John River - An Arctic Paddle
The John River is scenically spectacular as it flows south from Anaktuvuk Pass, an Inuit village, in the Brooks Mountain Range into the rugged Endicott Mountains before emptying into the Koyukuk River just below the Athabaskan community of Bettles. The John River is 135-miles long. In 1980, the 52-mile segment within the Gates of the Arctic was designated “wild” and added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
The river was named after John Bremner, a prospector and explorer who was one of the first non-native persons to investigate the tributary. Bremner joined the Allen Expedition in early 1885. Lt. Henry Allen, Pvt. Frederick Fickett, Sgt. Cody Robertson, fellow prospector Peder Johnson and John Bremner traveled 1,500 miles and pioneered a new route through previously unexplored territory. The expedition ascended the Copper River from Valdez with a side trip to the source of the Chitina River before continuing up the Copper to the Slana River. They traveled to the source of the Slana and then downstream on the Tetlin and Tanana rivers to the Yukon. Afterwards, Bremner joined with others to investigate the Koyukuk River. He then separated from this group to explore the tributary now know as the John River in the spring of 1887. After leaving the John River and floating down the Koyukuk he stopped for lunch one day. It is here, while boating and prospecting for gold, where his fire and coffee attracted two Koyukon Indians, a twenty year old youth and an aged shaman. Bremner shared his meal with them as custom dictated. Then, as he packed his boat, the old man ordered the boy to seize Bremner’s rifle and shoot him. Fearing the shaman’s magic, the youth did as he was told. Together they weighted his body, sank it, and took his possessions and boat. When Bremner did not return, his friends began to search and discovered his murder. Hurrying back to Tanana they reported it.
At Tanana in the summer of 1888 a miners’ meeting was called to enforce the miners’ law and teach the Indians not to kill whites. Gordon Bettles was chosen as judge and Jim Bender as marshal. The posse of more than twenty prospectors commandeered the Explorer, a small river steamer, and proceeded up the Koyukuk River and Dolby River to apprehend the murderer. A cache of drying whitefish containing tools clearly marked with Bremner’s name was found. Not far upriver was a village and upon landing, two natives quickly ran into the woods. The villagers were persuaded to find and give the up the two. The youth admitted to murder. The two culprits were taken back to the Yukon and placed on trial. When asked why they killed Bremner, the youth replied he wanted Bremner’s gun, blanket, and tobacco. When told that he would die for killing a white man, he replied that he wished he could kill more whites as they were no good anyway. Fearing the shaman’s power worse than death, he claimed full responsibility for the murder. The shaman was released and the youth was hung with great fanfare and left hanging as a warning to others. In good spirits and quite happy, the vigilantes started back to Tanana. Meeting another group of Indians not far from Koyukuk they told them of the hanging and warned against killing white men. The chief replied, “We won’t kill any prospectors but we are not afraid of you white men, if you start anything.”
There are three distinct paddling segments on the John River. The headwaters can be an arduous challenge which requires the dragging of canoes down a small creek out of Anaktuvuk Pass for up to 5-miles to where it becomes a swift continuous Class III rapid for 35-miles. Below this, the middle section of the river is rated Class II for the next 47-miles then it is Class I on the lower reaches all the way to the mouth where it empties into the Koyukuk River just above Old Town Bettles.
✣ Logistics ✣
A lot of work and preparation goes into planning the logistics for any successful trip. Minimizing weight allows for easier portaging and less costly shipping expenses. Air Alaska charges $25 each for the first and second bag. Each additional bag, bag over fifty pounds or oversized is $75 each. Wright Air Service in Fairbanks has two daily flights to Bettles on weekdays and one flight per day on weekends. Forty pounds of gear is allowed per person with overage rates at $1.80 a pound. Room permitting, additional bags or gear may be loaded as freight but it may take up to three additional flights for all the gear to arrive. Brooks Range Aviation has four float planes to charter for float trips, two DeHavilland six passenger Beavers, one DeHavilland nine passenger Otter and a three passenger Cessna 185. Clients of Brooks Air Aviation may use free of charge the bunkhouses, small kitchen and bathroom with a shower found in the hangar or rent one of the two cabins. Tents may be set up and gear organized and repacked in the hangar. Brooks Range Aviation clients also receive a reduced air fare from Wright Air Service.
Gear may be mailed in advance. The least expensive option is to mail it through the U.S. Post Office via Parcel Post/Standard with Delivery Confirmation. The mailing must be done six to eight weeks in advance due to its arrival by barge on a space-available basis. Send it Priority if needed sooner. Amazon Prime may be another option. We saw several pallets stacked with gear and boxes from Amazon Prime inside the hangar. Once in Bettles, ground time is very limited. Any gear mailed ahead of time or flown in must be packed in a manner ready to go. If extensive repacking is needed it is best to arrive a day in advance.
The planning of what food to bring can be a fraught endeavor as you attempt to balance dietary restrictions, caloric needs for your exertions, and space considerations. It is also against the law to the feed bears in the Gates of the Arctic, either on purpose or by carelessly leaving food or garbage where the bears can get to it. Allowing a bear to obtain human food or garbage, even once, will cause it to seek out more human food; thus, making the bear a threat to human safety. Bear resistant food containers are required within the Gates of the Arctic and are available free of charge on a first come, first serve basis at the Bettles Visitor Center and do come in several sizes.
Fuel and bear spray are considered hazardous materials and are not allowed on most commercial flights. Brooks Range Aviation and Wright’s Air Service can transport white gas, propane canisters and denatured alcohol. They are also available for purchase along with Snow Peak and Jet Boil canisters from Brooks Range Aviation. However, we found their supply of denatured alcohol barely sufficient to meet our needs and exorbitantly expensive. Unbeknownst to them, HEET®️ Gas-Line Antifreeze can be used in alcohol stoves which they did stock. Bear spray is also available for sale or rent at a slightly reduced price.
