Revelations and Big River

In June 2008 Cathy, Luc Mehl and I started hiking from the south end of the Revelation Mountains in the western Alaska Range. Six days later we reached the Big River at the north end of the Revelations. We then packrafted 120 miles down to the Kuskokwim River. We recovered at Luc's parents place in McGrath by eating moose for three days. 

See a feature article in Alaska magazine, Revelation in the Mountains, October 2009. 

See Luc's post on his page


The older generation of Athebaskins trapped and hunted in the foothills throughout the winter. When the river ice broke in the spring, they made moose-hide canoes to float down the Big River to the villages on the Kuskokwim River. 

The Trip

Our trip to the Revelations was a true Alaskan adventure. Not just snow and ice and rock, but a vast landscape of mountains, tundra, spruce forest and rivers. We traveled 160 miles through this land, but perhaps most memorable where the people we encountered along the way: native Alaskans who know and depend on this country, in addition to the character-loaded transplants to McGrath.

Our trip consisted of four parts: the high Revelations, the tundra, the Big River and McGrath.

Extending only 26 miles in length, the Revelation Mountains are the far western subrange of the Alaska Range. Named on an expedition in the 1960’s by climber/writer David Roberts, these isolated mountains are known for crumbling granite walls and glaciers. Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskin natives have hunted and trapped in the Revelations for hundreds of years. In recent years, only occasional climbing, hunting and trekking groups visit the Revelations.

On June 9, Cathy Flanagan, Luc Mehl and I (all of Anchorage) met pilot/outfitter Rob Jones at Lake Hood airport in Anchorage. In a dented and scratched Cessna 206, Rob flew us across the Tordrillo and Hidden Mountains and landed us on a gravel bar on the Swift River at the south end of the Revelations. We wadded the Swift River with our packs loaded with packrafts, light touring skis (scales, metal edges and three-pin bindings) and ten days of food. Our intention was to reach the northern end of the Revelations and packraft to the Kuskokwim River. 

Over the next three days we struggled through loose rock, knee-deep unconsolidated snow and sodden downpours of soggy snow. Our route snaked through natural avalanches that poured from the granite walls. To descend the second pass, we released an avalanche that piled up debris 10 feet deep. We then down climbed the scoured path. It seems the Revelations have a shallow and rotten continental snowpack and are best visited in late fall without snow. Realizing this, we headed for safer travel on the low elevation tundra flanks of the Revelations.

For three days we hiked the western slopes of the Revelations over hard tundra ridges and valleys full of thick moss and bushes. Like Nepal, the iced walls rose 7,000 feet above us. At the north end of the Revelations we loaded our rafts and began floating the Big River toward McGrath in a downpour. Fast braided channels carried us for 90 miles through the mountains and out to the spruce bog forest. There the Big River slowed to a lethargical meander and the mosquitoes came in thick clouds. After 45 hours of floating we came to Doris and Phillip Esai’s fish camp at Blackwater creek. We spent the afternoon with these friendly native Alaskans as they told us stories of the area and fed us caribou stew and fresh-caught pike fried in Crisco.

Late on that tenth day, Luc’s stepfather (Francis) arrived in his homebuilt skiff. Francis drove us another 50 miles down the Kuskokwim River (second largest river in Alaska) to his and JoAnn’s (Luc’s mom) house in McGrath. McGrath is the largest city in the upper Kuskokwim region with 400 people, half of which are native Alaskan. We spent the next three days swatting mosquitoes, helping Francis move a Lucas Mill (turns logs into boards) and eating moose. 

Pilot Rob Jones (operates the Big River Lodge), Cathy Flanagan and Luc Mehl on the Swift River with Rob's Cessna 206.

The Revelations have lots of shoddy steep rock. Luc on day two.

Cathy battling waist deep mush.

Luc with an Arctic Fox on the western tundra slopes of the Revelations.

The high peaks of the Revelations rise 7,000 feet above the tundra.

Loading the packrafts at the Big River. The Revelation Glacier and Mount Hesperus lie in the rain-enveloped valley beyond.

Swift braided channels on the upper Big River.

Deathly slow meanders on the lower Big River. Cathy is navigating our tied together boats while Luc sleeps in his bug net and I take photos.

Our packrafting ended at Dora and Phillip Esai's fish camp at the confluence of the Big River and Blackwater Creek. Dora fed us biscuits and stew. Phillip caught a pike and fried it in Crisco for us. We ate the whole thing. Francis picked us up at the Esai's and took us to McGrath where we ate moose for three days with JoAnn and Francis.

Francis Mitchell milling white spruce logs with an Australian Lucas Mill.