On the one hand, there was the fear that she would make a fool of herself. On the other hand was her greater fear, that she would grow old and regret not having followed her dream.
With that in mind, Kristin Gates decided to try backpacking along Vermont’s Long Trail as a prelude to more ambitious through-hiking adventures. She originally thought she might hike the Appalachian Trail after she retired; instead, she became one of the youngest people ever to hike the Triple Crown —the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail —and, last year, at age 26, she became the first woman to hike alone across 1,000 miles of the Arctic Brooks Range in Alaska.
As harrowing as that trip was at times, it confirmed for Kristin that life as an adventurer was what she wanted. She already is making plans to return to Alaska this year to hike the Yukon Trail which is twice as long as the route she took in the Brooks Range.
For Kristen, whose grandparents live in Meredith and whose parents now reside in Moultonborough, the experience of long-distance hiking in remote areas is both a challenge and an opportunity. She deals with the challenge through detailed advance planning. The opportunities are what make it all worthwhile.
As a solo hiker, Kristin has found it to be much easier to strike up a conversation with the people she meets; and in hiking an area where there are no roads or trails, she found that the people she encountered in remote regions were even friendlier, treating her to welcome meals, teaching her to fish, and inviting her to see how they live.
When there are no people, there are the animals and the vistas to appreciate.
Kristen kept track of her journeys through a video journal and has posted some of the clips on a public blog as well as on her website, milesforbreakfast.com. She also has been making public presentations to help raise money for her Yukon trip and she recently spoke to an enthusiastic audience at the Moultonborough Public Library.
She explains that she got the hiking bug when she accompanied her father on a hike up Mount Jackson, one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks, when she was eight-years-old. They would hike all 48 of the state’s 4,000-footers, finishing with Mount Liberty when she was 15.
For all that, she had never done backpacking and overnight trips until she hiked the Long Trail which runs the entire 270-mile length of Vermont, from the Massachusetts border to Canada. She admits she made some stupid decisions, such as carrying a 60-pound backpack and old sleeping bag she had had for years, but she persevered and completed the trip. “The hardest thing is taking that first step,”she said.
After that, it was a matter of working her way up with more and more difficult journeys.
When she had hiked the bulk of the Continental Divide Trail after her graduation from Colby College in Maine, she knew she loved the lifestyle, but she had no immediate plans to do more through-hiking; instead, she took a job as a river guide on the Koyukuk River in Alaska. “I was hired as a river guide, but I hadn’t rafted a day in my life,”she said. However, with characteristic resolve, she plunged forward and learned on the way.
That winter, she moved to Coldfoot, Alaska, where she gave aurora borealis tours and learned to mush sled dogs. “The first time I took the team out by myself at night and the aurora was burning across the sky and the dogs couldn’t get out of the lot fast enough, I thought, ‘Oh, no. I love this. That’s it. I’m in real trouble now,’”she wrote. “[A]ny hope of a normal life is down the drain.”
While in Coldfoot, she met a 57-year-old man who had lived in Alaska all his life, and he suggested that she hike the Brooks Range. Kristin dismissed the idea at first: Although she had done longer hikes in the Lower 48, they were on marked trails with plenty of places to resupply. The Brooks Range had no trail and she would be totally alone.
However, the more she thought about it, the more the wilderness called to her, so she began researching the area. Spreading out US Geological Survey maps and picking out points of interest she wanted to see, she marked out a route that would take her over some passes (“If it had a name, I knew someone had passed through there and it was probably safe,”she said. “If there was no name, I would avoid it.”) and through valleys where she could look ahead and pick out the best route.
She sent supply boxes to some of the villages she planned to pass through on the route, and arranged for food drops by air on the upper Chandalar River and the Wind River. John Gaedeke, who owns a lodge in the Brooks Range, rafted a food cache in bear-proof canisters down to the confluence of the Alatna and Kobuk rivers, leaving them for her to pick up when she came through.
In order to maintain contact with her parents, Kristin used a Spot satellite beacon which she had picked up earlier for her other through-hikes. The device allowed her to send a daily signal to her parents’email address to let them know she was safe and to provide her GPS coordinates so they could track her journey. The Spot also has buttons to send a distress signal for non-life-threatening situations and a 911 call if she should find herself in serious trouble.
