ANCHORAGE - Roman Dial wanted to know how far he could hike across the Alaska wilderness carrying all his own food, gear and supplies.
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The long-distance trekker found out by hiking 622 miles in northwest Alaska, carrying a pack that in the beginning weighed 59 pounds - 42 pounds of that in food, including 45 chocolate bars, 40 small bags of chips, 3 pounds of almond butter, brown sugar, freeze dried meals, butter, noodles, olive oil, dried cherries, mashed potato powder, cocoa and powdered milk.
Dial, a 45-year-old professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, and two other trekkers started last month from the village of Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea. Dial was accompanied by Ryan Jordan, 36, who publishes Backpacking Light Magazine and is based in of Bozeman, Mont., and Jason Geck, 33, a geography instructor and teacher of an outdoor studies class at APU.
"I think everybody was a little apprehensive because it was such a daunting distance," Dial said Wednesday.
Dial, the only one to go all the way from Kivalina to the Dalton Highway, completed the trek in 23 days and 8 hours.
The trio started June 11, following animal paths and picking routes along gravel bars and ridge tops as they moved first north and then east, at one point crossing over the Brooks Range. They also made dangerous chest-high crossings of rivers swollen with snowmelt - one time inflating the waterproof bags they kept their food in - to swim across a wide channel of the Colville River.
The route the hikers took included stopping at the most remote spot in the United States, defined by the team as that place farthest from roads and towns. The spot, pinpointed with the help of global positioning satellites, is along the Ipnavik River, 120 miles from the villages of Ambler and Atqasuk, and about 380 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Dial said.
"We walked to it and took some pictures," he said.
On the second day of the hike about 30 miles from Kivalina, the trio surprised a grizzly bear on the Wulick River. The bear was eating a moose and did not want to be interrupted.
Dial was in the lead when the bear took a couple of steps toward them. They took a couple of steps back and began yelling at it.
"He stood up and he was tall," Dial said Thursday. "I yelled the loudest."
Dial said there were a few tense moments before the bear slowly moved off. It was then the hikers discovered the moose carcass.
"It explained his begrudging behavior," Dial said.
Jordan said one of his favorite moments was finding some ancient Inupiat hunting structures with arrowhead fragments and piles of caribou bones on a ridge between Surprise Creek and Kokolik River, near the northernmost point of their route.
Then, there was the time a large, white wolf followed the hikers for about a half-hour.
"We howled at it and it howled back," Dial said.
In the beginning, the trio walked 10 hours a day, stopping every two hours to rest and drink at least a quart of water each, dipping it straight out of rivers and streams.
Jordan walked five days and nearly 100 miles when he twisted his ankle.
"I fell through a small section of rotten shelf ice over a creek and landed onto my ankle," he said.
Jordan walked another 80 miles on the bad ankle before the pain got so bad he couldn't ignore it. He initially thought it was just a bad sprain but as the swelling went down he could see the ankle was badly bruised and not holding together very well.
"The pain went through the roof," he said.
A Bush pilot was called and Jordan was picked up from a gravel bar on the Utukok River, about 170 miles into the trek. It turned out that he'd torn a tendon and ligaments in his lower leg.
"This was a bad step. This is really rugged terrain. You just have to try and accept there is some level of risk if you are going long distances like this," he said.
Dial trekked on with Geck. Now that their packs were lighter, the two often hiked four hours without stopping and usually put in at least 12-hour days. In one 22-hour period, they hiked a marathon 49 miles to reach Anaktuvik Pass. Geck, whose goal was to reach Anaktuvik Pass, decided he'd go home.
Geck said he went through his food pretty fast and was hungry by the second week.
Geck, who is 5 feet, 11 inches, ended up losing 15 pounds, going from 163 pounds to 148 pounds.
"Toward the end I was craving his chocolate," he said of Dial's cache of chocolate bars.
In hindsight, Geck said he wishes he'd pushed to the end with Dial. But at the time he wanted to get back for the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a race he helps organize.
Even so, he's pleased with his 530-mile trek.
"I don't think there are a lot of places left like this in the world and I felt privileged to be able to walk through it," Geck said.
Dial's trek ended north of Wiseman at about midnight on July 4. He had some food left over in his pack, mostly small amounts of noodles, olive oil, brown sugar, powdered milk and cereal. He also has a full can of potato chips.
"I think I could go 700 miles," he said. "But I don't have to. I'm satisfied. I was ready to come home."
Along the way, the 5-foot, 11-inch Dial lost 14 pounds, going from 177 pounds to 163 pounds.
Dial's back ached early on because his pack was heavy with food. Then, there were the sores, blisters and splits that developed on his feet over the next 600 miles.
The first week he wore a hole through the side of one of his trail-weight running shoes. Eventually, a sore developed on his baby toe. Then, he got a blister on the tip of a toe.
"Then I got some puss pockets on my right foot," he said.
By the end of the second week, the foot infections cleared up but that's when the soles of his feet cracked.
"I got these bloody splits on the bottom of my feet. That was painful. I had to walk very gingerly," Dial said.
While there were some tough times along the way, Dial said he felt exhilarated as he neared civilization and the Dalton Highway. He finished his trek under sunny skies near some craggy mountains with sheer cliffs and waterfalls.
"I felt very satisfied and content, very relaxed," he said. "I felt very satisfied that I had accomplished what I set out to do."