Brooks Range Traverse: Part Three of Three
World’s Best Third Wheel
During my last-minute, pre-departure shopping at REI (wool boxers ✅, rain jacket ✅), I ran into Michael Mumm. Michael mentioned that his brother Josh, my most frequent adventure partner, was feeling a little aimless in Homer and might appreciate a phone call. I called to invite him on our trip, sure that he couldn’t pull off a three-week vacation on short notice. To my surprise, Josh said it was a possibility.
Five days later, Josh booked a seat on our 7 AM flight to Kotzebue, then started the five hour drive from Homer to Anchorage at midnight. He turned around twice in the throes of indecision.
Sarah and I stayed up packing until late, and woke early for the flight. Josh texted from Portage (60 miles away) at 4:40 AM, not obvious that he would arrive in time to check in. Sarah and I made a plan to get Josh to the counter as efficiently as possible… I’d park his truck in long-term parking, Sarah would move his luggage to the luggage line. After parking the truck I jogged back to the counter to find Josh with his luggage; he had missed the check in cut off by 5 minutes.
No time for goodbyes, Sarah and I rushed to security, where we were stuck behind a family that kept finding metal in their pockets. We ran to the gate in time to see the door closing, but the agent waved us forward and said, “Hurry, you can still make the flight!” With a huge sigh of relief we caught our breath and pulled out our tickets. “Ooooooh. Mehl and Histand. Didn’t you hear the page? We’ve been trying to reach you.” My sleep-deprived brain clicked on for the first time. I grabbed Sarah and groaned, “I forgot to declare the pistol!” In our rush we hadn’t heard the page or noticed the messages on our phones.
Dogs Love Peanut Butter
We left the gate and met Josh at the TSA large-item drop off, where, an hour later, my .44 Magnum was delivered and inspected. The police woman on duty was a total babe. I don’t know if she is friendly to everyone, or if she thought Sarah was with Josh. Let’s assume the latter. Or maybe it was obvious that I had made an honest mistake, unlike the other offender waiting at TSA, who had hidden marijuana at the bottom of a peanut butter jar and poured molten peanut butter over the top so that the jar had a like-new creamy surface. Pro tip (from the cop): dogs love peanut butter.
We rescheduled for the evening flight, with Josh, and this time I remembered to declare the pistol. I haven’t carried a gun for 20 years (when it was required during geology field work). Sarah and I spent a lot of time discussing whether to bring my pistol, including crowd-sourcing information on Facebook and participating in a Talk of Alaska radio show. The reason we considered it this year was because we expected to travel as a party of two, whereas we are usually in bigger groups. Also, we had heard several stories of scary bear encounters along the Noatak corridor. In the end, Josh carried the gun the entire trip, a five pound penalty. Win-win.
We Are Mistaken for Scientists
Because we missed our morning flight and the scheduled charter to the Ambler River, we needed a place to sleep in Kotzebue. Sarah found a last-minute BnB with Joe, who later told us he only responded because Sarah had a 907 area code. Joe’s usual BnB space was full with his visiting daughters, but he thought us “907-folk” would be okay with rustic accommodations, which we were. Joe met us at the airport, “Just look for the ugly guy with the big beard.” We found him.
Joe was a perfect host, feeding us and letting Josh borrow his truck to do his grocery shopping (Josh still hadn’t decided whether to join for one or three weeks). In the morning Joe came with us to the hangar to talk shop with the pilots. As he heard our answers to the pilots’ questions and started to grasp our trip plan he exclaimed, “I didn’t realize you guys were bad asses, I thought you were scientists!”
When Sarah and I started dating, one of our first adventure goals was to travel the length of the Brooks Range. We had both seen the section along the Haul Road as part of the Wilderness Classics, but hadn’t been further from the road corridor. It would be exciting to visit it together.
Several groups have traversed from Kaktovik to Noatak in a single summer. We didn’t consider that option due to the required time off work, the expense of multiple remote food drops, and not wanting to have to take the most efficient route. Sarah prefers hiking to floating, so floating the Noatak for 300 miles was out. I wanted to plan segments with the frugal “logistics by convenience” style that I love. We explored maps and decided to split the range into thirds.
Part One: Gates of the Arctic (400 Miles, August 2016)
Our first section was from the village of Anaktuvuk to the village of Ambler. We teamed up with Sarah’s brother Ben Histand, and his wife Diana Johnson. We managed a very affordable trip, due to commercial flights to and from the villages, and the generosity of Brooks Range guide John Gaedeke, who let us pay a minimal amount to include food in two of his scheduled flights. The trade-off with this plan was that we had to accommodate John’s destinations and schedule. We maintained a hard pace, regardless of the weather, which was often bad.
