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Alaska waterways

Squirrel River


NOTE: These reports may not contain important information about: 1) safety, 2) land management and ownership, 3) fishing and other regulations and 4) possible errors > READ MORE

Complete river log

From: David Dapkus
Subject: Field Inspection of the Squirrel River, August 6-13, 1975

The Squirrel River was included in a list of 40 Alaskan river areas recommended by the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in July of 1972 for detailed study as potential additions to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. A study was subsequently conducted of the river area. The Squirrel River was found to possess outstanding values and to qualify for inclusion in the National System. It lies within (d)(2) lands proposed for designation as the Noatak National Arctic Range, and Native village (Kiana) withdrawal lands.

Although originally recommended by BOR for possible inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, no fieldwork had been previously done on the Squirrel River, and it is not currently proposed for wild river designation. At the request of the Assistant secretary's Office and as part of BOR's technical assistance to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in evaluating river-related resources within proposed refuge/range systems, an interagency field inspection was made of the Squirrel River. Participating in the field inspection were:

John Blankenship - G.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Anchorage
Scott Grundy - Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Fairbanks
David Mihalic - BLM, Fairbanks District, Fairbanks
David Dapkus - BOR, Alaska Field Office, Anchorage

Two fifteen foot Klepper kayaks were used for the river inspection.

August 6

John Blankenship and I (with field gear) left Anchorage International Airport via Wein jet at 9:30 a.m., to Kotzebue, and then took a Wein twin Otter to the village of Kiana; arriving at 12:30 p.m. Scott Grundy had flown in to Kotzebue from Fairbanks and took the same flight as we to Kiana. Dave Mihalic was waiting for us at Kiana being flown there from Bettles by BLM Boeing 205 helicopter. Mihalic and I took half the field gear in the helicopter and made the first flight into the headwater of the Squirrel River. We sat down, after about a 20-minute flight, 67 miles up the 72 mile long river on a long gravel bar. The river from the air, looked to be too shallow further upstream to float the kayaks. John and Scott followed shortly with the remaining gear. We made camp and explored the immediate area for the remainder of the day.

The river was very low varying from 2" to 3', 20 feet wide, current between 2 and 3 mph, and crystal clear blue/ green in color. We caught a few grayling and observed chum salmon making their way upstream. There was fresh bear and moose sign on the gravel bars along the river. The upper section of the river runs in a U shaped 1/2-mile wide valley lying between 300'-400' rolling hills. Predominant vegetation is alpine tundra with scattered willow brush on the riverbanks. The view from this point on the river was an expansive one of alpine tundra covered valley and nearby rolling hills, with the Baird Mountains in the background on all sides except south. It had been a warm day with the sun shining brightly in a blue sky, a perfect start for any trip.

August 7

We woke up to a brilliant sun and blue sky, which continued throughout the entire field inspection except one rainy five hours on August 9. We broke camp, put the folding Klepper kayaks together, and leaving at noon made about 8 miles before again making camp. The river was a clear, emerald green color, 15' to 60' wide, current averaging 2 mph., and flowing between 8' deep pools across gravel bars at usual water depth of one inch. We spend our time half and half -floating and dragging across the gravel bars. There are some overhanging willows brush and white spruce trees scattered down the river but do present much hazard. We did not encounter any rapids along this section of river nor did we later find any rapids along the entire course of the river. We found the river from its headwaters to the confluence with the Kobuk River at Kiana to fall in Class I on the International Whitewater Scale.

Grayling fishing was excellent; all caught were between 14"-19" long and deep, full bodied fish. Scott took a scale, length, and weight survey of about 100 grayling caught and released. Chum salmon were running in schools of 50-75 fish, they looked to be in excellent condition. Fresh noose and bear sign was plentiful along the riverbanks. We observed a dozen ducks and a dozen glaucous gulls.

The low river valley widened to two miles with the Baird Mountains continuing in the background at a distance of eight miles away. The vegetation gradually changed from being alpine tundra dominant to white spruce dominant with thick willow brush interspersed with white spruce along the riverbanks. Views from the river were pleasant, nearby rolling hills, distant mountains - but not grand. The riverbanks seem to be continuous, smooth skipping rock, gravel bars. Most gravel bars were very level and about 200 yards long; several were over an estimated 1000'-1500' long. These gravel bars made excellent campsites.

August 8

We covered about 10 miles on the second day, camping a few miles below the North Fork. Spent the time again half and half -dragging across the shallow gravel bars and floating through the pools. Water remained green and clear, 100' wide, 1" to 10' and current averaging 2 mph. We went past many dry channels in which water was flowing when we took an over flight of the river during June.

The river valley widened to five miles with 2000' high Kiana Hills appearing on the south. The dominant white spruce trees were appearing in more dense stands, following in lesser numbers by willows. Occasional tundra patches were interspersed between the spruce and willow. Campsites were numerous due to the continuous gravel bars.

We observed a variety of birdlife. Among them were 25 sand hill cranes in flight, two golden eagles, and one other unidentified raptor, a long-tailed jaeger, ravens, several glaucous gulls, one mallard hen, and two-dozen Canada geese in three families. We also observed school after school of chum salmon, all appearing in excellent shape. Grayling fishing remained excellent, all large full-bodied fish.

