Kokolik Wildlife

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The snow dappled Brooks Range faded behind us as wide vistas of tundra beckoned ahead. Camp came on a breezy gravel bar. A long mesa called Poko Mountain glowed in the northwest. We sat by the fire past midnight, unwilling to say goodnight to the beauty.

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Slow but steady, we floated the small upper Kokolik with plenty of wildlife distractions. A golden eagle soared nearby. A peregrine falcon flapped overhead. A red fox stared from the bank, then dashed away upstream. When Lisa turned and pointed, I fumbled for the shotgun, but somehow I knew it wasn’t a bear. A musk-ox stood up from its bed, staring at us with droopy eyes and a dangling coat, a helmet of horn and curved yellowing tusks.

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Wildlife watching was at a minimum the next day as we hunkered beneath our raincoats, chasing Lisa downstream through cold rain and occasional hail. After the river penetrated some hill country near Tupikchak Mountain, a bedrock shelf appeared. Chilled, we pulled ashore, grabbing handfuls of driftwood.

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When the rain stopped, the wind began. It pushed us downstream, out of the hills and into a transverse valley that the river cut directly across. Jer pointed out a group of caribou on a hillside, then fifty of them crossed the river in front of us.

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Two hundred feet above the river, we stood in the wind and looked over a valley sprinkled with migrating caribou. The nearby herds caught our eyes first; 50 here, 100 there, 20 crossing the river over there. Then as we looked farther across the broad valley with binoculars, the movement of white and tan animals seemed to appear everywhere; in the bottoms, on the slopes, a long string of them trailing out of sight over the eastern horizon. My rough estimate came to 5,000 ungulates.

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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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New water levels and new places in Arizona kayaking

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The gauge read 1,200 cfs. The roaring brown torrent before us was easily twice that. We might have hiked back to the car, but here we were, with boats—and portage shoes. Thus began a high water descent of the Agua Fria. For the record, John Govi, Jonathan Olsen, and I walked around all the named rapids, with eleven portages total. Of course there was plenty of action between the portages too. Check out Govi’s helmet behind the pulsing wave in the photo below.
And still it snowed, and rained. What is a paddler to do but dig out, and go kayaking? Into the whiteness drove West Howland, Ted Decker, Tom Herring, Dave Sherman, and myself; bound for moving water in central Arizona’s Sierra Ancha.
Spring Creek is a major tributary of Tonto Creek, entering two-thirds of the way through the Hellsgate run. It always looked intriguing from the mouth, but to catch it with an adequate flow meant committing to lower Hellsgate at a MORE than adequate flow. Theories of hydrology would be tested with this first descent.
Beautiful clean sluices gave way to alder-laced rapids, begetting revolutionary paddling advice from Herring like “Avoid Aldercations,” and “Respect Your Alders.”
At about 3 pm, bedrock returned. A gorge formed. Class V rapids, scouting, portaging, and darkness ensued. We scratched out a camp by headlamp.
Frozen drysuits were donned without the warming sun ever reaching our gorge camp. Spring Creek was now low, but Tonto was still high. We found the extra water quite nice.
But another harried evening in a gorge was not high on anyone’s list, so we camped early this time, at an all-star beach.
Exit from the Last Hurrah Gorge is guarded by a stout rapid. At high water, it’s extra stout. I’d always wondered about the portage options here, and now was my chance to learn more about them.
A rope ascent, a traverse, and a rope descent had the boats past the drop. Not too brutal, but time consuming. Good thing we didn’t charge in here at 4 pm. Good thing we DID rally out of town in the snow.


AZ paddling season 2017—Oh yeah, it’s a good one.

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I hope I don’t jinx the weather gods by making the below proclamation too early, but as I sit at home watching snowflakes fall on the first day of a forecasted 5 day storm, my confidence is soaring. So here goes: 2017 will be remembered as a good paddling year in Arizona.
The active weather pattern that is serving up deluges and dumps across most of the West has not shunned us here in the south. Our winter water year started when several inches of snow fell during Thanksgiving week. That snow was mostly gone two weeks later, but the Mogollon Rim was soggy with the melt, so when an inch of rain arrived on December 16th, Arizona rivers came to life.
The following four weeks brought a series of drenching rains, with snow levels often hovering near 9,000 feet. Mild, rainy weather, regular paddling forays; are we in West Virginia or Arizona?
There have been numerous opportunities to paddle Oak Creek near Sedona. Below, Flagstaff paddler Nick Smotek runs a flood channel during high water.
On New Years Day, my wife Lisa Gelczis and I found ourselves on a flooded tributary of the East Verde River with friends Billie Prosser and Curtis Newell. Massive cypress trees along the banks led us to coin the stream “Big Cypress Creek.” Upon further investigation, we found the official title listed as Sycamore Creek. There are way too many “Sycamore Creeks” already. We’re sticking with Big Cypress. And this year, we’re sticking around Arizona.


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