Friday, July 11, 2014

Aichilik River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

I like big wild landscapes. And one of my favorites is located in northeast Alaska.

Known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Arctic Refuge, this massive 30,136 square mile Wilderness encompasses the eastern half of Alaska's Brooks Range and Coastal Plain and is the largest undisturbed ecosystem in North America.

Moe Witschard, Arctic Explorer

I recently had the opportunity to return to the Arctic Refuge with my good friend and fellow guide Moe Witschard. Employed by Arctic Wild we were joined by Dana Isherwood, Dr. Bill Isherwood, Tim Gallagher, Mary Gallagher and Rich Wilkins for an eight-day rafting trip where we traveled from mountains to sea.

Wright Air Service, Fairbanks

Lacking any roads, adventures into the Arctic Refuge often begin in Fairbanks where a variety of small aircraft provide visitors access to the crown jewel of our National Wilderness Preservation System.

From Fairbanks several of us travel on a regularly scheduled "mail flight" to the southern boundary of the Arctic Refuge and the native Gwich'in community of Arctic Village.

The Gwich'in or “people of the land" are a formally semi-nomadic people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group that have called northern Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory home for as long as 20,000 years. The Village is ideally located near the wintering ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Caribou are central to the Gwich'in's aboriginal way of life and they are strong advocates for the permanent protection of Arctic Refuge and the caribou's calving grounds on the Coastal Plain.

At Arctic Village we switch planes and board a Helio Courier that transports us north across the the Brooks Range to the Aichilik River.

 East Fork Chandalar River

Above Arctic Village the East Fork of the Chandalar River flows leisurely through the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. With little gradient the river is characterized by massive meanders, oxbows, and thousands of tundra ponds.

To the north the topography becomes increasingly more rugged as we approach the crest of the massive Brooks Range that forms the Continental Divide between the Arctic and Pacific oceans.

Containing peaks over 8,000 feet in elevation (the highest in the Brooks Range) the Romanzof Mountains of the Eastern Brooks Range are still blanketed in winter snow.

Named for Arctic explorer Ernest Leffingwell, an major tributary joins the Aichilik River six miles before it leaves the mountains and flows across the Coastal Plain.

As it leaves the high peaks of the Brooks Range, the Aichilik River flows through a broad treeless valley.

Caribou Camp

Operated by Wright Air Service, the Helio Courier lands on a gavel bar in the ranges northern foothills, several miles upriver of the coastal plain. While landing aircraft is prohibited in the original 1964 Wilderness Act, a provision in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act allows airplanes to operate and land in most designated Wilderness areas in Alaska including the Arctic Refuge.

Caribou Camp

Surrounded by gentle hills covered in caribou trails and well drained permafrost, the hiking around our first camp is superb.  We spend our first three nights at what we name Caribou Camp.

To our delight hundreds of caribou surround us. Part of the massive Porcupine Caribou Herd (estimated to be 150,000 in size) these smaller bands include many calves.

Adapted for cold weather environments caribou (Rangifer tarandus) have large feet relative to their body size that allow more efficient travel over snow.

It is mid-June and just days before green-up. Some wildflowers are already in bloom.

The trick to hiking in the Brooks Range is avoiding flat areas where the permafrost is not well drained. During the short summer these flat areas become highly saturated and characterized by tussock tundra that can be challenging to walk across.

Conversely, hillsides, where the permafrost is drier, provide a pleasant walking surface. River banks also tend to be well drained and enjoyable for exploring by foot.

A relic of the Pleistocene, Muskox (Ovibos moschatusare native to Alaska, but by the 1920s were extirpated by over hunting. In 1930 Muskox were reintroduced when thirty-four muskox captured in East Greenland were released in northern Alaska. Muskox belong to the subfamily Caprinae of the family Bovidae and are more closely related to sheep and goats than to oxen.

photo by Rich Wilkins 

With all abundant prey I am not surprised when we see four grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) in the first 24 hours. One curious sub-adult walks through the middle of our camp.

In addition to Gwich'in and grizzly bears, caribou are also important prey for the Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos). While we did not see any, their tracks were visible along the river's sandy banks.

