Arctic Firth River
Yukon Canada: (ZZ-RAFTC-05)
Explore with us the Firth River, deep in Canada’s north and a hidden jewel. Firth River country, where the mountains of northwestern North America reach the Arctic Ocean, lies deep within the northern Yukon and adjacent to Alaska.
Issuing from the British Mountains of the Brooks Range, the Firth River, a wild and remote Arctic river, flows through the centre of Ivvavik National Park to the Beaufort Sea. Wildlife including muskox, caribou, wolves, eagles and falcons are joined in a pristine wilderness panorama by beautiful Arctic plant life.
The area surrounding the Firth is a land of contrasts - forest and tundra, craggy peaks and alpine meadows, wild coastline and ice-filled seas. Wildlife roams unimpeded here with a diversity unrivalled elsewhere in Canada. Barren-ground caribou, mountain sheep, moose, muskoxen, grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines, as well as a wide variety of bird species all make their homes in this arctic habitat. In the long sunlit days of our northern summer we will travel and explore by raft and canoe. Our guides, full of knowledge and enthusiasm for this area, will help us better understand the geology and wildlife we encounter adding to a fascinating journey through the wild and remote landscape.
We travel by raft on this high arctic tundra river from the British Mountains on the border of Alaska and the Yukon Territory through Ivvavik National Park to Nunaluk Spit in the Beaufort Sea near Herschel Island. Rafting over 11 river days, we journey 150 km (94 miles) with an approximate elevation drop of 460m (approx. 1500 feet).
Ivvavik National Park
The region surrounding the Firth River on the Arctic slope was designated Ivvavik National Park in 1984. This designation was timely as there had been a number of major industrial development proposals for the area. The last proposal - the Arctic Gas Pipeline - was rejected by the government of Canada after the Berger Inquiry of 1977. Justice Thomas Berger eloquently wrote:
"The Northern Yukon is an arctic and sub arctic wilderness of incredible beauty, a rich and varied ecosystem: nine million acres of land and animals... a place of contrasts, of an explosively productive but brief summer and of a long hard winter, of rugged mountains and stark plains. Its teeming marshes and shore lands give it a beauty equalled by few other places on Earth."
Porcupine Caribou Herd
We will traverse this exceptional area by rafting the Firth River from the British Mountains to the Beaufort Sea, following the Arctic coast to the old whaling community of Herschel Island. This section of the Yukon has been recognized by Parks Canada as "an area of spectacular scenery and exceptional ecological significance," one of the many reasons being the importance of the area to the Porcupine Caribou herd. Close to 20,000 animals migrate through this area to and from their calving grounds on the coastal plain of Alaska and the Yukon. After calving in June, they start to congregate in huge herds and migrate westward, crossing the Firth River. At this time, the migration provides a spectacle that is unsurpassed in North America. Occasionally our passage down the river coincides with this migration and we will stop to watch this amazing sight. At this time of year much of the vegetation is in bloom and wild flowers carpet the tundra and hillsides. Different types of vegetation landscape a patchwork quality.
This is a camping trip. We provide your tent – Mountain Hardware Trango 3, self-supporting dome tent - comfortable for 2 people with some remaining floor space for clothing etc. (single occupancy is $50). If you wish to bring your own, please contact us to approve the model and design.
The following is a provisional itinerary as water levels,weather conditions, group preferences, or other uncontrollable factors can occasionally alter the details. The Trip Leader will adjust the schedule to make best use of these factors.
The following initials indicate the meals included each day:
Breakfast = B | Lunch = L | Dinner = D
The trip starts and ends in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Trip participants meet the trip leader and two guides at the Arctic Chalet at 8 pm, the night before the trip starts. While the Firth is in the Yukon Territory, Inuvik, situated in the very northwest corner of the huge Northwest Territories, is the closest town with a jet-serviced airport.
