Hulahula, Alaska, US
|Usual Difficulty||III (for normal flows)|
This is one of the more well-known river trips through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on a river recommended by the Fish and Wildlife Service for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Refuge was established to preserve the wildlife, wilderness, subsistence use, and recreational opportunities and is contiguous with protected lands in Canada. Many species of wildlife and birds are found along the coastal plain and fantastic wildflower displays are the foreground to the spectacular mountain and valley scenery. Every year thousands of caribou make the trek across the river.
A trip on the Hulahula typically lasts about 10 days and offers great opportunities for hiking and exploring the landscape. Actual float time is typically 25-35 hours depending on flows so take your time and enjoy the first several miles which offer some of the best hikes. Temperatures between 30 to 80 degrees are possible at any time during the summer season. Aufeis can be a hazard early in the season while mosquitos can be relentless during warmer days of summer.
The river starts out in the Romanzof Mountains of the Brooks Range and flows north across the coastal plain to the Beaufort Sea. Most trips on the Hulahula start at Grasser's Airstrip just upstream of East and West Patuk Creeks. Those with pack rafts often spend a day hiking further upstream and even if you're not planning to boat this section it's well worth a day of hiking to check out the upper drainage. Bring the binoculars to scan the mountains for Dall sheep which are nearly always present.
The river starts out with fairly continuous class II rapids that weave through ever shifting gravel bar rapids that wind their way through braided channels. You may encounter the occassional easy class III move over the first several miles but that tends to be the exception. Be sure to pace yourself and spend plenty of time exploring though as the moutains offer some great view hiking and the creek bottoms expose a diversity of flora and fauna.
A couple miles above the confluence with Kolotuk Creek you will pass through a short canyon section. There are no major rapids in this canyon and it opens out onto an expansive gravel bar. As you reach Kolotuk Creek you arrive at the first significant class III rapid of the trip. For the next several miles the river is more constrained with fun class II/III rapids and you soon reach the entrance to the main canyon section where Kikiktat Mountain on river left pinches the river into a narrow gorge a couple hundred feet deep. The next few miles contains the best whitewater of the trip with about a dozen class III to III+ rapids. They are headwall rapids where the current slams into the bedrock walls and most have a hole or two to avoid. These rapids are easy to boat scout for experienced paddlers but hiking along the rim to check them out from above before committing is always an option. Because they are pool drop rapids, it is also possible to scout them as needed at river level by hopping out on gravel bars.
Once you emerge from the canyon the mountains quickly disappear from either side and over the next several miles you will begin to see the coastal plain emerge before you. The channel remains relativley constrained and there are plenty of fun class II rapids for several miles.
Once you pass the fish camp on river right (locals fish for char here in the winter) the river spreads out into multiple channels and route finding becomes the primary challenge. The views across the coastal plain are amazing and if the weather is clear you can see for hundreds of miles. While the river spreads out a bit it does continue at a good pace.
Rafts often take out at a landing strip a few miles upstream of the mouth but kayaks should not have too much trouble finding a way through the channels at the mouth. If you are heading out to Arey Island you can portage across to the Okpilak which has a channel offering a more direct route out to the island. A topo map of the mouth and gps are helpful in navigating the this area especially if you arrive on a day of low visibility. You can expect to do some hiking through the fine silt that creates many shallow channels.
Access to the refuge is possible from a couple different entry points but those planning their own trip typically fly into Fairbanks or Prudhoe Bay and from either location you can catch a flight on Ravn Air to Kaktovik on Barter Island (BTI). From Kaktovik, located on the Beaufort Sea just east of the Hulahula mouth you can arrange a charter to the headwaters. Check with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for current charter companies providing flights into the Refuge. Many trips start from the Waldo Arms Hotel. Alternatively you can arrange for a charter out of Coldfoot or Arctic Village and fly over the Brooks Range.
The put-in is at Grasser's Airstrip. For the take-out you have a couple options. You can end your trip a short distance upstream of the mouth and arrange for a charter to pick you up. Those with packrafts have hiked back to Kaktovik (about 10 miles) along the 50' contour or along Arey Island. If you continue out to the ocean, you can arrange for a pick up at the airstrip on Arey Island just off the mouth which is known for its birding. Others have paddled along the island back to Kaktovik although this is generally not recommended for rafts and can turn into an adventure depending on the weather along the coast. If you are paddling out to Arey Island, you will likely want to portage across a tundra pond to the Okpilak River which offers a more direct route out to the tip of Arey Island, but this is only possible if you can comfortably carry your gear and boats a couple hundred yards across the tundra.
You will need bear cans for this trip as the lack of trees in this arctic landscape means that hanging your food is not an option.
Scoping Comments of American Whitewater on the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program EIS