Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Sadlerochit River Packraft - June 2023

On a Friday night in the middle of June of 2023, Nyssa, Tony, Zack, and I flew north out of Anchorage for ten days in the Brooks Range. In Fairbanks we sardined into a small room at Pike's Waterfront Lodge, poached the Princess Cruise's greasy breakfast buffet, then crammed into Kirk Sweetsir's Cessna 185 for the flight into the Arctic.

Our route was based on that of many that came before us. From the Marsh Fork we planned to float down the Canning River to Cache Creek. We'd hike over the Cache to the Sadlerochit River for the float to the edge of the mountains. Then, a short crossing to the Hula Hula River for the paddle to the coast. Finally, there would be the slog across the lagoon to Barter Island for the flight home from Kaktovic.

As Kirk's taildragger climbed above the taiga forest and bending rivers of the interior, we left civilization behind.

Flying with legends like Kirk is always a treat. I love to live vicariously through the stories of these cowboys of the north. 

Time and the slipstream of reality evaporated under the drone of the old plane and Kirk's stories and warnings. Soon the barren foothills of the Brooks Range were rising around us.

Ahead, the spine of the northern continental divide had been plastered by a summer snowstorm that had swollen the arctic rivers with runoff.

When caribou started to appear on the aufeis below the plane, we knew we'd made it to the heart of the Brooks Range.

Gliding through Carter Pass, Kirk began the descent towards the little tundra landing strip.

We bounced to a stop on the soft bush wheels then tumbled out of the plane. A large group of rafters were already camped nearby and a solo photographer from Japan was waiting for Kirk to shuttle him to a quieter valley.

With a couple hours to burn before Zacks's shuttle, we went for a walk exploring towards a cobbly little creek. Tucked carefully into the tundra, we passed the nest of an expecting mother.

From our perch on a nearby hill, we looked back towards the busy strip.

By the time Kirk returned with Zack, the landing strip was so "congested" that they actually had to circle for a bit while another plane cleared out of the way.

We hustled back to meet up with Zack and plan out the rest of the day.

Everyone was excited to get away from the busy staging area and take advantage of the beautiful day. Shouldering our packs, we waded across the river to climb Peak 6002 which loomed above us.

We hid our gear by the overbank, then chased after a small group of caribou as they jogged effortlessly past. 

Caribou trails brought us to the flanks of the peak from where we followed a crumbling white limestone ridge upwards.

Soon we were standing on the shoulder of the peak with the tributaries of the Marsh Fork spilling away from us. It was incredible - perhaps one of my favorite vistas from the trip.

Photo: Zack Fields

Forward progress slowed substantially as we tiptoed along the ridge towards the summit.

Photo: Zack Fields

Photo: Tony DeMarco

Five hundred vertical feet of sketchy, slippery, loose, and exposed crawling brought us to the top. 

In retrospect, the views from the shoulder were about as good, and way less dangerous. Reversing course, we tobogganed down a chute of isothermal snow towards our gear.

Back at the river, we ate dinner and loaded our gear into our two-person Forager packrafts while a flock of Dall Sheep supervised from the valley wall.

With evening in the air, we pushed into the rain-swollen river. The first several miles were a hilarious shitshow of alder dodging and butt-boating. At this water level, it was easy to imagine a large raft getting pinned into these manky tubes of vegetation. We looked above us at the gorgeous weeping cliffs of limestone.

Paddling around a corner in the river, we watched a group of caribou swim across the river and shake dry on the far shore from where they watched our flimsy boats float past.

Ready for bed, we pulled off for the night under a mountain squeezed into rolling folds of layered rock.

Photo: Zack Fields

Sunday morning we were back on the river for a full day of paddling. The river was still high and the miles slipped by as we floated past shelves of aufeis and canyons inside of canyons.

In the wide valley where the Marsh Fork met the main stem of the Canning we pulled off to stretch our legs and backs.

Photo: Zack Fields

Lounging on the soft tundra overbank, the warm solstice sun and murmur of the river soon lulled us asleep.

Squinting through sleepy eyes, we watched a group of caribou grazing on the far bank.

Dragging ourselves away from the soft bed and back into the river, the two forks of the Canning joined and we could immediately feel the force of the additional water. 

Tony made the most of the extra current:

Our throats were parched from a sunny day on the river, and after passing a large group of tents on the west bank, we pulled off at a clear-water creek to fill our bottles. Mixed into the outwash fan, Nyssa and Zack found fossils and evidence of aliens.

