Arctic National Wildlife Refuge/Hulahula River Trip Quick FAQs

I’m back from my 2 week celebratory adventure in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Northeast Alaska. I have a lot to say about this trip, and I will be blogging various observations and photos over the next few weeks or months. For now, I thought it would be helpful to respond to some of the questions I’ve been getting:

Where Did I Go? I rafted the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We started on a small commercial puddle-jumper from Fairbanks to Arctic Village. From there, we flew on a bush plane to the put-in on the Hulahula River (at East Patuk Creek). We landed on a gravel bar, although the gravel area had been cleared to facilitate repeat takeoffs and landings. Over the next 10 days, we rafted over 80 miles to a take-out spot called Six Mile a few miles inland from the Beaufort Sea. A bush plane landed on an infrequently used faint strip in the tundra to pick us up. The bush plane took us to Kaktovik, and we finished the trip with a commercial puddle-jumper back to Fairbanks.

Did I Go on a Tour? The tour was organized by Arctic Wild, a Fairbanks-based tour company. There were 6 customers (including myself) and 2 guides. Even at my advancing age, I was the youngest of the 6 customers.

Did My Family Go? I went without them. My wife generously let me go solo while she watched the kids. One person told me that I must have unmatched advocacy skills to convince my wife to do this. I will note that her 40th birthday is still to come, so I think she’s making some big plans herself.

Was It Beautiful? The scenery was pretty, especially in the Brooks Range. It looked similar to what you might see in the Colorado Rockies. The coastal plain was flat and relatively feature-less. I thought its starkness was compelling, but most people would find it boring. Overall, I’d rate the scenery as a B or a B+. It was nice but not the most spectacular I’ve seen, and if scenery were the only goal, going to Colorado or Montana would be a lot cheaper and lower hassle.

Did I See Any Wildlife? Highlights include 7 grizzly bears, dozens/hundreds of caribou, dozens/hundreds of Dall Sheep (including numerous lambs), a porcupine, an Arctic fox, and too many birds to count, including golden eagle chicks, ptarmigans, arctic terns, long-tailed jaegers, golden plovers, mew gulls, and dozens of others.

How Was the Weather? The weather was better than I expected. 8 of 11 days were sunny or mostly sunny, and a couple of days were close to California-grade with sunny blue skies, temperatures in the 60s and light wind. There were a couple rainy days, and as we got close to the Beaufort Sea, we had a couple of very cold days (<40 degrees) with strong winds (15MPH+).

How Were the Bugs? By going early in the season, we mostly avoided the bugs. We had only 1 night when I considered using bug juice, and I tallied only about a half-dozen bites over the whole trip.

What Was the Highlight? The best part was the people on the tour with me. We formed a tight-knit and supportive community, and it was fun to share the experiences with such nice folk. Otherwise, 3 apex experiences stood out over the others:

* seeing two grizzlies mating

* a close encounter of the grizzly kind, when a grizzly ambled within 50 yards of camp

* a crystal-clear view from a ridgetop on Kikiktat Mountain at about 5,000 feet, with clear 360 degree views that included the Beaufort Sea coastline, views into Canada, and closeup views of the Brooks Range, including big peaks like Mt. Michelson and Mt. Chamberlain.

What Was the Lowlight? Due to a last-minute change in plans by our scheduled bush pilot, we had to leave the coastal plain a day early. This interrupted our planned hike from Six Mile to the Beaufort Sea coastline on a rare beautiful day on the Arctic coastal plain (temps in the 50s, sunny blue skies, light wind). Instead, we got an unscheduled extra day in blustery Kaktovik, a town that isn’t thrilling for tourists staying more than a couple hours.

Was the Trip Scary? I had all kinds of fears going into the trip, including concerns about the wildlife, the weather, the bugs, the bush planes, the river rapids, etc. In the end, my concerns were largely ameliorated. We avoided the bugs; the weather was tolerable, especially with the right gear; the grizzlies wanted nothing to do with us; the bush planes were totally smooth; and the river rapids were manageable despite my limited skills.

How Was the Food? Overall, the food was good, and the guides did a good job accommodating my vegetarian needs. However, it was tough to eat on a diet set by someone else, and I definitely missed fresh fruits and vegetables.

Why Did I Pick the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? (Usually this is expressed with a pejorative undertone, as if the real question is: why didn’t I pick a warmer vacation like Tahiti?) I have always been fascinated by the Arctic, and I wanted to experience it myself. However, going to the Arctic is very expensive, so I wasn’t able to afford it in the past. At the same time, at some point later in life I will be unable to take a trip like this due to health concerns. So this was a good time in my life to take a trip like this. I decided to take a rafting trip because I wanted to see a lot of different terrain, and it’s a lot easier to move gear in a raft than a backpack. I decided to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because I wanted to see what all the fuss is about first-hand, plus it’s a politically endangered refuge that may not be as compelling a tourist destination in the future.

How Do I Feel About Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? I have long opposed drilling there, but now I have my own first-hand observations about why it would be a bad idea. I’ll address this issue more in future blog posts.

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