Black Peak

If Sourdough summit through Stetattle Ridge is where trails go to die, then Black Peak is where trails are born.

— an observation comparing trail experiences between Stetattle Ridge and the approach to Black Peak.
Lewis Lake with Black Peak in the distance

Lots of information on this peak exists, check out only a few:

From all of the hikes/peaks I’ve explored this summer, this one is the most straight forward. And, even for that, I have to say that the trail spur off the Heather/Maple Pass main trail leading out to Black Peak can be easily missed. In fact, because I had to do this trail twice, thwarted on my initial summit attempt via the NorthEast ridge due to a pesky knee issue, I missed the spur both times! Even looking for the turn, I passed it by a slight margin on the 2nd summit attempt hike. So! Look for the sign saying Heather Pass one way and Maple Pass the other. The spur is literally right there. A smaller, leaner looking trail off on your right. If you pass it and notice a beautiful meadow with a trail running across far below, then you have gone too far. Go back because you need to be on that trail. 🙂

With that said, it’s interesting how trails just appear, everywhere, throughout the hike. This makes route finding a little tricky. Some trails lead to the same points, but some take you on a wandering adventure. Be mindful of your path. So long as you see the Peak, how can you go wrong? Talus field or meadow trail, choose your own adventure. I imagine with snow, the adventure choosing becomes less so as trekking along snow can be faster than talus hopping.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any beta or insight into how the NE ridge goes because I had to bail due to a knee issue. I did go back and do the standard SE ridge, which is not as exciting as what I had originally had in mind, but given the situation, was much more reasonable in the event I had to bail mid-ridgeline. Some stats follow but I don’t really have anything new to add to the logistics of this thing. Two guys passed us on their way down who had done the NE ridge and said they followed the left most line to gain the ridge, following a moat to bypass the glacier. The rest of this post is regarding my experience of both attempts.

My Stats

My Times

  • 1st attempt total elapsed time to Wing Lake (super slow due to knee issue): 5:04:06
  • 2nd attempt total elapsed time to summit: 4:20:52 (with photo stops along the way, particularly once we cusped the saddle onto the ridge); 6.82 miles
    • Total elapsed time to Wing Lake: 2:24:08 (snapped after taking a bunch of pics); 5.34 miles
    • Total elapsed time to saddle, start of SE ridge: 3:28:49 (includes reducing weight of pack to move more quickly), 6.30 miles
  • 2nd attempt total elapsed return time: 3:39:27 (knee held up, though marginally by the end)
  • Total elapsed car-to-car: 10:44 am start (see below for the delay story), 6:45 return to the car – 8 hours elapsed time

Summit Attempt #1

Looking down at Alice Lake

On my first summit attempt, the plan was to do the NE ridge, which goes at 5.7 which starts above a glacier, has some scree section before you are on the ridge proper, knife-edge ridge traversing to keep it spicy, and some actual climbing that adds to the overall adventure. I was excited to be adventuring with a recently friended alpinist. I was hoping by combining my climbing and outdoor hiking adventures I could really open up some things for myself. It’s times like these when I am injured for sport climbing that I look for alternative ways to stay engaged and motivated despite injuries, which I’ve been navigating since February of this year.

Find Clint, some perspective for scale. Black Peak in the distance.

I already know that the mountains are for real so I treat them with respect and haven’t thrown myself at something that by the look of the grade would seem so trivial. There are elements to this style of climbing that I want to be sure I dial in so I am not a risk to myself or my partners. Excited to tackle this ridge, it was disheartening to find myself having to make the difficult decision to turn around and bail. My knee was in such bad shape but I kept pushing it, trying to make it to Wing Lake and reassess. We had plenty of time, but I was so slow that I worried that it still wouldn’t be enough.

After lunch and a lot of ibuprofen, I tested the knee by hiking lightly around the camping areas surrounding Wing Lake. There were a lot of tents, people we passed coming down after camping, as well as ultra runners. The weather was beautiful and a perfect day to be out so no wonder there were so many people up here. Still, I knew if I wanted to do this ridge and if something were to happen to me (because of my knee), or my knee would get any worse, that I was creating a huge risk for myself and my climbing partner. The only way off the ridge once you gain it, is up! Could I put ourselves into this type of situation? And for what? Maybe we would be ok, maybe not. Was it worth the risk?