THE FIRST MORNING
On the first morning of the trip, everyone will have an hour or two to do any last minute errands in Inuvik. You may need to pick up something at the Northern Store (the new name for the old Hudson Bay stores in the north) or get a National Parks fishing license at the Parks Canada office.The trip leader will shuttle everyone and their gear to the airport. The flight to the river will leave the Inuvik Airport around 10 am. Your trip leader will confirm this time at the pre-trip meeting (the other guides will have flown in to the river with all the river gear earlier in the morning.)
FLYING IN TO THE RIVER
The flight in is in a deHavilland Twin Otter aircraft (the workhorse aircraft of the north). The route takes us over the maze of the Mackenzie River Delta. The myriad channels and thousands of lakes are home to many nesting swans, ducks and geese, which are easily spotted from the air. Once out of the delta we’ll keep our eyes peeled for larger mammals.
The Yukon is shaped like a tall pointed triangle wedged between the Northwest Territories to the east, Alaska to the west and the Arctic Ocean to the north. The 275 km flight into Ivvavik (formerly Northern Yukon) National Park takes us virtually across the narrowest part of the Yukon almost into Alaska. (The Park was established in 1984 and as yet is not shown on many maps.) A little over an hour after leaving Inuvik, we land near Margaret Lake on balloon-like “tundra tires” and taxi almost to the river’s edge.
Margaret Lake, the “put-in area” sits at 410 meters and we’ll wind our way downstream for 130 kilometers through the British Mountains to sea level at the Beaufort Sea. The put-in is very close to the border with Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and just over the hills to the south lie the Old Crow flats.
THE UPPER RIVER
At first, the Firth has a quiet nature. The low banks permit unobstructed views up the valley sides and imposing limestone crags rise from the river to 1680 meters in elevation. Our rafts glide over deep crystal clear pools full of grayling and char. In this area, one finds many coral fossils which further attest to the sedimentary nature of the geology. The river valley provides prime habitat for many birds: phalaropes, sandpipers, plovers, jaegers, terns,buntings, long spurs and even robins make it up here in summer. All along our route, we’ll hike back to small lakes and ponds to look for nesting loons and ducks.
We should see grizzly, caribou and moose. As in much of the area, caribou migration trails line the hillsides. Red fox and ptarmigan are common. There are many other areas, such as the Tatshenshini, with higher bear densities but the Firth may be hard to beat in terms of watching them on the open tundra. On rivers with thick brush, sightings of wildlife are usually brief as the animals wander through vegetation as they feed. On the Firth we carry a spotting scope on a tripod to take maximum advantage of wildlife viewing opportunities.
After a couple of days of travel we reach the area of Joe Creek, which is the Firth’s largest tributary. Here, as along much of the route, there are ancient signs of human use of the valley. The Inuit would leave the coast where their culture was centered to travel inland and hunt caribou and moose and fish for char.When we pick a nice campsite for the night - one with good wildlife viewing opportunities or perhaps a great fishing hole – we may find remains of old meat caches and the stone rings that once held down skin tents. The realizations that this land has been used by numerous native cultures for thousands of years evoke powerful visions.
THE MIDDLE RIVER – THROUGH THE BRITISH MOUNTAINS
Once past Joe Creek the river enters a beautiful canyon. For several days the riverbank is primarily canyon with scattered breaks. The landscape begins to change as the limestone rock type gives way to volcanics, the valley narrows, mountains steepen and a change in vegetation is apparent. Here the Firth is a combination of quiet pools and calm stretches between exhilarating rapids. The tortured strata of the geology is beautiful and contrasts with the round river rock and gravel on the bars.
There are ten species of raptor in the Park and the canyon walls are ideal nesting sites for some, including golden eagles and gyrfalcons. Snow-white Dall Sheep - North America’s northern most population - inhabit the canyons, as well as the mountain crags. We may float literally a stone’s throw from a band of big rams. Wolves are found throughout the watershed and are seen on many trips.
Just above the confluence of Sheep Creek are some of the bigger rapids of the trip. There are good opportunities to photograph the rafts coming through from the cliffs.
