Total distance: 4,678 miles (+/- about 100)
Starting date: March 14, 2010
Finish date: September 5, 2010
Total days: 176
Overall pace: 26.7 miles per day
Total zero-days: 7, including 3 days in the field due to inclement conditions
- Six US National Parks: Denali (third largest), Wrangell-St. Elias (largest), Glacier Bay (sixth largest), Gates of the Arctic (second largest), Klondike Gold Rush, and Kobuk Valley (ninth largest)
- Two Canadian Parks: Vuntut and Ivvavik
- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which part of the migration corridor for the 125,000-head Porcupine caribou herd
- Two historic routes: the Iditarod Trail, aka the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail; and the Chilkoot Trail, used by gold stampeders to access the Klondike goldfields.
- Several of North America’s wildest rivers, including the Copper (through the Chugach Range), the Yukon (the third longest river in North America), the Peel (a major tributary of the McKenzie), and the Kobuk (in northwestern Alaska).
- Length of the Alaska Range traverse: 450 miles
- Length of the Brooks Range traverse: 975 miles
- Longest distance without encountering any human development (e.g. villages, roads, or pipelines): 615 miles, from where the Dempster Highway crosses the Richardson Mountains on the Yukon-Northwest Territories border all the way to the Dalton Highway (aka Haul Road) in the central Brooks Range
- Longest packrafting section: 420 miles, from Teslin Crossing on the Teslin River to Dawson, YT, on the Yukon River
- Average distance between resupply points for the final 2,100 miles, from Fort McPherson, NWT, to Kotzebue, AK: 260 miles
Play by Play
- I will begin the AYE in the town of Kotzebue, Alaska, located on the Chukchi Sea about thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle.
- From Kotz I will travel 200 miles south, mostly along snowmobile tracks of varying quality, to join the historic Iditarod Trail at Koyuk.
- The Iditarod is used throughout the winter by snowmobilers and dogsledders, and it will make for a fast 650-mile stretch southeast into the Alaska Range. From Koyuk, the Iditarod goes south to Unalakleet, inland to Kaltag, along the Yukon River to Ruby, south to the Kuskokwim Valley at Takotna, along the Kuskokwim to Nikolai, and then across the Farewell Burn and into the Alaska Range via the South Fork of the Kuskokwim.
- The 450-mile eastbound traverse through the Alaska Range, from the South Fork to the Richardson Highway, should be among the route’s best sections, and also one of the most difficult since I’ll be breaking trail the entire way. I am especially excited about the section between Anderson Pass and the Parks Highway along the Denali Fault. I follow the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic route, in reverse, through the eastern Alaska Range.
- From the Richardson Highway I will move to the south side of the Alaska Range. A series of old mining tracks, game trails, and gravel bars will take me to the Slana River, which I can float to the Nebesna Road, one of the main gateways into Wrangell-St. Elias Park.
- The route through the Wrangell’s follows the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic route to McCarthy, which itself follows an old pack trail from Valdez. I continue past McCarthy down the Chitina River to its confluence with the Copper, which I take out to the Gulf of Alaska, east of Cordova.
- I follow the rugged Lost Coast for several hundred miles. The long sandy beaches should be fast, but there are a few major obstacles that could hold me up for days, namely two large iceberg-choked bays (Icy and Yakutat) and several glaciers that bump right up against my route (Malaspina, La Perouse, and Brady).
- A combination of flatwater-packrafting and beach-walking will get me through Icy Straits and up the Lynn Canal to Skagway.
- From Skagway I will follow the historic 33-mile Chilkoot Pass Trail, which today still provides quick and relatively easy access to the Yukon River, just like it did for gold stampeders in the late-1890’s.
- I am taking a sub-par route to Whitehorse—there isn’t much to work with—from where I will hike over to the Teslin River to avoid notorious Lake Laberge. The Teslin joins the Yukon shortly thereafter, and I follow the Yukon 380 miles to Dawson.
- From Dawson I hike through the Ogilvie Mountains, float the Upper Blackstone River, portage to the Hart River, float the Hart into the Peel, and leave the Peel just upstream of Aberdeen Canyon, at the south end of the Richardson Mountains.
- I hike the crest of the Richardsons to McDougall Pass. Along the way I hitch into Fort McPherson on the Dempster Highway in order to resupply and to forward my packraft to Anaktuvuk Pass—I won’t need it for the next 700 miles. From McDougall Pass I begin moving northwest, across Blow Pass and eventually to the Firth River at the start of the Brooks Range.
- My route through the Brooks hovers in the mid-elevations in order to avoid tussocks of the low elevations and the rock-and-ice of the high elevations. From the Firth to Anaktuvuk Pass I generally parallel the Continental Divide.
- When I reach Anaktuvuk Pass I will pick up my packraft in order to utilize some of the rivers that can carry me west. I will float the John before cutting west over to the Arrigetch Peaks. Then I float the Upper Noatak before crossing over into the Ambler/Kobuk watershed, which should be friendlier than the Noatak late in the season. I float the Noatak all the way out to Hotham Inlet before paddling over to Kotzebue, at the tip of the Baldwin Peninsula.
