Last week we published a short blurb about bikepacking/rafting guru Steve Fassbinder’s forthcoming new bikerafting guide book with Liz Scully. It got us pumped. So pumped we went through and re-read as many bikepacking and rafting articles as we could find from our voluminous archives, especially if Fassbinder was involved. This one is, as the title suggests, truly epic. Enjoy. -Ed.
The Brooks Range is a huge expanse of very remote, geologically old mountains stretching 700 plus miles east to west across Northern Alaska and into Canada’s Yukon Territory. A notoriously rough and sketchy Haul Road known as the Dalton Highway splits the range into eastern and western halves and aside from that there are no roads, towns, established trails, or services of any kind. As such, the range receives very few visitors, and the few that do make the long trip usually do so by chartering expensive bush flights flown by ballsy pilots into small lakes and gravel bars.
With the growing popularity of packrafting an even smaller number of people are accessing remote parts of the range by ditching the bush flight altogether and opting to hike and paddle in. Long fascinated with this region, I had been kicking around the idea of using fatbikes in conjunction with packrafts for an exploration. In all my research, I could find no evidence of the fat bike as a means of travel through the area, and so began my search for a dirtbag (no bush flights) route that would support at least some type 2 fatbiking. As with all great Alaskan trips, a packraft would be essential equipment. Its use would bookend our trip, providing a quick, albeit sketchy ride in, and a Cadillac smooth 100-mile river trip out from the heart of the range.
Trip planning for me usually involves having an idea (typically a bad one like riding bikes where everyone says it would probably be shitty), scouring Google Earth for a potential route that would “go,” and hopefully getting inspired by the landscape, making a realistic estimate on how long it would take, reaching out to friends and acquaintances that might know the area or have traveled there previously, and then asking specific questions about it. Like, “how sketchy is the Atigun Gorge in a packraft?” “How bad would it be with a 30-pound bike on the bow?” “Can the bad stuff be portaged?” And so on. In this research I was lucky enough to have fellow packrafters Brad Meiklejohn, Nathan Shoutis, and Alaksan explorer Roman Dial in my corner of the ring, and for their tutelage I am greatly indebted. Armed with modern mapping tools, and priceless beta from some of the most knowledgeable peers anywhere, a route was conceived.
My partners for this exploratory mission were Jon Bailey and Brett Davis, both hailing from Durango, Colorado. Jon is an incredible artist (perhaps you’ve seen the Dead Reckoning posters) and pro wrench at Durango Cyclery, and has been an adventure partner of mine for over a decade. The dude is solid. Brett is head of the Outdoor Pursuits program at Fort Lewis College and has a strong paddling background in addition to being well versed in just about any skill necessary to get shit done in the bush. The three of us landed in Fairbanks at 2 a.m. after 20-plus hours of travel, only to be thrust straight into the local custom of drinking a whole bottle of Scotch with your host.
Apparently we passed the test, as our host Gareth quickly offered up his new Sprinter van for our ground transportation needs. When I say “ground transportation” I mean we needed to drive 400 miles north on the Dalton Highway. And when I say “highway” I mean rugged industrial trucking route feeding the Alyeska Pipeline. Just think Mad Max, Alaska style. The truckers rule this place, and you very quickly get the impression that you don’t want to piss them off, get in the way, or have any kind of a breakdown out there. So we didn’t. But we did successfully return Gareth’s van 10 days later with 850 more miles on it, a cracked windshield, and a coating of grit so thick that it took 30 bucks in quarters at the local car wash to blast it off.
At this point some of you may be thinking, hmmm, sounds like a lot of work to go somewhere without much beta and the possibility of marginal to bad riding, with notoriously heinous bugs. And you would be justified in that thinking, but, and this is where it might get a bit weird, hear me out.
I’m lucky enough to live and work in a place that is a mountain biking mecca. The trails are buff and prolific. Being a mountain biker in Durango is to live in knobby tire nirvana. But is the ideal mountain bike life a simple matter of being all high fives and cold six packs at the trailhead every day? Does heaven need some Hell Riding to keep it in perspective, to keep us coming back and taking care of our home trails and landscape and appreciating the amazing vanilla milkshake for all that it is? This is the kind of reasoning I use to convince myself that trips like this one here, to the Brooks Range, are adventures that must be undertaken. It’s all about perspective.
Our trip started in earnest at the crack of 7 p.m. on the side of the aforementioned Dalton Highway, where the Atigun River crosses its path. We had just spent 10 hours in a glorified tin can racing crusty 18 wheelers, and our nerves were feeling a bit frayed, but I was itching to get our trip started. The 24-hour daylight afforded us the ability to charge straight into the crux of our route: paddling the Atigun Gorge with full drysuits, fat bikes, and loaded with 10 days of equipment and food.
Much research and prep went into the decision use the gorge as an entry point. On one hand it is the best way to access the east side of the range from the haul road, on the other hand it’s a known killer with a reputation for being fast and unforgiving. In fact, after doing my own research I’d mostly given up on using it. But with a more thorough investigation and the blessing of some of my packrafting peers, I decided that as a group we had what it took to safely manage its temper. A methodical and slightly somber packing session concluded, and into the canyon we slipped, away from all other human interaction for the entirety of our nine-day trip. A vast wilderness lay ahead, so vast that our trip would disappear into it and barely scrape the surface.