So close. Sitting just under the approach at Wing Lake

No.

Having to break the news to my friend was really hard. I felt that I’d let him down, in fact I felt that way the entire weekend. Very little of what he had hoped to achieve came about, because of me. This was not a position I enjoyed being in. I really wanted to crush some routes and have a good time, like we’d had on other adventures, but it just wasn’t happening.

The Friday before Black Peak, I stumbled on some news that threw me into an unusual state that I almost didn’t even meet up for the weekend plans. A childhood friend died from Covid (the delta variant) and I caught the news on Facebook as I was perusing before showering, packing, then heading north. At first, I was in disbelief. I couldn’t register that this was the same person. He was like a big brother to me back in the day and that’s how I’ll always remember him.

Wing Lake

Something about this situation, maybe being caught by surprise, caused another anxiety attack of sorts. I don’t know why I started having these and I wasn’t sure when they would stop happening. The tears were falling, my chest was tight, and I couldn’t breathe. I was immobilized and worse, I had no one I could call who could just come over and be with me in this state. I wasn’t sure I could even move, let alone set about the remaining tasks to get on with the weekend. I contacted my friend and filled him in as best I could, warning that I might not make the meetup or go climbing this weekend. These experiences were all new to me and I had no idea how to manage them, let alone how long they would last. My friend was great, and I felt embarrassed sharing the experience I was having. I didn’t want him to worry, though he was prepared to drive down and sit with me, if I needed it. I’m not someone who typically needs this kind of support or care (let alone has ever had it before!) that it seemed silly for him to do that. I should just get moving.

I told him I’ll try to shower and reassess. If I can shower, then I’ll see if I can pack. And, if I can pack, then I’ll see if I can drive. I reached out to my other trusted friend who had been an anchor for me during this unsettling period, but he was indisposed (doing the thru-hike in the enchantments), which meant I was on my own to get through this.

Crystal Clear Waters

I never imagined how debilitating this experience could be until I was in it.

I managed to successfully shower. That was a good sign. I was breathing again but still not calmly. I finished packing, it was food anyway so it was easy to finish. I focused on the next step. I mean, if I didn’t get out of there, what would I do? Allow myself to get swallowed by this? No way! I needed to get out and the mountains were the best place for me. My friend understood this. After loading the van, I wrote him to say I was on my way. He cautioned me, reminding me that he could just come down here to me. I said no way. We are going into the mountains, as planned, and proceeded to drive north.

By the time I made it north, I was in a much different place — more collected. Unfortunately, I believe this experience impacted my ability to do much that weekend. Emotional distress/stress, as I’ve learned through these experiences lately, really impact my ability to do the things I’m used to doing. I have to dramatically scale things back and it takes a lot more energy and focus to participate in life. My friend understood this and didn’t press me to do more than I could do. I was very appreciative of this though I still feel like I let him down. He had such ambitions and I’m totally capable of doing these things with him. To have to bail before the ridge, to be so slow, to have to admit that I can’t continue, further dampened my already low spirits.

A very large mushroom

Instead of letting it get to him, he suggested we go back down, leisurely, being mindful of the knee and just enjoy being out on a beautiful day. He further suggested we should consider collecting our food and heading out for a picnic in a meadow he enjoys nearby. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to end the otherwise compromised weekend. We lounged until sunset, which wasn’t too long after we had descended from the trail but long enough to enjoy the experience. Black Peak and the NE ridge would have to wait for another day, which I promised I would attempt with him whenever another opportunity arose.

Summit Attempt #2

On the ridge

In the meantime, I had the summit in mind and wanted to get in one last, long, hike before leaving Seattle. There was only one opportunity left and my original Black Peak partner couldn’t join so I made plans with my other adventure buddy. We wouldn’t be doing the NE ridge. With this partner we’d go up the popular SE ridge. No ropes, ice axes, or other shenanigans to contend with, which also meant a lighter pack that could be better for my knee.

