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Trek in Alaska's Brooks Range a lesson in ultralight adventure

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Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2012 12:36 am

BROOKS RANGE, Alaska - On a sunny day in late June, we ferried ourselves across the Alatna River in packrafts, returned the boats and waved goodbye to our group. We’d gathered route advice and ditched extra gear. Now it was time to walk.

We were in the western Brooks Range, 15 miles east of the Arrigetch Peaks. The nearest village was 70 miles away, the nearest road about 100.

My friend Toby Schwoerer had invited me on a trip organized by the legendary adventurer Roman Dial. Roman’s idea was to set up camp on the upper Alatna and explore the steep mountain creeks that drained into it with packrafts, the lightweight inflatable boats that have opened new doors for adventure travelers.

When I flew in halfway through their stay, Roman had just shredded his boat on the narrow, tumbling, Class 4 whitewater of Arrigetch Creek. He beamed with excitement — “Wasn’t that great!?”

I had packrafted just once before, and didn’t get anywhere near most of the creeks we explored that week by foot and boat. For me, the trip was a chance to meet great people, experience the high peaks, and learn from some of the best long-distance travelers in Alaska.

And if the Alatna was my education, then walking out would be my final exam. Toby and I planned to head northeast to the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, then east to the Dalton Highway — 165 miles in all, through untracked wilderness.

Three others planned to walk as far as Anaktuvuk. The rest would return by plane.

Bushwhack beginnings

We started out fast. There were no human trails, but we quickly found game trails and followed those upstream. When they veered off or disappeared, we spread out to look for another — “Trail!” we’d yell when we found one.

“Hey oh!” we’d call through the brush when we lost sight of each other.

We splashed through wet ground and crossed streams without hesitation. We wore light shoes, mostly trail running shoes, and our feet stayed wet from the start. I’d learned it’s hopeless to keep dry feet in the Brooks Range, and wet running shoes are better than wet hiking boots.

In a few hours, we reached the mouth of Pingaluk Creek, where we left the Alatna and turned toward Anaktuvuk Pass. We made lunch and bathed in the clear water. The engine of a small plane came and went.

The rest of the day we followed the Pingaluk upstream. Mostly we walked the bank. Sometimes we waded up the creek. When we got thirsty, we cupped our hands and drank — a luxury of the Brooks Range or a calculated risk of giardia, depending on whom you ask.

When the creek grew narrow and cold a few thousand feet up, we stopped for the night. One of the other hikers was hoping to catch a plane from Anaktuvuk on July 3, which meant covering 90 miles in three and a half days.

The next day, we climbed the rest of the way up Pingaluk Creek and crossed a tussocky pass into the drainage of Kevuk Creek. At first, we could cross it with a hop. But as we descended and other creeks added their flow, the Kevuk turned into a churning, silty river. Toby longed for his packraft.

After 12 hours and 24 miles of hiking, we stopped by a clear stream. It was exhilarating to cover so much ground and travel with such hard-core athletes. (Two had won the Alaska Wilderness Classic.) But I wasn’t sure how much more fast hiking and uneven terrain my legs could handle.

We built a fire and shared a thick broth, then said our goodbyes. As dark storm clouds filled the valley, our hiking companions hefted their packs again. “Rainbow!” one called out, and indeed there was.

Our pace slowed after that, but only slightly. We made 21 miles the next day, and 19 the day after that. We would blaze through willows on a good trail, or skip along gravel bars at three miles an hour, then slow to a third that speed in tussocks.

We followed the Kevuk to its end, then turned right at the Hunt Fork of the John River. When the Hunt Fork joined the main fork, we turned upstream toward Anaktuvuk.

Along the way, Toby taught me to cross rivers — to look for shallow braids and limit my exposure to the current. By the time we reached Anaktuvuk, I was mostly comfortable crossing rivers deep enough to float the pack off my back.

On a misty day that seemed to breed mosquitoes, we followed muddy ATV trails into the village. The skies cleared, and we made camp beside a creek.

