WHO: Heather and Steve DePaola, 44 and 42, respectively, of Dover
WHEN: 18 days in June
WHY: ``It had a huge wild factor," said Heather about the hiking trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge , which was organized by the Boston chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club and led by Stacia Zukroff of Arlington. ``And it represented a personal challenge for us, because we'd never done a backpack, except Kilimanjaro, but we had porters for that," she said. Steve also was intrigued because the area is such a political hotbed. ``We wanted to see the area for ourselves," he said. ``We're both conservationists, but we're also realists."
COLD COMFORT : After spending several days in Denali National Park on their own, the couple met the group of eight other New England hikers, plus the leader and co-leader, in Fairbanks. To reach Coldfoot, from where they'd be flown to the bush, they traveled along the Dalton Highway, which parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. ``The first place we camped we were told the mosquitoes would be really bad, but it was unbelievable," Steve said. ``We were covered in Deet, so they didn't land on you, but they swarm around you." Once in Coldfoot, at Milepost 175, the mosquitoes thinned as the temperatures dropped. It took all day to transport the group, joined by two guides from the tour group Arctic Wild, in three planeloads. They flew over the Brooks Range to land in Sunset Pass in the Sadlerochit Mountains. For the eight-day hike they split into two groups of seven.
BEAR WITH THEM : Heather carried about 55 pounds of gear and Steve carried 65 pounds. From Sunset Pass they hiked into the Valley of Spires, limestone mountains ``like huge scree piles with huge granite spires," Steve said. They walked along Marsh Creek, which is visited by only 10 to 20 people a year, he said. The terrain was unstable because as the permafrost melts, the top layer of the tundra becomes soft and squishy. They usually hiked about six miles a day . ``One day we could see a grizzly bear and her cubs where we were going, which meant we were in her territory, so we put on a few extra miles," Heather said.
SENSORY OVERLOAD : ``We saw caribou every morning, a million birds, fox, arctic ground squirrels, and these little lemming things -- you'd see them running around like oversized moles," Heather said. ``I took 250 pictures of flowers. They were just amazing." The sun never went below the horizon. ``You're really supercharged up all the time," Steve said. ``At a certain point it occurred to me that we've left civilization," Heather said.
TIP OF THE CAP : At the Beaufort Sea, ``the ice cap was breaking up and floating away but there was still some ice in contact with the beach," Heather said. ``When the sun hit the ice cap, it was blue and crystal clear." They were picked up at the beach and flown to Coldfoot, back to civilization, and convinced, they said, that the wildlife refuge must remain wild.
SEE WHERE THEY WENT
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