Everything about this attempt was straightforward. My knee held up though gave signs of trouble throughout the descent from the ridge, which was worrisome. Also, and unexpectedly, rain came in and made navigating wet rock a little more adventurous than it probably would be otherwise. Because of the rain, we did not scramble the last stretch to reach the very top of the peak. We stood underneath it and I marveled at the NE ridgeline in front of me. Woa! I can’t wait to go back for that!

Another look at Alice Lake with fall colors starting to pop

One significant difference in this attempt, other than my knee and emotional state, was the lack of people. No one was camping up at Wing Lake and we saw no one on the trail up to the Peak until we were nearing the saddle to the ridge. A man was coming down just then. And, on our way back to the main trail from the scree descent, we saw a man had pitched a tent in the camping zone off Wing Lake. That was it! It was awesome!

No masses of people to contend with on the ridge because there are points that narrow, making passing people going up or down, tricky and potentially dangerous. Pristine views the entire way and this feeling of truly being in the wilderness, enjoying everything, including the rain.

Looking up at Black Peak from along the trail

Oh yeah, rain. The forecast looked better than it played out and as luck would have it, the weather system hit us just as we were heading up the ridge. We could see it in the distance, coming our way. We kept going upward, all the same, carefully scaling wet rock. If it had rained any harder, we would have hunkered down and waited it out. If it had rained for an extended period, we would have carefully retreated. The upside to the rain was that the slick, sandy bits we screed our way up would be stickier on the way down — less ball bearing feeling under our feet, which meant we could potentially descend faster.

Because of the rain, I would not agree to scaling the last bit of rock to the tippy top of the peak. We could do it, I felt sure of that. But, I was worried about the way down. It was slick and there was a risk of sliding off the mountain if you slipped. My friend was a little insistent to try but I wouldn’t do it. So, I will happily return to snag the proper summit via the NE ridge someday in the future. 🙂

Lewis Lake still as glass

All-in-all, this trail was really straightforward, the ascent up the SE ridge also very well marked by cairns and easy to make your way up (think 2nd and 3rd class approach). There are some thin sections to be mindful of but for the most part, a very approachable summit via this route. If it is any more crowded on the approach to the ridge, you might be concerned about loose rock being kicked down on you, but otherwise, wear a helmet, mind the terrain, and try not to kick things down on those below you.

My favorite part of doing this hike a 2nd time was having already heard the stories of the PCT hikers arriving, I was on the lookout for them. No stashed caches this time, and no one obviously returning while we were hiking up or down. However, a mishap at the start of our hike led to us having a fun encounter when we returned to the car.

Reflections in Wing Lake were stunning

Brief Encounter With PCT Hikers

On the 2nd attempt to go up Black Peak, my friend wanted to sleep in town and leave early the next morning. This meant I would be driving out over 3 hours to get to the trailhead very early to arrive early and give ourselves enough time to attempt the summit (given what happened on my first attempt), we left early and good thing we did!

I packed everything the night before and as I was setting about getting some sleep, a mental rollcall of what I needed to do the following morning streamed through my mind. Food, helmet, shoes. Food, helmet, shoes. That was about it. Oh, and socks. Then, I was out.

Looking out from the saddle at the foot of the SE ridge
Rain coming in

I didn’t have any issue getting up with my alarm that morning, which was a good sign that I was recovering and on my way to becoming functional as the human I am used to being. Before leaving I grabbed my food from the fridge, my helmet from the closet, and my shoes from the shoe rack. Off I went.

When we arrived at the trailhead parking lot, it wasn’t quite 9 am, which was good. The lot wasn’t particularly full of people, but there were a few getting themselves ready to head up. My friend and I went to get ready ourselves when as I was getting my shoes realized, I didn’t have any socks!

Oh no!!!

What do you do when you don’t have socks?

Yikes! Those clouds look ominous

I always have a spare set in the car, except this time. I had taken them out to wash them and forgotten to put a pair back. No socks. No hike.

I looked at my friend and even asked strangers if they had an extra pair. No luck. My only option would be to drive into Mazama and buy some from the climbing shop in town. I figured we’d be hiking by 11 am if we did this and hoped it would be enough time for us to reach the peak and back before dark, knee pending.

