Looking for complete immersion in Alaska’s most remote and wild region? The central Brooks Range offers its few visitors unparalleled wilderness and unmatched beauty. Paddling on the clear waters of the Nigu, Etiviluk and Colville Rivers, you will explore the very heart of the Brooks Range.
This arctic rafting adventure is a great chance to enjoy some fun paddling, learn about the natural and human history of the area, and relax in this exceptional northern wilderness.
The Nigu was a seasonal home to the Nunamiut Eskimos and artifacts of their lives are everywhere. It is a rich land in the fall as the caribou from the Western Arctic caribou herd migrate through. Over the generations, Eskimo hunters built miles and miles of stone fences to direct the caribou toward ambushes where they were hunted with spears, often from kayaks. To stand on a low ridge among miles of caribou fences is to step back in time, to see and almost feel the ancient Eskimo hunters employing knowledge and ingenuity to harvest caribou from this arctic landscape. In addition to the stone fences and inuksuks (stone cairns made to look like people standing on a ridge), we can find tent rings, stone tools, bone pitons and other signs of ancient and historic habitation.
As we make our way down the Nigu we will likely see caribou feeding in small mountain valleys, down on the river plain, and along the rich sedge covered ridges. We may see bears digging for ground squirrels and roots on the river bars. Wolves, musk oxen and a seemingly limitless number of birds frequent the area too. Hilltop lookouts alongside the river allow us to scan for both predator and prey moving over the open terrain. Lakes along the river nourish migratory waterfowl such as northern pintail ducks, tundra swans and scaup.
We join the Nigu where it flows among small river bluffs at the northern edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park. As the river rolls slowly through the mountainous Brooks Range, it makes a bend to the north, plunges downhill in a series of swift drops, and joins with the Etivluk River.
Starting on the narrow Nigu, we will watch our river expand as tributaries add more water and finally we arrive at the Colville, the dominant river of the Western North Slope. Once on the Colville, the sky appears even larger and the river is broad and swift. The Colville is a land of sandy bluffs with peregrine nests, broad willow flats with browsing moose, and waterfowl feeding on the tundra. We will follow there rivers as they cut through the low, weather-swept hills of the arctic slope, giving us expansive views and intimate moments beneath sheer river bluffs.
On our paddle from the headwaters to the Nigu’s confluence with the Etivluk River and then down the Colville, we have up to 3 layover-days to absorb this fantastic landscape. Hiking is excellent along the Nigu, perhaps the best hiking in the Brooks Range in terms of variety. In the headwaters we can hike tall peaks. Down river we can spread out on the long and colorful ridge systems that rise from the arctic plain like whale backs. Fishing for Arctic Grayling is good enough to keep us in fish. We will be as far as you can get from towns or roads in the United States of America. This river trip offers unparalleled opportunities for solitude and remoteness.
This is a moderately difficult, 150-mile river trip, a true wilderness expedition. The rafting is straightforward and there is no technical whitewater, but especially if the water is high, the upper river can be splashy. If you are an avid canoeist with lots of moving water experience and a desire to canoe the Nigu, let us know and we may be able to accommodate.
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 pm in Fairbanks at Arctic Wild headquarters.
Fly north from Fairbanks across the Yukon River to the village of Bettles, nestled on the southern flanks of the Brooks Range. From here, we catch a plane that will fly us northwest over Gates of the Arctic National Park to a lake near the remote Nigu River. After unloading the airplane and carrying our gear to the river we will make camp on a nice gravel bar with views of mountains all around.
We spend the day getting to know the Arctic. After breakfast, we head into the mountains on foot. Sandbars show the tracks of caribou, moose, and maybe wolves or bears. The tundra is soft underfoot and rich with a variety of plants and berries. On this first hike we pass a long lake and can try to catch a few grayling. Along the shores of this lake are several ancient stone tent rings marking the camps of Inupiaq hunters of long ago. Their stone fences used for herding caribou into the lake are also in evidence. Departing the lake we can head-up a long rocky ridge. Caribou like feeding here and we gain views down-river of the route we will take over the next couple of days. After a relaxed picnic lunch and plenty of time to enjoy the mountain views, we will make our way back towards the river and camp. In the evening we will prepare the boats for the river. You are welcome to help or explore on your own.
