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Finding true north.

Byline: Jeff Smith The Register-Guard

With the aid of 24-hour sunlight and a pair of binoculars handy at all times, Dan Geiger wasn't about to miss any of the numerous wildlife he expected to encounter during an 11-day rafting trip in the Arctic.

Five days into it, though, and nothing more than a few wolves and some birds had been spotted.

"We were all saying, `Where's the caribous? Where's the grizzlies?' ' said Geiger, the UO Outdoor Program coordinator who helped lead an 11-person group in June up through the 85-mile Firth River in the northern Yukon Territory in Canada. `We were a little worried those first few days because we didn't see much.'

On the sixth night, during dinner in a canyon reach near the river, a member of the group eagerly pointed out what he thought was a single caribou strolling on a nearby hill.

Everybody quickly put down their forks and grabbed their binoculars for closer inspection.

`We all looked at it, and were like, `Wait a minute, the whole hillside is moving!' And it was,' said Geiger, his voice rising as he recalls the thrill of the moment. `It was just hundreds of caribou, probably 2,500 in all. That started this series of great sightings the rest of the trip. The wildlife was amazing.'

As was the trip itself for Geiger and his companions, who successfully pulled off one of the most expensive expeditions (more than $20,000) the UO Outdoor Program has ever undertaken.

`I think everyone would agree that it was worth every cent,' said Geiger, 37, a 1990 UO graduate who began working with the program as a student. `I've done a lot of cool stuff since I've been here, but this ranks up near the top.'

The group was dropped off on the banks of the Firth River on June 21 with 2,500 pounds of rafting gear and were picked up on July 1. In the meantime, no other human was spotted, leaving those who entered as strangers to depart with an intense bond formed nearly 1,500 miles north of the United States and Canada border.

`You go through challenges together and you overcome them and become a very tight group," Geiger said. "We're all alone in a place that's about as north as you can get on the main continent. But then suddenly, the trip is over, and it's a very emotional and challenging gear change to break apart from a group that's almost been like an extended family.'

The travelers will be reunited at a public slideshow and video presentation next week on the UO campus. The free program is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, in 177 Lawrence Hall.

Geiger will present a slide presentation of his photographs, and Sean Cassidy and Patricia Keith, both professors at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, will show a video montage of the trip that they've trimmed down to a half-hour.

`I've had my eye in all the video footage for months now, but there's no way video can really capture the feel of just how much open space there was,' Keith said. `That's what really stands out, just that sense of space. It really surprised me.'

Keith and Cassidy were the only members of the group who braved the 10-day drive through undeveloped roads to the meeting point in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

"That was a magnificent experience," Keith said. "My favorite weather report I heard on the radio up there said, `Tonight, it will be sunny.' '

The others took a bus from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C., and then flew to Inuvik. From there, everybody boarded small charter flights into the Ivvavik National Park of Canada and the Firth River.

All the while, Geiger was worried about the gear that was being flown separately, and was much relieved when everything arrived safely.

`The logistics were just so challenging for this,' Geiger said. `It was fairly complex, with each step of the way having you holding your breath and wondering if the gear was coming. Everything had to run like clockwork, so there were a lot of nerves.'

The idea for the voyage was thought up by trip co-leader Howard Newman in 1999. Newman, also a UO graduate, researched the area, developed a detailed plan, and eventually persuaded Geiger to give the go-ahead.

Geiger also found an educational reason for checking out the area.

`At first, I was like, `No way, we're not going that far up there,' ' Geiger said. "But the more I looked into the river and the more the controversy over drilling for oil in ANWR began to heat up, the more it really made sense to try to pull it off.'

In August of 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an energy bill that opened the door for potential oil drilling in Alaska's neighboring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The bill, which still is being debated in Congress, has generated intense discussion over whether to use the land to drill for oil or preserve it and not disturb the wildlife there.

After experiencing the Arctic up close, Geiger is even more passionate about his beliefs.

`I want people to understand that it isn't the barren wasteland that many people are making it out to be,' Geiger said. `It's a very fragile landscape that is incredibly vital and teeming with wildlife. It would just be a disastrous thing to put oil rigs and lines in there.

`The Canadians had enough sense to protect their land and the Americans have not. We need to protect this.'

Aside from the wildlife, the Firth River itself was a highlight for Geiger and his team.

The 85-mile river that flows north into the Beaufort Sea is considered one of the oldest rivers in the Arctic because it wasn't glaciated during the ice ages.

It consists of four distinct zones that all presented unique viewpoints and varying degrees of rapid flow.

First, there was the Aufeis Reach that is known for its large sheets of ice. Then came the Mountain Reach that had the group floating between steep mountain sides that came down to the river's edge.

`That was spectacular,' Keith said.

The water picked up in the Canyon Reach, which featured many challenging class III (medium) and class IV (difficult) rapids.

It was during this stretch of the water that Keith `lost a really good tripod' for her camera when a raft she was in flipped over.

Fortunately, the video camera and the film were securely stored away and survived the ordeal.

`Otherwise, there'd be no video to show,' Keith said.

Keith was riding in a raft with Cassidy and Nick Fisher when they suddenly flipped into the extremely cold water. The three were rescued by fellow group member Laura Parker, who navigated the rapids in her kayak.

`It all happened so quickly,' Keith said. `Laura came over and picked me up and got me on shore. She was obviously great to have along.'

The final stage of the river was the Delta Reach, which splits apart and becomes braided before forming a large delta about nine miles long and four miles wide.

After getting through the water, the group then had to find a path in a 1 1/2 -mile bay area that was covered in ice to make it to their final destination point, where they were to be picked up the next morning.

`We were so exhausted that night and wanted to collapse, but we also didn't want it to end,' Geiger said.

The 11 days turned out better than Geiger expected, with scenic midnight hikes in the sunlight and gorgeous 70-degree weather during the day.

Now he can't wait for next week's slideshow to relive the memories with those he shared them with, and let others get a glimpse of the unique life up north.

`This is a great chance to get as close as you can to it without actually being there,' Geiger said. `Very few people visit there, and this will bring a piece of the Arctic right here to Eugene.'

CAPTION(S):

A single caribou strolls along a hillside, but the group saw thousands of migrating caribou during their journey. Laura Parker shows off a pair of moose antlers that were found by the group along the Firth River.
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Title Annotation:A Eugene rafting group explores fascinating expanse of the Arctic; Recreation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 30, 2003
Words:1395
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