The park has no set routes in place and visitors may wander at will across 8.4 million plus acres of superlative natural beauty. There are no established services within the park boundaries and only satellite telephones work effectively to contact anyone for rescue. You must be self-sufficient. Visitors must be proficient in outdoor survival skills and be prepared to care for their own life and others in their party if an emergency arises. The terrain is challenging: no trails, dense vegetation, tussocks, boggy ground, and frequent stream and river crossings that will significantly slow progress across the landscape. Hiking out is highly unlikely in the event of a lost canoe. Experienced hikers consider six miles a good day’s travel. Approximately halfway into the trip near Crevice Creek is the Fickus’s homestead and private landing strip where help may possibly be sought. It is about a one mile hike from the river to the old homestead gold mine. Topographic maps needed are Wiseman A-4, B-4, C-5 and Bettles D-4.
Returning to Bettles can be accomplished by tracking the canoe up the Koyukuk River. Bow and stern will each require forty to fifty foot long painters in order to keep the canoe in deep water and allow you to walk the shoreline with dry boots. It is five miles from the confluence of the John and Koyukuk Rivers to Bettles or seven miles distance from the ghost town of Old Bettles. Supposedly, it is not too strenuous ferrying across the river from one gravel bar to the next and only takes about three hours to do so. Arrangements can also be made to be picked up in Old Bettles. Brooks Range Aviation will pick you up by floatplane and Bettles Lodge will pick you up by jet boat for about the same price. However, you must call by satellite phone and already be in Old Bettles when you make the call for pickup. They will not come and get you on an agreed upon date and time.
Ten weeks in advance of our trip, I ship our food and folding PakCanoe 170. They both arrive two weeks later. Our meals are mostly freeze dried and are packed in the traditional waterproof, critter-proof but non-bear-proof blue barrels canoeist use. We will transfer the contents into two bear resistant food containers supplied by the park service upon our arrival, two containers to lighten the portage and also serve as a stool for each of us to sit upon. The folding canoe and accessories are divided into two plastic totes due to a seventy pound maximum weight restriction imposed by the U.S. Post Office for a single package. The harness for the blue barrel will be use to portage the bear resistant containers and is placed in the lighter of the two totes to be mailed. To avoid paying excess baggage fees of greater than forty pounds with Wright Air Service, Mike Carter and I will each bring a forty pound pack for our flight. I mail my pfd, tent, cook set, hiking poles and heavy knee-high waterproof boots inside the tote with the harness in order to help transport some of Mike’s gear in my pack and keep him below the forty pound weight restriction. We will travel without firearms and satellite phone but will rent three cans of bear spray. Alcohol for fuel will be purchased from Brooks Range Aviation. In hindsight, we should have purchased the fuel in Fairbanks and paid the applicable fees. A DeHavilland Beaver, the finest “bush” aircraft every built, on floats will deliver us to Hunt Fork Lake the day after our arrival in Bettles. We will then portage the one-eighth mile to the John River and paddled to the confluence of the Koyukuk River and travel downstream to the ghost town of Old Bettles. From Old Bettles we will track and paddle upriver to Bettles.
✣ Prolog ✣
Nature is neither cruel nor loving, but utterly indifferent to all. She does not care who lives and dies. Her indifference is what makes Nature most wonderful. Nature does not care about our personal decisions, if we live one moment and die the next. And I like that. Why? Because it means I do not have someone constantly judging me, grading me on every action or thought. It means that I am free to do what ever I please within the boundaries of the Laws of Nature, the laws of society and my moral compass. I am solely responsible for everything I do with no one to blame but myself. I am who I make myself to be, no one or thing can do that for me. That is the beauty of Nature’s indifference.
Being alone in Nature for an extended period of time puts things into perspective. It makes me realize how vast the world and universe is and how truly utterly small and insignificant I am. I feel all the life that surrounds me and know that I am part of it, not separate or better than it, but a part of it. It makes me feel energized and strong to know that when I sit with Nature, I am where I am supposed to be, involved and a part of the big picture. And yet, I cannot help but feel a bit of anxiety and apprehension that gives me pause and contemplate how powerless I really am. Civilization has taught us that humanity owns and possesses everything, nothing is unknown or beyond our reach. Wild spaces are just places to conquer. My times in the wilderness has taught me that this is a falsehood. Nature cannot be controlled or tamed in the long run. One needs to listen to Nature and bend to her wishes, adapt and be flexible. Resisting against the forces of Nature is fruitless and will only result in frustration, fatigue and death.
The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but only the naive goes on to put himself in harm’s way and suffer for it. I check the weather report and see that smoke is forecast for Bettles. Lightening struck and a wildfire burns along the John River near where we planned to camp. The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center monitors the fire. For now it burns. Much can happen before our arrival in a month. The rainy season arrives and extinguishes the fire two weeks prior to our departure. Rainwater runs down the sides of the Endicott Mountains of the Central Brooks Range filling the streams in the broad glacially carved valleys and carries the water to the Koyukuk River. The Koyukuk, Kanuti, Wild, John and Alatna begin to rise. Trees are ripped away from the banks and carried downstream. The National Weather Services in Fairbanks issues a Flood Advisory for the communities of Bettles and Allakaket. The river may and can rise one foot an hour. In Bettles the river rises over six feet and is flowing through the taiga. Water levels are almost back to normal when we board the plane for Fairbanks; however, a winter advisory is now in place for northeastern Brooks Range above 2,500 feet. Four to eight inches of snow are expected accompanied by strong gusty winds at Anaktuvuk Pass just thirty-five miles north of where we plan to start our trip. Only a fool deliberately puts himself into harms way. Do I possess the skills to stay safe and comfortable? Do I have the knowledge and wisdom to recognize the dangers and avoid the hazards? My wife asks, “Is this trip dangerous?” something she has never once said on past trips. These questions weigh heavy on my mind and overshadow any thought of excitement during our twenty-two and a half hours of travel.
✣ Day 1 - August 14th ✣
The weather is challenging and unpredictable. After gathering and repacking our gear for our flight we patiently wait for the mist and rain to stop. We wait for calmer winds and pray that the oncoming snow storm fails to deliver the revise prediction of six to eight inches of snow at Anaktuvuk Pass. Hunt Fork Lake is situated where two mountain passes come together and create turbulent winds. Short take offs sometimes are impossible and strand the pilot on the lake. Late in the afternoon we get word that all is go. Prior to jumping into the float plane, gear and bodies are weighed to insure we are within our payload limits of 1,100 pounds. I step onto the float and am asked, “Do you have taller boots? Those will not do.” I look at the pilot quizzically, stare down at my knee high tall boots before looking back up at him. “No,” I say. He replies, “You may want to take off your boots and socks then.” Not happy, my face falls which elicits a chuckle from Mike. I climb into the copilot’s seat muttering, “Oh well, it is what it is.”
