Trip report: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
From the mountains to the sea: Chuck Graham paddles through the majestic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
“Back paddle on the left and forward paddle on the right,” barks Alaskan guide Carl Donohue as four of us raft down the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). “Now, all forward!”
Myself, and three others are in the midst of a 2-week, 160 mile rafting trip through the heart of the ANWR, weaving our way through the mighty North Slope of the Brooks Range, paddling amongst breathtaking 6,000 foot peaks northward to the vast coastal plain and eventually the frigid Arctic Ocean. We are navigating our way through a maze of gravel bars while ducking beneath spindly willows, and massive ice packs six feet thick having melted just enough to allow us safe passage through braiding channels that resemble veins running down a forearm.
We descend into a deep gorge of limestone spinning in a swirling eddy when a stout dall sheep ram emerges high on a precipice overlooking Class III rapids on the Canning. Nimble as a ballerina, the dall sheep rests on a narrow ledge as we paddle past. Near after, we reach flat water and I jump from the raft, back track toward the gorge and flank the cotton-colored sheep. The terrain is steep and uneven across river rock, then spongy tundra before ascending the backside of the gorge. A stiff wind howls up the gorge, and then the ram and I are staring at each other, the largest sheep species in North America just 30 feet from me. It doesn’t flinch before standing then gradually stretching. Slowly it traverses upriver to an awaiting ewe bedded down on a tundra-covered knoll.
Great Wide Open
The ANWR is a haven for grizzly, polar and black bears, moose, wolves, dall sheep, musk oxen, wolverines, Arctic fox and ground squirrels and about 130,000 caribou. It’s also prime habitat for migratory birds from Arctic terns to sandhill cranes and legions of shorebirds nesting on the breezy expanse of the coastal plain.
Located in Northeastern Alaska, it consists of 19,286,722 acres. The ANWR has been protected since 1960, but threats of oil drilling have loomed across the coastal plain since 1977. The roadless expanse is the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the country, the last 5 percent of Northeastern Alaska currently not open to oil drilling.
We are dropped off via bush plane with over 400 pounds of gear along the Upper Marsh Fork. From there we converge with and paddle the Canning and Staines Rivers bouncing off dense gravel bars and eroding river banks until we are clear of the Brooks Range and nothing but flat coastal plain unfolds before us upon reaching the opaque blue Arctic Ocean.
The daunting Brooks Range rises over 9000 feet. This northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains marks the Continental Divide, with north-flowing rivers emptying into the Arctic Ocean and south-flowing rivers joining the mighty Yukon River. The rugged mountains of the Brooks Range are incised by deep river valleys creating a range of elevations and aspects that support a variety of low tundra vegetation, dense shrubs, rare groves of poplar trees on the north side and spruce on the south. During the summer, peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, and golden eagles build nests on craggy cliffs. Harlequin and long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers are seen on swift-flowing rivers.
On several occasions Arctic terns hover above and dive-bomb us sometimes hitting us on top of the head, but on another occasion while paddling a pack raft by myself I even have a tern dive bomb me and nearly pierce a hole in my raft with its beak.
We also come across caribou standing in the middle of the rivers and on ice packs to evade pesky swarms of mosquitoes.
“They can’t take the mosquitoes,” says Donohue. “We’ll see most of the caribou out on the coastal plain because it’s breezy out there and it keeps the bugs down.”
Swarms of mosquitoes cake their eye ducts, snouts and ears forcing caribou herds to stampede. I can sympathize with the shaggy herbivores. The constant hum of mosquitoes is an irritant and thick clouds of them force us to swallow many. We all had our strategies for getting in and out of our tents to minimize invasion. When I paddle in shorts and we come ashore, the mosquitoes cover my legs. I wipe them off with my hand, and Alaska’s state bird is transformed into a thick, black slime.
Donohue says if you compare the biomass of mosquitoes and the 130,000 caribou on the refuge, the biomass of the mosquitoes outweighs that of the caribou. A mind-boggling thought as I gag on another mosquito while stumbling out of the raft.
With two of us paddling pack rafts and the other two in the main raft, it was time to explore channels braiding off the main channel. After rerouting on several channels, I take one to the right that carries me to the far eastside of the river valley. It takes me three hours to work my way back to the main channel while searching for my group.
My attention is briefly diverted by a bull moose, its huge rack wrestling in a grove of willows on a broad gravel bar. I slowly drift up to the steep gravel bank and crawl out of my raft to photograph the massive moose. As soon as I peek over the edge the moose has already vanished in the willows. It was back to paddling and locating my crew.
