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?


  1. Love the base camp in wilderness setting idea! Road-based have too much n EU ;)

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  3. I missed a good one. I liked seing Peggy in her own boat. In 2013 I will need to scratch my Alaska packrafting itch.

  4. Hell yeah... if only it wasn't multi-1000s of bucks to make it happen. I have already purchased Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic maps and literature. I'm planning a backpack there for some indeterminate time in the future when I can afford it.

    The photo compilation is good. Some moving film would be cool if anyone shot any.

    1. There are cheaper ways to access the park which few people utilize due to the lack of fanfare, and rightly so. You may inquire as to the details, but hiking in from the Haul Road to packraft the North Fork, or continuing out to Anaktuvuk and floating the John, are just a couple options that can eliminate a charter flight into the heart of the Brooks.

  5. Can't make em all...but this is one that I regret missing!! Looked awesome.

  6. Roman...I would love to join in on the '13 festivities. Will be a much-welcomed item on next summer's adventure agenda.

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  8. Parks Hwy Packrafting Festival? Aw yeah! I'd love to be there!

  9. Roman I am planning a trip to Circle Lake / Arrigetch Creek July 14 2017. I have been in this area before late August. How bad are the bugs July 14th? We aill be hiking and camping up around the Arrigetch. Thanks any info would be appreciated. -Rob Binkley Jacksonville Florida

    1. Hi Rob, as a rule of thumb July bugs are bad but it could be a dry year for you. I personally don't go north of the yukon River in July if I can help it


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