“Have fun in the Last Frontier.” That is what was said to me when I had to make an emergency call on a satellite phone to alert someone that our raft ripped open in two places while we were on the North Fork Koyukuk River in the Gates of the Arctic, far above the Arctic Circle and far away from any other humans.
“Uh hi Eric, this is Brett. Yeah, the plane just dropped us off an hour ago and we’ve been on the river a whopping fifteen minutes when some of the shady patchwork looks like it got snagged and caused old punctures to turn into two giant rips. We are going to try to patch it and hope it holds, but wanted to let you know if you don’t see us in five days to send out a search plane.”
His response consisted mostly of, “Have fun in the Last Frontier!” I pulled the phone away from my ear and looked at it to see if there was a tagline button that I accidentally pressed with my cheek or if that was really how the proprietor of the Bettles Lodge responded to me when I told him we might die out here.
It all started with an afternoon flight from Bettles, Alaska traveling about 55 air miles north to a gravel bar near Fishless Creek at the Gates of the Arctic that was about 85 river miles away.
The North Fork Koyukuk snakes around many mountains and has tons of braids (channels going in multiple directions that crisscross and eventually end up in the same place again). This river is like a woman’s mind – we never knew where it was going next. The river literally goes in every direction, including north again, as it eventually flows south and continues on past our ending spot of Bettles. And like some women, this river has many personalities. Sometimes it was mellow and forgiving, other times it kicked our ass. Sometimes it was fast and narrow, others it was wide open with many forks. At first, we’d try to choose our channels and forks in the river, but we quickly learned to just go where the river takes us.
As we marveled at the winding river in the wilderness that would be our home for the next six days, the plane started descending. The little three-seater honed in on a gravel bar which is basically a silty sandbar covered in stones. These gravel bars are prevalent along the river, but not very many of them can be landed on by an airplane. In fact, the one we were about to land on didn’t look anything like an airstrip unless you consider a short length of somewhat cleared land between forest and river consisting of rocks and boulders to be a runway. I quickly understood why the plane’s tires were deflated so much upon takeoff. The landing was as smooth as one can be when its on a pile of rocks and requires slamming on the brakes.
We unloaded our gear and the pilot took what I hoped would NOT be the last photo ever taken of us by another person again.
And then he was gone. The pilot. With his plane. And our only real connection to civilization.
I don’t know how to describe the feeling I had as the plane disappeared and it was just Tom and me standing on a gravel bar next to a majestic river in a magical land with only ourselves to rely on for our safety, sustenance and the journey back to civilization. It was a bit of a rush. High on life, the land, the risks and the fun. Its similar to the common way people try to describe the experience of Burning Man – you can’t. It’s like trying to explain the color green to a blind person. And yet as I still try to put this feeling in words, someone posted the following online:
When that plane disappeared and I looked all around me, it was a perfect moment of yugen.
We looked at all our gear and the deflated raft that we trusted was tested by the Bettles Lodge before we loaded it on the plane and decided the first thing we needed to do was have a beer. We sat down and toasted to, well, yugen I guess. And we did so under the marvelous peaks of Mt. Doonerak, the Matterhorn of the Gates of the Arctic. Doonerak stayed with us for three days and I have only about 372 pictures of it from various angles, distances and light.
It was time to inflate the raft. We spread it out and were stoked (roll eyes here) to see four valves on the floats and two more on the benches that would be blown up with a tiny foot pump that looks like it was from the Alaskan gold rush of 1896 complete with duct tape wrapped around a leaky connection between the pump valve and the hose.
About two hours later, we had a fully inflated raft and totally pumped up calves – Hans and Franz would be proud. We loaded up our gear which consisted of three bear cans, one cooler, one large bin, three large dry bags, one dry duffel and three small dry bags. Considering we didn’t know exactly what we were doing, we did pretty well. We were finally ready to shove off.
Tom took the captain’s position in the back of the raft. I sat in front. I will give Tom major props for being really good at steering the raft. This river ended up requiring some serious maneuvering and if I were in back, we’d still be impaled on a tree. And I still applaud Tom’s skills even though he did indeed almost impale me on a tree on day two or three, but that is a different story.
We decided to pop open beers but quickly realized this was not a float and chug part of the river. We got in a decent groove of teamwork and were enjoying the huge mountains all around us while trying to steer around trees and rocks. We were on about our 12th minute on the river when suddenly there was a loud THUMP!
Tom yelled, ”We are taking in water fast! We have to get to shore as soon as possible!”
I said, “Oh shit!”
And perhaps the quote of the trip came next. Tom said, “Row like you’ve never rowed before!!!”
I said, “Oh shit!”
It was scary; for me anyway. I couldn’t see what happened since I was in front and there was a ton of water pooling at my feet. Whatever hit us was under water and neither of us ever saw it. There was nothing we could have done differently.
All I could think of was those cartoons where two dudes are rowing in a lake while their boat is sinking and pretty soon all you see are their chests and heads while they are still furiously rowing the oars underwater. I thought about gear floating down the river, hypothermia, drowning and bears feasting on our carcasses. And I thought about how hard it was to row to the left side of the river to the gravel bar when the current was taking us right.
