These are photos and notes from a float down the North Fork of the Koyukuk in Gates of the Arctic National Park – a Wild and Scenic river that is entirely within Gates of the Arctic National Park. The standard section of this float is to fly into a gravel bar just downstream from the two peaks that form the actual Gates of the Arctic – Boreal Mountain (on the east side of the river) and Frigid Crags (on the west) – and then float 90 miles to the village of Bettles. This requires a charter flight from either Bettles, Coldfoot or Pump Station No. 5 / Prospect depending on who you can get to fly you in.
People who are more ambitious (and lack children) can take a commercial flight to Anaktuvuk Pass and then hike east to Ernie Pass and then hike / packraft down to the North Fork. You could then get a commercial flight out of Bettles and back to Fairbanks for a (relatively) cheap Arctic trip.
We have a child so we opted for the classic mellow float – and somehow Bryn & Louis convinced us to fly their kid in too. Bryn & Louis dropped their kid off with grandma and flew to Anaktuvuk Pass and had a wonderful 5 day trek and float down to the gravel strip where they sat up a tent and patiently waited for us to join them. We gave them a couple days to get started then packed the children into a truck, drove 12 hours, piled into a Cessna with raft and kids and food and beverages and flew 45 minutes to the strip.
We flew in on June 15 and took 8 days to float the 90 miles. Water levels were high so getting across the channels to reach the hiking at the start was not a possibility. Likewise high water made the fishing impossible so mostly we just enjoyed camp life while the 8 year old’s played in the water. It was sunny every day and temps climbed into the low 80s. The float itself, while fast, was mellow and with the exception of a rapids at mile 7 and mile 42 (see embedded map at the bottom of this page).
We reached Bettles mid-morning of day 8, had lunch at the lodge, caught a flight back to Prospect and then drove back home tired, sunburned and dirty.
June 15, 2021 – From Prospect to Gates of the Arctic
The pilot from Brooks Range Aviation showed up at Prospect mid-morning. Communication with Judy at Brooks Range had been spotty due to poor internet in Bettles and between poor internet and lack of cell service north of the Yukon River, we were questioning whether or not our messages were getting through. Louis and Bryn had made it to the landing strip the night before and had sent a text via inReach confirming their location. But the pilot eventually showed up and we packed the raft and gear into the Cessna and took off. Given our weight he had to take two flights so I flew in first while Yvonne followed shortly afterwards with the children.
We flew northeast from Prospect – the entire flight taking about 40 minutes. It was clear and calm and after coming over the mountains between the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Koyukuk we caught our first glimpse of the actual “Gates of the Arctic”. The Gates is a “monumental” vista where two prominent peaks frame the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.
This vista was named by Bob Marshall, a wilderness activist who explored the valley in the summer of 1929. Entering through this gate, Marshall felt as though he was entering into the Arctic, and “leaving the world of man behind”:
During most of the day the Gates of the Arctic towered directly to the north as we approached that monumental entrance to the land of Mount Doonerak , our goal. When we passed through between the jagged crest of Frigid Crags towering 4,000 feet up from the valley floor to the west and Boreal Mountain rising precipitously for 6,000 feet to the east, with the mountains only two miles apart, it seemed as if we were leaving the world of man behind and were pioneering in a trackless wilderness.
– Bob Marshall, Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range
We had it a little easier than Mr. Marshall and after both flights had arrived all our gear and food (and children) were accounted for, we set about building camp and inflating boats. It was sunny and warm – in the 70s – and the river levels were high which meant that getting across the various channels from our landing strip wasn’t really an option. So we pulled out the chairs and broke out books and drinks while the children busied themselves in the mud pits until late afternoon.
June 16, 2021 – Landing Strip to Cladonia Creek
We packed up mid-morning and set off around 10am. The water had not dropped at all so we resigned ourselves to a slow float. Given water levels we could have easily rowed the 90 miles in 3 days – but river trips with children are not meant to be speed runs. Off from the landing zone and down the swift river. For the first several miles the valley is all of a mile wide and we had wonderful scenery as we drifted with steep treed slopes dropping almost to waterline.
We made it all of 7 miles on our first day – making camp at the iron rich Cladonia creek, just shy of the only rapid on the trip. The late afternoon was hot and the children played in the river while the adults cowered in whatever shade they could find.
June 17, 2021 – Cladonia Creek to Tinayguk River
Another beautiful day on the river. By mid-morning temps were already in the 60s and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. Right out of camp we had the only rapid of the trip – Cladonia rapids – a Class II wave train with a single rock you had to miss. We had gone to sleep listening to the roar and there was slight apprehension when we pushed off from shore. Louis put Aven in our raft then paddled down to run it first and stand on shore watching as I rowed it with the kids.
Around the corner and right into the wave train. The entrance was easy and the rock easily avoided – the children laughed and asked if they could do it again. Louis snapped an awesome photo of us as we zipped through.
Below the rapid the river widened and slowed and we had a easy afternoon float before pulling off on a wide gravel bar at the Tinayguk River confluence. The seldom visited Tinayguk River is of 6 Wild and Scenic rivers in Gates of the Arctic – and is the largest tributary of the North Fork of the Koyukuk.
