Dick Griffith forever changed backcountry travel in Alaska in the 1980s with the use of a small, inflatable raft for backcountry travel, which today is commonly referred to as a packraft. You can read the story elsewhere but, in the Alaska MountainWilderness Classic in the 1980s, Dick opened up the eyes of others to a new mode of travel for wilderness trekkers of Alaska. No longer would travelers be constrained or halted by raging rivers. In short, a packraft is a versatile and very durable piece of gear that can withstand class V rapids, yet pack down to the size of a compressed sleeping bag with a weight less than 5 lbs. This method of travel works perfectly in a wild landscape where rivers run free, AKA Alaska.
Ever since I had purchased my packraft I wanted to use it to travel remote rivers in Alaska. That was the goal when I attempted my big trip last year, but that did not work out as planned. I was limited to playing around with my packraft in flat water environments, on lakes and stagnant rivers until I returned to Alaska once again. In the summer of 2015, I had that chance. In May 2015, I moved to Alaska, 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to a small service outpost called Coldfoot, which lay on the edge of the Brooks Mountain Range. The Brooks Mountain Range is one of the last great wildernesses left on earth. With only one road, the Dalton Highway travelling through this mountain rage, it truly is a wild landscape. At 750 miles in length and 100-150 miles in width, there is plenty of space to provide for adventures in more than one lifetime.
I arrived in Coldfoot in early May, just as the rivers and creeks were beginning to break up. With minimal experience on moving water, I did not want to go out into with my packraft among the torrential flow of silt, gravel and ice. I had concluded that Slate Creek, running just north of Coldfoot, would be where I would have my first float in this landscape would occur. The creek continued to drop as the days wore on as the snowpack rapidly diminished on the mountains. By the third week of May, the waters had dropped significantly enough to allow me to feel comfortable going out on the creek. I was ready for my first test.
At the edge of Coldfoot, there is a mining trail, the Chandalar Trail, that winds its way sixty miles east through the taiga to Chandalar Lake. I began my adventure travelling along this trail. My destination was Colbert’s Knub, a large hill that rises out of the stunted spruce forest to the east of Coldfoot. The trail provided fairly easy travel and I made quick time bounding along the compact dirt surface. Three miles into the trail is its first crossing of Slate Creek, this would be my hopping off point as I continued east off trail towards the Knub. For a few yards, there is an ATV trail that provides for decent travel, but otherwise it is rough country for walking. I navigated tussocks and brush as I tried to keep my feet dry and avoid the water or muddy muck that often lay between the tufts of grass. Making my way through the forest, I finally found myself at the northern end of Twin Lakes. This landscape had changed quite dramatically since I had been there the week before. Ice covered the lake on my last visit but now there were only a few chunks of ice remaining on the outer edges of the lake; otherwise there was hardly any sign of winter.
I crossed the stream at the northern end of the lake and soon found myself at the base of the Knub. Moving up tussocks and sphagnum moss, I gradually made my way up the hill. Unlike many other hills and mountains in the area, the Knub is unrelenting. There is no compact rock or hard ground to provide for easy walking. From the bottom to the top, you are contending with tussocks, which make what looks like a simple and easy hike, into a calve burning and humbling excursion. I have found that if I go into a hike or approach an area with a mindset that it will be easy, it ends up being on the opposite side of the spectrum. The landscape can quickly humble you and reminds you who is ultimately in charge. Nonetheless, I found myself standing on the summit in just under an hour. The elevation allowed me to gain a grand view of the area. I was able to see north up the Middle Fork Valley towards Wiseman and beyond, south towards Cathedral mountain and a view of the flats and also a glimpse of the South Fork of the Koyukuk Valley to the east with its surrounding mountains. It’s hard to tire of such a magnificent view, but the creek was calling. I quickly made my way back down the mountain. The same moss and tussocks that were a nightmare going up provided quick travel on the way down, as I could move swiftly, leaping from one soft spot to the other. Soon after, I found myself at Slate Creek, ready to put in. What had taken me an hour to travel from base to summit took only fifteen minutes to descend.
Feeling excited and somewhat nervous, I began to inflate my packraft as I readied for myself for my first river excursion. The water had become much clearer since the initial break up stage and there was minimal silt or gravel flowing in the water. After a few minutes, my packraft was fully inflated. I tossed my pack in and set off, navigating away from lingering ice protruding out from the bank. The water levels were at almost an ideal level, I could move through the creek with minimal portages due to shallow water. There were occasions where I had to scoot across the rocks but for the most part, I floated at a swift 4-5 mph through the forest. What a novel experience! Instead of fighting or going against the landscape, I was able to use its power to propel me where I wanted to go. The creek provided a new perspective of the area, as I floated along with towering spruce trees on each bank, able to grow to such great heights due to the creek thawing the permafrost beneath the surface.
It was only about seven miles back to Coldfoot from where I put in, so it didn’t take long until I found myself thinking about pulling out. I was planning to take out near the Coldfoot airstrip, after the confluence of Slate Creek and the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, where it would be just a short half mile walk back to Camp. As I rounded the seemingly endless bends of the creek, I began to see familiar spots of the Chandalar Trail that parallel the creek and even began to hear the steady droning of the generators back in Camp. I was beginning to wonder when I would float under the Dalton highway bridge when I heard a rush of water. I rounded the next bend and found myself facing a large log jam. The current was moving quite swiftly as I tried paddling with all my might, in hopes of reaching shore. The water was moving too fast. Not wanting to collide with the log jam, I grabbed on to a spruce tree that was hanging over into the creek. It wasn’t the wisest idea, but the best thing I could think of. As I held onto the tree, the current began to sweep both my raft and myself underneath, filling my boat with water.
My mind raced. The bank lay just a few feet away. Should I slash my raft? Can I safely make it to shore? These questions among others raced through my mind as I contemplated my next move. Ultimately, I decided I would chance it. I decided I would make a move towards shore without damaging my raft. First, I took my now soaked pack and tossed it on the bank. I then slid out of my packraft, thrusting it out of the water and safely onto shore. The final and most important task lay before me, finding a way to get myself onto the dry banks of the creek. I saw a willow tree overhanging along the bank and decided to make a move towards that. Hopefully, the roots would be deep enough into the ground to provide support. I made my move. I pushed away from the spruce tree and the current began to sweep me downstream. Reaching for the willow tree, I found my grip, pulling myself up out of the creek, onto dry land. The whole ordeal felt like an hour, but lasted only a couple minutes at the most. It had left me somewhat shaken and cold, as I found myself soaked from chest to toe. I deflated my packraft, shouldered my pack and began to make my way through the brush back to Camp, where I quickly changed back into dry clothes. It had been an enjoyable first excursion, yet the end of the trip had provided a hard lesson that I wouldn’t be forgetting any time soon.