Packrafting in the Arctic Circle

Objective: Hitchhike from Coldfoot, AK up the Dalton HW to the Ribdon River. Hike up the Ribdon, over the Brooks Range and float out the Canning River to the coast, then hike West to Deadhorse.

We did not meet our objective, but we still had quite the adventure.

August 2nd

We woke up at 3 AM and left Durham by 4:30 AM. Of course, we arrived at the gate for our flight way too early. We flew to Seattle and landed around 10 AM. I felt a twinge of homesickness for the Cascades as we cruised over Index, the peaks were as jagged and stunning as I remembered them. We boarded the plane again at 11 AM from Seattle to Fairbanks, landing early in the afternoon. My carry-ons consisted of a fly rod, life jacket, and water bottle. And Andre’s were a sleeping pad, pot, and, also, a life jacket. Our luggage arrived in Fairbanks including the sketchy looking golf bag, which was a last-minute purchase from a thrift store for $4. Most of our gear fit inside our backpacking packs, but the rafts, paddles, tent, and hiking poles could not be strapped on to our luggage. We barely recognized our newly acquired golf bag when it got spat out from the underworld of the airport. Unfortunately, the first scrapes on my new 70L hyperlite pack were from this airport adventure, and the once new, white, and un-punctured pack showed up on the carousel blackened with compromised water resistance (luckily I brought some patches, prematurely administered).

Planning for this trip offered some new hurdles to the usual adventure planning. We needed bear spray and camp stove fuel, which we could not fly on commercial flights with. Before our departure, I pre-ordered these items from the REI in Fairbanks. After we landed, we took a Lyft from the airport to REI, picked up our combustibles (and also bought a map of Alaska and a flask for rum). We then got dropped off at Sven’s hostel, where a patch of dirt to pitch a tent was now $28 compared to the $9 I had remembered. The loaner bikes were also now $12 a day…. So instead, we walked to the Dalton Bus station (~2 miles away), which would drive our camp stove fuel from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. Originally, we hoped to book a seat on this bus as well to Coldfoot, but it was full. We arranged a flight instead through Wright Air, but could not bring the fuel with us, hence the bus ticket for the fuel. It was surprisingly hot and we were quite sweaty after our day of logistics. After the walk to and from the bus station we sorted our gear, stashed our golf bag with the hostel staff, and drained the rest of the bottle of rum we couldn’t fit in the flask.

August 3rd

It never got dark that night. I awoke a few times thinking we missed the alarm finding it light outside. But eventually my alarm woke me from a dream at 6 AM. We broke camp and loaded our packs (with our rafts/paddles/tent/poles lashed on the outside) and got a Lyft to the airport by 7 AM. We noticed two guided backpacking groups waiting for a flight as well at Wright Air. They boarded an earlier flight to Antigun Pass, likely en-route to the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Eventually, our flight to Coldfoot was called and we climbed into an Indiana Jones style plane with only six seats behind the pilot’s, a wooden floor, and crates of supplies strapped on to one side. Our packs were tossed in the back behind a tarp. The take-off, and landing, were much smoother than I anticipated. Once in the air, our pilot (who we deemed looked like his name could be Kurt with his long legs tucked under his chin guiding the plane) began to work on paperwork for the flight as the plane continued on autopilot. We peered out the window at spectacular views of the Yukon River and small mountains between Fairbanks and Coldfoot.

We landed in Fairbanks, received a good-luck and farewell from Kurt, and hauled our gear off the air strip, across the Dalton HW (we would later be hitchhiking) and into the Coldfoot Café to await our camp stove fuel. We indulged on a burger, fries, and some blueberry beer before we saw the shuttle arrive with our fuel. Now fully stocked we hit the road and waited… As we had landed, we crossed over the Dalton Highway and I saw how it was a somewhat paved/somewhat dirt two lane road. During our landing, I saw zero cars pass. I felt doubt creeping in as we sat on the side of that highway beside our packs with our thumbs out, then some cash held between our fingers, for hours. We read that truckers would not be able to give us a ride due to liability and often they would wave or shrug at us seeming to hope they could help but couldn’t. Others who passed either had full cars or were guiding companies that were getting paid to shuttle people.

