Bike-sploring the Brooks Range Part 3

Editor's note: This is the conclusion of sponsored rider Brett Davis's fatbiking and packrafting journey through the remote Brooks Range, Alaska. Read part 2 here and part 1 here.

Part 3:  Finding a Trickle

Having summited the Rib, it was time to pursue our next objective: the headwaters of the Ivishak River. Flowing north for 95 miles from the heart of the Brooks Range to the foothills of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and into the Sagavanirktok River, this National Wild and Scenic River would be the final segment of our adventure. First, though, we would have to get to it. 

Gazing down the pass that would take us to the Ivishak—somewhere out there ...

At 4 p.m. we climbed back aboard our bikes, hoping for as easy a descent as the climb was to the pass. From the summit of the Rib, we could clearly see the Ivishak drainage and our pathway to it. From afar we knew we would have a challenge ahead as at one point, the mountain walls pinched together to form what looked like a very narrow and steep gorge. Hopefully there were no pour-offs or cliffs to negotiate in this section, as we were prepared to paddle—but not rappel or rock climb. This section could be an adventure-stopper, or at least pose a significant hurdle.

The initial descent off of the pass was fantastic fatbike riding ...

The initial riding of the pass was brilliant, as we found solid ground for our big wheels to roll over. Soon, though, we felt ourselves being funneled into the pinch as the gray mountains above began blocking out all sunlight. In the shadows, Jon and I were the first to come upon the horizon line. To our relief, it was not an impassable cliff that would require some creative thinking in order to negotiate. Instead, it was just a steep “class IV” boulder-choked ravine that was going to require some skill to control the downward fall of our bikes and equipment. Hoping to preserve my calves from abuse, I removed my pedals from the Blackborow. The last thing I needed was to break an essential piece of riding equipment or tattoo my calves as a pedal hit an errant boulder and came around quickly to whack the back of my leg. This was going to be torturous fun.

A horizon line loomed ... what would we find?—photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder ...

The gorge was just as I thought it would be—extremely steep, wet and trying. Because of the off-cambered and loose footing composed of teetering boulders on gravel, my trusty steed was an unwieldy beast. All I could think of as the descent progressed was that I was so thankful that we were not attempting to push up this crack in the earth—it would have been a chore to say the least. 

Jon starts down into the rocky depths ...

At the bottom, we found a little more pushing through some thick willows, but it wasn’t long before my pedals were back on and we were riding once again. The canyon remained narrow, but riding was possible above the shallow stream leading to the Ivishak. After a brief interaction with an arctic fox and one last carry across a rocky ditch thick with willows, we reached the waterway that would take us to our trip’s end … it was a braided trickle. There definitely was not enough water to trade in our high-floatation tires for our packrafts. We would have to ride downstream, hoping the side tributaries would add more water and help to channelize the ankle-deep stream into a river that we could paddle. Otherwise, we would have miles and miles of bumpy riding ahead of us. 

Picking clean lines above the gorge leading to the Ivishak ...

Our passageway out was a mere trickle, so we continued downstream on bikes ...

Gravel bar camping ...

After an evening camp on a gravel bar with shallow braids all around us and stunning views in every direction, we awoke with optimism that we would find enough water downstream to breakdown our bikes and use our rafts. It was a day of wet feet as we pedaled and forded countless braids, as the Ivishak refused to coalesce into one deep channel. Within two hours of riding, our feet were numb with cold. Unable to feel the lead blocks anchoring us to our pedals, we stopped halfway through the day to pull out our down jackets and thrust our frozen feet into them. The remainder of the day was more of the same: cobble riding with lots of braid crossings and numb feet. We had now ridden more than 25 miles downstream since reaching the river. 

Numb feet were unavoidable ...

It wasn’t all cobble riding ...

Jon and I scout the crossing—we were going to get wet no matter what—photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder ...

Our weather continued to be unbelievably ideal as we awoke at our usual 9 a.m. for the seventh day in a row to blue skies. Our bikes were starting to feel relatively light and nimble, since we had consumed the majority of our food over the past week. This made for easier stream crossings, as we increasingly had to carry our bikes across each braid rather than ride them. This was also a good sign, as the river was growing in volume and we hoped to be paddling in the very near future. Hopping on the big boys, we continued to make our way downstream towards the Arctic Ocean. After about 4 miles of riding, we all stopped at the same point … this was it—our put-in. Wahoo!

Our put-in. The Ivishak was now looking like a river ...

The transition began: Gather firewood, start fire, dry out wet clothing, breakdown bikes, shove gear into the packraft, inflate packraft, strap bike frame and then both wheels onto the bow of the raft, put together four-piece paddle, don dry suits, inflate homemade pfd, eat snack, then take obligatory group photo. We were ready to paddle.  

Jon dries his neoprene socks for the paddle ahead ...

Gear explosion: Transition back to the packrafts ...

Rafts loaded, paddles put together and drysuits on means it’s paddle time ...

