By Cindy Hunt- Ritzman,
I’ve always wondered why my husband Dan loves guiding for Arctic Wild. Every year since I’ve known him, he usually disappears for a few weeks in Alaska, returning sunburned, disheveled, yet also happy and more ‘centered’.
This year I had the opportunity to travel with him, on a trip with 4 other people canoeing the Kokolik river.
The first time I truly realized this trip was special was when it took two bush plane pick-up and landings to get there and back. I could see thousands of caribou during the flights. I also saw herds of muskox and watched a grizzly bear chase something, stumble and somersault! Before I knew it, our pilot Dirk was landing the plane next to the Kokolik river. I climbed off, helped unload the baggage and watched the plane fly away, leaving us far from civilization.
Photos really don’t do this place justice. I really hadn’t appreciated how far and wide and north Alaska is. The terrain and wide skies are beautiful. Even the clouds seem bigger here. The scenery was inspiring. After we set up camp, I followed some muddy caribou tracks to the river and found a place to sit, beginning a short series of trip sketches.
During our trip, we rowed over 60 miles through some varied landscapes. Initially we’d hoped to see the migrating caribou. On the very first day we began encountering animals I didn’t even think I’d have a chance to see.
Over the duration of the trip, we saw thousands of caribou (some with babies), some very close. Also 3 grizzlies, a beautiful white/tan wolf, 3 wolverines (I think it was a female and her 2 young), herds of muskoxen, 2 foxes, loads of fat marmots and arctic squirrels. Terrific birding- we saw and heard many ptarmigan, sandpipers, plovers, gulls, ruddy turnstones, harlequin ducks, perigrine, gyrfalcons, rough-legged hawks, gold eagles, merlins, canada geese and more.
There were no real trees. Many bushes, but mostly grass and flowers– food for caribou. The wildflowers were stunning.
Dan, as the guide, did the cooking and coffee making for us. No lower-48 restaurant has the view we enjoyed every night! H also brought a scope, and pointed out other views for us to see. He was quite busy, and obviously enjoying himself. I couldn’t hog him all to myself. After dinner the group would sip cider, coffee or tea and talk about what we’d seen during the day. We had an fun group of people with lively discussions, especially regarding trying to identify the bird songs we heard.
How was the weather? A little bipolar. Some days, warm in the upper 60’s turning quickly to cool and stormy. Hail, thunderstorms and wind. Rainbows, double and triple rainbows, sunny blue skies. Extremely beautiful clouds, stormclouds or white fluffy clouds.
You can hopefully see from my sketches the basic camp that was set up– a cook tent, washing area and another tent where we could huddle inside if it was raining. Everyone set up their personal tents far away from the cook tent, and from each other. I was fascinated by the skies and textures of the rocks, flowers and grasses.
Unfortunately, despite the long sunny days, the trip seemed to end quickly. We canoed down the river one last time, unloaded our gear and waited for the plane to return us to Fairbanks.
I’m glad I was able to take the trip, and feel fortunate to have seen the wild in the wild. Who knows how long this piece of country will remain as it is? One day I hope to bring my son, so he’ll be able to view this beauty for himself.