By Michael Wald Co-Owner and Guide
The Kongakut River in northeastern Alaska is one of my favorite rafting trips of all time. Most trips on the Kongakut River, and there are quite a few, are on the upper canyon section in June. The Kongakut that I love is the part that sees very few people and lots of caribou. By starting in the mountains and paddling to the Arctic coast a visitor to the Kongakut River gets to experience the great variety of wildlife and landscapes that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has to offer. Nowhere else in Arctic Alaska do the mountains come so close to the sea, allowing us to hike rocky alpine ridges for the first three days of the trip and walk on the sea-ice a week later. While up in the mountains we regularly see Dall Sheep and out on the barrier islands where the trip ends we sometimes see polar bear tracks. The diversity of wildlife is amazing and some years the sheer numbers of wildlife are remarkable too.
I remember a trip in 2001, when we climbed a ridge right at the edge of the mountains and looked north out across the vast coastal plain towards the sea. Far below us we saw what looked like a line of ants marching east along the mountain front towards the Canadian border. We did our best to count the brown dots far below, knowing that we were seeing the majority of the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrating across the coastal plain. The next morning we packed up the rafts and headed down the Kongakut hoping to catch the herd as they swam the river. I fully expected them to be long gone and to find the sand bars covered in tracks and droppings but without a caribou in sight. But much to my delight, when paddled out of the mountains we saw thousands of caribou resting and feeding along the Kongakut’s gravel bars. There were big bulls with heavy antlers, tired looking cows shedding last winters’ coat and hundreds of the tawny, spindly, week old calves trying to keep up with their mothers. We camped just down river from the main river crossing and got to watch caribou swim the river as the last groups migrated through while we relaxed in camp.
There are many other stories about paddling the Kongakut; stories of eagles hunting caribou, herds of musk oxen thundering across the tundra, great skeins of ducks flying low over the sea-ice while watching the midnight sun. We have stories of wolverines in camp, watching foxes hunting ducks, finding old Eskimo artifacts on the beach. Too many stories to fit on a page.
If you really want to hear the stories and have some good Kongakut stories of your own, join us for our Kongakut to the Coast trip June 19-28.