Saturday, July 1, 2017

Go Firther, Kongo!

The Firth River in Ivvavik National Park, Yukon Canada is a legendary wilderness run of moderate whitewater. It's also far, far away.

Since the mid-2000s I'd wanted to walk in, run it, then exit--somehow--to Kaktovik to fly to Prudhoe Bay on Ravn Air and then frequent-flier fly to Anchorage, saving money and gaining style points.

As my aging body seizes up and my testosterone drains away, it's become increasingly clear many trips are "soon or never". 

This was one.

Brad encouraged me to plan the trip. He and I met Tom Diegel on a Jarbidge-Bruneau trip in Idaho with Mike C in April this year. Tom had been to the Arrigetch with friends to hike up Arrigetch Creek and over Ariel to paddle down Awlinyak some years ago. He was happy with that adventure and so we invited him on the Firth trip.

Except it wasn't just the Firth. It was the Firth, and Whale Mountain creek, and Kongakut, and Egakserak, and Jago and a couple lagoons of the Arctic Ocean with amazingly good caribou-trail walking in between.

Fly-in from Arctic Village

We flew into the Alaska side of Joe Creek with Yukon Air, taking half a day to reach the Canadian border where we camped.

The next day we "walked the dog" (packraft lining in shallow water), then sat-on-top "starfish-style" through braids, then mostly open-boated down to the Firth. Tom and I even passed through an amazingly blue ice tunnel for fifty or seventy-five yards in the aufeis -- scary but beautiful.

We paddled about 35 miles down the Firth, leaving the boreal forest patches and entering the austere arctic below the big, moose hoof-shaped canyon as it nears the coastal plain. On Joe Creek and the Firth we had some exciting animal encounters with bears, sheep, golden eagles, moose, and caribou.

We then headed west on a four day walk back to Alaska, encountering the scariest bear of my life--any scarier and one of us would have been bitten, I reckon. 

Summer of the bears?

We'd likely been watching each other from more than a mile away for some time: him lounging on his belly and haunches in a meadow,  us eating lunch above the river. 

The bear came for us from a quarter mile away as we walked upstream, he on one side of the Malcolm River, we on the other.

When he was a hundred yards away on the far side of the river, I yelled "Go away bear!" and it was at that apparent invitation that he dropped into a full gallop toward us. 

He sprinted across the river, crashed through the brush, and ran up the 50 foot bluff we cowered on with no place else to go. 

We had no gun, no pepper spray. Just a trekking pole each and rocks from the bluff.

I could see his beady black eyes and open, silent mouth full of teeth as he ran up the bluff at us. I thought, He's going to bite one of us in moments.

I had to throw a big rock from over my head with both hands to turn the fully charging boar away from us when only thirty feet away. 

He turned around abruptly when the rock I threw tumbled by him, only to then circle around and come at us again  from a different way, cutting us off from our anticipated escape, forcing us instead to sprint down the steep bluff where I'd thrown the rock, where we then pushed through brush to cross the river and finally escape, hearts pounding, legs flying, hustling close together

Brad clenched a five pound rock in his right hand for a half hour as we marched up the valley .

The last I saw of the bear, he was circling and sniffing the top of the bluff where I'd thought, If this rock doesn't work, then this is it.

Needless to say we tried to sneak by every bear we saw after that. In Canada we saw 13 bears in six days, four of which I'd call "aggressively curious". In Alaska we saw two and they each ran away.

Arctic Refuge

We climbed out of the Malcolm drainage over a 5,300 foot pass and followed caribou trails past gorges and mountain vistas straight out of a Sydney Laurence painting, then paddled 20 miles down the unnamed Whale Mountain tributary of the Kongagut (called Geezer Creek by Brad) and the Kongakut itself.

Fantastic walking on caribou trails through rolling passes led us over to the headwaters of the Egakserak for a day and a half.  There we found another 22 miles of exhilarating snow-melt run-off that came as a pleasant surprise. The only person we'd talked to about the Egakserak in Anchorage told us when he'd been there it was totally dry--luckily our pilot Kirk Sweetsir had more up-to-date beta!

The highlight of hiking for me was between the Aichillik and the Jago Rivers following the outermost ridge-line along the front of the Brooks Range, overlooking the greens, browns, and yellows of the foothills and coastal plain with the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean beyond. Upslope breezes kept the mosquitoes away while we walked the firm, level, and dry alpine tundra.

