John River -- Gates of the Arctic National Park

The John River flows south out of Anuktuvuk Pass in the Brooks Range, eventually merging with the Koyukuk River downstream of Bettles. It is a designated Wild River and it travels through spectacular mountain country for most of it length.

In August I flew into the village of Anuktuvuk on Wrights Air Service out of Fairbanks. The total fare into Anuktuvuk and out of Bettles was less than $400.

Thanks to high water I was able to put on the river just 50 yards from the runway. The first 5 miles of the river are shallow and meandering before the current quickens, and at lower water levels you may have to walk or line this section.

At about 10 miles the river begins a continuous stretch of Class III water, including one steep dropping right-hand corner that is Class III+. The Class III water continues for approximately 15 miles, becoming interspersed with Class II water as you approach the confluence with the Hunt Fork, which enters from the west.

The Hunt Fork is the typical put-in for rafters and canoeists who often find the river too shallow or technical upstream of this point. Access to the Hunt Fork put-in is by float plane into nearby Hunt Fork Lake.

Downstream of the Hunt Fork the John steadily mellows. While the scenery and hiking remain excellent, the river becomes meandering and a bit tedious for a packraft, especially when faced with nearly 100 miles of it. Flying out from Hunt Fork on a backhaul might be worth looking in to.

If you proceed down river to the Koyukuk, you’ve got about a 5 mile walk upriver to Bettles. It’s a coin toss whether to deflate your boat and walk just one side of the river or keep the boat inflated and ferry back and forth from gravel bar to gravel bar.

The river is described further in Karen Jettmar’s book The Alaska River Guide.

Brad Meiklejohn
Eagle River, Alaska