Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 14

Wind again. The snow isn't sticking, but it's everywhere, with visibility of about a mile. I want to make it to Kelly Station in two days, within reach, but if the wind is too strong I'll wait at the top of the Canyon until it gets better. According to Bob, there is no place in the Canyon to pull out during high water. Bob and Chuck left earlier, but I catch up and pass them. About fourteen miles down I finally see the kind of Caribou I've been waiting for. Four big males about to cross. The water is too rough again for me to stop paddling and take a picture, so I turn the canoe around and paddle up river so I can remain in view for as long as possible while they cross.

There is a large opening in the clouds to the west, heading this way. It brings wide open skies and plenty of wind. There is no such thing as a perfect day above the Arctic Circle. I stop at several small banks and bars, always keeping a keen eye on the sand, but there is no adequate place to camp. I am passed by a small motorboat heading down river at high speed. Subsistence hunters from Noatak. Farther down I come across their camp. A local named Steve and a teacher who's name eludes me. They came up river before the flood and bagged three Caribou. They are leaving for Noatak within the hour.

Thumbing for a ride was a difficult decision to make. I talked to them for an hour before doing so. Between bites of biscuit and bacon I kept asking myself if I was wussin' out. I haven't yet seen the massive herds of Caribou I came to see, but according to these locals, the herd will be late this year. I haven't caught a fish, but these guys say nobody has caught anything on this river for weeks. I'm ten days ahead of my original itinerary. The weather report from the Ranger two days ago was the deciding factor. If the coming rains bring water as high or higher than the last round, I'd rather be off this river. They are friendly and agree to toe my canoe.

We tie the canoe to the side of their boat, a Lund, and head down river. I have to bail the canoe every fifteen minutes or so. As we enter the smaller yet more dramatic Noatak Canyon, the sheer walls and strange currents lead me to think I made the right decision. A bou, close to the river, gets Steve's attention. He pulls the boat around and gets out, rifle in tow.

Click, click, bang. Two dud shells and a miss. Life sucks. The bou does not move. Bang and a hit. The stag runs into some bushes and out of sight. We all walk and stumble up hill. It looks dead, but when we approach it springs to life, but its out of control as its unable to use its right side. It falls and get four shots in the head from a 22 pistol. With muscles still twitching they test to see if it's really dead by placing the flat of a knife blade against its eyeball. If it blinks, it's alive.

They skin it quickly. Steve takes the haunch and we take the ribs, half dragging half carrying it downhill. We decide that the going is too slow with the canoe outside so we put it in the boat and tied it down tight. Now things start getting fun. With a 70hp outboard, this thing can fly. Dodging debris, spray in our faces, it's a cold ride even with the sun out in full bloom. Snags, trees anchored at the bank but fallen in the river need close attention. Gravel bars are everywhere. At one point we get stuck on one. Steve throws the canoe into the water then jumps in it, giving the boat just enough buoyancy to float off the bar.

We reach Kelly Station in a few hours. It's a great and beautiful place. Steve gives the Rangers a haunch and a tongue. They fill us in on the local news and radio chatter. The snow and weather at the archeologists camp is so bad they are abandoning it for the season. Several guided trips on the river have been cancelled. The Kobuk river, next river south, is so high the villages are about to evacuate. More rain on the way. The only fish caught on the river in a month was a single small char, and it was snagged. The river below has been altered considerably, with new gravel bars all over. The herd will be late. Oddly, the eastern part of Alaska is so dry that rafters are without adequate water and fires are burning.

We head on, intent on making it to Noatak by sunset. Amazingly we make it, after what must be the strangest ride of my life. With all the obstacles in the water we were constantly dodging, it felt more like skiing. This part of the river is nothing but braids, and the old channels Steve was familiar with were now blocked and we would make sudden U-turns heading back up river to try another route. Along the way the banks are marked by slowly moving half fallen trees. It's hard to describe just how disturbing this looked. With rows of trees on each bank, being eroded under their roots, they are slowly falling into the river. Its like a scene in Disney's Fantasia, with trees becoming scissors, cutting anything that tries to pass. Only the center of the river is safe.

This scan of an overly dark photo hardly does it justice.

Noatak is on a high bluff well out of reach of the water (yet I notice that the airfield is built even higher). It is marked by a big cement bank that looks like it was made by filling large bags with cement, so it looks like a big fluffy quilt from a distance. As we unload I give a few things to Steve for his help. A small drybag, one of my Bear Barrels, and left over fuel. One of the locals drives up on a four wheel ATV and offers to drive me and my gear to the airfield. He is not a taxi service, just somebody that lives there. We go bumping down the road.

