After a whopping fifteen minutes OTR (on the river) on day one (read about that here), we were eager to get on the water on day two. Thankfully, the patches held strong and we were able to experience rafting on the North Fork Koyukuk all day! Good old Mt. Doonerak was getting further away, but no less spectacular than from day one.
Day two OTR was a grand total of five hours of us navigating around rocks, tree spears sticking out of the water, guessing which fork to take (when the river wanted to take us straight up the middle), navigating braids, riding through rapids and rowing fairly constantly.
We hit some minor rapids that don't look too crazy on video, but they were a lot of fun. I think all the amusement parks modeled their river rapid rides off these. I kept looking for a track under the water, but we were really fully on our own!
Again, props to Tom for steering the ship. We learned that as long as we made decisions early enough, Tom could consistently steer us around trouble. We also learned we had to respect the river at all times – even a ten-second attempt at putting feet up or taking a picture would often lead to the river current taking us straight at a huge boulder or massive thicket of sharp tree branches peeking out of the water. As you can see, I was very very busy following Captain Tom’s orders on rowing right or left while he navigated obstacles.
Heh heh. Tom got some breaks too. I enjoyed seeing bald eagles in Glacier Bay and Juneau, but I didn’t like being exposed to spread eagle Tom in the raft – although he worked hard back there and deserved some breaks.
Our morning OTR was two hours. And then we took a two-hour lunch break before three more hours OTR in the afternoon.
Here is a little video update of our lunch break. I didn't do a good job of talking into the mic so the volume will go up and down.
I’ve mentioned a lot of the dangers we had in the river. There was also plenty of danger on shore. True, at this point on the trip, the only wildlife we saw besides each other was a swimming Alaskan chipmunk-looking rodent (clearly I don’t know what it was, but it had a tail) and six butterflies. We were getting convinced the Alaskan Tourism Office has falsely convinced the world there are bears everywhere. But then anytime we’d pull over for a break or camp for the night, we’d see lots of animal tracks. Moose, wolf/coyote and this:
Bear tracks. Big ones!
We saw various size tracks and they were prevalent. This set was ten yards from our tent. They were already there when we set up camp and a smarter person may have chosen not to pitch a tent in the recent path of a bear, but hey, Tom had a sweet knife and we were both armed with bear spray.
There were lots of dangerous and serous issues we had to consider while rafting and camping in the Gates of the Arctic, way north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. They included all those in-river obstacles such as rocks and tree spears; and on-shore threats such as moose, wolves and bears. There was also weather and mosquitos. This is some serious stuff people! But I’ll tell you right now what the biggest problem was and it was none of those things listed above.
Our problem was that our beer was getting warm. I know! Bear spray and raft patches will not help cool off a warm IPA from Denali Brewing Company! We thought that early season in the Arctic in a freezing cold river would provide some ice patches along shore to replenish the cooler. Its one thing to lose some perishable food due to lack of coolant (we had backup food aplenty), but quite another to have to chug a warm can-o-beer.
We spent lunch break brainstorming ways to get our beer cold. The river was freezing, so there had to be a way!
We knew the answer involved towing beer in the river. But how? Tom came up with half the solution – my tent footprint bag was mesh and had a drawstring and would hold three beers. I know, I know. Three beers for two people. Clearly I need to contact REI and alert them to the design flaw of their tent footprint bags and make sure in the future they manufacture them to hold two or four beers. I thought you were better than this REI!
As we packed up the raft for the afternoon run, we looked for ways to attach the beer bag (no longer known as a tent footprint bag) to the raft. The drawstring was too short to attach to the raft and still hang in the water. We thought about the rope at the front of the raft, but it was too long and would involve tying knots.
We continued to load our gear back on the raft and I stepped on a strap on the ground. Oops. It must have fallen off a bag as we were loading.
“Tom, what is this? I found it here on the ground.”
“I dunno, it must have fallen off a bag.”
“I’m glad we found it!”
“Yeah, so how are we gonna get this beer bag attached to the raft….”
As I’m holding a strap with clips on either end that we found on the ground next to our raft. River karma at its finest.
Beer Floaty, engineered by Tom Cummings
Tom rigged up the strap to the beer bag and the whole thing to the back of the raft and it was perfect!!!! He’d have to play all-time bartender, but we’d constantly have up to three cold beers. It worked like a charm and crisis averted! No need to use the emergency satellite phone to call for a plane to drop us some ice!
We had a fabulous afternoon and four more days on the river. We didn’t have to switch to non-stop whiskey until the last day as Tom had done a great job of cleaning out the Bettles Lodge of their stash of cans of Denali. Bear schmear, holes in raft schmoles in raft – we had cold beer!
As I said earlier, we learned quickly we always had to respect the river. Anytime Tom climbed back to unhook the beer bag, grab two and replenish with two more from the cooler, I had to keep an eye on the river and avoid obstacles. This all worked fine and dandy, until, well, until we accidentally littered and lost the beer bag (containing one beer) and also the strap was floating off separately – both disappearing from sight.
It was like when a bartender drops a glass and it shatters. It happens. Problem was, Tom dropped a beer bag and strap in the beautiful Last Frontier, in the North Fork Koyukuk river, land where we leave no trace! We felt horrible. 98% of our distraught was from littering and 2% from losing our awesome beer cooling mechanism.
We spun the raft around and kept our eyes peeled for the bag and strap, but could see nothing. So we carried on, discussing what a bummer it was and then a couple minutes later I looked to my right and saw something. I jammed my right arm deep into the water next to the raft and firmly grasped the beer in the bag. I raised it triumphantly over my head and screamed, “Beeeeeeeeeeeeeer!” Not bear. Beer. If any bears were anywhere near us, they scattered after that exclamation.
We were laughing so hard and high-fiving and knew that we had to find the strap. The river wanted us to remove our crap and it was respecting us back. Tom spun our raft in circles and suddenly he saw the strap. We fought the current and rowed furiously toward the strap. It would go under and then pop up again just out of reach. We’d finally get close and both of us had multiple shots at it by reaching with an oar. We kept barely missing.
This went on for about five minutes of us ignoring the river in front of us and all around us. We were solely focused on retrieving that damn strap and we didn’t watch for sticks, rocks, tree stumps, tree spears, forks, running aground or anything. Five minutes may not seem like long, but that was more than enough time for us to get our raft ripped wide open again before we would even know we were in trouble.
Finally Tom got us really close to the strap and I was able to hook it with my oar. Another wild celebration ensued and suddenly we saw the current taking us right to danger again. We cleaned up our act and the river had forgiven us, but now we were back to our same old routine. Let up for a second and she will test us.
We steered around trouble and Tom re-rigged our beer bag. We celebrated with another round of beer – river cold ones.
Life was good. River in the Arctic Circle Selfie good.