Musk Ox Magic at Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Alaska

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14008A, Base Camp


  • Hike scenic tundra ridges with panoramic views of the Chukchi Sea
  • Experience the explosion of wildflowers and birds at the start of the arctic summer
  • Visit locations known to be inhabited by musk oxen at a time when young calves are likely present


  • Round-trip charter flights from Kotzebue over the Noatak River delta and Krusenstern Lagoon
  • Hearty base camp meals and snacks with group cooking gear and cook shelter
  • Day hikes led by an experienced naturalist intimately familiar with the area


DatesJun 15–21, 2014
StaffFrederick Paillet

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Trip Overview

The Trip

On this trip we will have the opportunity to visit a wild and untrammeled part of Alaska at the point where the Brooks Range foothills meet the coast on the Chukchi Sea.  We fly into an area within Cape Krusenstern National Monument, established to preserve scenic arctic coastlands and lagoons along with the adjacent limestone ridges. The trip is timed to allow us to witness the tundra at a time when its drab brown landscape is exploding with new life.  The Cape is known to have a good population of resident musk oxen. We will spend days hiking on the firm lichen surface of ridges as we glass the countryside, looking for them and other wildlife. The Cape is also famous as the location where the pioneering archaeologist Louis Giddings worked out the sequence of local Inuit culture.  He was able to do this by tracking changes in artifacts along a profile across sequentially deposited coastal dunes in the days before radiocarbon dating was known. The Cape has a series of more than 100 beach ridges that span a human settlement history of more than 5,000 years! 

The trip includes a bush charter flight from Kotzebue to the Cape, which offers panoramic views of the vast Noatak River delta, the rising crest of the Brooks Range to the east, and the great series of coastal dunes studied by Giddings. You will fly over the farthest northwest limit of trees in all of North America to see the intricate inter-fingering of spruce galleries, alder scrub, willow thickets, and then open tundra.  In the trip leader's scouting of this area several years ago, he had the additional excitement of an abruptly aborted landing when a small herd of musk oxen suddenly rushed out onto the landing strip beneath the aircraft. This is unlikely to happen again, of course, but serves as an example of the unexpected adventures the arctic has to offer. Other wildlife we may possibly see includes moose, caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, and arctic or red foxes. Another attraction is the presence of many ground-nesting birds, such as plovers, jaegers, and longspurs. Birders should be on the lookout for Asian species, such as the white wagtail that irregularly show up on the wrong continent.

Our trip will take us well north of the Arctic Circle so that you will experience the midnight sun.  We may have some cloud cover, but nothing even like twilight will occur during our stay.  Our day hikes will be mostly on the firm footing of ridges and promontories, with the Chukchi Sea almost always in view. In addition to our constant lookout for musk ox bands, we will learn to read the arctic landscape, with patterned ground and solufluction lobes on hillsides as the hallmarks of permanently frozen soil beneath the shallow turf.  Along the way, we will celebrate the restoration of the musk ox to Alaska as one of the great ecological recovery achievements in American wildlife history.


The trip will begin and end in Kotzebue, Alaska. Our bush pilot will meet us there and shuttle us to a landing strip on a ridge crest overlooking the coast. We will set up our base camp above a small drainage that serves as our water supply. Then we will plan day hikes over the cluster of ridges around camp to find the location of musk ox herds and plan a closer investigation -- usually allowing approaches to within about 100 feet. On one day we will hike to the beaches below and visit nesting bird colonies (terns and gulls) located around lagoons behind the barrier beach berms. On the other days we will follow ridge crests and higher drainages north, south, and toward the east while we search for wildlife and discuss the many unique features of the arctic environment.



Getting There

Trip members are responsible for arranging their own transportation to and from the trip's starting point in Kotzebue. Please plan on arriving in Anchorage on or before June 14, then flying to Kotzebue on the early morning of June 15, and finally departing from Kotzebue on or after late afternoon on June 21. There is a good, modern hotel in Kotzebue, and an older (lots of character) lodge with a good restaurant for those who want to stay over.  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 Cape 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. There are many good places to stay and lots of things to do around Anchorage. Most current flights from Anchorage to Kotzebue also stop in Nome. There is an extensive road network around Nome to be explored by rental vehicle, although none are connected to the outside world. For those staying over in Anchorage, the Palmer musk ox farm is a great day excursion about an hour northeast of town.  The leader will help organize optional excursions to the farm, which can be combined with a visit to the Matanuska Glacier, Hatcher Pass, and other local sights of interest.  

Trip Difficulty

The trip will be rated light (rating: 3 out of 5), but due to the highly variable nature of arctic weather and cross-country travel, some days may be moderately strenuous.  Although this is a base camp trip, a short backpack will be required to transport equipment and supplies from the landing strip to a suitable camp.  Musk oxen may be located in drainages among the willows, which requires walking on lower slopes in rough sedge tussock terrain in order to approach them.  In this vast wilderness area, there are no trails except those made by wildlife. Therefore you should be in reasonably good physical condition and have some hiking experience.  Day hikes may vary from four to 10 miles, depending on the location of wildlife and the abilities of participants. 

Equipment and Clothing

Early summer in the Brooks Range is generally moderate in temperature, although cold, stormy periods can occur.  Be prepared to be out and active in the rain. Temperatures can range from the 20s to the 70s, 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 so that we can meet weight limits for the bush flight. Participants must provide their own backpack (needed to carry gear from the strip to base camp), 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.
  • Gray, David R.,  The Musk Oxen of Polar Bear Pass. The single most detailed reference on musk ox ecology and behavior.
  • "The Kotzebue Basin," in Alaska Geographic, Vol. 8, No. 3.
  • Giddings, J. Louis and Douglas Anderson, "Beach Ridge Archaeology at Cape Krusenstern," NPS Publications in Archaeology, No. 20 (1986)
  • Brower, Charles E., Forty Years Below Zero. Memories of an earlier trapper witnessing the adaptation of native Inuit to western culture.

The entire area around our base camp can be seen on the U. S. Geological Survey 1:250,000 scale Noatak sheet. The most detailed maps are the B-3 and B-4 1:63,360 scale Noatak 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 to the east of the Monument on adjacent National Park Service wilderness lands. The 55-mile haul road for ore concentrate from the Red Dog Mine passes through the Monument and is currently a real concern for both native communities and the Park Service. The haul road now forms the nucleus for development of additional metal mines, and ore dust from the current concentrate hauling has been leaving a heavy metal residue on the adjacent tundra. From our vantage point on the highest ridges surrounding our base camp, we will see the extensive port facilities for ore handling along the coast in the far distance.

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 a permit from Alaska National Parks.



Dr. Fred Paillet recently retired as a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. A former professor of geology, Fred has spent more than two decades collecting field data in many national parks and foreign countries. He has been visiting Alaska since 1988 and has experienced arctic environments in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and Central Asia, as well as numerous locations in the United States. He has been a staff member on several Sierra Club Alaska outings and is an accomplished artist and naturalist. Fred loves to capture the emotion and detail of the Arctic landscape in pen and ink drawings produced on the spot -- complete with flattened mosquito carcasses for authenticity.

Assistant Leader:

David Brenner

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