Day 1: Drop off – mid point; 8 hours
We are dropped off around 3pm South of Hunt Fork, on a gravel bar between two arms of John River. After taking a few pictures with Dirk’s Beaver on tundra tires (yay!), the airplane departs and our adventure begins.
As we are on an island, first thing we need to do is cross one of the streams of John River. Crossing the river to the east, relatively easy. After crossing we end up in dense woods, extremely hard to move. Trying to go North or East in hope of finding easier place doesn’t help. Also couldn’t locate “winter road” that shows on the map & GPS.
We decided to just crash through it to the East. Forest turns into dense brush as we move away from the river. As we gain altitude, brush thins out and turns into tundra.
We get a pretty intense start of the trip, gaining ~1300ft with heavy packs. Closer to the top, we try to go around the peak to avoid extra climbing. However, the slope becomes steeper and the brush thicker as we go around the hill, so we go back to climbing more.
The brush tends to become extremely dense around creeks flowing down from the hills. Usually strips of this extremely dense brush are between 2 and 20 meters wide.
Reaching a point of exhaustion, we camp on the first available ridge. The site is flat, but we have to walk a long way to get water. Mushrooms (boletus), berries everywhere on and around our site.
It rains during night.
Day 2: mid point – swampy lake 1; 10.5 hours
We set an overly ambitious goal to reach a lake some 13km (8 miles) away. This results in a very hard day with 10 hours of hiking. After descending into the creek vally we start the climb onto the other side, going from 1800ft to 2900ft.
On the way we see some King Boletes (Porcini) of great quality; unfortunately we cannot take them as they’d probably be ruined after a day of hiking; the extra weight counts, too. We take pictures instead.
Hiking along the ridge ends at a pass at 3500ft, making a 1700ft (500m) total elevation gain. Weather is perfect all day, sunny. The climb takes the better part of the day.
The lake is swampy and it’s hard to find a good spot for the camp. We get higher to camp, again long trips for water, which is muddy and swampy. It rains during night again.
Day 3: swampy lake 1 – swampy lake 2; 8 hours
Morning is overcast, low clouds moving in from SE. We set an easier goal of reaching another lake some 9km (6 miles) away. We start higher at 2500ft, and climb to 3500ft for our first pass.
Grizzly bear sighting on the pass, about 700m NE from us, down in the valley. The bear was downwind from us, so it noticed us well in advance. Facing a group of 5 people, it displayed a clearly non-aggressive behaviour – sat down, then moved further away, sat down again. After some hesitation, it decided to clear the area and ran away down the slope. We continued with our route.
Gaining some more altitude to 3700ft for next pass. Foggy and moist as we get into clouds.
We contemplate camping at a creek 1.2km short of the lake for better water and firmer ground; however at the end we decide to continue with the original plan in the interest of making more progress.
The lake is again very swampy and even harder to access than the previous one. The wind picks up and it becomes cold as we go to bed.
Day 4: swampy lake 2 – Tinayguk river; 9.5 hours
In the morning the wind is still pretty strong. As we take down our tent (MEC Apollo), the pole construction snaps in the strong wind. We decide to fix it in the evening when we need the tent again.
From the lake we descend into the valley going SE towards Tinayguk River. After clearing some heavy brush we get some 2km of really easy and firm terrain; however it turned back into brushes quite quickly. Towards Tinayguk River it becomes more swampy (but the brush stayed as well), so we made it to camp pretty exhausted. After some deliberation we decided no leave the crossing for tomorrow.
We camp by the South end of the ice on the river, on high ground. The river at that point splits into multiple streams which undercut the ice. The overhanging pieces of ice crash into the streams from time to time, making a thunder-like noise. Before too long the fallen ice is washed away.
Fixed the tent pole with a cable tie, it was holding OK, though setting it up became a bit more troublesome every night. To take down the tent, the cable tie needs to be either cut or carefully released with a knife or a needle.
Amazing sunset (combined with sunrise), directly North from us. At this latitude and time of year the sun just dips below the horizon and then pops right back. In between, it’s about half an hour of breathtaking sunset colours when the conditions are suitable. It so happened that this was the only day we were able to see this – otherwise it was either overcast, or blocked by mountains, or both.
Wanted to grill some mushrooms on sticks, but could only find one.
Day 5: Tinayguk river crossing – clear creek; 10 hours
In the morning we saw a wolf running on the ice. Too far to get a picture, and it seemd pretty occupied with whatever it is it was after, so didn’t even notice us.
We tried to keep ourselves off the ice as much as possible, having seen it collapse the day before.