There are several tents for a NOLS group. They have been on the river for four weeks. They put in at Pingo Lake also, where they saw a bear sniffing my canoe. So that's as close as I got to a bear. One sniffed my canoe two weeks before I got here. Just aint fair.

One of the NOLS instructor is a cousin of a co-employee. Small world. We walk around town and are invited into the Mayors home. Rickie is a laid back kinda guy. He serves coffee and tells us indian stories. One is about a woman that could not stop walking. His uncle is Abe. Small river.

Proudly displayed is a collection of native tools. He wants to start a museum. Tales continue and his yawns make us all tired. We retire to the airstrip. It's almost dark and 30. A dog barks all night long.

I'm up at six and have most of my gear packed when the first of several daily planes lands. Within five minutes its gone. Geez, talk about turn around. Planes dont stay long here so I haul all my gear up to the edge of the field. I'll lay down in front of the next one if I have too. While waiting a Arctic Fox trots by, like I wasnt there.

150 lbs of gear now, and a $55 overweight fee. They do take credit card. I am the only passenger. The river below, a part that I had not intended to traverse, is like a maze clogged with debris. As we crossed the three miles of ocean between the mouth of the Noatak and Kotzebue, you could see the mud thirty miles out and all the way down the coast.

I try a different hotel this time. Cant get any worse. $106 a night. Same same. Better cable than at home though. CNN, we arent at war, shower, phone calls, food. Cheeseburger and beer. Long sleep.

FIN


Robert Stein is a Artist, Animator and Designer currently living in the Pacific Northwest.

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Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 13

It's noon, and in the last fifteen hours the river has dropped an amazing four feet. The place where I had hauled my canoe onto land was now a cliff ledge of crumbling silt/sand. I need to haul all a few hundred feet farther down to where there is a gravel bar at water level I can stand on. The water is relatively quit now. I pack quickly. I want to make it to the Fish and Game cabin about twelve miles down. It's not n the USGS map but Bob says it's got a good stove. It's raining hard again. Light wind with no sun and 50.

The next river down is Nakolik, where the guys were gonna go hunt for fossils. I approach the river mouth, but there are a dozen braids feeding into the Noatak, and I cant see their camp if it is there. I pass by and catch up with Rob and Chuck just before we reach the cabin. We're told it's set back from the river, and we stop several times to scout so we dont miss it. The shoreline really sucks here, and I slip several times. It's nothing but broken tree trunks and small bush debris from the flood, all covered in mud. We locate the cabin and negotiate our way down a small braid to a slippery mud covered bank at the cabins door. Everything here, up to the door of the cabin, is covered in mud.

I arrive first and enter. It looks great. Clean, solid, good stove and plenty of wood. There is a bee hive on the outside of it. I didnt pay much attention to it, but when Chuck opened one of the windows, they freaked. Chuck get's it in the neck and lower lip. They are Yellow Jacket's and we discuss options for genocide.

Shotgun, Shovel? First Rob don's as much clothing as possible so he can get close and take a photo. We don head nets and gloves. He starts shooting about ten feet away and they attack, but do not get through his synthetic shell. After he gets his shots, he takes a shovel and slices the hive off of the cabin and onto the ground where it breaks into pieces. The bee's swarm for a brief moment, then disappear. There weren't many inside. More pictures and he kills the Queen. Chuck's lip is now three times normal size.

After getting our gear unpacked, around 19:00, Chuck spots a canoe on the river. They are too far away, and that is the last time I see Mike and Scott. There is only room for three in the cabin anyway.

With water that seems dirtier than before, we cook up a mountain of food, and dry everything out, with our raging stove. A little wine too. Every now and again bees return to the hive, cant find it and buzz around the cabin for a few minutes. The rain keeps coming and for the first time the temp drops a bit, along with the swelling in Chuck's lip.

Again no wildlife, just some rusty animal traps on a 55 gallon drum. I walk around on the tundra for a while wishing I knew more about mushrooms. They are everywhere, of every shape and color, in between the blueberries that are ripe now.


Photo, © Scott West '94

When I return there is a graveyard of bees at the base of the cabin. All those that returned to the hive only to die in the cold. Chuck likes that. He dances a victory jig on their carcasses, and their crunching sounds entice him into evermore exotic dance moves. His face looks better now.

The river drops a little than starts to rise again. The temp drops to 38 that night and it snows in the morning.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 12

No sun. No sleep. No animals. No home made bread. But I couldn't be happier. The water had stopped rising during the night, although still rough and loud. I had set my alarm for every hour. Between that and the rivers noise, I got no sleep at all. My ears must be sensitized to the quite of this place for the river sounds like freeway traffic.

