Gates of the Arctic: Packrafting the Alatna River & A Grizzly

Please read the first two segments here and here.

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After recovering our packrafts and carrying them back to the river, we made an executive decision that would haunt us for days: we decided not to paddle that day and instead, set up camp, explore the area, eat dinner and enjoy the sunshine. Sounds beautiful but in retrospect, it was a stupid plan!

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As we would for the rest of the trip, we established our camp on an exposed rocky gravel bar on the side of the Alatna. Since the Arctic tundra is comprised of thick, dense shrubs, there aren’t any clearings that allow for tents. Additionally, we didn’t want to be huddled down in shrubbery that would obstruct our line of sight. If a grizzly is heading my way, I want to see it coming for as long as possible!

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Before leaving Bettles, we had talked with a woman in the Brooks Aviation office who told us that the aurora borealis had been off the hook that week. She said it was coming in clear every night and that it was even showing lots of super uncommon red colors. After hearing that, we were beyond excited. Could we possibly see an aurora borealis?! (Unrelated side not: added this to my must-do list. Scroll down and check out the igloos!)

However, we had a snag: it was freaking cold outside! Sure, the temps hadn’t dropped as low as they would later in the week, but it was still in the mid-30s at night; not really weather to sit around and stare at the sky! Luckily, Will came up with an ingenious plan:

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Seriously, this was 10pm

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Welcome to our “northern lights viewing party!” We all put our sleeping pads and bags on top of our packrafts and settled in for the show, nice and toasty! Honestly, I have no idea how long we sat out there, watching the sky, but it was long enough for each one of us to completely pass out! I woke up near midnight to find frost on my sleeping bag and zero northern lights in the sky. I headed into the tent and everyone else quickly followed. Sigh. No northern lights but still—how often can you say that you fell asleep under the open sky of the Arctic Circle?

Monday dawned sunny and bright, but there were quite a few clouds on the horizon. We decided to see what the Alatna had in store for us so we retrieved our bear canisters from down the beach, ate our Backpacker’s Pantry breakfasts and drank our coffee, and packed up camp.

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Once the sundries were sorted, it was time to hit the river!

We had initially looked at the Alatna and spoken the infamous words that would ring in our ears for the rest of the trip: “Look at the current! We’ll barely have to paddle; we’ll just steer!” Unfortunately, someone must’ve been on crack when he said that because as soon as we hit the water, we realized it was going to take a lot of work! Packrafts are incredibly light, the water level was low with minimal current, and head winds were strong. In short, we had 60 miles of river to travel and we were going to need to paddle every single inch of it!

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We spent the morning paddling and battling some headwinds, as well as getting a feel for the river. There were towering peaks surrounding us and we’d frequently take a few moments to quit paddling and float in silence. There was minimal wildlife that far north, so we’d frequently hear nothing other than the wind in the tundra.

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We still didn’t pay too much attention to the map and decided to call it a day around 5pm. Since we’d put in at 11am and stopped for an hour lunch, we weren’t exactly pushing it! However, we saw a sandy embankment that looked perfect for second campsite of the trip, so we figured we would give it a try. Little did we know that it would lead to our single bear encounter on the trip!

The night went similar to the last although the temps were a bit colder and Amy and I both slept chilled. The clouds had settled in, so Will awoke first to a gray and overcast morning. He decided to head down the beach to our bear canisters so that the rest of us would have everything ready when we got out of the tents. Amy and I were still in our MSR tent chatting, while Drew and Shannon dozed in their Fjallraven. Mid-conversation, Amy and I heard, thump-THUMP-thump-THUMP, SPLASH!

Silence.

Naturally, we looked at each other, wide eyed. What in the hell was that?!

“WILL!” I yelled. “Are you okay?!”

Thankfully, he was fine, and responded with, “Holy shit! You guys, that was a grizzly!”

Luckily for Will, the bear freaked out when he realized he wasn’t alone and turned and sprinted away from Will—and towards camp. Will stood helplessly as the grizzly sprinted towards our tents, but breathed a sigh of relief when Mr. Grizz gradually turned, ran up and around the embankment, cannon balled into a small pond, and disappeared into the tundra. Check out those paw prints!

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We were all incredibly happy that the bear was terrified of us instead of the opposite. That situation could have gone much different!

Final installment (I think)—coming tomorrow!

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What’s the biggest animal you’ve seen in the wild?

18 Comments

  • Reply Miz at

    as I always say—I LOVE LOVE THESE.
    Ive been to africa and seen LOTTSA (too many?) animals in the wild NOT ON SAFARI up close 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      I’m dying to go to Africa. Kilimanjaro + animals is at the top of my list!

  • Reply Heidi @BananaBuzzbomb at

    Still can’t get over the beautiful scenery. Just gorgeous. I had to laugh about Will’s comment because I can so hear him saying that in my head. Ha!

    • Reply heather at

      After hearing the splash and realizing what it was, I was FREAKED that he was out there! His comment made me laugh over my pounding heart 🙂

  • Reply misszippy at

    That’s the way to encounter a grizzly! Glad all was safe. What beautiful scenery, again. And I can imagine the sleeping would be amazing out there like that.

    • Reply heather at

      It was beautiful, albeit nice and bright…

  • Reply Alecia at

    Scary bear encounter! I’m loving these posts.

    • Reply heather at

      Glad you’re enjoying them!

  • Reply Marissa @Barefoot Colorado at

    I’m sitting in class right now reading this. Bad idea. How can I possibly pay attention to a dry, boring lecture when you were just out encountering a grizzly!! I also checked out the igloos– the glass one would be SO FLIPPING COOL.

    • Reply heather at

      RIGHT?! I told Will the igloos need to happen!

  • Reply Ericka @ The Sweet Life at

    OMG Heather your adventures are so awesome! I can’t say I would LOVE camping and going down a river in the cold but man, what an experience. Great photos as always, your life is pretty cool 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      Ha, we actually chatted about that mid-week when it had been pouring on us for 8 hours and my hands and toes were numb 🙂 Stuff like this isn’t fun for everyone, but isn’t that how it goes with most things?!

  • Reply Kayla at

    Eeekk!

    By the way, those tents are really cool! We need one like that!

    • Reply heather at

      I was a big fan of the MSR tent– it’s coming out next spring so we were testing it for BP, and I really liked it. Curious as to why they’re cool though– is yours super different??

  • Reply Joshua Riggins at

    Great post, I too hope to get up to Alaska someday soon. Sounds like you guys had a good time. look forward to reading the next post

  • Reply The Death of Backpacking - Just a Colorado Gal at

    […] up the side of a mountain is beyond comparison. And the wildlife you encounter? Nowhere else will random Grizzlies and coyotes and mountain goats wander up to your tent, solely for the sake of curiosity. And as for […]

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    […] you’re a long-time reader, you may remember our August, 2013 trip to Gates of the Arctic, Alaska. At the time, packrafting was completely foreign to me and the learning curve was steep. But, ever […]

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