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Arctic Interlude

Wednesday, 23 August 2023, Kotzebue AK

As we descended to land at Kotzebue (rhymes with 'gotcha-view'), I glanced out my window at a different world. We flew past the Kobuk River delta, a mélange of streams, channels, pools, and tundra emptying into the Notham Inlet, a bay off the Chukchi Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.

Never before had I traveled this far north.

This town of 3,000 people north of Nome is the largest town in the area. Besides a mine outside of town and subsistence living, its life centers around flying visitors into northwest Alaska - especially flightseeing for the two national parks north of the Arctic Circle. With the exception of the town's only hotel, I saw nothing here more than two stories high. ATVs seemed to outnumber cars and trucks - not surprising, since there are no roads connecting the town with the rest of Alaska. Everything and everyone comes in by plane or boat.

Alaska Air has 2-3 scheduled flights per day from Anchorage. There is no terminal - just a building with a gate and a luggage belt nestled among hangars of several other local air services.

Both restrooms in the Alaska building were out of service, so I wandered behind a bush outside to ease my bladder's discomfort.

My B&B host had a day job, so I followed his suggestion and toted my duffel, daypack, and roller bag 300 yards to Golden Eagle Outfitters' hangar, where I could store them for the afternoon. I asked Julian at Golden Eagle about the schedule for tomorrow. Their M.O., which had originally attracted me ("Weather here changes all the time, so we don't schedule departure times - we figure it out as we go. No payment taken until your flights are over."), now gave me a twinge of concern. "Call me tomorrow morning at 8:00," he said, "and we'll see what the weather looks like."

Across the street, the Native Alaskan Cultural Center enticed me - it housed the NPS station for this area. I can get my passport stamps! After chatting with the ranger on duty, I used the public WiFi to get online, handled emails, typed in a blog, and looked around the center. (They had a small museum with dioramas. One talked about the sugar frog - it secretes a sugary fluid in the fall that allows its organs to freeze with no damage. The frog will freeze as solid as an ice cube each winter, but in the spring, it will thaw as good as new.)

The Cultural Center closed at 5:00, so I returned to Golden Eagle. Julian drove me and the bags three blocks to Sunny Willow B&B. I took a few minutes to settle in, then walked a block over to the Empress for dinner. The Oriental women running it greeted me effusively, asking about my trip, which parks I liked most, etc.

Good Chinese food. Afterwards, I walked a short distance down the street, ramshackle buildings (and the hotel) on one side, the Chukchi Sea and distant mountains on the other.

No, no midnight sun this late in the summer. The sun finally sank into the sea at 11:00, but a glow on the horizon persisted for a good while. It had me reflecting on my sojourn so far, wondering what my last Alaskan week had in store.

Thursday, 24 August

Lounged in bed without a set schedule to drive me out. At 8 I called Julian, who suggested I call again at noon. "If I know something before that, I'll call you." That left me tethered to the B&B after breakfast - with no cell service, I had to rely on WiFi calling to stay in touch. (Julian did tell me, "If you don't answer the phone, we'll track you down. This is a small town; someone will know where you are.")

I typed blogs into my laptop while watching the clouds multiply outside. At noon I got the same response: "My pilot shows up soon, I'll let you know what he says."

My phone rang at 12:40. "Come on down!" I quickly turned off the laptop, grabbed my daypack, and hot-footed it to the hangar.

At the office, I met today's other two passengers. We compared notes: this would be parks #53 and 54 for Michelle, keeping her one behind me; the other man didn't count National Parks specifically, but had ~250 (out of 400+) for all NPS sites including Monuments, Seashores, etc. (I recently passed 300 on that list.)

Jared would fly us today. (He mentioned he had 20K hours flying this region, to ease our minds that he could handle some silly clouds.) He apologized for the less-than-stellar weather, but said he'd do what he could.

He flew us east, following the Kobuk River over the delta. The drainage basin stretched before us, spreading to low mountains with peaks lost to the clouds.

