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The Happy River is appropriately named. Bouncing and splashing, this clear little stream tumbles along between banks of bright green moss, never too threatening nor languid.

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We watched the Happy grow from a knee-deep creek to a small river. A few technical class III rapids near Pass Creek proved to be the hardest whitewater.

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Most of the time, the Happy danced swiftly from corner to corner, a continuous gentle roller coaster of class I and II water. Occasionally, king salmon could be spotted, red missiles holding still in eddies under the water.

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After many miles, beneath swooping eagles, past arching spruce, over splashy riffles, we chose an island camp, halfway down one of the Happy’s many gravel bar rapids.

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Via satellite phone, a pick-up was arranged near the Talachulitna River confluence, along the banks of our old friend, the Skwentna. We had camped along its turbid source waters a week earlier. Now we would rejoin the Skwentna where it is a big river, running into lush spruce valleys at the foot of the range.

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Miles came easily on the big Skwentna, still swift with the energy of melting glaciers behind it. We gazed at dense forests rolling past, and speculated how slow and difficult it might be if we were walking through this country. We were glad for our pack rafts, our good fortune in the Alaska Range, and one last evening in the glow of a setting midnight sun.

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The spruce forest alongside Denny Creek was relatively open, soft and mossy too. Any stop in our movement, however, brought gathering clouds of mosquitoes. So, we kept moving.

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A vague route appeared that grew into a real game trail. Soon we were scurrying through an alder jungle with ease, courtesy of the local moose. Without that trail, progress would have been agonizingly slow. Yet we traveled steadily, hardly noticing the building rainfall.

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Camp was etched out of moss-covered rocks, in the rain, at 10 p.m. The bugs were horrible until the rain picked up enough to knock them out of the sky. At 5 a.m. Joel entered the tent where Govi and I slept, proclaiming, “let’s go hiking buys, I’m soaked.”

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Turns out, the bottle of Nikwax I applied in Anchorage wasn’t enough for an all-night rain. We talked Joel out of a 5 a.m. departure, and eked out a few hours more sleep, Joel partially draped in his soppy sleeping bag. Morning pack-up was cold, and we were all anxious to get moving. Govi spoke for the group, “Exercise is our salvation,” he said. Off we went.

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The rain let up. We climbed. We warmed.

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Goodman Pass was our gateway to the east side of the mountains, the windward side. There was more rain, then huge fresh piles of grizzly scat. We stayed high on the slopes, in the open.

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Ptarmagin Valley was a benchmark in our route. This was the birthplace of the Happy River, the waterway we would follow back to civilization. To the south, the valley lined up perfectly with the Styx, where we’d been just days earlier. The valley was vast and beautiful, but also boggy and difficult to cross. Fortunately the Happy wasn’t too far away. Arriving there, our countenance matched the stream’s title.

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The low clouds and light mist of Alaska returned. The small Styx River was lower than the previous evening, and milk green instead of grey. A golden eagle flapped across the valley. A herd of twenty caribou spooked into the bush. Two seagulls dive-bombed me repeatedly, no doubt fending off the invaders from their young.

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Spruce trees returned as we dropped below 2,500 feet. Canyon bluffs emerged, enclosing the river in a low canyon, sinking through the valley floor. Whitewater started.

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There was plenty of class III, and a couple standout rapids that were probably easy class IV.  These were the rapids the previous kayak descents had sought. Our pack rafts handled it all quite nicely.

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Sunshine returned. At a hard left turn, two small patches of sand beckoned, guarded by a tall cottonwood and a spruce tree. We pulled in, an early camp for once.

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Swift corners led to the confluence with the South Fork of the Kuskokwim. It ran a glacial brown, and more than doubled our flow. On a robust river now, we ran through Hellsgate, where the river cuts through the Teocalli Mountains. Class II water belied the ominous title, and soon we were on a fast smooth river running through the spruce covered Alaskan interior.

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An aluminum skiff sat on the shore, and a chainsaw whined in the distance. We pulled ashore and entered the woods, where we were greeted by a friendly young woman named Lexi. Her partner, Colter, showed up minutes later. During our 30-minute visit, both stood mostly bare amid the passing mosquitoes. True Alaskans.

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By evening, clouds were gathering once again. We’d have liked to have pitched the tents and relaxed, but the days were ticking away toward our pick-up date with a bush plane, and we had mountain ranges yet to cross. So, at 6 pm we found ourselves de-rigging our boats and re-rigging for hike mode. This was the confluence of Denny Creek, our key to Goodman Pass, and eventually, the Happy River. With rain spattering and skeeters buzzing and an unknown bushwack before us, our mood was determined, even stoic. We were stepping into the bush.

