482km/ 300 miles cycling, 240km/ 150 miles paddling in 16 days.
The expedition was simple: Ride as much iconic single track as we could find, paddle some big ass rivers to complete one big loop covering as much of cold & wet, yet beautiful, Alaska as possible.
AK is no joke, it’s wild, remote and incredibly difficult to access in the event of an emergency, hence the reason to spend so much time preparing for the Expedition and to plan exactly what we were after. So, the theme was set; RAIN........
Day 9 - 48km/30 Miles McCarthy - Flight
For our final ride leg were welcomed with blue skies and a fresh morning but with a hill to start we warmed up quickly. Its hard to describe the beauty of this ride so I will let the pictures do the talking again.
We took a moment to relax and reflect on the past 8 days beside the river before we made the final crossing into McCarthy, where we were to begin stage 2. Keen to begin the River stage and because it was early and the sun was shining we thought it would be a good idea to see if we could fly into Jakes Bar a day early.
Chatting with Wrangell Mountain Air we looked at the weather that was due to come in that night and the following morning and they agreed to fly us out a day early. We had some time to kill so headed back to the cafe for a couple of beers and a burger before riding down to the airstrip and collecting our boxes of rations and our rafts.
We loaded up the 1949 Beaver plane and jumped in. I was truly beside myself with excitement. This was one of my must do things in AK; a bush flight to a remote place, it doesn’t get any better than this.
The coolest plane ever.....
Squeezed in with all the gear....
The flight was only 20 minutes but it was amazing, our pilot talked us all through the area we were flying over. Unfortunatly we learned that day they discovered the backpack of a missing hiker in the river we were about to float. It was a stark reminder of what we were up against in the wilds of Alaska.
The plane landed with a bump and rolled to the end of the short landing strip where we unloaded the boxes and bikes and watched him take off again. I have never felt so alone as when the plane took off. It was perfect. The sun was still shinning and we made our way to the cabin; we were set.
I wandered around and checked out the beach where we would launch from in the morning., it was incredibly serene. I was ecstatic to finally be on the river and in the true wilds of AK. Another early night but no surprises, we were woken by the heavy rain that came in sometime around midnight. It wasn’t going to let up!
Just about to start.....
Day 10 64km/40 Miles on the Chitina River
Yet again we were lugging all of our gear in the rain, but with our dry suits on and a gentle push we were off. Time to put these Kokopelli packrafts to the test. Where does everything go you ask!? We had secured our bikes to the bow of the boats using a series of Tribe One Outdoor bungee cords (Tribe One do some amazing attatchment systems), and our packs were stuffed between our legs.
The water was freezing and appeared to have risen over night which was no surprise given the deluge of rain. After about 30 minutes we needed to stop to re-temper the boats (this is when the air temperature in the boat tubes is more than the water temperature and your raft begins to deflate, requiring you to need to re-inflate a little).
The water was moving fast and according to the Garmin we were cruising in some places at almost 12km/hr. We zig -zagged our way down the river enjoying the free ride whilst taking in the sight, the bald eagles and the occasional jumping fish!
Negotiating our way around sand banks along with the different currents & water depths. It was at times hard to choose what side of the sand banks to go towards, being I couldn’t see over my bike on the bow, giving a limited view of what was right in front, resulting in me often ping ponging off the sandbank wall :) It was an amazing feeling to soak in the vast open spaces and the absolute wilderness we were in.
There were some short rapids to negotiate but nothing to serious and with the constant rain we were glad to have pre-made lunch so we could just eat in the rafts and continue to make ground. The rafts were so capable it was impressive, all I had to do was point it in the right direction and go; through the more difficult and turbulent stretches all it took was a few extra paddle strokes to keep going. The regular floating driftwood was something we needed to keep an eye out for and avoid at all costs.
We watched the rain and storm roll in behind us, floating backward at regular intervals to keep an eye on the impending squall and its distance from us. After 6 more hours in the water it was time to look for a campsite. This was the first time either of us had camped or even tried to find a camp on a float trip.
