Bellingham to Kotzebue
4,000 miles of backcountry travel by rowboat, ski, packraft, foot, and canoe.
We have provided a detailed description of our route below. You can also read updates and in-depth descriptions in News From the Trail and check out more images from each leg of this journey in the Photo Gallery.
Our journey began in rowboats built over the winter in Anchorage and launched for the first time in Bellingham Bay. We set out on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 2012, in a hailstorm, steering north up the Inside Passage. Over the next seven weeks, we rowed in the company of raging storms, raucous sea lions, and thousands of migrating birds.
We hugged the east side of Vancouver Island before crossing the open water of Queen Charlotte Sound to the mainland. Crossing back into Alaska, we bobbed in the swell of Dixon Entrance before tucking into narrow channels dotted with mist-shrouded islands.
Storms and big water occasionally pinned us down but eventually we made our way to our cabin on the western shore of Lynn Canal. Here we dried out and swapped the rowboats for packrafts and skis.
In a break between spring storms, we traveled due east, taking a glaciated route over the Coast Range. In only a few days’ travel, we left the rainforest of the Pacific for the dry pine forests of Canada’s interior.
Here, we inflated our rafts and floated the Swanson River, spilling into the green waters of Tagish and Marsh lakes.
Finally, we felt the pull of the Yukon River and in Whitehorse, YT, we shed our ski boots and set off in a canoe for Dawson.
We left the Yukon River on foot, bushwhacking through valleys and postholing over passes to cross the Tombstone Mountains.
Hart, Wind, Peel Rivers & MacKenzie Delta
We worked our way northeast by pack and paddle, floating the West Fork of the Hart River, hiking up Waugh Creek, and floating Forrest Creek to the Little Wind River.
These shallow, clear creeks grew in volume as we joined the Wind, then the Peel, finally becoming a massive river comparable to the Mississippi once we reached the MacKenzie. Slow water, muddy banks, headwinds, and unbelievably thick mosquitoes made this section very trying.
After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at the Arctic Ocean, with 24 hours of daylight and a breeze to knock down the bugs. Driftwood and whale bones littered the beaches and nesting falcons guarded the sea bluffs above.
Shore-fast ice or steep bluffs forced us up to the tundra at times, where caribou cows and calves grazed nearby.With our rafts, we crossed rivers and made our way out to barrier islands that offered great walking.
We said goodbye to Canada as we crossed a lone post signifiying the Alaskan border and the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Icebergs dominated the horizon as bearded seals and belugas surfaced nearby.
We left the Beaufort Sea at Kaktovik, walking across the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd and then south, up the Hulahula River. After crossing the divide of the Brooks Range, we hiked and packrafted down the Chandalar River to Arctic Village.
Here we picked up our resupply package and mailed our rafts on to Anakatuvuk Pass, a village in the central Brooks Range. The swim across the Chandalar was cold and long, but well worth the reward of lightweight packs for the eastern Brooks Range. We followed the crest of the range and hiked over numerous passes that intersected the Continental Divide. A snowstorm in August created slow conditions on the passes but helped to prepare us for what lay ahead.
Traveling against the gradient of streams and rivers required dozens of crossings as we made our way west. We dropped down from the mountains to cross under the Alaska pipeline and stumbled onto the first road in over a thousand miles. Here we found a resupply barrel left by friends and after gorging ourselves on its contents, set off for Anaktuvuk Pass, one of the last resupply points on our journey.
Several days later, after passing through town, the good weather turned to wind-driven rain on the upper John River. The water rose and helped our progress downriver but made for difficult walking when we rolled up our rafts and began to hike up Wolverine Creek. Battling flooded creeks, we crossed several misty passes to reach the upper Nahtuk and Pingaluk drainages. Here we had a scary, 30-minute standoff with a predatory bear. We happily left the Pingaluk and its unfriendly wildlife and floated down the Alatna River to Takahula Lake. From here we worked our way to Arrigetch Creek, enjoying views of the soaring walls and spires during a 12 hour window of good weather.
The next storm cycle pounded our high camp and we were turned around by knee-deep snow on the 6300’ summit ridge of Ariel Peak.
Discouraged, we retraced our steps down and took an alternate route, crossing to Awlinyak Creek over lesser passes. We followed an unnamed creek that led to Akabluak Pass, climbing one final talus-covered slope with many hours of scrambling over snowy blocks to reach the Noatak River.
Already low on reserves due to this forced route change, we were pinned down by weather for another four days with only a few granola bars remaining. This was the only air support we used on the journey and after a long and hungry wait, we were relieved to finally receive our food and a folding canoe. We paddled down the flooded Noatak River, enjoying an intimate view of the Western Arctic caribou herd on their fall migration.
Finally, as we reached the Chukchi Sea, the weather broke after 23 days of rain and we were flanked by thousands of swans as they gathered in the fading arctic sun. On September 9th, our final crossing of Kotzebue Sound marked an end to our trip.
After 4,000 miles and nearly 6 months, we completed what had been a dream for years.