Many small streams make the crossing very safe, but exteremely unpleasant due to the near-freezing water temperature. Once on the other side, we made some tea to warm up. Found an old animal trap, it was not armed and seemed abandoned, though we couldn’t find a date or a year on it.
We made our way up the pass; noticeably easier walking, however still brushy. Amazing view of Tinayguk valley opened up from the top of the pass. After taking some photos, we started a very gentle descend to our destination.
Somewhat easier walking through the brush due to moss-covered paths between them.
We camped next to the creek; this is probably our best camp site so far, as the water is clean and easily accessible, and the ground not as swampy.
Experimented with using mushroom broth instead of just hot water to re-hydrate our food. Again only one mushroom around, but it was nice.
Day 6: clear creek – Fish creek pass; 10 hours
The best camp so far, with water readily accessible and of high quality. Weather is sunny with a few clounds and a few drops of rain here and there.
Crossing the clear creek is easy. Proceeded to climb over a small pass and descened into the next valley. Terrain is brushy but firm; higher up there are less brush. Descending into the next valley, it becomes more swampy as we get closer to the creek.
The next creek is just like the first one, easy to cross. After the crossing we start climbing into the valley along the next creek.
We tried to stay higher for easier walking, and gained more altitude with every opportunity. As a result, by the time we reached the pass we were only 200ft below it. We decided to go over the pass rather than descend to the creek, and camp on the other side.
The views from the pass are again amazing, to both sides. After taking some photos we started the descend towards the Fish creek, looking for the first available place to camp.
As the valley is fairly steep, the camp spot is hard to find. We finally find one, somewhat swampy but tolerable. The water is nearby, in a very tiny creek, it is clean.
Day 7: Fish creek pass – Fish creek mid-point; 8 hours
We continue to go down the vally until we reach the Fish creek. The walking is very easy, and we just follow the creek bed. As we get further down, the stream becomes stronger, but we can still stay in the creek bed with no need to go higher up.
As we reach Fish creek, we continue to follow gravel bars and animal paths alongside the creek, with very wasy walking.
At some point it ends as the stream becomes stronger further down; we are forced to go higher up the slope. The slope is pretty steep and brushy, and is very hard to move along. The opposite slope looks much gentler, but crossing the creek is not trivial at this point.
At this time the weather deicdes to stop cooperating, and it starts raining.
Realizing that we may become stuck on the wrong side of the creek, we decide to cross anyway before the rain adds even more water to it.
This far down the creek the crossing is no longer trivial. We leave our boots on this time and cross in a “wall” formation with not much difficulty. Water is somewhat higher than knee-deep, but the stream is pretty fast and big rocks make it harder to keep the formation stable.
Now being completely soaked from the rain and the crossing we decide it’s enough for today and set up camp at the first available spot.
The rain continues all through the night. It’s too cold and miserable outside so we eat in the tent despite it being unsafe in bear country. We take precautions not to spill any food and toss the bear barrels away when we’re done.
Day 8: Fish creek mid-point – Kachwona creek mid-point; 8.5 hours
In the morning it is still raining and we have to move on. Not having reached Kachwona previously, we have to make up for the shorfall.
We eat the breakfast in the tent again; putting on soaked boots is one of those things you don’t really look forward to doing.
Continuing on the North slope along the Fish creek valley we reach Kachwona.
The canyon surprises us: it has vertical cliffs on both sides, which are not visible on the USGS map we have.
At first we climb some 200ft and try to move through the forest, staying on the North side of the creek. The progress through the woods is very uneven, and overall slow. This is mainly because the slope is pretty steep and the brush becomes heavy at times. Especially annoying are strips of (probably) Alder which grows at angles and forms an almost impenetrable wall along your way.
After a while, we decide to try our luck in the creek itself. We are able to see gravel bars going along the creek; at the same time, the map predicts our slope will become even steeper further down, so there is no point staying on it.
We find a place to drop down to the creek. The gravel bars prove to be an illusion: they are up to 200m long, and terminate at a cliff whenever the creek turns, forcing us to the other side.
After crossing the creek three times back and forth, we finally give up and ascend the slope on the South side. Crossing Kachwona is more challenging than Fish creek, but still not too bad for 5 people holding together. Being already completely soaked, we leave the boots on which helps save time and have more stability.
We continue along that slope until we run into another very steep canyon cutting across our slope and joining Kachwona. Again, the map did not show how steep it was, but our side is nearly vertical.
Trying to scout the way across, we go up another 700ft, as we realize we won’t have any luck there. A fog patch moves in, reducing visibility, as the rain still continues.
We are nearing our limit for the day, so we drop back down, looking for a place to camp. Unexpectedly, we see a route across the canyon which we didn’t notice before. We cross the canyon and camp on the other side.
