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The Last Frontier: Gates of the Arctic National Park - Part 2 of 3

The third day of our trip we ventured up into the valley directly below The Maidens. East and West Maiden are massive granite slabs that shoot up from the valley floor and tower over the creek below. They are so massive that from base camp they looked as if they were a short leisurely hike away but it took us half an hour just to reach their base.

Since we had all day to explore the area one of my fellow group members and I decided that we would scramble up a large rock pile near the end of the valley. From below, this rock pile looked like it flattened out under a cirque and had a waterfall streaming down from it. It looked like the perfect place for a lake to form and if such a lake existed we were determined to see it. So we climbed and climbed and climbed and each time we made it over a crest of rocks we were just presented with yet another pile of rocks. There was no lake in sight. Feeling defeated, we turned around and headed back down and sat at the shores of the creek just watching the clouds pass over the mountaintops, a perfectly fine alternative to the non-existent alpine lake.

The fourth day was the day I was looking forward to most, it was the day we were going to explore Aquarius Valley. In my research of Gates of the Arctic, Aquarius Valley popped up multiple times. And this valley most definitely had lakes, three of them in fact, in differing shades of glacial blue. Going to bed the night before I was anxious the weather would turn. Besides the first night of rain we had clear, blue skies and not a drop of rain, a streak of luck, our guide told us, that would soon run out in typical Alaska-fashion. But we awoke on the fourth day to more sunny weather. My disposition matched the sky and I was eager to get going! 

We left basecamp early, crossed the stream, and immediately began climbing a steep valley wall. Eventually it leveled out and we were presented with a large boulder field. This day would turn out to be almost entirely boulder walking. The three tarns in Aquarius Valley are completely surrounded by boulders that tumbled down from the mountain faces surrounding them. In fact while we were hiking we heard a few rocks fall, a disconcerting event to witness as you are hiking among nothing but rocks for miles.

By late morning we found ourselves on the shore of a beautiful aquamarine tarn. The water was so calm it looked like a mirror perfectly reflecting the mountains surrounding it. We decided it was a prime spot to stop for lunch. We sat on the rocky shore of the tarn and admired the scene. So far we had only seen a handful of other groups on our journey so we had all these idyllic locations to ourselves, which was a treat. If this park were located in the lower 48 we would likely be sharing the shoreline with countless others. I was grateful we were in the heart of Alaska. 

After we ate we continued on. The first tarn was the largest and most difficult to circumvent. The other side wasn't far away distance-wise but the going was tricky. We had to carefully consider where to put our feet down with each step and be ready to catch ourselves if the rock we decided to step on was loose. It was not only physically exhausting it was mentally taxing as well. Finally, we reached the second tarn. It was another brilliant shade of glacial blue. We paused to take a few photos and then pushed on. The third tarn was my favorite. It sat beneath jagged mountain peaks and sparkled like a diamond in the bright sun. 

The rest of the group took another break here but I decided to scramble to the other side of the tarn to get a less obstructed view of the Arrigetch Peaks and see the tarns lined up in a row. I was able to scramble high enough to see two of the tarns but the second remained hidden. I know I could have gotten higher but I didn’t want to hold up the group so I retraced my steps back to the lakeshore and we all headed back to camp. Later we met a group who told us if I had continued up the rock pile I would have seen a glacier and all three tarns lined up in a row. The fact that I was so close and missed out on that view is still gnawing at me.

Our fifth day and our final day at basecamp we followed the Arrigetch Creek up through a lush valley. We again scored with a beautiful day and again we spent a majority of the day traversing precarious boulders. We continued to follow the river until we reached a stopping place with a sweeping view of Ariel Peak, Caliban, and Xanadu. We ate lunch and spent the afternoon at that spot talking about life and beautiful moments. Finally, we made our way back to base camp.

Our time in the Arrigetch region went so fast. The fact that we were there for three whole days seemed preposterous, surely the trip couldn't be going by that fast! I was also not looking forward to the hike back down. Our guide gave us the option to hike back down in one or two days, but warned us that no matter what our decision was we were going to have one extremely long day ahead of us. If we chose to hike down in two days we would once again camp at the Terraces and then head back down to Circle Lake. Then we would set up the packrafting gear and paddle for the remainder of the second day. Our group was leaning towards hiking all the way from the Arrigetch Peaks back to Circle Lake in one day. I also wanted to finish the hike that way but was nervous how my body would hold up. The boulders were really doing a number on my ankles and I was worried what another full day of bushwhacking would do to them. I popped a few ibuprofen and hoped I would hold up. 

The sixth day turned out to be the end of our fair-weather streak. We knew we were destined for a rainy day sooner or later and here it was to accompany us all the way back down to Circle Lake. We packed up, put on our rain gear and began the hike down in silence. Our guide kept a breakneck pace. I hiked behind her and trying to keep up with her was exhausting. She looked so agile and swift muscling her way through the brush and I felt like I was more falling down the mountain than hiking down it. I lost track at about 10 tumbles, but this day was full of falls for me. The water made the trail slick and that coupled with the uneven terrain made for a difficult hike. 

Our guide’s quick pace allowed us to reach The Terraces in just five hours. We ate lunch in silence as cold rain fell on our hoods and trickled down our jacket sleeves. The guide asked us if we would like to continue on or camp there. It was a unanimous “continue on”. We all felt as if we had already endured so much pain we might as well get it over with. I regretted this decision about a half an hour later when we were back in the tussocks and I kept misjudging what was solid ground and what was grass. The unfortunate thing about this region is that there are very few suitable places to camp for one tent, let alone, four. Now we had no choice but to continue on to what we dubbed the “Spruce Camp”, which was an open flat expanse of boreal forest floor under some spruce trees we passed on our first hike. It was the perfect spot and we were determined to make it there. As we hiked the skies cleared up and we were graced with a view of the sun for the first time all day. We took another break and just let the sun wash over us. 

Finally we made it to Spruce Camp and set up our tents. We then ventured over to a creek about one hundred yards away and set up a kitchen and prepared dinner. At this point I was running out of food options. I had one dehydrated dinner left (mac ’n cheese) but I was saving that for the last night so I was left eating a tuna tortilla, a meal that sounded much more appealing when I was shoving it into my bear canister in the comfort of my home and congratulating myself for thinking of such a compact but “delicious” meal. I shoveled the tortilla into my mouth and picked a handful of M&M’s out of my trail mix for dessert and retired to my tent. This was the first night I slept the entirety without waking up. I was exhausted. 

The next morning we set out for Circle Lake. By this point my ankles were screaming with every step I took. Falling off the tussocks the previous day caused my ankles to turn at uncomfortable angles, often. Thankfully the hike to Circle Lake only took fifteen minutes. The hiking portion of the trip was over. My legs had done their job, it was now my upper body’s turn!