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Packrafting the Firth River: A five-river route in arctic Alaska and the Yukon.

Updated: Aug 22, 2020



Why the Firth?: The Firth is a really special river trip. Typically rivers in the Arctic travel through broad glacial valleys over cobble and often braided river bed. The Firth defies these norms and travels through a breathtaking low-walled canyon for much of its reach. In addition to excellent Arctic scenery, we also enjoyed the unparalleled wildlife viewing the Firth provided: musk ox, wolves, bears, moose, caribou, and sheep were frequent sightings on our trip. In late summer, the char were large and plentiful, and we caught our limit of fish each day. The Firth is a classic wilderness river trip typically done as a fly-in, fly-out rafting trip accessed from Inuvik, Canada.


Arctic Char are plentiful on the Firth so be sure to purchase a license .

Why packraft?: I started scheming up alternative ways to access the Firth and combined it with some other rivers to make it more cost-effective. Ultimately access and egress from the U.S. made the most sense. We packed a Beaver with 5 of us to cut costs and flew in and out from Coldfoot, Alaska. In addition to paddling the Firth, we also go to sample Mancha Creek, the Malcolm, Pagilak, and Kongakut rivers. The Firth will ultimately be costly no matter how you slice it, but we managed to run the trip for about $2,000 per person (which is a third of the price I calculated flying from Inuvik, Yukon and a quarter of the price that commercial outfitters will run the Firth). On top of the logistical pros, packrafting is worthwhile in Ivvavik because the hiking is excellent and you will see much more of the park than just the river corridor.



Ivvavik has some spectacular alpine hiking.

Flights/Trave  The Firth has a class III-IV vibe.  Due to the remote nature of the run, I would treat is as class IV.  While the vast majority of the whitewater is read and run class III, the vertical walls and continuous nature of some sections could make a swim dangerous.  There is a digital copy of the river guide available through the park as well as a extensive natural history guide. Mancha is a braided float as are the last few miles of the Kongakut.  I would recommend taking a day to lay over and paddle Malcolm Creek, a beautiful canyon stretch lasting only a few miles but containing some entertaining class III whitewater. The Pagilak has a consistent gradient of 100fpm but stays mostly class II-II+ when we saw it at low water.  Would likely be continuous class III with juice.


At times Ivvavik feels like you are in a zoo.

The River(s): There is a digital copy of the Firth river guide available through the Ivvavik National Park as well as an extensive natural history guide. The start of the trip on Mancha is low volume braided float. Once you are on the Firth you will need to use caution navigating the section of Aufeis (permanent river ice) that often leads to some short portages. Once beyond the braided upper section, the Firth takes on a class III-IV character. While the vast majority of the whitewater is read and run class III, the vertical walls and continuous nature of some sections could make a swim dangerous. Due to the remote nature of the run, I would treat is as class IV. As you hike west to return to Alaska, I would recommend taking a day to layover and paddle Malcolm Creek, a beautiful canyon stretch lasting only a few miles but containing some entertaining class III whitewater. The Pagilak has a consistent gradient of 100fpm but stays mostly class II-II+ when we saw it at low water.  It would likely be continuous class III earlier in the season. The remaining river miles on the Kogakut braided high volume river susceptible to heavy cold winds off the Arctic Ocean.


Paddling Ram rapid near the entrance of the canyon section.

Malcolm River Canyon. Flowing in the wrong direction but worth a day trip.

Permits: Yes.  Ivvavik National Park.  There are very few visitors to this park so the rangers all seemed excited to help our group prepare for the trip.  The backcountry permit cost $9 per person per day. While our entry and exit of the park by other means than plane was unusual they were supportive of our trip and only asked that we check in via inReach text once we left the park.  If you plan to paddle the Firth in late summer you MUST get a fishing permit: $33 per person.


August in the far north can be cold. Crossing back into the U.S. near the height of land between the Malcolm and Pagilak Rivers.

Resources:

Coyote Air: http://flycoyote.com

Ivvavik Natural History Guide and Firth Maps:

http://parkscanadahistory.com/geology/firth-river-valley.pdf


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