Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Treeline Traverse

Over the last five years or so, I've been studying treeline advance in the Brooks Range, leading me to assemble a route that I call "Walking Treeline" that pieces together a series of interesting segments between Canada and the Chukchi Sea. It's not a "through hike", but rather where my last several years of scientific research using very high resolution satellite imagery and ecological modeling, experiences hiking and packrafting in the Brooks Range spanning portions of six decades (70s, 80s, 90s, 00's, 10s, 20s), and airstrip locations have suggested where my companions, field workers, students, and I best see the advance of treeline in America's northernmost mountains. 

This summer, rather than connect the Arrigetch Peaks with the upper Noatak drainage via the Triple A ( or Arctic Circle ( routes, which cross some sketchy passes (in my opinion), and because I wanted to see how treeline was advancing in an area that seems very climate responsive, I checked out a new route shown here.

Also I'm sensitive now more than ever to giving route advice to people who take it---see "No Place for Novices" in the print quarterly Adventure Journal 21.

Along those lines, the creek/river crossings of Arrigetch Creek (slimey granite boulders), Awlinyak (wide, potentially high volume but not bouldery), the unnamed creek leading to Akabluak Pass (potentially high volume) and the unnamed stream leading up to the pass just south of Gull Pass (a lot of criss-cross, re-cross, cross and an un-hikeable gorge but with a great bear trail along its river left rim), as well as the hillside route-finding at the lower end of Lucky Six Creek are all difficult enough that this is not a route for novices. That is, if you think that hiking from Circle Lake to Arrigetch Valley is one of your more challenging days of hiking you have mustered, then this route may not yet be comfortably/safely within your ability. 

Nevertheless, I liked it a lot and this summer found it to be one of my favorite segments between the Hunt Fork of John River and Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Book we've all been waiting for....The Packraft Handbook by Luc Mehl and Sarah Glaser

It’s difficult to imagine a better pair of people to put together a packrafting handbook than author Luc Mehl and illustrator Sarah Glaser. Both were raised in Alaska—prime packraft habitat—with wilderness literally out their backdoors. Each epitomizes the multisport, super-safe, modern adventurer who is self-propelled and self-reliant, good-natured, with broad smiles and welcoming, all-inclusive dispositions that come across clearly in this delightful and informative book.

While I have only a passing personal acquaintance with Sarah, I truly admire her work. My serious packrafting bias aside, this handbook looks like it presents her best, most extensive, and most important work so far, because much of it concerns safety and technique on moving water. MIT-educated Mehl writes brilliantly and thoroughly about the science of modern wilderness adventure. Of course, he’s also a terrific photographer, and so in the vein of a classic William Nealy cartoon text like Kayak, the book you wil certainly soon be reading brings life to packrafting “how-to” through its collaboration of word and image.

A mutual friend introduced Luc and me during the summer of 2009 when the three of us rode our mountain bikes loaded with skis, ropes, and ice-axes on an overnight science trip to a local glacier. Of course, Luc’s strength, speed, and endurance impressed me as did his revelation that he’d just that year won the obscure ski race I’d founded 20 years before. Charmed by his enthusiasm, and knowing that winning an Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic put him in a certain class of adventurer, I liked him instantly.

That summer, Luc and I collided again, this time as competitors in the summer Wilderness Classic across a 180-mile route through the Alaska Range. For those unfamiliar with the event, it’s a carry-all-your-gear-and-food-needed-to-cross-a-wild-landscape full of mountains, rivers, bogs, brush, boulders, and bears, with no roads, no motors, no pack animals, nor outside assistance allowed, while going as fast as you want or can. The only required gear is a satellite phone. But, truth is, without a packraft it’s pretty tough to finish.

While Luc and I only traveled a short distance together, he again demonstrated his positive attitude and persistence. It was clear that Luc’s endurance and skills would make him a valuable partner worth inviting along sometime. But skiing glaciers and racing the Classic, while important interests in my 20s, were no longer the priority that testing the limits of whitewater packrafting had become to me in my 40s.

Fall 2009 we bumped into one another as members of a big group on splashy Bird Creek, a local whitewater creek with lots of fun little falls. Ever since 2003 when Alpacka Raft first began putting effort into making boats whitewater-worthy, my paddling partners Thai Verzone, Brad Meiklejohn, Tim Johnson (author of our local whitewater guidebook), Paul Schauer (all of whom appear in the book's pages) and I had pushed packrafting into regular runs of low-water Class IV creeks in small stubby boats that most kayakers derided as “sh**ty little Iks that only pussies paddle.”

While Luc has become the familiar face of Alaskan packrafting, Brad Meiklejohn has been the true silent force behind the modern packrafting movement. He'd suggested that we run the epic Talkeetna River, a real river (not a low water creek) and a wilderness fly-in one at that. All of us on Bird Creek who’d be going to the Talkeetna the following weekend were impressed by Luc’s gung-ho attitude and perma-grin, especially after overheating in his brand-new red drysuit, when he cliff-jumped into a deep pool and swam to the other side to cool off. I asked Brad what he thought about Luc coming along. Given the go-ahead, I invited Luc to join us. In some ways, that trip brought Luc into the Alaskan whitewater packrafting fold.