In July the Porcupine Caribou herd migrates across the Firth River. On occasion, we’ve been lucky enough to see 30,000 animals cross the river around our camp. In places there are still remnants of the stone caribou fences that Inuit hunters used to funnel the caribou into tight enclosures where they could more easily kill the animals with ancient weapons.
In time the river enters a low and spectacular canyon that continues for approximately 40 km.
THE LOWER RIVER & DELTA
After a few days, the British Mountains merge into the Buckland Hills. Soon the canyon walls are left behind and the Firth emerges onto the coastal plain. A few hundred yards from the river rises a rock knoll known as Engigstiack. Though only one hundred feet high, Engigstiack provides great views over the plain. The top is littered with the pellets of rough-legged hawks, gyrfalcons, snowy owls and golden eagles containing the undigested hair and bone of lemmings, ground squirrels and birds.
For thousands of years - probably back to the time of the Bering Land Bridge – hunters have stood atop this rock and gazed out over the tundra looking for the coming the caribou and other, now extinct, game. Engigstiack is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in the Yukon Territory and we’ll see signs of digs conducted by archaeologists on the nearby tundra.
At this latitude the land is underlain with permafrost so that only the top metre of the soils thaws out in the summer. This creates some interesting features such as polygons on the tundra but, because there is nowhere for the water to percolate to, the flat areas tend to be wet. Arctic ground squirrels and other burrowing creatures are consequently limited to areas on hills or along riverbanks where the soil does not freeze and is well drained. Wolves and foxes tend to den in similar areas. When we walk across the tundra, we hear the subterranean squeaks of voles and lemmings.
Shortly after Engigstiack, we leave the canyon-like nature of the Firth behind as it splays out into the Firth Delta. The tenth night is usually spent at the head of the delta where musk ox wool drapes the willow bushes. The musk ox herd is growing and we’re almost guaranteed to spot musk ox. Theherd is descended from animals that were reintroduced into nearby Alaska after having been extirpated by whalers looking for meat at the turn of the century.
The delta is quite broad and intricate. It’s prime habitat for turnstones, Golden Plovers, Snowy Owls and Tundra Swans. Bird species exotic to North America such as the Siberian Tit and Yellow Wagtail are often seen. As we approach the ocean, the channels get smaller and narrower.We may ask you to walk along the flat, flowered tundra for short distances to lighten the boats so they can float over the shallower bits. There may be a few spots where everyone has to pitch in to drag the boats a short distance.
THE ARCTIC OCEAN & BEAUFORT SEA
We camp on the beach of Nunaluk Spit at the mouth of the delta for our last night. Here we’ll enjoy the first campfire of the trip. As the forests are so sparse and spotty and the rate of growth so slow, the Parks Service has wisely restricted the use of campfires along the river for emergencies only so we will be cooking on propane stoves. The coastline, however,is lined with driftwood that has floated to the Beaufort Sea from points far south by the Mackenzie River and then floated to the west to the Firth Delta and Herschel Island.
The brackish, barrier-island lagoon system is very an important molting and staging area for scoters, old squaws, eiders, and shorebirds which thrive in the coastal lagoons that are formed by a series of shingle spits just off shore. Thousands of snow geese congregate here on southward migration in September.
Ocean currents bring rich, nutrient laden waters from the Mackenzie River to the east. This mix of fresh and saltwater helps support rich populations of fish which in turn are preyed upon by seabirds, waterfowl and ringed and bearded seals. It’s very rare to see a polar bear in the summer because, while they do roam the coast in winter, in summer they are typically found hunting seals out on the pack ice. But seals and beluga whales are commonly seen right off the lagoon’s barrier islands.
On the last morning of the trip the Twin Otter will pick us up off Nunaluk Spit’s beach. It will fly us across and over Herschel Island to Pauline Cove. While the plane returns to Nunaluk Spit to fly the rafting gear back to Inuvik we’ll have time to check out Herschel Island.
