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Canoeing with Caribou
Alaska’s Kongakut River is the ultimate wildlife and wilderness experience
If you’ve ever wanted to canoe among caribou, head to the Kongakut River in the Brooks Range of Alaska, which offers the world’s best opportunity to view the migration of thousands of caribou through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
If your timing’s right, you’ll see animal representatives of the 13,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd flow like the water in the river you’re paddling, filing over hilltop after hilltop in one continual motion. Each year they migrate from wintering grounds in Canada’s Yukon Territory to their calving grounds on Alaska’s northern coastal plain. You’ll likely be so breath-taken by one of nature’s most incredible scenes that you’ll forget, for a brief moment, the beauty of the rest of your surroundings: the 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It won’t take you long to appreciate that as well.
Located in the heart of the refuge, the Kongakut is a multi day canoeing and rafting classic, taking you 85 miles (137km) through some of the last unspoiled wilderness on earth. From headwaters to your take-out on the Beaufort Sea, you’ll traverse the full range of arctic ecosystems, from the Romanoff mountains to foothills, the coastal plain, coastal estuary, and offshore barrier reefs of the Beaufort Sea. Known as the ‘Serengeti of the North,’ it also offers some of the best wildlife viewing on the planet. As well as caribou you’ll likely see wolves, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, foxes, and even musk ox and wolverine. The region is also rich with bird life, with more than 70 species summering in the Kongakut valley, from peregrine falcons and Lapland longspurs to Pacific, Arctic and red-throated loon. The region also harbours the highest concentration of nesting golden eagles in all of Alaska. And the safari doesn’t end when you reach the Beaufort Sea and you dip your paddle in the Arctic Ocean on the far northern edge of North America. In the summer, when the ocean’s icepack melts back from the shore, ringed seals as well as beluga bowhead whales often pass near the coast en route to their feeding grounds. You might also see prints from polar bears.
Of course, all this wilderness comes with a price, mainly in the form of time. If Alaska is hard to get to, you have to tack on three more flights from Anchorage, each one progressively ‘bushier’, just to get to the headwaters. Because of these flights, most private paddlers opt to do the trip in either inflatable canoes or kayaks for their packability and gear-hauling capability. Both options are fine for the waterway’s Class 1-2 water, with an occasional Class 3.
To take best advantage of the region’s 24 hours of daylight, high water and peak caribou viewing, the best time to run it is in June. Most parties take 10 to 12 days to travel the river’s 85 miles (137km). Word of warning: Be prepared for all types of weather – rain, snow, sun and wind – as well as mosquitoes, which are largely responsible for making the caribou migrate north to give birth.