Zimo’s Alaskan Arctic adventure: Tundra, canoes and caribou

Herds of caribou can be seen on a canoe trip down the Kokolik River on Alaska’s tundra.
Herds of caribou can be seen on a canoe trip down the Kokolik River on Alaska’s tundra. Special to the Idaho Statesman

The sound of soft hooves clapping against rocks and animals snorting woke me from a deep sleep in a tent on the banks of northwest Alaska’s remote and seldom-floated Kokolik River.

Suddenly we weren’t alone on that wilderness river bank in Alaska’s Arctic, more than 600 miles northwest of Anchorage, somewhere between the Western Brooks Range and Chukchi Sea.

Snorts. Grunts. Gurgling. Something strange was going out outside.

It was June. The intense light of the midnight sun illuminated the tent so there was no need for a headlamp, even though it was still early in the morning.

I grabbed my ever-ready bear spray, crawled out of the sleeping bag and peeked out the tent flap.

What I saw was an experience of a lifetime.

Hundreds of caribou dotted the treeless tundra ridge just above camp. The animals, beige to white in color with black eye patches and snouts, and some with velvet antlers, stood out against a landscape of brownish-green low lying plants. They were grazing on fresh willow leaves, sedges and flowering plants. The cows had their heads down as they browsed, but they also kept a watchful eye on their romping, weeks-old calves. The only sounds were the oinking between cows and calves, a few songbirds and a mild breeze. More animals were silhouetted against the pale-blue sky.

It was easy to become mesmerized. My wife, Julie, and I pulled up Crazy Creek chairs near the door of the tent and took it all in. Other members of our small group also were out of their tents immersed in the awe-inspiring scene with some of the animals being as close as 25 yards from camp.

“What a way to wake up,” said Kevin Browngoehl, a fellow paddler and avid birdwatcher from the Philadelphia area. What a way to enjoy the newborn day in a land not many people see.

A flash of white over my shoulder caught my attention. Unbelievable. More caribou. Caribou were on the vast hillsides and ridges 360 degrees around camp. The animals dotted one hill after another for miles. Some were running and swimming across the river, sending up a glistening spray in the sunlight. Others grazed along its banks.

It was easy to see up to 5 or more miles on the tundra with its vast, gently folding ravines and hills. Looking through my binoculars, it looked like there could have been tens of thousands of animals along the Kokolik on this morning midway through our canoeing trip.

Suddenly, the whole concept of canoeing for caribou in the Arctic Circle came to realization. It was the moment everyone had been dreaming about after months of anticipation, planning air travel, booking accommodations for a brief stay in the remote Inupait Eskimo village of Kotzebue on Alaska’s coast, and also trying to pack the right gear to travel in a canoe for 10 days.

We were now in the middle of one of the largest caribou migrations across Alaska’s western North Slope, where the animals number into the hundreds of thousands.

The animals weren’t fazed by us or our camp. They were following ancient trails hundreds of miles north and east from wintering grounds to summer range, which provides nutritious vegetation for new calves and adult animals to grow healthy and put on fat for winter.

When we pulled into camp on the third day of a 71-mile float trip, Ron Yarnell and Jenna Hertz of Fairbanks, guides with the wilderness-outfitting company Arctic Wild, predicted we would see caribou the next day.

“We’re going to wake up tomorrow morning, and this valley is going to be full of caribou,” Yarnell said washing dishes after dinner in the camp’s cook tent. He’s a veteran wilderness guide in Alaska with more than 40 years of paddling canoes, rowing rafts and backpacking. He’s also been following caribou migrations for half his life. Hertz guides on rivers, leads backpacking trips to remote hot springs and organizes winter dog-sled expeditions.

We had seen a few caribou crossing the river in front of our canoes the day before but never expected this. When we went to sleep that night the surrounding river banks, hills and ridges were empty.

Arctic Wild guides try to time the annual June trip on the Kokolik River to meet peak caribou crossings. Getting into the middle of the unbelievably huge migration can be a challenge since the Kokolik River is 200 miles long, born in the De Long Mountains of the western Brooks Range and flowing from the western North Slope of Alaska to the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean.

Caribou in the Western Arctic Herd, for example, range over 140,000 square miles in the coastal plain and tundra, which have important habitat for caribou and the predators that follow them, such as grizzlies, wolves, foxes, golden eagles and wolverines. We were lucky to see several grizzlies, one near camp, another while hiking a high ridge and a few off on the hills in the distance. The area is also home to musk oxen, which we saw feeding on willows on the terraces of the river.

We also saw the nests of hawks with young birds squawking for food while floating down the river past sandy-brown cliffs. Gyrfalcons and rough-legged hawks swooped across the air waves in the warmth of the afternoon.

The river basin attracts millions of birds that travel to the area from all over the United States. Jaegers seem to be everywhere. Ptarmigan flushed from the under brush. There was an assortment of shorebirds near the gravel bars. Trumpeter swans flew overhead to small lakes dotted along the river.

