I spent much of this July, 2019 in Alaska, a state that continues to call me back, year after year. For the first week, I was there with my good friend Joe. We had the privilege of taking with us two Alpacka packrafts––an Alpacka series and an FX42––generously provided to us by Alpacka, who helped make this trip a reality.
With these rafts to carry us, Joe and I ventured off into the Arctic to float a portion of one of the rivers that flows south from the Brooks Range—the continental divide that separates the Arctic tundra from the rest of Alaska, a wall of some of the most beautiful, craggy, glaciated peaks and greenest, rolling foothills you could imagine.
This place is home to the Gwich’in people, whose presence, heritage, and resilience is what inspired my visit. Although I chose to frame this trip within the framework of recreation by means of packrafting the waterways that wind through and bring life to this breathtaking landscape of what the federal government recognizes as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it is the people that brought me here.
We entered Arctic Village in smoke, eyes, mouths, noses filled with the miasma of raging wildfires storming across Alaska, the nearest hundreds of miles away.
With the land obscured, we weren’t granted many views of the Village or its surroundings, but the many snaking tributaries of the Yukon and the Chandalar rivers hinted at what would become a circuitous journey upon which we soon hoped to embark.
What I knew of the Village consisted largely of what I had read from Peter Mather, an incredible photographer and storyteller who has spent quite a bit of time in the region, much closer to his home in western Canada. Through Peter, I was able to connect with Brennan, a young Gwich’in man active in the community, and fellow Canadian, with whom I exchanged a few Facebook messages to arrange the logistics of our packrafting trip.
Brennan is a man of many talents. He works several jobs in the Village, hunts caribou for the elders now too old, busy, or otherwise unable to do it themselves. He’s a mechanic, boatsman, shrewd businessman, and an incredibly skilled violinist. Kid plays a mean fiddle AND brings all of these talents together to better his community.
A single paragraph, even paired with photos, is far too little to show you who Brennan Firth is, and I haven’t even gotten to his girlfriend Jewels yet...
“People ask: ‘he came here for you?’ And I say “uh, yeahhh!”
Jewels is why Brennan came to Arctic Village, and she’s why he stuck around. If you met her, you wouldn’t be surprised why.
She dedicates her time working to better contribute to her community. At the moment, she’s a teaching aid at the Arctic Village School, supervising and providing instruction to one class while the one teacher instructs the other. She’s also studying trauma counseling and working towards becoming a teacher to continue to foster the same powerful knowledge and curiosity that she possesses in the youth of Arctic Village.
No stranger to trauma herself, the tattoo she bears on her right arm is a memorial to her father, etched permanently into her skin, just as her memories of him remain etched upon her heart.
Jewels has the joy and sorrow and ferocity of generations coursing through her veins. She holds her head high, but there is laughter too—and she, in turn, will continue to teach and inspire this in the children of Arctic Village; the future and lifeblood of her community.
Brennan was waiting for us when our small passenger plane hit the gravel of the landing strip at the airport in Arctic Village.
We weren’t totally sure what our plan was, nor did we know much about the river upon which we were about to spend the next week. Luckily, Brennan and Jewels were off for the weekend, and were prepared to guide us up the river that very day. They needed time to prepare, so we took that time to walk the gravel roads that were the veins of the town, channeling the ATVs, bikes, and assortment of gleeful dogs chasing the riders of each vehicle, tongues lolling in their lazy pursuit.
We met Tiffany on our walk when she called out to us as we ambled by on our way to see the school. She introduced herself as the tribal administrator and we in turn explained the purpose of our trip. She wondered how we’d known to come here to Arctic Village, but was pleased at the mention of Peter Mather’s name. I think he’s a popular guy here.
The rest of our interactions were equally friendly exchanges of smiles and waves, and a few wet noses and good ear scratches for the furrier of the Village’s inhabitants, but soon enough it was time to load up the boat and begin our adventure.
The waters of the Chandalar River were shallow. Shallower than we expected. We were confident that our packrafts would sit high enough in the water that we wouldn’t have any issues paddling downstream, but getting up was a different story.
Luckily for us, Brennan’s knowledge of the river and his skill with the boat got us through and past some potentially sticky situations, and we were able to navigate some 40 miles of river upstream from Arctic Village. His sharp eyes constantly scanned the river ahead and the landscape around, tracing lines upon a map that only he could see.
