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Austrian completes rugged -- perhaps unprecedented -- overland journey from North Slope to Cook Inlet

Craig Medred
Gerhard Hafele

Battered, bruised, bloody and beaten, at least temporarily, Dr. Gerhard Hafele sat on a rock along a raging creek high in the Alaska Range far from his Austrian home -- far from anything or anyone -- and wondered for a moment if he would ever see his wife and children again.

Minutes earlier, because of a rope too short to control his boat, the middle-aged physician had settled on a near deadly decision to slip into his 14-foot kayak to run a creek raging out of 3,300-foot Shellabarger Pass near the head of West Fork Yentna River.

That came after fighting his way down slope from the pass through thick, body-grabbing alders and prickly devil's club with his plastic kayak in tow only to find a canyon blocking his path. Had his rope been longer, he said later, he could have traversed across the cliff face while floating his kayak down the creek.

With a rope too short for that, though, there were only two alternatives. Start a long and difficult climb to drag the kayak above the bottleneck, or get in the kayak and try to run the creek.

A well-educated man, a vascular surgeon back home in Europe, Hafele thought for some time about which to do. "I finally decided to run this section,'' he said in a lengthy July interview in Palmer, Alaska.

Unfortunately, Hafele didn't stay upright in the kayak long. The boat rolled. He banged downstream through rocks and came out of the boat.

"I eventually managed to get out of the river,'' he said. "I could barely walk. The boat was gone.''

He pulled himself together and started limping downstream to look for it. He limped along for hours. He knew he was in a bad predicament. "No food. No boat. No gun. No tent,'' he said.

The 1,600-mile journey

That Hafele had arrived in the Alaska Range without an accident was in part attributable to skill and in part to good luck. His trip could well have ended where it began on Alaska's North Slope back in 2008 after a polar bear stuck its nose in Hafele's tent.

He grabbed his gun and fired at the bear's feet. It jumped out of the tent but did not flee far.

"I thought it was to going to be a fight for life or death,'' Hafele said. "He was a huge bear.'' 

Fortunately, the animal was not looking for a fight. It wandered away from the camp where a man was willing to put up a battle, but didn't exactly give up on the idea of making food of the Austrian.

"He came back every two hours,'' Hafele said. "I didn't catch a lot of sleep. Next time I get an electric fence.'' No stranger to Alaska, Hafele years ago learned about how effective portable electric fences could be in repelling bears. The 55-year-old Austrian has a second home near Talkeetna and has been visiting the 49th state regularly for 30 years. 

It was here his crazy dream was born. 

North Slope to Cook Inlet

"I had this idea pretty soon at the beginning,'' he confessed. The beginning, as he called it, can be traced back to 1983, when he had friends getting ready to climb Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak.

McKinley is a mighty challenge, but Hafele had in mind an even bigger one -- hiking and paddling Alaska overland north to south from the North Slope to Cook Inlet for more than 1,500 miles.

There is no indication anyone had ever tried this before. There are two mountain ranges -- the Brooks and the Alaska -- between the Slope and the Inlet, and many of the rivers drain north, meaning a kayaker would spend almost as much time dragging or paddling upstream as floating down.

Hafele was undeterred.

"Just floating down the Yukon River is kind of boring to me,'' he said.

The trip he planned would be anything but boring. And the planning started decades ago.

"I was doing a lot of stuff with inflatable canoes,'' Hafele said. He thought they might be the craft for his journey, but discovered they weren't so good going upstream against the current either paddling or lining.

So he started experimenting with rigid kayaks and eventually settled on a plastic, German-made boat, the Prijon. The company, he said, was willing to donate a boat for his adventure and modify it to add more waterproof storage.

In this boat, Hafele set off from the village of Kaktovik in the far northeast corner of Alaska during August of 2008.

Winter coming fast

August is late in the year for a kayaker to head out into the Arctic Ocean with a plan to paddle east before turning south to try to get over the Brook Range before winter, which can arrive in September. But Hafele had his reasons for picking the date.

"I was thinking about the ice along the coast,'' he said. "I wanted to make sure there was no more ice'' between Kaktovik, and the mouth of the Kongakut River more than 60 miles to the east along the Canadian border.

He didn’t consider the bears.

"The problem is the polar bears get more hungry in August,'' he said, "and there are a lot of polar bears up there.''

Not a day passed, Hafele said, that he failed to encounter bears along Alaska's arctic edge -- the polar bears on the coast and then the grizzlies as he turned up the Kongakut and began his climb into the mountains.

