The Marsh Fork is a tributary of the Canning River, an arctic river that forms the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and flows through the dramatic Phillip Smith Mountains and past the Franklin Mountains. The trip we describe is a 35-mile section of the Marsh Fork and a 5-mile stretch of the Canning River to the first takeout option that is a gravel strip at Plunge Creek. The Marsh Fork requires some Class II+ whitewater skills as it winds through several areas of swift rocky sections and rafts, canoes and kayaks have all been down the river.
There are two put ins on the Marsh Fork but for most groups the second airstrip, known as The Bench Strip, is the best option. There is another spot, the Upper Strip, which is a long strip suitable for Cessna 206's but it is used primarily as a hunting camp and the river is so small here that only a rubber ducky could float. The section of river adjacent to the Bench Strip has, also, a low volume of water and the main channel is a good 200 yards from the strip but most groups manage to carry their gear to the water and then to float and/or drag their boats the first few miles, until the water volume becomes enough for constant floating.
The take out is a gravel strip on river left, located just past the mouth of Plunge Creek on the Main Canning River. Of course, one could easily float the remaining stretch of the Canning River to its take out if there were enough time and desire, making the trip 78 miles long but here we only describe the river down to Plunge Creek. (See Canning RiverCanning River for more details about this option).
The Upper Strip to the Bench Strip: 7 miles
The stretch of river below the Upper Strip is suitable only for small inflatable kayaks as the water volume and amount of river braids makes it impossible to float. Groups have been known to hike and drag their rafts the entire 7 miles to the area of floatable water level. Others have taken their gear to the Bench Strip and had people dropped at the Upper Strip so they could hike the 7 miles down to the starting point where camping is recommended. There is a known wolf den in this area and wolves are often seen!
The Bench Strip to the Confluence with the Canning River: 30 miles
As mentioned, the Bench Strip is the common starting point for groups and is a good place to camp. The main river channel is 200 yards away and all gear must be carried over to it. Often, there is hardly enough water to float for the first mile but quickly the river becomes an easy braided river with nice camping and swift water.
There are two distinct sections of swift rocky water where the more weather resistant shale rock mountains are. The biggest challenge to this section is finding the correct channel where the Marsh Fork meets the Canning. There is always a split here with a smaller left channel and a larger but more spread out right channel that passes through a large area of aufeis, the ice from the previous winter. There is a river right bluff, just above this section where a bit of a view can be had of the two channels. It is worth stopping to have a look in case there is an obvious choice that can’t be seen from river level.
Confluence to Plunge Creek: 5 miles
Once on the Canning, the river opens into a wider river showing the effects of having a direct link to the larger glaciated peaks of the Franklin Mountains and the glaciers that have periodically run down this valley. It is a braided section with no real hazards for the 5 miles to Plunge Creek. The take out is a gravel strip on the left side of the river located a mile below the creek mouth and just after the black cliffs on river left.
Choosing the proper channel at the confluence can be tricky. There is a great camp at Salisbury Creek that has a great hike up a ridge giving a good view of the confluence braids and could be helpful in deciding which way to go.
- Upper Strip Put In: N 68 degrees and 43.9 minutes by W 146 degrees and 08.1 minutes
- Bench Strip Put In: N 68 degrees and 49.6 minutes by W 146 degrees and 02.3 minutes
- Plunge Creek Take Out: N 69 degrees and 16.8 minutes by W 146 degrees and 01.4 minutes
Mount Michelson A-4