Every now and then, we’d stop to examine some animal tracks along the riverbanks, or slow to watch an eagle soaring overhead. Both of Jewels’ uncles, who had jumped at the opportunity to go for a ride also sportingly pointed out landmarks and wildlife, guiding us upriver as they told stories of their homeland and we reveled in its beauty together.
Finally, it was just Joe and me on the river.
In a matter of hours, we had traveled nearly 40 miles upriver, which left us just thirteen miles from Arctic Village as the crow flies. Granted, you’d have to be a crow to travel that distance in a straight line, or else force your way slowly through dense willows and marshy wetlands and ponds in between river crossings as the undulating waterway ponderously switches back and forth in oxbow after oxbow at irregular intervals.
We saw a lot of ravens, but none were courteous enough to offer us a lift, so we were left to our own devices, and more importantly, to our packrafts.
We filled our bellies with some freeze-dried food and the bellies of our boats with the rest of our gear, and we were underway. The steady current pulled us along and called us downward, two more drops of water beckoned on by the distant call of the ocean, heedless to any idea but to obey. We dipped our paddles and the Chandalar obliged, and we immersed ourselves in the Arctic.
When we allowed ourselves to drift along, not speaking, hardly even dipping our paddles to remain as noiseless as possible, we hoped to increase the likelihood of encountering wildlife along the banks of the Chandalar.
It seemed that we would encounter another set of moose tracks every mile or two, interspersed with scores of prints left by shorebirds, waterfowl, mink, muskrat, and the huge padded paws of wolves. Clearly we weren’t alone, but as we paddled along below the steep banks of the river seeing little more than the hawks, eagles, ravens, and the occasional owl that soared overhead, we realized that we were traveling on a separate plane—and a different sleep schedule—than the majority of the wildlife we hoped to see.
Although the darkest hours of night were still no dimmer than a summer sunset on a clear night at home, we found it difficult to transition to a nocturnal sleep/paddling schedule, preferring instead to bask in the warmth of the sun when it sat high in the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of any animal thirsty enough to come down to the river for a drink.
And to entertain ourselves in the meantime, we kept our rods out and always had a fly in the water, at the very least hoping to bring some wildlife just a little closer.
For the past six years, Joe has been a steadfast travel companion. We’ve driven coast to coast several times across the US and once across Canada, passed hours and days backpacking, skiing, hunting, fishing, and recreating outdoors together, and two years ago he and I spent three months road tripping across North America.
However, one thing he and I haven’t done a lot of together is paddling. He’s an avid and incredibly talented kayaker, and I’ve photographed him cruising through some pretty gnarly whitewater and waterfalls, but rarely have I joined him in a boat. He also had never visited Alaska. Naturally, I wouldn’t have accepted no for an answer when I invited him to join me packrafting in the Arctic.
It was a pleasure to be the reason for Joe’s first trip to Alaska just as much as it was to spend another week in the wild before he returned home to begin medical school. I can’t imagine this trip will be a last hurrah for our travels together, but it seemed like a good sending off point into a new chapter of his life.
After five days and 40 miles, we paddled hard into some heavy headwinds with our final destination in our sights.
Since we’d been dropped off, we hadn’t seen a single person in the Refuge, but it was refreshing and not at all as jarring as it often can be to return to “the real world”—especially when the real world is as beautiful, and remote, and as welcoming as Arctic Village. And where our journey had begun, here too it ended.
But Alaska will continue to call me back. To these places. To these people. To Refuge.
With this project, I would like to acknowledge and center the Gwich’in people, rightful stewards of Vashraii K’oo (Arctic Village) and Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins)––the place we know as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge––lands of the Gwich’in Nation.
Here, I wish to observe and recognize the historical and current connection between the culture of the Gwich’in Nation and these lands, and to pay respect to them, especially to their elders, past and present.
I would also like to express my gratitude to Brennan Firth and Jewels Gilbert for their willingness to guide us within the Refuge as well as in and around Arctic Village, and to the Gilbert family, including, but not limited to: Trimble, Mary, Galen, Albert, and Robert. Thank you for your generous hospitality.
Thanks also goes to Alpacka Raft, without whom this trip would not have happened.
Shoutout to Lizzy, (former) marketing manager at Alpacka, for believing in us and in our mission.