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Kongakut River, Alaska
June 2004
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If you're going to raft the Kongakut River, getting there is half the fun. For the first leg, we took this Cessna Caravan from Fairbanks to Arctic Village, about 235 miles to the north-northeast.
Here, John checks out the World Club In-Transit Lounge at the glamorous Arctic Village International Gravel Airstrip. Not much to do here but wait for the bush planes and swat mosquitoes.
Hanging around the airstrip at Arctic Village does provide some occasional entertainment. Here we see the arrival of a C46 cargo plane, manufactured in 1943, bringing supplies to the tiny nearby village.
Finally, Kirk and Dirk arrived in a Cessna 185 and a DeHavilland Beaver (pictured, built the same year I was born), and ferried the ten of us (8 guests, 2 guides) and all our gear up and over the Brooks Range to the upper reaches of the Kongakut River, about 100 miles northeast of Arctic Village, landing on a gravel bar beside the river.
After a night camped beside the river, we inflated the two rafts, and headed off down-river. This far upstream, the river is still fairly contained, consisting of one obvious main channel of icy, clear water.
A view downstream from one of the neighboring peaks. Though we're still fairly high in the Brooks Range, the river has already begun to spread out into a collection of sinewy channels, making navigation tricky. Occasionally, we'd get stuck on a gravel bar, and have to hop out and drag one or both of the rafts through the shallow water into a deeper channel.
We managed to hit a series of excellent campsites, always right beside the river, always with nice views. The weather was unusually warm and clear through most of the trip, climbing into the 70s during the day, and dropping into the high 40s at night.
In a deeper channel, with calmer water, one of our two rafts floats downstream. In general, we needed to paddle only sporadically, to steer the raft around obstructions, or to nudge it into the desired channel. Sections of rapids called for more frantic paddling, but these passed quickly.
This early in the season, the riverbanks are often still covered with what's referred to as "off ice." Here, the entire group spills out onto one of these ice shelfs to explore, leaving our heavily-laden rafts on the bank. Besides the ten of us, those rafts also carried all our food, clothing, fuel, tents, sleeping bags, etc. Lots of stuff.
Our rafts, emptied for the night, beached at another superb campsite. The river has now begun to widen considerably, and the surrounding mountains have begun to soften. The mountain slopes were often home to small herds of Dahl sheep.
Guides Jeff and Kelley always seized the opportunity to do some downstream scouting when we climbed a mountain, picking out the best channels for the next day's rafting. The scale of this scene is difficult to convey. Our campsite is on the green "thumb" of land just below center, our bright yellow tents barely detectable. Everywhere we went, the tundra was in bloom, with dozens of species of tiny wildflowers mixed in with the larger lupins.
Eliot and Jan take in the view upstream during a break in the hiking. The day before, we had spent some time trapped on the opposite bank of this section of the river. In a 40 mph wind coming from the north, the direction we wanted to travel, even vigorous paddling couldn't really move the rafts, so we simply had to wait it out, exploring the surrounding hills. The bright white patches are shelves of "off ice."
An ice bridge over one of the river channels. Our guides steered clear of it, since these bridges have a nasty habit of collapsing suddenly, with deadly results for anyone who happens to be under them at the time. The previous day's scouting from a mountaintop had revealed the presence of this ice bridge, as well as the alternate channel that went around it.
Carole checks out a caribou and her calf who failed to complete their migration from the Porcupine Forest to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We encountered several stragglers from the main herd, but didn't catch up with the bulk of them until we got to the coastal plain. Our campsites were always covered with caribou tracks, but the main body of the herd was about a week ahead of us.
Jeff and Kelley, on an ice shelf, scout the gorge of the Kongakut, and the only real rapids on the river. The day before, menacing storm clouds had hovered over the gorge, but the day we ran the rapids, it was sunny and warm. The water was fairly low, so the rapids were fun, but not alarming. The water temperature, just above freezing, meant that the river demanded respect, however. Falling in would have been miserable, and potentially dangerous.
Jim fly-casts beside the Tundra Rose Too, one of our trusty rafts. On our final night, Jim treated us to freshly-caught grayling and arctic char.
Another stunning campsite. The summer solstice had arrived, and as we were well north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never set. Once in a while, it would briefly dip behind one of the surrounding peaks, but we certainly never had any darkness on the trip. Going to sleep isn't difficult, but it's tough when you wake up, the sun is out, and the birds are singing, but it's only 3:00 am.
A chilly lunch break, on the only day that we actually got rained on. To the south, storm clouds once again appeared over the gorge, where we had passed only the day before. That evening, thunderstorms moved in, and by morning, the river had risen over two feet, and the clear waters had been replaced by a silty soup, which made navigation all the more tricky.
The skull of a long-departed musk ox. Musk ox are almost never seen here anymore. Besides two dead caribou and a dozen or so live ones, we saw moose, ground squirrels, Dahl sheep, eagles, harlequin ducks, mergansers, terns, mew gulls, redpolls, and, incongruously, lots of robins. We saw tracks of wolves and a few tracks of brown bears, but never caught sight of either.
A boatload of now-experienced paddlers, taking a break. Guide Kelley Kalafatich, perched high on the stern of the raft, was Meryl Streep's stunt double in The River Wild, and has made her own documentary, Three Women, 300 Miles, about a winter trip through the Grand Canyon that she and two of her friends made. No rafts, however: they ran the Colorado on river boards, sort of like overgrown kickboards!
Jim, with his new digital toy, trying to capture an image of the lower reaches of the river. The hills here are the last of the foothills - just around the next bend, the river spills out onto the coastal plain for its final run to the Arctic Ocean.
The view upstream from the last ridge of hills before the plains, above our final campsite. The river at this point is probably a half-mile wide. Once it reaches the coastal plain, rafting is no longer a viable option. The current slows as the river meanders across the plain, and the headwinds from the north often make paddling well-nigh impossible.
Even this far north (69° 30'), there were still wildflowers everywhere.
More wildflowers.
The coastal plain, 15 miles wide, reaching out to the Beaufort Sea. Global warming in action: our guides were surprised to see open blue water beyond the icepack on the shoreline. This early in the summer, the ocean is usually completely frozen over. Here, with binoculars and a spotting scope, we finally saw the larger herds of caribou, in groups of over 100, grazing on the tundra.
As our deflated rafts wait to be folded up, Kirk arrives in his Cessna 185 to begin ferrying us south to Arctic Village. We all look forward eagerly to hot showers, having been on the river for just under nine days.