The Hula Hula River is sometimes referred to as the quintessential arctic river trip. It has a generous amount of whitewater and mountain scenery as well as several days of the arctic coastal plains where the river plunges through the often discussed 10 02 Land, the calving grounds for the Porcupine Caribou Herd. This is the controversial land that is part of the "drill for oil on the calving grounds” debate that we hear about.
The trip logistics allow you to float all the way to the Beaufort Sea, a sometimes epic undertaking, where eider ducks and polar bears might be seen. All along the way there are opportunities to run into the huge herds of caribou that are heading to the coastal plain to graze on the succulent sedges growing there.
The Hula Hula River is an arctic river above 69 degrees north latitude with over 80 miles of navigable water, and nearly 50 miles of it passing through the coastal plains. This river requires definite Class III+ whitewater skills, to navigate the swift rocky channel all the way to the barrier islands of the coast. There are vast stretches of aufeis to be wary of. Solid planning is required to cover all the bases of getting to and from the river. Up to 10 days is needed for the trip.
The put in options are complex but require, either flying to Arctic Village on a scheduled commercial flight from Fairbanks, then flying a chartered bush plane to the gravel strip known as Grasser's from Arctic Village; or taking a commercial flight to Kaktovik on Barter Island, and flying by bush plane from there to the put in at Grasser's Strip; or you could drive to Coldfoot, Alaska and fly with Coyote Air from there. Either way, advance logistical consultations are prudent when trying to figure out your plan for getting to the put in.
The take out is almost as confusing as the start can be. The classic trip ends on the barrier islands, on Arey Island and requires stopping at a certain spot along the Hula Hula, portaging your boats and gear 200 yards to the Okpilak River, then lining rafts upstream another hundred yards so you can then take the far east channel of the Okpilak River into the lagoon adjacent to Arey Island. Recently a new camping fee was being imposed by the local native corp, re: camping and using the Arey Island location. A less demanding and complex take out is from a tundra strip on river right 9 miles from the coast and is known by all the pilots. In late summer, during dry times there is a strip on the west shore of the Hula Hula at the last big sand dunes, just before entering the delta. It is a zone of mud that is unusable in early summer due to melting snow and it should be confirmed with your pilot before planning to go there.
Special note: No matter what, DO NOT FLOAT INTO THE DELTA THINKING YOU CAN TRAVEL BACK TO THE EAST! The flats are too shallow with no escape other than miles of sledging your raft in one inch of water on 10 inches of mud.
Grasser’s Strip to Estuk Creek: 28 miles
The location of Grasser's Strip is spectacular mountain sheep country at a point far up the Hula Hula Valley in the Romanzoff Mountains and the strip is a long gravel one suitable for a Cessna 206. The flight into Grasser's from any direction has awesome views of the high mountains of the Brooks Range. There is plenty of reasons to spend an extra day here, with a camp just upstream of the strip and easy hiking. The strip is named for a wildlife biologist who spent many years here and whose two sons are buried on the hill above the strip. There is good gradient and numerous boulder gardens all along this stretch of river as it flows between the highest peaks of the Brooks Range, Mount Ishto, Chamberlain and Michelson all at or near 9000 feet high. The river rollicks past East and West Patuk Creeks and Kolotuk and Katak Creeks as the views of Mt Chamberlain dominate the western sky. A small boulder garden lies just above the Esetuk Cr confluence where the river bends sharply to the right as it skirts the Esetuk debris pile at it's mouth. Several areas of aufeis, river wide ice formations, require careful scrutiny and prudence when you and your rafts are forced to enter the sometimes ice walled channels.
Esetuk Creek to Old Woman Creek: 2 miles
At Esetuk Creek the first cloudy glacier creek enters and in these mountains is where the last of the large glaciers in the Brooks Range are located. Below this point is the swiftest and rockiest stretch of river with one mini Gorge that has rapids worth scouting. The scout eddy is river right, a last chance beach of willows just before the U bend Rapids only a mile below Esetuk Creek. The gorge has a distinct three part rapid that requires missing the wall and hole then moving left then moving back to the right. There is a decent rock garden/rapid that is a right hand turn just before the scout eddy as well. A short tundra walk yields good views of the rapids and the Kikiktat Mountain across the river.
Old Woman Creek to Tundra Strip: 40 miles
The river here dramatically leaves the mountains where it cuts past Kikiktat Mountain but the gradient continues steep and the river paddling is very busy with boulder gardens and island channels to negotiate all the way to the end. There is a whole different world of plants and birds here in the coastal plains and the view of the high glacier peaks of the Brooks Range receding in the distance is magical. There are native hunting and fishing camps through here and at no time should you monkey around with what is there. The tundra takeout strip is a river bench on river right at GPS N69 degrees and 59 minutes by W 144 degrees and 01.1 minutes.
Tundra Strip to the Coast: 9 miles
From the tundra strip onward there is a bit more of a braided stream-like nature but the current is still swift and being on target for the Arey Island takeout is top priority. At a point approximately five miles below the strip at GPS N 70 degrees and 02.7 minutes and W 144 degrees and 03.8 minutes is a small slough or channel on river right that is where you must stop to begin portaging gear over to the Okpilak River only 200 yards away. Camping here is recommended. Once your rafts are on the Okpilak River you must line the boats further upstream to allow you to paddle across to the east channel. That channel is the one that goes into Arey Lagoon and on to the island where the landing zone is. Did we mention how epic this trip is! There are very cool archeological finds in this area with old sod huts in a few spots. Plus there are numerous polar bears that frequent this area as they go to and from Kaktovik where whalebones are found. The other takeout option here was to stay river left on the Hula Hula to the last sand dunes where the river has turned due west at GPS N 70 degrees and 03.3 minutes by W 144 degrees and 04 minutes. Make sure your pilot knows the ground is dry here before you commit.
- In Arctic Village there are no airport facilities except outhouses, a campsite, an information board and a horseshoe pit. The village site should be visited by invitation only.
- The main winds blow from the east making paddling along the coast impossible at times. If not, one could paddle all the way to Kaktovik saving a flight but this is near to impossible and should not be attempted in rafts. Often pack ice is jammed onto the shore.
- The weather can be anything from hot and sunny to snowing in July. There are numerous nesting birds of prey on the canyon walls and care should be used to minimize disturbance. Grizzly bears are common here and clean camps and proper food storage is key to having no interactions.
- Grassers's Strip: N 69 degrees 06 minutes by 144 degrees and 37 minutes
- Tundra Strip: N 69 degrees and 59 minutes by W 144 degrees and 01.1 minutes
- West Shore Strip: N 70 degrees and 03.3 minutes by W 144 degrees and 04 minutes
- U-Bend Rapid Scout: N 69 degrees and 27.1 minutes by W 144 degrees and 23.6 minutes
- Portage Site: N 70 degrees and 02.3 minutes by W 144 degrees and 0.6 minutes
- Arey Island: N 70 degrees and 04.5 minutes by W 143 degrees and 59.8 minutes
- Commercial Air Carriers
- Yukon Air
- Coyote Air
- Wright Air Service
- Audi Air
- Commercial Rafting Companies
- Too-loo-uk River Guides
- Mountain Travel Sobek
- Artic Treks
- Arctic Wild
Barter Island A-5
Flaxman Island A-1
Mount Michelson B-1, C-1, D-1