Foliage, Fish, and Berries in the Western Brooks Range, Alaska

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14018A, Backpacking


  • Hike some of the most scenic and rugged areas of the Brooks Range
  • Experience colorful tundra foliage under dramatic autumn lighting
  • Feast on sea-run arctic char and ripe tundra berries


  • Round-trip charter flights from Kotzebue
  • Hearty backpacking meals and snacks
  • Group cooking gear and cooking shelter 


DatesAug 17–27, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffDon Murch

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Trip Overview

The Trip

On this trip we will have the opportunity to visit a wild and untrammeled part of the Brooks Range at the peak of the fall foliage season. We will hike in the rugged and scenic Wulik Peaks area, located in Western Brooks range in the gap between Cape Kruzenstern National Monument and the Noatak National Preserve. We will see all phases of the Arctic, from lush shrub tundra to wind-blasted mountain crests. In addition, we will be traveling during the height of the season for blueberries, cranberries, and cloudberries.

The trip is timed to allow us to witness the tundra at the height of its fall colors. Although not as often mentioned in the travel literature as Alaska's mountains and wildlife, the autumn tundra spectacle rivals that of Vermont. The low cover of prostrate plants turns through an amazing array of colors from pale yellow to brilliant crimson, offset by the colors of the berries that these plants bear. The dwarf birch that gives its name to the shrub tundra ecosystem turns a shade of blazing orange that seems so bright it couldn't possibly be real. Couple these colors with the unique low-angle lighting of the fading arctic sun and you have a photographer's dream.

The tundra berries will be ready for us when we arrive. In the past, the Wulik basin has provided an abundance of blueberries for trips timed a week or two earlier. On this trip, we will be late enough to find ripe cranberries (actually, it's a close relative that is equivalent to the Swedish lingonberry) and cloudberries, too. There is hardly a backpacking meal that could not be improved with a side dish of freshly made cranberry sauce.

Another important attraction on this trip is likely to be the fishing. The Kivalina River is typical of pristine Brooks Range streams -- its impossibly clear water, tinted slightly blue-green, flows over gravel bars and cascades through rock ledges. These clear streams provide spawning habitat for arctic char, one of Alaska's most prized and best tasting fish. Arctic grayling, another legendary sport fish, will be there to entertain the fly-fishing enthusiast. There should be plenty of fishing opportunities for those interested, but non-fishers will also find plenty to do -- including savoring the catch.

Of course, there is more to Alaskan wildlife than fish and berries! Our entire route lies within the range of the Western Arctic caribou herd -- Alaska's largest herd at nearly 500,000 animals. Late August is at the tail end of the fall migration, but we should see at least some caribou. Other species are abundant, too, including grizzly bear, wolf, Dall sheep, and moose. We once had a musk ox visit our camp in the adjacent Wulik drainage, and wolves can sometimes be heard in the evening.


The trip will begin and end in Kotzebue, Alaska. Our bush pilot will meet us there and shuttle us to a landing strip at the very head of the Kivalina River. The upper Kivalina provides access to the rugged and scenic valleys that drain the north side of the Wulik Peaks. We plan a route on two parallel forks of the river, allowing a couple of layover days for fishing and dayhiking in the surrounding mountains. The leaders have extensive hiking experience and our diaries from past trips describe the best campsites, berry patches, and fishing holes along the way. In the past, there were complaints about the fish being too large for our frying pans and the berries being too much of a distraction from the hiking routine. We may not have those problems this year -- but don't count on it!



Getting There

Trip members are responsible for arranging their own transportation to and from the trip's starting point in Kotzebue. Arrive at Anchorage on or before Aug. 15 to be able to fly to Kotzebue on the morning of the 16th. The morning weather there can be iffy due to fog, so booking on the first flight of the day increases the chance of making one of the four flights per day to get you there. Your leaders will be in Anchorage on the 14th and will arrive in Kotzebue on the 15th so we can set up, do a little fishing, and meet everyone. There is no shopping in Kotzebue and we will be topping off our supplies in Anchorage before we depart west. It is an hour-long flight from Anchorage that is quite scenic from the windows of a 737. The leader will provide details on flight options to registered participants. Arctic air travel, commercial or charter, is not always on schedule and luggage is occasionally delayed. It is strongly advised that you allow leeway for delayed luggage due to weather conditions at both the beginning and end of the trip. Round-trip charter flights between Kotzebue and the Wulik Peaks backcountry are included in the trip fee.