Herschel Island (or Qikiqtaruk as the Inuit call it) is the Yukon’s first Territorial Park and the only offshore island. Known for its abundant wild flowers and wildlife as well as interesting history, Herschel is essentially a large lump of permafrost and consists of 50% frozen water. Nearly eighty species of birds are found on Herschel. There’s even a colony of black guillemots in the abandoned mission school.
Pauline Cove has a number of historic buildings that date back to the turn of the century when American whalers would spend the winters between short whaling seasons.Whaling in the Beaufort Sea was as short as it was lucrative. In the 20-year period (about 1890-1910), the western Arctic population of bowhead whales was brought to the verge of extinction. The bowhead is slowly making a comeback but is still very much an endangered species. (If you’re lucky you may see some on the flight back to Inuvik.)
Many of the heritage buildings have been painstakingly restored and the backdrop behind the cove consists of graveyards – whalers, Inuit and Royal Canadian Mounted Police - that attest to the harsh times. But Herschel also shows signs of Thule Inuit occupation going back 1000 years and may have been used by peoples migrating from Asia across the Bering land bridge, perhaps as much as 30,000 years ago. The Inuvialuit people of the North Slope have strong family ties all along the coast from Barrow Alaska to the Mackenzie Delta. Herschel will be quite luxurious, as the Territorial Park staff have constructed outhouses and even a fancy sauna!
BACK TO INUVIK
Later on the afternoon of the final day, the Twin Otter aircraft will arrive back at Pauline Cove for the last leg back to Inuvik. Once back in Inuvik, we will transport you from the airport to your hotel in time for a final dinner (not included) with the crew. Remember that you will need a hotel room for this night. The next morning you may fly home.
Rates and Dates for Arctic Firth River
Accommodations, guided rafting, meals according to itinerary.
GST (VAT): 6% (12% for Canadian Resident)
GST (VAT) 6% (12% for Canadian Resident)
Transfer and Other Options:
Transfer from Inuvik
What To Bring:
Getting ready is part of the fun. This list is designed to simplify your packing. Please feel free to contact us with any items questions. We use chartered aircraft with limited load carrying capacity. Try to restrict your gear to an effective but lightweight set of outdoor clothing and equipment. Please limit your load to a total of 40 pounds. If you are in doubt about a certain item of clothing, bring it along and consult with the guides pre-trip. It can always be left behind if deemed unnecessary. We will arrange a place at the departure point for you to leave your travel clothing. Avoid bringing unnecessary valuables such as jewelry.
Tent – Mountain Hardware Trango 3, self-supporting dome tent - comfortable for 2 people with some remaining floor space for clothing etc. (single occupancy is $50). If you wish to bring your own, please contact us to approve the model and design.
Tent bag – we provide communal bags for transporting tents on the raft. Each bag holds 3 tents.
River bag – 115 litre, 30 gal – this is for your clothing and camp gear. When closed properly it provides waterproof protection. We have never encountered anyone who couldn’t fi t everything in this bag!
Day bag – 20 litre, 5 gal– a smaller bag for items you may wish to have access to during the day. Waterproof when closed properly. (note- this is not the same as the “day pack” listed below which you must bring for hiking).
Boot bag – a communal bag for carrying hiking boots during the day. When you stop for a hike, the guides will open this bag.
Cooking, eating utensils, table ware – All.
A. Camping Gear:
_____ sleeping bag - good to freezing or below
_____ sleeping pad - therma-rest or light air mattress are best
*the above items can be rented for $75.00/person per trip
B. Personal Clothing:
_____ t-shirts - three
_____ long-sleeved shirts – wool or synthetic
_____ sweater – polypro, fleece or wool
_____ warm jacket or vest – (e.g think puffy jacket, ski jacket etc.) an extra-thick fleece sweater and windbreaker could substitute
_____ windshell – should be big enough to go over a sweaters
_____ rain jacket (hooded) and pants - VERY IMPORTANT - must be waterproof and good quality – a poncho is NOT acceptable. (see “Comments on Gear – Foul weather clothing”)
_____ shorts - we suggest nylon ‘quick dry’ variety
_____ long pants - ‘quick dry’ nylon, synthetic blend or wool
_____ 1 extra pair of warm pile or wool pants - optional
_____ long underwear (not optional) – tops and bottoms – polypro is best (avoid cotton). There are various weights: light, medium or expedition Pick what is most comfortable for you, keeping in mind that you can layer your clothing.
