Western Arctic Rivers: Utukok, Kugururok, Noatak

Sticking to the theme of bug-free wilderness and wildlife, experienced by foot and a single packraft on fast-but-not-white-water with female members of my family, Peggy and I flew to the Utukok River out of Kotzebue (Hageland Air has a 206) with two paddles and the single, custom long boat Sheri made several years back.

We made two trips from the strip on the Utukok (many more are possible with several other rivers within a day or three walk): One was a float-first then hike trip and the second was a hike first then float trip. Each was about a week long.

The first took us 30 miles down the Utukok to Archimedes Ridge. Then we walked the Ridge and across caribou calving grounds (excellent walking, 45 miles) back to the landing strip where we’d cached some food. The boating was fast with no white-water and was great for watching raptors and other birds. The hiking had grand views and great wildlife watching.

Next, we walked up the Utukok and over to Cairn Creek (40 mile hike) on the Kugururok where we put in and floated 50 miles to the Noatak River then 45 miles down the Noatak to the village of Noatak. It was neat to walk through the Western Arctic Caribou Herd migration from North Slope ridge and basin country, through the Brooks Range and out into the boreal forest.

The water was high and fast making the fishing poor but the birding and the wildlife awesome. No bugs, and any snow was good for walking. It was my second time to the Utukok uplands and I am planing another trip there in the future as it’s better walking that any other part of the Brooks Range, but without the excitement of raging glacial rivers like the Jago and Okpilak or the sporty rapids of the John, Hulahula, Koyukuk, and Alatna. Until our last day on the Noatak River, we saw nobody and heard/saw only one plane. The area is wild.

We preferred the boat-first-hike-second trip for its logistics. The boat is good for heavy loads and after eating a few days of food, the hiking is lighter. The second trip was a long walk with heavier packs followed by long float and not as enjoyable.

Just curious about the lack of bugs, guess early June was when you started and too early for bugs?

In 1998 I floated the Killik down to the Colville with just my wife and myself in a rented Avon Redshank and though it was an awesome trip, the mid-July date also conincided with lots of bugs but an early June date would not have been possible because of aufeis.

Sure sounds like a cool trip you did.


Maybe I shouldn’t say this in public, but June is my favorite month in the Arctic. Aufeis could be an issue, but haven’t had a problem with it, just yet.

Basically, as things get green, the bugs come out. So if you can squeeze a trip in between the white and the green, you’ll have enough water to float and enough bug-free time to spare the bug-dope.


What would the 1st trip be like in late Aug/early Sept?



I’d been planning to go up there in the Fall and asked a local about caribou on the Kobuk. The Western Arctic Caribou migrate from the Utukok Uplands across the Noatak and then across the Kobuk. Here’s what the local said, “Caribou usually come through 3rd week of Aug to 1st week of Sept, then have a little lull, then pick up mid sept and on. --That’s on the Kobuk side. Earlier where you’re talking about going. BUT, things have been later and more unpredictable these last few years.”

So what I’d expect is beautiful bull caribou, fall colors, no bugs, snow, rain, sunshine, low water AND high water with rain, cold nights, northern lights.

I think I’d go then, too.


I am planning a trip up to the Noatak country very soon, and I need some sage advice about packrafts. I had originally planned to have a friend of a friend in Kotz fly me north of the Noatak, where I would hike overland to a suitable trib (I had a few in mind), then packraft the Noatak to the village. The friend flaked out on me at the last minute, so I decided (with Nick Jans advice) to maybe hike up the Ambler to Nakmaktuak Pass, then into the Noatak, and out to the village. Nick and a few other people I had talked to didn’t endorse the idea of running the Noatak in a packraft, given the swiftness, coupled with sweepers (and the likelihood of puncturing the craft). I’ve been steered toward the Ally canoe as a more suitable option, however that throws a monster monkeywrench in my plans. There is no way that I will carry an extra 40 pounds up the Ambler.

