Traversing the Brooks Range – A Father-Son-Son Adventure

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Home Forums Campfire Member Trip Reports Traversing the Brooks Range – A Father-Son-Son Adventure

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    BPL Member



    Watching BPL member Buck Nelson’s Alone Across Alaska: 1,000 Miles of Wilderness planted a seed – or should I say: created a need – to visit the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska. For several years I systematically increased my skill and comfort level for going over talus and scree passes (SHR 2012) walking all day long in boggy ground and dealing with cold wet weather (TGO 2013) and learning packrafting.

    Once I felt I was ready, I started to plan the trip in detail. There was no way for me to take enough time off to complete the 1,000 mile trip that Buck undertook. The longest time I could take off was four weeks. So I tried to find the most interesting piece that I could squeeze into those four weeks. Further research into other trips like Andrew Skurka's Alaska-Yukon Expedition brought me to Roman Dial’s Triple A: All Across the Gates. Andrew Skurka and others like Kristin Gates seemed to follow the route that Roman Dial described. Roughly 400 miles was within the range that I could do in four weeks – so it became the starting point for my planning.

    Two months later, after endless hours of looking over topo maps, Google Earth and other sources I had my itinerary ready. During that time my twin sons showed an ever increasing interest in that trip. The last time they had gone with me on a longer backpacking trip was the JMT in 2010 when they were 15. After that, girls and motorcycles became more interesting to them than backpacking with dad. The prospect of backpacking with my two sons for a month was extremely exciting for me and we planned a couple of preparation trips together – mainly packrafting and a whitewater rescue class – before they committed to the trip. We were ready and could hardly wait for July ’14 to roll around.


    We had of course researched the weather and knew the historic average temperatures around the time of our start are 60F. We also knew the historic range of temperatures was between the mid 20s and low 70s – and were prepared accordingly. Right before we started, the National Weather Service issued a flood warning for several rivers in the Brooks Range and reported that the rivers were already bank full. The 7 day forecast predicted low temperatures down to freezing and snow. So we knew what we were walking into.
    Arctic Circle

    In case we wouldn’t know, the ranger in Coldfoot at the Dalton Highway made us again aware. He told us that we would most likely not be able to cross the rivers and should just turn around and come back at the first hard river crossing. The fact that we had never been in Alaska and our light-weight gear choices made him visibly uncomfortable when seeing our itinerary. He handed us finally our “permit” – an orange bandana with lots of advice on it. So we wore this cool bandana while traversing the Brooks Range.
    Philipp with Bandana

    The first three days we had rain and temperatures in the mid to high 30s that dipped at night below freezing. During the day we would constantly cross water – from one bank to the other – often over a 100 times per day
    Creek Crossing

    – and sometimes climb up scree and talus slopes to get around obstacles.

    Walking all day in wet shoes and wet pants in low temperatures facing the wind became an exercise of staying warm. The North Fork of the Koyukuk was indeed barely crossable. Walking along the Ernie River was impossible – it was completely full – so we walked the ridge through sponga and tussocks. For the next two days it snowed and the temperatures dropped even further.

    In addition to it all, coils of my tent zipper blew out. We had plenty of repair stuff with us for field repairing almost everything on our trek, but there was nothing I could do to repair the coils of that zipper. Careful site selection to stay out of the wind with my now open tent became important. Something that is not always easy in the tundra. Due to the weather we made slow progress and began to ration food in case we would take a couple extra days to reach our first resupply.

    While the above description might sound sort of bad, it was indeed a good experience. The three of us worked as a team. My sons never complained about anything; they dealt with everything that was thrown at them in a thoughtful and skilled way. I’m extremely proud of them.
    Daniel with Dall Sheep Horn

    Dave Thomas, a BPL member from Alaska, who had helped us during the planning stage with flights and then even drove us over 300 miles from Fairbanks to our starting point, jumped into action when I texted him about the broken tent zipper and organized a replacement. 2 day shipping to Alaska took 5 days. So we had some time to ponder our options while advancing across to the other side of the Continental Divide.

