Brooks Range – May/June, Dalton Hwy Express, ANWR info
Jan 13, 2021 at 1:35 pm #3693604
In the early stages of planning my second summer in the Brooks. In 2018 I backpacked for a month first in Gates west of the highway and then in Wrangell-St. Elias out of the Nabesna Rd. This summer I’m taking my dad on an early-season trip to get the summer started. So:
- In 2018 I was there in July-August. This year we need to go earlier. How early? Early to mid-June seems to be a consensus for a great time to start. Dial’s Arctic 1000 was 6/11-7/6, Skurka’s trips are 6/15-7/1, and some other (attempted/actual) traverses started mid-June. Plenty of aufeis then. Is aufeis the main concern with starting too early? Or excessive snowmelt? Temps don’t look bad even well back into May.
- In 2018 I hitched up and down the Haul road. Dad’s not keen on hitching. I came across the Dalton Highway Express. Anyone have any experience with them? Looks like I can get a one-way ride between Galbraith Lake and Fairbanks starting 6/1 for $166, which is cheaper than the tour bus companies. Also would consider a Craigslist “Uber.” Anyone done that?
- Why does everyone go to Gates? With the exception of people who are traversing the range, I see some Arrigetch Peaks trips and some Haul road to Anaktuvuk trips, but isn’t ANWR just as beautiful and walkable etc. as the other side of the road? Anyway, if anyone has comparative info on that, I’d love to hear it.
We are currently thinking of a ten-day trip with a bush plane at one end and the road at the other. Thanks for any advice.Jan 13, 2021 at 8:02 pm #3693664Luke SchmidtBPL Member
May might be too early. At least in my area there is often a lot if snow left in late May/early June. The valleys will be snow free but plenty of snow is left up on the passes. Now the Brooks Range is drier so I don’t know for sure.
One thing to be aware of is many remote villages are asking all outsiders to stay out. So you might not get into certain areas. Towns on the road system are open but fly in villages and some Native villages on the road system are basically quarantined until Covid is over.Jan 18, 2021 at 12:55 pm #3694380
Thanks, Luke. I was thinking the early-season dangers would be snowmelt- and aufeis-related, but snow on the passes, hmm.
We are now planning on using the Dalton Highway Express to get to near Atigun Pass, then doing a ten-day loop in ANWR. So lower elevations than it could be (e.g. upper Sheenjek area), but still maybe a risk of icy/snowy passes at that time of year? (There were a few icy passes in the upper Koyukuk area in July 2018, so I’d expect some anyway, but those were quite manageable.)
As for dates, we’re thinking starting the trek as early as May 30th (to June 9), or perhaps starting on June 6 (to June 16).
Anyone reading this who has experience in the Brooks early season?Jan 18, 2021 at 1:21 pm #3694400Luke SchmidtBPL Member
May might work. I’ve never hiked in the Brooks Range. But I do remember a trip from May 28 to June 4th. We were going to hike north of the Nebesna road but the park service told us there would be a lot of snow the passes. I think if there was snow along the Nebesna road the Brooks Range would have been just as bad. So we went down to the Kenai Peninsula instead where there was no snow. That was a big snow year. It really can change a lot depending on weather. One year we had relatively little snow. But the spring was cloudy so it took forever to melt. Another year we had a warm sunny spring and snow was gone a month early.
A May 30 start might work but it might not. If you are committed to those dates here is my suggestion.
1. Find a pilot, hunting guide or government employee who works up there regularly. You want someone who can describe the local snow conditions the week before you go.
2. Have a backup plan in case the Brooks doesn’t work. I could give you some ideas as could Dave.
Edit – I just saw that you were considering a June 6th start as well. I would probably feel better about that. You’d be surprised how much snow can melt in a week.Jan 19, 2021 at 4:00 pm #3694583
I was the “Uber” for Manfred & Sons on their Brooks Range trip – just being a trail angel. There certainly are off-the-books informal Uber types on Craigslist out of Fairbanks.