Accommodations and Food

The Sierra Club furnishes stoves, pots, fuel, and a first-aid kit. As usual on Sierra Club outings, all members will help with cooking and clean-up. Food while in the field is included in the trip fee. Trip members should notify the leader of any special dietary requirements.

Lodging on the night before and the night after the trip is not included in the trip price. The leaders will assist in room reservations in a downtown B&B in Anchorage and at the Nulagavik Hotel in Kotzebue. More details on these arrangements will follow.

Trip Difficulty

The trip will be moderate (rating: 3), but due to the highly variable nature of arctic weather and cross-country travel, some backpacking days may be moderately strenuous. In this vast wilderness area, there are no trails except those made by wildlife. Therefore you should be in good physical condition and have backpacking experience.

Our route will cover no more than 35-40 miles, which can be hiked in five or six travel days. This will allow several layover days to explore with day packs. Mainly, we will hike on river bars and tundra. The trip will require crossing a low pass between tributary drainages with a total elevation change of less than 1,000 feet. Stream-wading will be necessary; be prepared for the possibility of wet feet on travel days. Elevation changes will be moderate except for those who choose to bag a local peak on layover days. Each person must carry his or her personal gear (not to exceed 35 pounds), plus about 12-18 pounds of food and community gear.

Equipment and Clothing

Late summer in the Brooks Range is generally moderate in temperature, although cold, stormy periods can occur. We will be late enough in the season that several hours of darkness will occur at night, and temperatures will fall below freezing at times. Be prepared to be out and active in the rain. Temperatures can range from the 30s to the 70s, dropping to as low as 20 degrees on clear nights, although wind chill can make it feel colder. Proper equipment, thoroughly field-tested before the trip, is critical. Personal gear must not weigh more than 35 pounds, including cameras and other hand-carried items. Each participant must provide his or her own backpack, sleeping bag, tent, raingear, and other camping necessities. A complete packing list will be sent to registered participants.


Some of these titles are out-of-print, but may be available at major libraries. The Title Wave Book Shop, in Anchorage, usually has used copies. Contact the leaders for an additional list of Alaska books related to specific topics of interest such as geology, climate, history, and wildlife.

  • Pielou, E.C., Field Guide to the Arctic. Probably the best and most readable textbook on the Arctic.
  • Brower, Kenneth, Earth and the Great Weather. A rich resource on the Brooks Range.
  • Kauffmann, John, Alaska's Brooks Range.
  • Marshall, Bob, Alaskan Wilderness.

"The Kotzebue Basin," in Alaska Geographic, Vol. 8, No. 3. The entire route of our trip and most of the Kivalina River basin can be seen on the U. S. Geological Survey 1:250,000 scale De Long Mountains sheet. The most detailed maps are the A-3, B-3, A-4, and B-4 1:63,360 scale De Long quadrangles (roughly equivalent to 15 minute quads for the lower 48). All can be ordered from the U.S.G.S. website. 


Alaska is a major conservation battleground. Throughout the state, issues of national significance involving wilderness protection, oil and mineral development, and forest and wildlife management receive high priority from the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations. And well they should -- Alaska's public lands belong to all Americans. One of our objectives is to inform participants of these issues so they'll become advocates for this very special land.

Of particular concern to us is the effect of a major mining operation on adjacent wilderness. In part, we will travel through unprotected lands once intended for inclusion in the Noatak Preserve, but left out because of their extensive mineral deposits. The 55-mile haul road for ore concentrate from the Red Dog Mine is currently a real concern for both native communities and the Park Service. The haul road now forms the nucleus for further development of additional metal mines and even coal, and ore dust from the current concentrate hauling has been leaving a heavy metal residue on the adjacent tundra. We will fly over the road on our air charter, and may see either the extensive port facilities for ore handling along the coast, or the mine itself, depending on our route.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from the Alaska Bureau of Land Management, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and the North Slope Borough.



Don Murch is an organic farmer, commercial fisherman, and wilderness guide with extensive travels in the wilds of Alaska. He has 35 years of experience planning and executing backpacking, rafting, and group tours in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Mexico. Gourmet cooking is one of his favorite pastimes.


Mike Abbott


Colton Abbott

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