But look at that Blue Sky, way out in the distance…

Off to Mazama we went, bought the socks, got a cup of coffee, a baguette and ran into friends I’d just stayed with over Labor Day weekend. Back up to Black Peak we went and loaded with food and caffeine, we seemed to make good time up and back from the climb that it was still light out. Having forgotten the Forest Pass for the car, I parked on the road across from the Rainy Pass entrance. We were changing clothes and eating our snacks from the morning (I saved my coffee for the drive home) when 3 people approached us.

Two men and a women wearing big packs approached and one of the men asked if we had any cold beverages to spare. I had my cooler with me and ordinarily I pack some cold beverages just in case my climbing/hiking/adventure partner wants some. In this case, this partner doesn’t drink so I didn’t bring anything. I recognized that these hikers must be coming off the PCT and I was intrigued!

Don’t slip

First, I couldn’t stop apologizing for the lack of cold beverages to offer. I know they must really have been psyched to get some. Next, I confirmed they were PCTers and asked some questions. 2 of them had hiked all the from Mexico, at the start of the PCT. 1 of them had started in Northern California. All of them were headed to the end of the trail and would arrive in the next few days. It was only the weekend before that I had learned that PCTers will stop in Mazama (hitchhiking) on their way up to Hart’s Pass and on their way back. I’d seen some there but didn’t engage in conversation. It’s also where I learned that PCTers get a trail name and when they sign the register at the Mazama Store, they sign with their trail name. Naturally, I had to ask what their trail names were: Tumbleweed, Daddy Long Legs, and Good News.

If only I had that cold beverage to offer! I have so many more questions for them. But, if you, the reader, ever find yourself near dusk along the road across from the Rainy Pass Trailhead, during the season when the PCT hikers start appearing; make sure you’ve brought some extra cold beverages to share. Maybe you’ll run into a PCT hiker and get to hear their story.

Find Yevhen, and look at those colors! Black Peak in the distance
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Sourdough Mountain and Stetattle Ridge

“Where trails go to die…”

an observation while trying to find our way along Stetattle Ridge to Mis-kai-whu/Stetattle North Ridge Peak
Me, pointing out Stetattle North Peak (aka Mis-kai-whu mountain) in the near distance

Logistics

All of the information you need to know about how to get here, passes, and trail logistics is outlined in one of these links, below. Note, I did not find a lot of information on the Stetattle Ridge hike (mileage for example) so I’ll add what I have from my adventuring to offset the content already out there. The Sourdough Mountain hike was surprisingly popular the day I went out there but even so, my hiking partner and I had the trail mostly to ourselves and the lookout and summit all to ourselves. No one really goes further than the Sourdough summit so we also had the entire Ridge to ourselves, too. Included in this post are my observations that might help someone planning to adventure up there like we did.

Thanks for checking out this post. Enjoy the read!

Sourdough Mountain

Stetattle Ridge

And, definitely checkout Willwhiteweb’s post. I, apparently, was not a good researcher and did the very thing he advises against! Note my time noted is elapsed time for each section.

  • 5.19 miles in 2 hours and 50 minutes to gain the Sourdough Mountain Lookout
  • 1. 62 miles in 57 minutes to reach Sourdough Mountain summit from the Lookout (and find the register)
  • 2.67 miles in 2 hours to gain the first peak along the Stetattle Ridge (6,493)
  • 6.57 miles in 3 hours and 27 minutes to make it back to the Trailhead (rating: BW5, similar to WI5 but Bushwhacking – thanks for that term, WillWhite!)

Total mileage tracked: 16.05 miles

Total time tracked: 9 hours and 14 minutes, and ~1 hour exploring between pushes to make 10 hours and 16 minutes car-to-car.

Stats by Graph, thanks to Strava – Time is moving time

Notes

Popularity

First thing I noticed was the parking lot was full. I was not expecting this. For some reason, I thought this trail was a bit more obscure. There were maybe 7 to 10 cars…I didn’t count explicitly. Therefore, prepare yourself to have company along the trail, though the trail is steep and long enough that you will spread out nicely. My friend and I passed a few groups on our way up and had the trail to ourselves for most of it, including the Lookout, Summit, and the entire Ridge exploration and descent. There was a group of 4 climbers that we passed early on the way up Sourdough trail. They were returning down after retreating from their objective to climb some spires just past Elephant Butte. Unfortunately, heavy rains had come in that night and they opted to retreat. There was only 1 other couple returning down the trail higher up that appeared to have camped, not sure if they were climbing as well.