Back on the river, we passed another alien having a quiet dinner of willows in the floodplain.

Tucked into polychrome cliffs rising from the river, falcons blinked down on us from their nests.

Looking for the pull-off at Cache Creek, we floated past exposed and crumbling permafrost eroded by the swollen river.

When we figured we were at the shortest straight-line distance from the Cache Creek valley, we pulled off for the night. Or maybe our stomachs made the decision for us. I'm not really sure if there is a "best" spot to enter Cache Creek - there are probably a few bad miles no matter where you start walking.

Monday morning started with a wet bushwalk towards the cobbles of Cache Creek.

Hoping we wouldn't come face to face with a bear or a protective mama moose, we spent several miles pushing through thick, soggy, and nearly impenetrable brush. It was a relief to stumble onto the loose and ungainly cobbles and boulders of the river channel.

Photo: Zack Fields 

The inefficient travel of the lower Cache alternated between wading thru knee deep water, wading thru knee deep cobbles, and wading thru knee deep tussocks and was a struggle for the tendinitis in my feet and ankles. Through it all were moments of Arctic beauty:

With our stomachs grumbling for dinner, we called a halt and hustled to set up camp before an evening storm blew through. 

Photo: Zack Fields

The cleansing squall left behind crystalline air and the saturated color of angular evening light.

It was lovely out, and we were happy to explore around camp in our Crocs without the weight of packs on our shoulders. Below our tents, a beautiful clear blue tributary marched to join with Cache Creek.

Packing up camp in the morning, we returned to the yesterday's business of underwater cobble kicking.

As we worked our way up Cache Creek, the cobbles had shrunk enough that we could risk looking away from the tripping hazards underfoot and take in the valley around us. When we passed natural seats made of cut banks, we'd pause for a snack. 

Nearing the pass, we stopped for lunch. As we ate questionable graying salami, a family of caribou peacefully grazed past us on their unending search for survival.

By the upper valley, the cobbles were mostly gone and we chased efficient caribou trails towards the pass to the Sadlerochit.

At the pass, we threw down our packs, stuffed food in our mouths, wrapped jackets around our waists, and went hiking.

There were bear tracks near the summit of Peak 4610 from where we swiveled to take in the eclectic 360 degree views. To the east was the solitary massif of Okiotak Peak which we hoped to climb the following day.

To the north, my eye was drawn to the rusty little Sadlerochit Mountains rising from the Artic Plain.

Satisfied with a great afternoon hike, we jogged back to our backpacks for few more miles to our camp along Talus Creek. Mount Chamberlin loomed above us, while underneath us punchy snow and fresh snowmelt froze our feet and ankles as we trudged down the headwaters of Snow Creek. Aptly named, I suppose.

I think we all breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the final descent to Talus Creek.

Wednesday was scheduled for a day hike; and wouldn't need to move our camp. We'd hoped to climb Okiotak Peak, but it was guarded by dark clouds and the weather was obviously deteriorating. Instead, we hiked south up the benches paralleling Talus Creek.

At snack time, we watched an oblivious sub-adult grizzly who was on the hunt for a snack of her own.

Eventually the bear noticed us, but was upwind and couldn't quite figure out these strange stick figures at the edge of its vision.

It cautiously circled around until the wind carried the foul scent of civilization to its nose.

It didn't like the smell and instantly sprinted to put a mile between us. I'm always amazed by how fast these iconic bruins can freight-train through any terrain.

By the time we reached the pass to Eagle Creek, the cloud ceiling was touching the ground.

Shivering in the cold fog, we felt our way back to the tents where we hid from the hypothermic weather for the rest of the day.

On Thursday morning, a short hike brought us to our put-in on the Sadlerochit. The river was high and we didn't know what we'd find.

As we entered the first canyon, large horizon lines formed in front of us.

Sandwiched between a 5-foot drop and a very retentive hole, this 10-foot waterfall was the largest drop on the river.  

It easily swallowed Tony, Zack, and their very buoyant Forager whole, and was still hungry for more. I think you can see a paddle blade in there:

Having survived the gnar of the first canyon, we entered an absolutely gorgeous flatwater canyon. Winding blindly through bends of colorful rock, this is a classic section that I think anyone would enjoy. 

Exiting the second canyon, the caribou were everywhere.

Winding past vertical cliffs hanging over the river, we saw falcons crouched down to hold onto any heat that they could.

When the hypothermic river, ice fog, and frozen wind sucked the last drop of heat out of us, we crawled shivering onto the bank to set up our tents with fumbling, numb fingers in the first acceptable spot we could find.

