Monday, September 11, 2017


The Crew:

Doug Armstrong
Jim Bennett
Wally Hufford
Julie Stephens
The crew at Gaedeke Lake.  Ready to start our adventure on the Alatna River.


We flew from Fairbanks to Bettles, Alaska on Wright Air Service.  After spending the night in Bettles, we flew on a Brooks Range Aviation floatplane to Gaedeke Lake.  Following our float on the Alatna River and backpack to the Arrigetch Peaks we were picked up by floatplane at Takahula Lake.  We returned to Bettles, where we spent the night once again, and flew to Fairbanks the following morning.

The view from the floatplane on the way to Gaedeke Lake. (photo courtesy Jim Bennett)

GPS track of the Alatna River packrat/Arrigetch Peaks backpack trip.  Waypoints indicate our campsite locations.

DAY 1:  (7/14/17)
6.7 miles packrafting.  

Following breakfast at the Bettles Lodge, we were driven to the floatplane basin where we met our pilot and loaded our gear for departure.  Then we enjoyed an exquisite flight through the Brooks Range on our way to Gaedeke Lake.  Along the way we got a glimpse of the Arrigetch Peaks as the twisting Alatna River flowed below us.  The sky was hazy due to fires burning to the east in Canada.  Landing at Gaedeke Lake was exciting because we knew our adventure was about to begin.  We unloaded our gear and our pilot wished us luck before he returned to Bettles.  

When the plane leaves you realize just how immersed in the wilderness you are.  I really like that feeling.

Along the edge of the lake we found some caribou antlers which we photographed before packing our gear onto the packrafts.  The weather was beautiful as we paddled across the flat calm water toward the outlet and the Alatna River.  We were underway.

After paddling for an hour or so the water started to move and we were on the river, which quickly became shallow and very fast.  We floated for a while, then lined our boats for a while, then floated, then lined.  Our bear canisters were inside the tubes of our packrafts which we later discovered was a mistake.  Hearing them hit against the rocks as we floated along should have alerted us to the damage that was being done.  Unfortunately, we didn't realize what was happening until we noticed our boats were slowly losing air.  Each of us had developed pinhole leaks in our rafts.  It was a good thing we had plenty of Tyvek and Tenacious Tape to repair things.  We moved our bear canisters from inside the packraft tubes to our backpacks which were lashed to the bow of the packraft to prevent further damage.  Lesson learned.

Eventually we arrived at our first campsite which was in a beautiful valley.  It was also very buggy.  After dinner we fell fast asleep to the rushing sounds of the Alatna flowing just a few feet away.  In the middle of the night I awoke and saw only one sock on the drying cord at the top of my tent.  Searching through everything multiple times to try and find the other one was fruitless.  The errant sock was nowhere to be found.  I even went outside and retraced my steps of the previous evening.  Nothing.  I finally gave up and laid my head back down.  That's when I felt a lump.  The sock had fallen into my hoodie earlier in the night and was there the whole time.  I had carried it around during the entire search.

Doug Armstrong prepares breakfast at Camp 1.
Camp 1 at the edge of the Alatna River.

Mosquitoes meet their demise as they buzz over a steaming hot bowl of Cream-O-Wheat.

DAY 2:  (7/15/17)
11 miles packrafting.

Our second day on the Alatna involved more lining and some rapid running.  Along the way Jim lost his paddling gloves and sunglasses.  We also engineered a narrow passage at one point by pulling a sweeper back and tying it to the shore so we could get past it.
Engineering a sweeper for safe passage. (photo courtesy Julie Stephens)

It was  extremely windy when we stopped to set up camp.  In fact, it was so windy that Doug's raft flew up in the air during a particularly strong gust.  Fortunately, he caught it before it got too far away.  A little while later Julie said, "My tent, my tent!"  I looked over to see her chasing after her tent which had blown into the water and was floating down the river.  Jim grabbed his camera and gave it to me to take some photos before he went to help her  They recovered it easily and brought it back to our campsite where it was immediately staked down.
Jim and Julie carry the tent back to shore.
Camp 2

We noticed the air was clearing and the haze was gone.  Later it rained heavily for about an hour in the middle of the night, but we all reported our tents had remained dry.  The next morning we watched as the river went from crystal clear to chocolate milk muddy in about 45 minutes due to the previous night's rain storm.

DAY 3:  (7/16/17)
17.7 miles pack rafting.

Shoving off we rocketed downstream in fast water right away.  The river was fun splashiness and we were cruising.  Things were going great as we followed each other enjoying an effortless ride down the Alatna.  All of that lasted for a little while anyway.

