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A western Arctic pack raft journey

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Lisa and Jer were already past the bear. Had I not said anything it would’ve let us stroll on past, its head buried in the bushes. But my instinct was to warn my companions, so when I called, “bear,” it looked up. I clambered for the shotgun, struggling with my pack, my tangled binoculars, a tricky fast-tex buckle. Fortunately there was no need for that. The bear looked in our direction quizically, then turned and romped away.

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Flying from Kotzebue to the south side of the Brooks Range with pilot Eric Sieh of Arctic Backcountry Flying Service, our goal was to access the highest reaches of the Kokolik River. To do so, we would have to cross the DeLong Mountains (named after George DeLong, profiled in the bestseller In the Kingdom of Ice). After hours of Google Earth study, I reconciled our proposed route with topographic maps to find we would be penetrating an escarpment called “Inaccessible Ridge.” That title made the endeavor virtually irresistible.

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Waking in bright dusk at 3 a.m., I felt a wetness at my feet. The rain had picked up, and the tent fly was leaking. Droplets of water hung on the mesh inner tent before plummeting onto our sleeping bags, and soaking in. I reached for the rain jackets and draped them over us as a desperate second barrier. The storm backed off to a mist just soon enough. Once we got a fire going, we lingered.

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A tributary one mile below camp provided enough water to float our pack rafts. We were glad for that. Hiking on that misty morning led across a boggy seeping earth, step by squishy step. By comparison, river travel was easy, even if we had to drag past the occasional gravel bar. With any luck, we’d soon be floating full time, riding the Kokolik beyond the Brooks Range, and onto the vast tundra expanse of the North Slope.

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