Backpacking through arrigetch peaks region
Gates of the arctic national park - july 2015
Once Jayme and I arrived in Fairbanks around July 4th, we had been in Alaska for 3 weeks. The first two weeks we were in the Chugach Range and the Kenai Peninsula, followed by the Mount Brooks attempt. Now we would embark on the final part of our trip, which would be a 12 day backpacking trek into the heary of the wildest, most remote parts of Alaska. It's so remote actually it takes two plane rides, and a full day of hiking (probably two) just to get to from Fairbanks! This area is the Arrigetch Peak region of Gates of the Arctic National Park.
We made another shopping trip and gathered our stuff. I was worried about the pack weight, as I was carrying tons of food. Alex took us to the airport, and we checked in for our small plane ride to Bettles, right on the arctic circle. This was a sweet flight and with only a few others on board, the pilot walks in and off we go. Flying over the Alaskan bush, I look down onto a few forest fires burning without anyone fighting them. We landed in a small native village to drop off some supplies for the locals, then continued to Bettles. This town wasn't much more than 3-4 buildings right next to the airstrip. We met up with the owners of Bettles Lodge, who would be flying us on a float plane into the area we would spend the next 12 days. We stopped by the ranger station in Bettles, where we got 4 bear canisters (ugh), and packed our food as well as we could into the oddly shaped canisters.
Once we were ready, we rode over to the float pond, loaded the place and took off. It was a very smoky day so we didn't see too much, but we continued further north, into the lands north of the arctic circle where the sun would never set. I was thrilled to be this far north for the first time! We landed at a small swampy area known as Circle Lake along the Alatna River. Here we unloaded, and our pilot took off back to Bettles. We were now completely alone, with only the bugs to greet us...and they were bad! Luckily we had deet but they still swarmed us almost instantly.
It was a hot, humid day in the full sun, as we slowly hiked through deep tussiks, marching towards the start of Arrigetch Creek. We had read reports of a trail following the east side of the creek, which luckily we found. We followed it up a ways, high above the creek hoping it would eventually get closer to it so we could fill our water and be able to cook. It never did, and we were forced to camp on a rocky knoll, where it was obvious people had camped before. The smoke and heat was getting to us both and we were pretty tired from carrying so much weight.
We set up camp and tried to sleep under the night sky that wasn't. The next morning we woke to cloudy skies, and much cooler temperatures. We only made it a couple miles over large boulders (lost the trail), before it started raining very heavily, and we decided to throw the tent up and wait it out. We found a nice spot near the creek where we could get water as well, and took a nap. The rain never let up until late in the evening, at which point we just cooked dinner and decided to continue the next morning.
That third day we finished the hike up Arrigetch Creek and found the camp spot I had always heard about. It's a small knoll with a single tree next to it, and towering directly above are the Maidens, two granite spires in the Arrigetch Peaks. We pitched the tent here, and would make this incredible spot our home for the next 4 nights!
We relaxed and enjoyed the beauty of the amazing location, which was only at 2,500 feet in elevation, and planned a day hike for the next day up into the basin of lakes to the southwest. This would take us into the heart of the granite spires, and with the one little hand drawn map I had I would attempt to identify them all. The next morning, a few clouds greeted us and the air had completely cleared from smoke. Despite my hunger, I was in heaven...and was in shock I was one of maybe a small handful of people to have ever been to this place.
We started hiking up the valley, and made it to the first lake, then the second, and then the third. The scenery getting better and better as we continued. I kept thinking to myself how badly I wanted to climb the granite towers that surrounded us in every direction. I was determined to get as high as I could, and maybe even top out on something. Jayme and I scrambled up a slab of granite to get to the two highest lakes in the valley, at the base of a glacier, one of the few remaining in Gates of the Arctic. Jayme decided to rest at the upper lake while I continued on and ascended the glacier. It didn't have any crevasses really, and wasn't steep, so I made quick work and reached its upper section at about 6000 feet, where I got cliffed out on all sides. I was standing on a large plateau with steep drop offs all around. Just spitting distance away was witches tower to my south, but a 150 foot cliff below blocked my passage to it, where another snowfield descended down its east flank.