The northern parts of our route had hard hiking, extended fields of tussocks with rare caribou trails. The rivers were low and benign, until the Ambler, which rose rapidly in response to a rain storm, and quickly swept us out to the village of Amber, which we appreciated.
Two highlights from the Gates route were the Arrigetch peaks, an anomalous granite pod in the heart of the mountains, and the pass that brought us from the Noatak River to the Ambler River. Soon after starting our float down the Amber River, a vivid turquoise tributary came in from the west. We weren’t motivated to explore the area in the rain, but it looked worth exploring. We’ll come back to that later.
Part Two: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (275 Miles, June 2017)
The next summer we walked and packrafted through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, from the Haul Road to Kaktovik. The weather was excellent for this trip, and the terrain was easier than the Gates route. We watched the mountains transition from spring to summer, careful to avoid stepping on camouflaged chicks hiding in dry river beds.
We appreciated the easier pace through the Refuge. We saw a lot of people, great people, but it made the area feel more trafficked than the Gates, less wild. I was disappointed by the number of airstrips delineated by piles of stones. The highlight was watching 3000 caribou travel through the Coastal Plain, the area now up for lease for oil development (background, EIS).
Part Three: The Western Brooks (325 miles, June 2019)
Planning affordable traverses through the Gates and Refuge was intimidating. In both cases we took advantage of friends that helped get us food without having to charter a dedicated flight. We wouldn’t have that luxury in the western Brooks; it just doesn’t get enough visitors. The western Brooks also lacks any villages north of the Kobuk River corridor, so there aren’t any commercial flights to leverage. So, we mentally prepared for a hard trip, and physically prepared with Sarah’s Summer Strong fitness program in May.
We decided to start the trip at the distinct turquoise tributary that feeds into the Ambler River, the one we had floated past three years earlier. I hoped to find a boat ride up from Ambler, but the only quote we got was $3000. We ended up flying in from Kotzebue, a $2000 flight (for three passengers), the most I’ve ever paid. Our total travel expenses for this trip were probably $1000-$1100 per person, with frequent flier mile tickets to and from Kotzebue.
I Put the “Drop” In “Food Drop”
I researched the area and heard that the turquoise tributary ended in a loose-rock pass that would best be descended with a 50 foot rope. Sarah had the brilliant idea to drop supplies on the other side of the pass so that we wouldn’t have to carry three weeks of food through sketchy terrain. I expected that it would only take a day of hiking after the pass before we could transition to boats and easy miles.
The pilot dropped Josh and Sarah at the Ambler River, while I stayed in the plane for the 15 minute flight over the pass. The pilot slid his seat as far forward as possible, I sat behind him, propped a box in the open door, which was very hard to open due to the air pressure, and then kicked boxes out onto a tundra strip at the junction of a creek and river. It took three passes to get all nine boxes out. On the second pass, I pushed a box after the pilot said too late. We spotted it on a tiny gravel bar in the river, dry, but not by much of a margin.
We typically remove all food packaging and smash the food to be as compact as possible. This time we kept the packaging as a shock absorber. I lined each box with a bag of chips, and used other air-tight food bags to cushion the load. Our only losses were two packages of liquid pasta sauce, three packs of Trail Butter, and all of the avocados Sarah threw in on a whim. But, what wasn’t lost was smashed on impact, and that was everything. Smashed M&Ms, smashed ramen noodles, smashed cookies, and usually all of those mixed together. On the last day of the trip Sarah discovered an intact cookie. It was a big deal.
The ‘Anomalous’ Turquoise Tributary That is Not
When we had floated down the Ambler at the end of the Gates traverse, the river had been swollen and brown. This time it was clear, blue, and fortunately, shallow enough that we could walk upstream without getting too wet. We were already impressed with the water color and hadn’t even reached the “anomalous” turquoise tributary. It turns out that the anomalous tributary is only anomalous when the main channel is flooded and brown.
One of our pilots predicted that the hike up the turquoise tributary would be the highlight of our trip, and he might be right. Excellent walking along a stunning creek unlike anything we had ever seen. I had serious pangs of regret that we couldn’t float back down. We had time, and boats, but had sent our PFDs with the food drop to soften the impact.