Eventually I find my way back to the main channel and an elbow-shaped bluff for a convenient vantage point. I scramble out of my raft into knee-high muck frequented by musk oxen and caribou. The mosquitoes immediately swarm covering every inch of me that’s exposed. I don’t care as I hold my breath and scan with my binoculars finally locating my crew about one mile upriver.
We find a deep swimming hole and maneuver around a pair of raucous glaucous gulls to jump off a 30-foot precipice into the frigid blue water. As cold as the water is, I’m rejuvenated. There’s a momentary relief from the mosquitoes, I’m and ready to paddle on into the evening which never arrives during Alaskan summers.
With the sun never dipping below the horizon, I maximize the best light for photography. I eat breakfast at 1:00 PM, lunch at 6:00 PM and dinner at midnight. Afterwards I hike and photograph the many breathtaking landscapes and the wildlife across the ANWR. The mornings I spend sleeping, but it gets tougher to do once we leave the mountains behind us and the Arctic sun can hide no more.
The Arctic coastal plain stretches from the foothills of the Brooks Range to the barrier islands on the coast. This area of rolling hills, small lakes and ponds and north-flowing, braided rivers is dominated by extensive tundra vegetation consisting of low shrubs, sedges, and mosses. Caribou travel to the coastal plain during June and July to give birth and raise their teary-eyed calves. Migratory seabirds, shorebirds and waterfowl nest here during the brief Arctic summer soaking in the ever-present sun. Tens of thousands of snow geese stop here during September to feed before migrating south, and shaggy musk oxen live here year-round. Come winter polar bears hunt seals and give birth in snow dens.
“You missed a polar bear by four days,” says a scruffy U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist stationed on the coastal plain for two months to monitor nesting birds. “There is a caribou carcass three miles up the Staines that it was feeding on.”
There’s also wolves spotted the previous day along with caribou and a bevy of migratory birds like Pacific loon, red phalarope and dunlin. In one day I hike 20 miles across the tundra to the Arctic Ocean and barrier islands. I follow fresh bear tracks on a beach strewn in driftwood and caribou antlers as ice floes creak and crack while drifting by. The bear tracks vanish in the tundra where the Staines and the Arctic Ocean converge. Instead I’m mocked by a heckling Arctic squirrel that darts in and out of its den. I continue my way back to our tents through a maze of glassy ponds. A snowy owl is perched on a wood post, tundra swans waddle from pond to pond and Canadian geese honk at each other like cars in a traffic jam.
Back at our camp I fend off fatigue and eat like a hungry wolf. The best light isn’t far off, so I force myself away from my tent and find myself hiking in the direction of the Brooks Range. Along a crescent moon-shaped bluff I hunker down near a female caribou with her calf. While its mother browses on tussock grasses, I play peekaboo with the inquisitive calf as frosty air blows across the crunchy tundra.
It’s my last night on the coastal plain and although it’s chilly I stay out all night. Hardy tundra flowers can handle it and so I can too. An Arctic fox sprints across the tundra with prey in its jaws, and doesn’t stop before diving into its den. I can hear the repeated hoarse croaks of Pacific loons, the most abundant loons in North America, resonating across tranquil ponds. Then the low hum of a bush plane grows louder across the coastal plain.
Cost Rating: A guided 12-day rafting trip runs £2472. This includes transportation from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, and the bush plane from Coldfoot into the refuge. The lowest fares for flights from the UK to Fairbanks, Alaska on British Airways run between £500-850.
Getting There: After your flight into Fairbanks, AK, it’s a 6-hour drive to Coldfoot, along the Dalton Highway. It can be up to a 2-hour bush plane flight from there into the refuge depending on the weather.
Visa Requirements from the UK: No visa requirements for travel in the US.
Tips and Warnings: A head net, loose clothing and DEET seems to be the best defense against mosquitoes. Bear spray is provided by outfitters. Freeze dried foods are quick and easy to clean up. Bring dry bags for keeping your gear dry. A spray jacket, dry pants and river shoes are essential for rafting. You don’t need a headlamp because the sun never goes down. Bring a solid pair of hiking or trail shoes for travel across the tundra. With the sun never setting, a good pair of sunglasses is essential. Plan for an extra day or two for weather delays in the refuge. You’ll need two bear-proof food containers.
When to Go: Best time to visit the refuge is late June through July. The ice has melted enough to make all the rivers passable. All the wildlife and their young are out feeding. Wildflowers are also blooming.
Tour Operator: Expeditions Alaska, owner Carl Donohue, (770) 952-4549, www.expeditionsalaska.com.