Stuck in the mud: a changing Arctic

(This blog is taken from the Due North Alaska Facebook group where it was posted on July 13, 2017)

This is a very different update to the one we had hoped to provide.

We are safely in Utqiagvik / Barrow – where we had aimed to reach – but we’re not here by kayaking as planned.

Despite making great progress along the Arctic coast, over the last few days of paddling through the historical inland route, we’ve witnessed some very real and hugely significant changes to the dynamics of the landscape up here.

Changes that don’t appear on recent satellite imagery, certainly aren’t on paper topographic maps and weren’t known by anyone whose kind advice we sought for this remote section of the expedition.

In this wilderness we found dry lake beds where once stood huge swathes of water, shallow waters – inches deep – full of mush in those that weren’t fully dried up yet, and streams that once flowed suddenly stopping – with the bow of our kayak running into grass or sand instead. The pictures tell their own tale.

Birds standing in the shallow water in the middle of ‘lakes’ miles wide seemed to be taunting us. With a deep layer of mud just below the surface and the overpowering stench of escaping methane gas – we tried over and over to drag and slog our way through, yet kept getting stuck – with not even enough water present to drag an empty kayak through.

So when we reached what would be the final lake (which we had named ‘just one more lake’) of our expedition at 5am, after 30 hours of hauling and portaging 100kg of gear over tundra, dry lake beds and mush – only to find its water level as low as the rest with increasingly dangerous waist-deep sludge, we knew we could not continue. We camped up.

As well as being exhausted and disappointed, we felt very sad – as much in knowing this would be the end of our journey as for these lakes and the landscape that felt so unwell.

And so this historical Inupiat trading route, last taken decades ago, is certainly no longer possible by kayak and with it goes a little bit of history.

It’s true that with advances in technology and progress in exploration, many routes have opened up – much more accessible than they once were. But here, in the North at least – as with expeditions to the North Pole – some are becoming more impossible.

We wanted to see for ourselves and record evidence of a changing Arctic. Well, we’ve seen it and struggled through it and it’s engrained in our drysuits, our boots and our memories.

We’ll be posting videos and photos and will be talking about all we’ve seen and heard on this trip for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, around Scotland, and at the Dundee Mountain Film Festival when we get back.

It’s been more of a journey than we could have ever anticipated.

We hope you’ve found and continue to find it of interest.

Thank you all so much for following Due North: Alaska.

Luke and Hazel

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