Middle Fork Koyukuk Part 1

Last weekend was our first trip out as training. There were eight of us in total. Four Bettles Interpretation/Backcountry Rangers, two Bettles maintenance staff, one dispatcher from Denali, and our teacher and leader an Interpretation/Backcountry Ranger from Anuktuvuk Pass (AKP). Our teacher is a very experienced Gates of the Arctic backcountry ranger. He has been working in the park for over 15 years and is an endless wealth of knowledge. We were very lucky to have him to teach us.

Before the trip we spent a few days with him learning more about the treasures hidden in our backcountry cache (building full of backcountry goodies!), information that needed to be gathered on our patrols, and general park knowledge and history.

The day before the trip we rounded up our things and packed for our trip. It was the most rushed I’ve ever been packing for a trip and I have never packed all my things into a dry bag either. In the evening, I rearranged all my things so they would finally fit into two dry bags and a small bear resistant container.

Day 1

The morning of the trip we gathered at the backcountry cache and loaded up our boats and gear and drove over to Brooks Range Aviation (BRA) to get all our things weighed and divided into two flights on a four-seater Beaver (a type of airplane). While weighing items I thought I had forgotten one of my bags somewhere. I thought it was blue, but after running back to the house and checking the house and backcountry cache I returned and remembered it was not blue. It was red! I thanked my roommate for running back with me and I finally got weighed and would go on the second flight.

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Watching the first flight get ready to take-off

We watched the first flight take off to the northeast toward Coldfoot and hung out around the BRA flight desk. Two of the children from the town came by and hung out with us. We had a nice time chatting and pretty quickly it was our turn to load the gear on plane and ourselves. Our pilot gave us a safety briefing of the airplane and we took off.

We flew along the Middle Fork Koyukuk (Coy-u-kuk) River, the river we would be floating back down to Bettles. It was a gorgeous, clear day with excellent views of the Brooks Range, the Jack Whites, and the flat boggy valleys to the south.

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Looking north toward the Brooks Range

The pilot turned us into a mountainous valley. The runway at Coldfoot, which is along the Dalton Highway was in view before us. We landed and unloaded all our gear, then carried it down to the river. Our boats included an inflatable raft (like you would do a commercial trip with), two small micro or pack rafts, an inflatable canoe (Grabner), and a canvas canoe (Ally Pack). Along with carrying that down to the river we also had to take our personal gear.

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Getting ready to go with all our gear

At the river we rested and took a short lunch before learning how to put the Ally Pack together and inflating the boats. The Ally Pack is really amazing engineering and putting it together, as our teacher put it, is all about “finesse and force.”

We picked our boats and loaded our gear. Then we went over boating safety, including hand signals and protocol if your boat flips. I chose a pack-raft as it would most likely be the boat I will be taking out on my trips and it was a warm sunny day. The likelihood of getting wet in a pack raft was much higher than in any of the other boats. I tied my gear onto the front (which seemed so wrong!) and sat in the back in a spray skirt.

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View from the pack raft looking downriver, Grabner canoe to the right

Finally, we were on the river. We floated downstream trying to stay together. Some boats are faster than others just by the way they sit on the water. The mountains rose up on either side of us and the pipeline went in and out of the trees. Trucks rumbled in the not so far distance, but I still couldn’t manage to wipe the smile off my face.

I felt like I was in my own dream. Puffy clouds floating in the sky and mountains rising on both sides of the river. The soft hissing of the silt hitting the boat and the subtle splash and trickle sounds that the water makes. I tried to stay present and mindful to not forget the scene. I wasn’t even in the park, but I felt so thankful to be where I was. I felt grateful to all the people in my life that support and root for me every day and I knew I wouldn’t be living this dream without them.

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Beautiful day, couldn’t ask for anything better

Calmly, serenely we floated down the Koyukuk careful to avoid hazards. Conversations sprung up as boats moved closer to each other and our laughter could be heard probably for miles. Stories were shared and personal histories were revealed. I sometimes wonder how I got here, so I asked other people how they got here as well.

As the day wore on we began to tire and found a nice island to camp on. We set up our tents and sleeping areas and made ourselves some dinner. Conversations and laughter were abundant. I had never camped with so many people before and found myself enjoying the company, as I knew the enjoyment in solitude would come later in the summer. I wished my boyfriend was there, as I knew he would love it too.

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View looking north from our first camp spot

Island living wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Finding a spot to go to the bathroom proved difficult. One of my coworkers used a raft to cross the river to find a quiet, uninterrupted spot to go to the bathroom. I found a good spot to go to the bathroom and headed to bed. My tent mate had forgotten toilet paper and asked to borrow mine. I gave it to him and fell asleep with my earplugs and hat over my eyes as the sun was still high in the sky blasting our tent with light.

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