It turned out that there was enough snow to sneak out of the valley before the “50 ft rope” pass. In other words, we could have carried everything instead of messing with the food drop. We saw plenty of caribou tracks heading toward the rocky pass and I would really have liked to see it, but the snow-filled escape route was too convenient. We reached the divide that night and recovered our cache the next day. The box that had landed on a gravel bar in the river turned out to be Josh’s, and unharmed. Win-win.
Lasagna Does Not Desiccate
We started our float down the Imelyak River, another delightfully clear body of water with some aufeis and good current. Sarah spotted a gray wolf on the bank, the only wolf of the trip.
When the Imelyak lost gradient we had to choose between another 30 miles of meanders or a 4-mile portage that was guaranteed to be hard walking. We did the math and chose the portage. This was the hardest part of the trip. Our packs were heavy with 18 days of food, including some heavy food that we planned to eat during our time on the Noatak. The tussocks were as bad as they get; unstable tops, deep ankle-grabbing trenches. It was also hot, with no breeze, so the mosquitos were bad. Sarah and I aimed for a snowfield midway through the portage which provided a critical refresh for mind and spirit. Josh kept plugging along. We all tweaked our legs– my ankle, Sarah’s knee, Josh’s foot.
When we reached the Noatak we dropped our packs on the bank, peeled off our sweat saturated clothes, and rinsed the bugs and grime away. We built a fire and watched a red fox prance along the shore.
We rode the Noatak for 80 miles (west), over two comfortable days. We had identified the Nimiuktuk River as the most direct route back into the mountains (north), but were nervous given a last-minute report from the pilot that the “Nimi” had bad brush. I looked at the other options and decided to stick with my intuition and route plan. We spent the night at the mouth of the river, cleaned our exploded food bags and burned all the extra weight we could think of– the 50 foot rope, food, and the food packaging we had kept for the air drop. The Nimi brush turned out not to be bad, at least by southcentral Alaska standards. It was probably bad for the Brooks Range, but whenever the route wasn’t obvious Sarah and I just fell in behind Josh as he consistently found passages between clearings. The dwarf birch did reach overhead in places, which is apparently a new phenomenon due to warmer temperatures shifting to higher latitudes.
It was so hot that we hardly noticed our dozens of river crossings. After wading chest-deep through one channel, we reached a sandy bank, dropped our packs, and walked right back into the water to fully submerge. Sarah’s phone got wet on one crossing, despite being in a waterproof pocket and LifeProof case. We tried to dehydrate it in a Mountain House, but don’t like, or carry, the rice flavors, so we tried lasagna. No luck.
The Nimi took us north to the divide that separates the Noatak drainage from the coastal plain (aka, the Noatak National Reserve and Wilderness from the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska [NPRA]). Based on satellite imagery, I anticipated the walking to be tough, a mix of tussocks at low elevations and rocky passes at high. We paralleled the NPRA for 65 miles, and the first 50 turned out to be a breeze, and gorgeous. Major caribou trails riddled the valleys, making for fast travel. Rather than cover more ground and risk finishing the trip early, we settled into a casual pace, slept in, fished more, and swam every day.
We called this section “Narnia” because of the easy travel and deep pools of clear water where we caught pike and char on first casts. While preparing for the trip I asked for fishing advice from friends and ended up with a Ronco Pocket Fisherman (1 pound folding pole) eBay purchase, and a handful of spinners. Josh was like a little boy casting for fish, more playful than I’ve seen in eight years of travelling together. We stopped at most pools that looked fishy, eating 30+ fish. We would typically gut and boil them right on the bank, a 15 minute process.
The caribou trails improved from good to amazing as we continued west. We watched two grizzly bears for two hours as they worked their way down the valley toward the hill we were camped on. Sarah read book after book on her Kindle.
When we planned an Arctic trip for June, we were nervous about losing some of Alaska’s precious summer. The warm temperatures in the Brooks Range were a surprise and a treat, guiltily appreciated. The Arctic shouldn’t be that warm. Things are bad, but it sure was fun to swim every day.
With 25 miles left to reach the Wulik River, our carpet ride to the coast, the 24-hour sun finally took a leave of absence. Josh had been struggling to sleep under the full sun, but that didn’t make him anxious for the clouds to roll in. When they did, accompanied by smoke from the new fires south of the Brooks Range, we found ourselves in the most rugged mountains of the trip. Compared to the idyllic Narnia, this section felt like “Gnarnia.” We glimpsed steep limestone buttresses through the clouds, quite a contrast to the rolling green flanks and shale summits of Narnia. Without the temptation to lounge, fish, and swim, we covered ground at a fast pace for the first time.
