Preparing For An Arctic Adventure

Alaska Wilderness League member Drew McCalley considers the question of how to prepare for a backpack trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

By: Drew McCalley

As I prepare for my fifteenth backpacking trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I ponder whether this will be my last one. I am getting older, and more importantly, the Arctic Refuge’s precious coastal plain is under its most dire and imminent threat of being degraded by oil development. I can’t do anything about the aging, but we all can (and must) dig in and fight to preserve this remarkable place.

Setting aside these thoughts, let’s consider the more prosaic question of how to prepare for a backpack trip to the Arctic Refuge. There are features of an Arctic backpack trip that distinguish it from one of comparable length in temperate zones. Can you handle the extreme remoteness? Are you comfortable exploring a place with no trails or guidebooks? Are you confident handling whatever weather conditions the Arctic throws your way? And are all your muscles and joints in good operating condition (cognizant of the difficulty of rescue)?

A view along the Okpilak River valley in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Drew McCalley)

If you answer yes to these questions, it’s time to decide where to go. Start with maps, as always, and consult with someone who has been there (including Alaska Wilderness League staff). A few tips about route planning: (1) hike along major rivers, as the walking is usually better there than among the dreaded tussocks of the open tundra; (2) avoid crossing major rivers, as they can be quite dangerous; and (3) moderate your distance expectations, as hiking conditions can be challenging.

My trip this year will be to the Jago River valley on the north slope. This valley has one of the most reliable bush flight landing spots, and is spectacularly beautiful, bounded by some of the highest peaks in the Brooks Range. It has mostly good hiking surfaces in both directions from the landing site, upstream toward the high peaks and downstream to the coastal plain. My other favorite venue is the Aichilik River, the next major river east of the Jago. There are good safe routes between these two drainages and lots of wildlife in both, especially the Aichilik.

The coastal plain is rich in wildlife including the Porcupine caribou herd that completes the longest land migration route of any land mammal on Earth. (Drew McCalley)

Now let’s navigate the logistics of getting in there. You’ll first fly to Fairbanks, which is an all-day trip even from California where I live. From there, you will need two flights north to get to the north slope of the Arctic Refuge (another all-day process). Most crucial is the bush flight from Arctic Village or Fort Yukon over the Brooks Range. Only a handful of pilots serve this area, and their calendars fill up months in advance, so book early. My trips usually range 10-12 days (11 this year), including fly-in and fly-out days. Be sure to plan at least a day in Fairbanks at both ends of your trip. Delayed baggage coming in can ruin your trip, and it is not unusual to experience weather delays when heading out.

My group for this year’s trip numbers six. I feel that is the sweet spot for group size — enough to give you the safety and flexibility of numbers, but not so large as to be cumbersome. Whatever size your group, it is most cost-effective to be a multiple of three, because that is the number of passengers the bush pilot can carry in each flight, which they charge by the planeload and not the person. This is the costliest element of the trip, so figure about $3300+ per planeload (round trip), depending on where you’re going.

Once you have flights, the rest is like any other long backpack, though be prepared for wet and windy conditions. My favorite equipment for these trips is Gore-Tex over-socks and hiking poles. Over-socks keep my feet and socks dry inside wet boots, and poles help navigate the rough terrain. Once full, my pack “kit” will weigh about 30 pounds, plus food. On that note, you’ll likely need a food cache too, at a place you can hike back to or along your route where the bush pilot can land and drop it off (extra cost for that).

Now you’re ready for the adventure of a lifetime!

Drew McCalley on a previous trip to the Arctic Refuge, this time traveling the Okpilak River, west of the Aichilik and Jago rivers. (Drew McCalley)