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Out of the canyon and onto open mountain slopes, sunshine and simple terrain buoyed us toward the River Styx.

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A herd of caribou shuffled past. Our route again fed into a canyon, this one made of golden granite and clear water similar to Arizona’s Salome Creek. Eventually, we climbed out, ambling across tundra laced with caribou trails.

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Weary with sore feet and cramping shoulders, we stumbled onto a cobble beach bordering the Styx, the jewel at the heart of our route, and the river valley that started it all. Again, we floated, joyously.

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Another 10 pm camp, satisfied by having reached our goal. We had crossed the River Styx!

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Narrow strips of sand bordering the wide gray Nagashlamina River were good places to walk, but occasionally a channel would cut off our route, forcing us into the water.

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At the end of a long day, mostly spent tracing bear trails through head-high bushes (we only saw one bear, at a safe distance), we suddenly realized that we needed water. One does not carry much water in Alaska, because there is usually plenty nearby. But now there wasn’t. Our new goal became the Skwentna River. A long slog over sharp moraine rocks got us to the silty waterway, and glorious slurps of cold brown liquid.

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It was a half-hour walk before the rapids relented enough for us to comfortably launch our pack rafts. Per usual, that was pure magic.

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After only a few miles, we begrudgingly got out of the water to start the crossing to the River Styx. Information for this part of the route was nonexistent. We had our theories.

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Avoiding a nearly impenetrable slope of alder, a gorge route seemed like the best option. Clearly there was a risk of getting cliffed out, but the other way was a guaranteed alder crawl. The walking in the canyon was familiar, like an Arizona creek.

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The canyon boxed out eventually, forcing us up and out. Then a side canyon forced us back down, and in again. It was 10 pm when a perfect campsite rescued us from our march.

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In the summer of 2013, I looked out the window of a 737 and saw a high treeless river valley. An inspection of the map indicated that the name of this lonely river amid the Alaska Range was—the Styx. A possible loop route was conjured, with ever more intriguing titles: Nagishlamina—Skwentna—Styx—Happy back to Skwentna. Roman Dial saw the possibilities too, he even had a name for the proposed route, “Happy Feat.” An Alaska pack raft team had tried it once. Weather foiled their plans.

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Although the loop had never been completed, the Styx had been paddled, in kayaks. The first descenter was Jerry Jakes, who flew his Piper Cub into a gravel bar, soloed the run, and got an airplane shuttle from another pilot. Later, Jakes landed two other paddlers on the Styx. One of them was my friend Susan Negus. That was serendipitous news, because our basecamp for the Styx—Happy loop of 2017 was due to be where else, but at Sue’s Anchorage home.

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After a frustrating wait through foggy un-flyable weather, Austin from Sportsman’s Air got us into the mountains, dropping myself, John Govi, and Joel Griffith at a picture perfect marine blue lake. First step: Up the Nagishlamina.

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We were immediately engulfed in alders. Crashing, stumbling, kneeling, snagging; bear tunnels offered the only route through the low jungle. Emerging onto open moraine, we detoured around the green, following small dirt hills surrounding azure ponds.

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After one last brutal alder bash, our first camp came on a ridge of soft gray lichen. Upstream, a wide valley led to the next glacier, the next moraine, and our next real test.

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A morning mist brought calm. We paddled, even drifted, through the gray, ever wary of the returning wind. But the big blow, four days of relentless, viscous gale, was finally over.

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The mouth of the river came slowly, an ever decreasing current sliding along overhanging banks of tundra. A permafrost lens looked like a layer of geology beneath a thick mat of soil. But this formation was ice, and beneath it, mud glopped down the bank in sloppy strings of brown. The tundra overhung like a cornice of wet snow curling off a rooftop.

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The horizon widened into a metallic mirror broken by green bits of land. It took some deciphering to determine which channel to follow between low islands, and which shallow mud flat to avoid.

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When the hanger at Pt. Lay appeared, creeping out from a blurry shoreline to rise beacon like in the distance, there was a small moment of elation. It looked so close, we considered continuing there. But our shoulders ached, our butts were stiff, our hands cold. There were piles of driftwood on the beach. We camped.

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Pt. Lay is now known by its Inupiat name—Kali. Kali might be the friendliest village in the world. As we waited for our flight in the sauna-warm community center, over a dozen people came through welcoming us to their Inupiat village, querying, “You must be the canoers.” I suppose that is correct; canoers, paddlers, pack rafters, or as I like to think of us, simply travelers trying to learn more about this wide world. Thanks Alpacka, Werner, Kokatat, Osprey, and Teva. With your help, we learned just a little more.