Suddenly Jim had a mishap with his paddle as the shaft cracked and the blade fell off.  It all happened right before a sweeper caught his boat sending him for a swim.  Holding onto his raft Jim was pulled under the sweeper.  Luckily he came to the surface on the other side and made it to shore.  He was yelling and waving his broken paddle in the air while Julie and I stopped upstream trying to figure out what he was saying.  We couldn't exactly hear his words, but from the tone of his voice and frantic waving we knew it wasn't good.  We slowly paddled downstream managing to avoid the sweeper and pulled into shore where Jim stood dripping wet.  He related what had happened while Julie and I stood there not knowing what to say.  We knew we were fortunate things had turned out like they had.  Even so, Jim lost his headnet, raincoat, and lunch.  He did recover his water bottle in a downstream eddy.  Fortunately Doug had a spare paddle and once we gathered our wits we were able to continue paddling down the river.
Jim continues down the Alatna River using Doug's spare paddle.

DAY 4: (7/17/17)
15 miles pack rafting.

Before the rest of us woke up, Jim saw a young bull moose from camp while he was drinking his morning coffee.  We got our earliest start of the trip and paddled through infrequent rapids and increasingly tranquil water.  The topography was changing and we began to see birch trees along the shore.  We decided to camp at the confluence of Awlinyak Creek and the Alatna.  It was a great campsite on a flat plain with plenty of space and awesome views of the surrounding mountains.
Along the Alatna.

DAY 5: (7/18/17)
9.8 miles packrafting.

Not having far to go before reaching Arrigetch Creek so we took our time eating breakfast and packing for the float.  Once on the river we drifted with the current and stayed close enough to each other so we could chat.  The swift water, rapids, and shallowness were gone.  The packrafting had become a casual float.  We passed a cabin with a cache and waved at the occupant.  It would have been nice to stop and visit but there wasn't anyplace we could pull out due to the brush along the river's edge.  We would later meet the cabin's owner while we were in Bettles.

We caught our first glimpse of the Arrigetch Peaks as we looked up the Arrigetch Creek valley.  Pulling into shore we found an excellent camp area along the river.  It was early in the day when we set up our tents and the weather was beautiful, so we spent the remainder of the afternoon lounging in the sun and cleaning gear.  Looking downriver we saw two people about a half mile away.  They waved and we waved back.  Later in the afternoon a plane flew directly over us and landed on what we assumed was Circle Lake.  We began prepping for the backpack portion of the trip to the Arrigetch Peaks and spent a good deal of time discussing theories of how to find the social trail which we were certain was on the left side of Arrigetch Creek.
Awlinyak Creek camp.

Julie and her packraft.  Contemplating the Alatna River.

Jim is ready to float.

Easy drifting on the Alatna.

Using maps downloaded on a cell phone to check our location.  A great way to navigate above the Arctic Circle.
DAY 6:  (7/19/17)
5.4 miles backpacking.

We stashed our packrafts and river gear in the woods tying everything to trees so the wind and animals wouldn't be able to carry any of it away.  Then we stowed the bear canisters with our extra food in another location a short distance away.  Using the GPS we marked waypoints of where everything was located so it would be easy to find upon our return.

The day was warming up as we set off with loaded backpacks for the Arrigetch Peaks.  After following intersecting game trails for over a mile we found the social trail for the hike up Arrigetch Creek.  The trail was on the left side of the creek just as we assumed.  It was quite well established and easy to follow.  After a few miles we made it to a perch overlooking the creek where we ate a snack and drank the last of our water.  Leaving the perch we made a mistake and went uphill into a boulder field which seemed to have no end.  Eventually we decided to go downhill to find the social trail again.  We found it after a short descent and continued to follow it up the valley.  The heat was intense making it difficult to believe we were above the Arctic Circle.  We decided to go until we found a site suitable for camping and stop for the day.  We were lucky to find an excellent spot on the edge of Arrigetch Creek.  The remainder of the day was spent recuperating and resting from the warm weather.
Doug and Julie following the social trail through the Arrigetch valley.
There was some bushwhacking involved.

Jim and Doug with the Arrigetch Peaks in the background.

The Arrigetch Creek camp.

DAY 7: (7/20/17)
7.6 miles RT hike to base of Arrigetch Peaks and back to camp.

Anticipation was high as the hike today would take us to the base of the Arrigetch Peaks.  We loaded our packs with water, food, and layers for a trek up the valley and back.  The peaks became more spectacular with each step and we stopped frequently to snap photos.  Along the way we met a group of four young climbers on their way out.  They were going to be picked up at Circle Lake the next day.  They had been climbing the peaks for three weeks and after a short exchange we continued on our way.

We arrived at the base of the peaks which we had predetermined would be our turn around point.  In retrospect we wished we had brought our camping gear with us and spent another day exploring the surrounding peaks and valleys.  As we turned back toward camp a massive downpour occurred complete with thunder and lightening.  Everything got extremely wet, but the sun was shining before we made it back at camp which turned everything warm and dry once again.  The hike had been exhausting so after dinner we all stood around waiting until it was 8:00 PM so we could go to sleep.
Doug and Julie on the way to the base of the Arrigetch Peaks.

Me with the Arrigetch Peaks in the distance.

Doug and Julie crossing the remnants of an avalanche.

One of the arrigetch Peaks.

Along the trail.  Someone had built a fire here.  It was one of very few indications that humans had been in the area.

The Arrigetch Peaks.
DAY 8:  (7/21/17)
5.4 miles backpacking.

