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Alone Across Alaska: 1,000 Miles of Wilderness by Buck Nelson

Gates of the Arctic
Gates of the Arctic

An open ridge-top in the White Mountains rose to meet the tiny Super Cub, then fell away towards the next unnamed creek. Marty, my pilot and old smokejumper buddy, glanced at the instrument panel then studied the open tundra of the next mountainside.

We were headed to a tiny fuel cache on a gravel bar of the Porcupine River. There, we’d refuel before continuing on to Joe Creek in the eastern Brooks Range, just a few miles from the Alaska/Yukon border.

Leaving the White Mountains we flew over the Yukon Flats, ribbons of creeks meandering through birch and spruce, past countless lakes and ponds, where an occasional moose could be spotted feeding.

“There’s the Yukon!” Marty shouted over the drone of the engine. The huge, braided river shimmered ahead, with it’s major tributary, the Porcupine, joining it from the northeast. Soon the little plane was bouncing along a gravel bar near an eroded river bluff.

“Want me to tell you if I spot a mammoth tusk?” I joked. We walked over to the willows and grabbed a couple of cans of fuel Marty had recently cached for today. As Marty poured the fuel into the wing tank I walked along the gravel and then stared down incredulously.

Mammoth Tusk
Mammoth Tusk

“Hey Marty, come over here for a second.”
“What have you got?” he said.
“Take a few more steps towards me.”
“Holy $#*7!” Marty shouted, reaching down to pick up a chunk of mammoth tusk at his feet. What an incredible coincidence. Neither of us had found a piece of tusk in all our years in the Alaska bush.

Later, Marty studied the “landing strip” at Joe Creek, then dropped the flaps and expertly executed a slow, bumpy landing on the tundra. Marty handed me my pack and in no time I was watching him hand-spin the prop to restart the engine. It sputtered to life and he gave a salute and hopped in. The roar of takeoff quickly receded and the plane shrank to a tiny speck before disappearing over the mountains. I was alone in the most remote wilderness of America, the Brooks Range, with a thousand miles to the Chukchi Sea on Alaska’s west coast. It was June 18th.

Brooks Range Route
Brooks Range Route

And that was my goal: to traverse Alaska through the beautiful Brooks Range, alone. In 2006, it was a time when I was relying on paper topo maps to plan a new route. There were no guidebooks. It was impossible to determine, from the maps, whether rivers would be fordable or mountain passes negotiable. I’d simply have to see for myself.

In the morning I hiked along Joe Creek towards my start at the Yukon border. Ahead of me a white wolf ran across the open creek bottom and disappeared in the willows! A few minutes later I spotted him sitting on a ridge a safe distance away. He tilted his nose to the sky and seconds later his low howl reached me, a pattern repeated many times before I reluctantly continued on.

In early afternoon I reached the imaginary Yukon border, then turned back westward, crunching along the gravel bars and over lingering rotten creek ice, often six feet thick or more.

Route-finding, in the larger sense, was fairly easy. This was open country and it was relatively straightforward to figure out which drainages to follow. Sometimes I’d pull out my GPS and match the coordinates to aeronautical charts to verify my position. The greater challenge was route-finding on a smaller scale: picking the easiest route through country where the only trails were animal paths that would appear and just as quickly vanish. The best walking was generally gravel bars or “white tundra,” covered by light colored lichens that favor drier ground.

The weather was running cool and rainy, so my main stream-crossing tactic was rubber-banding my rain pants tightly over the tops of my Gore-tex boots, then wading the countless shallow crossings as quickly as possible, which generally kept my feet dry. When the warm sun came out I’d hang my gear on bushes to dry and set out my solar panel to charge my camera batteries. What a huge boost in morale those times were!

Alaska Wolf
Alaska Wolf

Three hundred meters ahead an animal loped towards me. Grizzly! He’d spotted me and was hurrying over to see if I was something to eat, perhaps an injured caribou or moose. I moved out into the open so he could see me clearly, then pulled out the sides of my unzipped raincoat to make myself look bigger. He eyed me from fifty yards away, then moved downwind into a thin screen of willows. As the tension mounted he suddenly smelled me and whirled to run.

