Flying Through the Brooks Range

By Jeff Shapiro

In July my good friend Cody Tuttle and I set out to traverse the Brooks Range, located in the northern reaches of Alaska. The goal was to get from the Dalton Highway to the Kongakut River, which is approximately 230 miles. We had no idea what to expect in terms of travel and the overall time it would take, because paragliding north of the Arctic circle is largely unknown. What occurred during our 18-day adventure was truly life-changing.

I started dreaming of a vol bivouac (fly-camping) expedition in the Brooks Range more than two years ago. It’s a place I’ve always been fascinated with, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest intact and designated wilderness area in North America. It was one of the most logistically complicated missions that I’ve done.

Travel to and from the range is very limited because most of the land is either national park or wildlife refuge. The only way in or out is via bush plane and utilizes “back country” landings. Where we were paragliding and hiking was hundreds of miles from the nearest villages, and the terrain varies greatly from forests and mountains to tundra, bog wetlands and tussock.

Very few have flown paragliders from mountains around the Dalton Highway, and no one had attempted to vol biv. Because we were flying and hiking for an extended period of time without being able to control the weather, we spent every day solving one problem at a time, making decisions based on a dramatically changing weather pattern and the terrain in front of us. The logistics of being self-supported for 18 days was challenging. We were in a wilderness with zero infrastructure or chance of rescue, and we each had to carry a pack kept to a reasonable weight. The new GPSMAP 66i was a space saver for sure, and is now hands down, my favorite piece of gear. The navigation, user interface and intuitive way I was able to navigate with the GPS and map functions was next-level. Add in the inReach capabilities and the 66i was the best tool for the job.

Being in that vast wilderness made Cody and me appreciate moments and “be here, now.” We tried to let go of our ambition and schedule – not worrying about covering a certain distance or reaching a specific goal. What we focused on was simple – to laugh and experience, to camp in a different place each night and to do our very best to make progress each day. If we felt good about our efforts and accepted what the day offered, all while making sure to never lose sight of the beauty and adventure, then we were winning.

There were many memorable moments for me on this amazing trip. One day we were able to double the distance we had covered in the previous six difficult days in one hour-and-a-half flight. Yeah, that was pretty good. Another day a severe storm with 30 mph winds forced us through a thick willow to a trail where we followed fresh grizzly bear tracks for two hours. Those were intense moments during a wild day. After we exited that trail, we hiked onto a plateau and the sun popped out. While we set up camp, I spent the next hour howling back and forth with a wolf on the opposing hillside. These were all moments that will remain part of me for the rest of my life.

As I look ahead, future trips will definitely include going back to the Brooks Range. I’m not done yet up there, that’s for sure! After our departing flight, I’ve also got the bug to learn how to fly a bush plane in the mountains. I had the rare opportunity to spend some time behind the stick in a good friend’s Super Cub airplane. But my passion for adventure paragliding and climbing around the world will never cease. Onward!!