    1. Increase our daily mileage from 15 miles to x miles to make up for lost time
    2. Have the bush pilot, who re-supplies us next, pick us up on his way and bring us directly to our re-supply point to get back on schedule
    3. Have the bush pilot pick us up and leapfrog us beyond our re-supply point to avoid the toughest passes that were now covered in snow and use the won time to have a more relaxed pace
    4. Drop out

    In our discussion my son Daniel said roughly: “Dad, we know we can backpack 12 and more hours a day with a full pack just to stay warm, we know we can deal with the temperatures, the rain and the snow, we know we can ration our food and live on it, we know we can handle deep, fast, cold river crossings and be wet all day, we know we can start a fire from wet wood and deal with on-setting hypothermia – we have done all that and more last week. But this is not Ultimate Survival Alaska. This is a four week trip in the wilderness we undertake together, that starts now to feel more like an expedition.” That basically settled it. It was not important that we walked every step of the planned itinerary, it was important that we spend four weeks together in the wilderness – talking around the campfire every night and having fun.

    Once we decided for option 3, we arranged everything with Dave’s help. Our bush pilot (Brooks Range Aviation) housed us for free in a cabin until my replacement tent arrived. According to our pilot the day our tent arrived was the first day since May with absolutely clear blue sky. He used that opportunity to treat us to a breath-taking flight – not over, but – thru the mountains. It was amazing to see the Brooks Range this way –
    and missing that exciting part of our itinerary didn’t feel bad any longer at all.
    Flying Close


    The south slope of the Brooks Range had completely different weather than what we experienced the week before on the north slope. Now we had temperatures in the 60s and 70s. Instead of backpacking we were now packrafting. We would fish a lot while floating down the river

    and from time to time portage to a nearby lake to fish for different fish species. We caught pike, burbot, char, grayling, salmon, dolly varden and lake trout. Every evening we would have fresh fish over a fire. Floating the Noatak was just the right thing after the hard week before. Catching the first salmon and fighting it for 30 minutes was exciting and kept us talking for a while.
    Cooking Fish

    When we had to wait for our next re-supply we cooked for the first time in camp. Before, we had always stopped for cooking our meals and then moved on to make camp miles away. We spent two nights in the same spot and got promptly visited two times by a grizzly bear. The grizzly checked us out and even swam the river to come across to our side.


    We were happy to move on once we got our re-supply.


    We backpacked from the Noatak River across the Nakmaktuak Pass to the Ambler River. Walking up to the pass was easy gravel bar walking.
    Last Pass

    Once we reached the top, we left the arctic tundra behind us. Going down to the Ambler we got back into boreal forest. But getting from the pass to the Ambler was not as straight forward as getting from the Noatak to the pass. The Ambler was cutting deep slot canyons through the lime stone with some interesting waterfalls, that we couldn’t walk down.
    Slot Canyon

    So we staid high and after a couple of miles tried to descend to the Ambler. The descent seemed to be straight forward with some scrambling and even climbing – but nothing we felt uncomfortable with – until we reached the last waterfall. Right below the fall was the Ambler – we could see it 20-25 ft below us, but first had to get down that last cliff. Free climbing was not an option and I belayed first Philipp and Daniel down and then self-belayed. We didn’t have mountaineering gear with us and had to improvise with what we had (throw-bag for rafting, tent guyline, etc.). Getting down the cliff was true team work and putting together our solution for our missing gear reminded me of being on a COPE (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) course with the Boy Scouts. All the skills Philipp, Daniel and I had learnt on those courses came in very handy.
    Lowering Pack


    Our descent back to the Ambler had taken half a day and we stopped at the river for camp. At night it started to rain and never stopped. By midday we got a thunderstorm. We were criss-crossing the river all morning from gravel bar to gravel bar to decide when to set in the packrafts. While walking the gravel bar something blue caught my eye up on the bank. It turned out to be a blue staff sack. From that vintage point I could see more items in the woods up on the bank. We found a rainfly for a tent, a sleeping pad, a sweater, a bib, two stuff sacks, a pair of cross-country skis, a ski boot, and a pulk. Something serious must have happened there, because no one would leave their gear (especially sleeping pad and tent) 70 miles away from civilization. The gear seemed to have been there for one or two winters. We took photos of every item and moved on while having really sobering thoughts about how fast things can happen in Alaska and wondering what might have happened to this person. When we later shared the photos and the location with people in Ambler they connected that to a missing person and are now trying to find out whether this gear might have belonged to Thomas Seibold who went missing in October 2012.

    During our search for more of the left-behind gear the rain had increased and turned into a thunderstorm. The gravel bars along the Ambler got smaller by the minute and all of a sudden a brown mass of muddy water with trees swimming on it came down the river. It filled the river completely so we got to high ground, made camp and waited until the next morning. By next morning the water had receded some, but it was still impossible to walk the gravel bars, so we decided to set in the packrafts and float the Ambler. It made for an exciting, fast, splashy ride for the first 13+ miles.
    Splashy Water

    After that the river widened. It was still splashy but the turns and cliffs were not any longer an issue. The two graylings we caught that day for dinner had both shrews in their stomachs. That was pretty amazing. We had not seen that before and now we caught two graylings in different locations with little mice in their stomach. They must have swept down the day before by the brown muddy flash flood.


