This was on “The List” for 25 years, and I finally decided it was time to see this country.  (Click here for pictures!) I originally wanted to see the “Gates,”  two mountains for which Gates of the Arctic National Park are named.  No people signed up for the trip, so I went to the Noatak, where nobody signed up, either.  Ended up doing it custom with one guide.

We originally were going to fly in on a Helio Courier, but Fairbanks was so socked in we flew SOUTH (wrong way), around the clouds and had to stop in Bettles to refuel.  Then we flew in, one shortcut not open due to clouds (they fly VFR, visual and not instruments, so we backtracked to the Alatna River, flew up, past familiar area  I had been, like Arrigetch Creek, and then popped through Gull Pass, down Lucky Six Creek, landing at a sandbar about 2 km west of the creek.  Landing on a sandbar in a small plane is an interesting experience!  We were at 67 36 N. and 155 15 W.Once the pilot left, we were on our own, and started upstream or east, crossing 12 mile creek in deep water.  We linked arms, and the idea is not to stare at the water but let your feet find the bottom while you look at the shore.  Otherwise, the rushing water really disorients you.

After another mile, we set up camp under threatening skies.  The skies generally threatened during most of the trip, but it tended to rain harder at night.  We walked near the river, with typical Alaskan hiking–tussocks, climbs of 30 m or more, drops into brush calling “Mr. Bear!” in case a bruin was present.  There aren’t a lot of trees except in the drainages, and the ground is wet because permafrost limits the depth of absorption of water.  We camped near the river that night.

The next day, we moved as far east as we would get.  The Sun broke through, and my skin over my left achilles tendon broke down, necessitating first moleskin then moleskin with duct tape.  That held, even during some stream crossings.  We passed Lucky Six Creek and got into remarkably good hiking terrain for Alaska–2 miles per hour rather than 1.  We camped about 16 miles from where we started, walked another mile upstream to look (or try to look) at 2700 m Mt. Igepak, which we saw sort of through the clouds.  Did see a bear in the mountain.

The return was above the river, and I picked up one bear trying to root something out of the ground.  It was too far away to know if s/he was successful.  The fifth day we saw a third bear in the grass, about 75 feet away.  That prompted a “Go away!,” which these bears usually do.  He did.  We made it back to 12 mile creek, crossing at much lower water.  Interesting that twice we heard loud rockfalls.  This area is geologically active!

On the next day, we finished, set up camp, and welcomed a second guide and Calvin, a physician about 20 years my junior.  We got along great.  We dayhiked about 500 m vertical up to a ridge, with river views somewhat obscured by …rain!  Alaska, like aviation that is such an integral part of the state, is terribly unforgiving of neglect or carelessness.  I have camped with a sub-optimal waterproofed tent.  No more.  I literally painted the stuff on my tent last winter.  I store everything inside the tent or the vestibule, and I now pack everything first, saving the tent for last, so I have the pack closed up before I have to take it out in the rain.  The pack cover then covers it while I strike the tent.

The river had a 4 knot current, clear if it hasn’t rained for a while, muddy if it has.  We paddled and floated down to the Pingo, which is a boil on the Earth’s surface.  The pingo has expanding ice underneath and is a mound about 60 m high and probably 500 m circumference.  It was full of “sik-siks,” the Eskimo name for the Arctic Ground Squirrel, which sounds that way.  The rocks were covered with a dust so fine that it looked like gold spray paint!  We hiked back to the boats and continued a total of about 15 river miles to Kugrak Creek, where we set up camp for 2 days.  Mike and Ramona had a tent; Calvin and I had our own tents.  Because I had backpacked, my tent was a good deal smaller.  One advantage of river trips is the ability to carry more gear.

We spent two nights at Kugrak, dayhiking about 5 km up stream past several alpine lakes with Pacific Loons.  We stopped at a large cottonwood grove with almost an artesian water spring flowing out from all around it into the stream.  I was amazed at how large the trees were a degree above the Arctic Circle.  One night in our camp, Calvin turned around and exlcaimed, “Bear!” Not twenty yards away, a sow was looking at us; she turned and led 3 cubs, one at least a second year male, across the stream continuing down river.  I grabbed the first piece of photographic equipment I could find, which happened to be my camera.  I’d rather have used the camcorder, but bears wait for no man!

From Kugrak, we went down stream several more miles, watching chub salmon spawn and camping on the south side of the river.  We climbed 700 m up to the top of one of the mountains near the campsite, with a splendid view of the valley east and west of us.  Good thing we got that in, because the barometer dropped like a stone after that and we spent the next day in the tents in pouring rain.  The good news was we didn’t have to go anywhere that day and the barometer slowly started to rise (about 0.01 inch an hour).  The bad news was little to do except during the rain breaks.

We paddled the rest of the way to a campsite across from the Lake Matcharak portage, where Calvin and I were fascinated by a caribou skeleton with some nerves and identifiable ligaments (ACL and PCL) still present.  We portaged into Matcharak, and hoped for a pickup the next day, as scheduled.  While the weather on our side of the Continental Divide was fine, it was not so good in Bettles, and the Beaver pilot unable to get through the two possible passes (Gull, which comes down Lucky Six Creek) or Portage (which comes down Portage Creek).  Brooks Range flies VFR, and these passes were socked in.

I wasn’t at all sure about the next day, either, for it still looked cloudy to the east.  We were so far west, however, that we had no good sense of the weather in Bettles or on the passes.  In mid-afternoon, the plane came, we loaded up, dropped Mike and Ramona off about 25 km up another stream where they would continue on Rough Mountain Creek.  We then continued up to the Nigu River, picking up two hunters, then flew low over the Alatna Divide, coming straight down the Alatna, past  Arrigetch Creek where I had once hiked, past Takahula Lake, where I had once paddled, landing at the float pond in Bettles.


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