A rather long write up from an 8 day rafting trip in the Brooks Range.http://adventuresandtinkerings.blogspot ... range.html
Text below - One line paragraphs are from photos which can be found in the blog.
It all started with an email to Luc Mehl about the location of the 2016 Summer Alaskan Mountain Classic - a sufferfest through some of the most remote and stunning scenery around. When the response came back as the Brooks Range and that it would be one of the ‘easiest’ classic’s in history, I became very excited. I knew the Brooks Range as a place of wonderment, a formidable chain of mountains high above the Arctic Circle, made famous by Bob Marshall’s exploits in the 1920’s. The course this year, planned to start in Galbraith Lake, on the arctic slope and travel back through the range to Wiseman, around 120 miles south.
My plan now was to get into peak fitness and cut every bell and whistle from my gear to give me the lightest pack I could get away with… but plans are funny things. In practice, I spent all of my time trying to finish my scooter project and the week before the race went on a 5 day packrafting trip on the Susitna river leaving only a couple of hours to prepare for 120 miles of unknown wilderness. Without a route, maps, ultralight gear or any pressing time constraints, it was quickly decided to put the sufferfest off for another year and instead embark on a much faffier trip through the Brooks.
So after running ferry for the WIlderness Classic and watching 30 or so people excitedly prance into the range, we set about planning a route. Thankfully, we had the Brooks Range Visitor Center and one of the friendliest and most knowledgeable guides at our disposal - Ranger Bob. Bob had been exploring and guiding around the range for 25 years and had a wealth of experience in addition to some of the largest feet and hands I have seen… all the better for fighting off the bears.
Constance got pretty good at the harp with all that waiting
With a route in mind, the heaviest pack I have hauled and 8 days of food, Constance and I now set out on the Dalton Highway to hitch our way to Kunuktuvuk Creek to start our trip. Hitching could have started a little better. The Dalton Highway certainly isn’t a major thoroughfare, built to service the oil and gas works at Deadhorse in 1975 and opened to tourist traffic in 1995. The vast majority of traffic consisted of service vehicles, many employed to build a fibre optic network around the arctic to speed up stock trading for investment brokers impossibly far away. Thankfully after a good 4 hours or so of hanging about on the highway a couple of these guys picked us up and ferried us about halfway to our destination which subsequently became our campsite for the night.
After some refreshing zeds and fire in our stomachs, we spent another good 4 hours before getting a ride with a couple of friendly Chileans who filled us with great music and also offloaded us two bananas as they departed (thanks!). Unfortunately where they left us was too far, next to Atagan Pass, but again thankfully we were picked up a third and final time by a lovely Japanese couple. Apparently, Australia is a cracking hang gliding destination and one of the couple had visited in her previous life as a teenage glider prodigy.
Views from the road
Now finally at our starting point, our first task was to cross a rather cold and wide Nutirwik Ck. While crossing we saw a handsome little hut a little further down stream and now quite late in the ‘day’ (24 hr sunlight), we chose to explore, in the hope it may be a park hut. Alas, a quick reccy found it to be very much under ownership, leaving us to start our long ascent up the valley.
The first night found us at the confluence of Trembley Ck and Kuyuktuvuk Ck, at this point pumping from recent rain and thoroughly unpassable. Setting up on a gravel bank in the open, we got our first taste of bear fear for the trip… huuuge paw prints! Funnily enough they were usually side by side with those of a walker who knows who was following who. So after a lovely fire and some dinner we hit the hay where Constance sank into her routine of growling and snuffling as bear like as possible to unconsciously test my alertness.
Posing at the confluence of Trembley and Kuyuktuvuk Creeks
In the morning we had a slow breakfast and made a start up the valley. The travel was a mixture of slow side hill tussock walking interspersed with speedy gravel banks which would have to be abandoned frequently as the banks grew too narrow. With 25+kg packs, this quickly became exhausting and slowed our pace considerably, such that our lofty goal of reaching Oolah pass was put off for another day.
Playing on some snow before climbing to Oolah Lake
Another pleasant gravel bar sleep later and we now started climbing to Oolah and got a good view of the alternate route, a fairly low pass between the bend on the Kuyutuvuk and the haul road. After taking 2 rather slow days to get this far, I would definitely consider coming in via this route, to allow some more time in the further valleys.
Now in full climbing mode, ascending to Oolah pass the boggy lowlands gave way to lovely cushiony tundra, leading me to the tale of the tu’s. For everything bad I say about tussock I have something good to say about tundra. Tussock is boggy and uneven, tundra is dry and flat, tussock is boring and bad on the ankles, tundra is a work of art and feels like walking on clouds and so on. Needless to say, I definitely get the hype around both, and we were in a good place as the plants gave way to rock and we hit our first real mountain views at Oolah pass. The lake was glistening, the mountains were shining and the temperature had plummeted, starting to refreeze the lake. It was high time (2:30am) to get our snooze on again and tuck in for a cold night.