We had 160 miles to go for Kobuk Valley NP, passing over interesting terrain. As we flew, Jared piped his playlist through our headphones. Who could be surprised that a pilot in this wild land grooved on country-western music? I often caught him nodding his head to the rhythm, tapping a drumbeat on the steering wheel.

An hour into the flight, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes hove into view,

rising from the trees and tundra, stretching over 25 square miles. This largest active dune system in North America stands out from surrounding land, an aberration resulting from eons of erosion and glacial scouring.

Jared landed our plane on the dunes,

letting us stretch our legs and grab a few photos.

Given a pelting drizzle, we didn't stay long, hopping back on board to fly 60 miles northeast to Gates of the Arctic NP.

As we approached the park, he gave us the disappointing news.

"Looks like The Gates feature is fogged in, where we normally fly in and land. Instead, we'll sneak around the side toward the Arrigetch Peaks. You'll still see the park, just not set foot in it. For consolation, you will get an extra hundred miles of countryside to fly over."

In Alaska, you take what you can get! I still got good, cloud-limiting pictures as we flew into the park over Lake Selby

and Walker Lake.

I'll just have to imagine how spectacular the snow-covered peaks must have been.

He continued flying, east I presume. Once another 90 minutes had passed, he landed on a developed airstrip. There, several vehicles awaited us. Ahh - part of their business is air-taxi. Seven new passengers boarded for transit to Kotzebue, and they off-loaded packages for the nearby native village.

The return flight took another two hours.

Again, it passed over intriguing scenery, winding rivers,

shrouded peaks, remote lakes. I asked about the colorful orange-yellow patches on the land; he said that was the first fall colors on the tundra.

When the dunes came up again, he did a high fly-by, providing a perspective on their immense range.

Parks #54 and 55 are now in the bag.

That night I returned to the Empress to another enthusiastic welcome as the ladies asked about my day's adventure. Tonight, Massamun Curry tickled my palate.

Forecasts called for active Northern Lights tonight, but the cloud cover hid any possible view from Kotzebue. With no other excitement on tap, I stepped out at 11:00 to snap sunset photos. With the sun low on the horizon, the rays illuminated a rainbow over the buildings overlooking the Chukchi Sea

that lasted until the sun sank into the cold waters.

Friday, 25 August

Now came my insurance day. Julian had warned me when booking to stay an extra day, in case weather cancelled my flights on Thursday. Not much to do in Kotzebue on a drizzly day, so I stored the duffel bag at the B&B and headed to the Cultural Center. As I reached the door, another couple stepped out. They took one look at me and asked, "So how many parks have you visited? We met someone yesterday that just finished his 63rd and final park." I must have that park-chaser look about me.

Time to tackle my to-do list. I'd arranged to give a talk Sunday at Glacier Bay Lodge, but government bureaucracy demanded that I download, print, sign, scan and return an approval form. Luckily, the head ranger at the Cultural Center offered to help by printing the form and scanning in my signed result.

Otherwise, I had hours to work on typing in blogs, and even found WiFi fast enough to post one. Michelle wandered by - she had scheduled two extra days to guarantee she'd see the parks - and we exchanged park stories for twenty minutes. She enjoyed my tale of trying (and failing?) to learn to SUP in the Virgin Islands. She also loved kayaking and also struggled at SUP. I picked her brain for info on American Samoa, the last remote park on my to-do list.

With my third Katmai blog posted - only took two weeks to get them online! - I packed up my laptop and moved into the center's theatre. I've seen few parks in my visits that did not have a film or two to introduce the park, but here they went overboard. When I asked to see the movie, the ranger pulled out a large notebook that must have had fliers for well over a hundred films - on park history, conservation science, even films from other parks across the country - ranging from 15 minutes to 90 minutes or more. I chose 40 minutes' worth of films, on the western Arctic parks and on Glacier Bay, along with catching the end of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge film already showing.

Back at Sunny Willow, I reclaimed my duffel bag and had Joe (the host) drive me three blocks back to the Alaska Air hangar with the non-operational restrooms. Now it's back to Anchorage then on to Glacier Bay!

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