Single person packrafts allow us to explore the wildest portions of Alaska and to fish where few have ever cast a line. This week-long adventure in Northwest Alaska has it all: fun packrafting, mountain hiking, and outstanding fishing.
Come explore the northwest arctic with us this autumn. Combine backpacking, packrafting and fishing for a wild adventure in a nearly unexplored corner of Alaska.
The entire watershed of the Noatak River, including the Kugururok, Avan and Kelly Rivers are protected within the Noatak National Preserve, one of the largest wilderness areas in the country. It is a sprawling, roadless wilderness of mountains, rivers, lakes, and rolling tundra hills. We will start this adventure on the “Kug”, which begins as a series of small rocky creeks flowing from dramatic mountains with enigmatic names like Inaccessible Ridge and Copter Peak. As we descend the river in our single person packrafts and leave the mountains behind, the tundra is slowly populated with spruce trees. At the northern edge of the forest we will roll-up our packrafts, stow them in our packs and head cross-country through the foothills of the Brooks Range to the rarely visited Avan River. This 5 mile hike will be a challenge, but if you thought the fishing on the Kug was great, you are going to love the Avan! Some years there is more fish than water in this small watershed.
After resting up from the hike, we re-inflate our packrafts and make our way down this small river. The current is swift in places and we will need to be careful of overhanging trees, but the only tracks on the sandbars are of wolves and moose. We will have the entire river to ourselves and are likely the only ones to venture here this year. Days are spent on the clear waters of the Avan, and evenings spent river-side at the edge of the forest enjoying views of the distant peaks and the smell of fish cooking on a driftwood fire. Wilderness fishing at its best!
After about 15 miles of paddling the Avan River (and maybe some wading if the river is low), it is time to pack-up the boats and shoulder our packs one more time. This 3 mile hike through the forest brings us to the Kelly River. Similar to the Kug and much bigger than the Avan the Kelly offers broad and colorful gravel bars and dark green forests. Plus, the Kelly is a great place to fish and to watch bears fishing! With a big run of fall chum salmon, the Kelly attracts bears from a wide area and the sand bars are sometimes covered with their tracks.
We get to enjoy the placid waters of the Kelly River as autumn settles into the Arctic. The clear waters wind through forest and muskeg past deep fishing holes and cold spring-fed side creeks. With the exertion of the hikes behind us we can relax and let the current spin our tiny boats under the blue (we hope) arctic skies. And in the evening from camp we can stay up late and wait for the Aurora to dance green and yellow above the river.
At trips end we meet our 4th river the mighty Noatak and paddle a few miles on the broad flat current. Before packing-up one last time and flying back to Kotzebue.
The Kugururok, Avan and Kelly Rivers support impressive fisheries. Dolly Varden (often erroneously called Arctic Char) in this part of Alaska can reach 20 pounds and many years, run numbers in the autumn exceed 10,000 fish. Fall spawners are beautiful with bright white leading edges on their fins and brilliant red bodies. We also catch lots of bright silver fish fresh from the Chukchi Sea. In addition to the great Dolly fishing we can fish for grayling, pike, chum salmon and burbot. Of these, the grayling are the most plentiful and fun to catch. We sometimes find big grayling which are almost black in color with impressive deep bodies and outlandishly large dorsal fins. The numerous spring-fed creeks and upwellings in this part of the Brooks Range make for diverse and productive fishing.
Wildlife is wild so we never know what we will see on a wilderness adventure like this, but grizzly bears frequent all of these rivers searching for salmon in the fall. In recent years we have had frequent sightings of a large pack of wolves on the Kelly River. Moose, beaver and otter all frequent the lowlands and it is possible that caribou may be moving through the area in long strings. It is a rich area and the runs of fish are sure to attract wildlife to the rivers we are paddling.
