The Hulahula River runs through Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, offering an unparalleled rafting experience with white water rapids and stunning scenery. The river travels from the Romanzoff Mountains through the foothills of the Brooks Range and out onto the coastal plain. It’s lauded on travel sites as the trip of a lifetime, and for many — it truly is — including the birds and wildlife who make their own journeys in and around this spectacular place.
The typical rafting trip is about 80 miles and eventually leads to the coastal plain with a short portage to currents that take you to the Beaufort Sea. Paddling along, the landscapes change from dramatic mountain backdrops to open tundra. These areas come alive in summer, and you’ll likely get just as swept away by the abundant diversity of plant and animal life as you will the currents of the river.
The Hulahula River may be known for rafting, but it’s also an incredible place to watch for birds and other wildlife.
Starting from Grasser’s Airstrip you can scan the mountains in the Mollie Beattie Wilderness for Dall sheep. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare gray-headed chickadees and other birds flying overhead in the open riparian wonderland.
Wildlife Spotting Along the Hulahula River
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has dense insect numbers in the summer, which is important for breeding birds. The summer’s burst of invertebrate life allows for quality meals for the birds living on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So many rely on the food sources to breed. Because so many birds come to the Arctic to nest, many of the birds you’ll encounter will be juveniles, making identification challenging. The bird book is sure to help!
Spotting American robins shortly after landing — what a delight and a surprise! They are an expected sight in suburban areas across the country, but it can be thrilling to see them in this wilderness, thriving all the same. As it turns out, the robin is a common breeder in Brooks Range.
In such an open and large landscape, you can hear and see off in the distance, but it takes a while to reach the source of any noise or movement. It just lets excitement build.
Watching for Wildlife While Rafting
Tip #1. Listen. You’ll hear birds long before you spot them, thanks to the calls of watchful adults.
Crossing through the canyon areas and the braided channels you are likely to come across parents and their young offspring. By listening to shrieks of adult birds you can often discern that young birds are nearby.
Tip #2. Pause along the bank. Moving along in a raft is advantageous for wildlife watching, but stopping to explore is important too.
Scan the shore and mountains for movement when you pause along the bank. If you spot a moving dot in the distance, take time to watch it. Along the early portions of the Hulahula in Arctic you are likely to spot caribou, bear, wolves and a number of bird species.
Tip #3. Look up. But also steer the raft.
At first, most of the birds you might see are glaucous gulls, one of the fierce predators and a common arctic breeder. As you get closer to the coastal plain you’ll see more arctic terns and parasitic and long-tailed jaegers. Pintail ducks and long-tailed ducks may be floating ahead of you in the river.
Reaching the Coastal Plain
As you leave the wilderness and the Brooks Range and come into the tundra, it’s amazing how far you can see. In fields of Alaska cottongrass, you might come across a rock ptarmigan, and a number of butterflies and moths. Patches of wildflowers will decorate your campsite. The land flattens out and you’ll drift quickly along the last portion of the river.
A Diversity of Habitats Means a Diversity of Wildlife
Rafting is a great mode of travel in the refuge, especially if you want to see distinct changes in habitat and of course the wildlife too. We think of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a single place, but it’s such a diverse network of landscapes. None of which are empty or barren. All are connected.
We hope whether your experience Arctic National Wildlife Refuge virtually or in person, you feel closer to it now. It’s an incredible place.
Photos and story by Danielle Brigida, Deputy Director of Digital Strategy at Department of the Interior.
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On a recent trip along the 80+ miles of the Hulahula River at Grasser’s Point to the Beaufort Sea, researchers were able to see these animals:
Complete Wildlife List
- Mosquitos — the dominant life form of the coastal plain
- Dall sheep: ~ 30 sheep were visible
- Caribou: ~2,500, mostly bulls
- Grizzly bear
- Red fox
- Arctic ground squirrels
- Polar bear: Sow with COY
- Beluga: ~20 spotted offshore from Arey Island
- Semipalmated plover
- Upland sandpiper
- Spotted sandpiper
- Semipalmated sandpiper
- Pectoral sandpiper
- Buff-breasted sandpiper
- Long-billed dowitcher
- Red-necked phalarope
- Red-breasted merganser
- Common eider
- Long-tailed duck
- Northern pintail
- Cackling goose
- Greater white-fronted goose
- Tundra swan
- Horned grebe
- Sandhill crane
- Red-throated loon
- Pacific loon
- Mew gull
- Glaucous gull
- Arctic tern
- Parasitic jaeger
- Long-tailed jaeger
- Peregrine falcon
- Rough-legged hawk (and chicks)
- Golden eagle
- Northern harrier
- Smith’s longspur
- Lapland longspur
- White-crowned sparrow
- Tree sparrow