Northward we fly through fog, mist and rain. We spy numerous meandering aquamarine oxbows, within a days paddle from where the John meets the Koyukuk, whenever the clouds scatter, disperse or part. The ceiling is low and obscures the mountain tops that rise well above our wings. The mountains become steeper. The pass narrows. The river flows beside the mountain's foot. The mountains are nearly bare of vegetation, except for patches of low, spreading willows on their lower flanks. Short balsam poplars cover gravel bars and black spruce inhabit the wet lowlands. In some places the river flows through wide glacial valleys lined with interesting bluffs and braided channels.
A small dot of water appears ahead gradually growing in size. It is more akin to being a pond rather than a lake. It is a small body of water and Mike is surprise at just how small Hunt Fork Lake actually is. We circle it once, come around and make our approach from the south. We descend quickly and skim the ground. Cotton grass rushes by and it appears as if we are about to touch down amongst the tussocks and catapult tail over nose. Instead, water cushions our impact. The wake coming off of the floats betrays our safe landing. The far shore looms up, power is cut and we turn east with little space to spare. We taxi to the center of the lake before powering off and allowing the stiff wind to push us backwards into the shallows along the southwest shoreline. Stepping out onto the float, I lunge for shore keeping my feet dry and proving the pilot wrong.
Our original plan is to camp at Hunt Fork Lake; however, the ground is pockmark with dry tussocks and without shelter from the incessant howling wind. Instead, we decide to look for a portage. The river is approximately two hundred meters away and we are unsure which leg of the fork is easiest to reach. We parallel the shoreline moving towards a clump of small bushes and find a moose trail that easily takes us southward to an overflow area of gravel, sand and sparse vegetation. We cross a wide open divide of sand and find pockets of willows growing along a side channel of Hunt Fork. Here is were we will camp for tonight. We have protection from wind and a source of water nearby. It is warm and calm. Sweat drips off my brow as I set up my tent. During dinner the low, gray clouds return bringing a light drizzle and a cold, blustery breeze. The weather briefly clears near midnight. The sun is shining. Light and shadows dance across the nearby mountains. The wilderness beckons and seems ever so inviting. Distance traveled, 0.6-km. or 0.4-mi
✣ Day 2 - August 15th ✣
I awake at 7:00 am. and it sounds like rain. After mentally debating the question whether to leave my warm, dry happy place for the cold, rainy, drab outdoors and a dismal morning I remind myself that there is much work to be done and push aside any thoughts of how much I really dislike breaking camp in the pouring rain. I roll out of my sleeping bag and stuff it in its dry sack. I remove my thermals and don my wool socks, thin quick drying paddling pants and long-sleeve shirt. I deflate the down sleeping mat, gather up the loose items on the tent floor and place them in a stuff sack. Before unzipping the tent I put on a fleece jacket, possum-fur cap and lastly, rain gear. I exit the tent. Mist fills the air and accumulates on the leaves and branches of the willows that sheltered my tent from last night’s winds. The mist lends its characteristic fluidity and smokiness to all things earthbound and turns them all into silent specters. A dense veil of fog shrouds the mountain tops, reaching nearly downward into the tree tops, and hides the vastness of these arctic mountains and dangers to come. The particles of mist come together to form every larger drops, eventually losing their hold on the willow’s leave and rain down upon my tent. Thankfully, it is not true rain I heard.
After a breakfast of cold granola and hot coffee, we carry the unassembled PakCanoe in a duffle bag to a small brushy clearing beside the overflow from Hunt Fork. The water flows clear, cold and fast. Although it is too shallow to float men and gear, we should be able to line the canoe laden with gear the last few remaining yards to the John once assembled. The PakCanoe 170 is a beast of a canoe, a wilderness work horse capable of carrying enough gear for a full scale month long expedition. Because it can fit into a duffle bag and be checked as baggage, there are no limits or restrictions where one can decide to paddle. For over a year I searched for a used tandem PakCanoe or Ally before finding this one in Detroit last Christmas. A Canadian youth camp had sold her along with three others to an American. After completing his arctic expedition he had decided to sell her. No longer red, but bleached white from all the years in the harsh Canadian arctic sun, with leaking air tubes and missing side longitudinal rods, she was steeply discounted. I called Alv Elvestad, the owner of PakBoats, and quickly realized that if everything had to be replaced excluding the frame I was still saving money. Alv assured me the bleaching of the hull should not affect the integrity of the skin. And thus, I purchased her sight unseen at 60% off the brand new price. Three quarters into assembling the canoe I get a whiff of something extremely musky. The odor is strong and nearby. I immediately grab my bear spray and yell, "Hey bear." Mike promptly joins in and echoes my shout, “Hey bear.” We side-step over the canoe in unison, spin to the left then right while peering into the thicket of balsam populars and willows. Bear spray in hand, finger on trigger we crouch down and up twirling around and around yelling, “Hey bear.” There is nothing to see. The thickets are impenetrable to the eyes and beyond the fog and mist conceals the specter. Our dance is primordial, genetically hardwired into our DNA. We stand back to back just as the muskox do when threaten and continue chanting, “Hey bear” until the smell dissipates. Five minutes have not even elapsed when Mike smells its first, grabs his bear spray and starts yelling, "Hey bear, hey bear." Quickly we resume our defensive posture, dancing over and around the partially built canoe more intent this time on peering deep into the thickets for the odor's source not knowing if the grizzly has returned, circled back or if the wind just shifted.
