Upper Alatna River – Headwaters to Circle Lake
Gates of The Arctic N.P., Alaska
On August 19, 2011, four of us flew in from Bettles to Gaedeke Lake to packraft the upper Alatna river in the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic N.P., Alaska. Two of us had previous packrafting experience of varying degrees, and own a Yukon Yak and an Alpacka, both the newer designs with spraydecks. The other two rented packrafts from Northern Alaska Packraft in Fairbanks – both of which were in excellent condition and came with spraydecks and packtach cords for securing packs.
We chose these dates for fall colors, minimal bugs, and caribou migration. We were not disappointed, and were very lucky with the weather. After a summer of consistent rain in the Brooks Range, we had mostly sunny skies for our entire trip with only two small drizzles. Because of the rains during July and the first half of August, the water levels on the Alatna were supposedly moderate to high. When we put onto the river, after several days of no rain, the water levels were quite low. So clearly there is fairly dramatic fluctuation in the river based on recent rains.
Upon flying into Gaedeke Lake, we identified the cabins on the northeast shore of the lake owned by the Gaedeke’s and rented to visitors. Someday hopefully we’ll have a chance to visit ourselves, and John Gaedeke was very kind and gracious in providing us information for our trip. We saw guests fly in while we were there, and so did not stop by so as to respect their privacy. We also saw one tent set up on the Alatana about 200 yards downstream of the outlet from the lake – this turned out to be 7 Belgians who were hiking from the Killik, through the headwaters region, down the Alatna to Circle Lake, where they planned to resupply and pickup a canoe to float the Alatna down to Allakaket.
We let out of the plane onto the eastern shore, and quickly found a campsite of two raised, drained areas of tundra on the southeast shore of the lake. There are no trees or meaningful bushes around the lake, and most of the surrounding terrain is boggy and full of tussocks, so camping is very limited on the headwaters lakes. We immediately starting seeing caribou – some in small groups of 2-5, some in large groups of 30, and some lone bulls or bulls in 2’s and 3’s. Over the next two days we saw many hundreds of caribou, although it was unclear whether they were migrating or merely lingering around the area.
We intended to scout the outlet of the lake and the first part of the Alatna by foot, but the walking was so poor we quickly aborted. Winds were also intermittently high, and changed often. This combined with the lack of any trees made setting up the tarp for our cooking/common area a challenge. We used hiking poles and our packraft paddles but once secured, the wind would change and we’d have to readjust. Fortunately, we had no rain and ultimately really didn’t need the tarp for the whole trip. A self-supporting cooking/common area shelter such as a mega-mid with its own pole would be better suited for this treeless tundra. Twenty or thirty miles downriver, trees became much more plentiful and it would have been easier to secure a tarp.
Our first night was frigid, with temperatures into the high 20’s. When we awoke, there were ice crystals formed on the edges of the lake, and ice in our water bottles. This was the coldest temperature we encountered, and most nights temperatures were in the 30’s. We dayhiked from our campsite along the eastern hills, until we reached the northernmost ridge facing the continental divide and the wide open, flat headwaters region that spans east to west. The walking was much better once we got out of the marshy flats of the headwaters lakes and up onto the rocky ridges of the hills. It was around four miles from Gaedeke Lake to this viewpoint over the continental divide. From our viewpoint, we could see the headwaters of the Alatna, Nigu, and Killik rivers. The headwater lakes of the Alatna and the Nigu are literally feet apart, with the Nigu draining north and eventually into the Arctic Ocean, and the Alatna south destined for the Pacific.
We saw 5 hikers moving through this area, who traversed below us and headed for Gaedeke Lake. We had noticed around our campsite that they had a large food and supply cache waiting for them, the food in two huge oil drums. They must have been on an epic trip, but we never had a chance to find out where they had been or where they were headed. All day we encountered caribou. The closest encounter was when we sat to take a break in a ravine, and caribou would come over the ridge nearby not able to see us. When they noticed us, they would stop and “pile up” a bit, until changing course.
The following day we inflated the boats and packed up camp. It is approximately 54 river miles from Gaedeke Lake to Circle Lake. We wore dry suits and relatively robust water boots/shoes (I wore 5-10 canyoneers) for walking in the river on rocks. We found the outlet easily, it was very grassy but surprisingly easily to float. This persisted for ¼ mile, when the river bed became rocky and the water volume dropped dramatically. We lined the boats the entire remainder of the day. Another ¼ mile downriver, the river splits into two seemingly equal branches. Unfortunately, we took the branch river left which rapidly became a narrow channel through dense brush for around ½ mile. The boats took a ton of abuse through this stretch, being dragged over sharp rocks with 40 pound loads, and being accosted by sharp brush on both sides. We did the best we could to lift the boats while lining, but as the hours go on there is more dragging and less lifting.
Overall the trip was very hard on the packrafts, particularly the lining of the first few days over the sharp rocked river bed, the encounters with wood and brush on the banks, and the takeouts on gravel bars. I would have fully expected major tears or punctures in these conditions, and we were prepared for significant repairs along the way. Yet the boats held up incredibly well, without any significant failures. I thought that as the trip went on, the boats required more frequent reinflating and more frequent bailing of water, so perhaps some minor punctures did occur, but nothing catastrophic or limiting. The trip was a testament to the durability of the Alpackas and I was really impressed.
