The Kelly River is a little-known, yet spectacular, clear flowing river that flows from the DeLong Mountains in one of the wildest parts of Alaska. Explore the wilds of the Brooks Range with seven days of rafting and fishing on this unsung jewel of a river.
The Kelly River is a little-visited river that flows south out of the peaks of the DeLong Mountains in the western Brooks Range and ends at its confluence with the famed Noatak River. We will paddle the entire length of the river and several miles on the Noatak. In addition to canoeing, there will be plenty of time to explore, and the hiking, fishing, birding, and wildlife watching will keep us smiling through-out.
The entire watershed of the Noatak, including the Kelly River, is protected within the Noatak National Preserve, one of largest protected areas in the country. It’s a sprawling, roadless wilderness of mountains, rivers, lakes, and rolling tundra hills. The Kelly begins as a series of small rocky creeks flowing from dramatic mountains with names like Inaccessible Ridge and Copter Peak. As we descend the Kelly River, the tundra will slowly be populated with spruce trees, until in the final days we are surrounded by boreal forest. Observing this change over the course of the trip is one of it many pleasures.
This trip is at the end of summer into the beginning of autumn. Bears are busy gaining weight, caribou are steadily marching southward, and the tundra is lush and green. Char should be spawning in the river. Some years thousands of fish run up the Kelly River and the fishing can be fantastic. In addition to Char we can expect to find grayling and pike. In the lower reaches of the river, chum salmon could be showing up and we may be lucky enough to hook into a nice big bright salmon for dinner one night.
After flying up the river and accessing water levels we will land at the upper limit of navigability. Here we’ll start our paddling trip, still well north of tree-line and heading south towards the expansive Noatak Valley. The next morning we’ll assemble our boats, load up, and after an instructional session, head down river. As we raft down the Kelly, we’ll keep our eyes open for the valley’s wildlife: grizzly bears, caribou, moose, foxes, and wolves. Some years great numbers of caribou use the Kelly River Valley as a preferred route south to wintering grounds in the boreal forest.
The river starts small and grows with each incoming side creek. Though there are no rapids per se, the river is quick in spots and offers some fun challenges. Your guide will steer the raft and offer pointers on how to safely navigate the ever-changing river. As the river grows, the fishing improves.
Our last camp will be on a huge gravel bar on the Noatak. There, we’ll pack our boats, and set up our tents for the final time. After one more night listening to river sounds, weather permitting, a bush plane will arrive to whisk us back to Kotzebue.
This is a fairly easy river trip in terms of mileage and distance covered, but you can fish, hike, explore, and bird-watch until you’re worn out. The Kelly flows along with current enough to keep us moving, but if the wind blows opposite the current we will have to work to reach each day’s end. The trip is suitable for beginning or experienced paddlers and can be done as a canoe trip or as a rafting trip depending upon your experience and preference.
Last updated: December 22, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide in the evening for a pre-trip meeting in Kotzebue.
We fly north from the Chukchi Coast at Kotzebue across the Noatak Valley and into the DeLong Mountains. Following the Kelly River from above, we assess water levels and choose the optimal starting location for the trip. Once the plane is unloaded and departed, we are alone in the vast wilderness. We may have to carry our gear across the tundra to access the river but once we are river-side we will set-up a comfortable camp and enjoy the area.
We spend the day exploring in the headwaters of the Kelly River on foot. Long tundra ridges beckon and the views are endless. After a day of hiking we will assemble the boats, review river safety, and prepare for the following day’s paddle.
The Kelly’s clear waters pull us steadily south. The river starts quite small and there are shallows to negotiate. As the river grows it courses against small rocky bluffs and out into vast gravel plains. Though there are no rapids, the river is swift enough to help hone our skills. Each day will offer a mix of paddling, hiking, fishing and relaxing. With only 50 miles to cover in the trip, it is a relatively leisurely affair with plenty of time of exploration and wildlife viewing.
From the banks of the Noatak we pack-up camp and, weather permitting, meet our pilot for the flight back to Kotzebue arriving in the evening.
You run a first-class operation, and I just wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed the 10 day rafting trip (what a place!), and I particularly wanted to to let you know that the guides did an outstanding and exemplary job. Not only were they both excessively competent in all the skills necessary to see us safely down the river, and not only did they provide every conceivable creature comfort (I mean, blueberry pancakes in the wilderness? What more could a man want!), but they proved to be the most pleasant and personable of companions, with seemingly inexhaustible reserves of patience, good humor, and zest.
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 60’s to below freezing even in the same day. Snow is possible; rain is likely. There could be some bugs around but the worst of the insect season has passed. Bring a head-net and DEET.