the dozens of people who helped us along the way. So many acts of kindness out there, from Chris and Audra Carlson hosting us in an Alaska Range cabin during terrible weather to a driver for Northern Alaska Tour Co. carrying my food box across the tundra in a cloud of mosquitoes.

Many people executed similar selfless acts during my self-absorbed summer. My wife Kristen and daughter Anna spent most of the summer without me and the family dog but never made me feel I should be anywhere else. My sister-in-law Sarah Ast pulled off more than a month of surrogate parenting.

There are many more of you, and I’ll try to thank you in my own way. But a final nod to the Geophysical Institute for paying me to write these columns and enjoy an atypical summer of life. For the second time.

And thank you, for reading these words and traveling along with us.


All the segments above were first published in the Alaska Science Forum. Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute. This summer, he hiked the path of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay. He also did the trip 20 years ago.

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