I have far fewer concerns about hitching in Alaska then elsewhere in the US; it’s more like hitch-hiking in Europe – normal people need rides and normal people give rides. Not just drunks and recently-released prisoners being picked up by rapists and axe-murders. I hitch and give rides in AK far more than elsewhere and get picked up faster and on-average pick up more interesting, less-dangerous riders than I do in the 48 states. Bring a small flag of as foreign a country as you could possibly claim and pin on your pack when you hitch – it makes you look more interesting, less dangerous and people love to talk to visitors about our state.
There’s an REI and Walmart and Sportsman’s Warehouse in Fairbanks, so fuel, bear spray, etc, are easy to source when you land at FAI. Although if you stay at an AirBnB or hostel in Fairbanks, some of them have loaner bear spray, DEET, etc – we do that for our AirBnB guests.Jan 19, 2021 at 9:24 pm #3694627
Good luck on an early trip; you might be able to beat the mosquitoes. Or not. Hitching is pretty easy in Alaska; I give and take rides and have never had a bad experience here (although lots of folks drink while they drive). On the haul road you might be waiting a long while between vehicles, especially that time of year, but you’ll eventually get a ride. Be prepared to wait a bit. Re David’s axe murderer comment, we do have our share of serial killers up here, but they seem to prefer the cities. I wouldn’t hesitate to hitch with another person.
I echo Luke’s comment about doing your research before going into any villages. Alaska Native people make up at least 30% of the Covid cases in the state and 30% of hospitalizations, and many deaths. They may not be super excited to welcome in visitors. And watch the State of Alaska covid page for quarantine and testing requirements for visitors. I’d like to think that by June you won’t need to but…
Brooks vs ANWR: Lots of people explore ANWR on foot, so yes, definitely an option. There are guided backpacking trips up there too, pricey though. Have you contacted the Alaska Public Lands Information Center? Might be one place to start and I think they are open year round, unlike the Coldfoot visitor center. Luke’s suggestion of contacting a flying service is good, especially since you’re wanting to hire one anyway.
Sorry just tips for getting started, no experience on the ground up there!Jan 19, 2021 at 10:18 pm #3694635
My Alaskan axe murderer story:
I was working at an environmental site in Craig, Alaska on Prince of Wales Island. I was there for the responsible party and a former co-worker, Darryl, was there for the insurance company. While we were there, a guy killed his mother’s boyfriend with a wood-splitting maul (okay, not *exactly* an axe, but I think it’s fair to lump him in with the axe murderers).
The two cops in town were supplemented with game wardens and state troopers deployed to the island as they were searching for him.
We were staying at the local hotel and Darryl was freaking out a little bit. Every time a branch scraped against the building in the wind, he thought it might be the fugitive. I’d been in Alaska long enough at that point to figure, “I don’t have anything against him, he doesn’t have anything against me – I wasn’t dating his mother – he and I would probably be fine going out for a beer.” and I wasn’t concerned.
They eventually found that he’d swam to another island and took him into custody without incident.Jan 19, 2021 at 10:19 pm #3694636
On the Haul Road (Dalton Highway), there’s always lots of commercial traffic – mostly big rigs. Their company policy will be to not pick up hitchhikers, although obviously, cute young women don’t wait long for a ride. Likewise, Alyeska Pipeline Security’s policy is to not give rides nor render any assistance to adventurers (no, you can’t fill your water bottle, charge your phone, etc, at their facilities) so as not to encourage more of the same.
