Where the silence is the loudest, far beyond the polar circle, and above all, far away from the reach of the mobile phone signal, hot showers and soft beds, we set out to travel down the Alatna River. The words under our map said: “No roads or trails in this area”. We were equipped with boats, food in bear-resistant containers and pepper spray. The plan was to cross over the continental divide and run down 300 km south to the polar circle.
There were six of us on the expedition - three boy Fjolls and three girl Fjolls. Some of us were experienced paddlers, others less. We did not ride a wild river for the adrenaline experiences, but to enjoy the beauty of the wildlife and the complete freedom. Therefore, we chose the Alatna River - the difficulty of the upper reaches is WW2, in the lower reaches it is WW1.
Alatna is a 296 km long river that springs in the Brooks Range, amid the Alaskan wilderness. It flows all the way south, and when it finally reaches the polar circle, it flows into the Koyokuk River. Most of the time, it runs through the National Park with the very apt name, Gates of the Arctic. Although it is bigger than the Czech Republic and Slovakia together, it lies almost at the end of the world and it is not easy to reach it. Probably because of this nature there still preserves its wild beauty.
To the divide by a seaplane
The area where the river springs is very rare. It lies on the continental divide of the two oceans - the Arctic and the Pacific - one of the few places where the divide does not follow the ridge of the mountains. Our seaplane pilot circled several lakes and eventually evaluated one of those that were located just behind the divide on the Nigu River as safe for landing. When the seaplane disappeared beyond the horizon, we were all alone in the middle of that silence and freedom.
Imagine a wide valley surrounded by mountains far beyond the polar circle, a tundra where mosses, lichens, lots of different herbs, and occasionally low shrubs grow, but no trees or anything to obstruct your view. When you go just a little higher, you will see a number of lakes and lagoons. They are all connected by small streams. All but two. And it is between these two lakes where the divide of the two oceans runs.
Well, and now imagine you’re a mosquito. Like millions of others, you were born in one of the local swamps. The last time a trapper carried a boat here was sixty years ago, and suddenly, six fjolls, full of fresh, sweet blood, appear right in front of you! It didn’t matter how many layers of repellent we were wearing. For the mosquitoes we were a bright red beating target.
Through bushes, swamps and through the flocks of mosquitoes, we went all over the continental divide to the spring of the Alatna River, with all our equipment. When possible, we carried everything on water, if not, on the back. Since we had about 400 kg of stuff and supplies, the portage took us three days.
From Gaedeke Lake and further already on Alatna River
The time of setting sail has come. We sailed on three inflatable boats - two Scouts and one Baraka. We knew that the first part of Alatna would not be completely navigable. Often there was no choice but to drag the loaded boats on foot through the cold water. Thanks to the affluents of the river the amount of water gradually increased, so alternately, we could also sail. Also, the weather was nice to us - it started to rain. Over the night the river level rose more than we expected. We were lucky to still have our boats in the morning.
We definitely no longer had to drag the boats. The calm little river turned into a river, shallows into rapids and water flowed very quickly in some places. We pulled out the vests and enjoyed a quick ride through the rapids. The biggest challenge here was to correctly estimate where to go. Alatna is, unlike the Czech rivers, a wild river that is constantly looking for a new bed. Somewhere it spills into the shallows, and seemingly splits into three beds to reunite again behind the bend into one stream that bites and erodes the trees on the riverbank. Therefore, we had to be careful all the time so that we don’t run aground or so that we are not pulled under an uprooted tree or under a rock by a strong current.
The uprooted trees and scoured banks lining the river bed reminded us, also in the lower reaches of the river, of the power nature could have here. Every day we moved more south on the map and enjoyed the splendour all around: silver river, beaches, woods and beautiful mountains that the sun painted with the most beautiful colours.
