In the far northwest corner of Alaska near the Chukchi Sea is the seldom-traveled Utukok River. Draining the wildlife-rich Utukok Uplands, the area boasts the highest densities of grizzly bears and wolverines in Northern Alaska. It is also home to the over 200,000 member Western Arctic Caribou Herd which tends to cross the Utukok in mid June on their way to the Chukchi Coast.
Starting from its mountain headwaters, we will paddle north and east through range after range of sweeping ridges and steeply folded valleys. This is rich and photogenic country with good walking, great birding, and wonderful opportunities for watching wildlife. In previous years we have seen bears preying upon caribou calves, wolves hunting the ridge tops, and herds of musk oxen napping in the willows.
Bird watching in the area can be spectacular. Asian bird species such as blue throats and northern wheatears can be seen. Jaegers are ubiquitous and bristle-thighed curlews can be found on the rocky ridge lines.
There are seemingly endless ridges running perpendicular to the river where the footing is good and the views are unbelievable. The hiking opportunities are unlimited. While not a land of dramatic peak ascents and white water, this is a place of wildlife, beauty, and long vistas.
A week to 10 days is perfect for the Utukok, which gives enough time to paddle the best 75 miles of the river while leaving plenty of opportunities for distractions like photography, hiking, cribbage, or other fun. The river can be fast if the water is high, but there are no real rapids. Even at low water there is current enough to keep us moving along past tawny bluffs and past expansive gravel bars, searching for wildlife and reveling in the big sky.
At most water levels, paddling the Utukok is a fairly straightforward and relaxed affair. But if the water is high, we can encounter standing waves and fast current. We will provide canoe instruction during the trip but taking a class before the trip will help you feel more comfortable on the river. The ACA offers river canoe classes in most areas of the US and we encourage you to improve your skills. You need not be an expert paddler to join but some canoe experience is essential.
Last updated: December 22, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Pre-trip meeting with your guide(s) in Kotzebue at 6:30 pm.
Our trip begins with a flight over the Noatak River and into the Brooks Range. We fly on and on, watching the world’s largest terrestrial wilderness pass below us. We will land on a gravel island where the Utukok and Driftwood Creek converge. After unloading the plane and pitching camp, we will have nothing but time to explore the area.
Assemble the canoes and head down river. There is a bit of fast water at the very start of the trip but no rapids at most water levels. If water levels are high, the river requires our full attention but the majority of the paddling is relaxed, leaving time and attention for birding, and scanning for wildlife.
We will mix paddling days with hiking days. We have some miles we must cover but the schedule allows ample time for exploration on foot and leisure time in camp. The river traverses first one mountain range and then another. We will have the opportunity to ascend some of these broad colorful ridges. As we travel north the river grows from a large creek to a meandering river. The river cuts through many small sub-ranges of the Brooks Range. In between each of these ranges are broad valleys where you feel as if you could be swallowed by the sky. In previous years we have seen big aggregations of caribou at Carbon Creek in mid-June. Hopefully our timing will be good for seeing caribou every day of the trip and in increasing numbers each day.
Weather permitting, we fly back to Kotzebue.
….the caribou herd through our camping meadow, the several grizzlies, the arctic fox, the gorgeous Brooks, the exotic Arctic ocean, ice bergs, great people, excellent AW gear, and wonderful guides!!!
Round-trip airfare from Kotzebue
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Temperatures vary from the 70’s to below freezing. Snow is possible; as is rain. June is usually sunny and windy on the Utukok. Strong winds from the north are common. There could be bugs so bring a mosquito head net and a small bottle of DEET repellent.
Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer
Land of Extremes by Alex Huryn
People of the Noatak by Clair Fejes
Caribou and the Barren Lands by George Calef
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
Alaska Wilderness by Robert Marshall
Last Light Breaking by Nick Jans
Path of the Paddle by Bill Mason
More Alaska reading is available at our bookstore