But there are always locals driving around, less official workers at cafes and truck stops, and tourists throughout the year (although vastly more common in summer). Last time I drove up to Prudhoe Bay on a lark because some 48-states friends hadn’t ever been, was in January and if some guy was walking along with a backpack and his thumb out, I absolutely would have picked him up. I stop for most bicyclists and ask if they need anything and have taken to carrying a few gallons of tap water because that is their most frequent request. In some terrain, there’s no shortage of rivers and streams but it can be a real scramble from the highway down the ravine to the surface water. Once I loaded up ice cream sandwiches in a cooler with dry ice and handed those out as I did a summer road trip past my toxic waste sites.Jan 19, 2021 at 10:32 pm #3694637
I expect villages to get vaccinated before most Alaskans – they’re identified as at risk due their remote location and cramped housing, they may get it through the State and the Native Health System, and they have a strong oral tradition from elders whose families were hammered by various western diseases passing through, including the 1918 flu pandemic H1N1 influenza A virus which was genetically sequenced from a victim in Utqiagvik (Barrow) exhumed from the permafrost. So villages don’t have that anti-vaxxer nonsense going on and are already getting vaccinated ahead of most populations. May 2021? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d guess so by then. Definitely something to consider, track and respect their wishes.Jan 20, 2021 at 7:44 am #3694670
Luke: Thanks for the perspective on snowmelt. With 24 hours of daylight, I imagine it goes quick. We can probably wait until at least April to figure out exactly when we are going, and by then I’ll be able to contact some locals to figure out how it is looking. We’d hope for May 31 (or something around there), but we’ll just wait and see. Good to know it is at least a possibility.
David and Karen: I’ve had right around a hundred good hitchhiking experiences in North America and Europe, and zero bad. A couple iffy drivers, but of course in such situations one can just say no or leave, not that that’s actually happened. Some of my best experiences were in Alaska in 2018.
Luckily, there is the “Dalton Highway Express” (what a name!) which is reasonably-priced for the trip we are thinking about. We made some inquiries about flight prices and have pretty much decided to start and end from the road, around Atigun Pass. There’s plenty to explore there—on the eastern side of the road—so the extra ~$750 seems unnecessary (and expensive).
If anyone else is reading this and has experience in early-season Brooks trips, we’d love to hear from you!Jan 20, 2021 at 9:04 pm #3694822
Atigun Gorge is popular for a day hike, or packrafting. I hope whatever you do you’ll give us a trip report!Jan 21, 2021 at 11:58 pm #3695015Eric BBPL Member
“genetically sequenced from a victim in Utqiagvik (Barrow) exhumed from the permafrost.”
It was Brevig Mission, where the 1918 flu killed 72 of 80 adults in five days:
Quite an amazing story. Short version linked to above, more details at CDC:Apr 2, 2021 at 6:47 am #3707426
I’m bringing this thread back up as we now have good snow data for the winter, for Atigun Pass at least. For the end of March, the snow depth at Atigun pass is in the 58th percentile historically (link), with March’s snowfall in the 5th percentile historically. March has been unseasonably cold (23rd percentile). We’ll see how April and May warm things up. Here‘s a map from Rick Thoman of the entire area.
In early June we’ll be east of Atigun in ANWR, staying high enough in the drainages near the divide to avoid unfordable swollen rivers when possible. So we are concerned about (1) unstable aufeis and (2) passes that are too snowy/icy even for microspikes and an ice axe.
We are thinking of starting a ten-day loop June 2. Anyone have experience in the area that early?Apr 2, 2021 at 1:04 pm #3707477
I’ve only been west of the highway and that was in July. Still, those rivers were damn cold! Especially when you cross the same one 80 times in a day,
I’m on the right, out for a long day hike, just for the first day of Manfred’s 2014 Brooks Range trip.
Unless you’ve got great beta on a particular route, figure that 1 mph is making great time but it’s tiring to move that fast.
Down here on the Kenai (5F this morning) and throughout the state, it’s a been a perfectly average year precipitation/snowfall wise, but it got cold and stayed cold without any melting events (>32F or rain) to speak of, so the snow pack is still all there (and pretty fluffy / not compacted). That snow pack is insulating, so the ground underneth hasn’t gotten very cold. So far, clear cold days have been subliming snow away with no melting, but with daylight hours increasing each day, <32F temps won’t last. I expect thaw to be fast and for there to be flooding.