The mosquitoes were often thick. I wore a bandana hanging down from my cap to keep them off the back of my neck and the sides of my face. I put a little DEET on the backs of my hands if they were especially bad. My pants and shirt were mosquito proof. Although the skeets were annoying at times, I didn’t suffer excessively. At “night” I would pull off my wet boots and change into dry long underwear and socks, then watch as mosquitoes battered themselves against the screen trying to get at me. In the Arctic summer it wouldn’t get fully dark for many more weeks. The magical light of sunsets flowing into sunrises lasted for hours.

One overcast day I stood on the bank of a swift river. The water was thick with glacial silt. It was impossible to see how deep it was. Was it wade-able? And if it wasn’t? I’d have to find out. I looked for a wide spot where the river braided out between little gravel islands and with my hiking staff for support slowly waded across, making sure of each step. The cold water swirled up to my crotch but I was able to keep my feet and was relieved to reach the opposite shore safely, dumping out my flooded boots.

Bush Pilot
Bush Pilot

A few hundred yards away I spotted a small green steel box, a resupply cache Marty had dropped off for me over a week ago. I felt like a kid at Christmas: lots of good food, spare bug dope and more. I sorted out my trash and left it in the cache with excess food, all of which would be flown out later.

One day I was walking through willows along a mostly open gravel bar. A beautiful tan colored wolf trotted towards me. I quickly sat down in the shade of a willow before he spotted me. He warily watched me as he approached. My sitting position confused him. Was I something to eat or something to fear? When he was only a few yards away he dashed away and ran up the mountainside.

Days later I was forced by towering stone walls into an ice cold creek rushing with knee-deep water. I was soaked and chilled from the rain and the creek. This would be a very bad place to be injured. I had a sat. phone for emergencies but it would be unlikely to work in the narrow gorge, a hundred miles from the nearest village. Every time it appeared as if my route was going to be blocked by water falls or deep water or cliffs, I’d find a barely negotiable alternate. Climbing cold, wet scree late in the afternoon I reached a mountain pass and descended on aching knees, anxious to set up camp. When I finally approached a flat camp spot along a stream a sow grizzly was feeding there with two tiny cubs. When she caught wind of me she turned to flee up the steep mountain, the two tiny balls of fur bouncing along behind her. I felt sorry for them as they tired and slowed, but they were soon out of sight far above me where the little guys could catch their breath.

Eastern Brooks Range
Eastern Brooks Range

And so I walked across the map among the beautiful wild mountains of the Brooks Range. I crossed many unknown passes of the Continental Divide. Dall sheep fed on the ridges. Occasional caribou trotted past, anxious to rejoin the Porcupine Herd somewhere to the north. Lone grizzlies ambled across the tundra. I walked through trees only in a handful of drainages south of the Divide.

One afternoon I noticed scattered metal near a high pass I was headed for: a plane wreck. Bits of paper fluttered in the rocks. One was a citation for a rifle seized from a bear hunter back in the 50’s. A game warden’s plane. A boot lay among the twisted wreckage next to a curled propeller. I later learned that this plane, flown by Clarence Rhode, had been the subject of the greatest aerial search in Alaska history. It had lain undiscovered for decades in this remote wilderness until being found in the late 70s, when the bones of its three victims were at last recovered.

On July 17 I left the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and crossed the Alaska Pipeline and Haul Road, where a friend had left another food cache for me. It was strange to see plumes of dust and an occasional car rattling along the gravel road.

My next stop was the tiny Inupiat village of Anaktuvuk Pass, where I picked up a resupply box and got my first hot shower in a month. I also enjoyed a half gallon of Neapolitan ice cream from the village store!

One day I startled some wolf puppies in a willow thicket who promptly scampered up the hill. One sat howling for help. Its mother sat concerned, high up on the ridge, with the father watching from the opposite slope. I left them to arrange their reunion. The next day I spotted, a stone’s throw away, an old white wolf sleeping contentedly in the sunshine of a high ridge.

Joe Creek
Joe Creek

The Alatna River was fast and deep. I considered my options. How about a raft? It took a few hours to drag together enough dead logs, then gather up every piece of cordage I could find, from tent lines to shoe laces, to lash the whole thing together. It was an exciting and tense time poling across the river. That night I had the rare treat of camping in tall spruce trees.

