Kayaking the Noatak

Daniel S. Weld

Great and dismal wilderness? It's been said that the three places with the worst weather in the United States are the Adirondacks, the North Cascades, and Alaska. I guess I'm a glutton for punishment. Soon after completing the forty six, I moved to Washington, and in late August 1990, my wife Margaret and I joined our Seattle friends Kim and Robert to do a kayak trip down the Noatak river in Alaska; it turned out to be quite an adventure! I've never seen such wilderness before, and for good reason: the Noatak is arguably the largest wilderness river basin in the world. During the trip we were beginning to believe that it had the worst weather too. Of course, we knew in advance that the Noatak basin was completely above the Arctic circle, but we didn't expect it to rain for 12 out of 16 days. The temperatures never stayed below freezing for long, and luckily the snow always stayed on the hills just above us, but it was constantly windy. Except for the last two days, we were always fighting headwinds in the kayaks. With rain and spray in our faces, the days felt long and tiring. The misery was compounded by our last minute decision to double our paddling to a full 375 miles: from the river's headwaters, deep in the Brooks Range mountains of Gates of the Arctic National Park, all the way to the Inupaq Eskimo village of Noatak (pop. 290) near the braided delta. Unfortunately, this change of plans eliminated the option of some leisurely hikes along the river and put us under tremendous pressure to fight the elements, make miles, and ensure that we'd get out before running out of food.

Thus my overall memories of the trip are of challenge. A large part of the ordeal was physical discomfort, mainly cold, but the mental challenge was harder. Maintaining good spirits in the face of adversity, discomfort, and stress for weeks on end, just wishing the trip was over --- it was tough. For 10 days we saw no one (despite covering 30 miles / day) and we grew to understand how incredibly vast the area was. I felt small and alone.

We started in Kotzebue, the largest city in NW Alaska (population something over 3000 people). Although the people were very friendly, one look at the desolate main street made me happy that I didn't live there; the dirt track parallels the windswept beach, haphazardly lined with weather-beaten houses popping from the permafrost on stilts. I wondered how Margaret would survive her month's rotation at the tiny hospital following our voyage. The next morning a pilot with the improbable name of Buck Maxim flew us to Pingo lake (the start of our journey) with two trips of his tiny plane. For navigational reasons, he kept within a few hundred feet of ground. The landscape was mottled by lakes everywhere, and with no trees in sight it was impossible to gain any sense of scale. We landed about 15 miles West of Mt. Igikpak, at 8510 feet, the highest peak in the Brooks range. That afternoon we took advantage of the (soon to disappear) good weather and climbed an unnamed 4000 foot peak for fantastic views that stretched endlessly.

It was astonishing how quickly summer turned to fall and then winter --- we saw it all. The first day was sunny and warm with just a hint of color in the small leaves of the tundra. As the cold weather hit, we were struck by the speed with which the yellows, golds and amber colors deepened. With no trees in view, the ground had no competition for our attention. It was hard to look anywhere but at our feet, the patterns were so gaudy and fascinating. After a week, when the first snows hit the area, the colors blended into white in the hills and mountains above us providing beautiful contrasts. When we first arrived, it never got dark. One night when I climbed out of the tent at 2:30am to pee, it felt like dusk and I couldn't see stars. By the end of the trip, however, there were several hours of real darkness at night. In the warmth of my down bag, I pondered the length of a night in December and was glad I would be far to the south.

The animals were also amazing: Dall Sheep climbing nimbly over the cliffs, Arctic Ground Squirrels standing erect above neat burrows, Golden Eagles gliding silently 3 feet above the tundra in search of dinner, a Red Fox trotting, self-absorbed, along the gravelly bank, Peregrine Falcons, Green-Winged Teal, Snow Geese flying south, Arctic Grebes, Ptarmagin flushed into flight, and the eerie cry of Arctic Loons with familiar but distinct colors. The caribou were everywhere. Their tracks marked every gravel bar and their cast-off antlers could be found nestled in the red tinted tundra mosses. We saw solitary bulls and great herds milling south. Several times we happened to paddle around a bend to find a herd crossing the river swollen with rain, calves struggling closely behind the adults, all shaking themselves dry in a flurry of white drops.

The first few days we did not see any Grizzlies and our dissappointed conversation frequently concerned the probable location of "The Major". Our first sighting was on a brief hike after lunch - we climbed a knoll and spotted a huge sow with two large cubs. Luckily, they were upwind and didn't notice us --- we didn't relish a sprint back to the kayaks... It was fascinating to watch Ursa's gait; she ambled along with relaxed yet powerful strides nosing here and there. We really could see her muscles ripple underneath the thick coat of fur. From then on, whenever we sighted a grizzly we recalled John McPhee's observation that the grizzly is more than an animal, it is a symbol of wilderness itself. Because each bear needs so much land to support itself, each animal symbolizes hundreds of acres of wilderness. Just seeing a grizzly reminded us how far we were from civilization.

