Almost exactly ten years ago I had just arrived back home from Alaska after a month long expedition to the Alaska White Mountains and the Yukon. I've been lucky over the years to lead four expeditions to Alaska (with a 5th on the backburner). But the 2005 trip will always stick in my mind as being particularly special and a grande finale to my time at Knox Academy. It was great pleasure to share the trip with nine exceptional young people and two even more exceptional colleagues and lifelong friends (David Russell and Rhona Smith).
Unfortunately, the trip took place before before this blog came into existence (only just!) which meant it missed out on any digital documentation. We also lacked a final report because Nicola Holding(ace expedition member, amateur ornithologist and my canoe buddy for ten days - who could only paddle on one side!) was so tired as we flew back though Seattle she left her journal in the airport!
Dave reminded me last night that it was the tenth anniversary of the expedition. His reminder was timely and I had just written about the importance of residential opportunities for young people. It also gave me a good excuse to dig out my photos from the trip and up-loaded them to Flickr as well as having a chance to look though my old expedition maps and files. It is really is great to explore old memories. It also reminded me that it was also nice to still be in touch with pretty much all team via Facebook (I've lost touch with lots of members of previous trips from the mid to late 1990s - partly due to the lack of social media at the time).
Photo:Bear Encounter on Beaver Creek
The 2005 trip (as with most youth expeditions) was over a year in the planning. Originally we had planned to paddle to Noatak River but the costs were spiralling (although I did get back and paddle the Noatak with a group in 2010). In the end we discovered (and opted for) perhaps the greatest (and cheapest) wilderness float in North America. Nome Creek into Beaver Creek into the Yukon this is a 499 mile float that scrapes the Arctic Circle and is an Alaska Classic (easy grade I water, with one grade II rapid) that goes road-to-road so you don't need expensive air transportation. We spent 17 days being self sufficient on the river and we didn't see another person during the whole of that time.
As part of the trip we also aimed to hike the Circle to Fairbanks Historic Trail, which took in the Pinnell Mountain Recreation Trail. The Pinnell's were exceptional (classic Alaska Tundra Hiking) and I enjoyed our 30mile hike above the tree line as well as visiting the mountain huts on trail. However when we dropped down back onto the Circle - Fairbanks Trail navigation and bushwacking became almost impossible as we traversed areas burnt out by forest fire and areas almost impossible to negotiate due to fallen trees. Making painfully slow progress we bailed from the route eventually and made our way through forest and rivers to the Steese Highway and the comfort of Billy's Backpackers in Fairbanks. To be fair they started to up-grade the trail in 2006 (and it has become popular with Mountain Bikers) so I expect a re-visit might provide a different experience compared to our bushwacking adventure!
Happy memories indeed from bear encounters, to paddling though forest fires, to Paul's crazy driving, to a night in Mordor, to Alaskan Amber, to Joe (at the hostel) and lots and lots of laughs! What we accomplished was really quite amazing and it is great to see so many of the team still active in the outdoors.
I feel pretty lucky to live in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. I also feel pretty luck to have the River Spey run right past the school where I am principal and also right part my house in the next village along.
The River Spey is a wonderful river. The river is famous for its expensive (and expensive) salmon fishing. But also in my eyes equally famous for its reputation as one of the great Scottish Canoe Expedition Rivers (along with the Tay, Tweed and Scottish Dee). You can paddle on the Spey for a day trip or spend five days enjoying the beauty of this very special place.
My old pal Clive Burgess and I paddled the river this October half term. We didn’t hang around paddling from Kingussie to Spey Bay in 2.5 days (and that included time to enjoy a few malts!). Despite having paddled together all over the world from the Alps to Canada to Alaska it was the first time we had actually shared a canoe together – which caused its normal degree of amusement! It was a great trip.
I’ve now paddled the river in its full length four times and some sections probably close to a hundred times with various school groups or in training. It is always enjoyable and has that nice ‘wild’ feeling that goes with camping outside and cooking on a portable woodburner.
I can't really remember the last time I wrote anything about canoe or kayaking on this website - must blow the dust off the boats and get out a bit more in 2010!
Anyway, if your a whitewater paddler you will know that whitewater kayaks have drain plugs to help get the water out after you take a swim. Its a big fear of kayakers that you will loose your drain plug and not be able to fill the hole - particularly when different makes of kayak have different types of drain plugs.
