Day 5, June 18, 2014, 34 miles packrafting the Ivishak River.
A 7 day, 170 mile wilderness backpack and packraft trip along the Ribdon, Ivishak and Sagavanirktok rivers in Alaska’s Brooks Range from June 14-20.
Our campsite on the tundra bench by the river was beautifully colored by the spring blooming flowers. Namely Lapland rosebay, which is bright pink, and mountain aven, the ubiquitous blooming white flower found in early June.
Some light rain moved in during the night and we woke to cloudy conditions. The rain had stopped for a little bit, which was a pleasant gift since breaking camp in the rain is no fun. Today would be the first day packrafting the Ivishak river, so it was time to retool our gear, and switch from our hiking clothes to our river gear. For me, that included Kokatak dry pants, and an NRS dry top. I used that same system on a 30 day trip through the Grand Canyon and it worked pretty well, although conditions were colder in Alaska’s Arctic. Mark had a one piece dry suit from Alpacka Raft, made by Kokatat.
We had a relaxing morning and took our time breaking camp. By the time we got the rafts inflated and our gear packed, it was about 1:00pm and the rain began as the clouds descended nearly to the river. It was great fun to hop in those rafts and start paddling–they are an amazing little craft! The water level seemed pretty high, based on the bank levels and it was clouded from the rain. The increased rain would make it even more muddy over the next day or so. In the first few miles on the water, it was clear that this would not be a “float” trip. In other words, you don’t just sit in the raft and float down the river. Due to the many braided channels and shallow water, it required constant navigation and paddling. It was fun, and in a short while, we found a groove with the river and were having a blast. It can be very broad in some areas, and getting separated is something to avoid. We stayed pretty close together, alternating the lead. Getting stuck in shallow water is not really a problem but it slows you down, and more importantly, requires you to step out of the raft into that freezing river water.
As we moved down the river, the rain and wind increased, making seeing and navigating a challenge. The cardinal rule when engaging in performance activities is to stay well hydrated. Dehydration is the contributing culprit to many problems and injuries. It becomes harder to do in cold conditions, when the process becomes less easy. But the little Sawyer in-line water filter that we used in our backpacks became very handy. I removed mine from the backpack bladder and stuck in in my lifejacket where it was easily accessible to drop in a clear part of river water and start drinking.
The river water moved pretty quickly and at a float speed it was in the vicinity of 5-6mph. When paddling through quick moving water, we reached speeds of 9-10mph. The few questionable aspects of my river gear were for my hands and feet. Which indeed did turn out to be the weak points of my gear. The neoprene gloves were a total fail. They become giant sponges and did not really serve me well in any regard. They are especially effective at transferring water to everything you touch, from disrobing to take a leak to trying to use a camera. On the next day, I switched to a dry interior glove with a waterproof mitten shell, which worked much better. As for the wet feet, I wore seal skin sock with my crocks, and in retrospect, a new pair of seal socks (the old ones were breaking down a bit) along with a thick liner would have been better. Warm feet (or at least tolerably cold feet) are especially helpful for the photographer since to take effective photos, a different perspective is often desired which requires getting out of the boat frequently in very cold water. Upon my return, I purchased the one piece dry suit from Alpacka Raft called the Trekker, that comes with attachable dry booties. This will solve that problem for good on future trips.
We moved quickly down the river and after about 20 miles, we paddled around a rock bluff by the river and were met violent winds and pouring rain. It was raining hard enough, that in conjunction with the wind, it was getting difficult to see. We pulled out along a gravel bar and did some jumping jacks and stuffed ourselves with some food to warm up a bit. We could measure our calorie load based on our energy and warmth. Once we were recharged a little, it was back on the river to find a reasonable camp spot for the night. At this point the photos start to get slim due to cold hands and a general focus towards conserving heat and staying warm.
We had planned to average about 30 miles a day on the river, and after 34 miles, we found an acceptable camp spot and took out our rafts and climbed up on a tundra bench to set up camp. After some wonderful hot food, we crawled in our very welcomed sleeping bags! Tomorrow would be an epic day on the water…