Terra incognita, remotest of the remote, the Colville is arctic Alaska’s largest river and one of its least visited. The Colville or Kuukpik in Inupiat, is an ideal river to hone your canoeing skills. The current is swift, but without obstacles, which leaves us free to scan the banks for caribou, glass the bluffs for young raptors or even recline and let the boats spin on the current as we watch the enormous sky.
The Colville River is the largest river in northern Alaska and drains most of the northwestern Brooks Range. Gathering a great many tributaries like Storm Creek, the Kiligwa, Etivluk, Killik and Anaktuvuk, the Colville takes these northern waters and carves great sweeping bluffs carrying them downriver and laying them out in mile long gravel bars. Enormous looping bends double back and then the river surges with water from a new tributary. Countless lakes near the river are full of waterfowl. The river bluffs provide nest sites for peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, rough-legged hawks and golden eagles. From bluff-tops, sweeping views of the Colville basin show the distant curve of the earth punctuated by far-off ridges and closer crags.
Down by the river, gravel bars are littered with rocks from across the Brooks Range; chert from the Nuka River, fossils from the Nigu River and even dinosaur tracks in the shingled sandstone. Willow thickets are great for birding and passerines will be starting to flock. Rarities like bluethroats and yellow wagtails won’t have departed for Asia quite yet.
Large mammals are about as well. Musk oxen are common in the area and August is a good time to see bands of caribou along the Colville, before they head south for the winter. Each day presents new wonders and each moment offers a quiet surprise. It is a subtle, serene, and rich landscape; a hauntingly beautiful primordial wilderness.
The upper Colville makes an ideal canoe trip. The current is swift enough so that you can cover some territory yet the river easy enough that the trip is suitable for beginners. Canoe instruction is provided for both novices and experts. Our guides have lots to share. We plan to cover around 100 miles during the 8 day trip which leaves time for day-hikes during lunch, a layover day (or maybe two) and ample time to revel in the wilderness, fish, bird, sketch, or find your muse.
Last updated: August 6, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide for a pre-trip meeting at 4 pm in Fairbanks at Arctic Wild headquarters.
Fly north from Fairbanks across the Yukon River over the Brooks Range past Gates of the Arctic National Park to a gravel bar on the Colville River. After unloading the airplane we will make camp and relish the feeling of solitude. An evening hike on the tundra will wet our appetites for more exploration.
Assemble the canoes, get a refresher on paddle strokes, and review river safety. Then we launch into the current under grey bluffs and blue sky.
The weather, the river, and the wildlife inform our decisions about when to paddle, when to hike, when to rest and when to climb the bluffs for a vista. Some days we will spend most of the day on the water. Some days will be shorter and more leisurely and there will be one or two days when we elect to explore the uplands on foot and fish for Arctic Grayling in the river leaving camp set up for two nights in a single location.
A final cast of the fishing rod; a final search of the gravel bar for fossilized coral; one last look in the willows for Bluethroats and then it is time to pack our gear and listen for the distant hum of an airplane, perhaps the first we have heard in a week. Once the plane arrives it is back south. Weather permitting we arrive in Fairbanks in time for a late dinner and can begin exaggerating about the trip.
Our guide was a patient and highly skilled guide who also took the time to educate us about geology, local wildlife, and the nunamiut people. Once my guilt for excessive comfort was taken care, we had a terrific experience.
Transportation beyond Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service.
A variety of weather is likely, including rainy periods and bright sunny conditions. Temperatures can range from the 70’s down into the 30’s. Snow is possible but not likely. Truly hot weather is unlikely too. Bug season should be coming to an end but a bottle of DEET and a head-net are advised.