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. Discounts apply for individuals combining both trips.
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 birdsong and the sound of 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 wildlife-rich, 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 full-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.
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 down-river with relative ease from one superb campsite to the next.
Last updated: August 6, 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.
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 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!
Here we are, in the mountainous headwaters of the Kongakut River! It’s not a big river at this point, but it will get 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. This is the Arctic at it’s best.
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. There are areas where the river course narrows and the river swings from valley wall to valley wall, cutting rugged bluffs.
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.
We run fun Class III rapids on several different days. The blue water is very cold, and our boats are heavily loaded, so we avoid the holes and waves.
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.
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. The last layover day, we will be able to hike to a sweeping view of the Arctic Coast and the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean stretching off to the curved horizon.
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 down-river on our Kongakut to the Coast trip, spend the day hiking and preparing for the next leg of our adventure.
Our guide was an encyclopedia on legs. His knowledge for the flora, fauna, and natural history of the tundra is astonishing. 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!
Transportation beyond Fairbanks
Outstanding guide service
Wholesome and delicious food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Repair and safety equipment
All boating gear, including boats and paddles
The use of one life jacket and one medium-sized dry-bag per person
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.