Oolah lake at 'night'
In the ‘morning’ (1pm), we crawled out into the day and proceeded to laze around the lake cooking and faffing. As we prepared our late breakfast we saw two orange clad men come up the pass on the other side. We went down to the lake to meet them and had some great chats about the big grizzly down the valley and of their excellent sounding route from Anaktuvuk. They had also spied the rafts in our pack and had some good advice about where we could put in on the Itkillik. If this wasn’t enough, they also gave us some spare freeze dried meals and offered us a place to crash in Fairbanks - Alaskans really are pretty great!
Now bouyed with pleasant human interactions we pranced down Oolah Ck into some of the strangest landforms I have encountered. Throughout the river and surrounding mountain range giant mounds were dotted haphazardly about, like some prehistoric gofer had decided to call the place home. Added to this, we encountered our first pair of Arctic Terns aka death gulls, that let it be known that they didn’t want to be messed with by keeping up an impressive schedule of dive bombing runs. All the while we couldn’t for the life of us imagine how these could have been formed, mini volcanos?, melting permafrost? It wasn’t until we got back to the Coldfoot ranger centre with the infinitely knowledgeable ranger Bob who filled us in with ‘ahh yes I remember when that first happened, there was a big landslide and then it gradually eroded into those mounds’. Well there we go!
Early Oolah Ck
Views into the Itkillik, the dividing range is to the left
So now moving down past moundtown, I started giving more credence to both the growing river and mountains around us. While we thought we had seen some beautiful peaks on the way, we really hadn’t seen anything comparable to the views now before us. Rising from a wide valley, snow capped spires protruded from all directions. Furthermore, the valley gave way to 5 major tributaries, each with an amazing set of peaks to explore. The first of these tributaries led straight over the continental divide, to the south, draining its water on into the Yukon, rather than the North Sea our course would follow
When we thought the mozzies were bad... see later images
Now as the valley flattened, the tussock resumed and the Oolah became runnable I became very excited about the float ahead. At this point the river was a consistent bony but fun looking Gr II. Our problem however was that we had two people, two big packs, but only one boat (Uh Oh). After our successful travels in the 2 person Gnu, we had to send it back to the rental company or risk financial ruin on our very slender budgets. All this weight in a boat however can really become quite a problem though, as we were about to find out. But not before another more pressing problem.
We had been very lucky with the weather in the previous 5 days into the trip, nothing but sun and fun fun fun. Now with our boats and everything else in our possession unpacked, a surprise storm floated over the mountains and crashed down upon us. If this wasn’t unpleasant enough, the notorious Alaskan mosquitos, which had been building in intensity throughout the trip, didn’t seem to have received the memo about the rain moratorium. Nobody wants to be out in the rain and Australian ‘mozzies’ and walkers have a truce in place, where they chill out until everything calms down. But rain to Alaskan mosquitos functions more like coke or a performance enhancing drug. Add to this that the terns were in for some more blood and we had a pretty unpleasant situation on our hands.
Just before it all went down
To escape the developing clusterstorm, we were super excited to finally jump in the river and float away, but this certainly didn't help. The boat was overloaded and we hadn’t yet figured out the best two person position as we careened down the Itkillik river at high speed. The initially fast and flat section we put in on quickly gave way to rather technical rapids, with no chance for eddying. This certainly wasn’t good. With all of our gear attached to the rafts, an overturned boat in this relentless current quickly would have ended in the misery of a very very long walk, just into the haul road, or in the worst case scenario activating the beacon. Thankfully, a gravel bar appeared in the middle of the river and I was able to steer the boat onto the bank and out of the current.
Now out of danger, Constance dashed across a channel and out of the river, where she planned to head along the bank sans pack while I navigated down stream with a more nimble boat. As Constance had the most bear risk, she would also need the mace and as I was holding onto a boat in the river it seemed like the best idea to throw it to her on shore. It wasn’t. To avoid activating the spray as it came to her Consto let the spray fall onto what looked to be a soft bank, which of course had a rock just the right size to crack off the top of the can. We were now defenceless to bears.
After this run of bad luck, it was now time for the good. Without a pack, Constance was able to cover good ground and with less weight, the raft was again nimble enough to get by. After carrying so much weight, navigating through the fast Gr II rapids without a scrap of weight on my back had me smiling like a puppy.
Pulling into camp with the temperature again plummeting, it was time again to light a fire using our wet surrounds to help escape the ravenous mosquitoes. In this pursuit Constance pulled out all the stops which included shaving driftwood into fine chips that could be used as tinder - hot tip! With full bellies and less mozzie bites than is possible I now proceeded to try and build up a fierce bear arsenal consisting of a river knife without a tip, a pole and a lighter… I think even Pooh bear would have overwhelmed the fort!
