Brass Caps and Bandanas—Monumenting Anaktuvuk Pass

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The Inupiaq are Eskimo people that live along the Arctic Ocean coast of Alaska’s North Slope. In the last few hundred years a nomadic splinter group of the Inupiaq known as the Nunamiut moved inland away from the coast to follow the Caribou migrations and settled at Chandler Lake and the Killik River in the Brooks Mountain Range. In 1949 as air travel expanded services throughout Alaska, 13 families of the Nunamiut moved to the Plateau Area known as Anaktuvuk Pass because it better accommodated aircraft, and they could trade their furs for guns, ammunition, and other supplies. Soon thereafter the area developed into the Village of Anaktuvuk Pass.

Anaktuvuk Pass today is a remote village outpost of about 250 people, serviced only by air and sometimes cat trains in the winter from the North Slope Haul Road. ("Cat trains" is a Canadian term for trains hauled by Caterpillar tractors.) The village lies completely inside the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The park, established in 1980, encompasses the 700-mile Brooks Mountain Range that extends east-west across the Arctic Circle. It’s the second largest park in the United States after Wrangell St. Elias. In 1996 a three-way land exchange proposal was passed between the National Park Service, the Nunamiut Corporation, and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, giving the Nunamiut Eskimos a sizeable chunk of land to harvest traditional subsistence foods.

In 2008, McClintock Land Associates of Eagle River, Alaska was hired by the Nunamiut-Lounsbury LLC to survey the boundary of these new Eskimo lands. These lands in the Brooks Range are dissected by the Continental Divide in some of the most rugged terrain in Alaska. Within the 18 townships, 135 existing rectangular monuments needed to be recovered, and 125 new monuments needed to be set. In June of 2009 the project commenced with a crew of six surveyors flying with their gear from Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass.

Alaska surveyor Gary Kowal–and a member of the original CFEDS class– was the project supervisor. His 25 years’ of experience in federal boundary surveys prepared him for any logistical problems that might arise with surveying in remote areas. Mike Frame, a multi-state licensed surveyor with extensive experience in surveying Alaska Native lands was selected as the computations man.

Chuck Lamb led one of the two field crews. Chuck gained notoriety among Alaska surveyors a few years back when a misstep caused the rotor blade of a fully-powered Hughes 500 helicopter to clip the back of his helmeted head, with the next rotating blade separating and vaporizing one of his shoulder blades. After six months of repair and physical therapy, the tough ex-Marine was back in the field. He was joined by Ryan Kowal, Gary’s 20-year-old son, a tough hockey player and new to the survey profession.

The second field crew was made up of Ralph Sousa and me. Ralph has probably set more BLM monuments in 20 years than most surveyors set in a lifetime. We were joined in Anaktuvuk by Mark Shelton from Quicksilver Air Inc., our Hughes 500 helicopter pilot from New Zealand. Mark’s abilities took us into places where probably few people have ever set foot. Usually on these Alaska boundary jobs we operate with a Robinson 44 gasoline-powered helicopter, a fine chopper in its own right, but with the terrain of the Anaktuvuk project we decided to lease the more expensive and noisier, but much more powerful Hughes 500. The elevations and unpredictable weather made it safer and easier to work. Because of its shorter rotor blades, it could toe-in on target even during steep inclinations. That being said, commuting to work in a Hughes 500 is like commuting to work in a Lamborghini–you can’t help but admire her lines, her power, and her speed. We affectionately called her Nuts `n Bolts.

The first thing we had to do was to get our control up and recover 125 rectangular corners that had been set along township lines every two miles in 1975 and 1982 by F.M. Lindsey & Associates and Rich Helm of the Bureau of Land Management. There were also some corners from 160-acre Native allotment sites at Chandler Lake, 30 miles west of Anaktuvuk Pass. Mark pulled a lot of grayling and large trout from the lake while waiting on us and our static sessions.

After daily mission planning with Gary and Mike, we would all head out to the airport. The first crew out would set up the control bases and RTK radio. If your morning coffee doesn’t wake you up, the high-pitched scream of a 500-turbine engine will surely do the job. On the flights out to the target corners we flew over bears, wolves and Dall sheep. Ironically, I only saw one caribou, which was strange, given that "Anaktuvuk" means "caribou droppings" in the Inupiat language. Obviously the caribou migrating season had passed.

The original corners were all basically in good condition. We added underground magnet accessories using a Warren-Knight surveyor’s compass and tape, as well as the odd "XBO" chiseled into prominent nearby boulders for a permanent bearing object to the corner. We would also build a large cairn or bolt an orange triangle to an aluminum rod for better visibility from the air. Thirtyminute static sessions with Topcon GR3s and HiPers nailed down the positions.

