The following are letters from Craig Oliver to members of the Arctic & Rideau Canal Canoe Club in the Spring of 1986.
March 10, 1986
Re: The Kongakut – Alaska -1986
This trip could be one of the great adventures we have had. A number of problems have been dealt with, as follows:
1. U.S. Customs. Though it is not far across the international boundary, it is illegal for the airline to take in anyone who has not cleared with U.S. customs on entry. The charter company cannot try to sneak in as this is a very sensitive part of the world, and NORAD tracks every plane. Fortunately, there is a part-time customs agent at Barter Island, 50 miles form the river’s mouth on the ocean. It is a ‘DEW line’ station. We will have to drop in there and check in, then fly back. It will cost more since it is farther than we normally have to go. Coming out, however, no problems—straight home to Canada customs at Inuvik. But, I need, asap, passport numbers, birth dates and birthplaces for each of you. This is for the head of U.S. customs in Anchorage who is doing us a favour letting us check in at Barter Island.
2. It is a difficult river. In places the drop-off is one hundred feet to a mile. There is a nine-mile canyon which is mostly canoeable and spectacular in scenery terms. So we will have to be feeling fit, ready to portage, hike, and line.There are no waterfalls according to a contact who has done it, but a few miles of portage or lining are unavoidable.
3. Good news, in a sense, is that we cannot do the whole river all the way to the ocean. Lots of time for hiking. We will have to have the plane pick us up some forty miles above the ocean. Below that point the river goes into shallow splits. My contact, who tried to go further, has warned me that his group had hellish days of dragging rafts and canoes over inches of water. (I’ve already done the Koroc – thanks, Ted). Also, at the start we cannot start far up into the mountains from the river mouth without running out of water, so the area of canoeable river is only about sixty or seventy miles. However, our contact says it is a once-in-a-lifetime river, thick with game, spectacular fishing and high mountain scenery.
4. It won’t be cheap. But it will be less costly than last year. At a wild estimate since I have not yet gotten one from a charter company, I would say charter costs will be less than $1,000 per person.
5. The votes are in about dates, and almost everyone opts for the mid-July period (July 15-27). These dates are almost necessary in any case to have high enough water.
6. Canoes will be free since we own them. There will be a small storage charge. Your leader and guide will donate his time free, as always, but will expect the usual degree of respect and admiration in return.
May 1, 1986
This year’s leader of the opposition, Mr. Johnson, has now revised his estimates of the drop of the Kongakut so that they are no longer in the physically impossible range. On a closer reading, he agrees with my estimates which put the river within canoeing range.
I have also talked this week with an outfitter in Colorado who has done the river ten times. This is a second opinion. He says that it is very swift all the way and easily canoeable except for a stretch in the main canyon which might, depending on water level, require a portage of about two miles. Big waves, large rocks.
Note that he believes it might be possible to canoe the whole thing, depending, as he says, on the skill of the canoeists and on the unpredictable water level.
Like everyone else, he says the river is a beauty, and since for all of its length it is very fast, we should be able to make it to the sea if the braids in the last twenty miles are not too shallow. It is also a magnificent area for hiking; in his ten-day trips, he builds in two layover days for going across country.
We should have plenty of time to do the river under the schedule that is planned unless we hit bad weather. As you know, we now plan to leave Toronto on the 14th of July. We return home to Toronto on the 26th.
So, it is “Kongakut here we come – pantywaists and all.”
As it turned out, the Kongakut was as advertised: beautiful, challenging and teaming with wildlife. However, no one could have prepared us for the landing in the Kenn Borek Twin Otter.
The pilot spotted a gravel bar beside the river, flew over it once without quite touching down, flew over it again, this time barely touching the rocks with the plane’s under-inflated Tundra tires, and then on a third approach making a bumpy landing. Some of us admitted to being “scared shitless.”
Nor were we prepared for the fact that in places the river was still frozen, forcing us to drag our laden canoes over the ice.
On all these Arctic adventures there was a risk that one of us would break an ankle or suffer a stroke, in which case we’d have to radio for a rescue – an expensive proposition in the Arctic. So when I cut my finger to the bone one night opening a box with a new Buck knife the protestations were immediate: there was no way we were going to allow a cut finger (which never healed because by day it was bent around the head of a paddle) to, as it were, cut our Kongakut trip short.
Waiting for flight to Kongakut
L-R: Peter Stollery, John Macfarlane, John Gow, Craig Oliver, John Godfrey.
Kongakut River Team
L-R: John Gow, John Godfrey, Craig Oliver, Peter Stollery, John Macfarlane, Tim Kotcheff.