The rain still doesn’t stop.
Day 9: Kachwona creek mid-point – North fork; 12 hours
After falling short of our plan for two days in a row we are almost out of safety buffer; to catch up on our distance, we skip hot breakfast and have snacks instead. We also have to give up on any plans for day hikes, fishing and mushroom picking that we had.
We keep moving along Kachwona canyon with its steep walls. We have to cross another canyon running across our slope. Towards the end, the slopes become steeper with occasional rock scree, before finally letting us go.
We walk out of Kachwona canyon onto a gentle slope leading towards North Fork river.
We celebrate our escape from Kachwona with a pot of hot coffee.
At that point we decide to call Dirk from Coyote Air and find out the plans for our pickup, as the weather hasn’t been good. We hear that due to bad weather everyone is behind with their flying and trying to catch up, so we shouldn’t count on a pickup tonight even if we make it to our point.
We continue towards North Fork river, trying to find a spot to cross it.
At first we bump into a stream which is not on the map, really close to the West slope. Not very fast, but lots of water (almost waist deep) make crossing it at the edge of our abilities as a group. From looking at satellite images after the fact, it turned out to be Kachwona creek itself; the map shows it continue furhter to the north, but in reality it seems to turn South instead.
Once on the other side, we keep going South on a gravel bar, but run into multiple streams flowing across our path. Realizing that we may have to cross all these small streams as one big river, we decide to cut to the East and find the rest of the arms of North Fork and see if these are crossable.
After traveling though swamps and forest, and crossing multiple small creeks, we arrive at one of the bigger arms. Crossing it is extremely challenging for us. About 2/3 of the way in, we realize that the deepest spot is still further ahead, and is too much for us to proceed safely. In what may have been the most dangerous moment of the entire trip we decide to turn back. We move backwards step-by-step, keeping the formation as before.
We find a better spot to cross and take a second attempt. We have to stop a number of times to take a break, but we make it to the other side.
After crossing that arm, we are now at an island between two separate arms of the North Fork that split North of us, and join back again to the South.
Scouting the other arm we realize that we don’t stand a chance of crossing it – it’s way deeper and way faster than the one we have barely crossed just now.
We put a mark in the sand to measure water levels in the river, to discover that water is slowly rising. This makes staying on that island unsafe, let alone camping on it. We call Coyote Air again and advise them of the situation. They tell us the best thing is to wait for tomorrow so the water level may go down.
As it is still raining and the water is going up, we are unsatisfied with that answer and decide to go up the river to look for other places.
We also arrive at the unpleasant conclusion that we have to cross the same stream back again. We find a somewhat better place, but even there the crossing is extremely challenging, though we succeed on the first attempt, taking a few breaks.
Going up the river doesn’t bring any good news. We go back up some 4km in the hopes that subtracting Kachwona from North Fork will give a smaller amount of water to cross. We did not realize at that time that Kachwona is already behind us at that point.
Exhausted by all these crossings we set up camp at the first available opportunity. We call Coyote Air again and tell them we don’t believe the water is going down tonight and ask for other options. After we speak with Dirk he suggests a perfect solution for us: we go to the pick-up point, and he’d bring an inflatable boat to shuttle us across. We wish we knew this was possible – would save us half a day of scouting and a lot of risk taking.
The only caveat: due to bad weather there’s no knowing when he’d be able to fly to that spot, so we have to be there as early as possible so that he has maximum options. We conservatively estimate a 5 hour walk for the 5km distance, due to swamps, dense brush and crossing of multiple streams. Debating between an all-nighter right now and an early start tomorrow morning, we opt for the latter, figuring that it’s more important to get some rest tonight.
We set the clock for 5am.
Day 10: North fork pick-up; 3.5 hours
The weather finally starts to improve, though very little.
The river rose another 5cm while we slept, so we didn’t have any chance of crossing.
We skip hot breakfast again and start moving in a hurry. Crossing all the streams that we have crossed already seems easy after what we faced the day before.
Even though it’s not raining, we’re still soaking wet from wading and going through wet brush. So we have little motivation to take big breaks as we get really cold, really fast. We have to keep moving to keep ourselves warm.
As a result, we cover our distance in just 3.5 hours and call Coyote Air telling them we’re there. We spot a group of kayakers camping on the other side of the river. We are still a little bit unsure if we found the right location.
While waiting for Dirk, we light a fire and dry ourselves a little bit, and also have the hot meal we owe ourselves. After 1.5hr we are relieved to spot Dirk’s blue Beaver and watch him land right across from us, confirming our location was correct.
The kayakers help Dirk haul us and our gear across the river. In less than 15 minutes, we’re in the air and on the way back to civilization.