5.16.2008

groupthink

This Monday, I drove a group of new and returning Little Tour Company guides north to Coldfoot for a three-day training seminar to kick off the season. The three hundred mile drive from Fairbanks to Coldfoot is mostly on the notorious Dalton Highway, or Haul Road, the four hundred twenty five mile industrial road - mostly dirt - built in the early seventies to service the north slope oil fields and the Alaska Pipeline. The Haul Road has a nasty reputation for chewing up private vehicles and spitting them out with blown transmissions, destroyed tires, lines, brakes and windshields. Although the road is much improved from its early one-lane-dirt iteration, it is still mostly gravel and mostly used by semi's carry supplies at top speed to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

[haul road & pipeline, atigun valley]
The Haul Road passes through the Yukon-Tanana Uplands, over the Mighty Yukon herself, through the northern most Boreal Forest in the world, out onto beautiful Tundra at the headwaters of the Kanuti River, across the Arctic Circle, over the Brooks Range (Coldfoot and the village of Wiseman are nestled in the southern foothills, and are the only permanent settlements on the road) and out onto the Arctic Coastal Plain that Caribou, Muskoxen and Polarbears call home. It is a spectacular, wild wilderness road, with oil pipeline an ever-present reminder of what lies at the end, and why one is able to travel this land by vehicle at all.

[a young male caribou trotting the Haul Road]
It is an awesome trip, and that is why we bring a few brave guests (less than 1% of Alaska's one and a half million annual summer tourists make the trek) north to cross the Arctic Circle. Even fewer brave the three day trip to the Arctic Ocean to take a frigid dip.

Little Tour Co. exclusively hires Alaskan residents as guides, and most have lived the majority of their lives in the North. Even though we are guiding a road-based trip with LTC, we have all spent extensive time in the wilderness camping, hiking, floating or hunting, and have a great respect for the special dangers and challenges this environment presents. But sometimes we still do incredibly stupid things.

On the way south, after three days of trainings and not much sleep, we arrived back at the Yukon River bridge. I had watched the year's ice go out the Saturday before with my guests (who had no idea how excited I was to witness this spectacular event by chance on a tour!) and the river's shores were now covered in jumble ice, rafts of the five-to-eight foot thick river ice that jam against each other on shore in a chaos of angles that spread from thirty to fifty feet into the strong current. We got out to stretch our legs and stand by the river.
[jumble ice on the Yukon]
As we walked up to the chaos of ice, I thought 'Wow. That looks really dangerous. I bet these boys will walk right out on it.'

Sure enough, the youngest of the new male guides immediately began scrambling over the ice to the edge of the water. He is no stranger to Alaska, to her rivers or her ice. He was born here, and he has hunted Caribou in the wilderness of the north slope back country since he was old enough to carry a rifle.
[Daniel, making the first move]
Daniel got to the edge as we hung back, most of us standing on chunks of ice firmly sitting on the dirt of the boat ramp. "Hey! This is awesome! You can feel the whole thing bobbing in the current," he jumped up and down a few times. "Ice is the strongest material on earth!" He threw an exuberant whoop into the river wind.

Indeed, you can land a fully loaded cargo plane on just five feet of ice-thickness. They do it every day in Antarctica.

I scrambled onto the next raft of ice.

"Check this out! You can see chunks melting off the bottom and bobbing out from underneath."

He was on the edge now, peering over into the fast current. The Yukon is the fifth largest river-by-volume in the world, and the River Bridge is perched at one of its narrowest points just before entering Rampart Canyon.

I looked around me. Five other guides, with close to a combined half-century of experience in Alaska's wildlands, were inching their way towards him, intrigued. I jumped across to the next chunk of ice.
[groupthink in action]
My foot sank through a patch of rotten ice. I threw myself onto a larger sheet, and saw the little slivers disappear into the rushing current below. A small voice somewhere deep in my brain whispered, "Wow. This is a really, really bad idea." I stood up, tested my footing, and stepped around the gaping hole towards the river.

When I was about twenty feet from the edge, I turned to ask another Alaskan-born guide a question about ice. I said, "I know what overflow is, but up in the Brooks you were talking about ..."

"Hey! Check it out! It's starting to fall in!" I stopped mid-sentence and looked over my shoulder. Before my head made it around, Daniel continued, "Oh, shit!" as behind him the entire shelf he was standing on began collapsing into the river. I have never had adrenaline hit my system faster. I began scrambling towards shore, looking over my shoulder every few steps as the ice continued to cave into the current. Everyone sprinted, scrambled and fell towards solid ice. The shelf continued to collapse at our heels like a bridge in an Indiana Jones movie.

[in the second ice photograph, daniel is standing where the water starts in this image.]
I tripped and fell to my knees on a small block, nearly crushing my camera under me. Looking down, I saw dirt beneath the ice. I took a breath a looked around. Daniel had managed to pass all of us, and was standing on the boat ramp sucking in oxygen and staring at the river where we had all been standing less than a minute before.

2 comments:

p. said...

Glad you're back. Loved the 911-101 entry too.

.m. said...

Thanks! It's good to be back. I'm hoping you will be, too, after your crazy-June-stuff.