We came around a bend and since I was in front, I could see the gravel bar to our right first. “Tom, go right instead!” And we were able to glide in easily and safely to a large gravel bar.
In hindsight, we weren’t really in deep trouble. Our gear was secured better than Fort Knox. And the floats kept us afloat. The rips in our raft were on the floor and although that isn’t good, it sure won’t make us sink. And although the water was freezing cold, the outside air was quite nice (we had 60s and 70s most of the trip). Plus, the water was shallow enough to stand as we got close to shore. I was never in panic mode, but admit the initial scare was really no worries. I’ve just never been on a raft with two major gashes in it taking on water on a river in the middle of the Arctic before, have you?
We inspected the raft and saw this:
A big L shaped rip next to another long rip. I caught sight of something blue in the river and found two old patches that had been on our raft. Based on the lack of glue on the L shaped cut and the shoddy patches, we figured out what happened. A tree branch must have snagged the edge of a poorly applied patch and pushed up under it until catching on the original puncture. Then it went through and acted like a knife slicing open the raft. We must have turned the raft to cause the ninety degree slice and can only assume the same thing happened with the smaller patch.
We unloaded the raft and turned it over. There are so many patches on the raft, we felt like idiots for accepting this is as our floatation vessel for the next six days. A three-year old would have said, “Uh, is there a raft that doesn’t have three-dozen holes in it?”
I found the patch kit, which also was from the gold rush of 1896 and was not surprised to see there were no instructions. And of course nobody told us what to do if we needed to patch the raft, nor did we ask, so we were on our own. The task at hand:
Tom is great at steering and rowing a raft, but he didn’t have confidence in his ability to fix it, so I took on that responsibility while he worked on a campfire (he is awesome at this by the way, including disposing of and leaving no trace in the morning).
I knew we had to let the raft dry, so I figured I should tap into the emergency resource we were smart enough to bring along – a satellite phone. Of course we were not smart enough to test it before we got on the plane, but hey, its all part of having fun in the Last Frontier. As I called the Bettles Lodge on the phone I thought we’d never use, much less in the first 20 minutes of the trip, I knew we’d be fine because if we had trouble and had to stay, the gravel bar we were on was big enough for a plane and there aren’t many better places to camp that I’ve ever seen. It just would have been a bummer to not do the raft trip – something we had been planning for months.
Luckily the phone worked and I had the conversation with Eric that I summarized at the opening of this story. And again, the gist of his response was, “Have fun in the Last Frontier!” This became our motto for the rest of the trip.
“Brett, look at these fresh bear tracks going right by our tent!”
“We are having fun in the Last Frontier!”
“Tom, we are about to slam into that pointy tree branch sticking out of the water!”
“Just having fun in the Last Frontier!”
“Holy shit, these mosquitos are horrible, even with the head nets. We sure are having fun in the Last Frontier!”
Tom had a sweet fire going at this point and we set up our tent a good 75 yards away in what might be the best spot I’ve ever camped in.
We had a great dinner and more beers. Perhaps even a shot of whiskey or three. Since the sun never sets this time of year, we had plenty of sunlight to dry the raft. I figured I was buzzed enough to go patch our raft of life. I grabbed the patch kit and wasn’t sure what to make of the messages all over it to “open only if needed,” nor the fact the glue was dated from 2011 (I may have exaggerated about the gold rush).
I buffed the edges of the gash wounds, cut out shapes and rounded the corners (when I remembered – forgot to on two of the four patches). The glue is like a wet rubber bandy rubber cement. A brush connected to the lid is supposed to enable you to spread the goo over the surface but it was hard to work with because it was so sinewy and elastic. Plus, the fumes. Holy cow. I’ve never taken any drugs in my life, nor gotten high, but now I’m not sure I can legitimately say that. Between the beer, whiskey and inhaling glue, no wonder I forgot to round some of my edges!
We did all we could do and needed to let the glue dry. Plus, even though it was light out, Alaska truly is the land of the midnight sun. It was time for bed. We crashed and although I’ve never prayed for anything in my life, I may or may not have prayed those patches would hold on the river.
In the morning, we ate a hearty breakfast (pop tarts) and quickly broke camp. We were anxious to see if the patches worked and since our first day OTR (became our code for On The River) was only fifteen minutes we were eager to be on the water. We discussed if we should test the raft before loading it up and immediately agreed that would be way too sensible so we loaded that sucker up, did a few chants to the river and raft gods and were ready to shove off for day two OTR.
It was a glorious day. Sunny blue skies, probably seventy degrees. Mt. Doonerak towered over us with glistening snowcapped peaks. We pushed off and rowed down the river for a few minutes. We went over a few rocks and shallow areas. No water in the boat.
We were stoked. The fricking patches were holding strong! Although we both had a little distrust of the raft with all those other old patches, we felt great about our situation and went on to have a beautiful day. The rest of this day is a whole other story, but it involves two hours OTR, two hours on shore for lunch and then three more hours OTR of which thirty minutes were nothing but crazy fun wild rapids. And the raft held strong!
Mt. Doonerak kept an eye on us all day and we felt like we were now part of the mountains and even more so part of the river.