On a remote arctic wilderness river with bone-numbingly cold whitewater, in a near constant hypothermic environment, populated with grizzlies…nothing bad happened. How do you make that into an interesting story, when the ingredients for most adventure tales, popularized in books and movies, involve conflict and almost certain death? Fortunately, a good adventure story doesn’t have to involve misery, suffering, harrowing escapes from the jaws of predators, getting lost, or physiological melt downs from participants. In fact, none of these things happen on my many remote river trips, which is just the way I like it.
Sure, there are physical and mental challenges, as well as unforeseen problems that need to be faced and dealt with. On any wilderness trip having the proper equipment, skills, and knowledge will avert most potential mishaps. For example: good judgement is the most important thing you can bring with you—along with compatible people. I learned a long time ago on a 29-day winter Grand Canyon trip that the company you keep is critical to the success of a challenging trip. If group dynamics fall apart, so does the trip.
But our trip on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River was a different sort of adventure: a spiritual and emotionally rewarding journey with lasting memories that created stronger bonds with friends and a deeper connection to wilderness, illustrating the importance of its preservation.
Arctic river trips are not just about floating the river. Equally important are the hiking and scenic landscape photography opportunities, and the Marsh Fork delivers in abundance. The highest peaks in the Brooks Range, the Romanzof Mountains are found here and eastward toward the Hulahula and Kongakut rivers, where several peaks soar to about 8,000 feet. The north slopes are treeless, and hiking in the mountains above the Marsh Fork is world class. There are no trails, but none are needed. We made three ridge hikes on our trip, and all were stunning. Here, Wendy Sailors (foreground) and Anne Silver scale a nameless ridge above a nameless creek on a warm layover day for more memorable views of the Marsh Fork Valley. Photo by Michael DeYoung. A few miles above the confluence with the Canning was our last ridge hike of 2,500 feet above camp. Lauri DeYoung cools off with a head dunk in a nameless, clear, cold steam after another unseasonably warm hiking day. Photo by Michael DeYoung. Dean Hoffer (at left) and his brother, Erich, help our pilot unload gear from the Cessna-185 at Grasser’s Strip for the seven-day packraft trip. Photo by Michael DeYoung. Flexibility is paramount on wilderness trips. Overflow ice, called aufeis, which is common on arctic rivers, can create ice canyons that cut offshore eddies—your escape routes when you want to get off river. They can also create tunnels where the river can disappear into the unknown. Last spring created much more aufeis than normal, and glacier-fed rivers, which included both the Hulahula and Marsh Fork, were running high in the warmer-than-normal weather. At the advice of veteran pilots, who fly these rivers regularly, like Matt Thoft of Silvertip Aviation, we made a last-minute switch, opting to boat the Marsh Fork instead of the Hulahula, our original river plan. The Marsh Fork, even though it would still have a lot of aufeis, would be less technical. Photo by Michael DeYoung.