    Several miles down the Ambler we came around a bend where a man was sitting on shore and waving at us to come over. It turned out that this place was owned by a homesteader who was living here for 40 years. Philipp and Daniel were completely intrigued by him and his stories. They had so many questions and soaked it all up. The techniques for preparing logs for building a log cabin, the hunting stories, the stories about his sled dogs and his participations in the Idatarod and much more. He eventually invited us to share his meal with him – fresh potatoes, fresh onions, some cheese and roast beef. The boys were in heaven after three weeks of freeze-dried food. The homesteader eventually invited us to spend the night in his cabin. The next morning the discussions turned more to our adventure and especially our gear. He was very interested in every item of gear we carried. He was very surprised by the weights and took lots of notes about brands and models. He invited us for a second night, but we needed to move on.


    We floated around a bend and the current took us straight at a momma bear with her two cubs. We had discussed the potential for such a situation before and what to do. We had already raised her interest and the current was taking us fast closer to her and her cubs. So we paddled fast across the river while being swept even closer to her. Once we reached the other shore, we got out to stand up and look like humans and talked loud. She decided to also stand up and inspect us some more. Wow that bear was impressively tall when standing on her hind feet. We kept talking in a loud calm voice to her and luckily she decided to take her cubs into the brush away from us.


    Two nights later we couldn’t sleep due to the incessant howling of a pack of wolves. They sounded close but we didn’t dare to open the tent to take a look. The howling got pretty intense and later we heard some loud crashing through the brush near our tent and then splashing in the water. The next morning we found moose and wolf tracks on the beach – wondering whether they were unrelated or whether a hunt had taken place.


    The last 50 miles down the river to the little village of Ambler were filled with many interesting finds of artefacts. We found abandoned homesteads, abandoned gold panning gear, mining claims, and abandoned hunting camps with lots of gear. We stopped often to explore.
    Three packrafts
    We also found an age-old wooden sail boat in the river bank that was slowly being revealed again after being buried for many decades. The boys were excited about every find
    and explored everything in detail. How many years might this broken snowshoe have been on the ground before the tree grew out of it? What will it look like in 10 or 20 years when the tree grows higher? For a while Philipp sported a very special hood ornament on his packraft – a caribou rack that he found and then used to hang his fishing pole and other gear.
    Hood Ornament


    We had fished a lot and ate fresh fish every day. We had caught several salmon along our trip – some took 30 minutes to get them to shore. While floating the Ambler, Philipp got all of a sudden a fish on his line that was taking his breath. That fish was over 3 feet long and jumped several times more than 4 or 5 feet out of the water. It was amazing to watch that fight. Eventually Philipp landed a sheefish that measured 38 inches and was heavier than any of the salmons we caught. That was the last fish we caught on our trip – what a great finale.


    On our last night out in the wilderness we met a man in a motorboat. He invited us for the next morning for breakfast to his cabin. We had a wonderful breakfast with him and his wife and talked a long time about Alaska and their observations during the decades they have lived there. Again Philipp and Daniel were very interested and watched them feed their sled dogs with salmon. They shared with us air-dried moose and air-dried salmon. Daniel would have loved to take one of the salmon sides home. The boys enjoyed the rocking chair made from moose antlers and would like to make their own version of it one day.
    Rocking Chair from Moose Antlers
    Once we needed to leave for the airfield, the couple came almost all the way with us to go blueberry picking. One of their dogs – Grey Paw – accompanied us and we had a last nice walk thru the woods with interesting discussions.


    During our journey we had conversations with several Alaskans about the Alaskan Inuit and all the changes to their culture due to oil, Dish TV, global warming, etc. In Kotzebue we met an Inupiat from Point Hope who talked with us for the rest of the day – actually until 1:30 am.
    It was very interesting to hear his stories and see his photos and videos from whale hunts, polar bear hunts, life in the village, and respect for elders. Hearing him talk about the waterproofness of the winter boots that his wife made for him from spotted seal and telling us how much better they are then the Goretex stuff people like us would use, made us chuckle. Hearing him talk about long sunless winters, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and other issues in his community was sobering.


