As with most crazy and far-flung ideas, it’s hard to say with any certainty where and when this one originated. We’ve all had those conversations at the trailhead after a bike ride or on the side of a river as you scout the next rapid. Normally, these conversations float around and vanish within the same breath, big ideas with little chance of becoming reality. But the idea to connect two of the least visited National Parks in Alaska paddling packrafts—this one was different. This idea stuck.
So, there we were six months later, standing on a rocky beach in the Arctic Circle watching the little red bush plane disappear around the corner of the valley that only 24 hours ago was just a small line on a very large map. On the flight in we had a grand view of the Ambler River as we snaked up the valley. Its water was turquoise and even from 700 feet you could tell it was shallow but moving fast.
Our group had to take two separate flights due to weight limits and with a short weather window the first flight, holding myself, Jess, and Andy arrived at our put-in late in the day. Our friends, Adam and Wes would arrive first thing the next morning with the boats and other gear left behind. With nothing else to do, we lifted our packs and set off to find camp for the night.
Alaska is home to our nation’s most wild and remote landscapes. With a landmass the size of Texas, Montana, and California combined, Alaska’s eight national parks and 16 national wildlife refuges hold more than half of America’s national parkland. The headwaters of the Ambler River lie just inside the boundary of the Gates of the Arctic National Park. With as few as 11,000 annual visitors, Gates of the Arctic is our nation’s least visited national park.
Our group of five came together with a diverse set of backgrounds. There was a whitewater kayaker, an Alaska fly fishing guide, a thru-hiker, a professional photographer, and a jack-of-all-adventurer-turned-dad. We studied maps and Google Earth over Zoom calls for months, discussing which rivers and mountains we wanted to explore. With little to no publicly available information aside from some beta from local outfitters, we knew we would have to be resourceful with our planning.
The rivers we were interested in were highly seasonal and we had no way of knowing if there would even be water running in late August. When it comes to the Alaska wilderness, the people who live and work there know it best. I began calling bush pilots in early March. Telling them about our plans and trying to gather as much information and first-hand reports as I could. I finally connected with Ben Childs who owns Aero Expeditions in Kotzebue. He spends his summers flying backcountry explorers across the Western Brooks Range.
With Ben as our eyes on the ground, we suddenly had first-hand reports on water conditions, weather outlooks, and most importantly fly-in and extraction points. The lines on the map quickly became real through photos shared over long email threads.
Over breakfast the next morning we heard the unmistakable sound of an airplane approaching. With coffee in hand, we waved as the little red bush plane buzzed over our heads, turned, and landed next to our camp.
We unloaded the rest of the gear and waved goodbye as the pilot once again left us alone in the wilderness. The three of us broke camp as Wes and Adam carried the boats and other gear to the edge of the river. We set about rigging the packrafts—balancing the weight of six days’ worth of food alongside our minimal camping gear. Our spirits were high as the first pair launched into the fast current. I set my camera aside and prepared to launch my own boat when I heard the first whistle. We had swimmers.
Every adventure I’ve been on, from thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to riding my bike across the country, there comes a moment where the screws turn, and the level of consequence sharply comes into focus. Almost graciously, that moment for us came early in the trip. Our team jumped into action, rescuing swimmers and boats from the current. Two minutes later and 200 yards down river the fun ended. Our casualties included a lost GoPro, one Xtratuf boot, a paddle, and a little bit of dignity.
As we sat on the bank and took stock of the situation you could see the gears turning in everyone’s heads. This wasn’t just a vacation in the wilderness. We were in the Arctic Circle, hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital and completely on our own. A simple mistake or miscalculation on one of our parts could have serious consequences for the entire team.
We broke out our spare paddle and set oﬀ with renewed respect for the river. We stuck close together and stayed in the main channel. The smiles and jokes slowly returned as the adrenaline wore off and our muscles warmed up. Packrafts were made for rivers like this. Small and agile, they handle the boogie water and tight corners with ease. We paddled for an hour before finding a large beach with good fishing and we decided to call the first day short.
It takes some time to settle into the rhythm of a river trip. Stress and a sense of urgency to get rigged and on the water marks the first day. That initial camp is often the place where you’ll start catching the rhythm for the days to come. We pitched a clothesline to dry out the swimmer’s gear and set about making a fire. With little eﬀort, Jess caught two sizeable Dolly Varden on his fly rod, and we all agreed the first day ended on a high note.
Johnny Horton’s classic song, “North to Alaska,” was our alarm clock the following morning. It had become a sort of trip anthem, and we all loudly sang the chorus from inside our tents. The morning was bright and clear, and as we rigged our boats the sun hit the beach.
The valley began to widen as we floated down the river in the late morning light. The rocky banks gave way to hardwood forests and the grayness of the mountains started to hold more and more green on them. The current was still strong, and the river began to spread and braid out. We had to pay close attention to the water ahead of us, taking note of the river’s intricacies. When the river ran across the shallow rocks the water would turn a light green. On the other side, in deeper waters, it continued to hold its deep turquoise. The game quickly became about who would choose the right channel and not run aground.
