The first thing I noticed when I pushed away from shore and onto the Yukon River was the loud hissing noise emanating from the bow of my packraft. I splashed water on the tubes of my boat, searching for a pinhole. After several minutes of careful looking and listening, I finally convinced myself that the hissing was caused by the silty river water brushing past my boat, and not by a leak. I’d read that the Yukon River is so thick with silt that it “whispers at the hull” but nothing I’d read said it sounded exactly like a raft leaking air. I made a quick note in my journal: “If you hear loud hissing noise, it’s probably just the silt and not a leak in your boat. Probably.”
That’s one of many things I learned through experience on my 1,300-mile bikepacking and packrafting trip around Alaska during the summer of 2018. If you’re considering a similar outdoor adventure, let me save you some moments of stress with these tips. Some of this information is pretty specific to my trip, but some can be applied to any remote adventure in AK or elsewhere. They are listed in no particular order. (If I had ordered them by priority, my notes about coffee would’ve come first.)
1) Avoid scented items. Whenever possible, choose the unscented version. This includes sunscreen, body wipes, and shampoo. Alaska is bear country, and the fewer scented items you’re carrying and using, the better. Even if you’ve stashed all your toiletries in a bear-safe container, if you’ve been using strawberry-scented shampoo and coconut-scented sunscreen, you can hardly blame a bear for mistaking you for a large, delicious strawberry coconut crepe.
I saw approx 10 bears during my trip. None of them were interested in me at all, probably because I smelled like dirt and sweat and not like cherry chapstick.
2) Share your plans before you go. Alaskans are friendly! Chances are someone knows someone who will welcome you with open arms, or at least be a safety net if the shit hits the fan. I know that not everyone loves social media, but I met some great folks through Facebook and Instagram who gave me their contact info and encouraged me to reach out if I needed anything as I was traveling through. One woman, whom I had never met, stashed drinking water for me on the gravel road through Denali National Park! Another guy told me that if I needed a place to stay, his family owned a small homestead outside of Slana, AK (pop. 147). And a third woman put me in touch with a family who lived on an island in the middle of the Yukon River (!). There aren’t many people in Alaska once you get outside of the major cities, but the people who are there are generally friendly and willing to help.
Teresa and her pack of Goldens – she was incredibly friendly despite what her “welcome” mat says.
3) Accept that everyone will worry – both your friends and family at home, and all of the people you talk to along the way. Especially if you’re a woman traveling alone. Be prepared to feel like you are jinxing yourself when you say things like “It’ll be fine.” or “I feel confident in my abilities and experience.” And then be grateful when everything is fine, because none of us are infallible.
“Who are you exactly? You’re doing what now? Are you sure that’s safe?”
3) Embrace the silt. As mentioned previously, the Yukon River is very silty. Filtering water like that over an extended period of time is a great way to ruin your filter. There are plenty of crystal clear side creeks feeding into the Yukon, but unfortunately some of these creeks have been contaminated from mining and there’s no way to know for sure which ones. So what to do about drinking water when the river is so silty? To solve this problem I turned to the FAQ section on the Yukon 1000 Canoe Race website (https://yukon1000.com/new/FAQ.php), which provides lots of useful info, including advice on obtaining drinking water while paddling the Yukon: In short, chemically treat your water and then enjoy the Yukon grit in your teeth. It’s all part of the experience. To further reduce silt, you can also let the water settle overnight and then skim off the top. I didn’t bother with this because the silt actually didn’t bother me that much.
4) Buy the MilePost. The MilePost is a book that includes a mile-by-mile description of all of the roads – paved and unpaved – in Alaska. There aren’t that many roads, so it’s not as big a book as you might imagine. I found a digital version of the MilePost online, and used that for the first half of my trip, mainly just to save weight. About 2 weeks into my journey someone showed me a copy of the paper MilePost. Mind blown. The digital MilePost is really just a sampling of what is in the unabridged hard copy of the MilePost. Lesson learned: The digital version doesn’t cut it. Buy the hard copy and then take photos of the pages you need if you don’t want to carry around the whole book.