After 4.5 miles of lining, and working past 7PM, we approached the confluence of the Weyahok River. I was aware in advance of a potential campsite on a bench on the north side of the Weyahok confluence. I got a glimpse of this area from a mile or so away, but as we approached the confluence the river banks picked up some denser brush that was impossible to see out of. Finally, we took a break and hiked out of the brush – within 10 yards I could see the campsite, and after 200 yards we got out of the brush and headed up the bench to a beautiful flat dry campsite overlooking the Weyahok confluence with views up and down the Alatna valley. If you wait until you reach the confluence along the Alatna you will be too far past this bench to go back.
The overall rhythm of our trip was slow mornings and getting out of camp late. It was light all but 3 hours or so at night, so morning light did not get you up in the morning. And because of the cold, it was easy to hibernate in the sleeping bag a bit longer and then not really get going packing up until the sun was shining. We compensated for the late starts by longer days on the river, with lunch around 3 and making camp after 7. Sunset was around 11P, but was heavily influenced by local peaks and we started to seek campsites at which the sun would stay up longer based on a pass or gap to the northwest.
The next day after breaking camp we began lining again. Between the Weyahok river and Portage Pass was about 80% lining and 20% floating. Floating was a great relief but was never very consistent in this section. Many areas of the river were heavily braided here and none of the braids had sufficient water for our packrafts to float. About 3 miles south of the Weyahok was our first encounter with a muskox with which we had a 2 day relationship as we travelled downriver more or less together. Our introduction was somewhat auspicious as from a distance the huge hulking brown mass looked like a giant grizzly, and we wondered why it continued to close on us despite being downwind and clearly having a visual of the four of us. When we finally got a broadside view of this beast and could tell it was a muskox it was a great relief. Apparently muskox are very rare on the Alatna although there is a small cluster frequently seen on the Noatak, so perhaps this was a solo male exploring from over portage pass. In any event, we saw him regularly and he spent a lot of time close to the river. We were frequently within 20-30 feet, and at one point he walked right up to the opposite side of the river from where we were camped, and after an hour or so of chewing brush and staring at us he laid down in the grass to sleep.
The wildlife was amazing on the upper Alatna. In addition to the caribou and the muskox, a lone whitish wolf with grey/black highlights strolled onto the gravel bar on which we were camped and stopped about 20 feet from our tents. We watched this from our cooking area, videotaped him and checked each other out for around 5 minutes. He gradually retreated, intermittently stopping to stare at us for a while as he did. Another day we floated to within 30 feet of a lynx, who was sitting out on the river on a spruce sweeper. Was he fishing? These animals seemed to have no fear of us and I suspect they have never seen people. He gracefully scampered atop the overhanging riverside brush and disappeared into the woods. At Circle Lake we had an extended, close-up moose viewing. Despite a ton of bear sign, we did not see any grizzlies except one very long distance and very brief sighting near the headwaters.
As we approached Portage Pass, the floating became somewhat more consistent. At portage pass, we met the seven Belgian hikers who were taking a week to hike the river corridor. The river is fast and floatable past portage pass and we tacked on some additional miles in no time, camping a few miles past the creek leading to the pass on a gravel bar. We made approximately 10 miles on this day altogether.
The next two days we floated nearly the entire time. There were always the occasional braided section where a small area became shallow or we chose the wrong braid, but most could be handled with getting your butt up on the tube or by a few steps and pulls out of the boat. Our lighter floaters (ie. everyone but me) had a clear advantage with this. The river was flowing about 5 miles an hour through the next 20 miles or so, and the floating was fantastic - fast enough to be fun, but rapids and corners that were very manageable and not too threatening. There were a few class 2 sections. Before Ram Creek, we were prepared to portage a possible Class 3 section, but given the low water I suspected we would be OK. These were encountered in three or four brief sections just before Ram Creek dumps into the Alatna in a few channels, and at the time we ran them were definitely not Class 3. I could see that the hydraulics here could pick up in higher water, but they were not much of a challenge to us at these water levels. I suspect that even at higher water and Class 3 they would have been doable in the packraft, as they are mostly straight on standing waves with a few holes and don’t require making complicated lines to navigate. We camped at a great campsite on a large gravel bar a mile or two past Ram Creek, after going around 18 miles for the day.
These last two days we encountered numerous sweepers, as we were now below treeline, and most could be avoided without much difficulty. On four separate occasions, we got out of the boats to either portage or line around sweepers. Some of these could perhaps be navigated safely, but we were conservative due to the remote setting and in an effort to protect the boats.
On August 24, we set out on our last full day of floating , a total of 22 miles or so. So many spectacular vistas in all directions, particularly as large drainages such as Awlinyak creek came in and we could view down its valley, with the back of the Arrigetch Peaks in the distance. We got several views of the Arrigetch on this day, including a few that really made it clear how they got their name. The river slows significantly after Awlinyak, and it takes a few more hours and some paddling to get down to Circle Lake. There is a gravel bar at Arrigetch creek that apparently is landable at low water, but our air service preferred to use Circle Lake. We camped at a gravel bar on the Alatna, and the next morning made the ¼ mile portage over into Circle Lake. There may be an easier route to paddle a bit further downriver, where a small pull over a gravel bar could take you to a small stream, through a swamp, and to the middle of Circle Lake. However, we deflated our boats and packed all our gear the more direct way.