Friends Sponsored Trip to the Arctic Refuge

Caribou, Mountains and the Marvelous Marsh Fork: Friends First Sponsored Arctic Refuge Trip a Blast

By Poppy Benson, Friends Board Vice President

A very compatible and interesting group of eight lucky Friends members from California, Oregon, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Homer signed up quickly enough to get on this trip (it filled in two hours after newsletter publication). pc: Jerry Britten     

Just go!  Just go to the Arctic Refuge.  Our trip was too much fun.  Caribou every day, the tundra in full bloom, mountains more magnificent than any of us expected, wolverine tracks in the mud, coral fossils from an ancient sea on every gravel bar, floating the splashy Marsh Fork of the Canning River, a golden eagle camp flyover, Marv and Jerry’s first grayling, springs and a secret canyon.  This trip exceeded all of our expectations.

We flew over the Continental Divide in a 4-seater Cessna 185.  The Marsh Fork drains north, to the Arctic Ocean. pc: Nancy Deschu

Our adventure started at refuge headquarters in Fairbanks where Arctic Refuge Wilderness Specialist and sage of the Arctic, Roger Kaye, filled us in on the history of the Refuge.  This was a Friends trip so getting the inside scoop on the Refuge was part of the deal.  Later, we spent an hour with Arctic Refuge Manager, Merben Cebrian.   Next, we met our wonderful guides, Aaron Lang and Chris Mannix from Wilderness Birding Adventures who knew every bird and flower and were a real comedy act.  Then two flights in progressively smaller planes before we landed on a bouncy tundra strip to spend our first night beside the river under the midnight sun. 

Paddle raft teamwork is fun.  We took turns paddling or riding in the oared boat which was better for photography. pc: Poppy Benson

For the next 10 days we alternated a day of river rafting with a day of hiking with great weather and minimal bugs.  There was work – dragging the boats across the aufeis to get to the river the first day, hauling gear, repairing the gravel bar “landing strip” so our pilot could pick us up at the end; and there were joyous experiences  – wading into the cave to discover the stream did not spring from the earth but fell from the sky into the cave in a hidden waterfall, watching a caribou succeed in crossing the river after a long struggle against the current, seeing the big blonde grizzly swim the river and spotting the northern shrike chick its parent was noisily defending.   It was heaven.

Flowers, birds, views and loafing were highlights of our hiking days  pc: Poppy Benson

This was the first time Friends attempted to “sponsor” a trip to a remote refuge.  The point was to get Friends out on the Arctic Refuge so we had a chance to form our own bond with the land and its wildlife.  All of us felt touched by the grandeur of the place.  The landscape was incredibly vast and wild and needs our care and protection. 

Carol Harding from Homer said “Seeing the caribou moving north every day,“ was the best part of the trip for her. For Marv Ritter of Oregon it was watching the lone caribou fight the river current.  Caribou were part of every one of our days.  pc: Poppy Benson.

Based on this trip’s success and the demand to get out on refuges, we are planning a summer 2024 Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge raft trip.