Hidden in Plain Sight- Packrafting Alaska’s Brooks Range

Something hard smacked me in the spine and I jolted upright in the tent. Two feet from my head I heard the huffing of a very large animal and I instinctively yelled at the top of my lungs,

“HEEEY BEAR, HEEEEY BEAR, HEEEY BEAR!”

Galen started yelling as well. As a NOLS instructor, Galen has tons of Alaskan experience and has had many bear encounters- but never this close.

We couldn’t see the griz because we’d put the fly on the tent just an hour earlier, but we could hear the rapid breathing of a very excited animal just inches from the thin fabric.

This was a stare down I did not want to have.

We continued yelling but the bear lingered for an unsettling amount of time. We listened in horror as the brute veered away a few yards, then turned and charged the tent.

This was my fourth trip to Alaska’s Brooks Range and the first time I hadn’t brought a gun.

“WHERE’S THE BEAR SPRAY?!”

Galen reached down to the foot of the tent, found the spray, and promptly handed it to me, as if to say, “I ain’t going out there!” True, the spray inside the tent wasn’t going to help us much, unless we wanted to mace ourselves, but I unclipped the safety tab anyway because the idea of the beast ripping through the tent seemed like a very real possibility.

After a few heart-stopping seconds, the sounds of the bear ceased and I cautiously poked my head out of the tent while continuing to yell at the top of my lungs. Galen shouted, “Look!” as he pointed in the direction of two golden grizzlies, one big, one small. The sow and cub fled with purpose down the valley and out of view.

The experience left us numb. Our senses reeled with the after affects of the adrenaline dump. At the time, I thought it was the bear who’d hit me in the back, but after some discussion I realized it was more likely Galen accidentally hammerfisting me when he was rudely awakened by the sounds of the bear approaching.

We didn’t have any food in the tent and we followed all the bear country etiquette. We figured the grizzlies came over the hill and stumbled unexpectedly upon our big blue tent. The sow must have assumed it was a threat to her cub, and then charged.

I’d screamed so hard during the incident that I lost my voice, which left me feeling more than vulnerable. It was only day three of a 14 day trip and we were sure to see an abundance of bears. What was I going to do if we had another encounter? Clap? I can’t even whistle!

We were camped in the heart of the Arrigetch Peaks, an area known for its impressive collection of granite towers, minarets, and spires. The original inhabitants, the ancient Nunamiut Eskimos, called the mountains ‘Arigaruit’ which means ‘fingers of the hand extended’.

To access the Arrigetch we took a flight from Fairbanks to the remote bush community of Bettles- population 39. From there we took another 45 minute flight and landed on Takahula Lake situated in the center of a massive 8.5 million acre preserve known as the Gates of the Arctic National Park. The area is one of the most remote spots in North America and could best be described as ‘wilderness on crack’.

We’d scrambled over the high passes and around peaks with names like Battleship, Shot Tower, and Xanadu. The area, 60 miles above the Arctic Circle, was just as grand as Yosemite, minus the crowds and RV’s.

Two days later we hiked down into the tree zone and found ourselves at the bank  of Awlinyak Creek.  Typically, a backpacker approaches a creek like this  one and views it as a hindrance, an obstacle to be crossed or hiked around but  Galen and I looked at it with smiles on our faces. We rummaged through our  packs and pulled out two 5 pound rafts. We’d read a trip report stating the  creek was about knee-deep which is perfect for a packraft.  The Awlinyak  was crystal clear, a little shallow, but a lot of fun.  The current moved  us quickly down valley through little wave trains and miniature canyons.   We had to be careful because we had no idea what lay ahead but it was thrilling  to see the miles fly by after the long hike with heavy packs the days before.  Grayling, those iridescent beauties, swam in deep pools beneath us.  Occasionally they kissed the surface of the water, teased us, and spelled fresh  food across our thoughts. They wouldn’t know about our lures and would be easy to catch but we were more interested in making miles  that day than we were eating fish.

There is a very good possibility that we were the first people to descend that  creek, not that anyone else would care, but we felt the pang of pride  regardless and ‘high-fived’ our way down valley to the confluence of the Alatna River.

That night a very big, very curious wolf came into camp.  It walked up  unafraid, almost like a dog would when seeing its master.  I ran at the  wolf thinking this might change his mind but it didn’t, and I soon stopped in  my tracks.

“He almost seems friendly”, I said

Galen grabbed the bear-spray and responded, “Yea, but I don’t want to play  that game.”