The mountain passes in this section were steeper, and foreboding. The rocky walls prevented the sun from reaching the gully floors, so we walked up snow, past caribou kill sites and huge piles of bear scat. My shoe had blown out way back in the 4-mile tussock portage to the Noatak, so I relied on a dental floss repair job to get through the side-hilling on these final hiking miles.
The Wulik River
At the Wulik River we found a shallow braided channel backed by aesthetic mountains. The lower slopes of the mountains were riddled with fresh caribou highways, brown stripes through lush green vegetation. Stone-tool fragments had been found in this area, and it was easy to imagine why. If the weather improved, we planned to spend the next day exploring. Instead, the rain picked up and we spent the day hiding in our tents, sleeping, eating, and reading. Near midnight of our second night of the storm we moved the tent to higher ground, concerned that the now muddy Wulik was still rising.
When the weather broke we inflated our boats and started down the Wulik. We passed through the big mountains quickly, but still had plenty of relief to keep the scenery interesting. Sarah and I brought an Alpacka Oryx on this trip, a two-person inflatable canoe, and were still getting the hang of it. The flooded Wulik was mellow by our standards when we are in our own boats, but provided plenty of excitement while steering through swift corners. Josh had identified a potential canyon on the map, but I wasn’t concerned because I hadn’t heard about a canyon during my preparation. Sure enough, we floated up to several large boulders marking the entrance to a Class III+ canyon. The first rapids were runnable, but then the canyon constricted to a continuous section of big water wave trains and rapids. We portaged on river right, through alder so thick that we deflated the boats to squeeze through.
The Wulik mellowed out after the canyon. Whenever I was steering I pulled us to the outer banks so that we could study the permafrost and hope to see mammoth bones in the soil. (A guy in McGrath found a tusk this way; he traded it for a truck.) We eventually saw our first buildings, and then the quarry outside of Kivalina that will be used to re-locate the school (the coastal village of Kivalina is managing accelerated erosion due to climate change, background, project, Washington Post article).
As we approached Kivalina Lagoon it was difficult to tell where the main current was flowing. I unintentionally led us into a slough off the main channel, so we pulled over to get our bearing and make sure the slough continued to the lagoon. We noticed a huge pile of caribou antlers, hundreds and hundreds. Kivalina was the site of an effort to manage a reindeer herd over a hundred of years ago. I don’t know if these antlers were that old.
We paddled along the spit but camped across the lagoon from Kivalina, wanting to avoid being awkward tourists in the cramped village. This turned out to be the right decision because the far end of Kivalina was occupied by heavy equipment moving riprap to help reinforce the eroding banks. Plus, our side of the lagoon had a beached walrus carcass, which was fascinating, but in a bloated and disgusting sort of way.
We woke up for our final ramen noodle breakfast and paddled across the lagoon entrance. We thought we had plenty of time before our flight to Kotzebue, but the Ravn agent soon pulled up on her four-wheeler and told us the plane was about to land, 30 minutes early. In a town of 380, it was easy for the agent to spot the three outsiders on the reservation list.
Bye Bye Brooks Range
The biggest difference between this section of the Brooks Range and our other trips was that the Western Brooks felt less trafficked. We saw one cabin between the Ambler and Wulik rivers, no other parties, and no marked airstrips. It felt more immersive; I really appreciated this aspect of the Western Brooks.
Sarah absolutely loved this trip. We prepared for a pace to accommodate tussocks and hard walking, but the caribou trails allowed us to slow down and appreciate the routes at a finer scale. Some of this drove me nuts, and I secretly (or not so secretly) appreciated the rain that helped keep us moving during the final week. But it was good for me to learn that we could cover a lot of ground but still be comfortable. And by comfortable, I mean that I was still achy every morning and needed to stop frequently to rest my knees and foot.
We passed through several sections that I would like to revisit. First priority would be to exit the De Long Mountains with a float north through NPRA, maybe to Point Lay. But the price tag for anything within the Western Brooks makes me wince. There is an obvious relationship between the Western Brooks feeling less visited while being the hardest to access. Sarah and I are grateful to have had such good weather, and third wheel, on what will likely be our only visit through this remote treasure. It is a comfort to know that even within the wild Brooks Range there are areas that feel more wild and are hard enough to access that they should remain safe from development.