Arctic rivers transport huge quantities of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) to the Arctic Ocean. The prevailing paradigm is that DOC in arctic rivers is refractory and therefore of little significance for the biogeochemistry of the Arctic Ocean. We show that there is substantial seasonal variability in the lability of DOC transported by Alaskan rivers to the Arctic Ocean: little DOC is lost during incubations of samples collected during summer, but substantial losses (20–40%) occur during incubations of samples collected during the spring freshet when the majority of the annual DOC flux occurs. We speculate that restricting sampling to summer may have biased past studies. If so, then fluvial inputs of DOC to the Arctic Ocean may have a much larger influence on coastal ocean biogeochemistry than previously realized, and reconsideration of the role of terrigenous DOC on carbon, microbial, and food-web dynamics on the arctic shelf will be warranted.