The Kongakut River is a classic wilderness trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. With fun rafting, endless hiking and great chances for seeing caribou, paddling the headwaters of the Kongakut River is a great way to experience the Arctic Refuge and the eastern Brooks Range.
This trip combines with our Kongakut to the Coast trip for an 18 day source to sea adventure like no other.
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.
It 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 the arctic spring, 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.
On this 60-mile arctic rafting trip, we have good chances of seeing bands of bull and yearling caribou – bands numbering perhaps in the hundreds – on their way north to the Coastal Plain. We also tend to see lots of Dall sheep. The Kongakut is one of the few places where these alpine adapted animals feed and rest right by the river. We regularly see grizzly bears, wolves, musk oxen, moose, and a dizzying variety of arctic birds on this trip too.
In addition to being rich in wildlife, the Kongakut is an exceptionally gorgeous valley. We have three layover days to soak up the country. This entire route is deep in the Brooks Range. The hiking is excellent and we’ll have time each day to explore the valleys and ridges. 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 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.
Fishing in the Kongakut is good this time of year for both arctic char and grayling. Especially as we get closer to the coast the fishing for char can be excellent, with deep-bodied and silvery fish lurking in the deeper holes.
The Kongakut is a fast moving river with multiple braided channels and one notable canyon. 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. No previous river experience is required to paddle the raft. Instruction is provided. Everyone joins in the fun of paddling under the guidance of the raft captain and the current is fast enough to carry us downriver with relative ease from one superb campsite to the next.
Last updated: January 20, 2021
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide(s) for a pre-trip meeting in Fairbanks at 4 pm at the Arctic Wild World Headquarters.
Fly 200 miles north from Fairbanks, across the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle to the Gwich’in Athabascan village of Arctic Village. From there, we board a smaller plane and fly through the Brooks Range to a river bar alongside the Kongakut River. We’ll likely paddle a couple of miles to a perfect campsite. Tonight, take a hike, and settle into your surroundings. The sun won’t set!
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.
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.
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.
We will plan to enjoy three layover days on this trip. At each camp, we have choices of easy climbs or harder, longer, higher hikes. The activities for the day are tailored to your desires and interests. With a small group and knowledgeable and attentive guides each hike/ stroll is a unique adventure full of learning, challenge and with luck wildlife sightings.
On the last layover day, 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.
Pack-up early (or skip sleeping entirely and enjoy the 24 hour sunshine of the Arctic) and paddle the last 2 miles to the sand-bar that serves as an airstrip.
Weather permitting, our bush plane will arrive around noon to fly us back to Fairbanks. We’ll re-cross the Brooks Range, the Arctic Circle and the Yukon River.
If you are continuing downriver on our Kongakut to the Coast trip, spend the day hiking and preparing for the next leg of our adventure. We may fly upriver a couple miles so the next group can see the wildflowers too.
I did not just have a good time I had a fantastic time.
Our guide was just wonderful. Lot’s of quiet patience, quiet expertise and a wonderful disposition, all of which made my Arctic Wild rafting experience down the Kongakut one of the most memorable of my lifetime.
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Temperatures vary dramatically in the Arctic. It could be hot, but it isn’t likely to be. Temperatures will range from the 20s to 70s. When the wind comes from the north, the temperature can drop to below freezing. Cold rains and snow are possible, but we get lots of sunny weather this time of the year. This trip is before mosquito season, but bring a mosquito head net and a small bottle DEET repellent just in case they hatch early.
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
Midnight Wilderness by Debbie Miller
Seasons of Life and Land by Shubanker Banjeeri
Arctic Wings by Stephen Brown
Naturalists Guide to the Arctic by E.C. Pielou
More Alaska reading is available at our bookstore.