Another cup of coffee chases the morning chill away and a handful or two of GORP provides the fuel our furnaces ever so need to keep the fire burning and warm our bodies. We change plans and portage gear and canoe to the John instead. The added distance is negligible but here the water flows deeper and faster. We launch at 11:30 am. and quickly find ourselves rushing towards the confluence not quite under control before grinding to a halt in the shallows of a tight inside left turn. The water is flowing faster, much more than we expected and realized. A dumping and swim would quickly carry our gear away, irretrievable. Paddling a tandem canoe is a marriage of sorts. Cooperation and communication are key to safely getting down the river. Our expertise is paddling solo canoes, not tandems, and it is going to take some time to adjust to each other paddling styles. I paddle “Canadian“and Mike paddles “American.” I remove fifty feet of parachute cord from my pack and together we proceed to tie in our packs and gear
Several hours later we have our second grizzly bear encounter for the day. We enter the turn on the outside bend and I tuck the stern in and ride the eddy line. I tell Mike to nudge the bow slightly forward upon exiting the bend to catch more current and change our trajectory more towards river center so that we can avoid the upcoming inside cut that may place us onto the point bar shallows. Something dark moves in the periphery of my sight on the point. Root wad, lone bush, no, it is a bruin two hundred yards out. "Hey bear, hey bear" we shout in unison. Nothing happens. At one hundred fifty yards we get the grizzly's attention. He turns, eyes upon us, and slowly walks our way. This is not how it is supposed to work. Doing 7.5 mph, we rapidly close the gap on this flooded river. One hundred yards out, he continues his slow approach. "Hey bear, hey bear!" We need to stop our forward momentum. Bear spray is strapped to a thwart just beyond Mike's reach and I am too busy steering us towards the opposite bank to reach for it. We are too close. Bad things happen in close proximity. ”Hey bear, hey bear!” We step out of the canoe to stand, forty yards separate us. The bruin stops his approach. Bristles are showing on his upper back and shoulders. He is contemplating his next move. His body language rapidly changes and betrays his thoughts. You are human! He turns and rapidly runs into the willow thickets.
We stop at 4:00 pm to set up camp. The tents are pitch near the willows and alders with haste on a smooth level patch of muddy silt as raindrops fall. We dine in the rain. Distance traveled, 17.8-km. or 11.1-mi.
✣ Day 3 - August 16th ✣
Predawn, the wind roars shaking the tent, a storm without rain. I am out of my sleeping bag and breaking camp shortly after the first dim blue light. I exit the tent. The tarp is down and wrapped in a tangled web of cordage. The foot high stack of stones I placed at the water’s edge last night is nowhere to be found. I peer into the muddy water looking for the milky quartz capstone. The river rose and I can only guesstimate how much, at least a foot and possibly two. Returning to my tent, I untie the guy lines. It is nice not having to break camp in the rain. Of all possible weather conditions, rain creates the most sheer wretchedness, especially in cold weather, and also the most petty annoyances. I retrieve the bear resistant food barrels. Mike joins me for breakfast and then it begins to rain.
The John is flowing fast at twelve kilometers per hour. It will be a short day of paddling if we keep to our original plan of paddling approximately twenty kilometers per day. Ever since arriving in Bettles the weather has worried us. The ground is already saturated with water from the recent flooding. More snow and rain is predicted. If the river floods, can we, are we capable of paddling up the Koyukuk? We are without radio or satellite phone. No one will come for us. At the last minute we decide to change our plans. Instead of completing the trip in ten days we will do it in six to eight days. And if unable to do so by day eight, we will paddle to Old Bettles and wait for a pickup even if this means turning back on the Koyukuk because we ran out of time. After day ten it will become a rescue mission for we will be without food. A day or two before our anticipated arrival, Brooks Range Aviation will inform their pilots we are traveling without communication and have them keep an eye out for us and also monitor our progress.
The waves are large and an occasional sweeper leans out from the eroded or undercut bank. We take the bends wide and shoot to the center to avoid the pillows of water piling up on the points that almost always spill off sideways, rapidly onto a broad shallow shoal. Mike watches the grayish silt laden water for small bouncing or quivering twigs indicating fast flowing shallow water with the potential for a submerged log or bush capable of rolling us with a sideswipe. All morning long the river circles back, one “S” turn after another. The PakCanoe twists and flexes, rising and climbing out of each wave.
The weather is stereotypical. Rain and mist, repeat and repeat again. Throw in a minute or two of sunshine, fog or simultaneous sun and rain and repeat the cycle all over again. Every ten minutes the weather changes. Rain hood on, rain hood off, unzip then zip back up. Angry low clouds arrive spilling over the mountain tops and funnel into the narrow river corridor. The wind howls and whistles as it passes over the gear tied into the canoe. The gusts make it difficult setting up the runs and try to broach the canoe onto a rock or push the bow into a sweeper. Sleet intermixes with rain. It is easier to stay warm when moving, so we paddle on into the late afternoon. Hunger overcomes us in a broad exposed floodplain without shelter from the wind. We stop for lunch at 2:30 pm. Wind gusts shove us as we dine standing and slowly rob us of our body heat, chilling the core. These are dangerous paddling conditions. Strong winds, cold air and water, continuous Class-II rapids and minimal spare dry clothing gives us no margin for error. The threat of hypothermia is all too real and dampens the joy and thrill that comes from a good run in the waves.
Paddling a tandem canoe is a lot like dancing. The teamwork, the rhythm, the glide; it is a wonderful feeling when all goes well. Mike sits in the bow. His role is to provide forward momentum, set a steady stroke cadence, and correct the course with a draw when a collision is imminent. I sit in the stern. My role is to identify and steer a general course, complement Mike’s corrections with a pry while paddling in sync on the opposite side. With every third forward stroke or two, I need to take a J-stroke and provide a little rudder. Instead, Mike wants to pour on the power, get up to “ramming speed,” muscle our way through the obstacles and steer the canoe. I on the other hand want to slow things down, back-paddle, butter the toast, ride the eddy line and use the deflection currents to alter our course. My style is subtle and requires finesse. Mike’s explosive, powerful strokes antagonize my actions and create a few tense moments. With patience, cooperation, and communication, our coordination improves throughout the day.
The weather calms and stops blowing late in the afternoon. The sky is blue and without a cloud. Layers of clothing are shed. A bead of sweat forms on the brow. It feels like summer and my face and nose quickly burn in the intense arctic sunlight. Calling it a day, we make camp on a gravel bar where a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs recently passed. The tents are pitch near the willows and alders with haste on a smooth level patch of muddy silt as raindrops begin to fall. A dining tarp is erected with much yankee ingenuity in twice the allotted time or more. This is the arctic and suitable tent poles and pegs are not easily found. We dine free of rain but as evening draws to a close the pitter patter of drops grow louder as we sit beneath the tarp and stare into the flames of a small fire, reliving today’s events and remembering the past and friends no longer with us. Distance traveled, 34.2-km. or 21.3-mi.