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We deflated the rafts and rigged our packs over lunch. It was time to go hiking again.

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Onto a long ridge, we walked over clay and flat rocks. The smoothness of the footing was contrasted by the coarseness of the wind. It blew steadily from the south, howling across the ridge at 40, 50, perhaps 60 miles per hour. A gust in Pt. Lay was recorded during the period at over 60 mph, and winds were surely stronger atop the ridge where we walked. Each of us were nearly knocked over more than once.

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Dropping over the edge of the ridge, I felt the wind drop. There was some flat ground here too, so we pitched tents as a rainbow formed over the valley below. When our tents weren’t rippling from spillover gusts, we could hear the wind on the ridge above us, roaring like the rumble of a big rapid.

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Another long day brought us to the Kukpowruk, and the first blue sky in 36 hours. The clearing skies had no effect on the wind. We surfed and ruddered downstream with relative ease, but always on guard to not get sideways and flipped by a powerful gust. At a severe left bend, we were forced ashore. Here the river ran southwest, meaning the wind raced upstream. There was no paddling against it. We deflated our boats.

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Fortunately the bend only lasted a half-mile. Small grizzly tracks led down the beach and across the tundra to a small gravel and mud cove where we re-inflated, and paddled onward.

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The snow dappled Brooks Range faded behind us as wide vistas of tundra beckoned ahead. Camp came on a breezy gravel bar. A long mesa called Poko Mountain glowed in the northwest. We sat by the fire past midnight, unwilling to say goodnight to the beauty.

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Slow but steady, we floated the small upper Kokolik with plenty of wildlife distractions. A golden eagle soared nearby. A peregrine falcon flapped overhead. A red fox stared from the bank, then dashed away upstream. When Lisa turned and pointed, I fumbled for the shotgun, but somehow I knew it wasn’t a bear. A musk-ox stood up from its bed, staring at us with droopy eyes and a dangling coat, a helmet of horn and curved yellowing tusks.

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Wildlife watching was at a minimum the next day as we hunkered beneath our raincoats, chasing Lisa downstream through cold rain and occasional hail. After the river penetrated some hill country near Tupikchak Mountain, a bedrock shelf appeared. Chilled, we pulled ashore, grabbing handfuls of driftwood.

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When the rain stopped, the wind began. It pushed us downstream, out of the hills and into a transverse valley that the river cut directly across. Jer pointed out a group of caribou on a hillside, then fifty of them crossed the river in front of us.

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Two hundred feet above the river, we stood in the wind and looked over a valley sprinkled with migrating caribou. The nearby herds caught our eyes first; 50 here, 100 there, 20 crossing the river over there. Then as we looked farther across the broad valley with binoculars, the movement of white and tan animals seemed to appear everywhere; in the bottoms, on the slopes, a long string of them trailing out of sight over the eastern horizon. My rough estimate came to 5,000 ungulates.

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Lisa and Jer were already past the bear. Had I not said anything it would’ve let us stroll on past, its head buried in the bushes. But my instinct was to warn my companions, so when I called, “bear,” it looked up. I clambered for the shotgun, struggling with my pack, my tangled binoculars, a tricky fast-tex buckle. Fortunately there was no need for that. The bear looked in our direction quizically, then turned and romped away.

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Flying from Kotzebue to the south side of the Brooks Range with pilot Eric Sieh of Arctic Backcountry Flying Service, our goal was to access the highest reaches of the Kokolik River. To do so, we would have to cross the DeLong Mountains (named after George DeLong, profiled in the bestseller In the Kingdom of Ice). After hours of Google Earth study, I reconciled our proposed route with topographic maps to find we would be penetrating an escarpment called “Inaccessible Ridge.” That title made the endeavor virtually irresistible.

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Waking in bright dusk at 3 a.m., I felt a wetness at my feet. The rain had picked up, and the tent fly was leaking. Droplets of water hung on the mesh inner tent before plummeting onto our sleeping bags, and soaking in. I reached for the rain jackets and draped them over us as a desperate second barrier. The storm backed off to a mist just soon enough. Once we got a fire going, we lingered.

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A tributary one mile below camp provided enough water to float our pack rafts. We were glad for that. Hiking on that misty morning led across a boggy seeping earth, step by squishy step. By comparison, river travel was easy, even if we had to drag past the occasional gravel bar. With any luck, we’d soon be floating full time, riding the Kokolik beyond the Brooks Range, and onto the vast tundra expanse of the North Slope.

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