When I asked the party of 4 how it went and they talked about the rain and such, before we departed, they mentioned Big animals up there. I had heard this and read about that potential in my research, but we did not encounter anything ourselves.

Steepness/Intensity of the hike

After reading about the extreme nature of this hike, I was a bit intimidated heading up. However, at about the 2 mile mark, the trail eases back a tad, though there are still some steep stretches to gain the summit. The trail itself is in great condition. Very few downed trees, narrow in stretches but clean with not many tree roots to navigate and good stretches without a lot of rocky terrain to navigate.

The trail
More trail

There is a streak that you cross very early on and you parallel it for a stretch in the first mile, but the next place to get water is at Sourdough Camp. Tons of Blueberry bushes lined the Meadow from here to the Lookout and the views open up nicely making your ascent a bit slower if you want to take it all in.

Sourdough Camp

I expected Sourdough Camp to stand out more, but we walked right past it and started up the creek, missing the turn up towards the meadow. We made it a short way before questioning our direction and realizing our mistake. In all fairness, there was a woman sitting in front of the sign so we saw her, but didn’t catch the sign until our way back down the creek to the trail. When the trail hits the creek, look for the camp sign and then spot the single track trail that heads up on the other side. Cross the creek to gain that access. At this time of year (September) the creek was really low so not a concern to cross.

The Lookout

A view from the Lookout

After you exit the meadow, you have a choice: head to Sourdough summit or head to the Lookout. Since we were going to explore Stetattle Ridge, it made sense to head to the Lookout first. After having done the Sourdough Summit, I can say it goes on seemingly forever before you reach it and that the terrain is not particularly interesting nor the peak very prominent. Still, it’s a good hike with a few tarns (some dried up at this point), and great views looking back towards the Lookout.

Tarn with water
Looking back towards Sourdough Mountain

As for the Lookout, itself. I was surprised to see that it was boarded up and shut tight. I guess I overlooked this fact. From the earlier posts, the Lookout looked amazing, open, with the potential to sleep there. In fact, my original mission was to hike up there at sunset to catch sunset, the fires further east, and sunrise – all from the Lookout. Now that I’ve been up there, it’s not as “cool” as I thought it would have been. I still had great views, but my original mission would have been a let down not having the Lookout lit up at night for some amazing night shots. Maybe it will open again one day and I can try again then.

Sourdough Summit Register

We walked for a long ways before coming to what we though had to be the summit. Because it’s rather flat, the summit appears indistinct and hard to “find”. We scampered around looking for the summit register and after finding it and signing it, we found the cairn that marks the location you should head up to it. I noticed that although we know of some people who went there first, before going to the Lookout (since we passed them on the way up and on our way to the summit after our visit at the Lookout) that they either didn’t find the register or didn’t want to sign it. For the number of people coming up, it was surprising to see such a gap in dates in the register.

Sourdough Summit Register

After finding the cairn that should have told us where the register was, we tried to make the cairn more obvious from the trail, hoping others wouldn’t pass it by like we did. The summit register is still a bit damp but it had lots of blank paper left and a pencil. I did my best to wrap it tightly in the plastic bag and not overtighten the canister when trying to seal everything back up. I had heard that the register could be wet so I was mentally prepared to bring dry paper and a dry bag for it. Once we found the register, though, I realized I’d forgotten all of that. I was relieved that everything appeared to be in good enough condition that my forgetfulness didn’t really matter.

Sourdough Register Canister

Stetattle Ridge

We cut over to Stetattle Ridge and with a lot of dead end trails, made our way as far as we could, hoping to summit the North Peak. We were also determined not to hike down in the dark and therefore set a turn around time of 4 pm. We could have stretched it further but by the time we hit the summit around the mid-way point to the North Peak, we knew there was about an hour or more left to gain the North Peak. Because the ridge was slow going trying to find the trail, or a passable means in the direction we were trying to go, and the descent was a complete unknown to us since we weren’t retracing our steps back to the Sourdough trail, we kept to our turn around time.

