After spending a year and a half -- plus a life-time -- looking, we’ve found the Brooks Range offers the best wilderness travel in the world. There’s less brush than the rest of Alaska, enough bugs and tussocks and a big-league reputation to keep the trail hikers out, great light, big wildlife, and human-scale scenery. The rivers are deep enough to float, shallow enough to wade. There’s wood enough to burn, but never too thick for travel. It’s ideal for packrafting; walking; hunting; rock, and even ice and mountain climbing and especially scrambling. There are crystals, fossils, and gold to be found, northern lights and midnight sun. Cold comes early and stays late, but that’s part of why it’s such a gorgeous challenge.
I’ve made over 20 trips there in the last thirty years, some notable, all worthwhile.
- As a teen in 1979, climbing with Dieter Klose, Savvy Sanders and Mike Bearzi in the Arrigetch, we found better rock than weather. After that trip an attempt at a “McCandless” with a camp-invading black bear I shot and tried to preserve with snow-bank refrigeration lead to losing it, thankfully, to a wolverine, and sending me out and back to college.
- On a ski trip across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1986 Chuck Comstock and I found our whiskey frozen, my skis broken and a taste of death during three weeks in March 1986 that never reached above zero. Three months later, Peggy and I found ourselves tent-bound during break-up on a creek that translates in Nunamiut as “place to make love many times” -- nine months later Cody Roman was born. Later that year we walked and packrafted half a dozen rivers from one end of the Gates of the Arctic National Park to the other.
- Hunting caribou with Bob Kaufman in October suggested that caribou are spooked easier in Fall than when hunting them solo in March.
- In 1988 Carl Tobin and I climbed several pitches of thin, brittle, airy-gray ice on Sukakpak , a route named “Claim Jumper” two weeks earlier by Keith Echelmeyer and Eric Brietenberger. Solo ascents on Doonerak and other peaks with no names and no cairns offered exhilaration and grand vistas across the clean, dry sky and low angle light that makes the Arctic so magical. In early July 1990 Carl and I pedaled mountain bikes and paddled packrafts from Kaktovik to Arctic Village when, with one hand and no smearing, I slapped ninety-four mosquitoes on my lower leg.
- Peggy showed she was as tough a nut as anyone when we finished a Wilderness Classic there in 1993. We got to know Jon Krakauer well packrafting the Alatna and circum-abulating the Arrigetch the following year.
- In 2003 Jay Jay Brooks, Jason Geck and I did “Arctic Circle”, a circuit that involved hiking through the Arrigetch to the Noatak, floating that to Portage Creek, hiking over to the Alatna and floating that back to our start.
- The best known trip was, of course, the “Arctic 1000” in 2006 when Jason Geck, Ryan Jordan and I proved it possible to walk over 600 miles of wild terrain with just a single bag of food and no foraging.
I’m out of breath just recounting this sampler of Brooks Range trips but have no fear that the dozen or so of you dear readers leanred anything new about how great the Brooks Range are. It will not be me who spills the secret here on this dull little blog.
Anyway, this last week Roman and I went and packrafted the Atigun and Sagavanirktok Rivers north of Atigun Pass on the Haul Road. It was an awesome trip for the two of us, the ideal kind of Father and Son trip of the sort we have enjoyed annually since he was three.
He’s 22 now. So that's two decades wilderness camping with him and three decades of Brooks Range experience. Just can't beat a combination like that.