Every summer the Western Arctic caribou herd congregates in northern Alaska for one of the world’s most inspiring wildlife migrations. By late June, the herd swells to nearly 200,000 animals packed into a region called the Utukok Uplands in the far Northwestern corner of Alaska. 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.
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 Western Arctic herd aggregate. 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 and professional photographers and film makers, 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 simple 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! 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.
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. 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 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.
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 to 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 and then the planes will leave you in peace. 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, 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.
We say our last goodbyes to the caribou and meet our bush pilot for our flight back to Kotzebue.
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
Personal clothing and gear. See full equipment list
Rental equipment is available through Arctic Wild
Gratuity for guide
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.