The wolf circled. I kept looking over my shoulder wondering if his pack was  watching from the woods beyond. But the overgrown canine seemed to be alone and  very interested in our tent. Unsure of what to do, the apex predator decided to  sit down and watch us.

I’d always wanted to see a wolf like that, so dangerously close. When my dreams  met reality, however, I realized with certainty that there was no way in hell I  was going to sleep with that big-ass wolf outside the tent.

Galen and I picked up a handful of rocks and ran at the wolf like banshees. We  had no intention of hurting Canis Lupus, we just wanted to scare him enough to  leave, which he eventually did.

We’d completed a big 7 day loop and arrived back where we’d started at Takahula Lake.  We had decided to break the  14 day trek into two, seven day trips. That way we were able to cache some food  in bear barrels at the lake, enabling us to travel with lighter packs and a few  extra luxuries like white gas and whiskey.

We then aimed our sights on the headwaters of the Kobuk River,  a frontier that goes years without seeing a single visitor due to its lack of  places to land a plane. After two days of hard travel, we arrived at the area we would  start referring to as the ‘Animal  Kingdom’ due to the amount of bears and wolves calling the valley  home.

We intended to use our packrafts to escape the wilderness in a timely fashion.  However, wild places tend to have their own ideas of when you will and when you  will not be leaving.  We heard the distant roar of the river ahead and  knew instantly that we were going to have to portage.

Thankfully, the bear trails were magnificent; in fact, I’d call them bear  highways.  Bear tracks and scat led the way.  Occasionally we’d see  territorial markings where a bear had torn off all the limbs and bark from a  tree and then rubbed his back against the oozing sap, leaving a thick coating  of hair permanently embedded in the tree. I pulled some hair off the sap and  gave it a smell. I expected the stink of a dirty animal but was rather  surprised by a pleasant leathery smell, that of an old shoe store.

The bear trails and the subsequent lack of brush made the portage easygoing  although the sounds of the rapids muffled any conversation we might have had.  Periodically, the roar of the river was almost deafening which drew our  interest as we assumed there might be a large waterfall nearby.  There were  at least a couple miles of continuous class 4 and 5 rapids but we never saw  anything we considered unrunnable. However, it was beyond our skills as  packrafters.  We referred to this section of the river as Kobuk Falls  and vowed to be back when our skills improved. Gradually the rapids decreased  to riffles and we jumped back in our rafts, happy to be floating once again.

Below Kichiakaka Creek there was another splashy, boulder-dodging rapid that we  scouted and ran. On a cliff overhanging the river, a small colony of swallows  made an impressive array of clay nests that resembled upside-down tea  kettles.  I’d visited this area once before, over a decade ago, and I  remembered those birds and their homes.  Although it seemed crazy, I  wondered if anyone had seen them since.

That’s the greatest thing about visiting the Brooks Range-  besides seeing the granite peaks, the wildlife, or the crystal clear waters.  It’s those moments of discovery. Had we found ourselves in one of those rare  places in the world where no one else had ever been??? In the Brooks Range, there is always that distinct possibility.*

Making our way up Aiyagomahala Creek. Shot Tower in the background. There are some natural hotsprings in the valley but if you visit in the summer the area is infested with mosquitos.

Xanadu, Half-Dome of the Arctic!

Kobuk side of Independence Pass

Climbing to Deception Pass, Melting Tower in background.

Rainy days on the portage to Kobuk Headwaters

Upper Kobuk Canyon. There was supposed to be some rapids here but we didn’t find any. I’ve done this section in an open canoe.

Lower Kobuk Canyon however did have some fun rapids. It’s a beautiful place. The canyon itself is a natural barrier, it keeps all the hunters from the village of Kobuk from making their way up with motor-boats beyond this point.

Historic Bettles Lodge

A Musher Meets His Huskies

Bill snapped a clip into his .45 and racked a shell into the chamber. It’s his melodramatic way of saying, “We’re in the bush now.”

Bill and his daughter untied the horses and rode them down to the beach. My newly purchased sled dogs, still chained inside the boat, yapped and barked crazily at the Icelandic Ponies. The dogs had never seen horses before and their excitement maddened Bill.

“I won’t tolerate the dogs barking at the horses!” he yelled with spittle flying from his lip. He grabbed a loose harness and tried whipping the dogs from shore. The dogs cowered and instinctively went mute.

We were 26 miles across the bay, northeast of Kotzebue, Alaska. From that point, camp lies another 2 miles inland and we would need to cross the tundra to get there. Bill and the kids rode the horses and I anxiously harnessed my team for the first time to see how they’d pull.

