Kobuk River, Alaska
Put In: Walker Lake
Take Out: Shugnak
Mileage on Kobuk River: 125
Rapids: class III for ½ mile in upper canyon and class II for ½ mile in lower canyon
Fishing: Arctic Grayling at Walker Lake outlet and Sheefish along the middle Kobuk.
Who: 12 old friends
Travel From Seattle to Walker Lake: Alaska Air – SEA to ANC to FAI. We arrive in Fairbanks by noon. Wrights Air – FAI to BTT. We arrive in Bettles by 3:00 pm. Brooks Range Aviation – BTT to Walker Lake. We arrive at Walker Lake by 6:00 pm with lots of daylight left! 1750 miles traveled in 14 hours, not a single delay, all our gear makes it with us.
Travel from Shugnak to Seattle: Raven Air – OBU to OTZ leave Shugnak at 10 am arrive Kotzbue 11:30 am. Alaska Air – OTZ to ANC to SEA to PDX Arrive in Portland at 7 am 24 hours of travel with time difference.
Freight: We used USPS to ship boats, food staples and personal gear from Seattle to Bettles, Alaska. This worked well and saved us a significant amount of money. Our bottleneck on gear was the Caravan flying from Fairbanks to Bettles. Over 40 lbs per person on this leg is billed at $1.80 per pound. With USPS we shipped 10 Aire Lynx 2 kayaks and 2 Aire Outfitter 2 kayaks plus 10 group gear boxes plus 12 personal bags plus 10 food boxes. Total cost to USPS this pile of gear was $3564.00 if we had flown this gear as baggage the cost would have been over $7000.00. In addition to the gear we mailed we also did a fresh food buy in Fairbanks and a small beer buy (3 per person per day). Liquor traveled in personal bags. Beyond our 40 lbs limit per person with Wright Air we spent an additional $937 in freight overages…
This system worked great for the trip up but on the way back we had issues. In Shugnak we went to the post office and dropped off the 12 kayaks plus group gear, paid $1445 in cash and left with the hope that our gear would be delivered to Seattle in the next few weeks. After 6 weeks we had received only 2 kayaks. After numerous calls it was determined that there were many issues, the post office had a break in, the safe with our money was stolen and the postage scale was broken. They could not figure out how to get our gear home to us. After multiple attempts involving the post master general, the state police and everyone else who would listen we determined that our gear would not be returning vis USPS. Big bummer…luckily we made friends at Rave Air. They agreed to get our bags from the post office and fly them to Koetzbue for $500. Then we had to pay Alaska Air freight $906 to get the bags back to Seattle. Both these companies gave us big discounts due to our problems with the Post Office. In the end we spent an extra $1400.00 but got our gear back (only 12 weeks late).
Trip Costs: $2196 per person
River Maps: link here to drop Box
August 16, 2016
Fly Seattle to Walker Lake, set up camp, full moon – it was light all night. Weather was very nice with temps in the 60’s and a clear sky. Nice party as all gear arrived with us in good shape. The trip is on! We go from the developed world to the southern edge of the Brooks Range and the middle of nowhere in 14 hours. I always love it when the plane leaves and we are on our own for a while. Everyone is pretty wound up and before we know it we figure out it is 3 in the morning and time to go to bed.
Layover day at the lake. We spend the morning figuring out our boats and planning loads and enjoying the great weather. In the afternoon we paddle over to river outlet to do some scouting and messing around. We find Artic Grayling in abundance. Flies or spinners, these fish took anything. We caught and released over 100 fish in a short time. After a while we hike downstream to the canyon to see the first rapids. All looks good and we figure we’ll be just fine. On the hike we see some big white swans and a moose. Dinner was the traditional Greek special from the “EH” team. Lamb on the BBQ
Note: I would camp at the river mouth on the slope above the water. That would make fishing easier for the time spent here.
Break camp and load kayaks to start the trip. We stop at the river mouth and catch another 100+ Grayling. It is a lot of fun to catch a fish on every cast! After lunch we head downstream to run the canyon section. Everyone gets through just fine. Not all clean runs but at least no swimmers. The boats are very heavy. Travel 6 miles on the Kobuk river and camp on a manky gravel bar. Today we saw bald eagles and a bunch of beaver dens.
Today we ran the rest of the Kobuk River upper canyon, it turned out to be pretty much a non-event with very little in the way of rapids. Covered 25 miles, a pretty long day. Wildlife hoarder saw a wolf today plus the rest of us saw bald eagles and osprey. And then the rain started…Did I mention single wall tents are not too good in the rain in Alaska? Kevin is on his second version of a light tent with single walls. Last year on the Aniackchek the single wall North Face tent he had leaked and this year the Mtn. Hardware version leaked too. It is better to carry some extra weight and have a full sheet seam taped rainfly with a vestibule. When the “Big Guy” says he is moving under the kitchen tarp nobody argues.
The rain stopped by morning so we try to get our stuff dried out a bit before heading down stream. We run the lower canyon rapids, easy class II at best but still fun. Once through this section the canyon opens up and we go from a southerly direction of travel to heading west across the foothills of the brooks Range. Today was the best wildlife siting of the trip. A sow Grizzly and two cubs, they are fishing for chum salmon at a side creek of the Kobuk River. We watch them for ½ an hour while they swim, play and fish. We camp about 45 miles into the trip, no Sheefish yet but we are back into the rain.
Rain, Rain, Rain. Floated to MP 65 where we ran into a big bend of the Kobuk River chock full of Sheefish. Team spirits went from low to high in the blink of an eye as we hooked and landed multiple fish. Everyone who tried could catch one of these monsters. We set up camp along the bend and fished all evening, a rod tip was always bent down with someone reeling in a great fish. It felt great to have achieved one of the major objectives of the trip and actually catch one of these rare fish.
More rain all night. We wake up and fish all morning catching a bunch more Sheefish. As we move downstream the river starts rising and turns off color. Sheefishing is slowing down as the water rises and gets brown. Did I mention the rain? We made camp early as John was sick, the flu or something, turnaround jumpers were on the menu for John. Camped next to a noisy Osprey nest.
Guess what – still raining, damp and humid but at least it is not cold and snowy! By afternoon we are seeing a bit of sun and only showers. We stop to make camp and try to dry some gear. Half way through the drying process we get another big shower and have to start all over again. John still sick and did manage to get a bit of food down but unfortunately it all came back up a short while later. It sucks to be sick in the wilderness. We have even talked of a Sat phone bush plan rescue but so far John wants to stick it out. The Kobuk river is rising and brown, fishing is done.
Day 9 and Jon’s birthday…Watch out! Turns out to be a mellow day. Along the river we stop at a Tundra Swamp that shows on the map. The Tundra goes on for miles and is full of no-see-ums. I get eaten alive and before I can get back to the boat and my head net I have swollen eyes and itchy skin. I am the only one who reacts to the bugs. Jon has a mellow birthday as he is now showing signs of a weak stomach. We camp on a bar and relax with a bit of evening sun and a beautiful sunset.
Last full day on the river. We pull into the village of Kobuk and negotiate for a moose roast and some caribou antlers. Then we meet Mildred and Nina who sell us some handmade birch baskets and a few other trinkets. The ladies are excited for the $400 we drop with them so they can pay their utility bill. We have a fun night trying to drink the last of the beer and liquor while celebrating another successful river trip. FYI – the moose was awesome.
Hell day, up early for the float to Shugnak, then the post office fiasco, then a flight to Kotzebue and on to Anchorage and Seattle. All in all a 24 hour travel day to get home. All worth it though for very nice trip.