_____ socks – several pair of wool are best
_____ hat – that can be tied on and with a brim that can protect you from the sun & rain (this is the land of the midnight sun!)
_____ toque (wool hat)
_____ swim suit
_____ running shoes, sport sandals, or equivalent - for camp wear
_____ hiking boots - lightweight
_____ rubber boots with insoles in the bottom – for wearing in raft and voyageur canoe (see Comments on Gear – Footwear)
_____ neoprene booties - with soles or overshoes – for two person canoe expeditions (see Comments on Gear – Footwear).
_____ glasses, contacts (spares), sunglasses – string to tie on
_____ personal toiletry items - soap, towel, shaving gear,
tooth brush, skin cream (to avoid severe drying of hands), etc. Consider a “camp towel” synthetic model. Some bring “baby wipes” for hygiene (we do provide an excellent hand washing system in camp)
_____ sunscreen lotion – with effective sun block – remember: land of the midnight sun!
_____ day pack -capable of holding rain gear, lunch, camera, etc. on hikes
_____ personal medications (bring in “carry-on” – also consider two sets and giving one to the Trip Leader for safe keeping)
_____ insect repellent & bug jacket. We strongly suggest that you bring a bug jacket, they are light weight and pack easily. We do sell “The Original Bug Shirt” see our website or call us for details.
_____ whistle – to attach to your personal flotation device (PFD)
_____ heavy duty garbage bags (U.S. = trash bag) - as insurance to keep your things dry in your waterproof bags
_____ plastic water bottle - for day hikes Must be 1 litre or greater
_____ knife, matches and/or lighter (in a waterproof container), compass if you wish, light cord for clothes line
_____ rubber dish gloves for cold water protection if necessary
_____ minor First Aid items – bandaids, pain relievers. We carry large expedition First Aid kits
_____ small musical instrument if you wish
_____ Passport and Visa (Your responsibility to determine if a Visa is required).
_____ Small nylon “draw string” organizing bags to keep clothing sorted in your pack
_____ camera and plenty of film - we recommend a waterproof box to protect it
_____ fishing rod and equipment (collapsible please). Check out more About Fishing!
_____ reading and/or writing materials (we bring a “library” with some field guides and trip specific literature)
_____ binoculars - a must for wildlife watching
_____ flashlight - only needed on August trips.
_____ gloves or mitts - for cold days (a must on the Tat/Alsek or any of our tundra trips!)
_____ A favourite alcoholic beverage – in a shatterproof container e.g. naglene bottle
_____ helmet (mandatory for three week whitewater from the Moose Ponds)
_____ Trekking poles - Collapsible walking stick(s)- An excellent asset for your knees & balance while hiking. Use them like ski poles.
_____ tent (we do provide them, but you may feel more comfortable with your own)
_____Wet suit or dry suit: Consider it for the Tatshenshini. We provide wet suits for rent on all rivers of Grade III. Wetsuits rentals must be confirmed 90 days prior to trip departure. If you are the type that cools easily, you should consider a wet suit for any trip – 3mm neoprene, short or long legs; sleeveless preferred.
We rent the following items: (Fees are per person/item, per trip.)
Wet suits $75.00 Cdn
Pelican professional water proof camera case $35.00 Cdn
Sleeping bag/therma rest combination $75.00 Cdn
Solar battery charger (your device must have a male cigarette lighter piece - not an invertor) $50.00 Cdn
To ensure we can supply your rental needs, please place your order before June.