04-Aug-2003 -- I had never heard of this project before seeing a June article in the Memphis TN Commercial Appeal by Steve Chawkins of the LA Times. By then I was heavy into planning this year's phase of my own personal quest to visit all 387 units of the USA National Park System, a "life list" that at the start of the summer had sixteen parks to go. Eleven of these were in Alaska, which I quickly discovered was America's "Last Frontier" for unvisited confluences. As I wandered around the state for two weeks checking off parks, would there be any place with a confluence nearby? After "whistle stop" visits at Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, and Noatak National Preserve, my goal was to fly from Kotzebue to the Great Sand Dunes in America's least visited National Park, the 1.7 million acre Kobuk Valley NP. The 25 square mile dunes, the largest active dune field in the arctic latitudes, looked like a great place to camp for a few days; and there tantalizingly close, three miles southwest of the edge of the Great Dunes lay an unvisited confluence. The topo map showed much of this distance in white and I envisioned a stroll through ankle-deep grasses. Obviously, if you could just get to Kobuk Valley, the rest would be a piece of cake!
A layer of clouds covered all of Northwest Alaska when we touched down in Kotzebue on Saturday afternoon, August 2nd. Quick visits to my parks # 373, 374, and 375 went off as planned. Then the ceiling dropped and we (my oldest son Stephen and wife Cynthia) were weathered in overnight at the OTZ airport. However, by midday on Sunday, the sky was clearing, and trusting our fate to the intrepid Northwestern Aviation pilot, we headed 100 miles east for a flawless landing on the spectacular dunes.
Chomping at the bit to do some serious GPS'ing, we set up camp, ate a quick lunch, and headed out across a series of 80 to 100 foot tall ridges of sand. [Picture 7 shows wolf tracks observed along the way.] Two and half miles of hiking brought us to the edge of the dunes, and after only a few hundred more yards, we found that the white areas on the map were probably cleared by fire just before the USGS prepared their maps, but had since then had more than enough time to grow back into an amazing tangle of vegetation. At the second alder-choked stream [Picture 8], we had run out of water, run low on energy, and put any hopes of a successful return to camp well past dinnertime. And from the evidence of large amounts of scat, we had obviously placed ourselves in the middle of PRIME BLACK BEAR HABITAT! [What time, we wondered, did the bears do dinner?] Taking my wife's wise counsel that perhaps we needed to be prepared for a little more than a "piece of cake", we renamed our effort a "preliminary expedition", and returned to camp to retool and resupply for an early morning start on Monday.
August 4th, we awoke to a shroud of fog, giving the dunes an other-worldly appearance. Undeterred, Steve and I packed a lunch, doubled our supply of water and DEET, left Cynthia at camp to direct a possible search party in the right direction, and resumed our assault on 67N 159W.
The edge of the dunes came 40 minutes sooner on the second try, and foregoing any attempt to use our topo map to orient an efficient level route, we slugged into the brush trusting only our GPS compass. We had also wisely added a low tech "Bear/Moose Early Warning Device" to announce our coming, as I steadily beat on the lid of a pot with a fork while Steve handled the GPS. Two additional alder-choked streams, much more thick brush, a good bit of up-and-down bushwhacking, an occasional stretch of freshly tracked moose trail heading in our general direction [was this good or bad?: easier to navigate, but who wanted the chance to bump into a surprised moose?], and several million dispatched mosquitoes later, we still had over a mile to go, when, low and behold, the landscape opened up into the loveliest meadow you can imagine [in fact, the exact vegetation I had imagined back home in Tennessee!]. We cruised to a spot where only 150 yards of entirely reasonable forest separated us from our goal [why, in the winter I would think a plane with skis could land that close!]. And just like that we were there. [In our excitement, we failed to take Picture #1 of the spot with no people in the immediate area! Picture 10 records the moment, Steve with the high tech GPS, me with the low tech B/M EWD].
Steve enjoyed the challenge of getting all zeroes on the end of the GPS lat/longs long enough to take a picture [#6], but said on the whole he felt as "is that all there is to this" as he thought he would. And I still haven't had the heart to tell him we "bagged" only a secondary point. I on the other hand felt elated, one with Columbus, Captain Cook, the polar explorers, and anyone else who has ever boldly gone where no man had gone before! Must be a generational thing. Maybe Steve would have been more inspired if we’d ended at one of the awesome views we'd passed along the way, rather than looking at boreal forest in four directions [Photos #1 West, #2 North, #3 East, and #4 South]. Oh, well, even in a nationally significant resource like Kobuk Valley National Park, not every single vantage point can have above average scenery. And certainly, this point was more rewarding than some of those we had flown over on the way in the Chukchi Sea or Hotham Inlet. Closer to Kotzebue (populaton 3300), they should be a (relative) piece of cake to reach by snowmobile in the dead of winter. However, 67N 159W will always be a primary confluence to me.
The return to camp was quicker than the trip out, and we made the 12.6-mile roundtrip in just a little over seven hours. Cynthia was relieved [if, like Steve, not quite understanding the appeal of it all – maybe it’s a middle age crisis thing]. OK, so now it’s on to the "next great challenge". I still have to visit the National Park of American Samoa.
If I’m successful in patenting my Bear/Moose Early Warning Device, I’ll donate the proceeds to this web site. Hey, it worked for me....