Roman’s back has been injured since our Grand Canyon packraft trip over a year and a half ago: two bulging lumbar disks. It hurts me as his Father to see him limp and hunch and I think we both shared a fear that we wouldn’t be able to adventure like we have his entire mobile life. But it’s improving and he’s patient.
Nevertheless, trepidation of big rapids and heavy packs squeezed into his dry suit as we suited up at the Dalton Highway, put-in for Atigun Gorge in the Brooks Range. Snow dusted the peaks and swans headed south overhead.
The Atigun Gorge has quite a reputation and the river it feeds, the Sagavanirktok, killed a packrafter this summer -- first death I’ve heard of yet in a packraft. With the river gauge reading 1000 cfs, the doom and gloom web accounts, the weather forecast calling for 30’s and rain, Roman was concerned even before we left Anchorage.
“How about the Denali Highway? Peters Creek valley?” I offered.
“They’re not as good as the Brooks Range. Let’s not chicken out,” he replied.
“He wants it to be challenging and hard core,” Peggy claimed, “and show Carolyn how hard core he is.”
So we stuck with our original plan: descend the Atigun to the Sag and the Sag to the Haul Road. Portaging when we had to, hunting we when could.
The Atigun Gorge progresses nicely. It begins with a calm water stretch where we passed a three brow tine moose, looking like he was going to wade over to us, followed by a couple miles of Class II water with a drop or two of Class III. Near the end of the Gorge is a often cited Class IV rapid, but at the water level we ran it, Roman called it Class III+. The low water and exposed rocks would challenge a canoeist and frustrate a big rafter, but delighted us packrafters.
Roman paddled my decked red boat with 25 pounds on the bow and I paddled the big long boat with maybe 50 pounds resting on the floor and 10 pounds strapped to the bow. This way he stayed dry, warm, and happy while I was able to enjoy the drops by working their driest lines.
His back seemed to hold up well and it was only on the last drop where we squeezed between a big undercut boulder and a rooster-tail stopper that he tweaked it, mostly because dropping in between the two obstacles looked like a certain pin on the rooster-tail and anyone’s central nervous system might seize up at that prospect. Pain went into his leg, but as he emptied my boat while I scouted for a campsite his back popped back into place.
Worried to see him working my swamped boat over, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this effort actually made his back feel better!
We searched for caribou and ptarmigan. We saw none of the former but Rome shot a couple of the latter. We roasted them over a willow fire beneath a rippling curtain of green and purple aurora borealis.
We stayed up late talking physics and economics and biology. It’s amazing how much he has learned after four years of college and his time in Sandy Talbot’s Molecular Ecology Lab. He’s so remarkably like Peggy in his practicality and frugality, his sensitivity to taste, smell, and touch. But so like me in his forceful discussions, intellectual confidence, and stubbornness, as well as a willingness to sit in a puddled butt-boat at near-freezing temperatures and camp inside a 14-ounce floorless pyramid shelter.
One night I stubbornly refused to accept his point that space is too empty for errant asteroids and meteors to seed other planets with life-initiating molecules, like RNA. I held fast to my ecological worldview, even universe-view, that colonization and extinction likely apply to planets as well as islands and isolated habitats.
“Dad, space is just too empty for that! I can’t believe how superstitious you are!” he fumed as we left the dying fire and headed for bed.
Other discussions he successfully convinced me. For instance, when pushed on his Libertarian views he offered “a monopoly on coercive force” as a definition of government. I reflected on this seemingly cynical phrase but ultimately accepted it as something that all governments share and that while each word sounded ugly, the goal of all people should be to establish “a coercive monopoly” that is otherwise, not just tolerable, but desirable. His free-market confidence often clashes with my socialist hopes, but I did I’d encouraged him to go into economics as a college major and he did early on, so I guess I should be more careful of what I wish for. Besides, smaller government and lower taxes are a good thing, really. We agreed that a flat tax and an end to lobbying would likely solve a lot of problems, but that neither change would likely come about.
We took it easy with lots of camp and sleep time. His back needed plenty of rest to heal after each day’s exertions. We’d seen a grizzly, lynx, and wolf pack on the drive up, the wolves including pups who nearly came to the truck when I whistled to them like dogs. We’d seen sheep and moose here but no caribou; a Gyrfalcon, a Rough-legged Hawk, a Short-eared Owl and lots of ptarmigan. And many erratics that dotted the brown and red tundra looked like caribou.
We had only one big-game and one small-game rifle, so I watched proudly as he belly-crawled after his quarry. We spent one day just hunting big-game and small but only finding a small flock of ptarmigan that he chased around and made incrementally smaller.
And then, of course, it snowed. All day, our bare hands clutched our paddles, naked to the north breeze, suffering wet flakes and icy waves that rapped our knuckles when we made bad paddling moves. The cold forced us to maneuver through otherwise banal Class II and III drops like they were Class IV and V where our lives depended on it. Rather than just crash through waves with forward paddle strokes as seen on so many You Tube videos of neophyte packrafters exhilarating in their new-found freedom, we back-paddled and zig-zagged, keeping every errant drop out of our boats. It made the paddling feel more interesting, exciting, desperate even.
We pulled out of the Sag before it reached the usual take-out as the map showed a bend in the river that was only a mile and a quarter away from the road.
“Can we just pull our rafts like sleds?”
“Sure, these little willows and birch won’t hurt the boats with all this snow.”
So, feeling ridiculous with boats in tow in eight-inch snow, we slogged through the fog and fading light to the road and caught a ride back to the truck.
We’d had no success at finding caribou. But I didn't care. This was the most successful hunt I had in years.
We vowed to make this kind of trip, just the two of us, with packrafts and guns in a wild place in autumn, the model for future trips.
I can’t wait until next year.