This can be a particular problem on overseas or remote trip when you are unable to get to a shop to get your hands on a replacement.
This is a nice simple idea from Harry Thaler with his Stopp.it drain bung replacement. Simply, change your drain bung fitting once and afterwards you can use any PET plastic bottle top (found all over the world) to keep water out of your kayak.
He has done lots of self financed exciting things and I have to admit being a little envious of his achievements.
In no particular order Al has:
Cycled round the world (using his student loans!)
Canoed down the Yukon (to avoid a forest fire)
Walked the length of the Holy Kaveri River in India (for £500 including flights!)
Run the Marathon des Sables (that’s 6 marathons in 6 days across the Sahara desert!)
Alistair has a cracking sense of humor and is one the most down to earth and modest guys I have ever met. I really enjoyed the banter during the short time that we spent together.
One of the interesting things about Al's story is that when he got back from cycling around the world he wrote a book about his journey. But he couldn’t get a publisher to take it on. Alistair’s theory was that this was because he wasn’t famous enough.
Then he discovered print on demand and used this to get his first book out there on Amazon and they have been a success ever since. He has now written three and has another two that are on the way to the printers. The first two are great stories which massive potential for classroom use.
Alistair was recently speaking at a PechaKucha Night in London. We sometimes use PechaKucha as a format for Teachmeet but if you don’t know what it is. Basically your presentation is limited to 20 slides that automatically advance every 20 seconds. When the slides reach the end of their cycle you presenation is over.
“There is beauty and adventure everywhere you just need to take the time to grab it”
“To have an adventure you just need to go somewhere you have never been, do something you have never done before or do it in a different way and just see things with fresh eyes – adventures are all around us”
I hope to work more with Alistair in the new year.
Photo Credits: www.alistairhumpreys.com (all rights reserved)
As with all Leading Edge Expeditions I will
organise and run the trip voluntarily and contribute a full team member payment
to the expedition account. I’ve been a volunteer expedition leader with Leading Edge since 1996 this has
always been my philosophy. During this time I have had the opportunity to lead
young people to some of the remotest parts of the world including Mt Rainier, British
Columbia, Alaska, Dolomites and Wyoming.
On a personal note I hate
the glossy outdoor education brochures that come into schools from commercial companies, talking
about chance in a life time opportunities for young people. In my experience these
are often little more than adventure package holidays with a massive price tag.
Explorers are drawn to Alaska by its
colourful reputation and are always stunned with what they see. There are
mountains, glaciers and rivers all over the world but few are on the same scale
or as overpowering as Alaska. Alaska has the third longest river in North
America, 17 of the countries 20 highest peaks and 5000 glaciers, including one
glacier larger than Switzerland! The Arctic winters are one long night and the
Arctic summers are one long day. Above all Alaska is most famous for its state
bird, the mosquito!
The expedition will fly from London to Anchorage.
From here will have an opportunity to pick up supplies, pack and re-organise
equipment for our expedition. Initially we will travel east to the old miming
town of McCarthy (population 42). McCarthy will be our staging post for the
first expedition objective, trekking in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
The group will attempt to hike between the Mt Wrangle Plateau and Nugget Creek.
The distance is just over 50 miles, but due to the harshness of the terrain the
expedition team will be lucky to travel any quicker than one mile per hour. The
trek is likely to take about 7 days and we will be fully self-sufficient after
we have been dropped into the wilderness by bush plane. During the trek the group
will learn self-reliance, teamwork and wilderness camping techniques (eg:
dealing with bears). During the trekking phase terrain will include glacier,
snow and river crossings on exposed terrain. Group members will throughout the
trip assume responsibility for some major aspect of the expedition itself.
On completion of the trek the group will travel north
to Fairbanks (just south of the Arctic Circle), where we will rest and prepare
for our Arctic adventure. From Fairbanks we will take a wilderness flight to
Bettles which is situated north of the Arctic Circle. Bettles is the staging
post for most Arctic expeditions and this will also be where we hire our canoes
for our journey across to the west coast of Alaska and the Bering Sea.
