GUIDED ALASKA Rafting

rafting from the Brooks Range in the Arctic Refuge. Micah Baird Photo.

Kongakut – Mountains to Ocean

calendar

DATES

June 21, 2023 - July 5, 2023
region

REGION

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) Trips
price

TRIP COST

$8,700

New Trip for 2023!

The Kongakut is a stunning clear water river offering a great variety of landscapes and arctic wildlife. If you only have one opportunity to visits the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Kongakut is the perfect choice. Raft the entire Kongakut with us on this one of a kind trip.

 

TRIP DETAILS

Explore the entire Kongakut with us on a 15 day wilderness sojourn from the peaks of the Brooks Range to the icy Arctic Ocean. We start our journey in the headwaters of the Kongakut River not far from the Continental Divide. It is rugged, folded country with towering peaks, waterfalls and spires punctuating the skyline. By the end of the trip you’ll be dipping your toes in the Beaufort Sea surrounded by crashing waves and polar bear tracks.

Late June is an exciting time of year. Spring is in the air with the sounds of bird song and meltwater pouring over cobbles in its rush to the Arctic Ocean. The tundra bursts with fresh greenery as the first truly warm days of the year bring the promise of summer. During the course of our trip we will watch the Arctic Refuge transform as spring yields to summer and its wild inhabitants prepare for a busy breeding season.

Throughout June, caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd migrate north across the Brooks Range to their calving grounds on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Cow caribou migrate first, bulls and yearling caribou join later.  One of their favorite routes is the Kongakut River drainage.  It’s one of our favorite routes, too.

The Kongakut is best known for the reliability with which it treats visitors to incredible wildlife encounters. Each year some 220,000 caribou from the Porcupine caribou herd migrate north across passes in the Brooks Range to their calving grounds on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By late June, the caribou begin to aggregate in great numbers north of the Brooks Range. As they move shoulder to shoulder, they shape one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in North America. On previous trips we have been literally surrounded by caribou. We estimate that we have seen 20 or 30 thousand caribou in a single day. It is an awe inspiring spectacle that leaves one speechless and exhilarated.

In addition to being rich in wildlife, the Kongakut is an exceptionally gorgeous valley. We have multiple layover days in the mountains to soak up the country.  If so inclined, we can take long day-hikes high onto the ridges for views east towards the Yukon territory or north towards the Arctic Coast. Shorter excursions bring us into limestone canyons and miniature forests where we could (if very lucky) find the elusive grey-headed chickadee. Then again, just wandering around near camp can make for a great day. And with 24 hours of daylight the only limits to our adventures are our imaginations.

The upper river is fast with multiple braided channels and one notable canyon. During the first week the river is steady Class II, with a short (three-mile) canyon section with “busy” and splashy Class III rapids.  It is a small river and engaging to paddle as it pushes from rocky ledge to cobble bank and back again.

As we travel further north we enter a region of alternately rugged and rounded foothills with excellent views of the Brooks Range to the south and the famed Coastal Plain to the north. Here we can spend some more time exploring the mountains, gaining spectacular vistas from nearby ridges. Historically this is where we have our best chances to see big numbers of caribou, but of course we don’t know where or if we will find them on this trip.

Eventually the river rushes past a final ridge and we leave the Brooks Range headed for the Arctic Coast in earnest. Enter the surreally beautiful coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife rich wilderness like no other. As we paddle across the Coastal Plain and into the Kongakut’s delta, we have ever-widening views of the Brooks Range stretching away to the east and west.

In its lower reaches, the Kongakut fans out into an extraordinary delta of rocks, low vegetation, ice and water. We pick our way through a maze of river braids to a massive freshwater ice field (aufeis) that appears to block the way, acting as gates to the Arctic Ocean beyond. blue ice, clear water, gray gravel and the endless sky.

Our time on the coast presents a unique opportunity to explore this storied region. Tent rings, old sod houses and relics from the whaling area dot the coast. View its wildlife, be awestruck by the vivid light of the midnight sun, or walk onto the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean. In addition to caribou, we may also see wolves, grizzly bears, musk oxen, and an array of birds and wildflowers. The famed and ferocious wolverine inhabits the area, but is among the rarest of sightings.

This is a leisurely-paced trip with a focus on learning about and enjoying the Arctic Refuge. No experience is required to paddle the raft. Instruction is provided. Everyone joins in the fun of paddling under the guidance of an experienced raft captain. The Kongakut is a fast-moving river with multiple braided channels. We may need to get out and walk the rafts in shallow places. There is some whitewater in the canyon and more than once we have had to wait for several days for flooding to subside before the canyon was safe to paddle. The coast is often breezy if not windy, meaning we may have to paddle steadily for several hours. On a trip of this duration and at this latitude there will be challenges and joys we can not predict. Good health and a great attitude will add to your and your companions experience on this once in a life-time adventure exploring the entire navigable portion of the Kongakut.

Last updated: November 22, 2021

Itinerary

What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.

June 20

Meet with your guide(s) for a pre-trip meeting at 4 pm in Fairbanks at Arctic Wild headquarters.

June 21

Fly north from Fairbanks across the mighty Yukon River and over the Arctic Circle. Land in the Athabascan Indian settlement of Arctic Village, population 120. Time allowing, tour the village before boarding our bush plane for the last leg into the wilderness. Once the plane goes, we are on our own in the immense and quiet landscape.

June 22 - 23

Our trip starts just 10 miles from the Continental Divide  where the Kongakut bubbles from deep springs in limestone gravel, ancient and clear water, moving steadily to the Arctic Ocean. Above the gravels is the green and brown of spring tundra and above that the darker bedrock layer upon layer stair-steps leading to five and six thousand foot peaks. We will spend alternate days paddling the clear water and hiking the rocky ridges, camping in limestone grottos and always searching for wildlife.

