Rafting through Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo Aaron Lang.

The quintessential trip for an adventure seeking naturalist, this trip is a true wilderness experience in a remote, wild, and rugged corner of Alaska. We’ll spend ten days exploring the Marsh Fork and Canning Rivers high in the mountains of the Brooks Range. Few birding groups venture into the Refuge, but over many years of leading trips here, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has become one of our favorite destinations. Of the many incredible birds of the Arctic Refuge, none is shrouded in more mystery than the Gray-headed Chickadee.

The shy and little known Gray-headed Chickadee spends its entire life in the extremely remote valleys in the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain range in Alaska. Despite the nearly complete lack of information on this species in North America, we’ve been successful in finding it in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge every summer except one since 1997. Aside from the allure of the Gray-headed Chickadee, the opportunity to travel through and bird in one of North America’s most remote and inaccessible wilderness areas is draw enough for many birders. While we’ve been birding this region for more than three decades, we continue to enjoy new discoveries on nearly every adventure—we go to look for chickadees, but always end up finding so much more.

We’ll travel about 45 miles of river and cover several good habitats for Gray-headed Chickadees. In previous trips to look for chickadees, we floated this stretch in eight days. The last two years, however, we’ve had mixed results with locating chickadees. In 2016, we didn’t find any chickadees at all. In 2017, we found one Gray-headed Chickadee, but unlike all previous successful trips, we were unable to locate an active nest. Spending ten days on this scenic river will allow more time to search for chickadees in proper habitat. We’ll have two extra hiking days to check out new areas along the river, search for other species, and slow down and enjoy the Arctic Refuge. Other birds of note that we may see include Smith’s Longspur, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Northern Wheatear, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Shrike, Peregrine Falcon, Arctic Warbler, and Wandering Tattler. Wildlife viewing opportunities on this trip are excellent. Dall sheep are common along the river. We often see wolves and almost always see grizzly bears. Even the reclusive wolverine is possible on this trip.

Rafting conditions consist of mostly Class I and II waters, with several miles of Class III whitewater, depending on water level. Our main obstacles will likely be low water conditions, periodic flooding, and lingering ice. Depending on conditions, we could encounter some necessary portages. Participants need to be in good health and physical condition, pack a positive attitude, and be capable of handling a variety of conditions. In spite of, or even because of these challenges, the trip offers countless rewards for those who travel through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A Gray-headed Chickadee stretches after a busy morning of catching bugs for two hungry chicks.

A Gray-headed Chickadee stretches after a busy morning of catching bugs for two hungry chicks. Photo Aaron Lang.