Alaska’s arctic coast is a storied region. Home to Inupiat Eskimos for thousands of years and, more recently, has attracted whalers, mineral-seekers, and adventurers, all chasing their fortunes. It is a region of stunning beauty and richness. Seals haul-out on the arctic pack ice, which lodges on shore, in places 30’ high. Thousands of waterfowl collect in the lagoons and river deltas to rear their young. Tens of thousands of sea ducks migrate along this coast in summer. Caribou stampede to the coast to avoid insect pests further inland. Long gravel barrier islands are littered with sun-bleached driftwood–among it, the remains of those who have come before. It is an austere landscape, suddenly vibrant and teeming with life during the short summer.
This arctic canoe trip will explore the rich and interesting arctic coast for a week. This stretch of the coast is protected by barrier islands and the sea ice, making the paddling safe and relatively easy. With ample time and endless daylight we can roam the tundra and coast watching the abundant wildlife, gaze for hours at the view in changing light, and learn about life on this rugged coast. This is an ideal trip for birders, photographers or anyone wanting to see this enchanting coast.
We will start our trip near the Canadian border with Alaska and will work our way westward with the prevailing wind at our backs. We follow a series of protected lagoons paralleling the coast. We will spend the first two days near Demarcation Bay where the Brooks Range comes nearly to the coast. As we head west we follow icy reef’s long arc and encounter the delta’s of several rivers pouring into the sea from the mountains to the south. The Kongakut is gravely with an enormous aufeis field, the Egaksrak is broad with great walking and lots of shorebirds. The Aichilik has a wonderful complex of ponds and wetlands harboring waterfowl of many feathers.
Mostly we camp on the mainland, where freshwater is easy to find and there is a slight blunting of the cold north wind. When we do camp on the barrier islands we will take extra precautions for polar bears, who’s tracks we sometimes see in the sand.
In a typical year there is still sea ice held fast to the shore and we can look for seals basking on the ice. Archaeological sites are abundant on the islands and mainland and we can visit old Eskimo fish camps, turn of the century cabins, and graveyards. If the winds are with us we can cover 15 miles in a day. After a day of paddling there will still be time to bird watch, photograph or hike.
Numerous lakes and ponds host nesting loons, swans and other waterfowl. The coastal tundra is thick with shorebirds and other nesting birds from the world over. The 9,000 foot peaks of the Brooks Range dominate the southern horizon, and the pack ice stretches off forever to the north.
Many years, the Porcupine and Central Arctic caribou herds move through this area by the thousands or tens of thousands in early July. If luck is with us, we may get to sit in camp while throngs of caribou drift across the tundra. Even if we don’t see great masses of animals, there likely will be foxes denning, bears wandering, or even, as happened one year, a wolverine hunting voles on the tundra.
When we aren’t paddling the coast, your time will be yours to do as you please; whether that be photographing, birding, hiking or devouring a good book. We will provide a knowledgeable guide, good, wholesome food, and as much freedom or guidance as you would like (safety permitting). The small party size allows everyone to focus on the magnificent landscape and its wild inhabitants. Hiking is good on the barrier islands, the beach, and inland along the tundra.
With 24 hours of daylight time takes on a new dimension. “Nights” often have the best light, calm winds, and the most wildlife. Day-hikes at 2 am are common on a trip like this. Sunscreen at midnight is recommended. The timeless nature of the Arctic Coast is one of the things that defines the trip and can be the most memorable aspect.
We’ll be paddling in protected coastal lagoons and there is almost no current, but the wind can still create waves and you’ll want to be in control of your canoe. We will provide canoe instruction during the trip but taking a class before the trip will help you feel more comfortable on the water. The ACA and other organizations offer canoe classes in most areas of the country 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 highly recommended.
Last updated: January 22, 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 in Fairbanks at 4 pm at Arctic Wild headquarters.
Fly from Fairbanks, over the mighty Yukon River, across the Arctic Circle, to the Gwich’in community of Arctic Village. Then catch a smaller plane to the Arctic Coast. On the flight in we cross the Brooks Range and may see thousands upon thousands of caribou migrating towards the coast.
The days and nights are yours to explore and marvel at this unique destination. We will canoe about 40 miles of the coast mostly in the protected lagoons behind the barrier islands. With plenty of time to cover the distance, we will travel when conditions are favorable and explore on foot if the wind picks up. When not paddling we can hike inland in search of wildlife and birds, explore the numerous old village sites, beach comb for whale bones (which we leave on the beach), observe arctic foxes at their dens, photograph the enormous flocks of migrating sea ducks, or just sit by the driftwood fire and enjoy the sight of sea and sky. No matter how we spend our time, each day will be full of adventure and surprises.
On our last day we meet a small boat from the Eskimo village of Kaktovik for a beautiful and interesting ride back towards civilization. As we travel the most scenic part of the arctic coast, our eskimo boat captain will teach us about modern eskimo life and the history of this beautiful coast. Once in Kaktovik (Barter Island) we board the “mail plane” and fly to Fairbanks, re-crossing the Brooks Range, the Arctic Circle, and the Yukon River. Weather permitting, we will be back to Fairbanks in time for a hot shower and a late dinner.
I genuinely feel, having traveled in South America, Australia, and Africa to remote villages and lodges, huts etc. that Alaska was the most foreign I have ever felt. And I am glad to have experienced it.
One of my biggest impressions is that I am so so very glad we had Arctic Wild as our outfitters. Michael Wald and his team were terrific and well prepared. I can’t say enough about the attention to detail and the experience of them and especially our guide Nancy Pfeiffer. I talked with other guides and with other groups. After each conversation, (trust me, they were lengthy chats as we were on a gravel runway sitting on our packs…) I thought how lucky we were to be with Nancy and Arctic Wild.
Transportation beyond Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets
Safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Expect a variety of weather, none of it very warm. Late June tends to be mild by arctic standards. But cold fog and winds are common along the coast. Expect temperatures to range from in the 60’s down to freezing. Snow is always possible. Bugs could be an issue on hikes inland so DEET and a head-net are highly recommended. Climate data for the area is available here.
Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer
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
More Alaska reading is available from our Bookstore.