In Groups of
three we will be flown (with canoes strapped under the bush plane) into the
Gates of the Arctic National Park. We will be dropped near the headwaters of
the Noatak River, one of the USA’s only designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. From
here we will use canoes to travel down the Noatak to the Bering Sea and to the
Inuit Village of Kotzebue. The entire journey is 360 miles and it is expected
to take the group 16 days of ‘full on’ paddling.
Open canoes make ideal crafts for an explorer and have been used extensively in
North America for hundreds of years. They can be paddled, poled, sailed and
portaged. They also make excellent shelters and provide plenty of space for
expedition supplies. Full training in the use of open canoes will be given
before the expedition departure and further training will be given in the
From Kotzebue the group will travel back to Anchorage
for some rest and relaxation before heading back to the UK.
A high environmental ethos will be applied throughout
the expedition. We will be trekking on one of the world’s most delicate
eco-systems (the Alpine Tundra) and canoeing a designated ‘Wild and Scenic’ river. Expedition
members will be expected to show care and respect for this unique environment.
Being safe and caring for the welfare of every
individual is essential on any expedition be it a low level trip in the UK or
the ascent of a mountain. This has always been a priority for us, and will
continue to be so. High media attention on recent incidents has brought safety
to the point where even measured, responsible risk taking is expected to be
taken out the expedition equation. This sterile attitude only serves to hold
back a young person’s personal growth. Life is about taking risks especially
for the development of our future leaders. A Wilderness expedition is obviously
a ‘risk’ activity but the skill
of the leadership team will achieve the balance between safety and challenging
experience for the young expeditioner.
To get the right team together, applicants will face
a rigorous selection process to determine if they possess the right qualities
for such an expedition. Some experience of open canoeing and hill walking is an
advantage, but is not a pre-requisite. We do not anticipate a world class
explorer at this stage! Rather we invite applications from young people who
want a challenge within a team environment, and who want to develop their
leadership potential. Initial training will take place before we leave the UK.
Last Easter Iain Robertson and I made an epic attempt to
canoe across Scotland from
Kinlochleven to Perth.
A journey that ended up taking us seven days after a long drag over Rannoch
Moor in very poor conditions. Despite having been on numerous overseas
expeditions last years cross Scotland
journey still rates as one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Like all journeys of this kind you say to yourself, ‘never again’. However we have recently been
thinking about a follow up and have now put the second week of the Easter
Holidays aside for Across Scotland V2.0.
Again we will be allowing ourselves seven days to cover a distance of over
150km between Mallaig and Inverness. The
journey will take us on the sea, over land, loch and white water river. We will
have to paddle, improvise sail, pole, track, line and cruise –we will be taking
one canoe each and been completely self sufficient for our journey.
So here’s the plan:
Start in Mallaig
– paddle / sail down Loch Nevis to Tarbert.
I spent a bit of the weekend working on some of the
logistics for next summers expedition to the Cascade Mountains.
We made the decision a few weeks ago to add an open canoeing section to the
trip. Although we will be mainly be based in the Mt. Rainier National Park, for the canoeing
we have decided to head to the Bowron Lake
Canoe Circuit in British Columbia, Canada .
I first paddled the Bowron Lakes
in 1996 and this was my first real taste of a wilderness expedition. I was
thinking back to the logistics of organising the 1996 trip – everything was
done with fax machine or letter back then and it took months to book canoes or
to get up-to-date maps delivered. When you made a telephone call across the Atlantic you had to be prepared for high phone charges
and you were likely to be cut off halfway through your conversation. Today, I could
have organised the whole trip from my laptop and then followed everything up on
One of the thinks that I found were some really good Google
Earth plugins for Mt. Rainier. One of the
objectives for next summers trip is to trek the Wonderland Trail and
another objective is to climb Rainier using
the Camp Schurman Route.
If you download this
Google Earth file the Wonderland Trail is shown in Red and the Camp Schurman Route
is shown in Blue.
I also found this really good Google Earth USGS
overlay for Mt Rainier. Again you can download that here. In the picture
below both the routes and USGS layer are on. These resources will provide a
useful tool to brief the team later in the year.
Getting Google earth files for the Bowron Lakes
was more problematic, however this Google
Map My Map of the area shows the lakes involved in this fantastic 6 day
canoe journey. If you haven’t messed around with the new terrain feature on
Google Maps it is really worth looking at to help teach physical geography.