Early in the day I pack up. With the wind down, the river looks manageable. I'm not sure if I should wait or leave. Somehow a relatively easy decision becomes an "Out of the frying pan, into the fire" kind of choice. The rain I see up river makes my mind up for me.

I'm flying with the current but it's not as fast as yesterday. I'm able to keep my boat where I need it to be, but I'm getting a hell of a workout. Not because of the wind, but the faster current and all the obstacles require much quicker reaction on my part. I notice along the way that there is virtually no place to pull out. A few miles down, the braids of the river merge together into one channel again, and with no submerged islands in the way the going gets easier. And it's 50 degrees. What are the odds?

After a few hours I have to rest. I stop at the only spot available, a small (8'x3') sand bank next to a crumbling sand ledge with some trees on it. I look around and find a small wolf skull, bout three years old. It has its fangs and moss growing in its eye sockets. I put the skull in my canoe to take a picture of when the light is better. As I'm pushing off, thump, I'm face down. The only thing I think of on the way down is to hold on to the canoe. I'm not too wet, but the realization of why I went down is chilling. My feet are stuck in the sand, quick sand.

I had read about how quick forms in this region, at the v of two rivers joining, and how the Copper River mouth is know fir its bottomless quicksand holes. I know that random movement will just make it worse, so I freeze and take stock of the situation.

I'm not very deep at all. Its just some suction that's been created. I remember all those Tarzan movies where the victim immediately falls in up to the neck, then slowly sinks the rest of the way. I'm on my knees and one hand with a face full of sand. My legs are only half in the sand, but my feet are fully in. I try to work one foot out and the other knee starts to sink.

It's readily apparent that I'm not in a bad position yet, but if I move around too much, I could be seriously stuck. I opt for an idea that has the least amount of leg movement involved. I pull the canoe close and I roll into it, which is accompanied by a big sucking sound (not jobs heading south).

(Here is a related video I found on Youtube of the Noatak mud experience)




Just a short distance from there the wind picks up again. As I am looking for a place to stop, I see a camp of five tents and a park service boat. I stop to talk and get any info I can. Turns out, they are archeologists from Brown University digging up a native dwelling from the late 1800's. The Ranger named Bob tells me they radioed in yesterday for a weather report (finally) and it's more of the same with another large rain front in a few days. He is very familiar with this river and it is at the highest he's seen. Probably ten feet or more above normal high water. There are no gauge stations on this river, so he cant give exact numbers. They have only seen a few Caribou and a young bear that bit their boat a few days ago. Bit the windshield and broke it. Found a few arrowheads though. Still no sun.

They invite me to lunch. Mac and cheese with an unknown vegetable in it, biscuits with jam and coffee. One of the instructors asks me if Zeos is a good computer brand to buy, as he is getting into multimedia. Two other guys in a raft stop and join us. I locate a flat spot, set up camp and join them for tea.

Robert is a local photographer and Chuck is with the BLM. They are here for fun, but the river was too high when they arrived, and all the gravel bars above Emma's were covered. Raft's don't make very good progress in this wind, but they hardly notice the standing waves.

We join the college crew later for and evening of filling out forms. Numbering the tags they place on each and every artifact,... hundreds of them. I get a cramp.



Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 11


Every time I check the water that night, it is higher. By morning it reaches just below the door. But look, it's the Sun. Looks like this may be our opportunity to make an exit. The river looks less than appealing, but we all agree that it's time to move, as we cant be in here if the water gets higher.

We clean up the place and leave a few items. I donate some long burning candles, AA batteries, a jar of Capers (for all those fish I was going to catch) and I hang a rubber 7UP-Spot character from the ceiling. They leave some baking goods, extra rice, and spirolina. Dont forget to put the bucket back on top of the stove pipe.

Packing our canoes is an exercise in balance. We nail the door shut and bid our temporary adobe a fond adieu. I am surprised at the speed with which the bank passes by.
Eight to ten mph. It momentarily looks like it might be a good day. What a tease. No less than half hour down river the wind starts screaming. Not the usual wind that forces you off the river to one side, but a real wind that turns me and my pine box into 480 lbs of flotsam. So there I am, careening down rive, sideways, backwards, with absolutely no control.

There are standing waves everywhere, and hitting them sideways is not advisable. Tops of small submerged trees poke up here and there. There is no safe place to pull out. All the gravel bars are submerged. Most of the bank is sheer crumbling ledge. There is debris everywhere in the water, pooping up then disappearing again. I nearly swamp several times. It's one thing to swamp up river, but here, now, the water is so high that the river has more than quadrupled in width. It's almost a half mile across in places. If I where to swamp now I'd never make it to shore in time.