With my first paddle stroke, I knew this was going to be a river trip to remember. The water clarity was stunning, with deep hues of blue radiating from the continually changing depths of the riverbed. The color was tropical in nature—inviting one to dive deep into its waters. Though the color was beyond description, the water temperature was anything but warm. A quick dip of my hands on the paddle shaft into the stream told me that I did not want any part of a swim. It would be frigid. Given this fact, we had decided early on in the trip-planning stages to carry dry suits. They were an essential piece of safety equipment that would be worth the extra weight if an unexpected swim happened. During our first evening of paddling the Atigun Gorge, I was glad we had brought them. And now, as we started down the Ivishak, I was comforted to know that I would remain warm and dry while paddling this liquid conveyor belt of glass. Awesome!

The first paddle strokes ...

We flowed downstream, enjoying the change of activity and the new pace at which we moved. No longer were we bumping along haphazardly on our saddles. Our legs were quiet as we twisted our torsos with each dip of our paddle blades. We still had channels to pick: Should we go right or left; which one would possibly leave us high and dry?      

The Ivishak was a beautiful liquid conveyor belt of glass ...

With the low water, we still had to make choices as to which braid to follow ...

As the shadows of the day grew longer, we began leaving the towering peaks that had been our constant companions for the past week. Our camp for the evening was a gateway of sorts: Behind us were the towering gray peaks of the Brooks Range, and before us were rolling hills that would eventually dissipate into a vast flat land of tundra. Eventually, the tundra would succumb to the Arctic Ocean and a quickly melting icecap. Though it was only approaching early August, the stirrings of a change were noticeable. Waking at 3 a.m. to use the facilities, I noticed the midnight sun starting to set on the western horizon, while a brilliant full moon was rising in the east. Our days of never-ending sunlight were dwindling.The seasons change quickly up here.

Deflated for the evening ...

A rising moon in the east …

A setting sun in the west …

And thus, we paddled our way out of the Brooks Range. The next two days were as unique and amazing as the previous seven. We had another grizzly bear sighting on day eight. He was a big boy wandering high on a bluff above us, just doing “bear stuff.” We continued to paddle on glass continually stopping to try and capture the beauty of the water and landscape with our lenses. On day nine, we finally encountered a massive herd of caribou. It was engrossing to watch them from afar as they moved to and fro, kicking up dust on the vast river plain. Thus far, except for one lone sighting high in the Ribdon River Valley, we had only found sign of their previous passage in the form of antler sheds.

A few stray caribou ventured out to greet us ...

Leaving the high peaks behind, we made our way to the flatlands and towards the Arctic Ocean ...

The ending of the adventure was fitting, as we flowed into the Sagavanirktok searching for our borrowed Sprinter van that had been shuttled by some friends who were on their own adventure nearby. After several stops and our first and only muskoxen sighting, we finally saw what we thought was our van parked about ¾ mile away. Transitioning quickly back to our bikes, we rode towards the van as it began to sprinkle: the first rain drops of the trip. Arriving at the van at 10 p.m., we found that it was not ours, but that of our friends. Our van was still out there somewhere. Much to our delight, however, we were greeted by the co-owner of a caribou hunting operation that was setting up for the quickly approaching season. Debbie had a bowl of popcorn and Dixie cups of whiskey for us. These would be a precursor to an evening spent inside her RV exchanging stories and reciting poetry, while the rain fell steadily outside.

Our trip's end, with outfitter tents and an RV ...

----------------------------------------------------------------

Special thanks for helping to make this trip an unbelievable experience go to the following:

Gareth O’Neil for the airport pick up and drop off; hosting us at the O’Neil compound; shuttling us around Fairbanks so we could acquire last-minute supplies; and for generously and graciously trusting us with his brand-new Sprinter van to travel the always rough and dangerous Haul Road. After a $30 wash, both inside and out, we returned the van almost as good as new with only a few chips in the windshield. (Sorry.)

Thor and Sarah for traveling with us up the Haul Road and for shuttling Gareth’s van from our starting point to the takeout (we eventually found after some searching up and down the Haul.)

Debbie Moore and the Arrowhead Outfitters crew for welcoming us out of the Brooks Range and into a raucous evening of food and drink. The ability to sleep in a dry tent for the evening was much appreciated.

Mike Riemer, Zach Fink and the rest of the Salsa Crew for getting a Blackborow and Alternator Rack to me on short notice. You guys “get it done,” just like all of your equipment.

And, lastly, to Doom and Jon—two guys wacky enough to dream big and take on a quirky individual like me as a teammate. I can’t wait for the next adventure!

Gareth’s van after its journey up and down the Haul Road ...

Returned as good as new ... 

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Blackborow Brett Davis Fatbike Sponsored Riders

Share this post:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brett Davis

I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.

COMMENTS (4)

Jerry Boyd | October 15th, 2015

Awesome adventure you had there. The Brooks Range is such a magnificent place. I never imagined biking it because of all the tussocks but you found a way Kudos to you! Great pictures too!

thub | October 17th, 2015

What an amazing adventure. Great photography and writing.  I’ve lived in Alaska most of my life and never tire of images and tales of The Last Frontier.  Glad your bear encounters were far and few.

Mike | November 29th, 2015

SOMEDAY I WILL DO THAT

patirwin | February 4th, 2016

Great recap thanks for sharing!!

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.