08-Jul-2004 -- A special report from the Alaska Virgin Confluence Trip Planning Service - “We’ve done all the legwork... Now you go grab the glory!”
After being part of two epic successful Alaska degree confluence hunting expeditions, but personally never standing within a mile of a confluence point, I am the ultimate base camp groupie, making a career out of near misses in the 49th state. 67N 152W wasn’t quite a near miss [unless getting within five miles of a CP in the Alaska wilds constitutes a near miss], but hopefully this post will start to fill in a rather sparsely visited region of the DCP…
Our primary objective was to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Preserve [www.nps.gov/gaar], two of the more inaccessible units of the United States National Park System. I had been drawn by the many vivid descriptions of this little visited place: “Unknown by outsiders until recent times, this arctic region is still virtually intact and untrammeled. Remote canyons, rugged peaks, wild rivers, pristine lakes, and vast herds of caribou seem all but lost in its expanse. Vast and austere, stern, stark, and uncompromising, yet possessed of haunting beauty, it offers that total immersion in wilderness that has ever been an essential part of life in the New World.”
The boundary of the National Park and Preserve includes about 8.2 million acres of public land [with approximately 7.2 million acres designated as wilderness], including six Wild Rivers. Of these six, the Alatna, John, and Koyukuk Rivers all seemed to offer compelling reasons to travel their lengths. Realizing we could not make a bad choice from among the three, we settled on the John. Designated a national wild and scenic river on December 2, 1980, the John River flows south from Anaktuvuk Pass through Alaska’s Brooks Range. In its early stages, it is hard to access and hard to float. The John terminates at the Koyukuk River just below Bettles Field/ Evansville, with half its length outside the National Park. The valley of the John River is an important migration route for the Arctic caribou herd, and the closest major water route to 67N 152W.
We flew into Fairbanks from the “Lower 48” on July 3rd. A few days earlier, smoke from forest fires had forced cancellation of several flights, and as we exited the terminal, a facility on this day “smoke free” in name only, we found falling ash coating everything that wasn’t moving.
After reaching our motel we rendezvoused with our long time friend and guide Ron Clauson of Backcountry Safaris, “Alaska's Premier Adventure Travel Outfitter” [http://www.backcountrysafaris.com]. Ron is a well-known Alaskan adventurer and has been rafting, kayaking, hiking and exploring Alaska's backcountry for more than 30 years. Ron is known for his whitewater rafting and fly fishing skills, neither of which would come into play on this particular trip. Ron is also a certified Swiftwater Rescue Instructor and Wilderness First Responder, skills which we likewise hoped we would not need to call on. Ron provided both our sturdy raft and the strongest paddle.
Anxious to leave the forest fire smoke behind, the following morning we checked in with the folks at Brooks Range Aviation [http://brooksrange.com] who flew us 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle to the airfield at Bettles. Switching to a float plane, we checked one more park off our list by making a combination injured hiker evacuation/ quick flightseeing visit through the Gates of the Arctic [the famous Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, both barely visible through the low clouds] to Itkillik Lake in the National Preserve.
Returning to the Bettles floatport, we loaded ourselves and our gear into two small Brooks Range Aviation planes, and followed the John into the heart of the Endicott Mountains. At the John’s intersection with the Hunt Fork of the John River, our pilots gently put us down on the small Hunt Fork Lake. Once we were unloaded and abandoned to our own devices, we faced a one third mile portage from the wet edges of the lake to a spot on the riverbank near the confluence of the two streams. After numerous trips hauling gear, we were ready to pitch camp and call it a day. [As we were well into the zone of 24 hour daylight, it would be a while before we would be able to call it a night!]
What followed was 100 miles of very pleasant rafting over the next four days. The weather went from clouds to rain to sun and back again, with rapidly changing conditions being the norm. We had wolf and moose sightings, as well as peregrine falcons nesting on rocky cliffs at river’s edge. Other than seeing an occasional small distant airplane, we had the feeling there wasn’t another human being for a hundred miles…
With three GPS units for our group of four, our exact location was easily (and constantly!), even obsessively, referenced, and as we came closer, 67N 152W became a focus of our attention. When we got within five miles, we camped for the night [a very short night: sunset 2:12am, sunrise 2:14am] on an outside bend in the river. The CP sits near a high point on a ridge line about 900 feet above the elevation of the river. In between us and the CP was a constant tangle of alder bush, more than a few wet spots, and from the indications of our brief forays away from the riverbank breezes, enough mosquitoes to fill the Grand Canyon twice over. Certainly not something to tackle given our short timeframe.
A little further downstream, we took a lunch break on the 67th North parallel, where we had a little better view to the west of the higher ground at the CP. Then, following the John’s twisted course, we continued on south until its junction with the Koyukuk. Another mile or so downstream, we camped on the beach at the abandoned historic village of Bettles, to await our pickup floatplane the following morning. [According to the pilot who picked us up, it would not be unheard of for hunters to be close to the CP during winter. With some snow on the ground and the streams all frozen it’s a little easier to move away from the river. I’ll take his word for it.] As the weather had cleared, we had noticed columns of smoke in the vicinity of Bettles. We now learned shortly after we passed through, a long dormant nearby lightning strike had flared up, and buffeted by high winds, burned to within a quarter mile of the village. A last minute wind shift had spared the town, but when we got back to Bettles, the fire was still going like gangbusters to the north. Firefighting was at full force, and like all the local residents, we hung out at the floatport to watch the fleet of tanker plane swoop low to refill with water, then curl off to drop another load. As the Alaskans say about just about anything that happens, it’s all part of the adventure!
At dinner one night, I asked Ron about his philosophy for running an Alaska guide service. He said “We try to combine ecological awareness, adventure, learning, camaraderie and attention to detail with guiding in the classic tradition. The style of our adventures is informal, spontaneous and intimate. We emphasize sharing and participation. You can do as much or as little as you wish. We've found that those individuals who get the most out of their trip are those who put the most into it. You make your own adventure in many different ways: paddling, riding the rapids, hiking and exploring, fishing, learning the natural history of the area, helping in camp or just sitting alone on the riverbank relaxing.” I guess now I can add “window shopping for degree confluence points” to that list…
So, OK, 67N 152W is still out there to be claimed. I’ve given you a start; now you go out there and get it!