The Arrigetch Peaks were spectacular: some jagged, some conical, all beautiful. But ahead there was a steep pass to negotiate and I was concerned whether I could safely descend the opposite side. When at last I reached the top I was elated to find a reasonable looking descent route. I gazed at the breathtaking mountain walls surrounding me and the incredible mountains beyond. What a thrilling sight. What a relief to have made the climb safely!

A grizzly was eating blueberries (as I had been) across a small river. As I walked downstream parallel to him he began to cross to my side of the river, pausing to lounge in the cool water. I watched from a safe vantage point then crossed to the other side to avoid him. When he spotted me from a few hundred yards away he stood up on his hind legs to watch me, then began wading back across the river towards me. I stood up on a rock and yelled “HEY BEAR!” several times. He approached steadily while keeping an eye on me. I didn’t like his attitude. He entered a patch of nearby willows then stood up on his hind legs again for better look. The wind swirled and he picked up my scent for the first time and he went running off. “That’s right” I yelled after him in relief, “you’d better run!”

Moose Antlers
Moose Antlers

On August 11, I’d walked over 600 miles and reached the Noatak River. I found my inflatable canoe stashed in a steel drum as protection from grizzlies. It was a new world as I launched and followed the small upper river through the tundra of the western Brooks Range.

Sorting through my gear at a riverside camp I heard a woof. A sow grizzly and cubs had swum the river and were just about to land near my camp when she spotted me. All three were frantically swimming away. The two cubs were tiring rapidly on this, their second river crossing, and were trying to climb on the mother’s back for a ride. Happily they all reached the opposite shore, where they shook themselves and loped away. That night a wolf began to howl nearby, joined by another and another, louder and louder, each individual wolf’s voice rising and falling, until it seemed as if the large pack had my tent half surrounded, which, in fact, they did. It was an electrifying experience.

Gravel bars were often covered with fresh caribou tracks. I began to see small bands of the Western Arctic Herd. The fishing was getting better and at good spots I’d stop to try my luck. Large grayling would often end up roasting over coals. I caught more and more chum salmon but my main target, char, eluded me.

On a foggy morning, soon after leaving a pleasant camp at the mouth of atributary, I saw a black animal next the the river. I grabbed my camera. As I got closer I could see it was a black wolf. He was chasing a caribou! The caribou was frantically trying to escape, running along the water. Another black wolf dashed out in an attempt to cut him off! The caribou fled into the water and swam hard for the opposite bank, eyes big with fear as it swam right past my boat, fearing the wolves more than me. The wolves stood on the shore, disappointed, repeatedly glancing at their departing meal and back to me, their eyes glowing from the deep black hair of their faces.

One day the wind was fierce. Progress was painfully slow on large river oxbows. I was now confident I’d beat winter to the coast, so I set up camp in a grassy opening in thick, twelve foot willows. I lay back in my tent reading, completely protected from the roar of the wind; warm, dry and rested. What a treat to relax so comfortably!

Musk Ox
Musk Ox

The river carried me westward. A large animal waded a side channel of the river. Musk ox! I quietly approached and he strode steadily out of river, streaming water from his long hair. He turned his head to contemplate my approach, the deep curves of fiercely pointed horns on each side of his head.

The fishing got better and I finally caught my char, a beautiful five pound fish. I made camp. He soon roasted over hot coals. At the same tributary I caught several more char and many salmon, primarily on green or orange flies. As I neared the Eskimo village of Noatak I began to see an occasional boat, the occupants waving as they passed. Trees often appeared along the shore providing better camps and handier firewood.

On September 2nd, the brisk wind had a different feel. I realized I could smell salt water! I tied off my boat and headed through the willows. Swans trumpeted overhead.

Finally the willows thinned. I stood looking westward where the ocean met a light blue sky at the end of my journey. The cold waves of the Chukchi Sea lapped at my feet. One thousand and fifty miles of spectacular wilderness lay behind me. What an incredibly challenging and rewarding summer it had been.