One night we had just climbed into our sleeping bags when a pack of wolves started howling. There were many, many voices joining the chorus and it went on and on. What a mood those tones created, and what dreams!

The trip was also full of adventure. Initially the water level was very low and the first tender rock scrapes gave gentle warning of the importance of routefinding through the rapids. There was no second warning ..., the next day we ripped the shit out of the bottom of our cheap Soviet-made kayak. We pulled over quickly as water was entering fast. There were about four incisions, each between 4 and 10 inches long. As we were only two days into the trip and over 330 miles from civilization, we quickly considered our supply of patches, glue and duct tape. The news was not encouraging --- why hadn't we brought a spare roll of tape? From then on, even the smallest rapid caused me nervousness and the next few nights I developed a ritual of drying the kayak bottom, making a close inspection, and repairing / replacing the duct tape reinforcement.

As the trip went on, the problem grew less acute because of the rain. Some nights the river rose a foot or more. We pondered the balance of the wilderness... for while the rain made our life miserable, it spared Boris (our kayak) and increased the current and hence our speed on the river. It also made the rapids more exciting. Boris had no spray skirt, so whoever was in the bow frequently got huge standing waves dumped in their lap. Mmmmm. Cool and refreshing! With the cold weather, we developed the pattern of stopping every few hours for a break of some calisthenics to warm us up (with a snatch of food for endurance). These exercises grew so common that one morning when I heard snorting outside my tent, I assumed that it was Robert breathing heavily from jumping jacks while waiting for the coffee water to boil. In fact, it was a herd of caribou panting after crossing the river and climbing to our campsite knoll!

The weather climaxed in a few wicked storms that kept us tent-bound and catching up on our reading. I was awfully happy with the performance of our tent - no penetration. On a few lucky evenings, I remember setting up camp with marvelous golden light. Perhaps we had time to stroll to a hill above camp and gaze over the countless lakes and ponds created by the permafrost's poor drainage. Most days, however, we eased the torment of kayaking with a ritual of the dinner menu. Since the couples alternated cooking duties, they also traded the challenge of gourmet menu description. With careful crafting, a complete evening's menu could distract paddlers for a full half hour. Dinners were the highlight of the trip, and they always started with the cocktail hour. Red wine and gin were the favorites, followed by a course of miso soup (with more traditional hearty fare for Robert). The main courses ranged from pad thai to pasta primavera --- all were excellent! In the mornings, we were sometimes treated to baked goods (banana bread, cinnamon rolls, etc) by Kim; what a way to wake up!

On a grand scale, the river was divided into four sections, each with a very different feel. Initially, we were surrounded by high mountains; the river was small and shallow. After a few days, the valley opened up to a huge plain; navigation was difficult with few recognizable hills to track. Then the mountains closed in again as we entered the Grand Canyon of the Noatak; by this time the mountain summits were draped in white affording a stunning backdrop for the fall foliage. When we left the sharp Noatak Canyon, the valley opened up again, but the ambience was quite different because we could still see distant mountains in all directions. The river started braiding fiercely with the flood waters and navigation became almost hopeless. We started to see trees! With the vast mountains behind the first stands of dark evergreens and small groves of yellow cottonwoods, both Margaret and I felt that we were finally getting to see the Alaska we had expected from photos.

In the last few days, our solitude was touched by the proximity of the village of Noatak. During the day we saw several hunting parties cooking Caribou steaks on gravel bars. At sunset we heard power boats whining back to the village, laden with up to five carcasses. When we finally arrived at our destination, it seemed that every child in the town came out to greet us. We had all the help we could wish, moving gear to the landing strip and dismantling the boats. Throughout the afternoon, Honda ATVs (some loaded with up to seven bored kids) zoomed by our stash, around and back again. Noatak, it seemed, did not supply too many entertainment alternatives. It being Sunday, we were invited to church at six. Everyone was there for the "Friends" service that seemed more Baptist than Quaker. Lots of singing. Afterwards we were besieged with introductions and invitations to dinner. We accepted one and followed Ricky Ashby home to a modest apartment for some Caribou stew and wild berries - a typical and delicious meal. The conversation with Ricky (about traditions, elders, relations with the US government, and alcoholism) were fascinating. We let ourselves be coaxed into spending the night and got a huge feast for breakfast. Soon we flew back to Kotzebue, ending a memorable trip that I hope keeps its ``unique'' place in my experiences.