It was a superlative weekend, with great weather (if frosty), great rapids, and great friends, like JT Lindholm Tony Perelli, and Becky King. At one point in the Talkeetna's Canyon, Brad commented, “We really need to roll these things like a kayak. That’ll take us to another level.”

Not a week later, I sold Tim Johnson my son’s old Alpacka. Tim promptly glued thigh-straps into the blue boat and as soon as the glue had dried, he took it out into an ice-encrusted stream and rolled it!

And that was it. We all glued thigh straps into our boats and went to the pool to learn our rolls. Thus began the Bronze Age of packrafting with Luc there from the beginning, taking what we’d been doing and following Tim Johnson to the next level of packrafting, just as Brad had predicted.

Over the following three years Tim and Paul Schauer, natural-born boaters, led Luc and the rest of us down southcentral Alaska’s classic runs pioneered by Andrew Embick as “Class V”, as well as the modern test-pieces of their generationand the one right before Tim and Paul (e.g., Montana Creek, Tin Can, Upper Willow, Upper Bird, Disappointment, East Fork Iron Creek, Ingram).

While the excitement of whitewater seemed necessary for Luc, it was certainly not sufficient. In a string of unprecedented adventures over three consecutive years (2011, 2012, and 2013), he assembled teams of eager participants to combine skis, boats, and even bikes for grand traverses across North America’s three tallest mountains using modified Wilderness Classic rules. Leaving the road, Luc lead his groups into, up, over, and down Alaska's Denali, Canada's Logan, and Mexico's Orizaba, in each case exiting back to near sea level via packraft.

This book, with its emphasis on a culture of safety and vigilance informed by a decade of experience during the steepest growth of whitewater packrafting development, marks the sport's entry into its true Golden Age. We are lucky that Luc pushed pause on hsi data science career to guide the packrafters of the world to yet another level.

So, read this great book, stare at the fantastic illustrations, and enjoy the writing, the art, the stories, the advice, and feel secure in the knowledge that Luc and Sarah have engaged over a dozen of the best packrafters and kayakers in Alaska to contribute and vette content that captures a wealth of knowledge and experience in simple prose, awesome call-outs, beautiful photography, and clear illustrations.

It’s the book we’ve all been waiting for.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Alaskan Wilderness Travel Dial-style as of 15 years ago...but not too outdated!

 Powerpoint from 2005, when I tried to impress Ned Rozell with my semi-quantitative ideas for Alaskan wilderness travel based on concepts from ecology and mathematical models...didn't really work, but some of you might be interested in what I said about river crossings in Alaska, finindg and holding game trails, vegetation patterns relative to travel, and a mathematical model for how far can you go fastest (previous to Arctic1000) all based on forty years and about 12,000 miles back then.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Raftpacking is purposely carrying fewer rafts than the number of people on the trip.

If “packrafting” can be considered walk-assisted boating, then “raftpacking” can be considered boat-assisted walking.

Let’s say that you and your friends or family are making a wilderness traverse of a remote range without towns, roads, or even human-made trails. You have to carry all your food for a week or more, along with camping gear, warm clothes to deal with cold rivers and rain. Then there’s the boat, paddle, PFD, maybe a helmet, throw bag, etc. These also add to the load. Let’s further assume that you are there, not necessarily as a boater but as a wilderness traveler, using packrafts as tools and not the foci of the adventure.

Raftpacking Roots

That pretty much describes my original interest in packrafting during my twenties; a stint “hellbiking,” a wilderness predecessor of what’s become known as “bikepacking” in my thirties; and now again as a “Brooks Ranger” in my fifties.

I'm now just an old guy who just likes to follow wild-animal trails, cross tundra-clad passes, and paddle splashy Class II clear-water creeks and rivers while joined with a handful of other wilderness enthusiasts.

Early on, my wife and I could only afford a single packraft. On our “honeymoon” traverse of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park in 1986, that’s all we carried.

Nevertheless, we rafted together—two in an open Sherpa packraft—down five rivers and streams: the North Fork of the Koyukuk, Anaktuvuk, John, Nahtuk, and Alatna Rivers. With sufficient flow we could both float together with all our gear. 

But at the headwaters of each of these, even though Peggy is petite, the creeks were too shallow for us both. So we “raftpacked:” Peggy walking with nothing but our bear protection, her rain-gear, and a few snacks while I carried everything else in the boat. That way she could move fast and light and I could get our gear downstream. We moved parallel, she enjoying what she likes most–wilderness walking unencumbered–and I what I like most–exploring a new landscape-crossing technique.

Later in September 1990,  on a traverse of the Talkeetna Mountains from Eureka Roadhouse to Gold Creek, my friend Mark Stoppel and I moved rapidly carrying a single Sherpa packraft down the upper Talkeetna River in the same way. But the Talkeetna River is bigger than the Brooks Range rivers that Peggy and I raftpacked, so Mark walked gravel bars separated by river braids that I ferried him across when they were too deep for him to ford. 