In the morning, I looked east up the Anaktuvuk River valley and imagined the Dalton Highway just 60 miles away. We had covered 100 miles in five days, had crashed through alder thickets and waded canyons, and my legs had survived. Now, whatever the terrain, the river crossings and bushwhacks, I knew I could walk 60 miles.

Pretty cool, I thought.

New lessons from the past

Our trip hardly compares to some of the bold treks Roman and others have made across Alaska. But it did give me a sense of how such trips are done.

I learned it’s not just about having the lightest gear.

It’s having the lightest gear exactly suited to your needs, and nothing more — shelter made from a single, pyramid-shaped piece of fabric; a sleeping pad only as long as your torso.

It’s having the skills to meet some needs from the land itself. You need fewer clothes if you can dry them by a fire, less fuel if you can cook on coals.

It’s knowing where to find good walking, and it’s putting up with long hours and certain hardships.

The inland Eskimos who settled Anaktuvuk Pass, of course, were experts at traveling this country on foot and using what the land offered. Just from caribou, they derived not only food but also footwear, clothing and shelter.

At the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk, a label for a caribou-skin backpack explained how a hunter might have carried a small bladder of seal oil, some dry meat, extra boots, and a needle and thread.

It struck me later how much modern adventurers aspire to such a pack — highly caloric and dried foods, gear suited to the environment, and the skills to do without.

The end of the route

Toby and I followed ATV trails east up the Anaktuvuk River valley, an unexpected gift for my still-sore legs. In early July, huge shelves of river ice, or aufeis, still covered gravel bars. The next day, the valley opened into a wide expanse of tundra bounded by 6,000-foot peaks. I imagined thousands of caribou drifting across it.

Toby had hiked from Anaktuvuk to the road once before, alone, in 1999, and was eager to try a new route.

Just before Ernie Pass on the continental divide, we turned into Graylime Creek, along a route recommended by my friend Trystan Herriott. The sky was a mix of bright sun and ominous clouds. Rock walls towered hundreds of feet above us, their lines reminding me of some ancient façade.

As we climbed, the valley narrowed and the air chilled. Giant boulders gave shape to a narrow canyon. Up we went, scrambling at times, on rocks that tore our shoes and hands.

“Caribou!” Toby pointed as four animals drifted across the moon-like surface. They were the only big wildlife we’d seen since spotting one black bear near the Alatna. We saw frequent sign of grizzlies, and many caribou kills, but no more bears.

Soon, the nascent Nanushuk River came into view. A fading glacier nestled at the top, and a dirty stream of water plunged north. Ahead rose a cliff wall.

I vaguely remembered Trystan saying something about a cliff, and one route up it. My 1:250,000-scale map, which showed each mile as a quarter-inch, was useless here. Roman had said the scale was his favorite, and now I could see why. The 1:250s are big enough to imagine expeditions, and the lack of detail leaves puzzles to figure out.

Toby quickly found the way up, and we climbed a scree slope to a ridge. We’d mostly traveled in river valleys, and it was a treat to be up high.

The next day, we followed an unnamed valley down toward the Itkillik River and Oolah Valley, then turned and climbed a steep pass tracked by Dall sheep. A little further, we looked down on the continental divide — the Itkillik flowing north, and the Koyukuk beginning its long path toward the Bering Sea.

We followed the Koyukuk south, then turned east into Alignment Creek. Mountains sloped down from alternating sides like teeth on a saw blade. Whitewater poured in from side streams, and wildflowers decorated the gravel bars.

Near the pass, the valley opened up into bright green tundra. We climbed a final pitch and came to a shimmering pond. A wave of gratitude washed over me — to see such a place, and to have the skills to travel in such wild country.

We’d hiked 25 miles that day. Now it was all downhill to the road, but one hurdle remained — crossing the Dietrich River.

The next day, we followed Kuyuktuvuk Creek east. It rained, heavy at times, and we walked fast along gravel bars to stay warm, excited to near our goal.

Abandoned cabins began to appear, and human trails. Soon we could hear trucks.

As luck had it, the Dietrich was split into timid channels. We crossed with ease and walked onto the road, nine days after leaving the Alatna.

Stefan Milkowski is a freelance reporter and weatherization technician who lives in Fairbanks.

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