In the far northwest corner of Alaska near the Chukchi Sea is a seldom traveled river we consider the best canoeing river in Alaska. For 9 out of 10 years our June river trips have seen tens of thousands of caribou swimming the river. We regularly see bears, wolves and even wolverines on this fantastically remote canoe trip. If your interest is wildlife, this is the trip for you.
The Western Brooks Range is rich country. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd numbering about 235,000 animals, calves here. Bear and wolverine populations are higher here than anywhere else in Alaska’s Arctic. And the birding, the birding is outstanding.
Starting from its mountain headwaters, we will paddle north and west down the river toward the sea through range after range of sweeping ridges and steeply folded valleys. As we round each corner we scan the banks for caribou. With luck, we will intercept bands of caribou swimming the river with week-old calves in tow. Some years we get to watch wave after wave of caribou migrating across the tundra. Occasionally the whole valley fills with the sound of hoofs and bleats as uncountable numbers of caribou stream across the landscape. Even without caribou it is a fantastic canoe trip.
Not only does this area support enormous numbers of caribou, but it also hosts a great diversity of other wildlife. Caribou herds are attended by an assortment of predators and scavengers, namely brown bears, wolves, and the fabled wolverine. Musk oxen can be seen feeding in the willows of the river terraces. The Utukok Uplands region through which the river flows has the highest density of wolverines in the state.
Bird watching in the area can be spectacular. Asian bird species such as Bluethroats and Northern Wheatears can be seen. Jaegers are ubiquitous and Bristle-thighed Curlews can be found on the rocky ridge lines. On our last foray down the river, we saw Golden Eagles, Gyrfalcons, Peregrines, and Rough-legged Hawks nesting along the river.
Hiking along the Kokolik River is wonderful. There are seemingly endless ridges running perpendicular to the river where the footing is good and the views are unbelievable. While not a land of dramatic peak ascents and white water, this is a place of wildlife, beauty, and long vistas. We think this is the best wildlife trip in arctic Alaska.
At most water levels, paddling the Kokolik is a fairly straightforward and relaxed affair. But if the water is high, we can encounter standing waves and fast current. We will provide canoe instruction during the trip but taking a class before the trip will help you feel more comfortable on the river. You need not be an expert paddler to join but some canoe experience is highly recommended.
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Pre-trip meeting with your guides in Kotzebue at 6:45 pm.
Our trip begins with a flight over the Noatak Valley and into the Brooks Range. We fly on and on, watching the world’s largest terrestrial wilderness pass below us. After crossing the Brooks Range we land on a gravel island along the river. After unloading the plane and pitching camp we will have nothing but time to explore this pristine area.
After discussing river safety and boat handling, we assemble the canoes and head downriver. Gravel and sand bars fill the broad floodplain valley allowing us the opportunity to get comfortable in the canoes and relax under the broad sky. We will only paddle around 10 miles of this clear river on our first day. Our priority will be to make sure everyone feels safe and confident in the boats.
The upper valley hosts not only an abundance of wildlife, but an abundance of fossil life. Coal beds can be reached from the river and marine and terrestrial fossils abound. We will likely take our first layover/ hiking/ rest day to enjoy the mountains and explore away from the river. The river cuts perpendicular to the east- west ridges that define this part of the Arctic. We will have the opportunity to ascend some of these broad colorful ridges on our day-hikes and evening walks. Alpine species like Alaska marmots and rosy finches inhabit the rocky ledges and the views of the complex geology and endless landscape are spectacular.
We will mix paddling days with hiking days. We have some miles we must cover but the schedule allows ample time for exploration on foot and leisure time in camp. As we travel north, the river grows from a large creek to a meandering river. There are obstacles to avoid but for the most part we can devote our attention to scenery and wildlife.
The river cuts through many small sub-ranges of the Brooks Range. In between each of these ranges are broad valleys where you feel as if you could be swallowed by the sky. Our camps usually alternate between the broad basins where we spend a single night and the folded ridges where we can enjoy a hiking day. If we run into big groups of caribou we’ll almost certainly spend a couple of nights in their company.
Like all our trips, this is a true wilderness expedition. The land, the river, the weather, the wildlife, along with our desires dictates the rhythm of the trip and the specifics of each day.
At the appointed gravel bar we will wait for our pilot and then (if the weather allows) fly back to Kotzebue. We hope to be back in Kotzebue by about 5 pm. Time to take a shower!
Round-trip airfare from Kotzebue
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Personal clothing and gear per our Equipment List
Fishing gear, and fishing license
Gratuity for guide(s)
Rental equipment is available through Arctic Wild.
Temperatures vary from the 70’s to below freezing with averages in the upper 50’s. Snow is possible; rain is likely. However, this time of the year we generally have lots of sunny dry weather. Strong, cold north winds are not unusual. It is a wind part of the state. There could be bugs so bring a mosquito head net and a bottle of DEET repellent.
There is no weather station near to the Kokolik but Noatak Village is (though further south and warmer) reasonably close and you can study its climate here. Pt Lay on the coast is another (colder) proxy.
Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer; Land of Extremes by Alex Huryn; People of the Noatak by Clair Fejes; Caribou and the Barren Lands by George Calef; Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner; Alaska Wilderness by Robert Marshall; Last Light Breaking by Nick Jans; Arctic Wild by Lois Crisler; Path of the Paddle by Bill Mason. More Alaska reading is available at our bookstore.