✣ Day 4 - August 17th ✣
The tent fly is heavily laden with water from the all night rain. We help each other in a light sprinkle and vigorously shake off the excess wetness before packing the tents away. I despise putting wet items into my pack. After a day of rain-soaked, water -logged paddling, few things are as satisfying as a set of dry clothes and a cozy down sleeping bag. And few things are as unpleasant and potentially dangerous as soaking wet gear. Getting wet and becoming cold is the antithesis of survival and special techniques are required to minimize the effects and aftermath of packing in the rain and protecting the essentials, especially down. We consume breakfast beneath the tarp, protected from the drizzle, and watch the fog swirl and shroud the nearby mountain tops. After breakfast the rain stops and it quickly warms up. The fleece comes off and sunglasses go on before adorning our pfd’s. Soon enough, the weather changes. The clouds return and we slip back into our fleece. Mist, then rain, blue skies; we see it all. Sun and rain conspire to insure we are inappropriately dressed at all times as we paddle out of the Endicott Mountains into a broad low lying plain of meandering oxbows.
The river is quite silty and hides the numerous partially submerged points and gravel bars. We snack on a low, extensive mud flat that shows signs of recent flooding. A small tree floats by along with small bits and pieces of flotsam. This reach has dwarf willows, trembling aspen and black spruce partially torn from and hanging by their roots along the steep, unstable cut banks. We paddle further and the valley continues to widen and flatten. Gravel bars become fewer and farther between, rising hardly an inch or two above the river. Every night the river rose between three to six inches and over a foot at one point early in our trip. The potential for flooding concerns us and the danger of a nighttime inundation worries us.
It is getting late when we spy a low lying gravel bar with a high grassy bank. Much discussion ensues whether to camp here in this less than ideal spot that is a sure thing or gamble that around the corner lies something better and if not, unable to return upriver in this stiff current. Two boats with hunters motor by too far out to call out to and inquire if the next gravel bar is a better campsite. We consult the topographical map and see that we are near the section where we will be paddling braided channels for several kilometers. This area is prone to flooding and presents a greater risk to live.
I retrieve the hatchet and together we climb the five foot high embankment and turn the small clearing into a campsite sufficiently large enough for two tents. With tents touching and my rainfly hanging over the edge, the canoe is tossed into and securely tied to the brush immediately behind Mike’s tent. We dine on jambalaya and Girl Scout Thin Mints at the water’s edge not far from our tents and comment on the distant hills glowing a perfect gradient of buttery yellow and orange in the nighttime sun. We stash the bear resistant food containers as far away as we comfortably can but still too close to camp. Ideally, sleeping area, cooking area, and food storage area are all separated in triangle at least one hundred yards from each other. Retiring to my tent, I towel dry the inside for a second time before changing into dry thermals and snuggling deep into my cozy down sleeping bag. Not quite asleep, I hear a large splash proceeded by a series of smaller splashes as if something is running at river’s edge. I unzipped the rainfly and find nothing noteworthy. Distance traveled, 45.3-km. or 28.2-mi.
✣ Day 5 - August 18th ✣
The temperature drops. It is a cold night. I snuggle deeper into my partially unzipped 20℉ down sleeping mummy bag and reposition the 50℉ thermal sheet whenever I feel the chill on my back or shoulders. As morning nears, another front passes bringing with it slightly warmer air. We awake to a gray, cloudy 48℉ morning Our gravel bar is flooded. During the night the river rose three inches. Only a spit of land remains exposed and is it cutoff from shore by ankle deep water. The two of us slog over to the canoe, stashed up high, and carry it back to the small island before retrieving the bear resistant food containers in order to prepare our usual fare of cold blueberry granola, summer sausage and piping hot coffee.
The morning is sunless and once on the river it begins to mist then sprinkle. The weather changes every five minutes, sometimes raining hard and sometimes not. At one point of time, sleet was intermixed with rain. It is a very gloomy day and feels downright cold whenever it rains hard. We snack in the late morning rain and pinpoint our location with the GPS before consulting the map for today’s designated campsite. It is nearby but we accidentally pass it by without a sighting. We move on to a second campsite and it too is not to be seen. The river is up and most of the gravel bars lie below the surface or are nearly washed out. We paddle onward and eventually spot a gravel bar that is high and dry and abruptly drops off into the river. It is dotted with large clumps of bushes. And where openings large enough for the placement of multiple tents exist, the shore is heavily scarred from the winter’s ice that bulldozed and carved out sand and gravel. Large mounds of cobble and partial water-filled craters pockmark the shoreline. Straight lines of rock and furrows crisscross the gravel bar from the blocks of ice plowing and pushing their way downstream. Debris riddles the shoreline. Level ground is not to be found to set a tent upon. More importantly, the flora and geography of the land could easily hide a grizzly bear’s approach.
The ice scouring is less prevalent where the point becomes a meander cutoff. This is where a meandering loop in the river is breached and a channel now exists; connecting the two closest parts of the loop and diverting the majority of the flow with it. Eventually the flow completely abandons the meander allowing silt to close it off and create an oxbow lake. Mike and I mistake it for an island and attempt to paddle into the narrow channel that separates the point from the island. Deposition of sediment impedes our way with multiple sand bars and too shallow of water. We hop from one sand bar to another and slowly line the canoe to shore and out of the delta. The point is covered in bear and wolf tracks. Tracks are everywhere and appear to follow each other. They are inescapable. The point is wet and too low lying. Higher up, the shoreline is plagued with the scars of winter’s ice breakup. This is a poor campsite. We decide to push onward and go around the island, take the least path of resistance, instead of fighting our way back to the main channel. Our progress is slow. There is not much room to maneuver in the narrow channel. We beach the canoe twice on submerge bars. Mike shouts out, “Over there, a moose.” I do not see it. He points and clarifies that there is a moose in the water. “Do you see its skull and antler?” he says. Mike wants to take a closer look. I attempt to swing the bow around but cannot because another sand bar blocks our way. Unable to get a good look at it, I assume it is still attached to a carcass that is partially buried in sand and grass. The plentiful fresh signs of grizzly and wolf on the point come to mind and I question if this is the reason for so many tracks. Do we have a well fed grizzly sleeping nearby or standing guard with the intent of returning to feast? For safety sake I suggest we keep paddling instead of stopping. We spy the distinct eddy line upon leaving the oxbow lake. I tell Mike to increase his cadence and also warn him to prepare to brace. The flow differential appears great but pose no problem upon quartering it.
