Retired teachers retrace honeymoon
Scrantons travel to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, where they honeymooned in 1982.
Thirty-four years ago, Pam and I flew into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to spend our honeymoon over 100 miles above the Arctic Circle and 200 miles from the nearest road.
We spent five weeks at a base camp and then cross-country skied 110 miles to Arctic Village, which is a Native Athabaskin community. On Nov. 7, 1982, when we started our ski out, we had to contend with six hours of daylight, several feet of snow and temperatures dropping to 40 below zero. That is a separate story perhaps for another time.
In August 2015, Pam and I decided to return to our honeymoon spot and cover the same terrain out to Arctic Village. This was a hike, instead of a ski, and although we did not encounter subzero temperatures, we would have plenty of challenging weather to adjust to. It had also been pointed out by more than one observer that at 60, we were not as young as we used to be.
On Aug. 1, 2015, we flew to Fairbanks, Alaska, where we spent several days making last-minute purchases and confirming our travel plans. Two days later, we found ourselves at Wright Air Service in a waiting room with other back packers and hunters. We were all waiting to fly north into a vast wilderness.
Pam and I caught a mail plane to Fort Yukon, across the White Mountains over 100 miles north of Fairbanks on the Yukon River. From Fort Yukon, we flew north for an hour in a small bush plane to Arctic Village. We taught school on the Venetie Indian Reservation for eight years, but it had been 23 years since we had returned to Arctic Village.
After landing on the gravel strip, we taxied into the unloading area and were immediately recognized by people meeting the plane. Hugs were exchanged with friends and former students upon disembarking. We had about an hour to wait for our charter, which would carry us the last 110 miles to our final destination, so one of our native friends gave us a tour of the village by four-wheeler. It was so much fun to see people we had lived with all those years ago.
Finally, we loaded our packs and food into a small bush plane and got in. We had met the pilot as a student more than 25 years ago. The plane bounced down the runway and soon we were airborne. Huge valleys surrounded by seemingly unending lines of mountains loomed to the north. Occasionally, we saw caribou running on the slopes below.
After climbing over a jagged gray ridge, we began our descent into the valley where many years before we had our unique honeymoon. Soon ahead, I could distinguish the stand of spruce in which we would camp before starting our 110-mile hike out.
The plane made a low pass over a rough landing strip on the side of the slope above the river, then swung around and came in for the real thing. The plane made a low bounce as we made contact with the earth and then rattled to a stop. It was hard to comprehend, after all the planning, that we had arrived back in our honeymoon valley.
We said goodbye to our pilot friend and soon he was airborne and receding to the south. It was Pam's 60th birthday and we couldn't think of a better present.
The place we had camped 33 years earlier was about three miles down river and on the other side. Since the river was higher than usual for that time of year, that meant we had to look for the best place to cross the braided channels.
There was no easy place to cross, but I finally selected a route and, clutching my trekking pole for support, stepped into the current. Before I made it across, I entered a torrent above my waist, where I slipped, briefly lost my footing, went down for a complete bath and then lunged for the shore. At that point, I took off my pack and went back to ferry Pam's pack across, which I did without further incident. Pam crossed without her pack, with water halfway up her chest.
Once we were safely across, we shouldered our heavy packs and trudged down valley through the tundra toward our spruce thicket camp. An accompanying squadron of mosquitoes grew as we progressed. They were happy to have us return.
An hour of walking brought us to the edge of the spruce thicket. As we entered dense willow, we made noise so as not to surprise a bear. "Say something," one of us would say, and the other person would yell, "Something!"
Another 10 minutes of squishing through bog and fighting brush brought us to the southern end of the thicket, where a relatively open bench rises above the river. The views to the south encompass the entire valley and row upon row of jagged mountains march to the horizon. That is where we had had our remarkable completely private honeymoon 33 years before. We had set up a small wall tent with a wood stove, plenty of food and the same amazing views. For five weeks, we had lived in comfort, defying the nighttime temperature of 40 below with a warm glow in the stove, and exploring on skis in every direction by day.
As we set down our packs on a flat spot overlooking the river, we had to convince ourselves that we were really there. Looking down valley, we could see that the willow thicket we had known had extended down river an additional two miles. The willows were also bigger and thicker than when we had camped there in the past.
The open tundra we remembered with a few very low dwarf birch and spindly spruce had been replaced with four-foot high dwarf birch and taller and more numerous spruce. The transition was so astounding that it was hard to tell exactly where we had camped due to the profusion of growth.
Those changes are being documented throughout the arctic regions of the world, and are attributable to global warming, which is most evident in the arctic. A few degrees average change per year can make a huge difference. Longer, hotter summers and warmer, shorter winters have led to permafrost melting and increase in plant growth.
Our native friends described trails that their ancestors had used for hundreds of years suddenly becoming nearly impassable because of accelerated growth of birch and willows. Lakes people had fished in for many generations drained dry due to permafrost melting.
Increased melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was also leading to more evaporation and more rainfall. The last fact would affect our trip, as it rained 17 out of the 19 days we would be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Chris and Pam Scranton, of Madras, are retired 509-J School District teachers.Chris taught high school science for 18 years, and Pam, fifth grade for 12 years. Both also taught eight years at Arctic Village on the Venetie Indian Reservation.