In the eloquent words of Aldo Leopold, “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Buck Nelson
Buck Nelson

About Buck Nelson

Buck Nelson was an Alaska smokejumper for over 25 years, parachuting to remote wildfires in Alaska and across the West. He has enjoyed many other adventures, including thru-hiking the Triple Crown: the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. In 2012 he was the first person to thru-hike the Desert Trail from Mexico to Canada. Buck lives in a log cabin near Fairbanks, Alaska. You can read more about his adventures, find gear lists, see a highlight video of his Alaska traverse, and order the DVD documentary of this story, Alone Across Alaska, at his website: www.bucktrack.com. “If there were an Oscar for indie adventure films, Buck Nelson would be a runaway winner.” Backpacker Magazine.

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19 comments

  1. I have been to Alaska twice now working on television shows. I have seen much of what Buck saw on this trip, but mostly sitting in a bush plane. I flew through Gates of the Arctic, and have landed on a gravel bar in Anaktuvuk Pass.There was some of the cleanest, clearest water i have ever seen.I have ridden ATV’s on the Iditarod trail, and lived in the Eskimo fishing village of Unalakleet for 3 months. I have been on a moose hunt, and changing whale nets in the norton sound, and have even witnessed a village bring and harvest a beluga whale on shore. Alaska is one of the most beautiful spectacles of wilderness and wildlife on earth. It is surely on my bucket list to return not for work but for a hike like this!

    Rob L.

  2. You are a lucky man, Rob, to have seen so much of Alaska. Not many Alaskans get to see some of the things you’ve experienced!

    If anyone has any questions or comments I’ll be checking the comments here periodically today and in the future.

  3. Incredible! I’ve been to Alaska three times and can’t wait to get back.

    • Thanks Grandpa. There’s always something new to see. More people should visit. Options range from inexpensive backpacking trips that venture into the wilderness from the road system, to more conventional tours. All can be good ways to experience Alaska.

  4. Great story, what an amazing trip! Thanks so much for the story. It is fun to live vicariously through stories like these, as much as I would like to live them out myself (maybe one day…).

    I’ve only been to Alaska once, up to the Mendenhall Glacier for a little hike (did run into a black bear!). Hoping to go back this summer, though it will likely be another little weekend trip. Who knows where, though.

  5. Thanks Ben, glad you liked the story. If you have hiked to glaciers and run into bears of any kind, you are more than living vicariously!

  6. I lived in Alaska for 18 months so it’s easy to understand the difficulty of a journey like this. But, man, it’s such an incredible place for a truly wild adventure. I would love to do something like this. Thanks for sharing your story, Buck.

  7. Hi, Bruce! It’s great to see your tale of this trip after hearing and seeing photos in bits and pieces. Wonderful writing, beautiful photos, so much spirit! Thank you!

  8. Your post is absolutely jaw-dropping, in the rigor of your solo hike across such a landscape and the wild animal sightings. I especially appreciate how you convey your respect for the animals, and theirs for you. Man in fierce harmony with nature. First rate writing and photos too.

  9. Thank you Gail, I really appreciate that! There’s still a lot of true wilderness out there.

  10. I’ve had this DVD for a while and watch it occasionally. It never gets old. I always recommend it.

  11. Buck, I do feel very privileged to have experience the thing I have in Alaska. I know that may people walk this earth will never see these things. BTW, did you hear of the migrating sand dunes? It seems awkward, but I have flown over them in bush plane. The move with the winds! Of all places, sand dunes in Alaska.

  12. Thanks for sharing your trip, Buck. It is very inspiring for this suburbanite just north of San Francisco. My son and I hike and fish the rivers of the Sierras, but are just starting to backpack beyond day-hike destinations. My son just turned 16 and dreams of fishing in Alaska one day (I have never been). We are going to Montana to fish and look at colleges this summer, and I have been thinking of suggesting colleges in Alaska as well. I will definitely do so after reading your trip narrative. Thanks again.

  13. I’m glad you found it inspiring, Paul. The Sierras are also unusually beautiful as you know, and I often fish the rivers of SW Montana. One thing that makes Alaska magical of course, is the depth of the wilderness and all the animals. Enjoy your Montana fishing trip!

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