Alaska EncoreWhen my vacation plans for 2018 looked like 2 trips to Alaska were in store, I asked myself if this was overkill? These would be 2 very different trips to a state twice the size of Texas with a March ski trip around the Anchorage area and a summer paddling trip north of the Arctic Circle. I thought about this a bit, but given everyone I know who has ever visited Alaska always talks about “wanting to go back,” I figured why not go back later that year?
Our March ski trip to Alaska left us wanting more. We lucked out with perfect ski conditions but given we were both the sickest we had been in years, we decided this was perhaps our worst vacation ever! Fortunately we got a do-over.
The idea of paddling a “far north” river had been on the radar for a long time. The Yukon held some allure and we almost committed to this in 2015 but for a variety of reasons (largely all the logistics) we scrapped the idea. Besides, I really wanted to canoe a river in the mountains and the Yukon was more like in the foothills.
In 2015 I happened to be flipping through an old National Geographic magazine when a particular picture of the Tinayguk River caught my eye. The river was in the mountains. I did some research and learned this river was class II-III. Given that I’m not one much for whitewater, I started considering my other options and came across the neighboring North Fork of the Koyukuk (the Tinayguk is a tributary of the North Fork of the Koyukuk). The North Fork of the Koyukuk was a class I with small sections of class II.
Zoom ahead a couple years and we decided 2018 was the year to make this trip happen. After spending a decent time pondering logistics for this trip, we decided to fly into the arctic village of Anuktuvik Pass and then hike and packraft to the arctic village of Bettles. Almost the entirety of this trip lies within Gates of the Arctic National Park where there are no trails and absolutely no infrastructure- not even a sign. In other words, my kind of place.
We bought a used packraft and lost no time trying it out.
|Trying it out in the living room right after it arrived. Don't worry, we tried it out on the Minnehaha Creek and Mississippi River a couple times before we left.|
Here’s a brief day-by-day synopsis of our trip which transpired in early July:
Day 1: We took a 10 person airplane on a semi-commercial airline (Wright Air) from Fairbanks to Anuktuvik Pass. This small plane flies around 10,000 feet allowing for some stunning views. About half way into the flight we approached a broad valley with a wide river. It took me awhile for some reason to realize this was the Yukon! Seeing this iconic gem of the north that is so powerful moved me to tears.
|There's tears behind those glasses as I pose with the Yukon! Photo: Erik|
As we neared Anuktuvik Pass we were flying directly above the mountains!
|This flight was the best $175 I've ever spent. Photo: Erik|
And then we landed in Anuktuvik Pass! After spending so much time planning about this trip it was a bit surreal to finally be here.
Once in Anuktuvik Pass we poked around time a bit and then set out on our trip on the tundra.
|Starting our hike on the Tundra. Sarah and Tiffany in photo. This is the Anuktuvik River that drains into the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Erik|
Day 2: More sun and continuing towards Ernie Pass, the divide between the Arctic and Pacific watersheds. We only made 8 miles given the difficult trail conditions (tussocks, deep stream crossings, occasional shrubs) and heavy bear barrel that Erik and Tiffany took turns carrying (we took some food out but it still weighed around 60 pounds). Meanwhile, I labored under my heavy 35 pound pack. OK, 35 pounds isn’t too bad considering it was a dry bag and included our packraft and one lifejacket but since I’m used to about a 15 pound pack it felt heavy:)
|Me and my 35 pound pack. The tundra was often quite wet and we were glad to be hiking in our new NRS neoprene boots. Photo: Erik|
Day 3 began cloudy and drizzled on and off. We were still able to see the tops of the mountains but I’m a fair weather camper and really really wanted to sit on some dry ground on our breaks. Hence, we kept our breaks short and kept forging on and covered the same distance as the previous day in much better time. We made it up to the broad Ernie Pass on the Continental Divide where we found some dry ground and set up camp.
|Drizzly day and ice on the river. This was the only time I sat down all day and paid for it with a wet butt. Photo: Erik|
|It's mountain climbing day!!! Photo: Erik|
|The mountain we climbed. Our tents are in the low spot on the divide on the right. We hiked across the base of the mountain and then ascended on the far left ridgeline before making our way across the top.|
This was Tiffany’s first ever summit and since this sub-peak didn’t have a name we decided to name it “Tiffany’s First Peak.” The views were obviously amazing!
|Tiffany on her mountain:) Photo: Sarah|
Day 5: It was time to move on and so we began hiking along Ernie Creek on a watershed that drains to the Pacific! From here on out the paddling part of our trip could potentially begin. Unfortunately water levels were too low so we kept hiking.
