Within the Brooks Range lies the Endicott Mountains and in the heart of these mountains is the Gates of The Arctic National Park and Preserve. Where the mountains rise to meet the sky the beginnings of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River lie. This is a river that begins in these mountains and eventually flows into the giant Yukon-Kusko delta region. But at its start are the 7000-foot high mountains of the Gates, with Mt Doonerak the most dramatic of them. Starting in this mountain valley begins a 90-mile river trip that is mostly Class I although there is a short section of Class II rapids. This 90-mile trip is an excellent family float for those tuned in to the ways of wilderness camping. It can be done in 5 to 7 days by raft or kayak.
It is necessary to fly in to the start of the river and can be done from either Bettles or Coldfoot. Coldfoot can be reached by driving the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks. Commercial flights into Bettles are possible from Fairbanks. A bush plane on wheels can then land you at Kuchona Creek where there is a decent gravel strip. From here is about an 85-mile journey through very scenic wilderness. For a shorter trip of 5 days you could land your gear at Redstar Creek where it is only 60 miles to the take out in Bettles.
Take out is a simple process of floating to the town of Bettles, which sits on the banks of the Koyukuk 5 miles above the John River confluence.
Kuchona Creek to Bettles: 85 Miles
There are spots above Kuchona Creek where a plane on wheels can land but rarely is there enough water for a raft to float until about where Bombardment Creek and Ernie Creek meet. Starting at Kuchona Creek is a better location and yields 85 miles of beautiful river with only one small section of rapids. From Kuchona Creek, the river goes from a braided stream with sweepers and log jams to a swift single channel of easier water. For 25 miles below Kuchona the river is swift but not always a single channel still with occasional sweepers to dodge. Once you reach Redstar Creek the river remains a single channel and a pleasant float trip, with good fishing and incredible views. The hiking near the river is decent, especially at the start. The only real rapids are below Redstar Creek and are called Cladonia Rapids where there is a mid-river pillow rock and boulders with chutes just below the mouth of Cladonia Creek. At Squaw Creek there are some riffles where there had been a rapid before floods in 1994 washed them away and smoothed out the stretch. It is an easy float below this point with the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk coming in 30 miles above Bettles. Bettles is located on the left shore and you can get to the airstrip without too much effort.
- It might be a good idea to spend a couple of days at the put in as the mountains are at their closest and hiking is good. This has been a traditional route to the area around Anaktuvuk Pass and is a spectacular region to camp and hike. Bob Marshal called Mt Doonerak the Matterhorn of the Brooks Range when he first ventured into this area.
- Sweepers are a legitimate threat to keep an eye out for.
- This is an area full of black and brown bears.
- River levels can increase quickly after heavy summer rains.
Wiseman A-2, A-3, B-2, C-2, D-1, D-2
Bettles D-3, D-4
Chandler Lake A-1