We settled on a very large sand bar which appeared to be sitting high out of the water. I hit the beach first and dragged my raft far up out of the water before returning to help Liz drag her boat up. It had been a long day on the water, 7 hours in total and the storm had now reached us, with the wind ripping through the giant valley surrounding us and not a tree in sight to tie down to, it was time to improvise.
I got the tent set up and Liz jumped in to hold it down and get out of her dry suit while I wandered up and down the beach collecting as much oversized driftwood as I could to create a makeshift wind break to protect the tent. Next I collected big river rocks to stack around the vestibules of the tent to prevent the wind and sand from being blown under (and in) the tent. Most importantly, I dragged the boats further out of the water to make sure they were safe, we couldn’t have our transport drifting off in the night!
Thanks to my dry suit on I wasn’t freezing to death and feeling satisfied with our setup for the evening it was time to rest. This did not stop us from having to have all her our wet weather gear ready to go just in case a squall rips the tent to shreds in the night.
Normally we would never eat in the tent but given the circumstances it was either; eat in the tent and risk a bear attack or die of hypothermia. We chose bear attack and ate our wraps in the tent! The wind continued to pelt through and the rain never stopped but we were dry and warm in our little cocoon so we were happy. Day 1 was a success :)
Day 11 48km/30 Miles Chitina camp
We were woken with the sound of water to the left which was interesting, considering the river was on our right? A quick scan out the tent door showed the water had risen 3 feet and there was a moat between us and our boats. We were on mini island! I jumped up pretty quickly and drag the boats further up the bank…. The stern was already in the water! Close call!
It was another chilly start to the day but finally rain had stopped and looking like a nice morning to be out on the river. After our oats we readied our things, re-inflated the rafts, made sure everything was secure and launched off for day 2 on the river. We were cold but some swift paddling to get the blood pumping took care of that. Today’s goal was to make it to the confluence of the Chitina and Copper Rivers.
We soaked in the views of the fireweed over the rolling hills which surrounded us, it was breathtaking. The different coloured sands in the cliff faces, the landslides and constant bubbling water made for a remarkable experience. The surroundings felt like they were constantly changing this stretch of the valley was almost desert like.
For this part of the river the key was to stay away from the walls of the cliffs and out of the faster moving waters, while keeping an eye out for driftwood and any other debris.
A little more on the Packraft: The T-zips within the rafts were amazing, you could store everything you wanted to keep dry in them. I pretty much had everything in there except lunch and a warm piece of clothing.
My T-zip held : Tent, Tent Poles, Tent Pegs, Fuel for the stove, all other clothing, Wooly socks, spare food and an emergency fire kit. I kept the sattelite phone tucked into my dry suit and another emergency fire starting kit with it. The tough thing with the T-zip is once it’s zipped up you can’t undo it without part deflating the raft, sure makes you think when you do your packing!
The food for the raft section. I was re packaged and then stored in dry bags in the T-zip
We wound our way down the river every now and then hitting a small stretch of turbulent water and always staying close to each other so we could call out if need be. It was a time consuming task trying to pick our way through some shallow waters and the braids, a few times we found ourselves out of water and dragging the boat back into a deeper channel to get moving again.
We had been well advised to reach the confluence early before the wind kicked up. The strong winds occur because where the two rivers merge in a large delta is about 8-10km across so the winds just come up the valley and gain strength through here.
Of course, we arrived close to the confluence late in the day and were instantly blown backwards. Even with the strong current on our side it was impossible to fight the winds. Admitting defeat, we paddled across the river and into a small protected bay which was surrounded by , time to scout a camp spot.
There were no animal signs or bear prints around and just enough room to drag the boats out of the water and set the tent up. In other words, this spot was perfect. I quickly set up the tent on the flattest a part of the “beach“… we were going to be on a fair old slant tonight but beggars can’t be choosers.