The views!

The trail seemed easier (but not easy) to follow on the way back, avoiding some of the ridges and scrambles we had done on our way up. The scenery from the ridge was breathtaking. Cliff edges that dropped down in the Valley to the North, The Pickets ever present to our West with stunning Valley’s to our South. Looking back east to Sourdough, despite the clouds, left me feeling like I’m in this wonderous playground surrounded by a vast beauty of Peaks and Valleys…just me and them….a place I didn’t want to leave.

In my research, I couldn’t find exact mileage to get to the North Peak so the notes I’ve provided above are the best I can say about how far it is to gain the mid-point. I do believe it was about an hour-ish to gain the North Peak. The Ridge takes you up and down in elevation, alot. So, when thinking of continuing (in a car-to-car push like ours), definitely start earlier than we did or do it earlier in the season when the sun is up longer. Otherwise, I believe most people camp up there to make it in 2 days. And, it’s definitely worth camping up there because it’s just gorgeous! Plenty or tarns for water, some glacier ice lingering at this time of year, and lots of flat places to pitch a tent. Just mind those Big animals!

Stetattle Ridge Descent Back to the Trailhead

Returning to the “trail”

Because we left the Sourdough trail far behind, we knew we needed to get down via an alternate path. After making it back to the Sourdough Creek ridgeline on the Stetattle side, we found some cairns that took us down, following the creek below. However, just when we thought we’d have a well-marked trail and maybe even a trail not unlike the Sourdough one we came up on, we found ourselves scrambling a short bit to navigate a bowl that took us to around to a ridge. The trail seemed to continue for a bit, then we lost it and had to bushwhack our way down trying to follow Gaia tracks to help avoid getting cliffed out.

This was not fun! The terrain through here is overgrown with down trees, thick brush, steep slopes, slick terrain from the dry soil, and low visibility due to the growth. This is what Will White warned against. But, we were committed at this point. We wanted to be out of the bushwhack and onto the Sourdough trail before dark so we pressed on, Yevhen relying heavily on Gaia, and me trying hard to keep up and not lose him. I have a knee issue just now that was getting pretty aggro by this point and made it difficult for me to move swiftly.

We weren’t even sure how far up or down the Sourdough trail we’d cross. When we finally reached the trail, we were just less than 2 miles from the trailhead. I was a bit annoyed considering how steeply we had traveled but simultaneously relieved to finally be on a real trail. Despite the aggro knee and the fact that we still had plenty of light (ie. we made it to the trail before dark!), I just wanted to be off this mountain. I checked in with my friend and he let me run it down. Getting back to the car felt amazing. I really enjoyed my time up there but honestly, the bushwhack was just gross and long. It definitely added to the adventure but like Will White, I don’t recommend this approach.

When we were discussing our descent, there were 2 options. The first was to follow the creek the whole way down to Sourdough Camp. I think this could have been possible because the water was so low but we don’t know for sure what we would have encountered so we decided to see where the cairns took us. The second decision point came at the scramble at the top of a bowl. We could have descended the bowl and tried to link up with the Sourdough trail higher up. It was obvious there would be some bushwhacking involved and considering Will White’s advice, I thought maybe it was better to just stay on the trail we were on and navigate this exposed bit to hope for a more direct but navigable path. Boy was I wrong! By the time that trail turned into bushwhacking, we were super committed lest we backtrack and find ourselves running out of daylight high up on the mountain.

In the end, I believe we made the right choice but if anyone has the beta for this descent that isn’t returning to Sourdough Trail, please share this with me. I’m not sure I’ll be going back up there anytime soon, but there is so much to explore that perhaps another day I will.

Trailhead amenities

First, there are no public restrooms that I saw at the trailhead. Maybe there are some nearby, but I didn’t go looking for them.

Next, the parking is designated and parallel parking. I’m not sure what you do for overflow.

