North Fork Koyukuk via Galbraith Lake/Oolah Valley

I just recently wrapped up a leisurely 10-day packrafting trip that started from the haul road at Galbraith Lake, ending at Bettles with a flight back to Fairbanks.

The 50-mile approach to the North Fork begins by hiking up an unnamed creek southeast of Galbraith Lake, which provides great walking to the Itikmalak River. The lower Itkillik valley/lake area has horrible tussocks, so a better approach is found by hiking directly up the Itikmalak all the way to its glacial/snowfield source. Great walking can be found up the entire valley, and game trails abound as it is an obvious caribou pathway. The crux of the route involves getting up and over a 5,800’ pass west of the snowfield. There was still a bit of snow left in the north facing gullies from 5,000’ up, and much of it was totally unsupportable. After getting over this pass, a very scenic descent leads to a major tributary of the Itkillik River…a stream that could likely be packrafted at the flows we encountered. This sub-valley floor offers adequate gravel bar walking, but if heading up the Itkillik it is wise head off the end of the valley and endure some minor tussocks. The Itkillik/Oolah Valley offers similar conditions to this sub-valley, except on a larger scale. We crossed the river to the western side of the valley, and this proved to be tolerable despite a few miles of mostly tussocks all the way to Oolah Lake. From there, we went back to the river for the gravel bars, and finally around 3,000’ an extensive series of lichen ridges appear on the western side. We followed those for a few miles until the Itkillik River is more like a shallow creek, allowing for easy crossings and gravel bar hiking. From approximately one mile before the continental divide to the beginning of the steep descent to the North Fork, the walking is mostly good along the eastern edge of the valley, where lichen ridges can be linked among a few minor tussock crossings. The descent to the North Fork is done by descending the steep, low-volume creek just upriver/across from Barrenland Creek. A “game trail” works its way down to the river canyon, where easy gravel bar walking is found for the next 1.5 miles down to the upper put-in on the North Fork: Alinement Creek.

The early July waters, like elsewhere in the Interior, were very high as a result of heavy rains. The North Fork was not spared from this, and as a result the whitewater section between Alinement and Ernie Creek was considerably faster and more fun than my run from two years ago. Definitely Class III between Amawk and Bombardment Creek. After Ernie Creek enters, the volume swelled and the river retained a swift Class I current throughout the remainder of the float. High water in the middle and lower sections of this river help to mitigate the singular rapids encountered south of The Gates and after Glacier River at Squaw Rapids. The snaking sections of the lower North Fork concede to the Middle Fork, where flat water but swift currents took us to Bettles in just a few hours on our final day.

Overall, 6 days were utilized for the approach hike, one of which was effectively weathered in. A faster pace and longer days on foot would likely yield a 3-4 day approach. The river, from Alinement Creek to Bettles, took only 4 days. This is a great trip for any packrafter looking to experience both the north and south sides of the Brooks Range.