In the Fall of 2017, I convinced Eric Parsons (Revelate Designs) that the Nulato Hills were bikeable between Nulato and Unalakleet. See the trip report for what went wrong, but basically, we quickly realized our pace was half of what we planned for. Despite the poor weather and bike-pushing, I left the Nulato Hills very impressed with the terrain and community.
Sarah Histand and I made a return trip to Nulato in June, 2018. We chose June because satellite imagery showed snow patches along the ridges, and I wanted an easier water source than what Eric and I had (not) found.
We arrived in Nulato to a very warm welcome from Martha Turner. Martha brought us to the Tribal Council building where we charged our phones and talked with locals. Everyone was excited about our plan and provided advice, mostly about mosquitos and bears. It was wonderful to feel welcome as visitors to these native lands. We were offered extra bug dope, bear spray, and guns. We took the bug dope and bear spray.
It took 7 hours of hard walking through burn (downfall) to reach tree line. We only had one head-net, so I wore a pair of pantyhose over my face (Sarah loves pantyhose as a light thermal layer). The bugs and heat were pretty bad, forcing us to keep moving to higher ground. We camped at treeline, exhausted. Sarah was frustrated with how hard the hiking had been. She came into the trip thinking it would be a “Sound of Music Ridge Walk.” Well, at least we were at the ridge now.
We hoped for a breeze to keep the bugs away, and woke to a ripping wind. Climbing uphill, we spotted a group of 12 or more muskox, including several babies. The wind was in our faces, so we were able to sit and watch the muskox without alerting them.
The first few days of ridge walk featured great weather, footing, and views. Our packs felt heavy, but morale was high.
As we got deeper into the mountains, the climate rapidly swung (from too-hot summer at the Yukon River) to early spring… snow in the valley floor, fog on the valley walls. The ridges quickly grew steep and rocky, which made me grateful that Eric and I hadn’t continued with our bikes.
After a challenging 13-mile push, we crossed the divide and approached waters of the Unalakleet and North Rivers. We first hit the North River at 8 or 9 pm, and our bodies were ready to camp. The water was too low to float, and I wanted to camp where we could transition straight to boats in the morning, so we put our heads down for a final 3-mile push to the next tributary.
The North River was a wonderful float. We were probably one or two weeks after spring high water, and I suspect it is too low later in the season. It was one of the best class II rivers I’ve been on— crystal clear water lined with friendly canyon sections and tons of birds. The river stayed interesting all the way to Unalakleet and we were grateful for this reward after the hard approach.
Not to be outdone by the warm welcome in Nulato, we arrived in Unalakleet in time for Timm Nelson to give us a ride to the Ivanoff’s house for a Solstice/Anniversay feast. Heidi’s cooking was incredible, fresh King Salmon, fresh bread, we were kind of in shock. Herb lent us a 4-wheeler the next day, so we ripped around town. I was really impressed with Unalakleet… pebble beaches, bikeable roads, skiable hills, and a long history.
This trip was not the easiest on our relationship (see the video). I underestimated how challenging the route was, and Sarah had mentally prepared for an easier trip. It was a good lesson in managing expectations, and, thanks to the wonderful float, we finished in high spirits, relationship intact.