The weather worsens and the alternating mist and rain turns into one continuous downpour. Rain pelts our faces. Sleet bounces off our hoods. We paddle to stay warm. We pass on lunch waiting for the weather to change. This is Alaska. The weather should change in another minute or two we thought. Onward, one stroke after another, burning calories we paddle. The rain is relentless and does not stop. I am hungry and want to eat. Several years ago when paddling the Grass River in Northern Manitoba, I watched our paddling mentor, Jose, throw a tarp over his head and eat lunch beneath it while we stood in the rain eating soggy crackers and feel the cold rivulets of water run down our backs. We loosen the cords that secure the gear in our canoe. Mike retrieves the bear resistant food barrel and I the tarp. We throw the tarp over our heads. The tarp blocks our view of the river and what lies behind us as we dine. Beneath the tarp the light of day takes on the greenish tinge that precedes a tornado’s arrival and we joke that this would be an opportune time for a grizzly to visit.
Baby peregrine falcons screech in a lone black spruce beside the river. Three ravens are intent on doing harm. We hear another screech and spy their mother coming from downriver. Higher than the ravens she dives, sparring in the sky, the ravens evade her and make their retreat. Later in the day we spot a lone bird of prey perching up high on a bare limb. The black silhouette is gauntly, unhealthy looking. As we pass beneath, we see the white head feathers. The Arctic climate is harsh, resources are scarce. This is the smallest bald eagle the two of us have every seen. Hopefully soon, she will leave the arctic and migrate south to open warmer waters where fishing is more abundant. We see signs of wildlife along the river corridor but only get glimpses of aviary friends when the weather turns nice and warm. The mountains are quiet and rarely a sound is heard other than the pitter patter of the rain, the gurgle of the river, splash of the paddle or our voice disturbing the silence and warning these tenacious creatures who reside in this unforgiving environment that visitors are here. Danger lurks, man is here. A great gray owl flies across our bow. In the Aztec and Mayan religions, owls serve as the messengers and companions of the gods of death. African and Aboriginal Australian cultures also saw the owl as a messenger of secrets, so do the Persians. In the tribal legends of Native American cultures, owls are associated with spirits of the dead; the boney circles around their eyes comprise the fingernails of apparitional humans, and sometimes they carry messages from beyond the grave or deliver supernatural warnings to people. What message is being delivered to us? Did something bad happened at home? Did the mighty US “bereft of reason” unleash “fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before” on the “murderous regime” of North Korea? Or is it our future, our fate being foretold? There are many ways to die on the Koyukuk River and drowning is just one means. Anglo-Saxon culture is built on the presumption that humanity owns and possesses everything, nothing is unknown or beyond our reach. We conquer and plunder, destroy what we fear or do not understand. Or is it possible if we listen closely with open minds that we will hear the owl’s warning of drilling for oil and gas in the area the Gwich'in call “Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit,’ the Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” the place we call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yes, mankind is arrogant and dangerous; beware!
We find a gravel bar rising three feet above the water and make camp beneath sunny blue skies. It is a nice campsite, very inviting and homy. And finally, the tents have enough time to throughly dry out. Another tree floats by. Clouds roll in bringing a chill in the air with their arrival. A flying diamond tarp configuration is pitched between bushes and provides just enough protection to shield us from the building cold breeze as we dine on wild rice soup with crab, Girl Scout cookies and coffee. I crawl into my tent afterwards and watch ominous skies to our west drift by and question how high will the river rise tonight. Distance traveled, 36.3-km. or 22.6-mi.
✣ Day 6 - August 19th ✣
Each morning we rise early but today is different. I am tired and want to sleep in. I roll over and pull my stocking cap over my eyes to block out the perpetual daylight and then I hear Mike unzip his sleeping bag. I follow suit and unzip my bag. I stuff it into its dry sack and quickly put on my cold clothes before deflating my sleeping pad. I exit the tent stiffly with a cough. The dampness of the 44℉ cold morning is beginning to penetrate my bones. Mike’s tent is shrouded in fog and the nearby river, cannot be seen. Shades of gray surround me and I hear Mike snore. My first thoughts are to return to bed but the effort required to unpack and re-inflate the sleeping pad is just too great. Mike awakes upon my return from checking the river’s rise. Together we sit beneath the tarp sipping cup after cup of coffee listening to the drone of passing planes as we wait for the fog to lift or burn off.
I take several GPS readings as we near the mouth of the John River. The landscape reminds me of our most recent trip in Northern Manitoba on the Grass River. It is low lying, relatively flat with the Alatna Hills rising far off in the distance. Spruce, popular and birch line the cut banks along this gentle meandering floodplain reach. It is a monotonous view without the mountains to gaze upon. The wind is light and for once it does not rain. It is slowly warming up and the weather is perfect. As the fog burns off we see and hear more and more planes flying northward and wonder if they see us and are monitoring our southward progress as promised. It is obvious, Brooks Range Aviation is in a hurry to take advantage of the change in weather to pickup or drop-off clients, mail or supplies before becoming grounded once again due to Alaska’s onerous weather. Bluffs appear and the strata is contorted and folded. In some places the grain is vertical and appears easily eroded and chipped away. Black sand lines the riverbank and specks of gold glitter shimmer and flash in the bright sunlight. Is this what they call alluvial gold? We pass the burn area. Charred tree trunks, void of limbs, stand tall; few and far between, as sentinels keeping watch for fireweed that is sure to come. We arrive at the sandy delta where the flow of the John River merges into the swifter current of the Koyukuk River whose waters are a shade or two lighter than the brown water of the John. We snack instead of lunch due to the morning’s late start and consult the map.