On our fourth day we load all our gear in two 13-foot inflatable paddle rafts and begin our three-day journey across the Coastal Plain.

During frigid winter months warm ground water rises at springs and forms massive sheets of aufeis or "over flow ice" that can create a hazard for river runners. 

One field of aufeis has diverted the main river channel into the permafrost. The relatively warm water has melted a small gorge through the frozen ground creating a land feature called a thermokarst. At the entrance to the gorge is a 5-foot drop that we portage on river left.

After portaging our rafts around the obstacle we continue our 35-mile river journey across the Coastal Plain to the Arctic Ocean.

The Aichilik River flows through a 1.5 million acre section of the Arctic Refuge known as Area 1002. When the Arctic Refuge was expanded in 1980 this area was not protected as designated Wilderness -- underneath lies oil that some would like to extract. The future of the Coastal Plain and its wildlife remain uncertain.

At the confluence with the Arctic Ocean, the river flows past the remains of several sod igloos. As recently as 1938 the site was home to a family of Inupiaq Eskimos. The Aichilik River is known for its abundant Arctic Grayling and the area continues to be used as a seasonal fishing camp by native Inuit based in the nearby village of Kaktovik.

Afterwards we paddle across Beaufort Lagoon to the barrier islands. 

Barrier Islands often form at the mouths of flooded river as sea level rises or at the end of rivers as sediment builds up and creates a delta. One such island provides a delightful location to spend our final two nights.

East of our camp on the barrier island, I discover the nest of an Arctic Tern. Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) annually migrate 25,000 miles from their breeding ground in the Arctic to spend the austral summer in Antarctica -- the longest annual migration of any bird.

Our Flight South

On our eighth day, Wright Air returns with a Helio Courier to transport us back to Fairbanks. 

Our flight path takes us south, back across the Brooks Range and over the Sheenjek River Valley where in 2006, as a member of National Geographic's Arctic Traverse Expedition, I spent several weeks with Jonathan Waterman and Dr. George Schaller.

During the 2006 Expedition I replicated historic photographs for my graduate thesis: Landscape Change in Arctic Alaska: Observations Through Repeat Photography.

"The urge to go discover...this urge has come down to us from the earliest time and we must not ignore it." - Olaus Murie


  1. Love the photos and the trip report. Last summer, I had the privilege to spend 2 weeks backpacking the Sheenjek, Aichilik and the Jago river systems and it was the best wilderness trip of my life. We encountered thousands of caribou, a dozen grizzlies and 7 gray wolves. In your trip report, you mentioned you saw Arctic Wolf prints (Canis lupus arctos). I didn't think there were Arctic Wolves in ANWR. Do you mind clearing up my confusion when you get a chance because I'd love to see one up there? Thanks for creating such an inspirational blog. I look forward to future trip reports!

    1. Wish I could clear this up with 100% certainty, but I can not. It has been my understanding that Arctic Wolves (a subspecies of gray wolf) inhabits northern Alaska, especially north of the Brooks Range. The track was smaller than a typical adult gray wolf. Based on the tracks size and location I assumed it must be an Arctic Wolf. I did not see the actual animal, however, and can not be certain.

  2. Cool trip report and photos- thanks! Wife and I just got off Kongakut last month (drainage just east of the Aichilik). Flew in with Kirk Sweetsir (Yukon Air) and he rented us his raft for our 11 day trip- just the two of us. Saw quite a few Dall sheep with lots of babies running around, but no bears or wolves. Most all the caribou were to the west of us at that time. Way awesome hiking and scenery - can't get enough of that country.

    I think a sweet trip for the future would be to fly in to the Kong, just above Drain Cr (that is where we put in), packraft down the Kong 4 miles, then hike up Drain Cr and over the divide to the Aichilik, then float down and take out where Forrest did. Kirk said other than a few backpackers, the upper Aichilik sees no one, as there is no airstrip up there in the mountains. He said the river is braided up there, but no major white water. If anyone ever wants to do that give me a yell - some photos from our trip: