Challenging the Kongakut River by Tim Kotcheff
Every Spring, Craig and I and the rest of the canoe team would begin the process of selecting and charting the next river trip. It was never a matter of if, only where and when. Such was the dedication of the group to squeeze in as many new northern adventures as humanly possible. In 1986, we decided to tackle the Kongakut River in Alaska.
It would be our second trip to this northwest State of the Union – the first was the Noatak which we canoed in 1978. The Noatak ended up in Kotzebue Sound and the Bering Strait on Alaska’s west coast. The Kongakut would take us to the Beaufort Sea on the State’s north coast. We had early warning from a contact that the river often goes into shallow splits which for his group led to ‘hellish days of dragging rafts and canoes over inches of water’. We were not deterred.
One of the highlights of the trip – we were able to paddle through part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is often described as “America’s Serengeti” because this vast area is home to a wealth of diverse wildlife including caribou, polar bears, grizzlies and muskoxen.
The Kongakut river valley is used by the Porcupine caribou herd as a migration route as they move from their wintering habitat in Canada to the rich spring vegetation of their calving grounds in the Refuge.
We flew in from Inuvik with Kenn Borek Air. I have vivid recollections of our flight to the put in point. It was going to be a hard landing on a riverside gravel bar using the famous ‘tundra tires’ – large low-pressure tires used by the Twin Otter to land on rough terrain that may be unsuitable for normal tires.
After the landing spot was determined, our pilot guided the fully loaded plane with all hands aboard to a test landing where the wheels touch down momentarily to assess the stability of the selected landing strip. After each touchdown the pilot would fly-up and make large circle to make another test run. The pilot needed three test runs for final confirmation before finally landing on the beach. By this time most of us were in a state of extreme anxiety but we finally landed safely.
The next trial came while unloading the plane. When John Macfarlane started cutting open some boxes with his new razor sharp buck knife, he accidentally sliced into one of his fingers and the blood flowed freely.
As chief medical officer, I had to spring into action – first to stop the bleeding and then to medicate and bandage the damaged finger. My medical kit included sutures and stitching equipment but thankfully only antiseptics and adhesive bandages were required to bring the bleeding under control. However, John still had to curl his hand around a paddle to canoe his way down the river so the finger needed tender loving care for the rest of the trip.
I don’t recall any serious rapids along the way but there were large areas of mudflats and shallow braided channels that needed to be carefully negotiated.
In these wide sections of the river, paddling was next to impossible. We had no recourse but to slog our way through ice cold water dragging or guiding fully loaded canoes. Rubber boots gave us some protection from the cold but most of the time they filled up with water and weren’t very comfortable walking over rocky river beds.
So we stayed with our running shoes. We had yet to introduce the indispensable hipwaders to our equipment list. The good news, I suppose, is that it’s hard to drown in a foot of water.
In spite of all these difficulties, paddling down the fast moving Kongakut was a thoroughly enjoyable trip with no shortage of decent campsites or breathtaking mountain and valley panoramas to feed the soul.
The Mountains and Valleys
Another serious obstacle along the river were the large fields of aufeis. Translated from the German aufeis means ‘ice on top’. During the winter, ice builds up layer upon layer. In the spring, the river carves its way though these massive ice fields and creates walls of ice.
Sometimes we were forced to walk over this ice build-up or drag the canoes around them or through channels. In one instance, we encountered ice cliffs beside the river some 20-30 feet high. And paddling through these cliffs was not without danger. It was extremely important to make sure the channel we were paddling didn’t flow under an ice table and take us with it. Of course this natural phenomenon afforded plenty of opportunities for some spectacular photos.
The Ice Fields
Of course in this part of the world, the summer days are literally endless. The sun never sets. It merely circles the horizon. So there is plenty of time for hiking trips, fishing or any activity of your choosing.
As we moved down the river basking as it were in this splendid isolation, we could never get enough of the sweeping treeless landscape and the endless panorama of hills and valleys. It was both humbling and inspiring.
We came across the fuselage of a small plane that had crashed near the side of the river. We’ll never know if the pilot survived. The wreckage looked like it had been around for quite a while. It was the only man made structure we encountered on the entire trip down the river.
The two Johns, Macfarlane and Godfrey, took care of food preparations. Apart from the fine wine selection, our dinners included an assortment of pastas, fish filets, lamb chops and of course my favourite, Kotcheffburgers.
Eating fine cuisine in such an environment is comparable to sitting down to an exquisite meal in the middle of an art gallery where paintings hang in very direction you looked. What could be finer.
This was one of the rare times we were travelling without an emergency portable radio so it was mandatory that we reach our predetermined pickup point in a timely fashion to ensure we’d be safely airlifted back to civilization. The selected landing strip for the twin otter was a flat grassy area – rare in that part of the river – where we spent out last night. It was a very pleasant evening.
The cooks set up the kitchen just below the edge of the proposed landing area and prepared out last meal. Nothing special – beans and bacon – but we polished off the remaining wine and rum to celebrate another successful run down a beautiful northern river.
We woke up the next day and made preparations for departure. As a light mist moved in on our campsite, we heard the drone of the approaching Twin Otter. No test landings today. The grassy ‘runway’ was flat as a pancake. After a smooth landing, the Otter taxied right up to our tents.
The end of a canoe trip is always an emotional time for many of us – torn between the need to get home and our daily lives and the desire to stretch out our spiritual communion with the far north and, in particular, this remote Arctic river for just a little while longer. We will never pass this way again.
The images of sweeping mountains and valleys of the Brooks Range were still fresh in our minds. The comraderie, the bonding, another shared experience of a lifetime still resonated among this assembled group of seasoned canoeists ever ready for whatever challenges that may lie ahead. But alas – this wonderful canoe trip had come to an end. We were homeward bound.