Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Alaska Encore

When 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.

Our quartet (Erik and I flanked by friends Sarah on left and Tiffany on right) in Anuktuvik Pass with the plane that brought us there. I was wearing my pack but otherwise you can see our gear in front of us. Special thanks to Dave and Josie Nelson for lending us this bear barrel! Photo: some guy who was hiking out to the Dalton hwy

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

Throughout our trip we enjoyed mostly Goldilocks weather (aka, not too hot, not too cold, not too sunny, and not too rainy:)

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
Me and my usual little backpack as seen here in Colorado's Maroon Bells in 2016. 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

Day 4: We awoke to clear skies and I immediately declared it was mountain climbing day. We had planned that 2 days of the trip would be dedicated solely to side hiking with the goal of climbing a mountain or two. We hadn’t necessarily planned to climb a mountain from the pass but we decided this would be the best and easiest way to get up high. We looked a bit at the topo map and then I got out of the tent and checked out the mountain to the south of us. This was my first time scouting a route by just looking at the mountain and it looked like the far ridgeline would be quite do-able so we set out for that.

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.
We brought our running shoes for the actual climb and cached our boots once we decided the remainder of the route would be dry. After starting on a ridiculously steep gravel slope, we made it up to the ridge that was mostly small to medium loose rocks on a solid class II-III route. The top of the mountain was covered in a thick layer of snow on the north side and we had no idea what awaited us on the south slope. We figured that slope would get more sun but being as we were so far north with 24 hours of sun we weren’t exactly sure if it would be snow free. Sure enough, when we crested the ridge it was snow free and we were able to walk across the mountain to the summit.

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
Me on top. Photo: Erik

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

Day 6 involved more tussocks, less tall vegetation, and fewer ravines than the end of the previous day. A bit below Tributary Creek we tried packrafting for about a mile. The water was moving quite fast and there were some big waves with constant channel picking and rock dodging (we’d give it a class II) but overall it was shallow. At one point we decided to do a peel out maneuver to leave the eddy we had stopped in. Erik and I got spun around quickly when the current caught the back of the packraft. This threw Erik off the raft. I braced super hard in front to keep the raft from tipping. Erik kept hold of his paddle and the packraft and was able to walk us back to shore. The water was cold but it was another Goldilocks day and so Erik was able to stay warm as we kept going. Shortly after that we resumed hiking on the east side of Ernie Creek as we could tell there was a big gorge coming up. Later we scouted the water which appeared to be quite shallow with lots of rocks and decided it was better to hike. We were too far out for something bad to happen and the views up on the plateau were stunning.

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
As we were portaging we got back into the trees! We hadn’t seen any trees in 6 days since we left Fairbanks and it was both exciting and a bit bittersweet to be back in the trees as we left the tundra behind and marked the halfway point in our trip.

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
Finally packrafting with Frigid Crags on the right.

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

Day 8: Due to all the rain, the river had risen at least 2 feet and instead of being glacial blue, was now brown silt. We were a bit concerned this would make the water dangerously fast but instead found it made things easier as we no longer had to carefully pick our channels. We made good time and by early afternoon had reached our planned destination, setting ourselves up well for another mountain attempt.

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 9: The next day was only a paddling day. It rained on us intermittently and we were a bit cold. At one point a thunderstorm rolled in quickly. By the time we thought maybe it would be safer onshore, the storm had already passed over. There were a number of gravel bars along our route that provided for great lunch spots and often had some sand that made doing some plyometrics fun (mostly to warm up!). We camped on a few of these gravel bars. That night, at 9 PM, the weather definitively switched. The sun stayed out for good- all night long:)

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

Our second to last campsite.
Day 11: Another spectacular weather day. Again, we mostly floated but sometimes did some paddling when we felt we needed to make more time. Now we only occasionally had views back to the mountains.

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
In reflecting on this trip, especially the last 2 days when we had Goldilocks weather, what strikes me is how “normal” or ordinary this trip seemed to me. I love point to point or big circle adventures, and this one being a point to point, allowed for purpose. True, we were above the Arctic Circle and didn’t seen any other people in 10 days, but despite this I felt amazingly comfortable and “at home.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this Elspeth. Looks like an interesting trip. I'm always interested in doing something different, especially if I can get my family jazzed about it.