Dirtbagging the Gates -- Clear River

With a name like the Clear River, in the midst of the Brooks Range, a 15-mile long deep and twisty canyon, and no river information, how can you resist?

The idea of using the Dalton Highway as a jumping-off point for cheap trips in the arctic wilderness is not novel, but I credit Ed Plumb with inspiring me to take a closer look at the packrafting options. Using the Haul Road as a starting and/or ending point, the options begin to jump off the map.

The Clear River lies just east of Mount Doonerak and is a major tributary of the North Fork of the Koyukuk. The original idea was to hike west from the road into Gates of the Arctic National Park via Trembley Creek to Kinnorutin Passs, but snow in the high country altered the plans. Instead I went up Big Jim Creek, down to the Hammond River, up Roy Creek and over Chimney Pass down to the Clear.
Upper Clear.jpg
The snow in the high country was rain at lower elevations, bringing the Clear River up to approximately 300 cfs, a boatable level. When I got to the river it was not running clear but rather a copper-orange color, perhaps resulting from high iron levels in the surrounding geology and stirred up by the rains. The Clear River is really more of a creek that probably runs as big as a river in spring break-up and heavy rains.
Clear River I.jpg
Where I put on below Chimney Pass, the Clear started as a fast braided river, entered a short and shallow canyon and then dropped through a series of boulder gardens. Near the 2000’ elevation the canyon walls begin to rise, and range from 100’ to over 800’ over the next 15 miles. The boating is never harder than Class III, consisting mostly of boulder bars and wall pushes, but the schisty rock is sharp and the potential for boat repair is high. The gradient in the canyon section is approximately 50’ per mile, and the boating probably does not exceed Class IV even at extreme high water.
Clear Canyon II.jpg
After a full day on the Clear the canyon begins to open up as the confluence of the North Fork of the Koyukuk is approached. A short distance downstream of the confluence the Tinyaguk enters from the west, and the river now moves with good speed for the next 40 miles. Some Class II riffles and boulder bars are found downstream of Glacier Creek, and shortly thereafter I left the Koyukuk to hike up Rock Creek back to the road at Cold Foot. There is no “good” way up Rock Creek; be prepared for a full day of bushwhacking, sponga and finally good ridge walking.
North Fork Koyukuk.jpg
All in, this trip provides approximately equal measures of walking and boating, roughly 60 miles of each.
River Rats.jpg