2019 Alaska (1/2): 450 km Packrafting in Ivvavik NP & ANWR

Places Canada, Alaska. Ivvavik National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Firth River, Whale Mountain, Jago River, Kaktovik
Time & length June/July 2019, 4 weeks
Partners Andreas Hutter, Elias Vetter
We flew to Joe Creek in northeast Alaska, put in with our packrafts and paddled to the end of the Firth River canyon (class III-IV) in Ivvavik National Park, Canada. Then we walked east, crossed into Alaska again, picked up extra food at Whale Mountain and kept walking through ANWR, until we reached the Jago River. We paddled to Jago all the way to the coast and finished our trip in Kaktovik (Barter Island).
Our route, roughly: Link to Google Drive

First, here is my video report:

The idea of this trip was brought up by my boss Adreas Hutter. He’s been a whitewater kayaker for 30 years and got into packrafting a few years ago. He asked me if I wanted to do this packrafting trip with him. I haven’t been to Alaska in five years and almost felt a bit homesick sometimes, since I had been travelling to Alaska for five summers in a row from 2010 to 2014. So I agreed and brought a third person on board: Elias Vetter, a packrafter and friend of mine from Switzerland. I’m guessing it’s normally not easy to find the right crew for this trip, since the Firth River has its challenges – it’s certainly not the right river for beginner packrafters.

After some bureaucracy and a 300 Euro bill we got permission from Ivvavik National Park in Canada to travel through this territory. We had to cross the national border twice, so it was important to have all the right paperwork. Roman Dial, an Alaskan packrafting legend who had completed this route himself in 2017, helped me planning a bit.

We were supported by Nikon Switzerland (I could test the new Z7, plus the 14-30/4S, the 24-70/4S and the 300/4E PF: I loved all of it!), the German Packrafting Store and Lowa Switzerland.

Andi picked me up on June 9th from the airport in Whitehorse, together we drove to Fairbanks with his car. There we met Elias and stayed a night at Ed Plumb’s place, who is another Alaskan world-class adventurer and a friend of mine. The next morning, we flew to Fort Yukon and from there with Kirk Sweetsir and his bush plane to Joe Creek in ANWR. That’s where we started our trip. Kirk also arranged a food cache for us at Whale Mountain, which we planned to reach after a little more than two weeks. At the very first day, we had food for 16 days in our backpacks.

After walking down Joe Creek for about an hour, we put in our packrafts and started floating. Joe Creek brought us to the Firth River, altogether we spend the first five days paddling. We loved the Firth! It was not too easy, not too difficult. Nobody swam. I can very much recommend the Firth for packrafters who enjoy whitewater and real wilderness!

Watch the video above to learn about the Firth River, otherwise here are some pictures for you:

Then we walked all the way west to the Jago River in ANWR. Originally we had hoped to paddle two rivers in between, but it was hot and dry, so the water levels were too low. That was a bit frustrating, but we made good progress regardless. In fact, we were faster than expected, which was partly due to the good weather and terrain conditions, but also because everybody was quite fit and experienced, so we had no actual problems to solve. It was almost too easy.

We reached the Jago River on June 30th. For the first 30 km, the river had a steep incline. With all the water we had gotten in the days before, we found the Jago to be quite challenging whitewater at first, especially since we had left our helmets at the food cache (they got flown out by the pilot). That’s not recommended.

Anyways, the paddling went well. With the river at flood stage, we made it to the coast quite quickly. Once we were there, Andi spotted a polar bear in close proximity. Normally the bears come to Barter Island sometime in August, but due to the shrinking ice around the north pole, some of them have started to hang around all summer long. We made a bit of a detour around the polar bear and safely reached Barter Island five days earlier than we had originally planned. Earlier, my friend Keith Early was able to change our flights, so we only had to spent two extra nights in Kaktovik. I remembered this place from my solo trip through the Brooks Range in 2012 to not be particularly pleasant. Well, not much has changed. But we got to check out the bone pile from the whale hunts outside of town, that was interesting to see.

Altogether we had a very fine journey. It was the right mix of challenge and enjoyment. Thanks to everybody who supported us!