Brooks Range Traverse

From August 18th - September 1 John Davis and I traveled from Walker Lake at the headwaters of the Kobuk to Umiat on the Colville River via the Noatak, Nigu, Etivluk and Colville Rivers, about 300 miles in total, of which roughly 70 miles were on foot and the rest in packrafts. It is a great trip through tremendous country and a great wilderness immersion, with highlights including thousands of the Western Arctic Caribou herd, wolves, bears, wolverines, wooly mammoth tusks and archealogical sites.

The trip has some legs in common with the “Arctic Circle route” described in Roman Dial’s forthcoming packrafting book. Whereas Roman’s route starts and finishes on the Alatna, however, our trip did not involve the Alatna at all.

From Walker Lake we walked two days up Kaluluktok Creek, over Akabluak Pass and down into the upper Noatak. Although very bony, we did put on to the upper Noatak at the base of the pass and bounced our way downvalley until Lucky Six Creek supplied enough water for better boating. Good floating continued as far as Portage Creek where Roman’s route divides over to the Alatna. We continued down the Noatak another 30 miles to Kalumnulima Creek which we hiked up and over the Continental Divide to the upper Nigu. We were pleased to find plenty of water in the upper Nigu, which we followed down to the Etivluk and the Colville and the Colville downriver to Umiat.
Brooks Traverse Web II.jpg
There are endless other variants off this route, but a good one would be to walk east up the Upper Nigu to the headwaters of the Alatna, catching about 30 miles of the upper Alatna not included in Roman’s route. Or continuing a little further east to the upper Killik.

None of the water we encountered exceeded Class III, and the vast majority was Class I and II. At high water the first 4 miles of the upper Noatak could be Class IV, as it winds through VW-sized granite boulders, but for us it was bump-and-grind Class III. We were surprised just how much slack water we encountered on the Noatak, Nigu and Colville, making for several slow and tedious days of paddling.
The most striking aspect of the trip was the frequency with which we encountered large areas of melting permafrost. Entire hillsides were sloughing off into the rivers in massive landslides, changing the rivers from clear to muddy. This was the most stark evidence of global warming that I have ever encountered in my years of wandering the wilds of Alaska, and it was very troubling indeed. Ironically much of the melting permafrost that we encountered was in the National Pleistocene Reserve of Alaska (a far better name than the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska). The best use of these lands would be to leave them as they are and not bring the oil out of the ground to further exacerbate the global warming that is already devastating Alaska.

Brad Meiklejohn
Eagle River, Alaska

Hi Brad,

Thanks for your trip report. Sounds like a great time.

My wife and I are hoping to packraft the Nigu and Etivluk this coming summer. Would you be willing to share any more details about the water conditions on those rivers when you were out there? Mostly Class I and II? Any class III at all? (We’re trying to decide whether we can use an Alpacka Double Duck instead of individual rafts to save weight for more hiking after the Etivluk.)

Were you able to put in on the Nigu right over the pass you mentioned, the one below the pass from Karumnulina Creek? Did you get a sense for the river conditions upstream of that point?

We are approaching the Nigu from Anaktuvuk Pass and are getting our packrafts dropped off with a food resupply. We’re trying to figure out whether we should resupply at Issygok Lake or Gaedeke Lake. Gaedeke is right at the headwaters and is a far less expensive flight–a surprising price difference, given that the lakes are probably only 20 miles apart. Obviously river conditions are extremely variable year to year, week to week, even day to day, but how did it look when you were out there?


PS Hear, hear re: NPRA.