While I understand their concerns, and I welcome their advice, it seems that none of the people I have talked to are very familiar with packrafts. Given your knowledge and experience with their applications, do you think that such a trip is feasible and/or advisable. I have alot of canoe experience, but no whitewater kayak experience (although I live on the White Salmon River in Washington, and my friends are guides, so I could get a crash course if needed). I know there isn’t any technical water in the Noatak, but I also know (having been there before) that it is swift.

I welcome any advice you may have (and anyone else on the site), including any other trips to recommend. How many days would you allot for the “Arctic Circle” trip? That sounds like an awesome journey as well. I have about three weeks set aside.

Anyway, thanks for your help. I first read your work in an old issue of We Alaskans (Why I quit climbing, I think it was) 13 years ago when I was a winter caretaker, just yearning for a good story. You delivered, and then some. Thanks. Oh, and I already ordered your book from AMH.



Most people don’t yet know what a packraft is, much less what it is capable of doing. Getting advice from people like that can be frustrating!

The Noatak, Yukon, Tanana, Copper, Colville, Susitna, Chulitna, Nizina, Delta, Nenana, Nabesna, Chitina are all big rivers and all have been floated for extensive distances (multiple days) in packrafts while wearing raingear, several of them with mountain bikes on the bow.

My impression, having paddled all of the Noatak in either a Klepper or a packraft, from its knee deep source due east of Igikpak to Kotz, is that it’s all doable in an open Alpacka: that is, there are no big rapids that would swamp an alert boater who knows how to backpaddle in the waves (like a canoe) to keep out the water. All of these rivers are big and cold, so a PFD is a must; lining the bottom of the boat with a foam pad adds good insulation; using a spray deck also adds warmth; if it’s raining get out and enjoy an opportunity to warm up by stopping and having a hot drink and/or fire; dress warmly (PFD under raingear is especially warm).

The big rivers DO have weird eddy lines wherever rock outcrops extend into the current. By weird I mean strong eddy fences and boils/whirlpools. For the eddy fences bust through them essentially perpendicular to the eddy line and for the boils/whirlpools, lean forward and paddle. Be sure to practice getting into a flipped and loaded boat without touching the bottom – like in a lake – before you go. The big rivers often will not allow you the chance to get to shore before you are too cold. So be sure to practice your “packraft roll”. That is twist the boat upright, hold your paddle over the boat to keep it from flipping again, then kick and flop your way in.

The only drawback about doing the Noatak all the way from Nushralutak (that is, over the Nakmaktuak Pass) is that you’ll be in your boat a long time! Low water and slow flow will make you long for that ole’ Allypak as it can move faster in slow water, but carrying that up theAmbler and the food needed to make the whole Noatak float would be backbreaking and little fun. If it were me I’d look at the map for some other passes to maybe come back to the Kobuk on, break up the trip with a little hiking, followed by some floating. For instance, hike up Ambler to Redstone and over Ivishak Pass, then float the Noatak down to Sapun Creek and then hike back over to the Salmon River, float that to Kobuk River and down to Kiana. Anyway, that’s a trip that I’ve been looking at for a few years! So if you do it let me know how it goes.

Yes, all of the Noatak looks to be good packrafting – Peggy and I floated the 50 miles above the village of Noatak at high water and it went great.

Hope this helps!



Thanks for your advice and suggestions. You have assuaged most of my concerns. Looks like I am ordering a packraft!

I’m laughing right now, because the Redstone/Ivishak route was my initial alternate (First of the second, as it were). My friend’s wife’s family also runs a sheefishing charter up the Salmon… I planned to float all the way out to Noatak village from the Cutler, but was also told that this was “missing the best of the Noatak”. I have to think that the “Grand Canyon” of the Noatak is at least partially worthy of its moniker. Am I wrong? Or is the best part by far the upper Noatak?

I hadn’t thought of hiking south from the Noatak to a trib, and on to the Kobuk. (My request is already paying off).

