20 Days of Backpacking & Packrafting the Brooks Range in Alaska
Colorado Outward Bound instructors, Noah Larsen and Arthur Shain, took on Alaska’s Brooks Range for a 400-mile packraft and backpack expedition in August.
We were able to nail them down for a video chat before they headed out into the backcountry again (supplemented with blog entries from their online trip report):
AQUA-BOUND: What were the goals of your trip?
ARTHUR: We set out with a bunch of goals. The trip was funded by Colorado Outward Bound for staff development. We also had some personal goals such as to make it COVID friendly. We decided on a remote trip where we wouldn’t have to interact with other people.
It was a personal growth and developmental trip. We do this professionally, but wanted to do a trip to challenge us. We’re based out of western Colorado and southeast Utah so this was very different conditions and terrain.
NOAH: Neither of us had been to Alaska before, so it was an opportunity for us to explore some of it.
The Brooks Range attracted us because it was a new type of terrain for both of us, required minimal contact with others in the midst of the pandemic, and offered what we love in Outward Bound courses: extended time in a remote wilderness setting which tests a person’s grit, empathy, and decision-making all at once. (blog entry)
AB: Tell us more about the trip logistics.
We chose to start about twenty miles south of Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway because it was remote yet accessible from Fairbanks. (blog entry)
NOAH: We flew into Fairbanks and stayed with a friend of a friend, who then drove us to our starting point, just south of the Continental Divide in the central Brooks Range. Our route took us west with a combination of backpacking and packrafting. We finished in the Native village of Allakaket.
The Brooks Range extends across northern Alaska, mostly above the Arctic Circle. Part of the range is in Gates of the Arctic National Park, where much of their route took place.
AB: What were your highlights of the expedition?
ARTHUR: Getting to packraft and backpack through this range. We’re definitely big packrafting advocates now! Because of the packrafting we were able to do 400 miles in 20 days.
Neither of us had been packrafting before for more than 30 minutes.
Being in the Brooks Range was, in itself, a highlight. The Range is beautiful, a real sense of wilderness and remoteness. There were no trails or established routes. No phone service at all. The villages within the park are 100 miles apart with just a couple hundred people each.
NOAH: We were both looking for an adventure trip so it was cool to go around a corner and not know what we were going to find.
AB: What were your biggest challenges?
NOAH: The terrain. Dense bushwhacking, many river crossings in cold glacier-fed rivers, tussocks on very boggy ground. We were really happy whenever we’d be on solid ground, even if it was uphill, so we wouldn’t have to fight our way through.
We both had bad achilles tendon pain that slowed us down. One moment that made us laugh was when I cut the back of my shoes off to try to help—which it did!
ARTHUR: COVID made our itinerary more difficult. We couldn’t resupply in the towns so we had to carry everything—including all our food—for 20 days. Usually the villages are an option for resupply.
We got fairly lucky the first two weeks with the weather. But the last week it rained every day with lots of wind. That slowed our paddling down.
The ability to resupply our food and gear would have changed the trip significantly. However, we are thankful for being able to make this trip happen despite significant setbacks and felt a need to go beyond the minimum that was asked of us in helping keep communities in the area safe. (blog entry)
AB: Would you recommend this trip to others?
NOAH: Yes and no. It’s a great trip for someone who has backcountry experience, both off-trail and longer expedition trips. It’s best for someone familiar with Alaska—definitely not a great first backpacking trip!
This area is good because the villages are positioned on the rivers. There are a lot of options to end the trip in a village along the way if we wanted to. And you use the villages to resupply in normal years.
This destination is not beginner friendly. The consequences are big, including the chance to get really lost out there. For us it was perfect. Halfway through the trip we were already talking about coming back on other route options.
We were really happy with the time of year we chose. In July the mosquitoes are bad, and we were on the tail end of that season. It was getting pretty cold by the time we left. August is the best month.
We needed to adjust our expectations of how far we can travel each day. The scale is really big there.
We made between .5 and 2.5 miles an hour with the backpacking portions. Sometimes we’d make just 6 mile days, sometimes 15 miles a day. It was faster on the water portions.
AB: Any last words?
We each brought a really light set up for fly fishing and caught fish every day. The water is incredibly clear, glacier-melt.
We saw lots of shed caribou antlers, but no caribou or moose. We did see several bears, and each carried bear spray we kept close at-hand.
Our Aqua-Bound Manta Ray Carbon paddles featured a carbon fiber shaft with carbon-reinforced plastic blades. We put them through the ringer, well beyond what we had envisioned.
They put up well with a lot of rock scraping as well as plenty of bushwhacking on the back of our packs. The touring blades made our longer miles easier while feeling totally adequate on the mild Class III sections we encountered. (blog entry)
For more details, read Noah and Arthur’s blog entries from their trip. (All photos courtesy of Noah and Arthur)
Do you have questions about our kayak paddles for packrafting? Contact our Wisconsin-based Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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