Paddling To The Arctic Ocean

Richard Spener sits on the board of Alaska Wilderness League, and first visited Alaska in 1987 where he and his wife, Toni Armstrong, sea kayaked in Glacier Bay. Since then they have paddled and hiked in Alaska a total of 12 times, including five unguided trips to the Arctic Refuge.

By Richard Spener

Our trip on the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge started on the St. Francis River near Fredericktown, Missouri. The rivers on the North Slope of Alaska in the Brooks Range are unpredictable. So, at my insistence, our traveling companions took the whitewater clinic sponsored by the Missouri Whitewater Association. They completed the clinic with flying colors.

Richard Spener /

Our next stop was Fairbanks, Alaska, where we finished our shopping for perishable foods, then placed everything in our dry bags ready for our trip into the Refuge. Our group consisted of myself, my wife Toni, and our companions Bob, Matt, Dan and Jeff. We all flew together in a 20 passenger Caravan to Arctic Village, on the southern border of the Arctic Refuge. There we split up into smaller airplanes to shuttle us across the majestic Brooks Range to the Kongakut River.

Richard Spener /

Seeing the Kongakut Ríver from the air you realize how braided it is and why it is such a challenge to negotiate. I was one of the last people to arrive and from the air, we could see that tents were already set up on an island in the river. Once Jeff and I landed on the gravel bar, we could see one of the folding canoes already assembled. Once two more canoes were ready, we went on a hike and took in the beauty of this magnificent place. There was no rushing on the hike since this is the land of the midnight sun, with daylight for 24 hours.

The Kongakut River. Richard Spener /

Assessing the river level, we found it in flood. Matt was thrilled to put his Go Pro camera on the front of his canoe, and once on the river he recorded the wave trains and how they navigated around the class 3 holes that rafters love, but are a real challenge to folding canoes loaded with two weeks of food and gear. Jeff and I took the lead, Matt and Bob were second, and Dan and Toni ran sweep.

Richard Spener /

After a challenging day of whitewater we took a layover day to hike – the ground covered in wildflowers with large patches of wild sweet peas. The mountains were lush and green. We could see Dall sheep on the hillside. Lapland longspurs serenaded us with their melodic song. Tracks from caribou were abundant. I chose this river because on previous trips, Toni and I had found ourselves in the middle of an estimated 180,000 caribou – the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The herd migrates from Canada every year to birth an average of 40,000 calves on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. The Gwich’in natives call this place “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

The Porcupine Caribou Herd. Richard Spener /

Our next campsite was at Caribou Pass. This historic pass thru the mountains is a favorite place to view caribou. We hiked to the top of the pass where we found wonderful views of the braided river but no caribou. What we did see were acres of lupines and other wild flowers abound.

Richard Spener /

Caribou Pass is where most guided trips exit the river and are picked up by bush pilots. We began the transition from the mountains to the Coastal Plain and continued downriver to the Arctic Ocean. The Coastal Plain is the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge, home to Arctic and red fox, nesting birds, grizzly bears, musk oxen, and the largest denning area of polar bears in the United States.

Above, red fox; below, musk oxen. Richard Spener /

There is only tundra and low willow trees on the Coastal Plain. The vistas go on forever with mountains as a back drop. We decided to camp on the Coastal Plain for several days. lt was a good time to get off the river since the water level was rising and there were car-sized hunks of tundra tumbling in the river with us, which presented more of a challenge than we wanted.

Grizzly bears in this wilderness part of Alaska see very few people so they do not view us as a food source. Ever mindful, however, that this is grizzly habit, we kept a clean camp. All the cooking and storing of food was done downwind of our tents. And when we settle in our tents to sleep, we placed the clothes we cooked and ate in into a plastic bag, which then went outside the tent. We did not want the smell of food to bring bears looking to join us as we slept.

Richard Spener /

Since there are no trees, birds on the Coastal Plain nest on the ground. On one of our hikes, Toni stirred up a semipalmated plover. It acted as though it had a broken wing, skipping along the ground to draw us away from her nest. Two long-tailed jaegers flew off to distract us. Willow ptarmigan scooted off like chickens as we approached.

On another hike, we moved into a batch of willows. Matt was in the lead and did the usual precautionary call out of “hey bear, hey bear,” and sure enough, a grizzly stood up on his hind legs not far from us. This bear had a huge head and as he stood he showed his razor-sharp claws. Matt backed up reaching for his bear spray. Jeff and I were next. Jeff reached for his spray as did Toni, Dan and Bob. But Jeff also had my camera, which is what I went for. The bear, however, took one look at us and took off, never to be seen again. It was observed that we were essentially hiking in a zoo with no fences.

Richard Spener /

We packed up camp to head on down the river when we saw what looked like a solid ice field at least 30 feet high at the Arctic Ocean. It was Beaufort Lagoon, a bay in the Arctic Ocean, and the wall of ice was just a mirage. Toni and I had seen this before. When we reached the area of ice, we found an ice canyon instead. The canyon was spectacular with its enormous area of aufeis that continued as far as we could see along the Beaufort Lagoon. (Aufeis is German for “ice on top,” and is a sheet-like mass of layered ice that forms as rivers freeze over in winter.)

All rivers carry silt that is then deposited at their terminus in deltas. And for the first time on our trip the flooding worked in our favor. The water was high enough that we did not have to walk our canoes through the delta as the river entered the lagoon. This made for a very pleasant paddle to lcy Reef, which separates the Beaufort Lagoon and the Arctic Ocean. We walked across reef to step in the Arctic Ocean with the icebergs, the sizes and shapes of which challenged our imagination. There were large mushrooms, bears, seals and small houses?

Richard Spener /

Once camp was set up and the sea was calm, everyone but myself paddled into the ocean among the icebergs – I stayed on shore to photograph the event. We had accomplished what only a few people every year have done. We had paddled from the mountains in the Brooks Range to the
Arctic Ocean. Our challenge was complete.