TO THE ARRIGETCH WE MUST GO
Words, Photos & Video by Eric Bernhoft
Gates of the Arctic National Park is one of the most difficult places to reach that I’ve traveled to.
To even glimpse the majesty of the Brooks Range of Alaska and the wilder-gems hidden there, one has to drive hundreds of miles North of Fairbanks, Alaska along the dirt/gravel Dalton Haul Road (Think “Ice Road Truckers”), then get on an intermediate bush plane to deposit you in the speck of a township named Bettles, a launching point for all things Gates of the Arctic, then turn around and depart on another bush plane, flying hours further into the isolated wilderness.
Flash back to June 2014. My significant other and I threw together a quick five-day adventure driving North from Anchorage up the Dalton Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay, Deadhorse, and the Arctic Ocean. The drive, measuring in just shy of 1000 miles, took two enormous driving days to arrive. We became very familiar with the pipeline, pump stations, bears, rivers, the Arctic plane, all 414 miles of the “Haul Road.” We encountered more mosquitoes than I had ever seen in my life. Think bad, like having to run backward to take a leak, bad.
The Haul Road cuts through the heart of the Brooks Range and comes very close, but never enters Gates of the Arctic National Park. We briefly stopped at the visitor’s center during that trip. We marveled at aerial pictures of the area, specifically the Arrigetch, a grouping of polished granite spires, cirques, and glaciers that cling to life in the shady rock bowls. “We must go,” we thought at the time. The idea was born.
Flashing forward to the first months of 2019, my friends and I had just successfully pulled on back to back off-trail, packraft traverses in 2017 and 2018 in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park of South-Central Alaska. The “Skolia-Nizina Traverse” and “The Ice Route” were, sequentially, the pinnacle of my wilderness experience and the culmination of numerous wilder-skills that I had developed over the decades. We now reasoned that packrafting had been born in the Arctic, and it was fine time that we went to see it. Several ideas had been considered. It seemed that the more popular, well-known routes were found running Northward from the Brooks Range, across the Arctic plain, and terminating in the Arctic Ocean. I often find myself drawn to mountains and glaciers as opposed to open plain. The Arrigetch seemed like a good fit.
Unlike the two previous traverses in the Wrangell’s, travel in and around the Arrigetch was fairly well documented. Limited by time, we would be unable to do the month-long crossings of the Brooks Range like the antics of Luc Mehl and Roman Dial, but rather we would shoot for something about a weeklong and utilizing bush planes to get us straight into the action.
I looked into several options, including starting at either Circle Lake, Gadeke Lake, or perhaps even some other more remote lake and making our way to the Alatna River, of the major watersheds of the Brooks Range that closely meanders past Arrigetch Peaks. The Alatna River can be fickle departing Gadeke Lake from what I had read, depending on the time of year and snowpack. Although a good long river trip can be just what the doctor ordered, I sensed that Arrigetch Peaks was the gem and that the focus should be there. We elected to fly into Circle Lake, a small, boggy, crescent moon-shaped lake alongside the Alatna at the base of the Arrigetch Valley. Perhaps this is an abandoned meander from the Alatna itself?
The plan was conceived to arrive at Circle Lakes, hike up and over Ariel Peak as defined by the trips of Roman Dial and Luc Mehl, and then down to the Awlinyak River. We intended to packraft the class III- rapids back to the Alatna and ultimately down to Takahula Lake. Unfortunately, on the sunny July day that we arrived in Bettles, the reports were not of bubbling brooks and sunshine, but rather low water and smoke from nearby wildfires. With this new information, the revised plan became fly to circle lakes, leave a cache of rafts/food, then Hike into the Arrigetch Valley, enjoy the wonders of that area, and return to the rafts and packraft the Altna to Takahula Lake. This didn’t offer the edgy Arctic packrafting that we were hoping for, but it sounded like perhaps 2019 just wasn’t the year for creeking in the Arrigetch. Bummer.