To say the least, Arctic Wild’s Caribou Canoe trip is an incredible wildlife- and bird-watching adventure complete with some of the best canoeing and hiking in Alaska. The land may look barren, but on hikes around camp, hikers see hidden wildflowers mixed among the cushiony tundra hummock. Lapland rosebay, Arctic dryas, lousewort, rock jasmine and forget-me-nots add purple, white, pink and blue colors to the landscape. There’s a chance to lie down for a rest on a long hike and munch on low-bush cranberries. The cranberries are last season’s but were preserved over the winter. Hertz, who was leading one of the hikes, laughed at the fact that the berries were probably fermented, and that’s why they were still flavorful.

Speaking of plants, some say Kokolik is an Inuit name referring to alpine bistort, a medicinal plant found in the area. Other variants of the river’s name refer to crooked or twisted. The river twists north and west in large meanders from its mountain headwaters to the sea.

The Kokolik is not considered a whitewater river, but rather a beginner canoeing (Class II) trip. Guides teach paddlers the basics for running riffles, small rapids, shallow gravel bars and braided channels. It takes one day on the water, and the group becomes efficient navigating the canoes loaded with everything from tents to gourmet chocolate bars.

Each camp provides vast hiking across endless ridges that run perpendicular to the river. It’s a different kind of landscape — not a land of steep peaks, but wide-open folding hillsides that go on forever.

Since the Kokolik River is seldom run, it is not every well known. How does an adventure-seeking couple from Boise end up in the northwestern Alaska Arctic running the river for caribou?

My wife and I watched, “Being Caribou,” a 2005 documentary film that followed the five-month, 1,000-mile journey of a husband- and-wife team that followed the migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The purpose of the journey was to learn as much as possible about the herd during the Arctic Refuge drilling controversy. The film planted the seed for us to see the annual migration of the caribou.

Julie read other books, and we watched other films, becoming totally fascinated with caribou. I’m a wildlife photographer and didn’t have photos of caribou, grizzlies and musk oxen. This was the way to get them.

Soon my wife was on the phone with Michael Wald, co-owner of Arctic Wild, and booking the Caribou Canoe trip. There we were six months later, sitting in an isolated camp a hundred or so miles from the nearest village in one of the most remote areas of Alaska on an unforgettable morning, watching thousands of caribou.

About the trip

  • Whetting your appetite: Definitely watch the documentary “Being Caribou” or read the book. Good reads include: Alaska Geographic “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” “Shopping for Porcupine,” “Two in the Far North” and other books listed on Arctic Wild’s website.
  • Getting there: The trip starts at Kotzebue, which is considered the gateway to northwestern Arctic wilderness areas, national parks and the National Petroleum Reserve. The town is about 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s west coast. Clients have to get to Kotzebue, and yes, the town’s airport is served daily in summer by Alaska Air from Anchorage. It is also the hub for bush pilots and supply planes going to small native villages and fishing and hunting camps sprinkled in the tundra.
  • All that sunshine: Another thing about Kotzebue is the 24-hour daylight. Beginning in early June, the sun does not set for about six weeks about the same time as Arctic Wild’s caribou canoe trip.
  • While in town: When arriving in Kotzebue, visitors should tour the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, with National Park exhibits, before the float trip to get an idea of what the national parks and tundra are all about. It’s definitely a pre-learning experience for the trip. And for food, if the Bayview Cafe is open, it’s one of the best places to eat with really good Asian food and great breakfasts.

What Arctic Wild provides

  • Flying out: Transportation is provided by bush plane from Kotzebue to the launch site located on a gravel bar on the river, about one and a half hours north. The flight over Noatak River basin and wilderness areas is breathtaking with opportunities to see grizzlies and caribou. Zipping through slot passages in the 7,000-foot mountain ranges in a small plane is exciting in itself. Soon the plane crosses the mountains and there’s a dramatic transition from forests of aspen, birch and spruce to vast, treeless tundra with its low shrubs, mosses and sedges. It opens up into a land of braided river channels and folding hillsides and ridges. Landing on a gravel river bar in planes loaded with passengers and everything from fold-up canoes and river gear is a thrill too, especially when there’s a musk ox standing on the edge of the gravel bar refusing to move.
  • Food: Breakfasts and dinners were prepared over a propane stove in a cook tent on the banks of the river at each camp. How the guides pack canoes to serve meals, including fresh cabbage salads, pasta dishes, beef strew and mash potatoes and gravy is a wonder. Breakfasts included lots of eggs and bacon, grits and bacon, and oatmeal for quick starts to get on the river. Lunch was picnic style in the middle of the paddling day with cheeses, salami, crackers, soups, teas and lots of chocolate for dessert. Energy bars were available throughout the day while canoeing. The chocolate went fast.
  • Equipment: Boats, paddles and life jackets were provided and dry bags and tents could be rented. Or, you could bring your own tents, sleeping bags and dry bags. Weigh the options for renting gear. We brought our sleeping bags, tent, dry bags, life jackets and other gear and got dinged on the airlines for having more than 100 pounds of checked baggage. Clients should bring a personal day pack for hiking. Guides have all the safety gear. Guides have a small library of nature reference books in a dry bag.

Cost and information

  • Arctic Wild, based in Fairbanks, Alaska (arcticwild.com, (888) 577-8203 or info@arcticwild.com)
  • Cost is $5,200 per person and trip dates are usually in mid-June.