The Kongakut River is a classic wilderness trip in arctic Alaska. With fun rafting, endless hiking and great chances for seeing caribou, paddling the headwaters of the Kongakut river is a great way to experience the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the eastern Brooks Range.
Throughout June, some 200,000 caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrate north across the Brooks Range to their calving grounds on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Cow caribou migrate first, bulls and yearling caribou join later. One of their favorite routes is the Kongakut River drainage. It’s one of our favorite routes, too.
On this 55-mile arctic rafting trip, we have excellent chances of seeing bands of bull and yearling caribou – bands numbering perhaps in the hundreds – on their way north to the Coastal Plain. We also see lots of Dall sheep and almost always see grizzlies, wolves, musk oxen, moose, and a variety of arctic birds.
In addition to being wildlife-rich, the Kongakut is an exceptionally gorgeous valley. We have three layover days to soak up the country. Surrounded by mountains all the way, the hiking is excellent and opportunities are endless. Destinations include secluded cottonwood forests, mountaintops, side canyons, and coastal foothills from which to view the Arctic Ocean. Then again, just wandering around near camp can make for a great day.
The Kongakut is a fast moving river with multiple braided channels. The river is steady Class II, with a short (three-mile) canyon section busy with fun, Class III rapids. No previous river experience is necessary to paddle the raft, instruction is provided. Everyone joins in the fun of paddling under the guidance of an experienced raft captain.
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide(s) for a pre-trip meeting in Fairbanks at 4pm at Arctic Wild headquarters.
Fly 200 miles north from Fairbanks, across the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle to the Gwich’in Athabascan village of Arctic Village. From there, we board a smaller plane and carry on through the Brooks Range to a river bar alongside the Kongakut River. Tonight, take a hike, and settle into your surroundings. The sun won’t set!
Here we are, in the mountainous headwaters of the Kongakut River! It’s not a big river at this point, but it will get bigger and bigger as water is carried into it by a dozen lovely tributary valleys. Once we inflate and launch the rafts, we may need to drag the raft in spots, especially early on if the river is low. Caribou should be all over the country as we paddle north. They should be our companions for the rest of the trip.
We will plan to enjoy three layover days on this trip, moving down river the rest of the time. As we travel, we see the many faces and moods of the Kongakut. There are areas where the river course narrows and the river swings from valley wall to valley wall, cutting rugged bluffs.
Sometimes we pass through great fields of aufeis (ice that builds up as the river freezes layer upon layer during the winter). In the spring the river carves through the aufeis and we float past frozen blue walls of ice five to ten feet high.
We run fun Class III rapids on several different days. The blue water is very cold, and our boats are heavily loaded, so we avoid the holes and waves. From each night’s camp we can hike off to explore our surroundings – quiet cottonwood glades, small waterfalls, flowery willow forests, and jutting outcrops above the river.
Each of the layover days will start from a camp at the base of a mountain, this gives us lots of time for mountain climbing. At each camp, we have choices of easy climbs or harder, longer, higher climbs. The guides will lead informal natural history hikes on moving days and on the layover days. The last day, we will be able to hike to a sweeping view of the Arctic Coast and the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean stretching off to the curved horizon.
Weather permitting, our bush plane will arrive by noon to fly us back to Fairbanks. We’ll re-cross the Brooks Range, the Arctic Circle and the Yukon River.
Transportation beyond Fairbanks.
Outstanding guide service.
Wholesome, delicious, and mostly-organic food while in the wilderness.
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils.
Repair and safety equipment such as firearm (guide will carry) and one bear spray per guest.
All boating gear, including boats and paddles.
The use of one life jacket and one medium-sized drybag per guest.Sleeping bag & sleeping pad.
Large waterproof dry bag (carries as much as a backpack).
Personal clothing and footwear.
Waterproof camera case.
Fishing gear and fishing license.
Gratuity for guide(s).
Temperatures vary dramatically in the Arctic. It could be hot, but it isn’t likely to be. Temperatures will range from the 20s to 70s. When the wind comes from the north, the temperature can drop to below freezing. Cold rains and snow are possible, but we get lots of sunny weather this time of the year. This trip is before mosquito season, but bring a mosquito head net and a small bottle DEET repellent just in case they hatch early.