The Western Arctic Reserve, also known as the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is an area of great wealth. It is rich is wildlife, wilderness, and history. It is also rich in hydrocarbons. Join Arctic Wild and the Conservation Lands Foundation for a week of exploration in two of the most important and imperilled portions of the Reserve, the Colville River and Teshekpuk Lake.
We’ll explore and enjoy two areas in the Reserve during our week in the Arctic and will make time to visit the village of Nuiqsut along with the Industrial complex at Prudhoe Bay. It promises to be a busy week, but we’ll make sure to have time to absorb the silence and beauty of the land in addition to discussing it’s past and future.
Our first 4 days will be spent on the Kuukpik (Colville) River, the Arctic Slope’s largest river which drains most of the Western Brooks Range. It is a land of expansive views, broad gravel bars, and pastel bluffs; where peregrine falcons feed on ptarmigan and thaw slumps yield fossils of marine dinosaurs from a time when Arctic Alaska had a tropical climate. The river corridor is ecologically complex with iconic arctic species like muskoxen mixing with animals more often associated with interior Alaska like moose and snowshoe hares. Whether your interest is in birds, wildlife, dinosaurs or Inupiat history there is lots to learn about and wonder at along the Colville. Because of its unique ecology and abundant raptor nesting sites the Colville has been identified as a “Special Area” by the BLM with special protections afforded under the current management plan.
We’ll have a chance to settle into the rhythm of the river with long evenings spent watching the glassy water slide past and days spent paddling and hiking. But with an area as vast and diverse as the Western Arctic we won’t linger on the Kuukpik.
On the 4th day we’ll meet our pilot who will shuttle us three at-a-time to the village of Nuiqsut, an Inupiat community of about 400 people. CLF will plan our activities in Nuiqsut and we hope to meet with residents to discuss conservation issues important to the community. Nuiqsut started as an ancient seasonal trade fair, became a year-round tent camp in 1974 and now finds itself a modern community on the edge of North America’s largest oil field complex with development looming all around.
We’ll take our fresh perspectives on modern life in the Arctic with us as we fly west to Teshekpuk Lake, the biological heart of the NPR-A. Teshekpuk is the largest lake in Arctic Alaska, a globally important wetland, critical habitat for the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd, an internationally recognized migratory stop for several endangered bird species, and an important subsistence area for locals from both Utqiagvik (Barrow) and Nuiqsut. We’ll pitch camp near the lake where we’ll have opportunities for scanning the waters for birds and will have plenty of time to walk the tundra.
The expansive landscape and subtle topography require a recalibration of our senses. Size and distance are hard to determine without the familiarity of mountains and trees. But there is much to discover in the sea of green tundra and blue waterways which surround the lake. In drier areas the tundra may be carpeted in purple, white and yellow with the last of the summer flowers. Thousands of geese graze the sedges and caribou may be in small bands enjoying the breeze off the lake while putting on fat before the breeding season. From our comfortable tent camp near the lake we’ll have time to hike, bird-watch, and enjoy discussions about the region. It is a landscape few non-inupiat has visited and one that even fewer understand.
This is a wilderness camping trip in one of the most remote parts of North America. We’ll be paddling on the broad and sometimes windy river and then camping in the very often windy shores of Teshekpuk Lake. You need not be an athlete to enjoy the trip but good physical condition will allow you to explore further and see more. The primary challenge of the trip will be in the weather. Foggy windy conditions prevail in this part of the state even during the warmest part of the year.
Last updated: October 1, 2021
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guides for a pre-trip meeting at 4 pm in Fairbanks at the Arctic Wild world-headquarters.
Fly north from Fairbanks across the Yukon River over the Brooks Range and into the Arctic Slope. We’ll land at Umiat, an abandoned oil camp established in the 40’s by the Navy. We won’t tary too long sightseeing in the SuperFund site nor visiting with any scientists which may be working in the area. We’ll need to carry our gear and boats to the river and can hopefully get a few river miles behind us on our first day in the Arctic.
Life on the Kuukpik is sweet. The current flows swift and smooth pushing past mile-long gravel bars and undercutting colorful bluffs which line the north-bank of the river. Peregrine Falcons and Rough-legged Hawks will be our nearly constant companions and the sky is enormous. We’ll paddle about 5 hours on each day leaving plenty of time to search for fossils (we’ll leave them where we find them), and to walk on the tundra. There is plenty of driftwood for campfires and lots of good food to enjoy with friends new and old.
We rendezvous with our pilot and shuttle 3 at a time from the Colville to Teshekpuk Lake. Making camp anew where the tundra merges with the blue-gray waters of Arctic Alaska’s largest lake. ****Do we want to try to arrange a visit in Nuiqsut this day?****
We have 2 full days to hike, bird, explore, debate, and discover Teshekpuk. Your guides will offer to lead hikes, teach you about natural history, and keep the warm food and drinks rolling out of the “cook-tent”. There can be as much or as little adventure as you want.
A final morning by the lake. One last chance to look for Spectacled Eiders and then its time to pack-up and listen for the plane. He’ll shuttle us 3 at a time east towards the sprawling oil fields. We’ll have time in the afternoon to **** Deadhorse Tour? Visits in Nuiqsut? Night in Nuiqsut and scheduled flight to SCC and FAI on the 28th?
I genuinely feel, having traveled in South America, Australia, and Africa to remote villages and lodges, huts etc. that Alaska was the most foreign I have ever felt. And I am glad to have experienced it.
One of my biggest impressions is that I am so so very glad we had Arctic Wild as our outfitters. Michael Wald and his team were terrific and well prepared. I can’t say enough about the attention to detail and the experience of them and especially our guide Nancy Pfeiffer. I talked with other guides and with other groups. After each conversation, (trust me, they were lengthy chats as we were on a gravel runway sitting on our packs…) I thought how lucky we were to be with Nancy and Arctic Wild.
Transportation from Fairbanks to the river, lake, Nuiqsut and back
Food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils, water filter, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Select rental equipment is available through Arctic Wild and is included
Personal clothing and gear per our Equipment List
Fishing gear, and fishing license
Gratuity for guides
We expect a bit of everything from heat and bugs on the Colville to fog and wind at Teshekpuk. Frost and snow are unlikely but definitely possible and temperatures during the trip could range from nearly 80 degrees to below freezing. Precipitation is usually light in the Arctic but we’ve guided CLF on some wet trips in the past. Prepare for everything and be sure to bring a little DEET and a headnet incase the wind drops and the bugs assert themselves.
Of Whales Ice and Men, John Bockstoce
Furs and Frontiers in the Far North, John Bockstoce
50 Years below Zero, Charles Brower
Naturalists Guide to the Arctic, E.C. Pielou
Arctic Wings, Stephen Brown
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
and an important historical perspective from the first mayor of the North Slope Borough Eben Hopson.
More Alaska reading is available from our Bookstore.