At the edge of the continent where the tundra merges with the cold Arctic Ocean, tucked up against the border with Canada lies Demarcation Bay, an ideal place to camp and explore the Arctic Coast. From our comfortable camp on the tundra we can explore inland on foot and the ocean by canoe, seeking wildlife and marveling at the history of the region.
To the south looms the Brooks Range, rising thousands of feet just miles from the coast. To the north Demarcation Bay, the barrier islands, and the vast frozen ocean. To the east is the Canadian border, Herschel Island, and over the horizon the Mackenzie River. To the west is the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, critical habitat for the Porcupine caribou herd. We will place our weather worthy camp in the midst of this grandeur, perfectly positioned to explore the many wonders.
The mountains proper are beyond where we can realistically hike in a day (even with 24 hours of daylight), but hiking inland we can climb several hills for expansive views of the the coastal plain. Both arctic and red fox have denned in the area recently and bands of caribou frequent the river mouths and beaches. Wildflowers ought to be near peak bloom on the tundra and some areas are so fragrant that you can smell the lupine and paintbrush from 1/2 a mile away. On the right year it is truly a sea of flowers.
We will bring canoes with us so that we can explore the bay, which is protected by barrier islands, locally known as reefs. Icy Reef, a few miles from our camp, offers beachcombing beyond compare. Amongst the massive driftwood logs from the Mackenzie River we often find whale bones, fossilized corrals, glass fishing floats, and signs of shipwreck. Amongst these treasures are eider nests (tread carefully) and polar bear tracks (heads-up!). A day on the beach searching for curiosities and watching the sea ice drift in the current is a day well spent.
Wildlife is wild and unpredictable. But we do expect a diversity of creatures to show themselves during the trip. Numerous lakes and ponds host nesting loons, swans and other waterfowl. The coastal tundra is thick with shorebirds and other nesting birds from the world over. And sea-ducks by the thousands usually migrate west along the coast in July.
Many years, caribou herds move through this area by the thousands or tens of thousands in early July. If luck is with us, we may get to sit in camp while caribou walk down the beach. Even if we don’t see great masses of animals, there likely will be foxes denning, bears wandering, or even, as happened one year, a wolverine hunting voles on the tundra.
The trip is sure to delight the naturalist in you, but the region has a rich human history too. There are old fishing camps along the shore, a crumbling trading post on the bay, and even a shipwrecked freighter. The long history of the Inupiat and Inuvialuit and the short history of the whaling era are etched into the land.
With 24 hours of daylight time takes on a new dimension. “Nights” often have the best light, calm winds, and the most wildlife. Hikes at 2 am are common on a trip like this. Sunscreen at midnight is recommended. The timeless nature of the Arctic Coast is one of the things that defines the trip and can be the most memorable aspect.