Jim was generally the first one up every morning, but he slept in unusually late today.  We slowly ate breakfast and packed for the hike back to the Alatna River knowing it would only take about five hours, so we weren't in any rush.  The weather was beautiful and we took it nice and easy on the trail stopping frequently for rest breaks, snacks, and water.  It was a great hike out and we found our gear and food easily using the GPS.  Following a celebratory toast the remainder of the afternoon was spent taking care of gear and reorganizing in order to continue our trip on the river.
Celebration time upon our return to the Alatna River.
DAY 9:  (7/22/17)
13.4 miles pack rafting.

This day consisted of a lazy float on a meandering Alatna River to a cabin that Julie had seen on the map.  We checked it out and decided to make camp nearby at the confluence of the Alatna and Nahtuk Creek.  It was a beautiful location and we noticed tundra tire tracks from an airplane along the edge of the river, which we assumed were made by the owner of the cabin.  After an evening of enjoying the surroundings we slept soundly knowing that we would have a short float the following day to the portage for Takahula Lake.
Doug strolls past a cabin along the edge of the Alatna River.  It was built by people who owned the land before Gates of the Arctic National Park was established.

DAY 10:  (7/23/17)
8.3 miles packrafting.

We awoke and leisurely packed our gear for the float to Takahula Lake.  The river was slow and meandering.  In some stretches we even had to paddle as the wind was blowing upstream and would halt forward progress.  Keeping a close eye on the cell phone maps and my GPS it was easy to find the portage trail from the river to Takahula Lake.  The trail was well established making for a comfortable gear haul which was accomplished in two trips.  We reassembled our gear on the shore of Takhula and paddled onto the calm water.  We could see white caps around the corner and knew we had some tough paddling ahead of us.  As soon as we rounded the corner we ran into some serious waves and wind.  We eventually made it to a sandy beach on the opposite side of the lake where we set up camp.  We also set up Doug's tarp for the first time as it was raining off and on.  The tarp offered a dry place for us to sit out of the wet weather.  The remainder of the afternoon and evening was spent visiting and reminiscing about the trip.
The calm side of Takahula Lake.

The view from our camp on Takahula Lake.

Doug and Julie appreciated the tarp as it held the rain at bay.
DAY 11:  (7/24/17)
Takahula Lake to Bettles via floatplane.

We awoke to drier weather and slowly ate breakfast.  All we had to do was pack our gear and wait for the floatplane to pick us up.  Julie was communicating with Charlie via the inReach and provided him with a weather report which he relayed to Judy at Brooks Range Aviation.  About 1:30 we heard a plane approaching the lake.  It circled the lake and landed.  It was there for us.  As we were loading our gear another plane landed and taxied over to us.  Both planes had been attempting to get several parties off the Nigu River on the other side of the Brooks Range, but the weather had been too bad for them to land.  Hence, we got an early pick-up.  Doug, Jim, and I rode in one plane while Julie got the co-pilot seat in the other.

And, just like that we were on our way to Bettles.  The flight out was spectacular and we enjoyed watching the mountains and rivers as they passed under us.  We ate a celebratory dinner at the Bettles Lodge and talked about our trip with Ben and Nadine, an adventurous young couple planning to embark on their own Alatna River adventure the next morning.  We also talked with some folks from the National Park Service who were interested in what we thought about the Arrigetch Creek trail.  After spending the night in Bettles we hopped on the Wright Air flight to Fairbanks.  The trip was over.  But, what a trip it was!
Waiting at the edge of Takahula Lake for the floatplane to arrive.

Our ride back to Bettles.

The Alatna River below Takahula Lake.

The Brooks Range Aviation office building in Bettles.

Sunday, April 30, 2017


April 18, 2017:  Troy and I took a packraft trip through the Kenai River Canyon on a sunny day.  The conditions were perfect and we had the entire river to ourselves.  

Troy cruising through the Kenai River Canyon.

Shelf ice along the shore.

Troy packs gear for the hike from Skilak Lake back to the truck.

Good thing we found this we didn't get lost.

Hiking out through the burn area.

Spring in Alaska!

Monday, February 20, 2017


The GPS track of Fat Freddie's Fatbike Race/Ramble.  We started and finished at Freddie's Roadhouse and rode clockwise around the 12.8 mile 'loop.'  The trail was well groomed and the intersections were clearly marked.  About 30 riders participated.  It was a splendid day in the Caribou Hills near Ninilchik, Alaska.
Doug Armstrong eats power fuel--a Hostess donette--prior to the start of the ride.
Riders pushed their bikes up the first big hill.  It was steep!  Look closely and you will see a dog in the lower left corner of the photo.  It was missing a rear leg and it ran the entire distance of the ride.
The Caribou Hills Phone Company maintains a phone booth along one of the trails.  Jim Bennett tried to make a call but it was out of service.
Jim Bennett pedals along the well groomed trail in Caribou Hills.
A fatbiker pedals toward the top of a knoll.
At the first checkpoint there was a nice family on snow machines handing the fatback riders water bottles.
Fatbikers on the trail.