The Porcupine River is a classic Alaska wilderness canoe trip on the south side of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Camp with us on the long sandbars filled with tracks of moose, wolves and waterfowl. A week on the river is a timeless experience suitable for novice paddlers and seasoned explorers alike.
The Porcupine River collects its clear dark waters from the southeastern Brooks Range, from the Bell River in Canada’s Yukon Territory and from innumerable ponds and streams in the Old Crow Flats. It has an ecology and an aesthetic all its own, merging the feel of the rocky Arctic Refuge with the serenity of the broad sky of interior of Alaska.
The Porcupine River is a ribbon of clear water connecting the mountains to the flats, where northern animals like caribou, mix with boreal species like beaver and moose. The open gravel bars and bluffs are home to grizzly bears, and the denser forests to the black bear. The river itself supports a great diversity of fish and waterfowl. Fish species include salmon, whitefish, blackfish, pike and burbot. Sea ducks, dabbling ducks and geese breed in the marshes by the thousands.
Along much of the river in this section are steep and rocky bluffs. Some of them are several hundred feet tall. These spectacular bluffs support an ecology all their own and provide some of the best nesting habitat for peregrine falcons in Alaska. This is lean country, but king and chum salmon will be working their way upriver towards their spawning grounds in Canada. These fish will draw bears and others to the river for this seasonal feast. Moose are a common sight in the ponds and sloughs near the river.
In addition to the rich natural history, the river has an interesting human history. Gwich’in Athabascan Indians have hunted and fished this stretch of river for centuries. Starting in the late 1800’s trappers and then prospectors inhabited nearly every valley. Cabins, old mines, fish wheels and other relics of the area’s heyday can be found along the river and in the woods including a couple old village sites and a Hudson Bay trading post, now full of trees. As we explore the Porcupine River by canoe we will learn about and reflect on the fur trade and the time when this river provided the main access for outsiders into this part of the world.
The pace of this trip will be leisurely. The camping along the Porcupine is world class for scenery and comfort. Warm sandy beaches allow us to spread-out and relax, and abundant firewood keeps us warm should the weather turn. Some of our paddling days may be long, but there will always be time to pull over and investigate sights along the way. With less than 100 miles to cover and 6 full days to paddle, we won’t have to hurry.
Weather in the interior this time of year tends to be sunny and warm though we will be prepared for anything from temperatures over 80 degrees down to freezing. Canoeing experience is not required. This trip is an ideal choice for the adventurous family, seasoned Alaskans looking for a new river to explore, or for someone looking to gain wilderness skills in the far north.
Last updated: December 22, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide at a pre-trip meeting at 4 pm at Arctic Wild headquarters in Fairbanks.
It is an early departure on the mail plane to Fort Yukon, where the Porcupine meets the Yukon River. From there we charter a smaller plane further north and east to a gravel bar on the Porcupine River just below the Alaska/ Canada border. Once all are on the ground, we can begin assembling our canoes and settling into our wilderness home.
Before we launch on the river will work on refining our paddling skills and will discuss river safety. Then we join the current and paddle past bluffs and onto Old Rampart House, the site of the first Hudson Bay post in the area.
Our time is ours to do what we please. We can start our day by climbing the bluff behind camp to smell the sweet sage and watch hawks and falcons circle above the river. Or we can head out early and watch the glassy river slip beneath the canoe. At lunch we can follow a small creek back into the woods where we find an old cabin with a garden still producing rhubarb in the wilderness. We will travel most days and will be on the water for five to six hours each day. This schedule allows plenty of time for exploring from camp or making side trips during a leisurely lunch break. We will pass many clear water side streams that offer opportunities to fish. As we near our final destination, the river bluffs disappear and we enter an area called the Yukon Flats, a fantastically productive area for waterfowl. Here, as the river slows, the sky is broad and colorful.
All good things must end. Shake the sand from your tent and pack your gear in anticipation of our quick flight to Fort Yukon and then onto Fairbanks. Weather permitting we arrive in time for dinner and shower.
They went above and beyond the typical guide responsibilities and there was never a demarcation between guide and client–we were one pack of unruly rabble-rousers, loving every breathtaking minute on that wild river. One of the best trips of my life.
Round-trip transportation from Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Temperatures vary dramatically in the Far North. Temperatures will range from 90 to 40. We will get some good hot weather and some windy cool weather, but generally it should be warm (by Alaska standards) This is mosquito season, and they will be a factor we plan to mollify by choosing open, breezy camps. Bring a mosquito head net and a small bottle DEET repellent for forays into the woods.