I managed to get a fire going so we could dry our things. I learnt to appreciate the small things, the simple act of being able to get a fire going and dry everything is an amazing feeling . That`s the thing with these expeditions, they get rid of all the bullshit we fill our lives with, strip it down to just the bare essentials of survival - Food, Water & Shelter. It`s what we live for. Simplicity…..
Drying shoes by the fire......
Dinner was cooked over the fire and we even had a hot cup of tea, but there was a problem, the river water was rising. Over the last few hours we had been watching it rise and strip our beach away. Minute by minute it took over our little beach.
We thought it a good idea to put sticks in the sand to mark the rising water level and we had one stick that indicated “time to move the tent“. We went to bed hoping to make it through the night without having to move the tent.
Day 12 48km/30 Miles Camp Tiekel ( Wood Canyon )
Thankfully the river only rose about another 2feet so the tent was safe overnight. We had a restful sleep but were up early and keen to make it through the confluence before the wind picked up. Paddling the final few kilometers we came into the vast river delta where it seemed to so easy to get lost. The delta was enormous around 10km wide with mountains and ridgelines running in every direction. What another incredible start to the day.
Surprisingly rain hadn’t started so we were in for a real treat. The biggest obstacle of the entire float lay just a few km downstream from us. Wood Canyon, it’s an enormous canyon only a few km long but with a bad reputation for flipping and swallowing large rafts (up to 14ft we heard). We were nervous to say the least. Thanks to fighting a head wind we arrived at the mouth of the canyon with arms were a little weary, neither of us have ever paddled 100+ km in 2 days before.
The entrance to the canyon loomed in front of us. Pretty impressive really to see these cliff tops leering down, telling us to enter if we dare. The instructions were simple: Stay to the Middle. All the boils and eddies were on the side walls so if we kept to the center we would be fine. The boils would rise a foot or 2 right in front of you out of nowhere and then just disappear. If you happened to hit one there was a risk of being sucked down with it and popping up somewhere further down the river. Sounded straightforward right, stick to the middle… The minute we were drawn in, it was FAST. The water channels fed in from an incredibly wide mouth into this one small canyon. It was time to work. I paddled my heart out to stay off the walls and at every turn I would start paddling away from the opposite corner as soon as I could see it.
Really, we were being dragged around more than paddling around. We got about half way down the canyon and the rapids were beginning to take their toll. We managed to beach, thanks to the help of an eddy, onto the single piece of accessible terrain through the entire canyon.
We rested a little got some sugary snacks into our systems and decided to tie together to get through the last stretch of water. Thankfully we had passed through the fast-moving rapids and now it was just about staying in the center and off the walls. We floated through and celebrated as we exited the canyon. This was definitely the scariest part of the entire journey so far. Shortly after exiting we untied and drifted with the current down to a small sand bank where we landed for lunch.
Back on the river after lunch we thought we heard a plane…. Yep sure enough a small Cessna buzzed around the corner and flew so low over our heads we could see the people waving at us. We think it was our pilot from the other day as he told us he had a white Cessna. He also mentioned he would check up on us, so I guess this was it :)
After another 8 hours on the water we washed up to our next campsite, this one even had a river flowing through it. It had been marked on a map from the other raft companies for us. It was a reasonably large beach area that had some protection from the elements by the trees growing on the banks. We unloaded and set up the tent in the most secluded spot so we could be out of the wind and rain that had yet again begun to fall again.
I gathered fire wood again and spent the next 2 hours trying to get a driftwood fire going. I was finally successful and we dried out our things again. I was again overwhelmed by the immense pleasure of having a fire (and maybe the long effort to get it going!). After taking so long to get the wet drift wood fire going it was hard to leave it but it had been a hard day on the river and we were knackered.
Exhausted at the end of another long day.....
Surrounded by mountains.
GET AFTER IT..............
I am an ultra runner, Mountain biker, Packrafter, Climber, Ironman, Endurance Athlete