Packrafting the Alatna River: The Wilds of Gates of the Arctic National Park

Photo: Will Rochfort

Story and Photos By Heather Balogh

The plane sputtered through the water and smoothly sailed into the distance, leaving the five of us standing on the banks of Circle Lake, watching our only link to civilization fly in the opposite direction. Our bush pilot had just dropped us in Gates of the Arctic National Park, near the Arrigetch Peaks in Alaska. We were literally hundreds of miles from anything, and the silence was truly deafening.

Our crew– comprised of Will, Amy, Shannon, Drew, and myself– had been planning this trip for months. Will and Drew had originally heard of Gates in 2007, but it had taken a few years to find a group of people that were interested in going so far off the grid. After a few discussions, we agreed on the adventure: packraft 60 miles of the Alatna River over the span of a week. None of us were familiar with packrafting, but it seemed logical; we could hike if we wanted to, and would be able to cover more ground by raft than we would by trekking through the trail-less park. Thus, the adventure was born.

Photo: Will Rochfort

Our trip started off with a comedy of errors. First, we decided to trek around Circle Lake in a lazy attempt to avoid inflating our packrafts. We knew the Alatna was to the east of the lake, so we thought we could circumvent the boats and trek the short distance to the riverbed. We made it approximately 200 yards before we realized that the Alaska tundra was wet, rugged and not at all willing to allow us passage! We trudged back, inflated the rafts, and paddled to the other side of the lake. We then portaged for a good hour and a half in an attempt to locate the Alatna. After stumbling through a few hip-deep mud bogs, we finally found the river and set up camp for the night.
One of the most glaring reminders of our wild location was the unavoidable amount of animal tracks. Every sand bar was crisscrossed with paw prints, and some of the grizzly marks were larger than my face! We initially tried to avoid trafficked areas but we soon realized it was inevitable. River corridors are the main source of water for grizzles, so our exact route was basically a brown bear highway. We finally accepted that they were likely more scared of us than we were of them, but our bear spray was always within reach!

On our second morning in the park, a grizzly finally found us! Will woke up early in hopes of getting breakfast going. He didn’t want to yell his usual, “Hey Bear!” while walking over to the bear canisters for fear of waking everyone. However, he turned around to see a juvenile-sized grizzly bear sprint full speed from the river towards our tents. Luckily, the bear was frightened and instead of charging, ran around camp, belly flopped through a small pond, and disappeared in a brown blur into the tundra. The four of us in the tents had no idea what was out there, but the amount of noise caused by such a large animal was terrifying!

Photo: Will Rochfort

Our initially beautiful weather finally broke mid-week and we were treated with true Alaska: clouds rolled in and veiled the mountains, the temperatures dropped, and rain poured from the sky. We spent a full day paddling in cold and rainy conditions and every piece of gear we brought was completely drenched. Because of this, we were ecstatic to see the sun peeking through the mist on Thursday morning.
The tops of the surrounding mountains were dusted with snow, but the warm rays had never been more welcome. We enjoyed the heat on our soaked gear and counted our lucky stars that Mother Nature had given us sunshine on our final day of packrafting.

After a final slog of 20-ish miles, we set our weary sights on Malamute Fork, the pickup location we had prearranged with Brooks Aviation. A massive gravel bar provided us with plenty of space for our tents and rafts, and the clouds ducked behind the distant peaks, affording us the best sunset of the trip.

Photo: Will Rochfort

It was almost as if Gates of the Arctic was bidding us a fond farewell.