Rain moved over us as we paddled into the afternoon. We stopped to inspect a sandy beach to make camp. A half a dozen menacingly fresh bear tracks spread across it alongside wolf and moose tracks. We named it Bear Island and opted to keep floating. A few miles farther brought us past a new island on which we found only one set of bear prints. We played card games late into the night and watched rainbows come and go as storms passed over the open valley.
At this time of year, the Arctic sun is up for nearly 18 hours. It never truly gets dark either, the twilight is a deep blue as if there was a full moon. You can see easily without a headlamp.
Taking the clear skies above our camp as a good omen I draped my dry suit over my packraft to let it dry out before ducking into the tent for the night. I woke up to the sound of rain just a few hours later.
The following morning, we climbed into our wet dry suits and paddled out into the rain. August is typically the wettest month of the year here and before we left Kotzebue the weather forecast warned us that today was going to be brutal. The clouds swirled around us all day teasing views of the epic tundra surrounding us only to swallow it up in grey and blue. We stopped for lunch on a shallow beach and served up a round of hot coffee in the cold drizzle. Andy raised our spirits with a solo performance of “North to Alaska.” We all joined in for the chorus. Despite the rain, the river continued to inspire us.
You crave the sun when you live outside. Its warmth and brightness are a gift you didn’t know you needed until it’s taken from you. The next morning the sun greeted us on the beach, and we knew the day was going to be grand. The river had grown deep and wide and it began to sweep back and forth across the valley.
Late in the morning we arrived at the confluence of the Kobuk River and drifted past the village of Ambler. A rack of drying chum salmon greeted us as we landed at the public access point. Ambler was permanently settled in 1958 when people from the villages of Shungnak and Kobuk moved downstream because of the variety of fish and wild game in the area.
Subsistence living is still a major part of the local economy, however, that could change with a proposed 211-mile industrial access road that would connect the Dalton Highway with the undeveloped Ambler Mining District. On our way to the market, we were met by some boys riding bikes, and they rode beside us asking questions about our trip.
On the way back to the river we stopped to talk with some of the village elders. We shared about the river conditions and fishing higher up the river and asked questions about what to expect lower on the Kobuk. With no human interaction outside our group for the last four days, we appreciated learning about life in the village and being able to share and receive first-hand reports on the river.
We left Ambler mid-afternoon and paddled on late into the day. The Kobuk was a great wide river and its current had dropped to nearly still water. The Jade Mountains stood prominently in the north and as the sun began to set, they were cast in a golden light. I checked my maps and realized we had crossed the boundary into Kobuk Valley National Park. We camped on a wide sandy beach with a grand view of the northern range set across the river. With the suspicion that the river may rise overnight, we pulled our boats high and ate dinner as the Arctic sun set.
The next morning, we paddled past Onion Portage. On the approach flight six days ago, our pilot pointed it out and shared its storied history. Here the river makes a wide bend, creating a long, narrow peninsula that juts out into the water. Local residents call it Paatitaaq, or Onion Portage, for the wild onions that grow along the banks of the river.
Twice a year the caribou arrive, pouring across the tundra and down the steep slopes before plunging into the Kobuk River on their biannual migration across the Brooks Range. The caribou are closely followed by Native Alaskans who have been hunting this crossing for generations.
We drifted around the portage, the birch trees blocked the westerly wind, and the water was glassy across the quarter-mile-wide river. There were no dead caribou. We were more reserved as we paddled the final river miles, spread out across the wide water, each reflecting on the past 100 miles and all that we had seen. A massive sand beach appeared on the horizon and after a quick inspection, we marked it as our takeout point.
I pinged the coordinates to our pilot and we made camp in the small corner protected from the wind.
My Garmin InReach beeped as we stood beside the pile of gear at the center of the beach the following morning. Our pilot would be here in 10 minutes. Standing in a semi-circle we laughed and joked about the beginning of the week and how ridiculous it was to swim in the first few minutes of the trip. Hard to put a lot of trust in your waterman when he’s the first one in the water. It wasn’t long before the plane’s approach interrupted our reminiscing.
In excitement, we simultaneously spewed stories to Ben as he loaded the plane, I’m not sure any of it made sense but we needed to share with someone. Once again, the plane couldn’t fit us all, so Andy said goodbye and shut the door on our friends. We stood there watching as the plane lifted into the air and disappeared into that big arctic sky.
For a minute we stood on the beach soaking in the silence before turning back toward camp and the day’s second cup of coffee. Our time would come but for now, we were still on the river living the dream.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Samuel Martin is a commercial & editorial photographer based out of Western North Carolina with a focus on human-powered movement and outdoor lifestyle.