"I was lucky to have low water,'' he said. "The hardest part was actually at the beginning because there is kind of a canyon.''

Getting his kayak and gear through that area required multiple portages, but once through Hafele found he could make good time walking upriver dragging his weighty load of gear behind in the boat.

By the time winter threatened, he was at the headwaters of the river looking to get through an unnamed pass and into the upper reaches of the Yukon River drainage. The changing season proved beneficial.

"I wasn't too far from the pass,'' Hafele said, "and there was freezing rain at night. Next day, it was very slippery.''

Even better news awaited on the south side of the pass. Hafele was almost immediately able to put into the headwaters of the Sheenjek River and start a quick run down it to the Porcupine River and on to the Yukon.

By mid-September, having covered more than 400 miles of river from the pass high in the Brooks Range, Hafele was at the Dalton Highway bridge across the Yukon.

By then the skinny man with a thick diary pulled his boat out of the water and went home to Austria.

The endless journey

And there this story nearly ends. 

Back home in Europe, Hafele resumed the responsibilities of his normal life. And, he added, "I also had some health problems.'' All told, they kept him tied down for three years, but he would not let go of the vision of adventure he'd contemplated since he first arrived in Alaska as a young man.

So early in 2011, he was back at the Dalton Highway bridge and off again, floating 100 miles or so down the river to its confluence with the Tanana, and then turning upstream once more. This time it was not so easy.

"I paddled upstream on the Tanana,'' Hafele said. "There was no lining the kayak; it was all paddling.''

The going was slow. By the end of summer, he'd managed to paddle nearly 100 miles up the Tanana to the Kantishna River and then more than 100 miles west to Lake Minchumina, a large, Interior lake north of Mount McKinley. By then, though, it was raining hard and everything was flooding.

"I had to stop mainly because the water got up so high,'' he said.

Once more he went home to Austria and got caught up in other responsibilities. But the dream of completing his adventure did not die.

He was back in Alaska early this summer. This time he put in at Manley Hot Springs, a road-accessible community on the Tanana at the end of Elliot Highway, and retraced his steps up the Kantishna.

"It took me three weeks to (reach) Lake Minchumina,'' he said. On the way, he met a few people headed downriver, the normal direction of travel on Alaska streams.

By the time he got to the home of Mike and Fran Turner, who run Turner's Alaskan Adventures from an isolated outpost on the Kantishna River, word of his travels was moving faster than he could paddle.

"They knew about me already,'' Hafele said. "Mike came out and said, 'You must be that Austrian. I've never seen anyone come up the river.''

Hafele did not stay long, but pushed on to Minchuminia, where more Alaskans pitched in to help him.

The long portage

He left his boat and gear with Tom and Penny Green while he explored a route from Minchumina to the headwaters of the North Fork Kuskokwim River to the west. He settled on a 9-mile portage. It took him three trips -- about 45 miles of hiking -- to haul all of his gear and the kayak to the upper Kusko drainage.

"It was a little bit more than 200 pounds,'' said Hafele, who is not a big man. The lean European stands 5-foot, 9-inches. He speaks English with only a slight accent and smiles a lot.

He smiled describing the low water in the upper reaches of the Kusko. That made for slow going yet again, but conditions improved downstream and it "was not too bad'' going into Nikolai, an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race checkpoint just over the Alaska Range to the north of Anchorage.

He met a Native elder there who was somewhat amazed to learn that Hafele’s plan was to turn south up the South Fork Kuskokwim, a big, braided river flowing out of the heart of the Alaska Range. Hafele soon found out why.

"It was not easy to go upstream,'' he said. "There were log jams and gravel bars. You can't paddle.'' 

He hiked along in waders, pulling the boat and constantly maneuvering around obstacles. It got old.

"It's kind of annoying,'' he said. "It's the same thing for days and days.''

For about 30 miles he dragged his kayak upstream on the South Fork toward Farewell Lake and aptly named Egypt Mountain, a landmark of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, before turning east up the Dillinger River and pushing on for dozens of miles on a climb high into the Alaska Range to Shellabarger Pass, a gap in the mountains named for well-known Bush pilot Max Shellabarger who died tragically trying to hand-prop his Super Cub.

The Dillinger, he said, was much smaller and shallower than expected. In hindsight, he confesses he might not have chosen the best route, but there wasn't a lot of intelligence available on where best to cross the Alaska Range.