Third, there is a gate that can close and from my research people have found themselves behind this gate. I don’t know if this is a daily occurrence (like after a certain time of night it closes) but I fortunately, didn’t have any issues with the gate. It was, however, another factor that motivated us to make it back to the car before dark. Neither of us wanted to be locked in for the night.

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Alaska Part II – Utqiagvik, Alaska

24 hour sun project

Whale Bone Arch

Flying into Utqiagvik was not quite like flying into Deadhorse. Both are small airports where you land on an airstrip and exit onto the tarmac. Deadhorse had a much smaller airstrip and terminal than Utqiagvik. And, because Deadhorse isn’t really a place people live, there wasn’t anyone in the terminal and very few flights in and out. Utqiagvik, on the other hand, felt bigger. The terminal was crammed with people either coming or going on the daily flights.

I booked this tour because due to the pandemic, there was no option to visit a native village on any other tour. This seemed to me to be the only way I could get a cultural experience as well as a 2nd chance to capture the 24 hour sun (when I booked, I wasn’t sure how successful I would be in Deadhorse – arctic weather is often cloudy and wet). There were other challenges to overcome as well, such as not having a “real” camera (ie. only my iphone), no tripod, no tracking mechanism, weather concerns, and my ability to capture the moments.

But, before we get to all of that, there was a noticeable tour difference to my experience arriving in Utqiagvik from Fairbanks and Deadhorse. First, everything was booked through Northern Alaska Tour Company. Maybe it was my fault that I didn’t sync with them about the logistics in Utqiagvik, but given how the last trip went, it seemed like these things would just be handled. You know, things like how do I get to my hotel? Would there be someone picking me up? Would they have a sign? Would I have a shuttle? Was there anyone else joining me on this “tour?” What would I see?”

I had no idea.

Further, unlike Deadhorse, where I expected not to have any cell reception and I ended up having some, here in Utqiagvik, I absolutely had none. Being a seasoned traveler, not recognizing anyone meeting me at the airport and not able to check messages or make a phone call, I didn’t panic — much. Instead, I took it on as a challenge.

View from my hotel window

Through the crowd of people in this little room I looked for my name on a sign, looked for someone looking like they were looking for someone, looked outside for anyone that might hint at someone I should find, and walked up and down the front of the terminal, inside and out, looking for a shuttle, a guide, something with a logo I might recognize. I had no idea how big or small this tour company was or who they might partner with up here.

Someone gratefully asked me if I needed help and after explaining my situation they called the company on their mobiles but the company line returned a busy signal. I confided I was staying at Top of the World Hotel to which they quickly perked up and indicated that the shuttle to the hotel should be here shortly and to look for it. “It usually comes around this time.” We gave up on contacting the tour company as moments later, the shuttle to the hotel arrived and I figured I’d just take it and get to the hotel and figure things out from there.

Everything about this trip was called into question after that. With no communication from the tour company prior to arriving and without a host, I wondered what I was supposed to expect. Shouldn’t the tour company be on the hook to take care of me? Or, why did I book this with them? Their website promised certain obligations so was it unfair of me to expect something upon my arrival?

Pack ice

At least the hotel was really nice: clean and modern. The former hotel by the same name burned down a few years ago and this new one was constructed in its place. Now that I was at the hotel, I could at least breathe a bit. Without cell reception but now with internet, the next task was to figure out how to meet my guide and figure out what I was to expect on this “tour.” Turns out, I wasn’t to expect much. I was very disappointed to learn that my town guide wouldn’t show up until perhaps 6 pm (and maybe he wasn’t going to show up in the first place) and that I had nothing for the rest of this or the next day planned. I would have to find things of my own to do to entertain myself.

Ok, I know how that sounds. I hadn’t researched anything prior to arriving, figuring the tour company was handling it all. Given my emotional and mental state at that time, having no distractions was distressing. Further, my big objective to capture the 24 hour sun wouldn’t really get going until later in the evening, which left me a lot of downtime to fill. This “in the meantime” space was overwhelming me and suddenly I was left to figure out how I would learn about the area, the native people and customs of this town and the arctic on my own.