So, we set off. I only remember three things about the flight in:
1. I got very airsick. Nothing else mattered much after that.
2. Gates of the Arctic is GIGANTIC and has to be the most remote place I’ve ever been to.
3. I was amazed to see blackened circles dotting the landscape and clearly represented former lightning strikes that had started small forest fires in past times.
I had read about these things called tussocks. I didn’t know what they were and didn’t invest much time into figuring out what they were, however, I knew that 1) they sucked 2) I was confident that we definitely know one when we saw it. Well, we saw plenty of them. Tussocks are little semi-rigid soggy grass pedestals that dot the arctic landscape. They protrude for the spongy ground below and form a pseudo-ground plain that makes it very difficult to walk well. One minute you’re cruising along, the next minute your leg is buried two feet into a hole between tussocks, probably getting wet.
After setting a cache, we fought our way from the bushes along Arrigetch Creek. There is a bit of a trail on the left-up-valley side of the creek that undeniably made travel easier. After a solid couple miles of hiking, making good time, and on pace to reach the upper valley at a comfortable time, we sat down for a break, now about 3 o’clock. Much to my dismay, I discovered that my tent was missing! WHERE WAS IT?! “Oh god, did it get caught on a branch in the bushwhacking and slip out?” With rain in the forecast, I had little choice but to search for it. While the others rested on the rocks near the creek, I blistered back down the trail, hoping to find my lost tent. I passed turn after, boulder pile, after side drainage, but no tent! Almost half of the way back to the bottom of the hill, sure enough, there was the tent snagged on a bush. Phew.
We finished the day in the lower reaches of Aquarius Valley in drop-dead gorgeous weather. The Aquarius valley is composed of soaring shattered granite walls and pristine post-glacial lakes with brilliant blue waters. We spent the next several days exploring the upper Aquarius Valley and relocated to headwaters of Arrigetch Creek. A steep slope of grass and lichens lead to the upper valley that I can only describe as Bugaboos meets Yosemite. Big granite faces and tower spires interlaced with some small pocket glaciers hiding in the dark cirques between the Peaks. Arrigetch Valley is truly a wonderful place. Apparently, attempts have been made on most of the peaks, however, based on the documentation that National Park Services release, only a handful of parties have made it to the major summits of the Arrigetch.
We scrambled up Ariel Peak in a small weather window. It could be described as sporty in a few places but otherwise a straightforward class three scramble. I peeked down into the Awlinyak valley, wondering the flow rates and if our original plan would have been salvageable.
Back at the raft cache, after a wet foot hike out of the bush, we debated rafting the final 0.25 miles of the Arrigetch Creek, but due to low flows elected to walk to the Alatna. The Alatna itself was not the crystal-clear water I had imagined it would be. Rather, it was an orangey-yellow turbid river, undoubtedly silty from the minerals, irons, and till from the Endicott Mountains.
At Lake Takahula, we were picked up by an eccentric bush pilot named Dick. Incidentally, Dick is a commercial airline pilot who flies 787 Dreamliners all over the world, but for two weeks a year, he comes and fills some shifts at Brooks Range Aviation out in the bush. He said he likes the work in the bush better than his multi-million-dollar cockpit flying into Shanghai. Anyways, it was a magnificent day the day we flew out. We contacted Brooks Range Aviation via satellite text and inquired if, for a nominal fee, we could add a scenic loop back through Arrigetch Peaks. People will travel to Bettles and wait weeks for a weather day such as the one we had to take a scenic flight in Gates of the Arctic. We sat there at Lake Takahula with brilliant skies and only three to five minutes of flight time away from one of the world’s jewels. Let’s say that Dick had no objections to flying through an amazing place on an amazing day. I think he was perhaps ever more pumped than we were to go play in the skies.
Back to Bettles and then another small hop back to the car waiting on the Haul Road.
Healthcare Worker by night, Adventurer by day, Erik Bernhoft spends his time trying to milk the most out of every drop of life. Follow him on his blog at www.emb3dphotography.com