Few pass through north to south, or for that matter south to north, except via the Iditarod Trail and then only in winter. Hafele had to learn on his own, as he put it, that "it's not easy to go through Shellabarger Pass.'' But he managed to line and drag the boat ever higher up the Dillinger, and when he hit snow in the mountains, everything started to look easier.

Just when things look better …

"There were still some snowfields in the pass,'' Hafele said. "It was pretty easy to make progress in the snowfields.''

He was starting to think he might have it made: Slide the kayak over the snow, slip into the upper reaches of the Yentna River, and just follow the water south into ever-increasing civilization north of Wasilla, the state's biggest bedroom community.

Only that wasn't to be.

"You can't follow the river down,'' he said. "It's a 2,000-foot drop. You can't get around it.'' 

Hafele had to spend a lot of time scouting to find a route that looked like a way down. The route he found wasn't very good.

"The tricky part is you finally have to go down somehow,'' he said. The Austrian adventurer ended up dragging his boat and gear across a huge glacial moraine between steep mountains where the footing was terrible. That put him above the Shadows Glacier.

"It was no fun at all,'' he said, but he managed to reach a spot that provided access to the glacial ice. 

"I hauled the boat step-by-step down to the glacier, which turned out to be pretty easy,'' he said. He dragged the boat across the glacier and found a little creek. He'd dropped about 1,000 feet from the pass, but was still a long way from the Yentna.

"This was the worst part of the trip,'' he said.

He dragged the boat down the mountainside through alders and devil's club. He slid it down small waterfalls and around sweepers when he could float it in the creek. And eventually he got to that route-blocking rock wall where he decided it best to get in the boat and run the creek.

The decision turned out to be a bad one. Fortunately, it had been preceded by a good one.

Before getting in the boat with much of his gear, Hafele had stashed some of his gear upstream, figuring that once he got the boat to a safe spot he'd come back and retrieve it. Now that gear, which included a satellite phone, was vital.

Calling for help

"I decided to go back to my gear and call a helicopter because there was no way I was going to find the boat,'' he said.

Thus he limped back upstream, found the phone, and called friends in Talkeetna. They arranged for a helicopter to come get him. On the flight out, he spotted the green kayak lodged in the creek.

As he recuperated from his injuries in Talkeetna, he thought about that a lot. 

"After two days,'' Hafele said, "I felt a lot better. There were no fractures, just bruises.''

So he decided to charter an airplane, fly back, hike into the boat and try to recover it and his gear. Luckily, he took a spare paddle. That was the only thing gone missing, though the boat had been partially buried by gravel after it jammed beneath a log.

He dug it out, cleaned his rifle, found his gear usable and decided to head on down the Yentna River, which his aerial reconnaissance revealed to open up only a mile ahead.

"I don't know if I ever would have seen it from the level of the river,'' he said.

Once on the Yentna, the trip became almost as easy as floating down the Yukon. Rain brought the river up, making it easier to negotiate the braided course. His only real excitement came when he almost ran into a black bear. 

It appeared ahead of him on the riverbank ahead of him and started running.

"I was so fast he couldn't get rid of me,'' Hafele said. For whatever reason --- bears being bears, maybe -- this one decided the thing to do at that point was to jump in the river and swim to the other bank. The only problem was the boat was still coming downstream fast.

Hafele started backpaddling crazily.

"I had to reduce speed so as not to hit the bear,'' he said. "I only missed him by three or four feet.''

The bear got past and kept going. He ended up caught in a log jam on the other bank of the flooding river. Hafele was worried the animal might get pulled under and drown, but "he managed to make it,'' the Austrian said.

Hafele made it too. Not long after the bear, civilization started encroaching in the form of cabins and power boats. By the confluence of Yentna and Susitna rivers, Hafele had seen enough. He called it quits at Susitna Station, an old riverboat stop a couple dozen miles upstream from Cook Inlet.

"My goal was to get from the north to the south coast,'' Hafele said. He figured Susitna Station was close enough, and he was ready to go home. He'd proven to himself what he wanted to prove -- that the trip could be done.

"I suffered so much things my whole life with people who say, 'That can't be done,'" Hafele said. "I think there are no limits, but the other thing is you have to know your limits. So there's always a limit.''

Hafele made 1,600-mile journey alone because, he said, companions can sometimes make travel more dangerous instead of less so.

"It's nice to have company,'' he said, "but it gives you a false sense of security. (And) it's hard to find someone who is as crazy as you, and for me, you have a lot of responsibility. I decided I don't want to be responsible for anyone else.''

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com