Author: Adam Bratton
Read Time: 5 mins
In early 2022, I got a seemingly random text from adventure pal, Samuel Martin (of “Available for Pickup Only” fame amongst others) It simply said “Packrafting trip in Alaska?”. Wesley Maxwell (the photographer behind most of Human Powered Movement’s shenanigans) was also on the text and immediately responded the same obvious way I did. “Love it … I’m in!”. These semi-serious and semi-wishful thinking responses ended up turning into something that only the very best dreams are made of.
Over the next few months, we combed google maps, scoured whatever sparse trip report we could find and tried to connect with anyone who had a sliver of information of the vast great northern tundra to help understand what we would and could get ourselves into. Turns out, there is little information about packrafting north of the Arctic Circle as very few people have done it and even less have documented the experience. This only sky-rocketed the desire and excitement to pull off an expedition of this magnitude. Samuel was able to connect with a bush pilot who flies hunters in/out of the fabled Brooks Range of Arctic Alaska. During the summer months, he was based out of Kotzebue which is within striking distance of many of the awe inspiring rivers that we ear marked during our initial google maps search. Ongoing convos lead to landing our first few expedition partners to support the trip in Kokopell Packrafts, Jetboil, and Hyperlite Mountain Gear. In April we rolled the dice, booked flights to “Kotz”, and put a deposit down with Ben Childs (pilot and owner of Aero Expeditions). Somehow, someway, we were going to explore the Alaskan wilds.
Through what seemed like weekly meetings, more puzzle pieces fell into place. In May, two more extremely capable and experienced outdoorsmen joined the team in Jess Powell (who lived and worked as a backcountry fishing guide in Alaska for a few years) and Andy Austin (Professional Travel Photographer who was born in Anchorage, now based in Bozeman, MT, with deep ties to many outdoor brands). Our all-star squad of 5 was set with a few more key brands … NRS, Recover, Buck Knives, XtraTuf, Huckberry, Montana Knife Company, Black Coffee Roasting Co … stepping up to turn this dream into a reality.
The endless unknowns of this trip constantly kept us on our toes and added to the buildup of suspense. After a few delayed, then canceled, flights sprinkled with some lost baggage and 20+ hours of travel, we finally found ourselves huddled around a wobbly table in the communal area of a no frills rent-a-room accommodation in Kotzebue, Alaska. The entire team was assembled for the first time and the stoke was bursting out of this tiny room. We were about to embark on one hell of a week in the backcountry.
Here's the catch … we still had no idea where we were going. When planning this trip with very little information, it was incredibly difficult to identify the best logistics, scenery, wildlife, and paddling action. Weather patterns, river levels, and “life threatening extractions always get priority” vary wildly from week by week, day by day, and hour by hour. The night before heading into the wild, we were sitting around that same small communal table with our pilot Ben and pointing, assessing, and guessing which one of the handful of potential rivers we would run less than 24 hours later. The Omar River was dried up. The Kelly River was socked in. Nimiuktuk River was not feasible from Kotz. The Noatak River was getting hammered with gusty headwinds.
The blessing of the unknown also lead us to the stunning Ambler River on the south slope of the Brooks Range, with its headwaters beautifully tucked within Gates of the Arctic National Park. Ben had flown over that area the week before and spotted a gravel bar where he could potentially land his bush plane. The draw of packrafting in the least visited National Park in the US got us excited. Combing topo maps and getting a digital glimpse of the sharp peaked mountains that flanked this river got us downright hot and bothered. We finally had a plan.
The next day we were able to find a weather window and beat the sunset and get our first bush flight out of Kotz to the freshly identified drop zone. Needing to distribute weight evenly across 2 flights, Samuel, Andy, and Jess would take the initial flight while Wesley, myself, and our additional gear would fly out the following morning.
I can’t express the amount of excitement that was swirling throughout our team. We were finally at the river’s edge in one of the most beautiful and remote places on the planet and we were about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. Then the whistles started blaring. No less than 100 yards into our week on the river, we already had two packrafts capsize and 2 team members swimming in the frigid Arctic waters. Any gear that wasn’t firmly tied down was also rushing downriver never to be seen of again … GoPro, boots, water bottles, hats, dry bags and even a paddle.
Obviously, this is not an ideal start to any adventure but on the flip side, it was exactly what we needed. Our adventure had officially begun. We regrouped, swallowed some pride, repacked our gear, and continued downriver clearly understanding that we were not in charge in the remoteness of backcountry Alaska.
For the next week, our appreciation and respect for the remoteness of Northwest Alaska swelled. We were consumed by the mind-blowing peaks towering above the turquoise waters of the braided Ambler River. We were mesmerized by endless pine forests surrounding the slower flowing Kobuk River.
We felt the discomfort of paddling 12+ hours through driving rain, mid 40’s temperatures, and full body exhaustion. We embraced the morale boost of a warm meal at the end of the day. We spoke with native Alaskans and learned of their century-old cultures when we paddled up to the Borough of Ambler, the only sliver of civilization we encountered all trip long. We chased the ridgeline of the Jade Mountain range for what seemed like days on end.
As we paddled into Kobuk Valley National Park and clicked over the 100-mile mark since our water-soaked journey began, there was no Ranger Station or welcome sign. In fact, there is no infrastructure in the park whatever as it is free from roads, structures, or any sign of human existence. Experiencing and sharing this stunning and unspoiled land with some of your best friends is something that changes you forever.
That’s why, exactly one year later to the day, I’m sharing my experience with you in hopes that it will inspire you to seek your own adventure of a lifetime. It doesn't have to be a loosely planned weeklong packrafting trip way North of the Arctic Circle, but it does have to push the bounds of your CURRENT perception of your comfort zone. A year later, you will still be day dreaming of your adventures and not of the next email or conference call of your routine work schedule.
Read/Listen/Watch other accounts from the trip:
Journal - Adventure of a Lifetime: Packrafting the Alaskan Arctic
Human Powered Journal
Writings and musings of an active lifestyle
Adam Bratton is the Founder and Head Enabler at Human Powered Movement.
Guest Contributors are more compelling in written word and life in general.