Spring on the Noatak is hard to beat. With birds arriving from around the world, snow melting under the spring sun, and the tundra turning green before your eyes, June is a special time for a canoe trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park.
The Noatak is an ideal canoe trip with fun, easy paddling, great wildlife encounters and endless hiking opportunities. There are few places in Alaska’s Arctic where we so reliably see wildlife.
Far north of the Arctic Circle in the heart of Gates of the Arctic National Park, the Noatak River is an arctic gem. From its headwaters near Mt. Igikpak, it flows west through glacier-capped granite peaks and rolling tundra for over 400 miles to the Chukchi Sea. Rich in wildlife and scenic beauty, it is internationally recognized as a World Heritage Site. There is no better place to experience the wilderness and wildlife of the Brooks Range than the headwaters of the Noatak River.
On this Noatak Canoe trip we will paddle the first 60 miles of this wilderness river and will have several layover days to enjoy some of the best hiking in the Arctic. We can fish for arctic grayling, Northern pike, arctic char and lake trout, or we take a leisurely stroll looking for birds and learning about natural history. June is spring in the Arctic and flowers will be emerging from the quickly thawing tundra.
The open country makes wildlife sightings a near-daily experience on the Noatak. We regularly see wolves, fox, moose and Dall sheep. There may be a few bull caribou moving north to meet the cows on the calving grounds to the north and we often see lots of bears digging roots by the river. Birders will not be disappointed. Passerines and waterfowl wing through the Noatak every year, stopping over in the willow thickets and rich ponds of the broad valley. Evenings (midnight) are filled with bird song as migrants from around the world breed in this isolated area.
This is a fairly easy 60-mile canoe trip, but you can fish and hike and explore until you’re worn out. The Noatak usually flows along smoothly on this stretch, with enough current to keep us moving, but if the wind blows against the current we will have to work to reach camp at each days end. Towards the end of the trip the river picks up speed and we get to ride the current to the take-out, dodging some obstacles along the way. Previous experience is not strictly necessary to paddle canoes; instruction is provided by guides, but it helps if you have some boating experience and familiarity with canoes. We encourage all participants without current canoe skills to take a “moving water” canoe class prior to the trip if at all possible.
Last updated: January 18, 2021
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide for a pre-trip meeting in Fairbanks at 4 pm.
It’s a long day. We fly north from Fairbanks, to the south side of the Brooks Range and then shuttle from there in a smaller plane. Once we are all on the ground and alone in the wilderness we can take the first of many walks. The tallest peak in Gates of the Arctic looms above camp and we will linger here in the high-country before paddling.
The upper Noatak is spectacularly scenic. Upriver from our camp the valley is narrow and rocky. Dall sheep dot the cliffs and snow fills the gullies. Looking west the floodplain widens and lakes are filling with migratory birds from the world over.
We will enjoy a full day to hike in the upper reaches, above where most travelers start the trip. The ambitious members of our group can climb onto the flanks of Mt Igikpak for views that will never be forgotten. Others can wander by the river seeking the first spring flowers and with luck we’ll find musk oxen or wolves or any number of other wild creatures.
On our first paddling day we’ll spend some time discussing boating safety and reviewing paddle strokes and how to “read” the river. Once we start down river your guides will continue to provide instruction and insight until you feel confident in your canoeing skills. There are some shallow spots on the first day and some tight corners to negotiate too. One year we had to pull over quickly because a moose was standing in the only deep water in the river!
We’ll canoe our way down the Noatak. On travel days we will spend about five hours on the river and cover about 15 miles. For most of the journey the Noatak is in a single channel with few obstacles. This makes it a good river to learn the finer points of river canoeing. If the snow is still melting the river might be high and fast, but most years we enjoy clear water and fairly relaxed canoeing on the upper Noatak.
Some years on our June Noatak trip the river is genuinely warm and we splash and swim in the river enjoying surprising warmth above the Arctic Circle
Each evening, we’ll find a new campsite on a broad gravel bar or a high and dry tundra bank with a view of the river and mountains. There are no designated campsites and the river, weather, wildlife, and group will determine where we camp. There will be free time each and every day after camp is pitched. The long evening is yours to enjoy the midnight sun. It won’t ever get dark!
There is great hiking from each and every campsite and every other day will likely be a layover day when we will explore on foot from camp. There is lots of good walking on dry rocky ridges, along the river, or up pretty tundra creeks. Day hikes vary in length from a couple hour stroll to ascents of minor peaks. Your guide(s) will offer suggestions and tailor the days adventure to suit your desires. If you prefer to explore on your own, that’s OK too.
Near the end of the trip there are some fast corners, small waves, and rocky ledges to negotiate. After a week of paddling we hope you’ll have the skills and confidence to paddle this section with style! We’ll make time to hike to nearby lakes to fish and admire the glassy waters. As we near the western boundary of Gates of the Arctic National Park the mountains recede and the sky grows broad. This is a favorite area to see grizzly bears digging for roots on the river flats and a great place to see waterfowl preparing nests. Spring turns to summer and the arctic is buzzing with life.
Clean up and pack our gear. If the weather is good, we hear the hum of the propeller mid-day and seal our bags one last time. This is perhaps the first plane we’ve heard since landing on the Noatak a week prior.
Then it is a spectacular flight back through the mountains and on to Fairbanks, arriving in time for a late dinner.
I took a lot of trips this year, but the Noatak easily was the best experience of the year and one of the best of my life.
Transportation beyond Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Canoes, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Temperatures vary dramatically in the Arctic. Temperatures range from the 20s to 80s, averaging in the mid 60’s. Cold rains and snow are possible, but we can get lots of sunny weather this time of the year too. Mosquitoes should not be a problem on this trip, but if the hatch is early, they could be out in the later portion of the trip. Traveling with insect repellent (DEET) and a head-net is always prudent but I really don’t think there will be bugs.