Breaking camp takes some time early in the trip and with 24 hours of daylight, there is no hurry. When we get the boats loaded and complete our safety briefing we push out into the current. The current is swift so we can cover 8 miles before lunch without trouble. When we see wildlife, we can pull ashore and get out the spotting scope and binoculars. The Nigu is not a big river but the valley is gorgeous. Clear waters push the boats first towards one cliff and then back towards the permafrost bluffs. When we near Nigu Bluff we will search for a suitable camp, haul the boats ashore and settle into a new spot.
Another day on the river. We have all day and just 12 miles to cover, which leaves time for a nice hike at lunch and ample opportunities for bird watching, fishing or other diversions.
Puvkrat is the Inupiaq name for a dragon’s-back shaped ridge running perpendicular to the river. The rock spires host nesting falcons and hawks and ancient hunters built small caves in the rock to store meat. Cloudberries abound and the ridge stretches endlessly to the west. If conditions permit we will spend a full day exploring along the ridge.
The Nigu joins the Etivluk River below Nigu Bluff and the river doubles in size. The mountains begin to recede and we enter a land of rolling hills and rock bluffs, tundra stretching endlessly beneath a cavernous sky. Instead of dodging rocks and negotiating small cliffs we spend our paddling effort working to stay in the main current and negotiating the wind. It is a full day on the river paddling through an area where we often see Muskoxen feeding in the willows. At day’s end we perch our camp on a bluff well above the river for commanding views of the wilderness and wildlife.
Another day on the river. By now the routine of breaking camp is quick and efficient leaving more time for a hike during lunch or a stop at a promising fishing spot. The current picks-up its pace today and the river winds past great ice cliffs dripping with 10,000 year old water and calving great chunks of permafrost and ice into the river on warm days. Ptarmigan are common here along with raptors hunting them. Our camp this night will be positioned for a hike to Kingak Mountain the following day.
Kingak is a hard hike. The tundra is rough and walking across the vast plains is slow. But the rewards are immense. Kingak is near the geographically most isolated place in the US. It is further from any road, town or other development than any other location in the country. And the view of the wilderness can not be described, with the Brooks Range to the south and the grand curve of the earth to the north. Few people have ever been on Kingak Mountain, likely less than one party every 3 years. The hike is an all day adventure and a memory never to be forgotten.
The Etivluk River enters the Colville River Basin and the sky seems to swallow the land. Near the river, lakes dot the tundra and waterfowl erupt as we paddle around the corner. Many years we see caribou and feeding along the pond edges and sometimes we find moose crossing the river on an errand only they comprehend. The river grows ever wider and the gravel bars stretch in long arcs. The current slows a bit and we may have to paddle against the wind. The Etivluk joins the Arctic Alaska’s largest river, the Colville (Kuukpik in Inupiaq). The rush of current and the dazzling colors of Colville rocks are startling and we make good time on the larger river. Fishing on the Colville is good and there are nice bluffs to climb for views back to Kingak, Puvkrat and the Brooks Range where our adventure began. We make our last camp on a sprawling gravel bar near the Colville. A big driftwood fire and fresh caught fish are a perfect end to a day on the river.
We spend the morning listening for our plane. When it arrives we load our gear and head towards Fairbanks. A hot shower is in order.
Our guide was a patient and highly skilled guide who also took the time to educate us about geology, local wildlife, and the nunamiut people. Once my guilt for excessive comfort was taken care, we had a terrific experience.
Round-trip airfare from Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
A variety of weather is likely, including rainy periods and bright sunny conditions. Temperatures can range from the 70’s down into the 30’s. Snow is possible. Bug season should be on the wane but bring a bottle of DEET and a headnet in case of flies.