During my time living in the Brooks Range, I spent a lot of time staring at maps of the surrounding area and dreaming up routes and places that I wanted to go. One of those places was a packraft loop involving the North Fork of the Chandalar and the Bettles River via Geroe Creek. The area is infrequently traveled outside hunting season due to it not falling within the confines of one of the neighboring famed management boundaries (G of A and ANWR), despite having all the same characteristics. This past weekend, I joined up with my friend Steve in Wiseman to undertake the trip.
We drove up to Chandalar Shelf through cloud enshrouded mountains and a steady trickle of rain. The Interior was expected to receive a major rain storm starting on Sunday and continuing into Monday with some areas receiving as much as 1 inch per hour. It was a few hundred yards from the road to the nearest channel of the West Fork of the North Fork where we found sufficient water to allow us to blow up and float. We had heard of people canoeing the river so we had thought that we would encounter a narrow, quick moving river devoid of major rapids like the Hammond or even the Upper Dietrich. Yet within a few miles we found our prior conceptions were quite wrong. The North Fork drops a few hundred feet over its first 25 miles or so, leading to a river full of splashy class II rapids. There were little to no large boulders allowing us to run everything and scout on the fly. We stopped only once in the canyon and took a look above and beyond, looking for any hazards before continuing on. By the time we reached the narrows, the rain had stopped but we were thoroughly soaked from the rapids and stopped ten plus times to pour water from our boats.
We were able to make steady progress into the evening and found ourselves about 8 miles away from Geroe Creek 7.5 hours into the journey. We caught sight of three grizzlies, a bald eagle, two golden eagles and a late season harlequin duck along the way. The quick progress all but stopped as we reached the flats and paddled around bend after bend. With dark clouds threatening to burst, we paddled to and set up camp at the base of Geroe Creek in the early hours of the morning, after a seemingly endless three hours of winding and winding and winding and winding….
We set off up creek the following morning. We had been told prior to the trip about a great bear trail heading all the way up the creek to the pass. The trail was located not too far off the river and we were able to make good time traveling through the white spruce, in the rain and past the bear scat every few hundred meters. A few miles up the creek, a landslide slid across the path forcing us to hike around. We continued up, but were never able to consistently find the trail after this point.
The mountains along the Chandalar valley run east-west, creating somewhat of a rain shadow. However, the rain remained steady and continued to fall with increasing intensity as we traveled closer to the pass. The foliose lichen, softened by the rain, and dense patches of willows brought our progress to a crawl. In midafternoon, still a few miles from the pass, we decided to set up the tent and take an extended break due to fatigue and misery. We rested on our knees, drifting in and out of sleep within the tent, before cooking up a hot meal and continuing on our way.
Through brief openings in cloud cover, we were able to see that the upper reaches of the mountains surrounding the valley had received a fresh coating of snow. This did not bode well for boosting morale. The pass we aimed to cross was above 5000 ft and would only become more hazardous with a light layer of snow. We plodded upward, picking our steps carefully over the wet rocks before topping out in the clouds amidst only a few patches of snow. Elated to have crossed the pass, we descended into the thick cloud bank and Willow Creek on the opposite side.
We were both ready for bed by the time we summited the pass and initially agreed to find the best spot that was available somewhere lower in the valley. But upon descending we found we had slightly more energy than we had though and vowed to push on to Roberts Creek. Our energy levels proved no match for the soft ground and sidehilling and I doubted whether I could continue down to the Roberts that evening. It wasn’t long after that we came across a horse trail, travelling all the way down creek to the Roberts. Our moods soared and we moved almost as a trot, relishing in the hard packed surface beneath our feet. We covered the remaining distance in quick time thanks to the trail, following it most of the way down to the Roberts, setting up camp along the water in the early hours once again.
Clearer skies and sun shone briefly in the morning, allowing us to somewhat dry our wet gear before embarking on the river. There was enough water for us to float the Roberts from its confluence with Willow Creek. The river wasn’t too braided and allowed for quick and easy travel. Closer to the canyon, the terrain dropped and we traveled through more splashy class II rapids. A big drop at the Roberts Canyon forced us to take out and hike for about half a mile downstream before continuing on water once more. We ran everything that followed, stopping to scout only once at another point further on down canyon. The water remained swift throughout the Roberts and started to widen out as we reached the Bettles. By the time we reached the Bettles, both Steve and I were travelling through very familiar territory and made almost no stops between there and the road.
Despite being wet and cold the whole time, the trip was enjoyable and mostly lived up to the expectations that I held. It would be far more enjoyable with better weather (perhaps 2 hours of sun instead of 1?) and the absence of the flat water paddling on the Chandalar. If I were to do it again, I would take out before Geroe Creek at one of the passes heading into the Roberts. That would cut off a good chunk of the hiking portion, but eliminate the tedium of paddling the winding sections of the Chandalar. A spray skirt also seems like a good idea given how frequently we were dumping our boats. Water levels definitely influence the character of the trip, I’m not sure certain sections could be floated on the upper North Fork at low water and much of the Bettles would be very bony and slow.