After 1,000 miles in Alaska’s wilderness, Kristin Gates ’10 dragged her exhausted body, her backpack, and an inflatable pack-raft through the last 30 feet of thigh-deep marsh on Aug. 2. She had paddled three days and two nights with only three brief naps to reach that final swamp. “After what seemed like 10 lifetimes,” she recorded on her blog, “I was startled to find firm ground under my feet. I made it to the road. I made it to Kotzebue. I MADE IT.”
With that landfall Gates claimed the distinction of being the first woman to cross Alaska along the Brooks Range on a solo journey from the Yukon border to the sea, hiking about two thirds of the way and paddling about 300 miles, she says.
The most adventurous of her extraordinary outdoor exploits, last summer’s trip wasn’t close to her longest journey. That was the Continental Divide Trail, which she hiked north to south the summer after she graduated. “It’s still not complete,” she said of the CDT, but estimates range from 2,800 to more than 3,000 miles.
Gates was an experienced day-hiker when she arrived at Colby. But when she learned her COOT leader Bayley Lawrence ’07 had just hiked the Appalachian Trail, she was full of questions. Lawrence, who now lives in California, recalls telling Gates that taking time off from school for a through-hike “isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
Gates did Vermont’s Long Trail after her first year, took spring semester off in her sophomore year for the Appalachian Trail, then completed the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 2008, sprinting to fit all 2,650 miles of the PCT between final exams in May and the opening of school Sept. 1.
When she got behind her schedule, she resolved to go faster. “I had to average 33.3 miles a day from the midpoint of the trail to the Washington border,” she said. And she did, crossing Oregon in two weeks. She worked at Eastern Mountain Sports after her January 2010 graduation to save up for her CDT excursion that summer, which capped what is considered the triple crown for through-hikers: AT, PCT, and CDT.
In 2011 she landed in Alaska as a river guide on the Koyukuk and fell in love with the Arctic. When she wintered over in Coldfoot, Alaska, (population 10 at the last census) giving aurora borealis tours and mushing dogs, the siren song of the Brooks Range grew louder.
Crossing Alaska last summer, following a route of her own design past peaks that exceed 9,000 feet, Gates took challenges in stride. She got uncomfortably close to a grizzly bear that had just chased wolves from their caribou kill. She slipped while waist-deep in a swollen stream but regained her footing and, soon, her composure.
On her thousand-mile trip Gates crossed one road, the Haul Road, AKA the Dalton Highway. As she hitchhiked to pick up a resupply package, this view materialized.
She recounted the moment she realized that her cached food resupply was contaminated by stove fuel: “I was just too tired to be smart about what I was doing, so I stopped and I set up my tent and went to sleep,” she said, her voice objective rather than dramatic. An inventory the following morning suggested that she had enough food to make the 120 miles to “The Road” (she crossed just one, the Dalton Highway) if she put it in gear.
Her next challenge? “My dream would be to be able to support myself in the lifestyle by writing,” she said in August. She was considering a book that uses her trip as a platform to examine threats to wildlife from a proposed mining road and changes in hunting laws.
COOT leader Lawrence recalled conversations with Gates over peanut butter sandwiches on that orientation trip in 2005. “I’m totally blown away,” she said of Gates’s accomplishments. “It’s one thing to hike a trail that’s blazed for you all along the way. It’s another thing to plan an amazing expedition where you may not see anything for days. I so admire her. It’s beyond brave.”
“And I’m also really jealous,” she added.