At this time last year Caroline Van Hemert and Pat Farrell were rowing homemade boats up Alaska's Inside Passage, en route from Bellingham, Wash., to their cabin near Haines.
On one hand, it was a nature lover's dream, said Van Hemert. "Migration was in full force. The herring spawn was going crazy. There were tons of birds and sea lions -- and no people."
On the other hand, the Anchorage adventurers were encountering spring storms.
"We got hit with big water right off the bat," Van Hemert said. "In some cases we were pinned down by storms for five or six days. It was pretty humbling knowing that we were at the mercy of the conditions."
Even more humbling was the fact that, once they reached their cabin, they would just be a short way into a 4,000-mile expedition.
Their staggering itinerary called for them to go from Bellingham to Kotzebue via the Arctic Ocean, the Brooks Range and the Yukon, MacKenzie and Noatak rivers. All under their own power -- paddling, climbing, hiking, floating -- in six months.
It appears to be a trek unprecedented in legend, history or the annals of modern extreme sports.
They'll talk about it at a slide/lecture on Tuesday at the Snow Goose Theater.
Here's the short version.
Van Hemert and Farrell met at Western Washington University, where she was a writing student and he was studying art. They discovered that they shared a taste for excursions not generally included in hiking books.
"Our first trip was 10 years ago," said Van Hemert. "We hiked into a pretty remote area in the Yukon territory, planning to float out -- except we didn't have a boat."
The plan was to build a birch bark canoe to return to civilization, Farrell said, and to make as much as they could from available materials.
"We brought in just the steel portions of the tools," he said. They made the handles from local wood. It took a lot longer than calculated and making your own canoe is a gamble, he said: "It worked, but barely."
"It's not the most lightweight, efficient craft," Van Hemert observed.
Since then the two, now married, have lived on a sailboat in Washington, built their cabin near Haines, moved back to Van Hemert's hometown, Anchorage (she graduated from West High in 1996), and accumulated a catalog of strenuous exploits. They climbed Mount Fairweather, for example, in 2011.
The opportunity to spend half a year on the Bellingham-Kotzebue trip arose when Van Hemert, a research biologist at the Alaska Science Center, completed her Ph.D. in biology.
"I wanted to take a break," she said. "We were interested in linking up some places we knew pretty well, but also going to a lot of other places we'd never explored. And doing it without the use of trails."
"It seemed like a time to try something on a really big scale," said Farrell.
And so they began to pencil out the details for their epic journey.
Clouds of mosquitoes
As 2012 dawned, Farrell, who designs and builds residential homes and other construction projects, put his sculptural skills to work building the two 18-foot rowboats they would use to get from the Lower 48 to Haines.
"I had trouble finding expedition rowboats, so I found these plans and built them myself," he said.
They left Bellingham in a hailstorm on St. Patrick's Day. After a blustery seven weeks, they arrived at their cabin on Lynn Canal. There they left the rowboats, picked up pack rafts, skis and climbing gear, and headed due east into the Coast Range, pushing through the rainforest into mountain glaciers, crossing into Canada.
They inflated the pack rafts and began floating down the Yukon. North of Dawson, they left the river and alternately hiked or floated over taiga, tundra and snow-packed passes, revisiting the area of their original birch bark canoe adventure and finally connecting with the MacKenzie River.
The river slowed and divided into myriad channels as it approached the Arctic Ocean.
"Pack rafts aren't the right boat for that kind of travel," said Farrell. Counter currents and winds off the ocean sometimes pushed them in the wrong direction. And clouds of mosquitoes to rival anything in the north fell on them.
"We've done a lot of trips up here but the MacKenzie Delta at that time of year was more than I could imagine," said Farrell. "It sapped our morale. We started to lose our drive a little bit. But we really wanted to check out the Arctic coast."
The walk along the north edge of Canada and Alaska was particularly rewarding, they said. There was fairly good footing along the beaches of the continent and the barrier islands. The pack rafts proved effective at water crossings. There was a lot of wildlife and beached whale carcasses along the route.
But it too had unexpected challenges, including, Farrell said, finding fresh water.
Arriving in Kaktovik, they turned inland again, crossing the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and going over the Brooks Range. They floated down the Chandalar River to Arctic Village, where they mailed their pack rafts to Anaktuvuk Pass to lighten the load for the next leg of the journey. Once they got to Anaktuvuk, they planned to go back to switching from hiking to floating.
The little backpackable craft generally worked well.
"They're definitely durable," said Van Hemert. "They didn't pop once."
A cold swim
But with the pack rafts on the mail plane, the pair had to swim the chilly Chandalar to continue along the Continental Divide.
"We took a high route for a good portion of it," said Farrell. "It was awesome. You'd come to pass after pass and be able to look out for miles."
But they didn't have much time to pause for scenery.
"We knew if we didn't make it before freeze-up, we'd have to change our plans," Farrell said. "The whole key to this trip was to try to move efficiently over ground, staying pretty darned light on our feet."
In the Brooks Range, however, they encountered more tough weather. At one point they were turned around by knee-deep snow high in the mountains. For another spell, "It just rained for days," Farrell said. "We knew we had to get over some passes if we were going to get out using our first options. The other options weren't that good, either."
They carried a satellite telephone and, for most of the trip, had their rations shipped to the towns along the way. Friends had left a cache of food where they crossed the Dalton Highway. Even with full packs, Van Hemert said, "We were hungry all the time."
Now they were hitting the bottom of their reserves.
Down to the last few granola bars, they had supplies flown in to their campsite on the banks of the Noatak River. It was the only air resupply they had on the whole trip. In addition to grub, the plane brought them a folding canoe that would take them to the Chukchi Sea.
On Sept. 9, they paddled across Kotzebue Sound to complete the odyssey.
"We just narrowly slipped by as winter was chasing us out of there," said Farrell.
They'd encountered abundant wildlife on the way, from aggressive bears to the massive Western Arctic caribou herd in its fall migration. But the final encounter was the oddest, Van Hemert said.
"We saw two moose in the Arctic Ocean," she said. "They followed us, up to their knees in saltwater. Then they swam after us for a mile or more. They weren't aggressive, but it was certainly strange."
What does it feel like to make a 4,000-mile trek?
"Part of me felt totally relieved that we managed to pull it off," said Van Hemert. "But there was a certain amount of sadness or nostalgia for what had become a lifestyle."
And how do you celebrate?
"We came back to Anchorage and some friends came over for pizza and beer," said Farrell. "You'd think these things would be more dramatic."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM