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Justin Johnson and friends trek Alaska's most northern point

Epic Alaskan adventure

From Left, Justin Johnston, Mark Bryant, Colin Dukes and Paul Dornish are all smiles in Fairbanks, Alaska, before flying into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy photo

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Ten years ago, Justin Johnson's mentor at REI posted a trip on the company's breakroom wall. Not just any trip. A perfect trip, one that Johnson could name drop during his full-time gig outfitting campers with tents, stoves and dehydrated food. Paul Dornish's idea? Cross the greater Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the most northern point of the state under human power, something never accomplished by a human.

The year prior, Dornish presented his Alaskan kayaking trip one slide at a time, and it blew Johnson away.

"Whatever trip Paul leads next summer," Johnson thought, "I'm going."

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an exceptional mess. From Arctic Village to Kaktovik, the remote area remains roadless. Further confounding things, this adventure exists in three heavily vegetative dimensions. The start consists of flat floodlands and wooded hills; at the end is the only village located within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and it sits on the north shore of Barter Island, between the Okpilak and Jago Rivers on the Beaufort Sea coast. In between is a vast and wild land with polar, grizzly, and black bear, wolf, wolverine, Dall sheep, moose, muskox, and the animal that has come to symbolize the area's wildness: the free-roaming caribou. And while the refuge is riddled with plains, there are no direct routes. The unbroken continuum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems teems with forest, uplands and glacier-capped mountains. A number of rivers cross the tundra coastal plain to the lagoons, estuaries and barrier islands of the Beaufort Sea's coast, all without encountering an artifact of civilization.

"Two hundred and twenty-eight miles, ten days," Dornish told Johnson with a joyous cackle.

"Why ten days?" Johnson asked.

"It's all the time we can get off work."

"Cool," said Johnson, blissfully unaware that only wildlife makes the trek between the two points. Come to find out, REI let Dornish go before the trip, so Johnson was the only member of the team, which also included Colin Dukes and Mark Bryant, with a time constraint.

If Johnson had known this, it might have given him pause. But not much. He had hiked Mount Rainier's backcountry for six months prior, bushwacking off trail. Johnson climbs more than hikes; Dornish told him to reverse that pattern or he wouldn't make it to Kaktovik.

Their plan was to fly into Fairbanks, fly into Arctic Village, hike along the east fork of the Chandalar River to the Hula Hula River, bisect the Franklin Mountains and Romanzof Mountains, traipse the Okpilak River beds, slip along ice fields, then make their way to Kaktovik, where they would fly out.

In theory, anyway.

They didn't expect two nights at the Fairbanks Holiday Inn while the airline looked for one of their bags in San Francisco.

Their money and spirit slowly disappeared.

Thankfully, on an otherwise typical Arctic Village morning of Aug. 1, 2005, they kissed the H.I. monogrammed pillows goodbye, shouldered their 55-pound packs and hit the trail. They had beautiful weather with 55-70 degree days, which lasted the entire trip. The sun never set.

The first miles passed easily as the trail turned into forest, but the team quickly realized the topographic maps were crap. What looked like flat land was actually rolling to steep hills. And the terrain was, as Johnson put it, "horrible." Instead of the anticipated one or two river crossings, they spent most of the day, as well as most of the trip, waist-deep in rivers when not traipsing through quicksand-ish muskeg and tussocks.

"Basically, it was like trying to walk across a swimming pool on basketballs," explained Johnson. They snaked through the landscape, gingerly stepping like businessmen avoiding puddles.

The terrain messed with their game plan. They had to hike 20 hours a day to maintain the plan mileage, which meant 20- to 25-mile days, which breaks down to an average speed of Freakin' Slow.

Johnson's REI pole also messed with their plan. With his full body weight planted, his pole snapped - along with part of his tibia and meniscus. It was only day three. Every day wading through rivers also became an evening chore for Johnson, as he submerged his knee during dinner to reduce the pain. He would cut open the silver pouch of his instant mac and cheese, revealing an oily orange sludge that is either some sort of cheese or the toxic swamp from which life first sprang. He peeled the bark off a stick for a makeshift fork and dug right in. "Fantastic," he doesn't think, while shivering violently.

For dessert, blackberry brandy in a Platypus pouch; sometime he'd have to call in Captain Morgan, too.

Johnson slept restless in his flaccid sleeping bag and the clothes he wore atop a foam pad trimmed to the size of a placemat. Thoughts of the three grizzly bears spotted - and the report of a recent grizzly mauling nearby  - plus the smell of DEET weighed heavy. Their shotgun, "Big Steele," leaned against a rock, which was dangerous since Johnson was found several nights walking in his sleep deliriously.

At 8 a.m. every morning, they plod toward hopeful comfort, often watching a few caribou playing catch-up to a run they apparently just missed. They did pass by a caribou and bear grudge match.

"We kept walking because we didn't want any part of that," Johnson said with a laugh. Running wasn't an option for Johnson, or, frankly, the other three hikers. Their mosquito head nets screwed with their depth perception.

The bright spot on the trip - besides a green sea of sedges, mosses, crustose lichens, prostrate shrubs and willows, and an occasional fireworks display of herbaceous plants set against stunning mountains - was the drinking water. The clean, fast-moving rivers provided endless thirst-quenching relief.

Daily, after reaching their 10-hour midpoint, soaked, they'd crash for an hour, and then hike another 10 hours into camp. Even though hobbling Johnson would prefer to just lay out his sleeping bag and curl up into a ball, the mosquitos forced him to erect his tent quickly. Of course, he had to eat dinner in a river, swatting the buggers with his stick fork. The next morning, the group would awake un-refreshed beside a river, load up on oatmeal and sardines and knock off another 12 miles before their trail mix lunch.

"I'd look at tiny objects barely visible due to distance, then for a moment feel euphoria reaching that object ... only to sigh at the day's next marker visible off in the distance," remembers Johnson. "I could cover it with my thumb ... and there it went as I hobbled by."

Day seven, time for river crossing number 769, and the current was too strong to ford. Our campers had to backtrack several miles in search of a suitable crossing when Johnson's knee gave out. He submerged fully, struggling to release his pack. His years of rock climbing paid off with a kung-fu grip on a nearby rock. The others broke into a brisk waddle in rescue; Dukes managed to grab him.

They hit the northern plain on day eight knowing they needed to make good time to catch the only plane out of Kaktovik for the week. They found their progress immediately retarded by extreme cold conditions - ice fields, river crossing, repeat.

Johnson dialed REI from their satellite phone, hoping to catch his fellow employee Kurt and instigate the plan the two had concocted if Johnson wasn't going to be at work on Monday. Another employee took the call, warning Johnson that REI doesn't stand for tardiness. He did everything he could not to go Mount Saint Helens on her.

With 55 pounds on his back, and a knee screaming at his brain stem, Johnson was forced to slither on his belly or clamber each time he mounted an ice field after climbing out of the bitter, rushing water. He'd find a walking pattern on the ice. But soon enough, they were back in the water, smelling like muskox and feeling that, despite their best efforts, they'd be watching their ride overhead.

The next 20-mile day was better. Instead of head down and laser the obstacles, everyone joked and pointed out beauty. Johnson remembers it as his favorite day - favorite meaning you're in the uppermost part of the Alaskan wilderness with the terrain sliced up like a rocker T-shirt from the eighties, and surrounded only by wildlife.

The last morning on the trail wasn't the typical oatmeal with a side of grumble affair. It was go time. They could see a storm on the horizon.

"If you're ready, head for the pilot!" Dornish yelled. Dukes bolted first, followed by Dornish, Bryant and Johnson. The agitated, tired pilot was waiting at the pick-up spot, pointing at the storm, with his motivation still on his couch back home. If a movie director stood nearby, "Action!" would have launched the pilot's diatribe on the plane's two passenger seats and the looming storm - the first two get in now with a promise to pick up the other two soon. Johnson and Bryant watched the plane take off, feeling good about their tents and gun, but would easily have traded them for the satellite phone that was now at 10,000 feet.

By 11 p.m., Johnson was safely in Kaktovik, but the pilot practically pushed the two out of the plane and into a pickup truck parked on the gravel landing strip. Hauling ass on a dirt road, the two didn't know the location of their friends.

They arrived at the Waldo Arms Hotel.

No one took their bags.

The welcoming committee was oil barrels and a smattering array of dead things, mostly whales, surrounding the hotel - which really was a hodge-podge of rickety shacks, including a plank to a separate shed loaded with bunks, where out heroes would bed down for the night.

The hotel's cook fired up the grill for cheeseburgers. She was happy to see civilized folks after a week dealing with unruly students running amok protesting the oil drillings in the area. Johnson crammed a cheeseburger down, which didn't make a dent in his 20-pound lighter frame. As he shoved food, the cook stood over him, basically calling him an idiot for even attempting the journey.

Johnson took a shower, gazing at a DEET rainbow of colors seeping down the drain. He never slept so soundly.

The next day, they limped around Kaktovik, their sunburned, scraped limbs looking like they lost a tussle with a big kitty.

The real comfort came when they landed in Fairbanks, where they iced their feet in a quality hotel and toasted their hike with Alaskan Ambers and prime rib. They smiled, bemused, as they recounted the grand traverse.

Back in Seattle, they each went their separate ways. Bryant jumped on a plane for Las Vegas the next day. Johnson went to the doctor. REI and its gracious health plan covered Johnson's September surgery and full-month recovery.

"Today, in everyday life, time and mileage doesn't affect me as much as it did before this venture," Johnson reflects. "Nothing is as long, or as hard, as each of those ten days."

Today, Justin Johnson pulls taps and sells beers at Pint Defiance Specialty Beers & Taproom in Tacoma. Although you won't find a Pint Defiance employee bulletin board littered with pleas for people to join wild adventures, if a notice did pop up, Johnson would be in. He continues to climb and hike in the Pacific Northwest. He even went as far to say he'd follow his tracks in Alaska again, as long as Paul Dornish is by his side.

Paul Dornish wrote the book Chasing Dreams Raw about his lifetime of bold, amazing adventures.

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