18-Jun-2007 -- On the trail of caribou near the Kongakut River….
The 19.8-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a vast and beautiful wilderness, one unique in North America. Unique because it has a full range of arctic and subarctic ecosystems. Unique also because the systems are whole and undisturbed, functioning as they have for centuries, largely free of human control and manipulation. Almost 180 species of birds, 45 species of mammals and 36 species of fish have been seen there. Golden eagles, peregrine falcons, loons, tundra swans, caribou, polar and brown bears, muskoxen, wolves, lynx, arctic char and grayling are some of the many animals one may see in the refuge.
Fewer than 1,000 people visit the refuge each year: "The Arctic Refuge is recognized as one of the finest examples of wilderness left on the planet. It is among the last to be visited by modern man and among the least affected by his doings. It’s a place where the wild has not been taken out of the wilderness."
A 10-day, 50-mile rafting trip down the Kongakut River from Drain Creek to Caribou Pass is one of the most popular ways to experience ANWR. This is the only major river whose entire course is within the refuge's designated wilderness. Beginning high in the eastern Brooks Range, the Kongakut flows east and then north through rugged mountains to the coastal plain and the Beaufort Sea. Clear water, scenery, wildlife, fishing and access combine to make the Kongakut the most floated river on the Refuge.
During three summers of touring national parks in Alaska, our friend Ron Clausen [Backcountry Safaris] kept encouraging us to make one more trip north to see ANWR on a Kongakut rafting trip. While studying maps of the route, and discovering a yet unvisited confluence point might be easily approachable, just a few miles downstream from the gravel bar landing strip/put-in, I decided he was right. After an extensive personal marketing/lobbying campaign, I was able to convince seven close friends and family to join me on this epic adventure.
With the prospect of seeing the huge Porcupine Caribou Herd – over 130,000 head strong - as it moves down the valley on its annual migration from Canada to the Arctic Ocean’s coastal plain, many groups try to arrange their visit to start in early June, just after the ice break-up on the Kongakut. Last year breakup occurred about June 10th, so to be on the safe side, we planned our trip for a week later in 2007. Following a few missed connections, some lost luggage, and five times as many hours in the Sea-Tac terminal as some of us ever hoped to endure, we all finally gathered in Fairbanks on Saturday June 16th.
The next morning, most of us caught an early morning Wright Air Service flight to Arctic Village - a Gwich'in village bordering the refuge. A party at the airstrip, waiting for a ride back to Fairbanks and just returning from ten days on the Kongakut, reported seeing over 30,000 caribou during their visit. With spring a little earlier than in 2006, they had timed their trip perfectly. We realized we were probably too late for the mass of caribou we were seeking!
A few of us flew with all our rafting gear via two chartered Helio Couriers directly from FAI to the Kongakut. [The Helios are STOL’s - Short Take-Off and Landing planes that can become airbourne in less than the length of a football field.] These nimble bush planes then made the short hop back over the Brooks Range to shuttle the rest of us from Arctic Village to the put-in point beside a short, narrow gravel bar on the Kongakut River, about ten miles north of the Continental Divide. Although a little bumpy when just skimming the mountaintops, our flight offered some great scenery.
Our first views of the river featured aufeis extending well back from the river channel. Aufeis are thick layers of ice formed by successive freezing of stream overflows during winter. We’re told during breakup, the Kongakut can carve vertical walled canyons through aufeis fields that can be more than a mile long. In May, it can be dangerous to travel through this area, and it’s recommended to scout all aufeis fields prior to floating to make sure the river is not flowing under or through tunnels in the ice. However, by mid June, the channels are usually open enough to allow passage.
We touched down on the primitive landing strip at 68.98529N 142.18087W, about four miles upstream from the mouth of the unnamed small creek whose valley holds the confluence point. We found ourselves one of three groups just getting started. As the transfer from Fairbanks consumes most of a day, most groups are looking for their first campsite shortly after getting on the river. We stopped several times to walk up to high ground and scout for a camp where we’d be close to the confluence drainage, yet out of sight of the other groups. We finally picked a spot just downstream and on the opposite side. Even though the sun never dropped below the horizon, in the evening the sun did go behind the surrounding mountains and, when the wind shifted from the north, the temperature became quite chilly. This was a nice change for those of us from Mississippi who knew we were missing temperatures in the upper 90s and a continuing dry spell back home.
The next morning we ate a big breakfast, then forded the knee-deep Kongakut to begin the 3.5 mile hike eastward to 69N 142W. During my campsite reconnoitering the day before, I had stumbled into a mosquito-infested tangle at the upriver side of the tributary mouth. Trying to avoid that mess, I confidently led our group several hundred feet up to a ridge overlooking the drainage. We got great views both back towards the put-in and down on our campsite, but the early strenuous effort unnecessarily tired out several of our confluence hunters. The entire gain in elevation from the river to the point is only 800 feet, and if you stay near the streambed, it’s very gradual: the streambed is certainly the recommended route. We finally gave up trying to make headway on the slope, and came back down to the stream. A little further along, an outcropping of harder rocks (shown near the center of Picture 5) created a number of small pools. With an almost cloudless day and the temperature in the low 70s, they made tempting swimming holes.
Here we climbed out of the streambed and found a well-established animal trail we could follow all the way to the cp. We had missed the great caribou migration by about a week, but thousands of fresh tracks still remained. About a half mile from the finish, the rock-filled streambed became dry, and when we arrived, we found the point in the exact center of the very steep-sided valley. Some of us took photos, while the majority of the party settled down to enjoy lunch, hardly realizing they were part of one of the largest groups to ever document an Alaskan degree confluence. Not to mention, which nobody did, this visit completed Alaska’s four eastern most confluence points on the 69th North parallel: 142, 144, 146, and 148W, making the Brooks Range a veritable hotbed of Alaska DCP activity.
After bagging a new confluence, the remainder of any trip is bound to be anticlimactic. However, we continued to be amazed by the scenery. The summer colors of the board vistas, especially when dappled in the 24-hour sun, were magnificent. Although we missed the huge number of caribou we had hoped to see, we did encounter lots of different wildlife, including, most notably, a charging grizzly bear. And we were only fogged in at the take-out point for six hours, allowing time for us to still get back to Fairbanks on schedule. All in all, a great trip to a very special part of the world.