Eventually we gave up and decided we may have better luck 5 miles North at a campground. We walked for at most 2 miles before a pick-up truck slowed and stopped. Elated, we excitedly told the caribou hunter and son our plans and they offered for us to hop in the back of their truck. They were heading North, probably farther North than we intended they promised, so we happily hopped in the back in tanks and shorts. The paved road eventually turned into dirt and soon we were getting jarred with every bump. Rocks were kicked up against the bottom of the bed sounding seemingly close. Eventually as we reached Antigun Pass the weather changed and we pulled on warmer clothes, then rain clothes, then a sleeping pad to help the landings after the bumps. We read at the Coldfoot Café that only 2% of people who visit Alaska travel North of the Arctic Circle, we couldn’t help but laugh imagining how many people tried to hitch-hike the Dalton HW in the back of the truck. At the pass, we saw Dahl’s sheep, which I recently (finally) published a data note on for genetic analysis of their diet shifts with climate change. We also stopped just after the pass when the son spotted a grizzly bear in the river along-side the highway.

We hitched for 137 miles before banging on the side of the truck bed to be let out. Mile marker 310 marked the Ribdon River where we planned to start our trek into the Brooks Range. We offered $20 for the ride, they refused, then offered bug spray, which we bargained we would take if we could give them the 20 bucks. From there we said our good lucks and carried on. We waded through some swampy marsh to the Sagavanirktok River. I made the mistake assuming that, if hunters frequent the area to hunt (and likely do not have rafts), the river would be shallow enough to wade across. We made it halfway before realizing this was a bad idea. Our packs were between 60 and 70 lbs (we were carrying everything we thought we would need for 21 days – most of the weight being food). At the middle we were waist deep with a strong current, realizing it was too late to turn around and would be barely manageable to keep going. We (obviously) made it across the first half of the river to a rocky island, but I felt foolish advising this plan. We were happy to have bug nets (Andre’s suggestion) as mosquitos swarmed. We made camp here and decided to ferry our rafts with our gear across the other half the next morning. We had the bear talk after camp, where I passed on the little I knew – mostly that if encountered by a bear, act like the guy you don’t want to f*%^ with at a bar. Be intimidating, but not loud or aggressive, act big but not offensive… and see where it gets you.

August 4th

We slept in til 8 AM and finally got moving at 9 AM after some oatmeal. We ferried across the Sag and ended up downstream a hundred yards or so. As we were rolling up our rafts in the thick vegetation, we experienced just how bad the flies could be in August. Happy to have our bug nets, we hiked up and over the ridge to where the Sag and Ribdon rivers meet. Along the river bar we saw lots of large wolf tracks, I hoped we could catch a glimpse of one on our trip. We would take breaks every 2 miles, hiking through the tundra could be amazing and quick at times and other times as if you were plowing through half a foot of snow. It was the same on the river bar where you could cruise along and then catch ankle rolling rocks. We were able to spot some pretty cool fossils here though. So, we drifted between the two environments.

On one of our breaks, we peered across at large objects lounging along the river. Bear were our first guess before we realized the multitude of them and realized they were musk oxen! Within a day we saw two herds of them. We were surprised to see sea gulls while hiking through tundra and were pleased to find caribou sheds just off the game trails we were following. We hiked about 10 miles over 11 hours this day and made camp on a grassy ledge at the edge of the river bar. Andre made a Mac n cheese dinner while I set up camp. Scattered across the river bar we noticed bear, moose, and wolf tracks. We fell asleep around 11 PM under the sun.

August 5th

We woke up to fog and cold around 8 AM, so we crawled back into the tent to snooze until around 10:30 AM. We ate oatmeal with dehydrated apples for breakfast and left camp by noon. We walked along the river for a while then moved up to the tundra following game trails. We’d follow the contour lines of the landscape as best as we could. We saw a lot of bear scat, some seemed very fresh. While we were following one of these game trails, we saw a moose in the distance among what we later found out were thick blue berry bushes. As soon as we caught sight of him, he bounded effortlessly across the tundra and disappeared down a gully onto the riverbed. We saw his tracks later as we made our way up the riverbed, then eventually trekked back to the tundra. We found a sheep skull and multiple caribou antlers.

As we skirted the Ribdon, we walked along old riverbed and witnessed natural oil pools. Our first instinct was that these were signs of pollution. But this was evidence of the debate over drilling in the National Wildlife Refuge and why it needs protection. The pipeline ran along the entire Dalton Highway, which allowed us to hitchhike to this river (sure we could have flown for another amount of fossil fuel), and therefore allowed us to make this trip on our terms of hitching a ride. Knowing this, I felt frustrated with wanting to keep wild places wild and not being able to imagine how this stunning landscape could so easily be taken advantage of.

Soon after we saw the petroleum, we were looking for a place to camp when it started to rain. Once we found a good nook to shelter from the wind, we set up and dove into the tent to get warm. We slowly, sadly felt our hunger building and eventually gave in and redressed for the elements. We cooked a few hundred feet away – we rehydrated our chili and kale and added instant potatoes and stuffing (this would end up being our favorite meal). We fell asleep around 9 PM.

August 6th

We had another lazy morning with a breakfast of oatmeal before breaking camp and moving forward. The morning fog hung around making ridge lines and distant summits look ominous. We stuck to game trails most of the morning, sometimes wading through thicker blueberry bushes. Once our legs were tiring of the big, bounding steps through the vegetation, we moved back down to the river. We decided to stick to the North side, and picked our way along the bank trying to keep our feet dry. Eventually though, this side of the river steeped into a cliff and we were traversing loose rock above quick, cold water. Too stubborn to backtrack, we kept climbing as our packs pulled at our abs and our paddles scraped and bumped against the rock. Andre nearly lost his knife, which he ended up holding in his teeth after it slid off his pack strap, as I took his photo.

Soon after however, the once traversable cliff became overhung and we were forced to backtrack a bit to some gullies we had edged past. Andre tried a loose, slate filled gully and soon called down to me that perhaps finding another gully would be better. I retreated a bit more to a blocky gully and tried to make my way up. Near the top though, I realized how foolish this was as I clung to multiple large, loose, mud held rocks that could easily give under my weight at any moment. When I realized I was in a pinch, and actually rock climbing these precariously held rocks, I threw my hiking poles with one hand to the top of the gully. I considered waiting until Andre reached his top out and would come looking for me, but also didn’t trust that the rocks holding my weight would wait that long too. I stemmed through a wide section, tried not to imagine all of the rocks coming loose which would send me careening down into the river, and eventually talked myself through the final moves. At the top, I saw Andre looking for me and we both agreed this was foolish, we should have stuck together. If one of us had fallen and plunged back into the river, we wouldn’t have been able to do much for the other. We estimated the gullies we climbed were about 90 feet tall, and opted to avoid those in the future.

We were only about half way through our day and expended a lot more energy than planned. But after a quick packs off break and some snacks, we pushed forward, back along the river and towards a permanent snow field. As our ankles began to feel wobbly again, we started making our way back to the tundra. We were weaving our way through alder bushes when I looked up to see a large, blonde figure on the ridge up to the tundra. “Oh” was my only audible response to seeing a large grizzly bear mom squared off to us while her adolescent cub sat on his haunches behind her. We were hiking upwind from them, so she knew we were coming. We stopped and stared while they stared back. The next moments could have gone two ways – either we would be considered a threat and she would charge, or everyone would be chill. We think we got lucky with perhaps looking like a caribou or moose with our paddles sticking up out of our packs. Everyone stayed chill and we backed up back into the alders and gave her a large berth before heading back up the tundra. She kept her eyes on us for a while but eventually we looked back to find her flopped back down next to her cub.