Most of our early hellbike trips carried only a single raft for three to five of us at a time, ferrying boats and bikes across big rivers and riding, pushing, or carrying the bikes otherwise. By splitting one raft and one paddle among the group we could travel much lighter, making for both more riding and more enjoyable riding.

Modern Raftpacking

In June 2019 I revisited raftpacking on a new scale during a 350-mile traverse following treeline on the south slope of the Brooks Range. 

On the first leg of the month long journey, five of us left the Dalton Highway with a raft and paddle each, covering about 110 miles split between two boating legs totaling 70 miles of paddling and two hiking legs totaling 40 miles of walking. 

Then for the second leg, we dropped three rafts, walked another 35 miles carrying just two boats—the Alpacka Raft Caribou and Scout models, both with cargo flies and cruiser-style spray decks—and two paddles among the five of us to raftpack 30 miles in a day, followed by a 45-mile walk. We then dropped another boat, leaving us with just the Scout for the next eighty miles.

The highlight of that trip following Alaska’s northern tree line was a beautiful, sunny, nearly bug-free day on the Junjik River, where three hikers carried little more than snacks and two raftpackers boated everyone's camping gear and food for five days down the fun, splashy Class II. 

Using Gaia GPS on our phones set to airplane mode, the raftpackers and hikers rendezvoused at pre-planned waypoints every five miles to swap out a boater with a hiker to maintain contact and safety.

Freedom and Care

It’s hard to over-emphasize how enjoyable and novel covering long distances in a single direction in true wilderness with a pack under ten pounds can be. 

On the Junjik we were 70 to 90 air miles (that is, a straight-line distance) from the Dalton Highway (the only road connected to Alaska’s road system north of the Yukon River) and 20-30 air miles from the nearest human settlement, Arctic Village. Outside of Alaska, the farthest you can get from a road is twenty air miles southeast of Yellowstone National Park. At our most remote while we "raftpacked treeline" we were nearly 100 miles from any village.

We used the Caribou and a Scout, both with cargo flies and loaded up with all the soft goods. Sharp-edged and hard objects were put in the bow bag, a pack tied on the bow, or inside my HMG pack with its stays removed (and secured with rubber Voile-type straps on the bow together with trekking poles and our stainless-steel bear protection), then turned inside out with the backpack’s padded back lining the bottom of my stern's tube as protection. 

Inside this inside-out backpack I put the one-gallon cook pots and other small but hard items that, if not carefully packed in a boat’s tubes, will pinch tube fabric between river rocks and the object leaving a hole. This happened to one of the four youngsters I traveled with who had not yet realized the importance of proper boat packing.

The Caribou held four people’s food and camping gear in its tubes; the Scout held one person’s. According to the four who did all the hiking that day, the raftpacking stretch of the trip was by far the most enjoyable, as would be expected hiking Brooks Range wilderness with a daypack.

Raftpacking Strategies

Consider raftpacking for your next long-distance wilderness adventure, when the three strategies to traveling light and comfortably are exercised as:

(1) Abstraction: that is, knowing which of your insecurities you don’t need to pack.

(2) Using light-weight materials: although 40 pounds of lightweight gear still weighs more than 30 pounds of heavy gear!

(3) Sharing: not just first-aid and repair kits, multi-tools, tents, stoves, cookpots, but rafts, and paddles and the time spent in them.

Among these strategies, raftpacking is my favorite for going light. It's smart and efficient packraft sharing.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Another Podcast: Kirkus Book Reviews

The wild ride through the publishing world has been fascinating.

This podcast with Kirkus Book Reviews was memorable. The host Megan Labrise was easy to talk to, well-informed, asked good questions. She even had me recite the epigraph at the beginning of The Adventurer's Son, then asked who wrote it. Best of all she was totally non-plussed when my computer crashed in the middle of the interview while we were talking on the Skype-like "Zencastr" that recorded the interview.

Later that day my six-week old computer died completely and I had to take it in for a replacement.

The middle of the next week I had to rise at 4:30 AM for an East Coast live radio show at AK Time 5:30 AM, then prepare for teaching; teach until 2:00 PM; go to several hours of APU-presidential search committee events until 5:45; then rush to an Alaska Writer's Guild meeting to present on memoir writing from 6-7 PM. A long, exhausting day.

Fortunately my friends, too, have blogged reviews:  Luc Mehl, Andrew Skurka, and Mike Curiak whose review also showed up on the Adventure Journal. I dearly wanted them to read the book and see what they thought in their perceptive prose.

All of this publicity is ok by me. I'm not trying to spray my accomplishments all over the internet, but rather tell the story of how my son went missing, and to tell it from the beginning, warts, tears, and all. It means a lot to me to get it right and maybe pass on whatever small lessons other unsuspecting adventurers out there—sons, daughters, fathers, mothers—might gain from reading my memoir, The Adventurer's Son.

Oh yes, Christian Science Monitor, Anchorage Daily News (pay walled-in), New York Times, and Men's Journal. There're a bunch of interesting and provocative reader-reviews on Good Reads, too.

This week, maybe, if the world doesn't end by virus, market crash, or some other as yet unsuspected event, listen to Dave Davies on Fresh Air.

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