Start with a couple days backpacking in the most spectacular mountain country in arctic Alaska. Then paddle your own pack raft to the Arctic Coast and stand on the sea ice! Join us this summer solstice for this unique Mountains-to-the-Sea packrafting adventure.
At this latitude the sun never sets in June. The vastness of the landscape and unending daylight create a euphoric sense of possibility.
Starting in the stunning Jago River Valley, we take a few days to explore below the highest peaks in the Brooks Range. Climb a ridge for views of 9,000 ft peaks, or watch Dall sheep perched on the cliffs above the river. To the north the land falls away across the vast Coastal Plain toward the frozen Arctic Ocean.
After a day of exploring the rugged Jago Valley, we shoulder packs and make our way over a low pass. From here it is all downhill, and we will hike down the headwaters creek for a day or two until it becomes a small river.
When it appears large enough for us to paddle, we let the river carry us to the sea. As we head towards the coast, both the river and the sky grow larger. Eventually we leave the mountains behind and paddle across the an ocean of tundra, the famed Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Near the trip’s end we reach the Beaufort Sea and can paddle out to the sea ice!
Light and nimble packrafts allow us to paddle this small river and tread where few others go. Packrafts are lightweight one-person rafts propelled with a kayak paddle. Weighing in at around six pounds, they offer unparalleled freedom for wilderness explorers. This Alaska packrafting trip will have its challenges, but there is ample time for day hikes and leisure.
Wildlife is of course unpredictable, but the area is home to the 200,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd and on many years they filter through the foothills and cross the Jago. Wolves and bears are common sights. Dall sheep will be a common sight on the ridges–rams with heavy horns resting on the cliffs and big bands of ewes and lambs grazing on the high tundra. Golden Eagles, Horned Larks, and an Asian bird called a Northern Wheatear thrive even in the starkest of alpine areas. As you approach the coast, the wildlife and scenery changes and animals like arctic fox and muskoxen become more common. The birding along the Arctic Coast is legendary.
Physical fitness is more important than boating experience for your enjoyment of this trip. Familiarity with river travel is a bonus but packrafting experience is not required. We will backpack about 18 miles over 2 days with substantial packs and then paddle around 50 miles of the Aichilik River. There is no white water on the route, but the Aichilik does require that you pay attention.
Packrafting was invented in Alaska and is a great way to enjoy the remote wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Packrafts are light, strong, and easy to learn. Ask about discounts for bringing your own packraft.
Last updated: January 11, 2021
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide for a pre-trip meeting at 4 p.m. at the Arctic Wild headquarters in Fairbanks.
Fly 350 miles north from Fairbanks, across the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle to the Gwich’in Athabaskan village of Arctic Village. In Arctic Village we will meet our pilot for the beautiful flight over the Continental Divide past countless peaks and glaciers into the Jago River valley. After hiking to a suitable campsite, we will make camp, eat dinner and then take a hike under the midnight sun.
Dwarfed by 9,000 ft peaks, we hike from the Jago to the Aichilik. Packs will be heavy, but the footing is good and the scenery unbeatable.
We hike down the creek until it gains enough water to be navigable. Before launching into the river, your guide will train you in the art of packrafting and river safety. Once you are feeling confident and packs are secured to the deck of the packrafts, you begin your descent towards the ocean. The river is small and rocky and you may need to get out occasionally to nudge your boat between rocks or over shallows. The scenery alone is worth the effort and there will be time to lean back in your raft and watch the tundra go by.
As the river exits the mountains the sky broadens and the river braids into multiple channels. Once you get the knack of following your guide through the deepest water, you will make good time and can scan the banks for bear, wolf, and caribou. Traveling towards the coast the wildlife changes along with the scenery. Waterfowl collect on the gravel bars and arctic fox can be found denning on the sandy banks. To the south, the Brooks Range dominates the skyline.
Approaching the coast the current slows and you enter one of the most wildlife rich portions of the Arctic Refuge. The Aichilik Delta is a birder’s paradise. After negotiating the delta, we paddle across the coastal lagoon to a barrier island in the Arctic Ocean. Most years there is sea ice still attached to the shore and we have an endless evening to explore this austere land of sky and ice. The sun won’t even come close to setting.
Pack-up and begin listening for our airplane. When it arrives (weather permitting) we reluctantly load our gear and ourselves for the flight back through Arctic Village and on to Fairbanks, arriving in time for a late dinner. A shower is in order.
Our guide was an encyclopedia on legs. His knowledge for the flora, fauna, and natural history of the tundra is astonishing. He was always willing and ready to teach, to talk, to listen, to do another hike, or to lie low in camp if we were beat. He truly gave us the trip we wanted!
Round-trip airfare from Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils, water filter
Packraft, life jacket and paddle, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Weather this time of year is typically dry and sunny, though we can get some powerful storms that can either rain or snow on us. Precipitation is generally light, and it’s fairly easy to keep comfortably dry. You can expect temperatures to range from the 30s to the 70s. Mosquitoes could be bothersome on the trip. DEET and a head net are essential but towards the coast the breeze generally keeps them at bay.