We pushed on for another couple miles passing some steep gravel mountain sides and marshy bogs before finding our next camp site. We hoped the bears wouldn’t wander this far upstream. We indulged in our favorite dinner and had a chat we had been putting off. We weren’t easily making the mileage necessary for each day. It turns out walking 10+ miles per day with 60+ pound packs was tough and I miscalculated how much the two of us would consume – we were burning through food quicker than I thought. We did have a hard deadline to make to Deadhorse, some 200 miles away still, to catch the bus I had booked to bring us back to Fairbanks. It was also a really big objective, perhaps too big for us to do together right now. We made the call to turn back. In the future we would arrange for a food drop somewhere before the Canning River to resupply so we wouldn’t be hauling this heavy of packs up the Ribdon. Also, I’d like to find a way to leave a car at Deadhorse instead of having a hard deadline.

August 7th

We took a zero day at camp. I cried a lot, feeling failure and longing to keep trying. I had envisioned this trip through most of the last months of living in Durham, NC. I really really wanted this, but had to accept that it wasn’t the right time to see it through to its end.

We walked along the river near camp and found some cool fossils to bring back. We would float out the Ribdon the next day.

August 8th

We began the day walking back down the Ribdon, as it was barely a trickle this far upstream. As we hiked back to the snowfield, we saw movement in the distance. At first I thought it might be a wolf, but as it moved closer we realized it was a caribou! It must have been curious about us, and maybe thought that we too had antlers, because it came within a hundred yards to check us out. It was a really cool experience, I had never seen one so close!

Eventually, after we passed the spot where the bears were (who were no longer napping there), we came to the sketchy gullies. Here the river was deep enough to float, so we pulled on our dry suits, blew up our rafts, and happily climbed in. Rafting gear is so much better than carrying it and the water was moving at a decent speed to carry us along. Despite the somber thoughts of feeling like we were traveling in the wrong direction, out of the Brooks range, we couldn’t help but have fun as the braids of the river came together and our rafts lapped along the little rapids. The water was incredibly clear and blue.

The farther downstream we floated, the quicker and deeper the Ribdon got. We learned how to navigate through boulder fields and felt the speed of the river change around each obstacle. Just after big boulders, the water would slow and pull at the rafts back into the eddies. These “holes” could be tricky. The last mile of the Ribdon, before it met the Sag was rowdy (up to class III) and I did feel a bit in over our heads as we fought around big boulders and through waves that threatened to dump us. Eventually, we hit the confluence where the clear, blue water of the Ribdon met the muddy, churning water of the Sag. We paddled to the highway side of the Sag and leapt out of rafts excitedly chatting about how wild that last mile felt. It was 10:30 PM (still bright as the middle of the day), we had been paddling for about 8 hours. It felt pretty crazy passing our previous campsites and covering the ~30 miles in a day. We cooked dinner around midnight, then crashed hard in the tent.

August 9th

We trekked the last quarter mile or so back to the Dalton Highway, ready to try our luck again with hitching a ride – this time South, back to Coldfoot. We spent the hours waiting for a ride by throwing rocks at random targets, dancing in the road, and shoving snacks under our bug nets. Again, trucks barely slowed as they passed and we thought we may be spending another night by the road. Eventually a caravan of a camper van and SUV heading North stopped and the man shuttling the van said that if we were still waiting for a ride when they returned in the SUV they could help us out, but it would be a few hours from now. Happy to at least have a back up plan, we didn’t feel as SOL.

Less than an hour later, a pick-up truck slowly pulled over with another father/son hunting duo. The father had a mouth like a sailor and seemed to enjoy adult company after spending what sounded like a few weeks of hunting with his 8 year old son, Duke. His brake line broke but he patched it together with a camel back hose and some zip ties. I offered some of the Tyvek tape we brought in case we punctured a hole in the raft, but he was confident with his temporary fix. He didn’t know how long he’d give us a ride, it would depend on if he saw a caribou to hunt. We learned that you could hunt caribou just off the road if you used a bow. Sometimes he’d ask Duke to take the wheel, who could barely see above the dash, while he brought out his scopes to scan the tundra. Eventually we did see some caribou and pulled into a popular (among hunters) pull off. There we saw a caribou head from a successful hunt and touched the velvet on the antlers. After John and Duke went out to stalk the caribou, we hung out on the side of the road in hopes the van folks would return. John bet us that we would still be there when they got back from there hunt and didn’t think we’d have luck getting a ride. When our ride did come, his wave seemed sad that we were on our way again.

