Packrafting was born in Alaska, and the Brooks Range is the perfect place to hike and paddle your way across the wilderness. These light, nimble and mind-bendingly sturdy little boats have expanded the areas we can explore, opening new watersheds to exploration and enjoyment.
We’ve been offering our Gates of the Arctic Packrafting trip on the Alatna River for several years, but I just had the opportunity to guide it myself this autumn. Guides and clients had all raved about the trip, but it was even better than I imagined. It is in many ways the perfect fall trip in the Brooks Range. The trip starts right at the Continental Divide where we land on a long lake.
The outlet stream from Gaedeke Lake is too small to paddle, so the first day or two of this trip is backpacking. Fortunately the walking is decent. There is some soft tundra and a little bit of tussock but almost no brush to contend with and lots of gravel-bar and firm tundra hiking.
The decision about where to inflate your packraft and switch from hiking to boating depends on the water levels and your abilities in a packraft. About 8 miles from the lake the river forms a single channel, big enough to paddle in most water levels, but the next 5 miles are fast and splashy. They’ll keep you busy dodging rocks and making tight corners.
After that, the river stays fun and spunky but it gets less technical/ difficult. Below Ram Creek the river is broad and mostly in a single channel making the paddling pretty relaxed at normal water levels. Numerous cliffs and tall bluffs compel the river to swing back and forth between the 6,000 ft peaks on either side of the valley and the view is ever changing.
As the river descends and the current slows the forests become larger and richer with innumerable side channels and beaver ponds to explore. After Nahtuk Creek enters the Alatna the river grows turbid with silt from a thaw slump changing the color of the water and diminishing fishing opportunities
There are a couple of options for the take-out. The first option at Circle Lake requires a laughably short portage into a canal the beavers have built in an old slough that is barely big enough to paddle a packraft through. It winds through the forest and past an impressive beaver lodge before connecting to Circle Lake.
If conditions permit, it is fun to go to Takahula Lake. It is an easy day’s paddling from Circle Lake and the limestone cliffs above the lake and the broad vistas make it one of the most scenic places on the river.
The scenery and natural history are compelling the entire length of the river. Seeing the transition between the tundra and the boreal forest is fascinating. On this last trip we saw wolves chasing caribou, a lynx, moose, grizzly bear, and a host of interesting birds.
But paddling past the Arrigetch Peaks without hiking into that sublime valley was torture for me, so in 2019 we are offering a variation on this trip called the Arrigetch Packrafting Trip, where we will packraft the Alatna as before, and then backpack into the Arrigetch for a few days at trip’s end.
Many thanks to Ken Tape for the photos used in this post.