The Firth River plunges from Alaska’s Brooks Range to the Arctic Coast in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Though just miles from the Kongakut River in Alaska, the Firth features unique geology, outstanding hiking, significant whitewater, and the most northerly spruce forests in North America. There are also outstanding opportunities to see wildlife. Join us on a transboundary rafting trip in the far north.
Starting in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and ending on the arctic coast of Canada’s Yukon Territory in Ivvavik National Park, this trip explores the great diversity of arctic wilderness. It would be hard to design a trip with more variety and more beauty.
From our start on a small and rocky headwaters creek the first portion of the river is characterized by big mountains, broad river valleys and river ice shining in the midnight sun. The broad dry valleys of the eastern Brooks Range provide outstanding hiking and from the peaks we can see mountain ridges extending in all directions. More than 100 miles from anything resembling a village, the scale of the wilderness is staggering.
After crossing into Canada’s Ivvavik National Park (Ivvavik translates roughly into nursery or calving grounds in reference to the birthplace of the Porcupine caribou herd) and making our way through the broad valleys and ice fields of the upper river, the river forms a single channel and enters a long and stunning canyon. Cliff bands host hawks, falcons and eagle nests and provide safe ground for Dall’s sheep. The river transitions from riffles to pool and drop. The pools play host to deep bodied and fatty char, the drops demand precise navigation. As the river gets steeper the rapids grow and we will stop often to scout and plan our runs. We will camp several nights in the canyon, our thoughts and dreams dominated by the sound of rushing water and the feel of dark and ancient rock.
There is significant whitewater in this section of the river, up to Class IV. We will work down the river carefully and may even need to portage some of the drops. We will splash through the fun drops and carefully evaluate the larger rapids. It is a breathtaking canyon with mile after mile of cliffs and fast water. At nearly 70 degrees north latitude we will encounter what is possibly the northernmost stand of spruce trees in the world. The trees make an interesting contrast to the vastness of the North Slope.
Once clear of the canyon and the big water we can stow the drysuits and refocus on scanning the tundra for wildlife as we move downriver and further from the mountains. As the sky grows broad and we transition onto the coastal plain we will encounter signs of ancient human use of the area. The ancestors of the Inupiat, Inuvialut and Gwich’in hunted caribou by herding them into lakes and canyons where they could be speared. Signs of drive-lines and encampments can be found near the river and we will stop and consider the long connection between caribou and people in the Arctic.
Then we enter the foothills with fast current and broad vistas. Trees give way to brush and as we travel north the lands grows more and more open, providing even better opportunities for spotting wildlife. Eventually even the foothills melt into flatness and we enter the sprawling delta of the Firth. Multiple sand and gravel channels diverge and then (usually) reconnect creating a maze of water, sand, tundra, ice and driftwood. The sprawl of water and land makes great bird habitat and we will count new species daily if not by the hour. In addition to great birding the tundra supports muskoxen, wolves, and of course caribou.
Most years a significant portion of the Porcupine Caribou Herd spends early July near the Yukon Coast and they frequently cross the Firth is good numbers. We’ll keep fingers crossed for big herds and will very likely see at least small bands as we move north out of the canyon and towards the Arctic Coast.
If the wind is has been hard from the north, we may hear waves on the coast before we arrive at the lagoon and paddle out to the barrier island, littered with driftwood and seabird nests. There may be sea ice lingering on the Arctic Ocean or ringed seals, beluga’s or even bowhead whales off the coast. We will camp on the coast and have time to explore, beach-comb and of course take a plunge in the chilly Arctic Ocean under the midnight sun!
From the mountains in Alaska to the Arctic coast of Canada’s Yukon Territory, looking south from the beach we can reminisce about the many surprises and adventures we’ve had while traversing this transboundary wilderness river.
Last updated: February 11, 2020
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. We will check PASSPORTS and may need to go to the airport to meet with the Border Patrol to expedite our return crossing.
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 carry on through the Brooks Range to a river bar on a tributary of the Firth right near the Alaska/ Yukon Border. Tonight, take a hike, and settle into your surroundings. The sun won’t set!
We can spend the day exploring the mountains and the river. There are small peaks nearby that we can ascend for views of the seemingly endless Brooks Range stretching in all directions farther than the eye can see. By day’s end we will be ready to load the rafts and head towards the coast come morning.
“Where is this river?” The side creek where we landed is small and shallow. Once we join the actual Firth River it gets a little deeper but then promptly splits into multiple channels just barely big enough to negotiate. There will be some struggle making it downriver but eventually the river sorts itself out and we’ll be paddling down a stunning arctic river.
Once through the shallows and upper braided section of the river it is smooth sailing for a couple of days as the river winds its way through the mountains and we admire the deep clear pools. Limestone peaks beckon during evening hikes and caribou trails corrugate the tundra.
We enter the rocky canyon and ledge country of the northern Brooks Range. The river bends are deeply incised and the river plunges through sedimentary layers one after the other in thrilling rapids and splendid canyons. Sheep frequent the river bars secure in the knowledge that cliffs are close at hand. We will paddle, hike, fish, and explore our way through the mountains. The river and the weather will dictate our schedule and the pace of the trip but we are sure to have several layover days to search out archeological sites, climb into the high country and watch for wildlife.
The mountains end abruptly and the river spills onto the coastal plain with little transition. The river has momentum and the birding is fantastic. Welcome to the coastal plain, birthplace of the Porcupine caribou herd. Caribou calves will be more than a month old and easily keep up with the adults and we can hope to see them with soft tawny coats on the green and flower studded summer tundra. As we approach the coast the river braids out again and we will negotiate the shallows as we did at the trips start, occasionally walking to lighten the boats.
The Arctic Coast is like no other place we know. Barrier islands stretch for 20 miles littered with driftwood from the Mackenzie River and whale bones. Conditions permitting, we will paddle across the lagoon and camp on Herschel Island with nothing between us and the north pole except sea ice and icebergs. It makes a great camp and a huge bonfire cuts the chill.
We await the arrival of our plane and then make our way back across the mountains, through customs and immigration and then to Fairbanks.
Time for a shower!
The guides were uncommonly knowledgeable, competent, hardworking, and they consistently took care of the group before taking care of their own stuff. They kept our safety in mind while staying open to suggestions, and allowing folks a lot of freedom for personal wanderings.
Round-trip airfare from Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
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 essential.