Camp for the night
Waking thankfully unmauled we now had a great day of floating ahead. The gradient had mellowed and almost immediately Constance was able to join the boat where we both stayed for the rest of the day. The going was mostly fast moving Gr I/II and a patchwork of rainstorms made for some excellent light patterns against the stark backdrop of the mountains. Closer to the boat, the river seemed the be cutting a new path straight out of the soil. Luckily for us, this often included huge chunks of permafrost leaving strange stunning ice walls topped by quiffs of vegetation. Where the river cut into trees and earthen banks was our only hazards as some of these features formed strainers in the now powerful current. Not to be deterred by the current or just about anything else at this stage, the mozzies of course came along for the ride - I have added a particularly claustrophobic video of them below.
Rivers mountains and smiles
Constance with some sweet hair
A loaded boat and an impending storm
Leaving the boat in the late afternoon in a swarm of mozzies, we were pretty chuffed to have completed half of the trip distance wise in a day and a half of packrafting. This chuffedness however wasn’t long lasting as the rain that had looked so pretty in the distance now descended without taking any prisoners. Cold rain drops soon crashed down with fierce winds from the West perfectly aligning to flood the air vents of my rain pants. After our wetting, an insidious layer of fog started to creep up the valley. To avoid being caught out without any direction in the impending whiteout we took a good look at the landscape and rummaged around for our compasses to fix a bearing. Of course my usually trusty Silva had exploded and leaked it’s precious fluid and Constance’s compass was pretty keen to display it’s latest dance moves. So now in a white out and a fairly cold and miserable state we found a tussock free spot and proceeded to set up tent.
Earlier in the trip we had experienced some bad luck with tent pegs and were now worried any kind of poo... may descend in the night, so went fossicking around for alternatives. Without any tree branches or suitable rocks we looked to an unlikely candidate, scattered in abundance throughout the area… antlers. Tens of thousands of caribou migrate through this range every year and evidence of their presence is everywhere from antler fragments to hoof tracks. These antlers, as well as their moose relatives adorn a huge number of Alaskan houses and are a highly sought after commodity. They also stayed in place in the soil providing a warm and happy night.
The morning brought a cloudy but dry sky, which is all we needed to make the final push to Galbraith lake along the Itikmalak river and then around a mellow looking pass. It turned out that this final push, had more pushing than we expected. Bouyed by the earlier rain, our first unnamed creek was an icy raging torrent which took about half an hour to scout out and cross. Crossing the Itikmalak and it’s far more formidable catchment now became an increasing concern. All the way up the valley we followed a frothing powerful mess of grade IV trouble. From time to time we would come to a section that may potentially be crossable but each of these had some pretty dire consequences in the result of a failure. Finally and thankfully, we came to what looked to best place for a crossing. The river fanned wide to around 60 meters and split into 4 or so channels.
Getting ready for the worst we adorned our drysuits, helmets and life jackets and followed all of Luc’s river crossing advice (thanks!), taking it in turns to secure our footing in the fast brown torrent. After 5 or so minutes slowly working our way across we eventually made it to the bank and celebrated by eating our last Cliff Bar. We would need all of the energy from this sucker to make it up what looked like a cheery hill but turned out to be a slog of pure tussock. After getting to the top and confronted again with some great scenery Constance let forth some sage advice "hills of tussock certainly make flat tussock seem good”.
Rushing to make the Galbraith campsite before bedtime, we continued around what seemed to be the never ending hill. Every edge would make it seem like Galbraith was just around the corner, but that day... it never was. The temperature again plummeted and we were forced to start making some unhappy decisions; we had one meal left and an unknown distance and wait on our hands tomorrow. Our dinner or breakfast stalemate was solved by splitting the meals and using absolutely everything left at our disposal. Dinner consisted of the best dehydrated mash potato and stock cube that has been created and breakfast comprised a portion of vegetables. Whilst gratefully spooning down dinner I paused to watch the throngs of mosquitoes glisten in the midnight sun across the arctic plains and couldn’t help but see their beauty. Marveling at mosquitos, wasn't something I thought possible before coming to the Brooks.
Now the mozzies were getting bad
Posing with my new friends
Hopeful that we would soon be back in the food wonderland that is civilisation, we now proceeded around the final hills and down to Galbraith lake. On our way down we passed a walker carrying an outrageously large pack sweating his way into the mountains. Further down in a tributary of the lake we passed our first signs of human habitation, rusted cans and bits of junk strewn throughout the river. Then, all too soon we were back on a road with the airbase in sight. But there was still one more chance for a slog. We had taken a wrong turn bringing us in view of our end goal, the glimmering oil pipeline, but with a seemingly innocuous field in front of us. We embarked across it and of course found ourselves battling in the worst (flat) tussock of the trip!
So with newly wet shoes and running on empty, we hit the Denali highway and stuck up our thumbs hopeful for a lift. After a couple of cars whizzed past a guy (who would later became our friend - Matt) kindly opened the door and shuffled us into warmth and down the road to the Coldfoot buffet. I really didn’t think I had the capacity to eat like a maniacal 14 year old boy anymore, but man was I proved wrong. Three full plates of main meals and 2 subsequent dessert plates on my end and a similarly impressive showing by Constance had us fat and incredibly happy as we now whizzed back behind the arctic circle leaving us awestruck with the beauty and potential of a truly magical place.