Lonely peaks of Arrigetch Peaks
If there was a chance that we would meet someone, then it was most likely in Arrigetch Peaks. Allegedly, up to five and a half people a year set out to them. We were six, so that’s probably it for this year. Strikingly pointed and sharp rocky outcrops protrude above the surrounding mountains and are visible from afar. We did not resist and set out on foot to explore them for two days.
We waded through thick bushes on a steep slope and advanced at about a kilometre in an hour. After crossing the icy stream, we hit the bear path and followed it to the end of the forest, where the rocky peaks, flooded with the setting and in a while also rising sun, appeared in front of us. As mountaineers, looking at the huge, yet undiscovered climbing potential, our fingers itching, we promised to ourselves to return to Arrigetch.
We certainly didn't have to worry about getting back before dark. The sun does not set in these latitudes in summer. Our two photographers, apart from the amazing evening lighting (as they say, “photographic four hours”), could not speak highly enough about the energy supply. Solar panels also charge at night and you don’t even need a headlamp.
Building a sailboat in the wilderness
At Takahula Lake we made a three-day stop with a clear plan: to wash our clothes and ourselves (even merino will start to stink after all), bake bread and build a sailboat. What? Sailboat? Yes, you read correctly. Our plan was to overcome the quieter lower reaches of Alatna on a sailboat. We connected our three inflatable canoes using ropes and cords, and we worked a suitable trunk as the mast. The only thing left was to think of a movable boom attachment so that we could rotate the main sail. Finally, we raised a flag and christened our trimaran to Sirius (in honour of the famous Nordic patrol).
If you want to sail, you need wind. The catch is that Alatna meanders in its lower reach. Therefore, we usually paddled against the wind, whereupon we pulled out the sails in the bend, got speed, and lightly and quietly reached the next bend. There we folded the sails and paddling started again. Thus, one half of the meander seemed so much shorter than the other one. But sometimes we just let ourselves be drifted away by the current and enjoyed the time on board. We were fishing, cooking while sailing or enjoying the surrounding nature.
The number of bear tracks gradually increased on the bank, somewhere it was like highways. That’s because bears were retreating to the river, where they looked for their main source of food - salmon. At this time, salmon return from the ocean into their natal rivers where they spawn. And when they finally arrived here inland, we were lucky to see the bears hunting them in the river. It gives you the shivers, when you meet such an animal in his kingdom!
But that was already almost the end of our cruise. We Fjolls are said to have more luck than reason. Maybe it’s true. Alaska managed to tame us. We still have so much to say. About how beautiful the double rainbow was, about all the colours of the mountains at sunset, how you are almost not able to breathe when you dive into the glacial blue waters of Alatna, about the carcajou, beavers and wolf, sandy beaches and meanders which are on the map, but the river has already found a new bed.
But everything cannot be written on paper. You may see glimpses of those moments in the photos and on the video, but it would be best if you also set out on a journey. We Fjolls solemnly promise that it is not the last time we set out.
Alaska belongs to bears
Seeing grizzly in the wilderness is undoubtedly an experience that attracted us, but it didn't have to be face to face. We therefore took several measures:
- Jingle bells - a bear is supposed to hear their ringing and thus has time to escape.
- Bear spray - weaker pepper spray with a range of four meters. It would probably make the bear cry but it would not cause him any permanent consequences.
- Electric fence - in the US you can buy a special set for about $ 300. We bought a classic fence for cows, insulating hooks and transformer in the Czech Republic. We made the rods in Alaska. It worked perfectly, at least on us.
- Apart from that, we also followed other measures such as not leaving leftovers anywhere and building tents at least 50 m from where we cooked and stored food.
About the expedition
We call ourselves Fjolls and six of us went to Alaska - Jirka, Radim, Adam, Liduška, Ivetka and Eliška. We are a bunch of young enthusiasts, adventurers, romantics, simply “fjolls” who do not settle for a week-long vacation on crowded beaches, but believe that there are still places on Earth where you will not be able to receive a Facebook notification, a work email or a text message from your mom. And that’s exactly the place that attracts us!
Text and photos: taken from www.treking.cz