Unplanned Adventure in the Backcountry — a.k.a. “The Alaska Factor”

Disclaimer on the AAA website: *While Alaska Alpine Adventures endeavors to follow our itineraries as written, odds are in fact slim that you actually will. The expeditionary factors at play quite often compel our guides to deviate from the written itinerary. Guide considerations could include weather conditions, group preference, individual ability, specific safety considerations, or unforeseeable circumstances; collectively what many have called “The Alaska Factor.” Therefore we strongly suggest that you approach any adventure in Alaska with an open mind.

Open mind, indeed.  To adventure in Alaska.  We were certainly open to — in fact, looking forward to! — adventure when we signed up for our 12-day combination paddling/hiking trip with Alaska Alpine Adventures to visit our final two national parks in Alaska; Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park, both of which are above the Arctic Circle.  But so it started… with a bit of unplanned adventure that was more harrowing and heart-stopping than many might term “adventure.”

On Day 1 of our trip, our group of 12 — two very capable AAA guides plus 10 gung-ho guests, most of whom are endeavoring to see all of the national parks like we are which is undoubtedly why we all chose this more challenging trip — boarded three bush planes in Fairbanks and traveled 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle to Bettles, Alaska.  [When I say challenging, I do mean this is not for everyone.  Take the rigors of 80+ miles of paddling in Class II/II+/III whitewater (28 miles in one day was impressive for us novices if we do say so ourselves!), hiking on the semi-soft tundra, schlepping gear, nightly tent set-up and morning tent take-down, sleeping in a cozy tent on a thin pad when it doesn’t get dark and most of the nights what’s underneath that thin pad is a rock bar along the river, morning and evening kayak packing & unpacking, good food (thanks AAA, Nick and Sean!) but all served out of the same bowl and eaten with a spork which isn’t for everyone… and bundle all that up with rain showers for the first seven days but no bathing showers for 10 days which, for some, like me, is definitely a hardship and certainly a challenge!  Oh, and don’t even ask about the steps you take when nature calls!!]

But back to Bettles… with a population of 12; seemingly a few more during the summer “tourist” (HA!) season, Bettles is just a little airstrip left behind after World War II that is now used as a commercial air strip.  From here folks launch into the backcountry of the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle.  It is also home to the Gates of the Arctic NP Visitor Center and backcountry check-in office, so NP passport stamps for all of us in our books plus permits to be in the backcountry and route filed with the park service in case of any emergencies — so far, so good.

Our itinerary called for us to get to Bettles on wheel planes, then truck about a mile over to the lake and board float planes to continue our journey on to Pingo Lake.  Pingo is at the headwaters of the Noatak River on the east side of the park and serves as the place from which we launch the paddling part of our journey.  But recall AAA’s note about itineraries… odds are, in fact, slim that you [will actually follow the itinerary.]

So on bush plane ride #2, five of us in our de Havilland Otter were cruising along for about 30 minutes, give or take, when we heard a loud BAM! (think super-loud gunshot) followed by a message from Sean, who from the right seat informed us that we’d “blown a mag” and we were going to bring it down on the lake that we just happen to be flying over.  Talk about adventure… and then some!!  “The Alaska Factor”… indeed!!!

Before this day, I had never even heard of a mag, and I certainly didn’t know the importance of one in a plane.  Short for magneto, this is apparently a critical piece in the functioning of an aircraft engine — it fires the spark plugs which makes the engine run.  I didn’t know either, then, that if you blow one of the two magnetos on board your little Alaska bush plane, this is not good and you therefore need to look rather urgently for a place to land your plane!

Our story has a happy ending, as depicted by the photos, below… and, I suppose, by the fact that I’m alive to be writing this post.  As good fortune would have it, we just happened to be flying above Iniakuk Lake when our mag blew, which just happened to be the site of the idyllic Iniakuk Lake Lodge which is an exclusive little fly-in wilderness lodge.  Pat Gaedeke and her son John Gaedeke run this gem of a place that was “built by hand, one local log at a time” by Pat and her late husband, with later additions to the compound built by John — this place is truly a wilderness wonderland!

Our capable pilot landed the plane without issue.  John met us on the lake when we landed — I doubt many guests just “drop in” like this; he must have been just a bit curious.  He welcomed us up to the lodge and Mom/Pat offered us coffee and tea.  When it became apparent that we’d likely be there for awhile (a mag isn’t something you can just fix or replace on the spot), she insisted we eat dinner with their other guests — now how many people/places would so willingly accommodate five extra guests?!  We offered to pay but she would have no part of that.  So we just sat back and ate her delicious baked Parmesan chicken, green beans, homemade biscuits, fresh greens grown in their seasonal greenhouse, and we topped all that off with a decadent dessert topped with fresh berries.  Talk about hospitality!

We stayed in the lodge and conversed with Pat, John, and a film-making crew who happened to be there, as well.  Very interestingly, this team of five is working on a documentary called Paving Tundra, through which they want to bring awareness to the proposed 225-mile Road to Ambler that would benefit an open pit copper mining company, but, in doing so, harm secluded Interior villages and their centuries-old ways of life, and disturb the quiet rivers, wetlands, forests, and migrating wildlife for which Alaska is best known.  Check out a couple of their websites:  Paving Tundra and Miles for Breakfast to read more about this group and their initiative.

So a couple of hours after we made our semi-emergency landing on Iniakuk Lake, another Brooks Range Aviation pilot flew another plane in — a de Havilland Beaver this time — that picked us up and took us the rest of the way to Pingo Lake where the other half of our group was waiting for us.  They had very kindly set up all of the tents, and we decided it best not to rub it in too much about the generous hospitality with which we were met, nor the delicious dinner that had been shared with us.  [I guess our secret will be out once they read this post.]  But reunited once again, and with our first day nearly behind us, our planned itinerary backcountry adventure could finally begin….

Open mind, indeed.  To any adventure in Alaska, but preferably the fabulous ones and not the crazy ones known sometimes as “The Alaska Factor”….

By the way, I only told Mom this story yesterday as I knew she’d read about it today when she checked out our website — no sense worrying her over nothing!

** All photo credits to Fred R. Jolly, a.k.a. Fransel; photographer extraordinaire

2 thoughts on “Unplanned Adventure in the Backcountry — a.k.a. “The Alaska Factor””

  1. You know me well! Thanks for telling me–after the adventure. You both are extraordinary people and can handle anything. Love, Mother

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