I bought these particular dogs from a musher named Chad Nordlum whose father Roger Nordlum is of Iditarod fame. Chad had a new girlfriend in Anchorage and after being disqualified from a race known as the Kobuk 440 he wanted out of dogs and hadn’t run them in over a year. So, as you might imagine, when I got them they were fairly weak.

I anchored the sled to the gravel beach and from front to back harnessed the dogs. First my leader, Wiley, then in swing position the twin sisters Sapphire and Saluka. Next went Orion in team, then Chuck and Husky in wheel position nearest the sled.

They didn’t lunge or scream as sled dogs often do when they are about to pull, and for a split second I thought maybe they’d forgotten how. But as soon as I gave the command, “Hup!” and gave the sled a little push, they instinctively threw their weight into the harnesses and pulled me along from the back of the sled at heart-stop speed.

The desire to pull was in the dog’s blood, they couldn’t forget what they were born to do.

Soon however, the dogs slowed and I was off the sled walking and pulling with them. Contrary to popular belief, a musher doesn’t just stand on the back of the sled twiddling his thumbs. He has to be ‘driving’ the team, pushing, pulling, working WITH the dogs. The dogs are the athletes but if you plan on them doing all the work, they’ll promptly stop and give you a look that says, “Get off the sled jackass!”

The trail we were supposed to take was hard to find and I gave my leader commands, ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw’ (right and left) as to where I wanted him to take us. He didn’t seem too keen on listening however and tried several times to take us back the way we’d come. I thwarted his attempts and then tried to run Orion next to him in double-lead to see if that would work.

Orion isn’t supposed to know commands (as his previous owner told me) but he seemed to understand exactly what I was saying and dragged Wiley around like a disciplined school boy. We found the wrong trail, the horse trail instead of the sled one and it was badly rutted and made for hard pulling. The dogs were all doing very well despite their year long hiatus. One dog in particular though stood out.

Chuck.

Chuck pulls the way a musher dreams a dog to pull. Chuck pulls as hard as he can ALL the time. He’s ‘honest’ as they say. Even when I’m stopped and the other dogs are resting, Chuck is trying to rip the anchor out. Naturally, I fell in love with him.

My very first day running dogs and there I was, already falling in love with them.

I had previous experience with sled dogs. I ran dogs for the first time in Kotzebue ten years ago and I mushed professionally as a tourist guide in Snowmass, Colorado. All told I’d probably worked intimately with a few hundred sled dogs. But of all those wonderful characters, these dogs were different. These were MY dogs.

Yes, yes, there were only six of them. These days a musher would laugh at a guy with only six dogs. In fact, Bill had 130. Serious mushers today who run races like Iditarod or Yukon Quest generally have around 60-80 adult sled dogs. In the past, when the definition of ‘net-worth’ had to do with how good a hunter you were, the more dogs you could feed was living proof of how wealthy you were. The truth of the matter is- sled dogs aren’t cheap.

From July until December I plan on feeding 50 bags of high quality commercial dog food supplemented with bucket fat. For 6 dogs, I’ve spent $2,400 dollars to feed them for just 6 months. Yes, I’m serious! Bill for instance, maintains a kennel of over 100 sled dogs and pays annually $23,000 dollars for 15 tons of dog food, which is going in one side the dog and coming out the other. Considering one of my chores is to shovel poop, I figure I’ll chuck about 7 tons worth- WHEW!

Currently, Bill is one of the top long distance mushers in the sport today. Last winter his prize earnings totaled $89,000! This is quite a feat considering he lives in the bush. Keep in mind, his total annual COSTS are around $40-$50,000 just to maintain his kennel, and get him, his dogs and gear, to and from the races. And that’s where the problem lies. You see, one is not guaranteed to win races. Even Susan Butcher, who won the Iditarod 3 times, had to scratch from a race one year when a moose stomped her team. She still had to feed those dogs.

Running dogs though isn’t about winning races. It’s a lifestyle.

Bill and I visited the Kotzebue general store to get a few odds and ends. It’s one of the three places you can get gasoline in town and a man came inside after filling his tank jabbering on about how high the gas prices were.

Bill responded: “It’s like that everywhere.”

The man replied: “Yea, but I don’t understand how people here can afford to heat their homes!”

“We burn wood and drive dog teams.”

“Pretty soon, we’ll all have to revert back to that!”

Bill pulled some cash out of his wallet to pay the cashier, smiled and said, “Wouldn’t break MY heart.”

Above: Using set nets to catch Sheefish under the ice, Kotzebue Sound.