O.K. then, on my Baird Mountains quad it looks a bit tricky to sight the Sapun and even less obvious to locate the best/most obvious route to the Salmon. Is it a matter of scale, or imagination? Anyway, it has my wheels turning. Another thought is to do the Ambler to the Noatak, Noatak to Cutler, then hike up the Cutler to Ivishak Pass, and out to Ambler (although the topography looks a bit like tussock hell). If I was reasonably sure of finding the Salmon from the Noatak, it would seem like a pretty elegant loop. Tasty bits.

Also, you mentioned slow water. How much longer travel time should I factor into a trip when travelling via packraft?

Thanks for your help. I’m getting pretty excited about this trip!



The best of the Noatak? I liked the “sodlands” of big open vistas, downstream of the mountans and upstream of the canyons myself, 'cause I’d been in the mountains all summer by the time I got there and it was unique. But everybody’s different.

Upper section (above Lake Matcherak) is neat because it’s in the mountains, but small and some have called it the “Slow-a-tak” a low flows. The next section is out in the flats and is pretty neat for it’s totally wild and wide open spaces. Probably like floating the Misouri River in the 1800’s with caribou in view rather than buffalo. Vastness is the noun. My journal calls them the “sodlands of the Noatak’s inner basin”. By the time you get to the Cutler, the river is BIG. Both of my trips on it have been at high water, when rapids are buried and current moves fast. Next section is again hemmed in by bluffs and low mountains – very scenic with cotonwoods and willows but no spruce.

Last section above Noatak Village but below the Canyon is essentially a huge braided river through brushy bars and spruce. The bears here are very curious – apparently locals don’t shoot them so they can be a bit testy.

As for hiking to the Kobuk, I have not done it (but want to --it’s high on my list), and most of the passes look reasonable – I picked the Sapun Creek to Kanayat Creek because the Noatak heads west after heading south and that seemed a good time to get out and walk south to the Salmon. I have heard that the Cutler is tussocky…

As for river travel in a packraft: paddling speed on flat lake water maxes out at about 2 mph, so you’ll mostly be at the mercy of the Noatak’s flow, which is could be slow above Lake Matcherak but will only increase as you head downstream – 5 mph is reasonable and higher at high water.



Thor Tingey here; I helped start Alpacka, but now I am practicing law in Portland and don’t spend as much time with the company. I saw that you are in the White Salmon area. If you need any help with the boats or want to some tips on floating and are willing to come to Portland, I would be happy to take you up to the standard run on the Clackamas (5-10 miles - Class III with an optional IV). I don’t know what your time schedule is like before you go to Alaska though. I also think the White Salmon would be an incredible packraft river in low water (not this year), but you would have to be a pretty experienced boater and packrafter.

I agree with everything Roman has said about the Noatak, and he knows a lot more than me about it. I haven’t packrafted either the Noatak or Kobuk, but I have floated the Noatak from Pingo lake to the Cutler, and the Kobuk from Walker Lake to Kobuk village. Beautiful area, but you will be in your boat for a LONG time if you just float the Noatak. I have always had more fun on packrafting trips when the packrafting is broken up by hiking segments. Just my $0.02 for packraft trip planning.



Thanks for the offer. I live in Trout Lake, in case you’re in the neighborhood.

I’ll have to get back to you, because I’m not sure when/if I’ll be able to swing this trip this year in a packraft. The turn around for orders is at least two weeks (and shipping from AK has been SLOW of late). I’m not sure I can acclimate in time. As it is I’m not sure if my window is still open enough. I’m debating whether to shorten the length of my trip, and take a smaller bite this year (and then do a longer journey next summer). I’m sort of in analysis paralysis too. So many routes, so many choices, so many air taxis… It’s gotten me kind of depressed actually. Push me, pull me.

Again, thanks for the help. I’ll definitely let you know when I get off the schnide.