We then floated the Jago out to its delta, portaged to the Jago Lagoon and let the Polar Easterlies (remember: they usually stop after midnight) blow us onto Barter Island across the Kaktovik Lagoon in a fog no less and right to the Waldo Arms street. Walking up to Waldo Arms we found white HMG packs with packrafts on the porch, members of our tribe! There we bumped into Sarah T and Marlena R fresh off their Hulahula packraft trip.

Best Packrafting Route Ever?

In all, over two weeks from June 13 to June 27 we made about 295 miles: 175 miles of boating (four watersheds and the Arctic Ocean) in seven days and 120 miles of walking linking the waters over the other seven days. We had a food drop on the Kongakut.

The Firth had some Class IV,  Whale Mountain Creek some class II, Egakserak splashy Class II maybe a III- somewhere, and the Jago a few Class III drops among its non-stop boogy water above the Bitty benchmark. 

We had maybe a total of four hours of tussock stumbling spread over seven days of walking and fantastic weather, with rain really only at night or while we paddled. 

I never wore a head-net, nor put on any bug dope (i.e., insect repellent).

It was extraordinarily satisfying to me to do such a classic-style packraft trip with all the modern conveniences: Salomon Speedcross shoes, HMG pack and bug-net lined mid, summer-weight Go-Lite down quilt for sleeping on a cascade Designs Neo-Aire, a 2-ounce stove, and a titanium cook pot, zippered Alpackas with knee straps and dry whitewater decks. 

The complete boating kit weighed about 15 pounds: paddle, dry-suit, PFD, helmet, and outfitted boat.

We passed new places for all of us and private, memorable places for me where Peggy, Jazz, Cody Roman and I had camped, hiked and boated almost twenty years ago, watching spring come to life on the Jago.

If this is my last long packraft trip, then I'll be satisfied. 

The route was one of my best, even if the bear encounter was the worst.


  1. Roman it was such a treat to run into you in kaktovik! Have a fantastic summer, and hi to Peggy. So glad this recent trip was so rewarding for you. :)

    1. Likewise Sarah. It was the exclamation point at the end of our Arctic adventure.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Spruceboy, but really no more than yours in the Interior. Just more expensive!

  3. Pretty sure that I walked past that air strip in Joe Creek. Good travel through there.

    1. I'm pretty sure you walked just about everywhere worth going in Alaska and the Yukon, Andrew!

  4. Replies
    1. The work was in the planning. The weather was so good and my partners so competent that execution was easy.

  5. Really cool route; I'd like to see those mtns. But the bear stuff was scary to read.

    1. Thanks Luc, a +1 from you is really always a log10 version.

  6. Bears, ugh. Cool route though. I've had a silly interest in floating the Malcolm River, looks good in google earth but would love to hear more.

    1. With a name like Malcolm....!

      yes, if we'd had two more days, I think we would have floated it. There's some really neat canyon sections -- sort of like a lower flow, shallower, mini-version of the Firth. It'd be worth doing and hiking back up to get in the Firth, too. I think it'd be easy to get t the headwaters up the Sheep.

  7. Glad you had a more successful floating experience - when we tried to packraft it from Firth headwaters (near the AK/Canada border) the valley got several inches of rain (early August 2015) turning many of those rapids into unrunable Class V/VI and washing out any eddies in the canyon. Yikes! Lots of unanticipated extra walking as well as some dodgy side canyon crossings.

    1. The Canyon section looks like it could be really scary in high water, Betsi!

      We were happy with our flows...they were on the low end but we were still on the edge of our inflated seats!

  8. That looks like a pretty awesome adventure! (Except for the bear encounter(s), which sound @#$ scary!)

    1. It reminded me of some bad climbing experiences -- collapsing pillars, broken cornices, etc...

  9. Roman thanks again for taking a chance on me on such an amazing adventure. It was truly a treat to tromp and paddle through incredible terrain with you and Brad.

  10. Roman thanks again for taking a chance on me on such an amazing adventure. It was truly a treat to tromp and paddle through incredible terrain with you and Brad.

  11. also, for more pics you can check out my own wordier 3-part blawg post(s):


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