Kristin Gates struggled to pull her paddle through the breaking waves. For three days and two nights she’d paddled, stopping only for the bathroom. She ate very little.
Her arms felt like rubber bands that had been stretched and contracted too much. Her eyes were sore and dry from lack of sleep. Her feet ached. Her stomach growled.
But there was another hunger inside this 26-year-old adventurer; a burning desire to complete a thousand-mile journey through one of the world’s most pristine, and unforgiving, landscapes. Behind her, a cascading mountain range scarred the skyline. A few miles ahead was Kotzebue, Alaska.
She was about to become the first woman to hike the Brooks Range alone. While this fact was not her fuel, it was reality.
The winds were in her favor, and helped push her across the last stretch of the Hotham Inlet. White caps peaked around her as she paddled the three miles between peninsulas. Her tiny, specialized pack raft was all that kept her and her gear from the icy waters that sloshed below.
She stopped on the second peninsula, only four miles to Kotzebue, a town of about 3,200 people that’s known as the gateway to the arctic. While small by American standards, Kotz, as the locals know it, is the largest city in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough.
Exhausted but excited, Gates expected the final stretch to be somewhat easy, given there was land near her to protect her from any winds.
“Oh, how I was wrong,” Gates wrote in her journal.
• • •
Growing up in Darien and Greenwich, Gates became hooked on hiking early, inheriting her love of the outdoors from her father. In college, she hiked the Appalachian Trail, the 2,200-mile wilderness wonderland that runs from Maine to Georgia.
From there, her wanderlust intensified. She’s explored the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail, among others. To “warm up” for her Alaska hike — which had no marked trails and required accurate mapping skills and food dropped off by bush pilots — she hiked the Grand Enchantment Trail, a 730-mile stretch that runs from Phoenix, Ariz., to Albuquerque, N.M.
“That helped toughen up my feet,” Gates said, matter-of-factly. “I knew [the Brooks Range] was going to be the hardest trip I’ve ever done.”
The Brooks Range adventure, however, would be the hike to surpass all hikes, on many levels. There is no cell phone service and no marked trails. There are few towns. The landscape is arguably some of the most spectacular in the world. The wildlife very much wild. And a hiker can go weeks at a time without seeing another human being.
“The biggest challenge was I was by myself,” she said, adding that she tried to find partners for the hike but nobody was “crazy enough” to join her.
How did she keep her mind occupied during these prolonged periods of solitude?
“I had some luxury items,” Gates said. Among them were an iPod with music and books on tape. She listened to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” three times. She also read “Hayduke Lives!” by Edward Abbey, one of her favorites.
The story, which was published posthumously, is the sequel to “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, Abbey’s influential book that explored the use of sabotage to protest environmentally damaging activities.
Gates also had a satellite phone, which was her only connection to the outside world. A portable solar panel was her only source of electricity. The “sat phone” kept her parents from being too worried about her, and also helped her locate a food cache that a bush pilot had dropped five miles from its target.
She also killed time listening to comedy podcasts, and memorized a poem called “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service, who was known as the Bard of the Yukon.
“That poem was my heartbeat during this hike,” she wrote.
An English major in college, Gates also kept a journal, chronicling her adventures every step of the way.
One morning, she rose at 7 a.m. — an hour later than usual — and descended down a small knoll and continued hiking along the river. Wolf tracks dotted the riverbank, heading the same direction as her.
Suddenly the wolf pack appeared ahead of her. Some of them darted into a patch of willow trees. Most wolves, like other wild animals, are afraid of human beings. She caught a glimpse of their red and silver coats before they disappeared into the forest.
She wondered why they would be heading back, when she had seen them walking in the opposite direction the day before, as evidenced by their tracks.
It wasn’t long before she realized why.
She turned the corner and there was a grizzly bear devouring a caribou carcass.
“I hiked up the hill and WAY around that bear,” Gates wrote in her journal. “It saw me but stayed with its meal.”
Most of a bear’s diet is vegetation — some say as much as 90% of what they eat consists of berries, nuts and other non-meat products. Bears do, however, have the capacity to take down any other animals in the woods. To prevent from becoming a meal herself, Gates kept an air horn and bear spray with her to ward off the omnivores if they got too curious.
• • •
Alaska called Gates after she graduated from Colby College. She was working at Eastern Mountain Sports in Scarsdale, N.Y., when she found a listing on CoolWorks.com for a job with the Northern Alaska Tour Company as a rafting guide. She moved up there for the job in April, working the entire summer. That’s when Alaska stole her heart, she said.
She ended up staying through the winter — 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The temperature dropped to 70 below while she was there.
“The winters — they’re beautiful,” she said. “They’re hard, but the Northern Lights are out… Surviving it was an experience.”
One thing that Gates enjoyed showing visitors is what happens when you throw boiling water into air that is at least 40 below. The water freezes and hisses into a mist before falling to the ground in tiny ice clusters.
