After I left Juneau I took the ferry from Haines, AK and then drove thru British Columbia and the Yukon back into Alaska. I met my rafting counterparts and the guides in Fairbanks. Aside from the guides, which I was (happily) mistaken for by other clients - a sure credit to my beard, I was the youngest by far as all others were retired. Despite the age difference, we really gelled as a group. My favorite people on the trip were the other "bachelors" (wives opted out of Alaska). As a retired ecology professor, Earl from Michigan was a wealth of Arctic knowledge. And my "raft buddy" Jacek, was a hilarious Polish-American with a rich accent and some of the best stories I've ever heard.
We flew from Fairbanks to Arctic Village to meet our bush planes. Last post I mentioned that I set a record with the smallest plane I've ever been on... well that was promptly broken when I boarded a 4 seater. The planes (and pilots) were amazing. These things could land on gravel bars beside the river and only needed about 90 yds to take off and land fully loaded. Yes, 90 YARDS. The hour and a half flight from Arctic Village took us over the Brooks Range and the Bearing/Beaufort Divide.
|Kongakut River from the air|
|Heading down river|
|Me and Jacek|
|River overflow would freeze in sheets along the bank called aufeis ("off-ice"). Bet I could bottle this and sell it for $4.|
|Looking ahead to the third day's paddle. We entered the "canyon" and the rapids increased to Class III.|
My favorite hike was a scrambly adventure up what is likely a previously unclimbed rocky outcrop 2000ft above the river.
|Our climb took us up the highpoint on the left side of the ridge. Second pinnacle counted from left to right.|
Jacek had the wonderful foresight to smuggle along some beer and let me tell ya', a river-chilled Alaskan Amber at the end of a steep hike or hard day of paddling was the best.
And the wildlife was AMAZING. We were right in the heart of the migration of the 100,000 strong "Porcupine Herd" of caribou. Not a day went by that we didn't see any caribou. They were often in groups of 20 to 200 and all seemed to be in a hurry to keep heading north. Very fast creatures.
|Caribou crossing the Kongakut|
Toward the end of the trip (we were floating north toward the coastal plain and their calving grounds) I saw at least 1,000 caribou from a small rocky outcrop above the tundra. (Hard to see in the picture below, but they are in there).
|This photo was taken at about 11pm. The sun never set the whole time we were up there (overlapped with the solstice). It was hard to get used to.|
A Grizzly (the blonde dot, about as close as I care for).
|Grizzly tracks by camp!|
We also had some aquatic creatures. Earl and Mario, our guide caught a couple Arctic Char that we ate for dinner one night. Excellent meal. I caught an Arctic Grayling later in the trip but it was small so I let it go. But I've finally outdone my father - that grayling will probably be the only species of fish that I've caught that Dad hasn't!
And not to leave out the Arctic flora, Mario and Earl knew their plants and passed along some of their knowledge. Too early for berries, but we snacked on some colt's foot, like a salad green. And we found lots of these guys - lapland rosebay, a member of the rhododendron family. A little WV in AK!
As I said, we were heading north. By the end of the trip we were within a dozen miles of the Arctic Ocean. We didn't paddle all the way down because the river braids out and gets heinous to navigate and paddle in the shallow channels. So we hiked up a peak and were able to lay eyes upon the Arctic and the pack ice! Great way to finish out the trip.