Start with a four day backpacking trip in the most spectacular mountain country in arctic Alaska. After reaching the river, your backpack trip turns into a river trips as you paddle your own packraft down the rarely explored Ivishak River. This is an arctic adventure like no other.
Near the western edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a region of limestone peaks and canyons with verdant green grottos, waterfalls and long ridges piercing the clear sky. Some claim it is the prettiest part of the Brooks Range; few have ever seen it.
This trip starts with a challenging backpacking trip beneath 6,000 ft peaks. Starting in the upper reaches of the Marsh Fork of the Canning River we will hike between 15 and 20 miles across several low passes, camping each night near a bubbling creek. The mountains here are made from ancient coral reefs and marine fossils crunch underfoot as we climb the pastel ridges or navigate up the gravels of the creek beds. There are dozens of valleys connecting the Canning and the Ivishak and we will follow caribou trails as we find the most efficient route through the mountains, eventually emerging from the labyrinth into the broad Ivishak River Valley.
It is not a big river where we first meet it but the cliffs above the river bed and the arc of complaining raptors overhead make the miles fly by. When the creek/ river appears large enough for us to paddle, we inflate our packrafts and let the river carry the load.
As we negotiate riffles and paddle through the pools, the river gains speed and size. It is swift on the corners one minute and at the next it spreads into half a dozen channels and meanders through a vast gravel plain. There are several sections of Class II rapids at normal water levels and plenty of spunky, fun, fast paddling. Below the Ivishak Hotspring (don’t get too excited “hot” is a relative term and you are in the Arctic) the river gains size as does the view of the sky as the Ivishak braids through broad gravel plains.
Once we emerge from the Brooks Range the views of the mountains we left behind are spectacular and we enter the portion of the river with a world class run of arctic char. Some years nearly 30,000 fish ascend the Ivishak to spawn and the deep pools flash red and white when you paddle above them. They are fun to catch and wonderful to eat.
Wildlife is of course unpredictable, but the area is home to both the 200,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd and the 30,000 member Central Arctic herd. Bears are common sights and we occasionally see wolves in the area too. Dall sheep frequent the ridges–rams with heavy horns resting on the cliffs and big bands of ewes and lambs grazing on the high tundra. Golden eagles, horned larks, and an Asian bird called a northern wheatear thrive even in the starkest of alpine areas. As we leave the mountains the wildlife and scenery changes and animals like muskoxen become more common.
Light and nimble packrafts allow us to paddle this small river and tread where few others go. Packrafts are lightweight one-person rafts propelled with a kayak paddle. Weighing in at around six pounds, they offer unparalleled freedom for wilderness explorers. This packrafting trip will have its challenges, but there is ample time for day hikes, fishing and leisure.
Physical fitness is more important than boating experience for your enjoyment of this trip. Familiarity with river travel is a bonus but packrafting experience is not required. We will backpack about 18 miles over 3 days with substantial packs and then paddle around 50 miles of the Ivishak River. At normal water levels there is little white water on the route, but the Ivishak does require that you pay attention.
Last updated: December 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 at 4 p.m. at the Arctic Wild headquarters in Fairbanks.
Fly 350 miles north from Fairbanks, across the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle to the headwaters of the Marsh Fork of the Canning River. After hiking to a suitable campsite, we will make camp, eat dinner and then take a hike under to survey the endless wilderness.
We work our way up the Canning and over the first low pass, skirting Annette Peak and camping north of Porcupine Lake. Packs will be heavy, but the footing is good and the scenery unbeatable.
We hike through the maze of valleys and canyons which eventually form the Ivishak, enjoying the solitude and magnificent wilderness. Once we hit the Ivishak proper we will need to walk downriver to where we judge the river is big enough to carry us. We will try and camp early enough in the day to have an opportunity to explore without packs deeper into the mountains each evening.
The river trip starts! Before launching, your guide(s) will train you in the art of packrafting and river safety. Once you are feeling confident and packs are secured to the deck of the packrafts, you begin your descent towards the ocean. The river is small and rocky and you may need to get out occasionally to nudge your boat between rocks or over shallows. The scenery alone is worth the effort and there will be time to lean back in your raft and watch the tundra go by later in the trip.
Once you get the knack of following your guide through the deepest water, you will make good time and can scan the banks for bear, wolf, and caribou. Traveling downriver, wildlife changes along with the scenery.
There are big sections of shallow braids and some fun Class II sections to splash through. On traveling days expect to spend 5 or 6 hours on the water, which leaves plenty of time for hiking, fishing and relaxing in this sublime landscape.
The mountains are far behind and the horizon yawns in the north. Sadly the trip is over. Pack-up and begin listening for our airplane. When it arrives (weather permitting) we reluctantly load our gear and shuttle back to Fairbanks, arriving in time for a late dinner. A shower is in order.
The guides were uncommonly knowledgeable, competent, hardworking, and they consistently took care of the group before taking care of their own stuff. They kept our safety in mind while staying open to suggestions, and allowing folks a lot of freedom for personal wanderings.
Round-trip airfare from Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils, water filter
Packraft, life jacket and paddle, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Select rental equipment
Personal clothing and gear
Backpack, tent, waterproof bags, wading pants, and clothing
Gratuity for guide(s)
Depends on trip dates