That’s a long ways in a short period of time…
Indeed, it is! I understand that I am attempting to travel many difficult miles in a relatively short period of time. If I start on March 15 and finish on October 1, I will realistically need to average about 25 miles per day, accounting for unavoidable delays (e.g. related to weather). But I believe this is entirely possible given the composition of the route and my performance on past trips. About 20 percent of the route is along rivers, on which I can cover 40-60 miles per day with relatively little effort. Another 20 percent of the route is on established winter tracks, on which I will be able to travel 30-40 miles per day despite inclement weather. And about 40 percent of the AYE is off-trail trekking, but these portions have been designed to minimize bushwhacking and unnecessary elevation change so that I can move quickly. During previous off-trail treks in Alaska, the Colorado Plateau, Iceland, and the High Sierra I have been able to average 25-30 miles per day.
Route and Timeline Flexibility
If the route’s distance and timeline still proves too ambitious and/or if my intended route is not feasible at the time (e.g. due to Spring breakup conditions), I have identified alternate routes that would keep me on track. For example, if Spring arrives early in the Alaska Range then I can follow the Park Road from Wonder Lake to the Parks Highway. Or if I am behind schedule I can bypass the Wrangell-St. Elias Park & Preserve and/or the northern Yukon by taking faster and more predictable routes.
During the AYE I will need to frequently resupply so that I stay sufficiently nourished while avoiding onerous food loads, and there are surprisingly few stretches where this will be a challenge. For the first two-thirds of the route, at least once a week I will receive a self-addressed supply box. The boxes will be shipped via the US Postal Service and will be picked up in towns and villages through which I have intentionally routed the AYE. There is one exception, in Denali National Park, where I will need to have a dogsledder cache supplies for me. The final one-third of the AYE, through the northern Yukon and across the Brooks Range, is more logistically challenging. In this section I will have five pick-ups in remote native villages (two of which I will need to hitch to) and 2-3 caches flown in by bush plane to popular landing strips. I will be skinny and hungry when I return to Kotzebue, but no skinnier or hungrier than most adventurers are when they finish epic trips.
Route Map (static)
This is an inspiring journey! I live in Anchorage, and I would like to make the transition from hiker (on trail, 20-40 mile trips) to Hiker (off trail, multi-mode100+ mile trips). I have been lightening my load, as finances permit, and trying to learn as much as possible from any available source. I bought your book, devoured it, and have tried to put into practice the lessons and philosophies that most closely align with my goals, which is most of them. I have a packraft, and I’m learning how to do that safely and effectively. I feel, though, that no matter how much I read, there’s still some element that’s missing. Having a family and a somewhat time-restrictive job, I feel that I have to get the most from my time in the backcountry. Do you have any advice on making the transition, and how to most efficiently learn the things that will keep me safe, and having type one and two fun?
Thanks for doing what you do!
Two options to feel really confident out there:
The optimum choice for you depends on the value of your time versus your money. I was able to take Option #1: I was young, had no responsibilities (financial, family, career, etc.), was willing to suffer a lot, and had way more time than money. For people like yourself, usually Option #2 makes more sense — in fact, nearly every person who registers for my guided trips is in this position, where they are able to make a small investment today that will pay off in spades later (through better trips and fewer bad purchases).
Thank you for the insight. My time is infinitely more valuable to me than my money. I am fortunate to live in Alaska, where I have access to some world-class backcountry adventures any time I have an opportunity to take advantage. I have also been able to meet some people who know what they’re doing, and learn from them. Still, I have almost given my life to Alaska twice now; once in an avalanche on a mountain that I should not have been climbing, and once to foot entrapment in a river I should not have been packrafting. I have become very well acquainted with prudence at this point. It would be great to go on one of your guided trips, and it’s something that I’m trying to plan for in the future. Meanwhile, I’ll keep learning and experiencing and GOING!
First of all thanks a lot for sharing all this stuff ! very inspiring and instructive.
I’m planning to go hiking in this region, I don’t have any specific route in mind but I’m definitely attracted to this NW corner of the continent.
One thing annoys me when I’m looking at maps : the US/Canda border. I’ve read everywhere that you’re supposed to cross it through specific entry points, so that border people can do their thing… Obviously wlaking through the Brooks Range would not be one of these official entry points 🙂
How did you avoid that problem ?
I called border control beforehand and had a remote entry pre-authorized. When I crossed back over in to the US, I called them on my sat phone.
Oh, cool, I didn’t know such a thing existed… good to know ! 🙂 Thanks
For my first experience in Alaska I would like to cross the Brooks Range (about 1500 miles).
I have long hike experience in Iceland ( crossed north to south) that seems to have the same weather and topography as Alaska, but no more 20 days hiking.
Do you think it is a good hike to start Alaska ?
A full traverse of the Brooks is not as good as it sounds — in the western end, around the headwaters of the Noatak, it fades into tussock-covered hills, versus the (generally) dramatic and well drained mountains to the east. If you want to go all the way across, go north into the Petroleum Reserve, like Roman Dial & Co. did in 2006.
As far as skills go, I would say that a 20-day hike in Iceland is a good start, but I might humbly suggest that you do a smaller hike in Alaska before fully committing yourself to a Brooks Traverse. Iceland is a relative metropolis compared to the Brooks — many roads cut across the island, and there are frequent refuges. In the Brooks, it’s pure wilderness.