Located entirely north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Kobuk Valley National Park is the least visited park in the nation. Though totally unknown the park is full of interest. Kobuk Dunes is like the Sahara but with wolves, moose, and cranes. Onion Portage is an archeological district with evidence of use for the past 12,000 years! See it all on this custom tour of the Kobuk River.
The Kobuk River is a magnificent river rich with wildlife and broad vistas. This combination canoe and hiking trip will take us down the Kobuk past Onion Portage and on to the great Kobuk Sand dunes for 3 days of hiking and exploration. Late August is a great time to see the park while fall colors are prime and caribou are beginning to swim the river in numbers. With luck they may surround our canoes as we paddle down river.
Clear waters flow past dark forests and emerald lakes supporting a tremendous variety of wildlife. The Kobuk is a meeting place for wildlife and cultures from both north and south. Moose from the interior feed alongside caribou migrating south from the northern tundra. The inhabitants of the watershed are Eskimos with relatives scattered across the arctic but their local name translates into “almost like Indians” because of their forest lifestyle.
The Kobuk resists classification but all agree that it is rich country. The Kobuk is one of a handful of rivers in the world where Sheefish can be found, often exceeding 4 feet in length! Onion Portage in Kobuk Valley National Park is a world renowned archaeological site and a reliable place to see thousands upon thousands of caribou swimming the Kobuk each fall.
The Kobuk Sand Dunes are a sea of sand in the Arctic wilderness formed during the last ice age as winds tore through the region. We will explore these seldom visited sand dunes for the last three days of the trip. This is the largest dune complex in arctic North America and it is both fascinating and beautiful. The eastern side of the dunes are vegetated. There are ponds, wolf and fox dens, and fingers of spruce forest which extend into the dunes. As one travels west, the dunes get larger and larger.
Some of the sand ridges are over 200 feet tall! There are vast areas where a hiker cannot see the edge of the dunes anywhere and one can imagine himself in the Sahara Desert, until a sandhill crane flies by with its prehistoric sounding call. Or a moose trots off over the sand. On the West side of the dunes sand blows off the sand ridges and into the woods and creek. It is easy to visualize how the forest is being swallowed by the advancing dunes.
The Dunes are about three miles from the Kobuk River and we will leave the canoes at the river and don packs for our hike into the dunes in search of oasis. We will set up our camp at the edge of the dunes and spend our days exploring unencumbered. The sea of sand makes for great “sledding”, animal tracking, photography, and some of the best hiking around. It is a unique and inspiring environment full of surprises.
Previous experience is not necessary to paddle canoes, instruction is provided by guides. Backpacking in Alaska is an off-trail experience, but hiking in the Kobuk Dunes is relatively easy for Alaskan backpacking. The sand is soft in places but generally it is firm enough that we can take full strides. Weather in the central Kobuk Valley is warmer than most of the arctic. Sunny skies are the norm. Temperatures in the seventies are possible. Snow is also possible but I’m bringing sandals and a beach towel just in case.
Last updated: December 22, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide in Kotzebue for a pre-trip meeting at 4pm.
Fly from Kotzebue to the Kobuk River village of Ambler. Here we will assemble our canoes and push off into the river. Once we are clear of the village and surrounded by the quiet of the endless forest, bright with fall colors, we will set up camp near the river and search the sky for the aurora.
We have 3 days to cover 50 miles which leaves plenty of time for watching animals, wandering the woods, visiting Eskimo fish camps, and casting a line in hopes of eating Sheefish for dinner. We will spend time at Onion Portage pondering the many overlapping cultures who have hunted here and the way the mountains funnel caribou to this unique spot. The paddling is easy on the broad river unless we encounter headwinds, but we will try to paddle when the weather is good and amuse ourselves otherwise if the weather gets tough. Instruction is provided and no paddling experience is required.
We will camp where the river is closest to the Dunes after our 4th day of the trip. In the morning of the 5th day we will stash our canoes and walk inland towards the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. Once we reach the sand and find a suitable camp near to a drinking water supply, we will begin our exploration in earnest. Caribou, moose, wolves and fox all frequent the dunes as do a great number of birds. The sand constantly shifts and swirls. There are springs coming right out of the sand and great expanses where nothing seems to live. On the afternoon of the 8th day we will load our packs and return to the river for a final night of sky gazing.
Weather permitting, our bush plane will arrive to fly us back to “civilization”. We plan to arrive back in Kotzebue by early evening. Take a shower!
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 Kotzebue, Alaska
Food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils, water filter, base camp tent
Safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Temperatures vary dramatically in the Arctic. It could be hot, but it could be cold and rainy. Temperatures will range from the 20s to 70s. Cold rains and snow are possible, but we get plenty of sunny weather this time of the year. Mosquitoes should be minimal or totally nonexistent this late in the season. Bring a mosquito head net and a small bottle of DEET repellent just in case.