Berni and Uta were ex-Germans who lived in Wiseman, AK for the past few decades. They run a small air bnb in the town with only 11 permanent residents. As we chatted on the ride down, they suggested we float the Dietrich and Koyukuk rivers back to Coldfoot if we didn’t want our adventure to end yet. We agreed that sounded awesome and got dropped off 50 miles North of Coldfoot. We found a gorgeous campsite along the river and saw some pretty huge wolf tracks. We cooked dinner over a fire and turned in to the tent around 10 PM.

August 10th

We were chased by the rain in the morning and tried to quickly pack our rafts before getting everything soaked. That day we battled against wind blasting up-river and cold rain showers. With our dry suits though, we never got too cold and felt nearly invincible in them. When the sky did open up, we were awed by beautiful views of the nearby mountains. The rain froze on the summits causing them to glisten under the sunshine. Wild cloud patterns were spun through the sky.

The river flowed parallel to the Dalton highway and sometimes we’d cross under its bridges. Despite the wind and having to stick close to the shoreline sometimes to not get blown backwards, we paddled about half the distance (25 miles) in the first day. We decided to make camp at the Vi River, which drained from the Gates of the Arctic National Park, just about a mile from the river we were floating. We entertained the idea of hiking up in to the park, but the rain and exhaustion kept us in camp. It just so happened that the spot we decided to pull up our rafts and make camp, was dotted with some of the biggest bear track I had ever seen! They were likely made after the rain a few days prior, or this bear was insanely heavy, due to how deep the tracks were.

August 11th

Our destination was to make it Coldfoot as the wind and rain did not show any sign of easing. We blasted down the river, which was fun class I, maybe II at times. The river was quite wide, which also meant there were shallow gravel bars to watch out for or else we would get beached. Berni and Uta had told us we could stop by their place in Wiseman but as the chill was setting in, we decided to continue past and visit them the next time we were up there (which there will be a next time). They had told us about a mammoth tusk that was protruding from the riverbank. I unfortunately missed this, but Andre was lucky enough to see it! His description of it is here in his blog!

The river began to braid by the time we neared Coldfoot and we had a few adventurous channels to chose from before we saw our take out at the airport. We were greeted with a rainbow as we sorted our gear and made way for the Coldfoot Café for a burger and (very expensive) room for the night.

Alaska is pretty big to explore without a car – we ended up hitchhiking 220 miles that week along the Dalton. After our flight back to Fairbanks, we decided to head down to Washington. I was excited to show Andre the Cascades and Olympic Peninsula and meet my pals out there. We ended up exploring a little bit of everything! Thanks to everyone who made it possible from a car to borrow, bed or floor to sleep on, gear to use, dirt bike to ride – y’all are the best!

What’s next?

We are currently en route to Chile… well, we are currently broken down in Alabaster, Alabama since Savannah decided she wanted a new radiator before going abroad. I’m hoping to keep this site more up to date with weekly/biweekly posts similar to my time in the Kalahari. Andre may be better at this than me, so if you’d like check out his blog too and sign up for updates you can follow along on our adventures!

¡Hasta luego!

2 thoughts on “Packrafting in the Arctic Circle

  1. I just had to read this a second time, again to marvel at your dedication to make this dream happen for you, and to also gasp at the living creatures you were seeing out there. I would have called for a helicopter rescue when I saw those bear tracks! If I didn’t have a phone to call, I would scream until someone HAD to hear me! HAHAHA

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading about this adventure again as much as I did the first time around. Can’t wait to hear more. Please have a wonderful adventure, and please STAY SAFE!! Love, Aunt Pat

    Liked by 1 person

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