Rafting and Packing in the Alaska Range

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Narrow strips of sand bordering the wide gray Nagashlamina River were good places to walk, but occasionally a channel would cut off our route, forcing us into the water.

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At the end of a long day, mostly spent tracing bear trails through head-high bushes (we only saw one bear, at a safe distance), we suddenly realized that we needed water. One does not carry much water in Alaska, because there is usually plenty nearby. But now there wasn’t. Our new goal became the Skwentna River. A long slog over sharp moraine rocks got us to the silty waterway, and glorious slurps of cold brown liquid.

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It was a half-hour walk before the rapids relented enough for us to comfortably launch our pack rafts. Per usual, that was pure magic.

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After only a few miles, we begrudgingly got out of the water to start the crossing to the River Styx. Information for this part of the route was nonexistent. We had our theories.

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Avoiding a nearly impenetrable slope of alder, a gorge route seemed like the best option. Clearly there was a risk of getting cliffed out, but the other way was a guaranteed alder crawl. The walking in the canyon was familiar, like an Arizona creek.

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The canyon boxed out eventually, forcing us up and out. Then a side canyon forced us back down, and in again. It was 10 pm when a perfect campsite rescued us from our march.

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Packrafting the River Styx

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In the summer of 2013, I looked out the window of a 737 and saw a high treeless river valley. An inspection of the map indicated that the name of this lonely river amid the Alaska Range was—the Styx. A possible loop route was conjured, with ever more intriguing titles: Nagishlamina—Skwentna—Styx—Happy back to Skwentna. Roman Dial saw the possibilities too, he even had a name for the proposed route, “Happy Feat.” An Alaska pack raft team had tried it once. Weather foiled their plans.

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Although the loop had never been completed, the Styx had been paddled, in kayaks. The first descenter was Jerry Jakes, who flew his Piper Cub into a gravel bar, soloed the run, and got an airplane shuttle from another pilot. Later, Jakes landed two other paddlers on the Styx. One of them was my friend Susan Negus. That was serendipitous news, because our basecamp for the Styx—Happy loop of 2017 was due to be where else, but at Sue’s Anchorage home.

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After a frustrating wait through foggy un-flyable weather, Austin from Sportsman’s Air got us into the mountains, dropping myself, John Govi, and Joel Griffith at a picture perfect marine blue lake. First step: Up the Nagishlamina.

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We were immediately engulfed in alders. Crashing, stumbling, kneeling, snagging; bear tunnels offered the only route through the low jungle. Emerging onto open moraine, we detoured around the green, following small dirt hills surrounding azure ponds.

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After one last brutal alder bash, our first camp came on a ridge of soft gray lichen. Upstream, a wide valley led to the next glacier, the next moraine, and our next real test.

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Arctic pack rafting into the midnight sun

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A morning mist brought calm. We paddled, even drifted, through the gray, ever wary of the returning wind. But the big blow, four days of relentless, viscous gale, was finally over.

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The mouth of the river came slowly, an ever decreasing current sliding along overhanging banks of tundra. A permafrost lens looked like a layer of geology beneath a thick mat of soil. But this formation was ice, and beneath it, mud glopped down the bank in sloppy strings of brown. The tundra overhung like a cornice of wet snow curling off a rooftop.

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The horizon widened into a metallic mirror broken by green bits of land. It took some deciphering to determine which channel to follow between low islands, and which shallow mud flat to avoid.

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When the hanger at Pt. Lay appeared, creeping out from a blurry shoreline to rise beacon like in the distance, there was a small moment of elation. It looked so close, we considered continuing there. But our shoulders ached, our butts were stiff, our hands cold. There were piles of driftwood on the beach. We camped.

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Pt. Lay is now known by its Inupiat name—Kali. Kali might be the friendliest village in the world. As we waited for our flight in the sauna-warm community center, over a dozen people came through welcoming us to their Inupiat village, querying, “You must be the canoers.” I suppose that is correct; canoers, paddlers, pack rafters, or as I like to think of us, simply travelers trying to learn more about this wide world. Thanks Alpacka, Werner, Kokatat, Osprey, and Teva. With your help, we learned just a little more.

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Windswept Tundra, keeping the pack in packraft

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We deflated the rafts and rigged our packs over lunch. It was time to go hiking again.

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Onto a long ridge, we walked over clay and flat rocks. The smoothness of the footing was contrasted by the coarseness of the wind. It blew steadily from the south, howling across the ridge at 40, 50, perhaps 60 miles per hour. A gust in Pt. Lay was recorded during the period at over 60 mph, and winds were surely stronger atop the ridge where we walked. Each of us were nearly knocked over more than once.

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Dropping over the edge of the ridge, I felt the wind drop. There was some flat ground here too, so we pitched tents as a rainbow formed over the valley below. When our tents weren’t rippling from spillover gusts, we could hear the wind on the ridge above us, roaring like the rumble of a big rapid.

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Another long day brought us to the Kukpowruk, and the first blue sky in 36 hours. The clearing skies had no effect on the wind. We surfed and ruddered downstream with relative ease, but always on guard to not get sideways and flipped by a powerful gust. At a severe left bend, we were forced ashore. Here the river ran southwest, meaning the wind raced upstream. There was no paddling against it. We deflated our boats.

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Fortunately the bend only lasted a half-mile. Small grizzly tracks led down the beach and across the tundra to a small gravel and mud cove where we re-inflated, and paddled onward.

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