Old Bettles lies one mile further downstream. As fast as the Koyukuk is flowing, it will be a short paddle. We are reluctant to enter the main flow out of fear of passing the ghost town by. If unable to paddle upstream, the Athabascan community of Allakaket is another two to three days away. We stay close to shore and rarely leave the eddies except to avoid a strainer or deadhead. Unsure of the exact location, we watch for and seek the black sand the bush pilot told us would be the landing. Two promontories appear ahead on river right and we suspect somewhere in between lies the town. Almost past the second promontory, we begin to believe that the town must lie beyond the approaching long sweeping bend. The white remnants of a hunting blind or possibly a tent is seen on river left and on the opposite shore up high on a bluff is a trapper’s cabin. Just beyond the cabin is a tepee pole like structure standing partly in the river. Drifting, we angle the bow towards the tepee for closer inspection. Perplexed, I scan the forrest’s green foliage and behind us at the base of the bluff I get a glimpse of a sign in the greenery’s window of a dilapidated store front building. It reads, “Bettles.” We have arrived. It is 2:30 pm.
giving way beneath their weight. The building mistaken as a trapper’s cabin sits on a collapsed slope, the back wall blown inward and filled with a mudslide of loose gravel and dirt. Gordon’s trading post stands. Behind the open door is a couch and behind the couch the floor has collapsed into a deep dark looking void. We move from building to building entering when safe and gaze upon past lives and the vestiges of civilization left behind. Tools, clothes on hangers, a table, canning jars, cooking utensils, a stove, bathtub, steam boiler, bullets; all left behind. Why? In the center of town attached to a cabin is the box that once held the radio telephone with directions on how to make a call for a pickup.
We return to the landing and setup the tents. The sky is blue and cirrus clouds slowly float by. It is hot. I shed all my outer layers for the first time on this trip and wear only pants and short sleeves. I begin to burn in the intensely harsh arctic sunlight. Together we pitch the tarp, not for rain but for the shade. There is no boat traffic and the quietness of the wilderness is shattered by the drone of planes coming and going. However, we are off the flight path and cannot be seen. We are unsure if Brooks Range Aviation even knows of our whereabouts.
Gnats and mosquitoes make their appearance during dinner, the first we have seen in the trip, but are not bothersome enough to cover up or apply DEET. We discuss how likely we can successfully track upstream to Bettles Field. It is questionable. The current looks swift but it is hard to tell with so few visual clues and debris passing by. Today is Day 6 and no-one will come for us until Day 10. I am beginning to regret that decision and wish we told them to come get us if they see that we are here for longer than a day. Prior to our departure we had a safety briefing with the Gates of the Arctic National Park Service and afterwards are given bright orange bandanas. I take mine and tie it to the tepee to hopefully draw attention should a boat pass by while we sleep. Mike ties his the tallest of the sticks I pushed into the ground starting at the water’s edge so that we may monitor the rise or fall of the river. Distance traveled, 22-km. or 13.7-mi.
✣ Day 7 - August 20th ✣
I awake and quietly take down my tent without disturbing Mike. I want some quiet time to assess the situation. I am filled with apprehension and anxiety. Today, we will paddle and track up the Koyukuk River seven miles to Bettles. The river is obviously flooded and flowing fast. Less debris is passing by. The only way out is for us to paddle and track unaided, alone without any interference from the outside world. This is a new venture, rareIy have I paddled a flooded river of this magnitude and never before have I attempted to go upstream for such a great distance. I walk over to our makeshift river gauge and see that the river dropped six inches overnight. I am relieved. I give ourselves an 80% chance of leaving versus last night's 50% likelihood. I wake Mike and help him shake the dew off his tent. It is unspoken but we both are feeling the apprehension and self doubt of today's task. We eat beneath the tarp in a nervous silence in an attempt to hide our fears. Mike’s body language, the look in his eyes contradicts what is not said. He too sees it in my eyes and body language. I read his mind and answer the dreaded question, “The river dropped six inches during the night. I believe we can do it!” The urge to escape, suit up, get moving is overwhelming. Instead of having a second cup of coffee as we have most mornings, Mike pours the remaining hot water onto the sand. It is time to fight or flight.
We quickly load the canoe and tie everything in. I place the spare paddle within easy reach and remind Mike that he may want to do the same with the end of his painter attached to the bow. This is our lifeline should we become separated from the canoe and will help us quickly get the canoe to shore should we go for a swim. I drape my painter across my seat in the stern and warn Mike of the dangers of foot entanglement. Before launching the canoe, I remind Mike that we cannot simply point our bow towards our destination and paddle towards it because the current will pull us downstream and away from it. We will need to ferry the canoe across the river. Ferrying is the act of gliding from one side of the river to the other side without losing much distance downstream. We will need to use a combination of angle, speed and lean combined with the direction and power of the river flow to help glide the canoe across the river. It is important to maintain an angle that is not too wide or the canoe will slip downriver too quickly; to tight of an angle will keep it stationary. It is my responsibility to monitor and maintain the angle of attack and it is Mike’s responsibility to maintain boat speed and help lean the canoe when crossing the eddy lines. We will need to feel our way across the river, constantly adjusting our angle of attack when the river’s strength or our speed changes. It is a delicate dance of counterbalancing forward momentum with lateral momentum and when performed correctly the canoe should glide effortlessly across the river with minimal work.
We easily ferry three-quarters across the river before we feel the river's tug. Little ground is lost as we reach the opposite shoreline. Mike grabs his painter and exits the canoe. I grab the painter beside my thigh and follow suit. We set the angle allowing the bow to be further from the shore than the stern and push the canoe back into the current to set up a continuous ferry glide. The constant pressure of water will push the canoe back into deeper water towards river center and allow us to walk the bank and keep our feet dry as we drag the canoe upriver. Nearing the end of the gravel bar we pull the canoe in, climb back in and ferry across the river to the next point. We track upriver and repeat the task where the gravel bar stops. We continue trudging upstream and spy a white cylinder object attached to the bluff midway up that is directly across from us. A solar panel appears to be attached to it. I point it out to Mike and we take a guess as to what it is. Unbeknownst, we learn hours later that it is a river gauge and days later we get the opportunity to view the data. We were told upon our arrival that water levels are near perfect for tracking upstream. I can only surmise that the ideal level is approximately fourteen feet and we did it at eighteen feet.