June 18, 2021 – Tinayguk River to Mile 34 (downstream of Ipnek Creek)
Another sunny hot day with easy floating. The river had less gradient but the Tinayguk added enough water to where overall speed didn’t decrease at all. We cooked a big breakfast and left camp late and pulled off on a wide island by late afternoon. The evening was perfect. Humidity stayed low and we stayed up watching the midnight sun arch across the sky. I went to bed around 11pm and sunlight was beaming directly into the tent.
Of interest for this section was the only marked rapid on the North Fork. USGS maps have a rapid labeled as “Squaw Rapid” at the outlet of Glacier River (mile 42 on my map). (Note – the rapids washed away several years ago and are now mere riffles.)
When we ran the river in 2021 it was still officially named as such – but shortly after Biden’s Interior Secretary Deb Haaland took office she formed a task force and declared the word “squaw” derogatory. The rapid was officially renamed to Glacier River Rapids in September 2022.
In late September 2022, Haaland penned an essay in the Washington Post about the process – her tweet and a link to the article is below.
Over the course of our history, many of our lands were named using a hateful and derogatory term for Indigenous women. This month, we succeeded in removing it from the names of nearly 650 federal land units. https://t.co/A0Noy7qwHO
— Secretary Deb Haaland (@SecDebHaaland) September 28, 2022
Glacier River (previously called Seattle River) was also only tributary of the North Fork that produced gold. During the Koyukuk Gold Rush, where over 2000 of miners traveled to the Koyukuk region, and gold was discovered on Mascot Creek (a tributary of Glacier River) in the fall of 1902. Over one hundred thousand dollars was mined in the first year and mining continued at the site until the late 70s.
Following up with the historical aside about the Koyukuk Gold Rush is the “thrilling” account of Mrs. Hewitt who accompanied miners to the Koyukuk in 1900. While following a group of miners she got separated from her group on a branch of the river and ended up spending the winter at a “deserted Indian iglow built of wood”. Her account can be found in the Jefferson County Graphic – a newspaper out of Morrison, Colorado that ran from 1900-1908. This epic needs to be a movie!
A WOMAN LOST IN WILDS OF ALASKA
Seattle, Wash., Aug. 27. – A thrilling trip down the Koyukuk river recently, fell to the lot of Mrs. Hewitt, wife of a Chicago physician, now at Nome Alone and lost for months in a dreary waste, she managed to reach the Yukon river on a log raft. There she was rescued by the river steamer Hannah picked up and sent to Nome, to her husband.
Mrs. Hewitt left Chicago two years ago to join her husband. He was located at St. Michael at first, but afterward went to Nome. Late In the fall she reached Seattle and started to Dawson with a party. When they reached Fort Hamilton they heard of rich strikes at the headwaters of the Koyukuk and started across country to join the rush for that place. After reaching the Koyukuk, Mrs. Hewitt became lost on a branch of the river.
With her dog team she made frantic efforts to get back to camp, but only succeeded in further bewildering herself. Finally she was compelled to camp at a deserted Indian iglow, built of wood. The party she was with, made efforts to find her, but did not succeed, and about the first of June the river breaking up, she constructed a log raft and floated down 750 miles to the Yukon.
During the weary months she was lost and alone her courage never failed her, but when she reached Nome she gave out completely, and is now a physical wreck.
– Jefferson County Graphic, Saturday, September 1, 1900
June 19, 2021 – Mile 34 to Mile 48 (downstream of Rock Creek)
On the 19th we finally had clouds and cooler weather. A front was building to the east and with the cooler temps the mosquitoes came out of hiding. Knowing a storm would hit by early afternoon we packed up camp and left earlier than usual in the hopes of pulling off before the rain started. Even after departing from camp the bugs followed us out on the river and we rowed for part of the day with our head-nets on.
We made camp before the storm hit us. The clouds built, thunder rolled and lightening bounced off the peaks just west of camp, but the storm never hit camp in full. This was our last night in the mountains and we savored the view of peaks above camp.
June 20, 2021 – Mile 48 to Mile 70 (3 miles upstream of confluence)
The morning 20th was cool day with scattered clouds but by midday it was once again hot and humid. By midday we left the mountains and floated out into the broad wetlands south of the Brooks Range where the river transitioned to wide and lazy. The mountains could still be seen in the distance but surrounding us and to the south were the wide open flats of Interior Alaska. 25 miles to our south lay the wetlands of Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge – a 1.6 million acre boreal ecosystem preserve that is seldom visited by people other than those that live along side the refuge in remote villages.
The boreal ecosystems south of the Brooks Range are have been shaped by summer wild fires and in the afternoon heat, storm clouds built over the river. We pulled off in late afternoon just before a storm rolled through camp.
The storm dissipated by 10pm and when the clouds burned off a rainbow materialized above camp as we turned in to bed.
June 21, 2021 – Mile 70 to Mile 84 (8 miles downstream of confluence)
Summer Solstice never really dawned where we were because the sun never set – but we woke to calm warm skies with only a handful of scattered clouds. For Alaskans Summer Solstice is the height of the year – we revel in the endless daylight and celebrate the light and warmth of summer that will be over all too fast.
