Arrigetch Headwaters

A group of 6 of us attempted a packraft/backpack trip centered on the Arrigetch peaks in Gates of the Arctic NP June 16-23 2018, with plans to float the headwaters of the Noatak, Alatna, and Kobuk rivers.
Our plan was to fly into the Noatak at Lucky Six creek, float the Noatak to portage pass, hike portage pass into the Alatna, float the Alatna to Arrigetch creek, hike up Arrigetch valley crossing into South Arrigetch valley, over Independence col into upper Kobuk, float Kobuk to pickup at Walker lake.
Terrible weather delayed our start by a day. Dirk Nikisch from Coyote Air flew us in a Beaver on wheels from Bettles to gravel on the Noatak at Lucky Six. I don’t know any other pilots who can/will get you in somewhere like that, especially in crap weather. Second trip with Dirk and highly recommend. On the fly in I could tell that the higher passes were snowcovered, which didn’t bode well for our plans.
For the first few days we had temps highs in the 30s, lows in the 20s, intermittent snow that didn’t stick. Water levels appeared reasonably low over this period. The Noatak from Lucky Six creek to Portage creek is all class 1, slowish in some parts, never had to drag. It’s about 15 river miles, floated it in a day broken up by a fire for limb warming. Still can’t figure out how to keep the hands warm for packrafting in these conditions. Zero of 6 people, with 6 different glove strategies, were able to keep their hands functional.
Saw two wolves along this stretch of the Noatak, blonde and fat, different than wolves along the Alatna. Several grizz high up the hillsides on Noatak and Portage creek valleys.
Portage pass was reasonably straightforward. Stayed mostly in creek bed. Put some waypoints in GPS to make sure you follow the correct branches at two different forks. One spot choked with aufeis was impassable, had to get up high to get around it. Camped at top of portage pass next to lake. Poor weather and tried to wait out a storm the next morning, eventually gave up on waiting and headed down the Alatna side. Walking and route finding were a lot easier than anticipated, there’s a landslide down the creek creating a ramp for part of the way.
Put in on the Alatna at Portage Creek. Water levels were low our first two days. This is a glorious stretch of river, fun but nothing more than short class 2 stretches. A couple sweepers requiring scouting or maneuvering. Hit timber line the first night, wildlife rich and beautifully scenic section of river.
This is my second packraft on the Alatna from the headwaters and on both trips, the rapids described at Ram creek were non-existent. Only wave trains, class 2- at worst, were there. On both trips, water levels were low. Our second night on the Alatna we spent at the confluence with Awlinyak creek. After about 12 hours of continuous rain, the river was up several feet and substantially faster. Almost washed out our cook tent. My take on the rapids on the upper Alatna is that they must be highly dependent on water levels. At low levels, I can attest that the rapids are Class 2 and below and nothing substantial at Ram Creek. Based on the substantial fluctuation in river level we witnessed with rain overnight, I speculate they are much more significant at higher levels, which would explain why others have encountered class III rapids at Ram and described a generally splashier ride.
As we floated a narrow stretch of a braid of the river, we heard grunting and snorting behind some brush, followed by a young moose coming out of the willows to the riverbank. Right behind it was a really upset Mother Moose. I was last in the line of 6 packrafts and got my gopro recording – although the quality isn’t great I at least got some footage of the moose stomping threateningly at us as we floated by. Very dangerous, and evolved too quickly for us to get out of the boats and divert. Seriously angry moose.
Because of our late start we were a day behind on an already tight itinerary. On top of that, I was pretty convinced from the fly in that our intended pass from South Arrigetch Valley into the upper Kobuk over Independence Col was snow covered. So we abandoned plans to get into the upper Kobuk, and took it easy down the Alatna to Takahula Lake over another day or two.
I’ll skip over the part about how every route I tried to shortcut the walk from the Alatna up into Arrigetch Valley failed. Should have been the easiest move of the trip, instead I totally botched it, despite a lot of pretrip recon on satellite maps.
The Alatna below Arrigetch Creek was moving really fast, but there are no rapids and the river is too big for troublesome wood at this point. It’s a totally different big river experience at this point, compared to the upper Alatna. Easy use trail from the river into northeast tip of Takahula Lake.