Packrafts are light-weight, single person rafts that allow us to explore some of the most remote areas in Alaska. They are fun to paddle, comfortable, and give us an unmatched freedom in the wilderness, opening up rivers previously inaccessible. These responsive and stable little boats are the ideal way to explore rivers and creeks too hard to access or too small to navigate with larger craft. And weighing just six pounds, we can strap them to our packs and explore several rivers in a single trip, a feat unthinkable with any other type of boat. You need not be an expert paddler to venture into the world of packrafting. Packrafting trips offer the simplicity and challenge of a backpacking trip without carrying a heavy pack every day. The backpacking portion of this trip is short in milage but packs will be heavy and the terrain a challenge.
Between the backpacking and the autumn weather this will be a fairly challenging trip and all participants should be in good shape with a good attitude and a thirst for adventure. The rewards for those who love wilderness will be huge.
Last updated: December 22, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide(s) in Kotzebue for an evening preparatory meeting.
We fly north from the Chukchi Coast at Kotzebue across the Noatak Valley and into the DeLong Mountains. Following the Kugururok River from above, we assess water levels and choose the optimal starting location for the trip. Once the plane is unloaded and has departed, we are alone in the vast wilderness. Then we can set up a comfortable camp, the fishing rods and enjoy the solitude.
Two days on the Kugururok to bask in the beauty and catch some fish. We have about 20 miles to cover on the Kug so we have plenty of time to day-hike into the hills, explore the tundra or walk the river flats. Instruction for packrafting will be provided and the Kug is a good place to hone your skills. As we head south on the river the mountains recede and the floodplain grows broad.
Where the Kug hits the mountains on the west side of the valley we pull over and roll-up the packrafts. Then strap everything to your pack and begin the backpacking portion of the trip. It is about 5 miles from the Kug to the Avan River through a fringe of forest, across tussocks, over a small ridge and then down to the clear and small Avan river. The effort will be worth it!
We have a full day to explore and enjoy the Avan without packing up camp. Fish the pools, climb the far ridge, or relax in camp. With luck there will be wildlife to watch and fish to eat.
Paddle the Avan River. It is about 12 miles from where the first backpacking section ended to where the Avan gets close to the Kelly River. If the water is high, it will be a relaxed day and the current will do most of the work. If the water is low we may have to nudge the rafts through the shallows and hop in and out of the boats to keep them moving down-river. Working hard or hardly working, either way we will get to enjoy a nearly untraveled portion of Alaska.
We have the morning to enjoy the solitude, fishing and scenery of the Avan River. Then we pack-up once again and backpack through the woods to the Kelly River three miles distant. It is a flat and forested hike. There is a little brush and some blow-down but after a few hours we find ourselves at the Kelly River with stunning views back into the mountains. Resume fishing and relaxing riverside.
Our third river is a gem. The Kelly is broad and clear. Its many channels braid through colorful gravels, broad willow islands, and mature spruce forests. Bear tracks and salmon mark the shallows and eagles adorn the snags leaning over the river. We have a dozen miles to paddle on the Kelly and then 2 or 3 miles of the much bigger Noatak River. Once we arrive at the appointed gravel bar we can set-up camp one last time and enjoy a final evening under the arctic sky. Maybe we will get to hear wolves howling under the aurora.
Pack-up and take a final stroll down the gravel bar in search of wildlife. Take a few more casts for a record Dolly or examine the mud-flats for fresh tracks. Mid-morning our pilot will return for us (weather permitting) and will fly us three at a time down the Noatak River and into the village of Kotzebue where the trip concludes and you can take a shower.
The trip met all my expectations which were very high. Of course the star is the Brooks Range – but your guides are excellent. So knowledgeable about so many things and adding that warm touch (while also being a fine guides).
Transportation beyond Kotzebue
Outstanding guide service
Wholesome and delicious food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Repair and safety equipment
All boating gear, including boats and paddles
The use of one life jacket and one medium-sized dry-bag per person
September weather is highly variable, but never particularly warm. Rain and or snow are nearly assured but we also get lots of sunny bright clear weather in the fall. An average “nice day” would be in the high 50’s with sun and a light wind with overnight lows in the lower 40’s. Lows in the 20’s are possible and stormy conditions with high winds are also possible. On the upside, the bugs are long gone and the fish are running. For a climate summary of the nearby Noatak Village click here.