Adventure Tour Review: Expeditions Alaska - Arrigetch Peaks Trek
Price: $3300 per person (includes 2 flights on Wrights Air from Fairbanks to Bettles, 2 flights on bush planes from Bettles to Circle Lake, 9 nights of guiding in the backcountry, all the gear required for packrafting, and 1 night stay at Bettles Lodge)
Duration: 9 nights in the backcountry
The summer backpacking season is just around the corner and I'm in the process of finalizing almost all of my trips. Since you may be as well I thought it would be a great time to finally put together a review for my guided backpacking trip to the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park last summer, in case you want to add it to your itinerary!
Last March I was browsing the internet, looking through adventure logs and photos trying to find "the big one". I wanted to go on a longer backpacking trip in the summer of 2016, one that would test me mentally and physically, one that wasn't already on every other hiker's radar but was still scenic and wild. I settled on Alaska and began to research guiding companies in the state since I wasn't about head out into the depths of the Alaskan backcountry alone, I've read "Into the Wild". In my research I saw a few photos of these tantalizing, beautiful peaks, rising like jagged teeth into the sky, they seemed to call to me. I discovered these mountains were called the Arrigetch Peaks and that they reside in Gates of the Arctic National Park and required quite an adventure if you wanted to see them with your own eyes. They were perfect. I found a few companies that offered guided trips to the region and eventually settled on Expeditions Alaska. Carl, the founder and guide, has been guiding in the state for 20+ years and he had great reviews so I booked my adventure and patiently waited for July 26 to arrive.
The good: This trip takes you into the depths of one of the least visited national parks and it guarantees nearly complete solitude. Gates of the Arctic is located entirely above the Arctic Circle and is not accessible by road. You can enter the park by floating down a river, hiking, or flying in on a float plane (this guided trip takes you in on a float plane from Bettles). Once you make the logistically challenging trip into the park there are no trails to follow except for the rare social or game trail. This inaccessibility deters many people from visiting and leaves the park feeling like an unspoiled wilderness for those who do make the trek. There were moments it felt like we were discovering the place for the first time and that was one of my favorite aspects of the trip.
Besides being remote and guaranteeing solitude the Arrigetch Peaks region is breathtakingly beautiful. We spent 3 full days exploring the area immediately surrounding the peaks, venturing into 3 unique valleys. On the second day we explored Aquarius Valley, a rocky valley dotted with brilliant alpine lakes that are so remote they don't even have proper names. We stopped at each one to take in the views as we caught our breaths.
In addition to the backpacking portion of the trip, Expeditions Alaska offers the option to tack on a multi-day packrafting adventure to the end of the trip, which I elected to do. I had never been packrafting before and the 2 day, 20 mile float on the easy class 1 Alatna River seemed like a great opportunity to try the sport. I'm so glad I did - it was the perfect introduction to packrafting and my legs, ankles, and feet were grateful for the break after 7 tough days of hiking.
We spent 2 days and 2 nights on the river, camping on the gravel river beds and falling asleep to the sound of the water gently lapping the shoreline. This portion of the trip offers to best chance to see wildlife and we were able to catch a glimpse of a moose and a wolf. The wolf sighting might have been one of the highest points of the trip as they are typically elusive animals.
The trip also proved to me just how little I need to survive and it was honestly quite eye-opening - all I needed to thrive was food, clean water, warm clothing, sturdy boots, and a shelter. That sounds like "well, duh", but then I returned home and looked around my apartment and realized how many of the things I own are unnecessary and excessive. I became more conscious of my own consumerism, the waste I created on a daily basis, and made a determined effort to consume less.
The bad: The worst part of this trip was entirely my fault. I didn't prepare enough physically. I researched backpacking in Alaska and knew this trip would require a lot of bushwhacking. What I didn't realize was how tough bushwhacking would be. It's hard to describe how difficult it was, but let's just say there were moments I wanted to just sit on the ground and cry. Had I worked on strengthening and conditioning before I headed out into the backcountry I know it would have been a more enjoyable trip.
The other downside of this trip is that we were being blind-guided. I was completely unaware that Expeditions Alaska offered any other guides besides Carl as this isn't mentioned anywhere on the website. I had always assumed he would be with us and from his extensive experience I felt 100% comfortable entering the wilderness with him. However, a week before the trip I was informed that a different guide would be leading our group. She ended up being nice and experienced but she had never completed our backpacking trip before. Carl had given her excellent beta and most of the trip went off without a hitch. However, had she completed the trip previously she never would have taken us a mile over a precarious and exhausting boulder field when 50 yards to the right of the boulder field was a social trail. This was a discovery we made on our way back from the peaks.
The final word: This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I learned so much about myself. I was pushed to my limits and challenged in ways I never anticipated. I was taught just how little I needed to survive and thrive. I am so grateful I was able to experience this and I learned from my mistakes. I am planning on taking a similar trip this summer and I am already training and conditioning so I am as fit as possible and hopefully won't be so affected by the the physical activity.