Thanks for the insight. I’ve been looking for some topo maps of Noatak National Preserve & Kobuk Valley National Park. Are there any maps available besides the USGS quads?


I just bought my Yukon Yak! Whooopppeee!!!

After sifting through a heap of conflicting advice, I am going for the packraft. While I had reservations about using it in one particular trip on the Noatak, it is simply too damn versatile for me to pass up. My plan now is to cobble together an alternative trip (or suitable variation) and then wait patiently for the raft to arrive (2 weeks). I am absolutely giddy with excitement.

If you are available on an upcoming weekend, I would love to take ou up on that offer.

I have 15 minute maps of the Noatak/Kobuk area, so they are available. Call USGS in Anchorage. They are really helpful.


pictures from Noatak, Utukok and of our two-person boat


Just read your postings about Western Rivers. Do you live in Kotz? My wife moved there a couple of months ago and I will be moving to town next month from Astoria, Or. Would be nice to meet a river runner in town!


Hi Ron,

No I don’t live in Kotz. Seth Kantner does and he is likely tied into the outdoor community there, if one exists. It’d be neat if you could get him into packrafting as he seems to know the country well and has a good sense of humor and great conversation skills. There’re NPS backcountry rangers based there, too, but in summer. Pilots who might be up for something. As you know it’s sort of tough to get out of Kotzebue to the rivers. There’s a guy in Nome who has a packraft, too, I believe. June has water and so does September both on the lesser streams/rivers of the Noatak/Kobuk/Utukok/Colville watersheds and on the Seward Peninsula.

I think that area will prove to be a wilderness packrafting paradise. While we were there and loking at our 1:250,000 Baird and De Long mountain maps we saw many other great trips that would mix hiking and boating. I think the area bounded by the Noatak and Kobuk has the most good stuff, but the rivers/creeks flowing in to Noatak from North also look good. Again, these are going to be mellow, Class II max as far as I can tell, but great country, and you can make easy miles on those rivers.

The bummer for us is that it’s expensive to get out there.



Thanks for the names and insight. I am pretty well connected in the aviation community in town and can do trips for the price of fuel and perhaps a little elbow grease on occasion. I am retiring from the Coast Gaurd as a Chief Rescue Swimmer and am looking forward to having time toexplore the mountains up there. From what I have seen in the past and looking at topo’s there doesn’t appear to be much white water but looking forward to it anyway!

If you make it up, we have plenty of room and guaranteed good food!


It’s funny that you mention trying to get Seth Kantner into packrafting. As I was researching the area this summer in preparation for a Noatak trip (you may recall), I contacted both he and Nick Jans. Neither seemed too keen on packrafts, which is why I was initially hesitant to get one. You assuaged my concerns, and I ended up getting a Yak. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to make a trip up to the Noatak area, so I opted to get my feet wet (pun intended) on the Sanctuary. I was glad that I did, as it gave me a much better sense of the logistics of packrafting. It was also a fantastic fall trip. This summer I will make the longer trip, probably a loop with a shorter section of the Noatak. Anyway, thanks for all of your help and enthusiasm.


I know this is an old trip but I just got around to putting a video together so you can see a bit of how it looks.

The photos do not do it justice. I’d like to go back in the Fall, when it’d be a different set of non-green colors without any bugs but with cold rain.

Roman (or anyone else with info), I work for a conservation group which has been deeply involved in the NPRA drilling issue. Several of us have an interest in floating either the Utukok River or the Kokolik River in late August/early Sept. I know you’ve been up there more than once in June. Do you know where we can get info on flows later in the year? Do you know anyone who has actually done it that late in the year? Also do you have any recommendations who to fly with? We’ve only flown with Dirk from Coyote Air but it seems like flying out of Kotz might make more sense for accessing this area. We would have a mix of boats including packrafts, pack canoes, and IK’s so can deal with fairly low flows.
I appreciate any info you can share.
Todd Schulke