Getting dressed in the daily surveying combat garb also involves a choice of bandanas. On rainy and gloomy days I go orange for more visibility and bling. I choose the purple for those radical cliff-hanger days when map contour lines get so bunched up they are indistinguishable from each other. (There’s something spiritual about purple; I’ll take any help I can get on some of those lines.) Of course my favorite bandana is blue­blue like a sunny sky.

One morning we flew out to a satellite part of the job consisting of two townships not contiguous with the rest of the project. Now, I have surveyed all over Alaska and I have seen bugs in vast densities and quantities. But holy moly. After the helicopter left and the downdraft disappeared, the shear numbers of winged attackers were astounding. I must have eaten a couple hundred trying not to inhale them. One gets covered with a thick crawling layer of mosquitoes­head to toe­and you don’t want to move too fast to disturb them or you’ll have an even thicker cloud of a billion bugs around your head. Mosquitoes are always present, whether at the top of a 6,000-foot rocky mountain peak or down on the valley floor, mosquitoes. Ralph and I theorized a naked man wouldn’t last four hours out there, but would die a sad pitiful death accompanied only by his insanity. My defense was a couple gallons of 28% DEET, a little bit of Zen, and the odd cigar.

After all the relevant corners had been recovered and rehabilitated, Mike calculated the new corner positions and we navigated with our hand-held Garmins, then positioned the corner using RTK. At times we had problems linking with the RTK radio because of the varied terrain, sharp mountain ridges, and concave undulating hills. In those situations we used a Pacific Crest PDL repeater kit and moved it when necessary. Sometimes it’s necessary just to keep it in the helicopter and have Mark fly circles around us up high as it only takes a minute to position. After pinning down the corner we ran a 30-minute static session to pull in the control vectors, then we set the monument and its accessories using RTK or the staff compass.

On the 4th of July Ralph and I were on a high exposed bluff overlooking the vast Brooks Mountains. It began as a warm day, clear and sunny, but that was about to change. A large, menacing, gray
thunder cell about 10 miles distant continued to grow larger as it moved toward us, devouring the land. Ten minutes into the static session, the oncestill air was slammed by a wall of wind that snatched our triangle accessory and sent it spinning into a gray void below. At that same moment an imminent wall of rain became very apparent and we struggled to get into our rain gear. When the rain hit, it hit hard and horizontally, and the temperature plunged. Intense hail and lightning bolts followed. Ralph grabbed the digging bar and charged out across the bluff in a fashion I have not seen since Michael Johnson won the 200 meters at the Atlanta Olympics. He threw the bar like a javelin to get it and its electrical conducting properties away from us and the GR3. In our raincoats we hunkered down next to the bipod to shield our faces from the marble-sized hail for the next 30 minutes. The helicopter was stalled in Anaktuvuk Pass waiting for the system to pass before coming to extract us. I’ll remember that section corner for a long time.

At every corner we were required to make an impression of the cap and take photographs. The impression is usually made with a Number 6 pencil on regular light stock paper, or better yet, a smooth piece of brass on Rite in the Rain® paper. I use a 44-magnum flat nose brass wad cutter round, which leaves a nice clear and readable impression.

We started the project hitting the corners and lines that had the least amount of radical terrain, just the rolling tundra and undulating foothills. This allowed us to establish a methodic working system on the ground and with the helicopter before working the cliff hangers.

The Brooks are 126 million years old, the remains of the collision of multiple primitive tectonic plates. The straight vertical sides are covered in loose, fractured rock that pours like the sand through an hourglass through thousands of vertical gullies. On the border of the park, one mountain required 21 corners to be set in one-quarter mile stair-step fashion along cliff faces and gullies. We called it "The Wall," and decided to save it for last. It was purple bandana material.

We took the doors off the helicopter to move ourselves and the equipment in and out as easily as possible. The expertise of the pilot with his machine was truly appreciated on The Wall. I don’t think we set a single true position corner there, just witness corners and mostly offline at that. One of the corners could not even be set or witnessed.

We positioned and set the last monument one month to the day from when we commenced the survey. There were no rotor strikes, no close bear encounters, no weather days. We brought back photos and data, and left only two-and-a-half-inch diameter stainless steel posts with brass caps projecting here and there from the ground, along with maybe a footprint or two for the next lucky surveyors to follow us in one of the most least-disturbed and pristine areas on the continent.

Daryl Moistner is a licensed Nevada surveyor and photographer. He currently lives in Oregon and works throughout the American West and Alaska.

Note: All photos by Daryl Moistner.

A 3.161Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with killer images—is available by clicking HERE