August 9

Gray low overcast turned to heavy rain from 9 a.m. to 2 p. m., this day, followed by clear skies and sunshine. We covered about 16 miles through shallow riffles and deep pools, but only had to get out of the kayaks a few times to drag across the gravel bars. The North Fork and Ornar River (tributaries to the Squirrel), although small, contributed enough water to deepen most riffles to 3" to 6". The river current was 2/3 mph in a 100' wide slightly meandering channel that had no rapids. The water remained crystal clear and emerald green.

The vegetative cover, the view from the river, and campsites remained as on the previous day. We continued to encounter plentiful birdlife - glaucous gulls, Canada geese, and ducks. Also continued to pass through schools of dog salmon. The salmon were followed by large numbers of grayling. The grayling were feeding on the newly deposited salmon eggs when possible.

August 10

We traveled 15 miles on this, another sunny day. The river was flowing 2-3 mph, it was 100'-150' wide, more than 10' deep in the larger pools (we no longer had to drag across riffles), and remained clear green in color. During the last two miles the river bottom, banks, and bars turned from gravel to sand. Campsites were not as plentiful or pleasant on the sandbars as they were on the gravel bars. The river also started to flow in large meanders with long oxbow backwaters appearing off to the south side of the river.

The vegetation remained about the same as previous days, except the willow stands became even denser. Excellent vistas of the Kiana Hills to the south added to the beauty of the river. We inspected an old Native fish camp with two partially standing cabins on the south bank and saw a new cabin (painted red) on stilts after having gone past it some distance. These were the only permanent man made structures found on the entire river.

We saw 14 sand hill cranes feeding on a gravel bar, a yearling black bear which wandered through camp the previous night, 14 molting Canada geese scrambling up a riverbank, 12 ducks, and 24 birds identified as whirnberells. Continued to observe schools of dog salmon followed by grayling. We saw two schools of grayling, estimated to be more than 1000 fish in each school.

The most significant find on the trip was a mastodon tusk discovered by John Blankenship. The tusk is from the Oligocene and Pleistocene epochs. It was 5'-6' long, 8" in diameter, and weighted about 150 pounds. The tip on the small end was broken off. It was lying in the middle of the river under 4' of water, and almost completely exposed on the gravelled river bottom. It is now being "restored" by experts at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Plans call for it to be publicly displayed at a future time.

August 11

The river widened to 200 feet with an average depth in this lower reach of 4' and it continued to flow 2 / 3 mph. It remained clear and green as it flowed in great meanders along the Kiana Hills. The river bottom and banks consisted of sand with some sandbars being the submersion type. These submersion sandbars must be carefully avoided due to the danger of sinking if one walks on them. We paddled 10 miles this day.

The only change in vegetative pattern was the addition of small-scattered clusters of black spruce. Views from the river remained pleasant, but not outstanding. Camping on the sandbars was not enjoyable, except that we had plenty of dead willow brush for the cooking fire. We passed one marked Native allotment on the river's south side.

We continued to observe a variety of birds including 10 sand hill cranes, four Arctic loons, two-dozen bar tailed godwits, and several mergansers. We saw a few grayling and chum salmon, but had no success in catching any for dinner. A young red fox walked into camp, inspected our gear and tents, barked at us and left -then barked most of the night to let us know we were intruders.
August 12
We paddled through 8 miles of slow (1 mph) moving river, arriving at the village of Kiana in mid-afternoon. The river varied from 100'-200' in width, average depth of 4' sand bottom, and remained clear and green colored.

The river valley narrow along the last six miles of river to about 1 mile. White spruce and willows grew even denser in this section. We paused to look over a gill net set about 1/ 2 mile upstream of Kiana. Kiana Natives were enjoying a busy fishing period as evidenced by the full racks at Kiana.

We observed four Arctic loons, two mergansers, blackbirds, yellow warbler, and mew and glaucous gulls. Also saw sheefish and a few chum salmon, but were unsuccessful in catching any. We were informed in Kiana that the lower (10-20 miles) of the river have burbot, whitefish, and northern pike besides being good sheefish area.

We had the local storeowners haul our gear about 1/ 2 mile to the airport where we camped for the night. Met Pat Pourchot and team the next day, arriving for the Salmon River inspection, at the Wein flight from Kotzebue and took that flight back to Kotzebue then another flight to Anchorage.


We covered 67 miles out of the total 72 mile long Squirrel River in six easy days, could be done in five fairly easy days. The river is slow and smooth Class I water with little hazard other than some submersion sandbars in the lower reach. The first 25 miles are shallow and are spent in and out of the canoe dragging and floating. It is, however, a good enjoyable family canoeing river.

The grayling and chum salmon fishing is excellent along most of the river; so we were informed is the sheefish, burbot, and northern pike fishing along the lower 10-20 miles. The river has the clearest, emerald green, water I've seen. Bird and animals living in the area are plentiful, varied, and from my experience, easily observed. There is little evidence of man along the river.

Complete River Log


PDF icon Squirrel River [621 kb]


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