June 24 - 26

The river was small where we began, almost small enough to wade across in the shallows but now it gains force, bigger and bigger as water is carried into it by a dozen tributary valleys. The grey cliffs and emerging leaves are brilliant in the spring sun and the willows are full of bird song.

About mid-way down the river small canyons and meandering braids gain focus and force as the Kongakut moves through harder layers of rock and enters a deep canyon with grand boulders on the banks and mid-river. We will carefully negotiate the “busy” boulder strewn canyon rapid and then back paddle hard as the kongakut pushes into sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet from the water. The boating is exciting and fun. The scenery is truly spectacular!

Below the canyon is a favorite campsite with several great hikes into the high country and a fishing hole which often feeds us handsomely.

On rafting days we’ll spend about 5 hours traveling with frequent stops to watch animals, inspect a curious site, or if cold, just to warm-up.

We’ll also take a nice long lunch stop and often we take a short stroll after lunch to explore. Or if we explored under the mid-night sun the previous day, we may enjoy a nap on the soft tundra in the mid-day sun.

June 27 - 30

As we travel, we see the many faces and moods of the Kongakut.  Sometimes we pass through great fields of auf eis (ice that builds up as the river freezes layer upon layer during the winter).  In the spring the river carves through the auf eis and we float past frozen blue walls of ice five to ten feet high.

When we have traveled far enough we scout for the next camp with a view and settle into our new home for a night or two.

With the canyon behind us, the mountains are smaller but no less impressive. Spring will be advancing and the northern edge of the mountains tend to be warmer than the peaks bringing us into a region of incredible wildflowers at the peak of their bloom. The valley bottom may be covered in yellow and white while the hillsides are flecked with purples, blues and the pale yellow of Arctic Poppies. A staggering abundance of flowers!

From each camp we can explore our surroundings – quiet cottonwood glades, small waterfalls, flowery willow forests, and jutting outcrops above the river make for great hiking destinations.

At the very northern edge of the Brooks Range, will hope to hike to a sweeping view of the Arctic Coast and the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean stretching off to the curved horizon.

The coast beckons. Most people who paddle the Kongakut end their trip at the end of the mountains and miss the most interesting part of the river!

July 1 -3

As we round the last ridge and the sky swallows our small boats in a great maw of blue and grey, gulls cry-out announcing our presence on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, a landscape like no other.

Without the mountains to hem it in, the Kongakut sprawls across the tundra, ranging widely in divergent channels. The braids of river collide in whirlpools and carve deep into great overhanging permafrost bluffs which smell of ancient peat and periodically dollop Pleistocene muck into the river.

The flat horizon and endless daylight are disorienting in a wonderful and serene way. Without scale we confuse ground squirrels for grizzly and find ourselves returning from an evening stroll at 3 am.

Time permitting, we’ll take a layover on the Coastal Plain to walk the tundra expanses colored in cream by Dryas flowers. We often see Tundra Swans on nests in the shimmering distance and caribou gathered on aufeis.

July 4

After 2 weeks of paddling, hiking, laughing and exploring the Refuge, the Kongakut spills us into the Arctic Ocean. Beyond the lagoon we find a barrier island littered with driftwood from forests hundreds of miles to the south!

Eider nests and polar bear tracks litter the beach and there is usually some remnant sea-ice bobbing in the ocean.

We can celebrate the 4th of July in the company of sea-birds and seals.

July 5

After so many experiences and adventures we await the arrival of our bush pilot, who will land on the beach. We will fly south across the breadth of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, retracing our route up the Kongakut. Weather permitting, we arrive back in Fairbanks by dinner time.

We had great guides and traveling companions, and were fortunate to see lots of caribou, bears, and other wildlife. The variety of scenery and adventure was great, even dragging the rafts through the mud on the delta was strangely fun. We’re really glad the trip went all the way to Arctic Coast. Great to have the library and spotting scope.

 

- Jeanine, Wisconsin, USA

DETAILS

WHAT'S INCLUDED

Round-trip airfare from Fairbanks

Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils

Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear

Professional guide service

Select Camping Equipment is available through Arctic Wild

WHAT'S NOT INCLUDED

Non-camp lodging

Non-camp meals

Personal clothing and gear per our equipment list

Fishing gear, and fishing license

Gratuity for guide(s)

WEATHER & BUGS

Temperatures vary dramatically in the Arctic. Temperatures range from the 20s to 80s even in a single day. Cold rains and snow are possible, but we get lots of warm sunny weather this time of the year. As we get closer to the Arctic Ocean temperatures will drop as will the insects. Right on the coast we will encounter strong winds and cold temperatures. There will be bugs on this trip! Traveling with insect repellent (DEET) and a head net is prudent.

RECOMMENDED READING

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by Alaska Geographic

Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Caribou & the Barren-Lands by George Calef

Fifty Years Below Zero by Charles Brown

More Alaska reading is available at our bookstore

"The wilderness was spectacular, the leadership perfect."
"I am just finishing my tenth trip with you guys. As always, the trip was more than I expected and I had a great time. See you next year!"
"Of all outfitters with whom we have worked (and that is quite a number), you were by far the most organized and responsive."
"That feeling of wide open wonder, the possibilities for nearly limitless wandering, and the image of those proud caribou...that will stay with me a long time"
"Our guide was an encyclopedia on legs. He was always willing and ready to teach, to talk, to listen, to do another hike, or to lie low in camp if we were beat. He truly gave us the trip we wanted!"
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Eileen - Canning River