Around this time we began leaving the “north slope,” aka the tundra. The vegetation was getting taller and we had more rocks to contend with. As the afternoon wore on the shrubs got increasingly taller and we had a couple ravines to cross. We had an arbitrary goal of making it to Tributary Creek, but alas, as the breaks became more frequent and we got a stunning view of the Gates of the Arctic (two mountains, Boreal and Frigid Crags, that rise up above the North Fork of the Koyukuk on either side) on a dry ridge, we decided to set up camp (even if the sun wouldn’t be setting for another 5 days).
|Our camping spot with the Gates of the Arctic in the background. Photo: Erik|
|This is what I came for- mountains rising out of boreal forest! Photo: Sarah|
|Not bad views with Mt. Doonerak and Hanging Glacier Mountains in the backdrop as Tiffany and I walk along. Photo: Erik|
After some bushwacking through the forest, we arrived at the North Fork of the Koyukuk. We inflated our packrafts yet again and this time, it was for real! We had to always pick the deepest channel and a couple times we had to line but mostly it was nice paddling. We set up camp at the base of Frigid Crags Mountain.
|The final section of bushwhacking before we could definitively begin packrafting! I love how Sarah and I defined by our packs. Photo: Erik|
Day 7: As a dedicated side hiking day, we had valiant plans to climb a mountain but we awoke to rain and remained in our tents until 11 am. Although the weather was clearing there were still clouds and it was intermittently raining. After dinner we decided we better get out for a hike. We tried climbing a mountain but found that although from a distance it appeared to be grass, up close it was thick bushes up to 5 feet high growing down the hillside. This made progress really slow and after a couple hours we gave up.
|Me fighting through the really tall shrubs on the mountain we tried to climb. Sometimes, when the going is this tough, it's better to just try again tomorrow. Photo: Sarah|
After a successful first summit bid a few days earlier, Tiffany now had summit fever. We set out for Eroded Mountain and were happy to discover the walking through the evergreen trees was relatively easy. Once above treeline there were some shrubs, but significantly fewer than on the mountain we had tried climbing the day before. After a series of false summits, we made it to the actual top- a sketchy bed of shale! We then cooked dinner at a slightly lower spot that had a beautiful view looking back towards Gates of the Arctic. We saw a rainbow but of course that also meant it rained on us :) and :(
|This was our absolutely amazing dinner view looking back north this time towards the Gates of the Arctic. Photo: Sarah|
|The rainbow! Photo: Sarah|
Day 10: Under sunny skies we departed our gravel bar campsite. 1.5 miles later we realized we had left our water bag and filter. Given we didn’t have any side hiking planned for the day, I declared we go back to retrieve the water bag and filter. Erik and I took off on this mission alone and predominantly portaged upstream along the gravel bars. The current was way too strong for our packrafts to paddle upstream. When the gravel bars ran out, we got in the packraft and ferried across the river. It took us about 50 minutes to get back upstream and only 20 minutes to go back downstream! It was a good thing we did that little adventure because that proved to be the most adventurous thing we did all day!
After Glacier River came in, there was something on our maps labeled “Squaw Rapids.” We assumed these to be Class II and didn’t know much about them. It ended up being about a mile plus long of mostly choppy waves requiring minimal navigation. We can only assume that the high water levels covered up all the pillow rocks and actually made things easier.
The rest of the day we literally spent floating given the packrafts aren’t terribly fun to paddle and the current was trucking along at a good 4-5 miles an hour anyway. We enjoyed the scenery as the trees gradually got bigger and bigger and we started to get out of the mountains. We camped on another gravel bar. Wow, backcountry camping is so easy when there is Goldilocks weather!
|Erik and I paddling/floating. Photo: Sarah|
|Sarah and Tiffany floating in relaxed mode. The mountains are now way behind us. Photo: Erik|
Day 12: We had a short paddle to the town of Bettles where we met our 10 person plane for the flight back to Fairbanks.
|The gravel runway at the airport in the booming metropolis of Bettles. Way just kidding! Photo: Erik|