Winter-time freeze/thaws are bad for mosquito eggs, but we haven’t had freeze/thaws – winter got cold and stayed cold. So I expect it to a worse-than-average year for mosquitos, but we Alaskans can update you on that after Break-up.Apr 2, 2021 at 1:14 pm #3707479
Oh, and everyone in Alaska who wants to be vaccinated has now gotten at least their first dose. My 16-year-old has gotten her second. My college student’s first apointment got cancelled when there weren’t enough patients to open up a single vial (but he got his first the next day).
So I’m expecting a relatively normal tourist season up here. Still, native villages may have their own rules in place – Saint Paul on the Pribilof Islands had, until this week, compeletely avoided any covid by having restrictions on travel and mandatory 14-day quarantine of all new arrivals. They just had their first positive ever (someone who tested negative before getting on the plane, but positive after arrival) and went into a 14-day hunker-down.
By June, I expect 50% of the 16+ population to be fully vaccinated but 50% still refusing vaccination. When Pfizer gets an EUA for 12+ (in a month?), we’ll have the vaccine and clinics to make that happen quickly, for those teens who want it.Apr 2, 2021 at 2:12 pm #3707483
David’s comment: “but 50% still refusing vaccination” – can we please just lock them all inside Wasilla? Happy to send our anti-vaxxers down!
I’ve no idea of the weather up the road, but we’re about to get another foot of snow! April is hell in Alaska.Apr 3, 2021 at 12:24 am #3707521
One correction: the 58the percentile snowpack depth I quoted for the end of March (above) is only based on data back to 2009. If you go back to the ’80s, where there’s continuous but less data, it does indeed look like we are well below average. Hard to put a number on it, though. And that’s only Atigun Pass.
Thanks for the responses. I am pretty familiar with the kind of travel we will encounter, so the only expectation-adjusting will be for my dad. We are looking forward to it.
If anyone reading this knows anyone up near the Brooks, I’d be eager to talk to them.
And well, when my dad and I get there, we’ll push the vaccination rate up a tiny bit, at least!Jun 4, 2021 at 6:43 am #3717109RVPBPL Member
@tunaboy999-2Locale: Mid Atlantic
While it was only an average snow year in the Brooks Range, the spring melt is way behind. I wonder if the OP is up there and how he is doing!Jun 4, 2021 at 8:36 am #3717122
Hey everyone, OP here! Still sitting in SW Minnesota. We are flying up on the 11th and starting on the 12th—we decided not to risk it. Of course, it’s still pretty early in the season.
Any specific information about snowpack on passes in the Brooks, aufeis, river levels, etc.?
Would love to hear any information anyone has!Jun 4, 2021 at 9:02 am #3717125RVPBPL Member
@tunaboy999-2Locale: Mid Atlantic
Hey Bjorn — my group is also flying into Fairbanks on the 11th and starting on the 12th. The snowtel data (linked above) shows that there’s still a lot of snow up there.
This web app shows current snow cover in the area (red=snow). It’s a little wonkey, but you can use the date slider to evaluate past dates including this time last year.
I would also like to hear any first hand info about conditions. Debating whether to bring traction.Jun 4, 2021 at 9:13 am #3717128
Thanks for that link, RVP! Another question:
***I’m headed back down to Fairbanks with the “Dalton Highway Express” after a ten-day trip in ANWR. Then, I’m hoping to hitchhike up the Dalton highway with a friend (two of us total, two packs) to Wiseman, or Atigun Pass, or Galbraith Lake—somewhere around there. We’d hope to go up on or around June 26.
Anyone already heading up (even part way) on the 26th, by any chance? Would really like to get in touch!Jun 4, 2021 at 11:20 pm #3717212
I still can’t answer about the Brooks range, but since you’ll be coming through Fairbanks, we just had a massive hatch of mosquitoes. Summer is here!
- You must be logged in to reply to this topic.
Our Community Posts are Moderated
Backpacking Light community posts are moderated and here to foster helpful and positive discussions about lightweight backpacking. Please be mindful of our values and boundaries and review our Community Guidelines prior to posting.