At 1 a.m. we pulled off the water at the confluence of the Sagavanirktok River. We were delivered slightly scraped and bruised, but very much alive, into a landscape of rolling green valleys ringed by steep grey mountains piercing an encroaching and visibly building fog layer that would soon dim the midnight sun. And so began our simple and oh so satisfying evening chores, gather twigs, make the fire, boil water, set up the mid, talk some shit, recap highlights of the day, talk some more shit, get cold, feed the fire, make a pillow with your food, doze off…
If Jon’s trepidations were the river sections (and they were), my fears were about to be exposed on the next leg of our journey. The route for the next four to five days would be overland. Following valleys up to an inevitable pass and riding (hopefully) down into the next drainage. There were three such passes to navigate and numerous valleys to connect them. My fear was the very real possibility of finding no rideable terrain. And I would be guilty of dragging my two friends into the middle of nowhere at no small cost only to get shut down. We needed to travel 100 miles across the range in order to end up at the headwaters of the Ivashak River, which we would then paddle 100 miles north out of the depths of the mountains to a hopefully triumphant finish in the middle of nowhere. 100 miles is a very long way to hike with a useless bike and hundreds of pounds of rafting and camping equipment.
When we awoke the first morning I did a little poking around to orient myself and to my dismay observed the tiny gravel bar where we camped appeared to be the only rideable terrain in sight. Surrounding our camp in all direction was endless Arctic tussock and steep, rocky mountainsides. Our collective thinking was “this is going to suck.”
The first three hours of our “ride” contained about two and a half hours of legit tussock and swamp pushing, the other 30 minutes were comprised of awkward bursts of turning the pedaling and dismounts in short intervals. This was our first taste of Arctic riding. Fortunately, we were at the low elevation point of our trip, and the higher we got the better the riding got. It didn’t take long to realize that the southwest facing aspects of the valleys had much more favorable riding /pushing ratios. So began our Brooks Range education.
Over the next five days we followed watercourses where we could, constantly searching for the faster gravel, rock, and babyhead riding, avoiding if at all possible north-facing slopes, and making lots of noise when passing through brushy, low visibility areas. That last point is most important, involving, as it does, the subject of bears. There were bear prints everywhere out there. It’s not if you will see a bear on a Brooks trip, it’s when. “When” happened for us somewhere in the middle of day three as we were intermittently riding and pushing up a small ribbon of water in a very wide valley that was choked with short thick willows. It was a close encounter but after a halfhearted bluff charge it hauled ass never to be seen again. Jon pulled his bear spray, but fortunately didn’t need it. Three more bears were sighted during the remaining days but none very close.
Days passed one after another with increasing beauty and depth. In the middle of day five we reached the top of our last pass and what would be the high point of our trip. The weather was stunningly perfect and we were running well on schedule. So we decided to climb the best looking peak accessible from the pass. On the map it was marked simply “Rib,” and was one of the very few peaks in the range to actually have a name at all. Seemed perfect, and so we left behind our gear, and set out with light packs to climb this hulking pile of limestone rubble. I’ve climbed/walked up a lot of mountains in my life, but nothing that I’ve seen yet compares to the view from atop a peak deep in the Brooks Range. We were gifted with yet more perfect weather and spent the better part of an hour just soaking in the view and piecing together different parts of our route past, present, and future. On the way down we looped around the backside of the mountain, and utilized some very worn-in trails created exclusively by eons of use by the Dall sheep that inhabit the area.
This last pass at the headwaters of the Ivashak River marked the physical halfway point of our journey, but more significantly, it was a major milestone toward our goal of finding a rideable route though a large swath of the unknown. We celebrated with a few extra squares of chocolate and the last nip Old #7. But our high spirits were snapped back to reality as our triumphant downhill quickly funneled into a boulder-choked ravine, in turn guarded by thick willow and perfect bear scare blind corners. We pushed on into the softening evening light and eventually connected with the main fork of the Ivashak and made camp.
The next day consisted mostly of fording the ever-increasing braids of this massive flood plain, and riding countless dead-end gravel bars until their predictable ends only to ford the icy water again and remount and repeat, remount and repeat…literally hundreds of times. This went on for the better part of a full day before the braids finally coalesced into what could be called a river, at which point we made the transition back into amphibious mode for the final three-day exit from the depths of the mighty Brooks Range, out into the endless expanse of the rolling flatlands of the North Slope.
Although it’s been over five years since my first bike packrafting mission, with countless such trips since then, it still blows my mind that you can roll up to a river, creek, ocean, lake, or body of water and just pull out a five-pound boat from your pack and use it to continue onward. On this trip, here we were again. The rideable terrain was over, the river had come alive, and forward progress was only possible with these amazing tools. Paddling was a welcome respite from the rough and slow progress of bikes at their useful limit, and our feet and sore quads were happy for it too.
Over the next three days we would paddle 90 miles of the most crystal clear water that I have ever witnessed. We floated this glass conveyor past hundreds of migrating Caribou and a lone hulking Musk Ox as the river pushed us ever closer toward its terminus with the Beaufort Sea. It was restful and meditative, time spent reflecting on the size of the landscape we were floating through, and a perfect counterbalance to the hard work it took to get to this glassy effortless state. But just like the trails at home in Durango, this easy float wouldn’t have seemed anywhere near as rewarding if we hadn’t had to grovel through immense suffering to reach this reward. Perspective, right?
Originally published in affiliation with Seek and Enjoy
For more on how to get started in bikepacking, check out our articles with bikepacking rock star Kurt Refsnider: