July 17, 2017
Today’s excursion was entirely water-based, and we were all doing the same basic activity with variations. It was quite complicated, and so the whole guiding crew would be going along to provide logistical support. So after breakfast we all (except John) climbed aboard the Unimogs for a trip up the Cunningham River.
Unimog crossing the river
The trucks came to a stop after an hour or so, coincidentally right in front of a pair of Black-bellied Plovers and their nest. We started off across the tundra on foot, through relatively lush grassland with some rather boggy sections. On the lake as we passed by there was a fair-sized flock of Snow Geese with three sets of chicks.
From there we climbed up the hillside into the area known as “the badlands”. Here there were two whale skeletons which were mostly intact. The whales had died in the ocean, of course, but since that time the land surface had risen (because the glaciers had melted) and now their skeletons were 60 meters above sea level. That was definitely a strange thing to see. After we had viewed the scenery from the high point we descended into the valley of the Cunningham River, where the rafts and other gear were waiting.
Hiking the badlands
We had lunch next to the river, and then the water-based activities began. Some people were kayaking and some were stand-up paddle-boarding, but we chose the third option, which was floating down the river in a raft with one of the guides rowing. We had to wait for the other groups to get into dry suits, but all we needed to do was put on life jackets. Finally everyone was ready, so we pushed off.
Kayaks ready for action
For the most part the river was shallow but reasonably fast-flowing. We tried to tell Drew, who was rowing our raft, which course to take to avoid bottoming out–with moderate success. But besides that, all we had to was to sit there and watch the paddlers. They were doing surprisingly well; even many of the beginners made it around the right-hander which led into the canyon without capsizing.
Paddlers on the water
The walls of the canyon were very steep and crumbling. The rocks were quite bizarre; they looked like columnar basalt which had been smashed into fragments and reassembled in Art Deco style. At one place we came across a nesting pair of Rough-legged Hawks but otherwise we saw very few birds. It took most of the afternoon to float down the river, and when we exited the canyon the boats were pulled out onto the shore.
We were feeling quite cold so we opted to get out of the raft and ride back to the lodge in the Unimogs. But as it turned out it wasn’t much faster to drive back than it would have been to drift in the raft. At the lodge we got out of our outdoor gear and then made some hot chocolate before sitting by the heater.
Dinner was at 7 pm and tonight we had shrimp curry with sticky rice and cucumber and radish salad. Dessert was freshly-made ice cream sundaes. Then after dinner some of the group (not us!) went for a “polar dip”, which involved jumping into the river. Most of them came out of the water after only a few seconds, leaving two of the guides to compete for the longest stay in the water.
Dave gave us a very good talk about polar bears after everybody was dried off, and then we went out to admire the midnight sun. Today was the first night that we had had blue sky and to see the sun high above the horizon at bedtime was quite special.