For the Alaska trip, she also purchased a satellite phone with texting capability as another means of communicating with home. For entertainment, she had an iPod, and she carried portable solar panels to recharge her devices.
Knowing that she might encounter bears, Kristin also researched what she should take along for protection. While she considered carrying a gun, she settled on bear mace, which has proven to be effective in deterring bear attacks. “When a bear is charging, people don’t always shoot straight, and a wounded bear is even more dangerous,”she said.
Bush pilot Kirk Sweetsir, with whom she had consulted when making her plans, flew her to the dropoff spot and handed her another can of bear spray before taking off. Suddenly she was all alone.
For the eastern portion of her trip, she could not use a raft because the rivers flowed the wrong way. That meant hiking over the rough terrain, much of it aufeis —frozen overflow from the river that develops deep crevices —or marshy areas that developed in the summer on top of the permafrost. She learned to seek the gravel areas where the footing was drier and more stable, but she also often had to bushwhack through some areas, and there were some river crossings where she wished she had invested in a dry suit.
Kristin camped on the hillsides, far from the rivers where she knew animals would congregate, but she still encountered 20 grizzly bears and two black bears, along with many caribou that had not yet headed to their summer territory, and some wolves. She told of awakening one morning to see wolf tracks around her tent and, turning a corner, saw them heading away from her. When she continued in the other direction, she soon came upon a grizzly bear eating the carcass of a caribou the wolves had killed.
She said that, unlike in Yellowstone Park where the bears are used to seeing people and associate them with food, the Alaskan bears are not used to seeing people and they generally run away.
The first 300 miles were pleasant with the temperature sometimes reaching 80 degrees, and in the summer, the sun never sets, so there was no need for a headlamp, Kristin said. When she reached the Dalton Highway, which had been build for the Alaskan Pipeline, she took a break to visit with friends before continuing on her journey. “Leaving was very difficult,”she admitted.
She did have company for the trip, though. She said that, after the second week, she was surrounded by mosquitoes for the rest of the journey. Some mornings she did not want to leave her tent; but she was able to cover up with netting and light gloves and she made the best of it.
Making it to the Anaktuvuk Pass, she came upon the most remote village on the Continental Divide, accessible only by airplane, snowmobile, or on foot. The 300 inhabitants, many descendants of the last of the nomadic people who finally settled down there, were very welcoming and helpful to her, as were others she would encounter along the way.
After that, she was able to use her packraft, a five-pound, inflatable raft that she could carry in her backpack when not navigating on the river.
One of her goals was to get to the Great Kubuk Sand Dunes and she was delighted to reach a spot that few people have seen, the only dunes in the arctic.
The last stages of her journey were more difficult, as she paddled against headwinds to get to Kiana. There she learned that she would have two days of good weather before a period of bad weather would make paddling very difficult —and she had 100 miles to go. So she got up at 3 a.m. and headed out, paddling desperately to get across Lake Kubuk to Kotzebue before the weather turned. It meant stopping only briefly to sleep or take bathroom breaks over a three-day period. When she finally completed the journey, she set her camera on a timer to get her victory photo, holding her paddle over her head in a victory salute.
“I headed west facing cavernous aufeis, giant grizzlies, raging river crossings, ravenous mosquitoes, impossibly steep scree slopes, and cruel winds,”she wrote. “I saw wolves, caribou, wolverines, and bald eagles. I spent time with locals who taught me how to catch Sheefish and Chum Salmon and how to eat Eskimo Potatoes. I visited the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, paddled across the feared Kobuk Lake and found myself standing at the edge of the Chukchi sea. The trip was 1,000 miles in all …It took 51 days.”
As for future adventures, she writes, “I refuse to leave until I have met every starry eyed, daydreaming dog musher and every fiercely independent homesteader and every wiry, wizened gold miner.”
Asked whether she planned to write about her journeys, Kristin said she already has a first draft of a book about the Alaskan trip she has completed, and she hopes to make a living (and fund future trips) through her writing.
Those who want to learn more about Kristin Gates’travels and perhaps to donate to her Yukon adventure can learn more by going to milesforbreakfast.com, or emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org. (The basis for the name? Kristin says she has been “eating miles for breakfast since the 1900s”.)