    How can I summarize such a trip? With this trip report I’m trying to provide some short glimpses into our experience. For me it was absolutely fantastic to spend four weeks with my two sons in the Alaskan wilderness. Being out there with them, seeing them laugh at the camp fire,
    Laughing at the Campfire
    working together on overcoming obstacles,
    Daniel getting ready to climb down
    seeing them catch fish and roast them over the open fire,
    Cooking Salmon
    hearing their conversations with homesteaders and indigenous people, was an incredibly rewarding experience for me.

    Whenever we talked with other people and I happened to show pride in “my teenage sons”, Philipp and Daniel objected because “teenager” sounded belittling to them. Sure, they are nineteen, which makes them technically teenagers, but they wanted to be seen as adults. During our trip I gained a lot of additional respect for them. The way they dealt with tough situations, the way they handled themselves among experienced adults, the way they explored the wilderness with an open mind – it all added up to mature adults. So, going forward I will use “my grown sons” instead of “my teenage sons” – they earned it all the way across the Brooks Range.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Definitely a great adventure with some obstacles overcome. Good that you were able to share it with your sons (or good that they were there to help dissuade the bear).

    Steven Paris
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    Outstanding once again, Manfred!

    David Chenault
    BPL Member


    Locale: Queen City, MT


    Jack M


    What an awesome adventure.

    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    Great trip! Just excellent. Serious parent envy.

    Andy Duncan
    BPL Member


    Locale: SoCal

    Thank you for taking the time to put together another inspiring trip report!

    Katherine .
    BPL Member


    Locale: pdx

    wonderful to read, view.

    Andy Stow
    BPL Member


    Locale: Midwest USA

    Really inspiring. I'd love to do something even half as nice as this with my sons in a few years (they're 13 and 15 now.)

    Gordon Gray
    BPL Member


    Locale: Front Range, CO

    You keep outdooing yourself!

    Andrew F


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    I nominate Manfred for father of the year. (And for the last several years, too…)

    How was the rafting? Did you guys get into anything technical? The flash flood is a bit scary, not something I would have expected in Alaska.

    Also, doesn't your Haven have two zippered doors? Did you consider duct taping the one side closed?

    d k
    BPL Member


    Manfred –

    It was just amazing to see and hear about this trip; I am in awe of all three of you! I'm sure this trip has given you memories that will last all your lives.

    BPL Member



    The rafting was fantastic. The versatility of the packrafts allowed us to be one moment in the packraft on the river with the backpack attached,
    portage the next moment seamlessly by just putting on the backpack that now had the raft attached
    and then fish a close-by lake for other fish species like pike or lake trout

    The flash flood was very interesting in several aspects. We were wading in crystal clear water during the morning. Even when the water was rising due to the rain the water staid very clear. When Daniel pointed out the trees coming down the river behind us, everything changed to brown muddy water. The water level changed only by 1 – 1.5 ft. But that was enough to flood the gravel bars and make further crossings impossible. The next morning the water had returned to almost crystal clear. I already described the shrews in the graylings' stomachs, which I attribute to the flash flood – it must have carried several nests that must have been in the river bank or between the roots of the trees that were washed downstream.

    While the first 13-15 miles of the Ambler River were splashy and had some waves, I wouldn't describe them as "technical". We were wearing drysuits, but I wouldn't mind doing that stretch again in just rain gear. I would compare it to the class II stretch of the South Fork of the American River between Coloma and Greenwood Creek – the water on the Ambler was considerably faster, but with no real obstacles in the river – only cliffs to watch out for in fast bends that could be 100 or less degrees (basically you are going towards a wall).

    Yes, my Haven has two doors. Unfortunately both zippers broke. The first zipper had a slider problem, where the slider would still move up and down, but not close the zipper. So I became very cautious when staking out those two panels. When the coils of the other zipper broke and the second door was permanently open, I felt it was prudent to get a replacement and not risk being stuck in a tent with open doors in the middle of the tundra in a storm with heavy rain or snow.

    Andrew F


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Drysuits, rafts, fishing gear, big bear canisters… you guys must have had heavy packs!

    What fishing gear did you bring? I am sure you didn't spend 30 minutes fighting a salmon with a BPL Hane rod.

    BPL Member



    our packs had a baseweight of 15 lbs
    Arc Bl;ast
    before we picked up our packrafts with the first re-supply.

    Afterwards our baseweight grew to 29 lbs
    Arc Blast with packraft
    not too bad for having packrafts, drysuits, life vests, etc.