5) Drink good coffee. (There are people who aren’t addicted to this warm, bitter drink and might not find this tip very helpful, but those people aren’t to be trusted anyway.) For me, coffee is one of the most important parts of the journey. When I sit down to drink my morning cup of coffee, I’m granting myself 5-10 minutes to quietly think about the ground I’ve covered and plan for the day ahead. Crappy coffee distracts from this contemplative experience. Starbucks Via gives me acid reflux, Alpine Start is close but still not there… Kuju Coffee is the ticket. Single serve pour-over coffee. Brilliant!! Yes, you have to carry around the grounds after you’re done, but they easily slip inside the exterior packaging for no mess. I’m a fan. #notsponsored #wishiwere
Kuju Coffee brewing
6) Use Amazon Prime. I know that Amazon Prime is supposedly one of the biggest evils of our impatient consumerist society, but dammit, it is so helpful for sending yourself to resupply to small AK towns. Exponentially cheaper than buying stuff at home and mailing it to yourself. Just be sure to give your supplies plenty of time to arrive – Amazon Prime means the shipping will be free, but it does not mean that the shipping will necessarily be fast.
7) Trust the post office. If you’re shipping yourself items that you can’t/don’t want to order on Amazon Prime, I recommend using USPS rather than FedEx or UPS. For example, I shipped my packrafting gear ahead of me to Eagle, AK using USPS. My instinct was to use UPS or FedEx, but after a number of phone calls I realized that was a bad idea. Here’s why: In Eagle (and other remote towns), all the packages arrive on the same mail plane, which typically lands once a week. However, the USPS packages on the mail plane are taken in by the local post office, while the FedEx and UPS packages literally sit in a van unattended until the recipient grabs them. So if you aren’t going to be in town when your package arrives, ship it through USPS so that someone will claim it from the mail van. Otherwise it just sits there until you arrive. In addition, neither UPS nor FedEx guarantee when or even if your package will be delivered to the more remote AK towns. However, if you pay for priority mail, USPS guarantees 3-day delivery with a full refund if your package doesn’t arrive on time, no matter the destination.
USPS guaranteed delivery of all this gear (UPS and FedEx couldn’t do the same)
8) Download field repair videos. If you’re carrying/using gear that could require technical field repairs (like a bike or a packraft) download the how-to videos onto your phone so you can access them without internet access… and ALSO print out hard copies of the how-to manuals. To save weight/paper, print double-sided, or use the back of the hard copies as a journal. Of course, this is in addition to carrying all the gear/tools necessary for field repairs. Which brings us to the next tip…
9) Use Tyvek Tape. Most people know that duct tape is a wilderness necessity. If you’re traveling with a packraft, add Tyvek tape to your list. As the Alpacka website says “With 15 feet (4.5 meters) of tape, you can literally re-assemble your boat after a Grizzly bear uses it for a chew toy, and it will probably get you home.” Wrap Tyvek tape around your paddle shaft for easy access while afloat.
My view while floating the Yukon. White Tyvek tape is wrapped around the left side of my paddle, orange Gorilla tape on the right.
10) Treat yourself in Tok. Tok is a relatively small town in eastern AK, but many people pass through there because it’s near the junction of several major state highways. That’s why it’s especially awesome that it has a real grocery store with a surprisingly good (for AK) fruit and veg selection. It’s amazing how a fresh salad or a delicious apple can boost your morale after weeks of eating fried roadhouse food or dehydrated camp food. Speaking of salads, there is also a pretty nice salad bar at Fast Eddy’s in Tok (again, it’s all relative – don’t expect Whole Foods).
11) Stick to the main channels on the Yukon. Short cuts = slow cuts. The water almost always moves faster in the main channel, and slower in the side channels. Just because the distance is shorter in the side channel, doesn’t mean you will move faster. Ask me how I know. 😀
12) Use your lungs. Alpacka rafts come with an inflation bag to help channel air into the raft. Unfortunately my inflation bag malfunctioned on Day 1 (probably due to user error), which meant I inflated the boat by mouth for the rest of my trip. It wasn’t that difficult. You probably don’t want to intentionally leave your inflation bag at home, because it does make it easier to get air in the boat and it’s very lightweight – but the bag is definitely not a necessity.
It took me 10-15 minutes to inflate this boat by mouth – not that much slower than using the inflation bag.
One of the things I love most about Alaska is that it is so humbling. Although I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring AK in all seasons, every time I visit, I learn something new. It is a vast state, with so many different environments, so many new challenges, so many ways to mess up, and so much to learn.
I’ve been meaning to post this list of helpful hints since I got back from AK last July. Thanks to Angel at Boldly Went for gently nudging me to finish it up – nothing like a deadline to help you get stuff done!