With each crossing it becomes more and more difficult to make it across the last remaining feet and it is here where the current wins and we lose our lateral momentum and slide backwards. We lose track of how many crossings we make, maybe it is twelve possibly more but definitely not five as we were told. We drift backwards and catch a submerged gravel bar that almost rolls us. All that saves us is a quick exit into the ankle deep swift, gray water. Soon thereafter, we lose too much ground ferrying across and completely miss the gravel bar. We pin the canoe against the nearly vertical shoreline and climb into the brush. At risk of falling into the river, we lean out into the river and snake the ropes in front of the brush and down trees and slowly pull the canoe upstream. Each crossing is harder than the previous. We are tiring and take the path of least resistance behind a series of deadheads. Mike steps out of the canoe and into some quicksand when our lead becomes too shallow to paddle. Precious time is lost while he extracts himself and we backtrack to open water. Disaster strikes again when tracking the canoe upstream. The chine digs in causing the canoe to carve and ferry away from us with great force. Mike tightens his grip and pulls back on the painter which prevents the chine from being released and accelerates the canoe’s pivot. The canoe begins to roll. I tell Mike to drop his line several times, “Let go, let go!” The canoe is on the brink of flipping over when Mike decides to duck behind me instead. He quickly passes by and I hop over his rope before becoming entangle. His rope plays out and the chine is released once the tension is off. The canoe spins one hundred and eighty degrees and is now facing downstream. Mike reels in the bow and I play out the stern to reset the continuous ferry glide. We reverse rolls with me now leading the way until it is time to cross the river once again.
We have been at it for hours and are a little more than halfway out. We stop for lunch on a stranded deadhead on shore. While Mike retrieves the bear resistant food barrels I take off my boots and dump out the water. A plane flies directly overhead; hopefully, he reports our position. Onward we track and ferry. The gravel bars are becoming longer and water splashes and fills my boots again. Our painters are too short to keep the canoe out of the eddies or shallow water. We are force to wade in shin deep water. It is getting late in the afternoon and we are tired. It is time to make camp; however, we push on because we are so close to being out.
We ferry right and come to a standstill ten feet from shore. The current is swift and pulls us backwards. We dig harder using our leg and back muscle to pull more water. We rotate our torsos paddle-side shoulder forward and plant the paddle’s blade in the water up to its throat. Keeping the shaft vertical, using all our strength, we thrust forward by rotating our torsos back until the paddle comes to a stop at our hips and we repeat the process over and over again. The cadence is fast and furious. The power stroke is failing us. I want to call out “hut” but there is just not enough time for us to safely switch sides in unison. We are rapidly fatiguing and going nowhere, paddling for our lives. A sweeper awaits to knock us out of the canoe fifteen feet behind us should we drift backwards. We are in a precarious, dangerous predicament. I yell at Mike to go river center. He disobeys my command. He is reluctant to do so because he realizes we will lose ground and most likely have to start our run all over again. I yell at him again, "River center." I plea, “River center, there is a strainer behind us!” He reluctantly nudges the canoe left and miraculously we slowly pull forward and away from our demise. The river’s depth becomes too shallow to get a bite in the swift flowing water. Still fatigue from our ordeal, Mike reaches out and grabs the nearby alder branches and pulls the canoe forward hand over hand until he can safely step out and beach the canoe.
Onward, exhausted we round the bend and are seen tracking the canoe by the towns folks. They ready the jet boat for launching. The reason why I was drawn to paddling the John River besides the mountains was the obstacle of having to track upstream for seven miles. Not everything that is hard is good but almost everything good is very hard. If it was easy then I know I was not pushing myself nor growing. I committed myself to this trip when I stepped off the float plane and was left behind. Today is a test of endurance; the ability to push myself, to finish what I started and find myself. The way is the obstacle. And, what is on the other side of the obstacle besides the struggle, the deprivation and fear? You, you are on the other side. It is you who discovers a little more of who you are and learns that you are capable of so much more than you are aware of. We have fought the river. It is now personal, a matter of pride and accomplishment. I tell Mike, "I will be damned if they come and take me safely across the last thirty yards of this river." We hasten our pace and arrive at the end of the gravel bar and jump into the canoe before they can launch their boat. Halfway across we hit a submerged gravel bar and are forced to exit the canoe mid-river into a raging swift. I can feel the sand and gravel being washed out beneath my boots. We each keep two points of contact at all times and firmly plant our steps before pulling the canoe forward towards deeper water. Quickly we jump into the canoe before we lose control and find ourselves back on the submerged gravel bar. We arrive at the hanger too tire to cook approximately nine hours after leaving the ghost town of Old Bettles. Supposedly, the trip takes two and one-half hours to track. That evening while dining at Bettles Lodge we learn that no one really lines up the Koyukuk and especially not when it is flooded at four feet above ideal.
Distance traveled, 9.1-km. or 5.7-mi.
✣ Epilog ✣
I have written much about the challenges wilderness paddling presents and the ability to overcome those challenges as a defining element of the sport and to discover yourself. For me this is central to why I choose to endure the river, the wind, the rain, and the cold. These challenges are equaled by triumphs, revelations, and the beauty of the natural world as observed from a canoe. Whether we overcome those challenges and enjoy the ride or succumb to them and their misery, the difference is in large part based on the company we keep the sharing of the experience. The wilderness is merciless; it can make or break relationships. So if wilderness paddling is in some way metaphorical of life’s journey, it only makes sense that we should surround ourselves with the right people to make the most of it. Mike, thank you for accompany me on this amazing journey. We accomplished much more than we initially realized and became a little bit more wiser, physically and spiritually.
✣ Resources ✣
P.O. Box 27
Bettles, AK 99726
Bettles Visitor Center
P.O. Box 30
Bettles, AK 99726
Bear Resistant Food Containers
Brooks Range Aviation
P.O. Box 26010
Bettles Field, AK 99726
800-692-5443 or 907-692-5444
Matt Fickus - email@example.com
Timothy Fickus - TimFickus@yahoo.com
Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve
Maps (free downloadable)
NOAA River Gauge - Koyukuk River Below John River:
www.satellitephonerentals.org or www.anchoragesatellitephones.com
Surveyors Exchange: 907-452-6079
Radio Fairbanks: 907-452-1049
Justin Powell 907-460-7888
Wright Air Service
3842 University Avenue South
Fairbanks, AK 99709