My view to the east included the other half of the Arrigetch, where the famous Shot Tower is located. It looked so unreal, and upon seeing it, I understood why so many climbers have dreamed about it so much. The view before me reminded me of parts of the Cascades, but knowing very few people have ever seen this made it all the more special.
Once I admitted defeat (I really wanted to climb Witches Tower), I ran back down the glacier and met up with Jayme again, who was enjoying a nap. We made our way back to camp, which involved lots of boulder hopping. The hike was actually a bit longer than I thought so we didn't get back until evening and enjoyed another dinner of mac and cheese. The next day was a little cloudy, but we still made a hike up to the ridge crest directly above our tent to get a good view of the Maidens, and the towers. Once we crested the ridge, we watched a small rain shower fall on the towers to the west. Then Jayme yells at me that my hair is standing on end and I immediately start running down, dragging her with me, as lighting may have been imminent. Luckily, we never saw any, and we didn't get rained on. After we had our fill, we returned back down to our tent.
The next day, we relaxed during the day as I was dying of hunger, and wasn't sleeping much. We ended up taking a night hike up to the head of Arrigetch Creek, where we topped out at about 4400 feet in the small basin directly below Ariel and Xanadu towers. It was midnight, 40 degrees and the mosquitoes were still out! The meadows in the flat part of the valley were covered in flowers, and in a bit of mud, I saw another human footprint! We also saw bear prints, which were actually quite small.
We got some good sleep once we returned to the tent at 4am, and around noon, we started packing up and began hiking back down Arrigetch Creek. We were beginning the second half of our journey, which involved getting over to Takahula Lake, where our float plane would pick us up. So we returned down the faint trail until we reached the point where a small stream drained from the south, and provide an easy crossing over a broad saddle to Hot Springs Creek to the south (which is the valley that leads to Shot Tower).
We ascended once again to this saddle at 3,300 feet where a small pond made for an excellent camp spot. We were greeted by a family of squirrels happy to try and snatch our food. Unfortunately, the water here also tasted like smoke! It wasn't as bad and I was able to drink it though, despite the crawfish looking bugs swimming inside. Gross!
By now the air was beginning to slowly become smoky again, and the next morning, it was hot, sunny, and smoky for our long hike down Hot Springs Creek. This was probably the least enjoyable day of the whole trip as we spent the entire day bushwhacking down. I wanted to get as close to Takahula Lake as possible so I kept going, against Jayme's wishes to stop for the night. We finally settled on a flat grassy spot right next to the creek, the bugs were absolute murder at this point, and I had hundreds of bites behind my knees, which was exposed between my shorts and gaiters.
We finally reached the Alatna River once again on the 10th day, and it was mostly an easy walk along its sandy banks to the trail that led to the cabin on Takahula Lake. We did have to wade through waist deep calm water though to cross Hot Springs Creek right at its mouth with the Alatna. Upon reaching Takahula Lake, we pitched the tent on the shore and enjoyed the rest of our final afternoon in Gates of the Arctic. The cabin was empty but we explored around and wondered how often it was visited. We saw a few loons on the lake that evening which Jayme commented was a rare sight!
The next morning it rained again, and it delayed our pickup. I tried to call our pilot multiple times, only to hear he had landed at a different lake halfway to our location to wait out the rain. It was painful waiting for the plane as I was about to eat my own hands out of hunger! We waited, with every faint plane like sound getting my hopes up, until shortly after noon he arrived in the Beaver rather than the Cessna we flew in on. That made the ride more comfortable for sure as we flew through the rain clouds back to Bettles. Jayme bought us each a burger and a drink which was amazing, but very expensive ($25 each for a burger I could have bought for $4 some places). We arranged to fly back to Fairbanks that same afternoon and we were back at the International airport by 3pm, with enough time for me to hitch a ride to the rental car area and grab a car so we could explore around for the final 3 days of our trip before having to fly back to Seattle. To Chena Hot Springs we went to relax those 12 days off!