She then began working for an Iditarod dog musher, who sparked her interest in possibly pursuing that as a long-term career, she said.
“Dog mushing would be a really great way to see the arctic,” she said.
She first lived in Coldfoot, a town in the northern half of Alaska, with a population of 10. The town is sometimes featured on the reality show “Ice Road Truckers”, and it sits on the southern edge of the Brooks Range.
“I learned a lot about [the range] from the locals in Wiseman,” she said, referencing a town where 13 people live. In that part of Alaska, known as the Unorganized Borough, government is limited to tribal counsels in some places and law enforcement is often provided by the state or the indigenous people. This area consists of more than half of Alaska’s land area, which is larger than any other U.S. state.
As she learned more about that Brooks Range, it became clear that this place would be her next adventure.
Using maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, Gates planned her route. She also secured several sponsors who provided her with various gear: Tarptent by Henry Shire provided her abode; Patagonia supplied her clothes; and Feathered Friends gave her a sleeping bag and Down jacket.
She kicked off at the Canadian border — where the Yukon meets the Last Frontier. She also logged her travels on Twitter and through her blog. In a post she wrote about her first day, she recalled being dropped off in a Cessna as an assortment of emotions flooded her mind.
“Being alone like that at the start of such an impossible trip, with 1,000 miles of hiking and pack-rafting between me and the Chukchi Sea,” she wrote. “One thousand miles of trail-less wilderness to cross Alaska with only the caribou and wolves to cry out to if I got myself in trouble.”
“I watched [the pilot] take off, swoop around and head west until he was no more than a speck,” she continued. “I tried to dismiss the thought, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he would be the last person I would ever see.”
• • •
Gates gazed across an expanse of wilderness that took her breath away. The 10-day journey to Ambler offered her views that surpassed any other on her journey.
“It really blew me away,” she said. “You could see for miles and miles.”
In Ambler, she stayed with a family who took her fishing on the Kobuk River, which is famous for its shee fishing.
“The locals survive on fish,” she said. “So many people live off the land.” The people she met along the way were always kind and generous, she recalled. One time a woman she’d never met invited her in for homemade rhubarb pie.
From Ambler, it was down the Kobuk River to Kiana, population 361. Along the way she stopped to eat wild blueberries and enjoyed the sand dunes that flank the river at certain sections.
This was her last stop before the 100-mile trek to Kotzebue, her final destination.
“The wildlife was incredible,” she remembered. During the summer, the caribou migrate across the state, and Gates watched them for the first 10 days of her trip before their paths parted.
The final push to Kotzebue, however, required focus. She needed to cross a four-mile stretch of open water in a small pack raft, then hug a peninsula as she entered the Chukshi Sea, where ferocious headwinds threatened to stop her in her tracks.
As she paused on the second peninsula, after three days and two nights of paddling, with a few naps for rest and granola bars and lentils for energy, she could see Kotzebue four miles away.
“I thought it would be easy and quick and I would be in Kotzebue in no time,” she wrote in her journal. “Oh, how wrong I was.”
One minute later she was pummeled by headwinds.
“I couldn’t even make an inch of progress without selling my soul,” she wrote.
She went to shore, where there was a small sliver of beach, and walked until there was no beach. She re-inflated her raft, and paddled more.
“The whole ordeal was excruciating,” she recalled. “Sometimes I felt as if I were making no progress at all. Sometimes I felt as if I were going to have to give up and let the wind push me back where I’d come from. I cried, I died, I screamed, I asked everything of my body. Everything.”
Slowly she made progress. She made it to an island, and passed a group of sled dogs that remained quiet as they watched her cross. As soon as she set foot back in the water, they erupted into a barking frenzy. It was if they knew the pain she was in, she remembered, as their barking reminded her of how sled dogs barked when one of their own was caught in a chain, struggling for its breath.
By the time she reached the outskirts of the city, she said she felt 170 years old. She walked through a thigh-deep bog to reach the road that led to her zenith. She rested, called her parents, then made her way into town.
She made it.
“I really hope people will work to protect it there,” she said, adding that her accomplishment might create some awareness.
Mineral companies NovaGold and NANA Regional Corp. of Kotzebue have expressed interest in building a road through the Brooks Range to mine for minerals in the area. Gates is concerned that this road would make it easier for hunters and fishermen to gain access to the land where they could have a negative impact on the wildlife. Locals rely on fish and game for survival, and Gates said this road could harm their ability to support themselves.
The Brooks Range Council has expressed concern of “permanent water contamination” should the mine be opened and the road built.
“We cannot keep cutting and halving and quartering the last great wilderness in our country,” she said. “Wilderness, especially now that this place is all that is left, is a valuable resource in itself.”
“You feel like you’re the only person who’s been there,” she said. “I really hope people find out about it and want to protect it.”
Originally published in The Darien Times.