Every summer the Western Arctic caribou herd congregates in northern Alaska for one of the world’s most inspiring wildlife migrations. We regularly see thousands and even tens of thousands of caribou climbing tundra ridges and swimming icy rivers. It is a thrilling experience to watch a valley fill with caribou. The sound of 60,000 caribou walking through your camp is indescribable.
Every June, caribou from the Western Arctic Herd gather on the tundra north of the Brooks Range. Under the midnight sun, the herd swells to nearly 200,000 animals packed into a wild, beautiful, and remote region called the Western Arctic Reserve. Caribou cows with tawny calves only weeks old, join with impressive bull caribou to feed on the rich sedge tundra. As the herds swell and summer warms, they tend to grow restless and great skeins of caribou flow across the mountains and rivers carving caribou trails into the land. The hills are deeply etched by nearly a million hooves in search of summer feed. To be amongst this seasonal bounty is exhilarating. This caribou migration is one of the great wonders of the animal world.
But because arctic Alaska is so vast and caribou vary their route from year to year, it can be difficult to plan a trip to see the large herds. Their movements are affected by snow depth, temperature, insect abundance and wind direction to name just a few factors. It is almost impossible to predict where they will be tomorrow never mind next June. But after a decade of chasing caribou around northern Alaska for wildlife enthusiasts, professional photographers and filmmakers, we have found a model that gives you an excellent chance of getting into the herds.
Before your arrival we will be gathering information from pilots, biologists and others in the field. On the day your trip begins, together with our bush pilot, we will decide on the best place to set up our base camp. Once we decide on the general area to focus on, we’ll use the most capable plane in the region, a Piper Super Cub which can land in about 300 ft. By utilizing this impressive aircraft we open up hundreds of potential landing spots and further increase your chances of camping amongst caribou en masse. The goal will be to land on a river bar or ridge top where large groups of caribou are migrating past.
Once on the ground we’ll establish a comfortable base camp and can hike towards the last known location of the caribou herds, spending our days walking the tundra and watching caribou. One summer we had 40,000 caribou pass by our camp for three days! At times they were in such dense groups that you could barely see the tundra through the masses! Being around that many caribou also means we have an excellent chance of seeing large predators such as wolves, bears and wolverines, even golden eagles soaring overhead looking for caribou calves to eat. We’ve seen wolves chasing caribou across the open tundra. We’ve seen bears waiting at river crossings to catch caribou calves struggling in the current. There is no telling what you may witness during your week in the wilds.
The focus of this trip is to see large groups of caribou, but you will also be in one of the most beautiful places on the planet! The wildflowers will be in full bloom, the hundreds of species of migrating birds will have returned to the north and we hope the mosquitoes will have not yet hatched. It’s a wonderful time to be in the Arctic with or without the caribou. With 24 hours of daylight and nearly limitless wilderness all around, there is no end to the exploration we can do. Each day we will depart our base camp in search of wildlife and beauty. After a days adventure we return to our tent camp for a nourishing meal and camaraderie. Your guide is available to share his/ her knowledge of the Arctic, lead hikes, or leave you to enjoy the Arctic on your own terms.
There is an old saying in the Arctic which translates into “no one knows the way of the wind or the caribou” which hints at the difficulty of finding caribou. There are certainly no guarantees on a trip like this, but the search is always rewarding. It is an exceptional experience in a remarkable wilderness few have had the opportunity to explore. This trip is suitable for naturalists, photographers, birders, hikers, and campers. Join us for an adventure so far off the beaten path, the only trails are caribou trails.
Last updated: August 6, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet with your guide for a pre-trip meeting at 6:45 pm in Kotzebue
We fly north from Kotzebue and over the Brooks Range towards the vast coastal plain of the “North Slope”. We’ll use two planes this day. The guide will go first in the Super Cub and will search out the caribou and a suitable landing area. You’ll follow along in a larger plane and will land within 20 or 30 miles of the intended camp. From there the Super Cub will shuttle you to the camp.
Then the planes will leave us in peace in the vast wilderness. Once camp is set-up we will take a hike and (with luck) spend the rest of the day watching caribou calves frolicking in the sunshine.
We spend our time exploring the area looking for caribou and other wildlife. Your guide will lead hikes in hopes we can place ourselves in a hidden location in the path of the caribou. There will be times when no caribou are present (nice to get a break sometimes), but there is no end to the beauty of the arctic.
Despite all our research, flying, and preparation, it is possible that we were not able to find big groups of caribou on the first day. Or perhaps they were in an area with no suitable landing area and we camped nearby hoping they would come closer, and they, being wild and unpredictable went the other direction. If for whatever reason we’ve missed the mark on getting into the herds, the Super Cub will return and shuttle us one at a time to a new location. Where we will setup camp and resume our search/ observations of caribou.
Another full day to enjoy the solitude and beauty of North America’s greatest wilderness. More hiking and wildlife watching is the order of the day. If our first camp was high on a ridge with commanding views, our second camp will likely be along a river. finding and watching caribou will be the priority, but we will try to provide good hiking and varied scenery too.
We say our last goodbyes to the caribou and meet our bush pilot for our flight back to Kotzebue.
The trip met all my expectations which were very high. Of course the star is the Brooks Range – but your guides are excellent. So knowledgeable about so many things and adding that warm touch (while also being a fine guides).
Round-trip airfare from Kotzebue to the Utukok Uplands and back to Kotzebue
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Temperatures vary from the 70’s to below freezing. Snow is possible; rain is likely. However, this time of the year we generally have lots of warm and sunny weather. There could be bugs, so bring a mosquito head net and a small bottle of DEET.