This was the perfect day. We left camp in late morning and floated down a lazy river under a hot sun. The final few miles upstream of the confluence were slow and lazy and when we reached the confluence we paddled to the south side where we pulled over and walked along the muddy beach looking up the North Fork that we had just left and the Middle Fork that joined from the east. With the two rivers converging the flow almost doubled and suddenly we were on the mighty Koyukuk – one of the mighty rivers of the Yukon-Koyukuk region with a basin size of 32,000 sq mi. The Koyukuk is the last major tributary of the Yukon, before the Yukon empties in the Bering Sea, and in late summer the discharge near the Yukon confluence can be 330,000 cfs.
We floated a few miles further and then pulled off to investigate a large gravel bar for a possible campsite.
The gravel bar ended up being a magical camp. The spring break-up have carved waist deep channels into the gravel bar and they were now filled with crystal clear water. The sun had baked the pools to where the water was warm enough to swim – and not typical Alaska swimming (jump in/jump out) but warm enough to actually soak in comfortably.
We set up camp and then spent the afternoon soaking in the pools until late evening when we finally reluctantly went to bed knowing that tonight was our last night on the river.
June 22, 2021 – Mile 84 to Bettles
And then the trip was over. The final 6 mile float to Bettles took about an hour and by noon we had packed up the raft and Brooks Range Aviation shuttled our gear to the airstrip. We ate lunch at Bettles Lodge and then climbed into the Beaver and drifted overland and back to Prospect where our truck was parked. After we unloaded our raft the pilot asked me if I could help load a refrigerator into the plane. Somehow we made it fit.
The Ambler Road
Home and a write up and remembrance of the journey. I had put off editing these pictures for over a year but upon reading that BLM had re-opened the comment period for the Ambler Road I decided to revisit them. I’m not educated enough to present a solid argument that isn’t pure emotion; I’ve only done one trip in this region – and the closest I’ve been to the proposed road was at our last camp which was near the proposed bridge across the Koyukuk (see the embedded map). That said – it is without question that this project would implicitly change this region for generations.
For those who haven’t heard of the project – the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading the effort to build the road, which is expected to cost more than $500 million and would stretch from the Dalton Highway to deposits of critical minerals in the Ambler Mining District. It would link Alaska’s road system north of Fairbanks to the district, ending near Ambler and other villages.
It would be the largest infrastructure project in Alaska since the Dalton highway and according to Murkowski’s office “the Project has the potential to facilitate over 8,700 direct, indirect, and induced construction and operation jobs and nearly $700 million in annual wages. That would be top of an annual average of 360 direct jobs over the road’s construction period, and up to 81 direct annual jobs for road operations and maintenance over the life of the road.”
It would bring much needed jobs to the region and advance Biden’s green energy supply plan goals by providing access to high grade cobalt – a vital mineral for the production of lithium-ion batteries.
But at what cost? The road would intersect almost 3,000 streams and 11 rivers (including 3 Wild and Scenic rivers – the Alatna, Kobuk and John), and three caribou herds’ migratory routes, including the Western Arctic Caribou herd (which has dropped from 490,000 in 2003 to 188,000 in 2021 ). A portion would cross 26 miles of Gates of the Arctic National Preserve as well as traditional homelands of Alaska Native communities including the Koyukon, Tanana Athabascans and Iñupiat peoples. Apart from the obvious environmental impact of road construction – it could have negative impacts on the environment and on local peoples’ subsistence lifestyles.
For a more detailed description of the proposed changed read Adam Federman’s excellent piece How Biden’s Green Climate Agenda Threatens the Alaskan Wilderness. That said – an 8,000 word essay about the Ambler road that has a single paragraph about jobs is hardly balanced, so follow this up with Nathaniel Herz’s piece in the Anchorage Daily News, Proposed Ambler project underscores promise and peril of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Herz’s piece explores the complexity of the Ambler Road – especially the balance between the need for jobs and protecting traditional ways of life.
Additional reading materials and key links include:
- BLM request for comments
- NPS Ambler Road – key maps and documents for where the road crosses NPS lands
- Alaska DNR Ambler Road site
- DNR Ambler Road Maps (44 MB)
- Adam Federman’s – “How Biden’s Green Climate Agenda Threatens the Alaskan Wilderness”
- Nathaniel Herz’s – “Proposed Ambler project underscores promise and peril of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act”
- Northern Alaska Environmental Center’s Ambler road page
- Doyon comments
- Tanana Chief’s Conference comments
- Brooks Range Aviation – Based out of Bettles. These guys can pick you up at Prospect and then you’ll float to Bettles and can walk to their office and the airstrip.
- Coyote Air – Dirk is the best pilot for this zone – but he’s super busy and hard to book.
- Wright Air Service – Commercial flights in the region.
Gates of the Arctic Info
- Gates of the Arctic NPS Page
- Elspeth Ronnander’s writeup detailing a trip from Anaktuvuk Pass to Bettles.
- Ben Cowan’s writeup of a North Fork loop from the haul road
- Roman Dial’s writeup for a mega traverse in this area.