Thursday, August 16, 2012

Packraft Festival 2012: Brooks Range Basecamp

Last year, 2011, 15 of us flew out to Pt Heiden and traversed the Alaska Peninsula to Chignik over Aniakchak. It felt like a packrafting festival and several of us hoped to replicate the big group in wilderness and packrafts again, although Aniakchak's frequent flier miles would be hard to beat (all 15 of us went for "free" last year).

This year, a bunch of us -- including Gordy, Thai, Toby, Ole, Joe and me -- convinced others to come. Thai convinced Clif, Toby convinced Stephen, Ole invited his brother Dennis, Joe brought Kim and I convinced Peggy and Mike C that a basecamp  in the Alatna Valley would be fun for all, Class I-V.

Scheduling for late June, so as to miss the bugs and maybe catch some run-off, worked surprisingly well -- although we needed a bit more water. Some of us went 12 days without bug dope or head net, although the five who walked out in early July hit the bad bugs head-on as they walked to Anaktuvuk from the Arrigectch.

We ran six creeks and rivers and made four summit walks and scrambles, doing wonderful overnight and three day trips out of a luxurious, bear-proofed basecamp near the mouth of Arrigetch Creek on the Alatna River in Gates of the Arctic Park. We hiked and boated and bathed and scrambled and fished and ate well and had fun in the sun. It was neat to have a tent set up to come back to and take a minimalist approach to the overnights in real wilderness with superlight packs, adjusting the gear and food as we learned what worked and what we forgot.

There were great animal trails and no tussocks, firewood and a bit of rain to bring the highlight run up to a good packraftable level -- Aiyagomahala Creek (aka "hot Springs" and "South Arrigetch" Creek) below the Hot Springs. Above the Hot Springs are wonderful drops (Class IV-V) and boulder gardens and even granite slides, but low water prevented us from running much of the upper highlights. Below the Hot Springs were a couple hours of Class III and then a 200 foot a mile section of Class IV+ with five Magic Mile/Little Su type drops, all situated in a beautiful valley of steep walls and spruce forest.

Arrigetch Creek's lower canyon was Class IV bedrock pool drop filled with big granite boulders for boat scouting. Unfortunately the bedrock is schist and as we (Toby, Joe, and I) got lower in the canyon the granite was less abundant and sharp rocks became apparent, eventually disemboweling my boat :(

Awlinyak was super fun, mostly Class II (a spot or two of III-) with an approach directly over a scenic Arrigetch peak called Ariel. The climb is an amazing, improbable scramble and Gordy said it had the best view of any summit he's been atop. We did that loop in three days, two nights, sleeping at the Forks of Arrigetch Creek and at the put-in for Awlinyak.

Unakserak also had a neat scramble on our way to its Class II shallow canyon. It has been a good float for parties coming over the tussock fields east of the Alatna, toward John River and Anaktuvuk, but not the only choice: Kutuk and Pingaluk are more sporty.

Kutuk is an odd, orange color due to a permafrost blow-out in its headwaters according to Dirk of Coyote Air. It is  Class II+ and a bit more appealing if travelling over from the tussock fields. We hiked up and ran its lower five or six miles.

Best looking of all (but too low for us, although I scouted it w/Skurka in 2010) is Pingaluk. Coming from Anaktuvuk and floating the John all the way to Wolverine avoids the tussock fields (mostly -- until heading into the upper Pingaluk for an hour) and offers up the most sporting of the three mid-Alatna creeks (Unakserak, Kutuk, Pingaluk) looking like Class III on beautiful polished boulder gardens. As a consolation prize (we ran none of Pingaluk) on the way back from Pingaluk we climbed a bump overlooking our base camp  for a beautiful view of the Arrigetch.

Overall it was a great trip with 12 days of sunshine and two of rain, great people and good food.

We flew in and out with Coyote Air after driving north on the Dalton to Coldfoot -- much cheaper than flying out of Bettles via Fairbanks.

Next year, I am thinking a road-based trip between Honolulu and Healy along the Parks Hwy: there are like 15 fun creeks and rivers from Class I to Class IV including the Bull, the three forks of the Chulitna, Honolulu, Jack, Cantwell, Windy, Sanctuary, Riley, Nenana's multiple sections, Moody, and more. A scheduled two weeks with planned events like "Class IV Fridays" and "Class II weekends" in June before the Classic, and open to all who want to come, sounds like a good plan for the 2013 Packraft Festival.

Anybody interested in that?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Brooks Range Meta-blogging

The Brooks Range remains my favorite wilderness in the world, that after looking for what I want: big wilderness, politically stable, wild animal trails, mountains, rivers, forests, clean water, good light, long days, glaciers, hot springs, tundra, few people, no roads, good walking if you know where to look, enough wood for fires but not so much that brush is bad, etc. Recently three Brooks Range events have come onto my radar in between moving between our old house and new.

 1) Pat and Caroline, who started in Bellingham, Washington in sleek row-craft that Pat made (!), reached Kaktovik after walking the coast from the McKenzie and were headed south and into the Brooks Range. Their goal is Kotzebue. Check out their blog.

The idea of traveling as a couple for six months to a year across wilderness and under your own power (Ok with gravity assist) is super appealing to me. Unfortunately, I can't talk Peggy into a six+ month walk/boat trip so I must live vicariously through Pat and Caroline and others.

Go forth, young couples, and explore while you can!

 2) Recently got an email from a young, 27 year old Australian, John Cantor, who crossed the Brooks Range from Canada to Kotzebue Sound in -- wait for it -- 31 days! I think that includes about a week's worth of rest days.

He left Joe Creek in early June and developed some achilles problems that, remarkably, led to an acceleartion of his pace. He passed through Anaktukuk and hit the Noatak below Gull Pass and paddled that in less than a week. It's 500 miles long, just that stretch! Wow.

He wrote me recently. "Hi Roman, I have followed many of your trips with great enthusiasm and reading some of your stuff helped with my planning for my trip. I just returned to Australia after successfully traversing the Brooks Range solo. It was my fourth attempt and it took me thirty-one-and-a-half days. I started about 7 miles west of the Yukon border on Joe Creek. I had food caches on the Sheenjek, Marsh Fork of the Canning River, Wind River, Chandalar Landing Strip, Anaktuvuk Pass and 12 Mile Creek on the Noatak. I had a rest day at the Wind River cache, was stuck at the Chandalar Landing Strip waiting for food for two-and-a-half days and had three rest days in Anaktuvuk Pass cause I had torn my left quadricep. Floating the Noatak took just under seven days finishing at the Kotzebue sound. If you were interested I have a facebook page - "John Cantor's Brooks Range Traverse 2012" and there are some photos up and I'll be posting a lot more in the coming days." Wow.

So if I were 20 years younger, after doing a nine month long traverse around the Brooks Range with Peggy, I'd want to try a speed traverse of the Brooks Range.

 3) Speaking of adventures with our wives and solo traverses of the Brooks Range, Kaylene Johnson's biography of Dick Griffith is out and it is GREAT.

Spend $25 and read about a lifetime of un-sung adventures, many after age 55. It covers his early years in the Grand and Copper Canyons; his solo, living-off-the-land walk from Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk in 1959; his middle age in the Chugach; and his post 55 year old days doing the Wilderness Classic and skiing from Unalakleet to Hudson Bay in his 60s and 70s. It is well illustrated with Dick's photos too. I feared it would lack his witty, aw shucks voice, as any who have read his journals have enjoyed. But it's there in his quotes.

Again, a great book and well worth the price. Only complaint is it wasn't in hard back.
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