As we ate dinner. a beach fire of driftwood brought sanity back to our chilled brainstems. On Friday morning, we unzipped our tents to celebrate the return of the sun and an exceptional view of Chamberlin.

Stuffing camp, food, and packs back into our Foragers, we pushed into the river for a couple hours of floating to the nexus where the Sadlerochit Mountains intersected their namesake river. This point would be our crossing to the Hula Hula River, and there we pulled off the river for the day. 

By early afternoon we'd set up camp and it was time for a hike up the the long ridge rising west above the river and the coastal plain. Gaining elevation, Mount Michelson was just out of reach. 

Kellie and a few others have skied Mount Chamberlin, and it was easy for my mind to wander towards fantastical peak bagging ski trips to the Arctic.

From the top of the sloping peak, we looked across the overflowed ice of the coastal plain to the frozen mass of ice capping the Beaufort Sea.

In line of sight with Kaktovic, we plugged back in to check on the weather forecast and unfortunately DocuSign, then slipped back into the Arctic wormhole.

Passing a mother ptarmigan silently nestled into the tundra right at our feet, we were tiptoed carefully to avoid stepping on any little yellow fuzzball babies that might be around.

Always curious about field hydrology (and Pizzagate), Tony wanted to check out the Sadlerochit Warm Springs on the way back to camp.

On the edge of the coastal plain, and complete with moose tracks and aspen trees, the springs were an oasis in this frozen desert. 

Saturday started with one last ferry across the Sadlerochit River followed by four miles of postholing through tussocks to the Hula Hula. As you can see, the evil mounds of swiss-cheesed vegetation came up to Tony's knees.

The tussuck trudge only took us two hours, but I was happy to be done with it and snacking on the banks of the Hula Hula. Then again, I'm always happy to be snacking.

The Hula Hula River was about twice the size of the Sadlerochit, and quickly swept our overpriced pool toys downriver as we watched the mountains shrink behind us.

Its a high standard, but compared to the Sadlerochit, I found the lower Hula Hula to be relatively unremarkable. I'm sure experiencing a large caribou crossing would instantly change this, and I hope to be gifted with that experience at some point in my life.

A couple hours from the crossing to the Okpilak River, we pulled off the river to junk show and set up camp.

Now over forty miles away, Chamberlin was still breathtaking.

Ten miles to the east, the little buildings of Kaktovic were stretched into towers by the Fata Morgana.

Sunday morning started with the last two hours on the Hula Hula then the quarter mile drag to the Okpilak. Greased by the shit of emperor geese, the portage seemed pretty easy on our boats and probably worth it. That being said, Nyssa and I did grind one small hole into our raft during the tussock tow.

Reaching the sluggish Okpilak, there was barely enough water to float. I think we spent as much time dragging out boats through six inches of stagnant water as we did paddling thru nine inches of languid water. 

Crossing the lagoon to the barrier island was much of the same. Shivering in our drysuits, we alternated dragging and slowly paddling the boats thru the lifeless water.

Photo: Tony DeMarco

On Arey Island, we did a quick polar bear check, then tried to warm up in the cold sun,

There was a tailwind, and we were trying to avoid town, so decided to paddle across the lagoon towards the Dump Road. I doubt that walking Arey Island or paddling the lagoon could be described by any reasonable person as efficient, but I thoroughly enjoyed watched the eiders buzz us as we floundered across the lagoon. It was dinner time when we reached Barter Island.

Trying to respect the local community, we camped in an inconspicuous spot below the high tide line.

The mountains still seemed just out of reach, and I continued my unrealistic fantasy of skiing stable, high quality snow on arctic peaks that probably almost never have those conditions.

On Monday we shook the sand out of our tents and walked towards Kaktovic. We explored the library and photography at Waldos before treating ourselves to burgers and coffee.

The owner Marty and everyone we met at Waldos was friendly and welcoming; we felt that the price we paid for a warm lunch was a bargain for any wind-swept traveler on Jakku, Nal Hutta, or Tatooine. With souls full of new memories and Folgers, we strolled to the airport for the flight back from the Outer Rim Territories.

Thanks to Ken Hill, Matt Rafferty, Becky King, Tony Perelli, Mary Krusen, Will Koeppen and everyone else whose advice, experiences, and memories helped to make this trip a reality.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic trip, I love you stitched together so many rivers on your way to the coast. I'm still pondering the sentence "...and unfortunately DocuSign..." huh!?