    It would be easily possible to save over 3 lbs of that per person, but during our preparation we agreed that we would rather carry more weight and play it safe.

    I brought my BPL Hane as I was only fishing for food – mainly grayling.
    Daniel brought his fly rod – a Brownsea Island from March Brown.
    Philipp brought a 4 piece spin casting rod and caught by far the most fish and the most species of fish.

    BPL Member


    Absolutely amazing and inspiring Manfred.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    >"The flash flood is a bit scary, not something I would have expected in Alaska. "

    Yeah, Alaska went full Alaska on the Kopisch boys that month. Rainfall in Interior Alaska was 340% of normal prior to my picking them up in Fairbanks.

    spelt with a t
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rangeley, ME

    Kudos, Manfred. Just outstanding.

    Andrew F


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Did you get a replacement Haven? Or something else? Did Philip and Daniel take the Duplex? How'd that work out?

    BPL Member



    Despite missing the opportunity in group gear weight savings, we chose our gear in a way that would allow us to operate as two independent parties if need required it. So we carried two cook sets, two inReach Explorer, and also two tents.

    Philipp and Daniel used a Zpacks Duplex and I used a SMD Cuben Haven with Haven Inner NetTent.
    Duplex and Haven
    It was an interesting 4 week side-by-side comparison of those two tents under Alaskan weather conditions that spanned everything from rain to sunshine, from fog to snow, from freezing to hot.
    Once the zipper on my Haven failed I contacted David Thomas via my DeLorme inReach Explorer to have a replacement Cuben Haven shipped to our bush pilot, so he could deliver it with our second re-supply. For the time until the replacement arrived I used the Haven with careful site selection and didn't have any real problems besides noisy flapping panels.

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member



    Great trip, and you have two great grown sons.

    Seems the InRreach Explorer was quite useful on this trip for tent replacement and the mid-trip flight.

    Any other comments on it?

    — Rex

    BPL Member



    yes, the inReach Explorer was quite useful. We used it in the following ways that were all very helpful to us

    1. Tracking Points – My inReach Explorer was always on and sending a tracking point every 30 minutes. My wife followed us online along and it was reassuring for her to see our progress
    2. Waypoints and Routes – I entered our intended route and our intended camps and re-supply points in the inReach Explorer and made them visible on the DeLorme website (Mapshare). That allowed my wife to not only see our current position, but also see whether we are on track and on schedule
    3. Weather Reports – We got daily weather reports via my inReach Explorer. We got both the seven day forecast and the detailed daily forecast. Both were very useful to us. We "looked ahead" over passes to see what the weather would be over there. The weather forecasts were amazingly good. We knew about coming rain/snow/thunderstorms. We had a rough idea when during the day to expect them and adjusted accordingly. We also had a rough idea about changing wind directions and wind speeds. It was all useful information for us
    4. Two-way communication – We communicated with Dave to get a tent replacement. We communicated with the bush pilot to get re-supplies earlier, etc. The ability to send AND receive messages (SMS and email) with the inReach Explorer was instrumental to us
    5. Communicate between two inReach Explorer – We carried two inReach Explorer. In certain situations we chose to separate and staid in contact via our inReach Explorer
    6. Navigate to another inReach – The inReach Explorer allows to navigate with a built-in compass to a waypoint. As a message from another inReach contains the GPS data for the location it was sent from, you can with a click of a button navigate with your inReach Explorer to the other inReach. That was very useful when we separated. I could easily find my sons' camp in the middle of brush by navigating to their "Made camp" message.
    Randy Nelson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rockies

    Manfred, How was your battery life leaving it on all the time and with your sending pattern?

    And that weather tip is awesome!

    BPL Member



    when we started out, we used the default setting of sending a tracking point every 10 minutes. In addition to that we sent a daily OK message and two messages to request weather reports from two different weather services which resulted in receiving four messages (1 for 7 day forecast and 3 for detailed 72 hour forecast). That used up more battery than we liked during our 12+ hour days (around 23%). Therefore we changed the setting to one tracking point every 30 minutes which was more than sufficient to give my wife a good idea of how we were doing. That cut our daily battery consumption to roughly 13%. So with our usage pattern the battery was basically good for one week. We used a USB + AA Foldable Solar Panel from PowerFilm to charge all our devices during the trip and had no problems during our four week trip to keep everything powered.

    Linda Alvarez
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern California

    Thank you for the detailed trip report and excellent photos. I really enjoyed reading it. Your trip is so inspiring!

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