This past sunday was my first (and probably only!) day off from labwork. I was bound and determined to get outside and do something epic and awesome. After talking with some of the other graduate students, we decided to head down to an area known as "teardrop" to hike and explore. The name originates from the large teardrop shape that is formed by drainage paths around this area -- not because it is particularly sad, which was my first guess. We headed out sunday morning ready for adventure, drove down to the Teardrop region, chose a ridge that looked amenable to climbing, and off we went.
I forgot how much I love hiking around Toolik. There are no tracks or paths, we just choose where we want to go and forge our way ahead. The wind was nonexistent and the bugs swarmed us from the very first step we took throughout the hike, but I didn't care -- we were hiking, exploring, and viewing the gorgeous terrain that you just won't experience anywhere else.
The hike started up a riverbed, which we followed until the river became too large to walk amongst the rocks. From there we transitioned onto the tundra to make our way to the base of the ridge. For those of you who haven't had the experience of hiking on tundra, it is quite a challenge. The bundles of grass known as Tussocks are fairly firm, but do not form a constant firm terrain. You can try to step on top of the tussocks, but they may wobble and you can easily fall off (I also always worry that stepping on the tussocks is pretty high impact on the plants). Or you can take awkwardly placed steps to walk on the squishy ground between the tussocks -- but sometimes it is hard to walk between closely spaced tussocks and the level of "squishy-ness" isn't always even! In the past I think I compared tundra hiking to trying to walk over a field full of a mix of bowling balls and pillows, but half the time you don't know whether you are stepping on a bowling ball or pillow till you put your foot down!
Anyways, after a a couple of hours we made it to the base of the ridge and decided to make it to the first knoll we spotted before we braked for lunch. We wistfully dreamt of a nice steady breeze if we got up and off of the tundra. Alas, there was a slight breeze, but not enough to discourage the swarms of mosquitos, so we stopped and ate our lunches underneath our head nets and bugshirts (a shirt that is made of material woven too tightly for the bugs to bite through -- they also have a hood with netting that covers your face and zips closed at the neck. This allows you to zip yourself in, pull your arms in, and eat a sandwich inside the shirt for a relatively bug-free meal!).
After our brief break for lunch we soldiered on through the mosquitos up the ridge to the highest point. We met a lot of interesting plants and rock along the way. We even saw a marmot, but he ran away so quickly I couldn't get a picture. Something I didn't know before: marmots make a loud crying/squealing noise. I had no idea they were so loud!!
I always feel like a great adventurer when hiking around Toolik -- no matter what happens it is always an adventure. Throughout the day we stopped to marvel at the interesting rocks and plants. We happened upon several really interesting rock formations that I have no idea how they formed. I want to do a little investigation. I actually found a limestone rock that alternated between black and white layers ... the only explanation I could come up with is the system shifting between oxic (white layer) and anoxic (black layer) conditions?! We found lots of interesting fossils including lots of corals, as well as a few brachiopods, bryozoan, and stromatolites (I will post pics and descriptions later on)! Here are a few great adventurer pics.
We followed our ridge around in whatever way we could -- mostly comfortable hiking with some scrambling over rocks. While we were hiking we spotted a second dry (mostly) riverbed on the opposite side from our ascent. We decided to continue along our path until we found a way to get down to the riverbed and then follow it home. The "down" part of the hike hurt a whole lot more than the "up" part in my opinion. My knees protested all the way down to the valley, but I stumbled and bumbled to the riverbed and was really relieved once we were on flat terrain again.
I think all and all the hike was about 10 - 11 miles long with lots of elevation gain, which isn't too shabby for a randomly chosen ridge.
The last part of this hike we passed an area that usually has quite large ice deposits that are known as Aufeis. According to the all-knowing Wikipdedia, Aufeis means "Ice on top," which I would believe since aufeis forms from the freezing of over bank river flows. As the weather becomes colder in the wintertime, upwelling of the groundwater is deposited as large layered sheets of ice. When spring comes, these thick ice sheets persist into the summer. However, at this late point in the season only remnants of the ice remain, but it is still fun to see the layers of ice!