After a rough conversation with the tour company and a $13 phone bill they thankfully covered later, low and behold, a guide was waiting for me in the lobby about 15 minutes after hanging up. I’m really glad he showed up because he immediately dropped me off at the Heritage Museum, which was closed the next day and closed at 5 pm this day. It was almost 4 pm when I arrived so if I had been left to my own research, I would have missed that opportunity entirely. It turns out there aren’t a lot of “touristy” things to do in this town, but the few things there are, are worth doing and the Heritage Museum is one of them.

Whale’s head

While I couldn’t spend too much time in the museum, it was enough to learn about the history and culture of the Natives, along with Utqiagvik’s notorious bird migration. Whomever the curator was for the birds did an excellent job! I highly recommend a stop through this wing. The birds are incredibly life-like. Just beautiful!

From here, I walked next door to the local grocery store. Remember that everything that exists in Utqiagvik had to be flown in. There are no trees for lumber, no gardens for food, no minerals to extract to create metal or anything. And, there are no roads in or out! You have to fly. Therefore, the prices for milk, detergent, fruit, etc. are exorbitant compared to what you see anywhere else in North America.

Matt, my local guide, picked me up from the grocery around 5 then gave me an eye opening town tour. The town is small, with about 4,000 people living there now. Homes look run down and trash piles up (if you have car, it costs to get it up there, and fixing and maintaining that vehicle let alone disposing of it if it dies, also costs). Therefore, cars litter front lawns, trash is piled up in the recycling and waste areas, and due to permafrost, you can’t bury it. It just sits out there because it’s not economical to take it anywhere else.

This conundrum was new to me.

As we explored the town, I saw the old homes of natives, Beluga whales stripped down on the shores, pack ice, and the famous Whale Arch.

Archaeological sites in the area indicate the Iñupiat lived around Utqiagvik as far back as AD 500. Remains of 16 sod dwelling mounds, from the Birnirk culture of about AD 800, can be seen on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Located on a slight rise above the high-water mark, they are at risk of being lost to erosion.

As night was coming on, it became time to set about the “24 hours of sun above the horizon” project. The Whale Arch seemed like the best focal point to track the sun so I scoped out the sight, plotted my path for the night and marked where I would take the photos so they would be as consistent as I could possibly make them. Fortunately, the site wasn’t far from the hotel, though it was further than I would have liked to be going in the middle of the night despite the “daylight”.

ice pack walking/surfing

One of the first things I noticed as I set about my hourly mission is that there are people up and about all night long. It’s a quiet town anyway but I imagined it would become dead and still during the night, which turned out to not be the case. This meant I had strange and unique encounters each time I set out for a shot, including the front desk person curious why I would appear and disappear throughout the night like clockwork .

By 11 pm the sun was still shining bright and high in the sky that it was hard to get ready for bed and attempt to sleep in-between my hourly timer. Waking up every 45 minutes is a bizarre thing to do and by the end of the night and into the next morning, I was completely disoriented in terms of time and sleep. I thought I would sleep a bit in the morning since the clouds and rain came in making the sun indiscernible, but it was still too bright to sleep and I didn’t want to miss my flight by accidentally over sleeping so I stayed awake instead.

Looking back at the whale bone arch from walking the pack ice

I couldn’t have gotten luckier for the photos I took that night. I wish I had a better camera than my iphone but the pics look pretty good all the same. It’s really hard to catch a clear sky and have good conditions for so long to have a successful sun capture, but I did. Sure, it could have been clearer but you can see that the sun is above the horizon throughout the entire night and you already know the sun is up during the day so capturing the critical “night” period gives you the idea for what it’s like to have the sun up for 24 hours a day, every day, for 2 months straight!

landing back in Seattle

It’s wild!

I’m really glad I was able to have this experience. The time alone was good for me, even if there were challenging moments. The sun project kept me focused and the beauty and history of the areas I visited kept me distracted. All-in-all, it was a successful excursion! I highly recommend exploring Alaska and visiting the arctic during the peak summer months to experience this for yourself.

A compilation of the 24 hour sun project with sounds from the arctic, taken, stitched, recorded, and edited by me.

Watch the sun traverse the sky during the night, never setting: minute 00:48, July 17, 2021 midnight-ish through 7 pm that day…watch the pack ice movement during that period as well.

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