The Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a river like no other. Its clear fast waters rush from the tallest peaks in the Brooks Range spilling into the Arctic Ocean in a wildlife rich delta. We will hike the northern edge of the Brooks Range and then paddle to the limit of the continent, traversing the famed Coastal Plain while learning about the region’s wildlife and wild landscapes.
The Canning River is the largest river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and many claim it is the most beautiful. The scenery is varied and enchanting. The river flows through mountains and foothills, across the Coastal Plain, and finally to the Arctic Coast. We will join the Canning at the northern limit of the mountains where the grey limestone mountains float above the tundra and where a hike into the hills yields views of the Arctic pack ice on the horizon. The clear air, thin sunshine and expansive views are otherworldly. It is a wilderness without equal.
We canoe the last 70 miles of the Canning from the mountains to the sea. To the east of the river we’ll pass three sub ranges of the Brooks Range, the prosaically named Third Range, the Shublik Mountains, and the Sadlerochit Mountains before entering the sprawling river delta with its gravel plains and bird-rich tundra ponds. Towards the end of our adventure, the Canning spills into the Arctic Ocean, mixing fresh water with the cold arctic sea in a network of lagoons dotted with gravel islands where eiders nest among driftwood and we are likely to spot polar bear tracks.
Late June is a great time to paddle the Canning River. Days will be endlessly long and the weather likely warm (for the arctic) leaving us to watch the varied wildlife in peace. We could see grizzly bears, wolves, arctic and red fox, Dall sheep, moose, caribou, musk oxen, wolverines, golden eagles and an abundance of waterfowl. Fishing for arctic grayling and arctic char can be good if the water levels are not too high.
Part of the beauty of this trip is in the variety of landscapes and landforms we will encounter, each with its unique wildlife and climate. As we get towards the coast we can expect the temperatures to drop and the numbers of caribou to increase. Last July over 60,000 caribou aggregated on the Canning River delta for nearly a week. We never know what we will see but we’ll keep our fingers crossed and our binoculars handy.
The Arctic Coast is a rich and storied area. The Canning River Delta is host to thousands of breeding birds each summer and there are numerous ancient and contemporary Inupiat sites along the coast. If conditions are right we can even take a walk on the sea ice, which sometimes remains near the shore until mid-July.
There will be two or three “layover days” where we will keep camp set up and will explore the area on foot. Guides can lead informal natural history hikes on moving days and on the layover days. The hiking is good the entire length of the river and wildlife can be found at any time.
This is a moderately difficult trip, not a “float”. We will have to paddle to get where we’re going, even though the current is always swift. There is no whitewater on the stretch we will be paddling, but there is often significant ice to avoid and the paddling is engaging. As we approach the coast the weather will cool significantly and we may have to paddle against the wind.
We will provide canoe instruction during the trip but taking a class before the trip will help you feel more comfortable on the river. The ACA offers river canoe classes in most areas of the USA and we encourage you to improve your skills prior to the trip. You need not be an expert paddler to join but some canoe experience is essential.
Last updated: January 18, 2021
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guides for a pre-trip meeting at 4pm in Fairbanks at Arctic Wild headquarters. We’ll orient you to the trip logistics, help you check through your gear, and take time to answer everyone’s questions.
We leave Fairbanks early flying north in stages making our way across the Yukon River and the Brooks Range. Eventually the capable bush pilots will land us at our put-in on the Canning a long sandbar at river’s edge. Once the entire group has arrived, we can set up camp and explore the nearly limitless wilderness. The sun won’t set so we can explore all night if we wish.
The northern edge of the Brooks Range is lovely with raptors dotting the limestone peaks and the nearly 9,000 ft peaks to the south generating their own weather. Our first full day in the wilderness we will review river safety, assemble the canoes and hone our paddle strokes before.
We intend to take a lay-over day while in the mountains to ascend a rocky ridge dotted with wildflowers for views of the impressive Brooks Range looming in the south and the braided channels of Canning disappearing into the curve of the earth to the north.
On paddling days we will spend about five hours on the water, stopping for short walks and a delicious lunch en route. The river is swift but the paddling is not technical. We will become proficient at keeping the canoes to the deep calm water avoiding the riffles and shallows along the way.
Moving downriver snow capped mountains fall behind, replaced by three and four thousand foot mountains on the east of the river and a maw of sky above the coastal plain to the north and west. The river winds towards the mountains and then swings in wide arcs west into the flats. We tend to camp where the river hits the mountains affording us the opportunity for long evening hikes into the high-country.
In this foothills section several tributaries join the Canning and deep springs bubble gin-clear water into the river. During the winter these fresh water sources quickly turn to ice which freeze layer upon layer into vast fields of aufeis. These arctic ice fields glisten long into the summer and the Canning carves canyons through these icy canyons. Paddling through them is otherworldly.
As even the northernmost foothills fade behind our canoes, the horizon curves in an unfamiliar and beautiful arc. The coastal plain seems austere at first, but quickly becomes a cherished landscape full of wildlife and wonder. Evening walks no longer ascend a nearby promontory, but instead aim towards inland lakes hosting swans, loons and an astounding assortment of shorebirds.
The Canning’s delta is unique. The river actually splits into 2 different rivers each with it’s own ocean mouth. Generally we follow the “Staines” branch which in turn splits into several braids before eventually collecting itself back into a single channel near the dunes at the river’s mouth. Caribou frequent the river gravels and braided tundra along the lower Canning. If lucky we could see tens of thousands of animals enjoying the sea breezes.
The coastal plain and especially the river delta is rich in bird life, some of the best in Arctic Alaska. We plan on spending the last full day of the trip at the Arctic Coast. We can hike down to the beach and maybe even swim in the Arctic Ocean before returning to the air-strip a couple miles inland to prepare for the sad but inevitable departure.
Weather permitting, our pilot will arrive and fly us back across the Brooks Range to Fairbanks in time for a late dinner and a shower.
We had a guide whose judgement and advice I trusted unconditionally. I am sure we had the great fortune to benefit from her many years of guiding, especially regarding the food she selected to bring. I found it incredible that the meals never tasted like they were selected for camping but also it always seemed to be very efficient, starting from the good coffee in the morning, to lunches that included gourmet cheeses, to the dinners she prepared that were better than those in many restaurants.
Round-trip airfare from Fairbanks to the Brooks Range and back
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Expect a variety of weather. Late June tends to be mild by arctic standards. Expect temperatures to range from in the 70’s down to freezing. Snow is always possible. Bugs could be an issue in the mountains and foothills so DEET and a head-net are highly recommended. Bring an extra warm layer for the coast.