I try to get the attention of the guys ahead of me but they cant hear me over the sound of wind and water. The river is surprisingly loud. With the both of them paddling like hell, they are on the border of controllability anyway. I look for the first possible place to pull out and it takes forever. It's a mad scramble to reach it, fighting the wind, current and a small forrest of half submerged willows. I'm exhausted. The guys pull out a mile farther down. I meet Mike in the middle.

They must push on. Their itinerary is different and they have spent too much time up river. With two people power, they can make a few more miles. I can tell Mike is not comfortable saying so. I assure him its OK, but my mind is on other things....this ground is way too low. Maybe I'm not too convincing. It's obvious he appreciates the extreme inconvenience of my situation. I assure him again that my being stuck here is not his problem. We shake hands for the last time and they move on. We may see each other again, but probably not. They plan on stopping for three nights at Nakolik to go hunting for mammoth fossils up that river, so I may catch them there.

I scope out the area for the highest possible place to camp and I find that I am on an island which normally would not be an island, and the entire thing is less than a foot above water.
I try to make the best of it. At least it's better than being on the water, but not by much. I keep an eye out to see if Abe's cabin floats by. It's only six miles back up river and I wish I was still there. I unpack only what I need and I leave the rest in the canoe, prepared for a quick getaway.

At this point I must have reached my psychological low point. I wasn't hungry, couldn't relax and had little motivation. While I was prepared for all kinds of inconveniences, flood water with high wind puts things in an entirely new perspective. A northern river is in constant flux. High water is to be expected, but you will note, Abe's cabin was here before '75, Emma's before that. People dont build where the historical high water reaches, they build above it. I therefore conclude that this is a hundred year flood. It's already the wettest year here in a decade.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 10

This is the life. What more could a wilderness wild man wannabe want? A warm stove. Hot food. A place to dry out everything. But outside is a real mess. 30+ mile per hour winds. A squall, a gale? We had to tie the canoes off at new locations cause the water is rising so fast, and our tie down points were getting submerged. We estimate it at better than 3 inches an hour. Looks like we are stuck here for the day. Even if the weather clears, the river looks so bad that I dont want to get on it. That may be academic with the possibility of the water getting high enough to float the cabin. (It was floated up river on several 55 galloon drums) About four feet to go.

I try to fix my filter. I use a backwash to try to clear it of silt, but its not cooperating. I give up on it for the duration of the trip. With all our chores done, we do some exploring. I though the tundra up river was bad. This is beyond bad. Tussock grasses are domes of vegetation about 6 to 12 inches in diameter. They have a hard center that rests on a spongy mass. To step on these is to risk everything. If you just place your foot on it to test, it will see sturdy enough. But as soon as you put your weight on, it will wobble in any and all direction. If you dont sprain or break your ankle, you're lucky. The other choice is to step between the Tussock. This is equally bazaar, as the spaces between are usually filled with dark water and you have no idea how deep it is. Needless to say, land travel is slooow.

The guys go off to climb some small peaks up the Nimi. I go looking for blueberries. Plenty of them around here, but still not fully ripe. A lot of fungi too. Firewood is scarce but I do manage to find some. On the far bank is a herd of about 70 bou's. Several males with large racks. Too far away to get a picture, I watch them for a hour before I head back to the cabin to read the registration notes. It turns out that they are so entertaining, I read some of them for the video camera.

Most of them mention some form of hellish endurance, animal encounters, and unabashed gratitude for Abe Howarth and his cabin. One group was chased into their boats by a griz. Others had just the opposite experience I was having. With little water, they had to make like donkeys and haul their kayaks down river. Others endured bugs beyond belief. No letters from anybody on a mountain bike.

One of the letters was from a gent writing for National Geographic. He started in Canada and worked his way along the spine of the Brooks Range by wood raft, dog team, foot, canoe, and got stuck during freeze up at Emma's Cabin up river. He was there for a month with frostbite. Stayed at Abe's a few days. Him and his dog, dated '89. May I venture a guess that many people have read his NG article and said to themselves "Oh, let's stay there too." Poor Emma must have had more uninvited guests than even a prisoner would want. I dont' blame her.

It is customary to do a few things when borrowing a cabin. Leave it cleaner than you found it. Leave more wood than you burn. Dont eat food from the cache unless its an emergency. Try to leave something behind, that you dont need or have extra of. Haul out extra trash if you can.

We find a bit of trash and a frying pan with beans still in it that have turned green with fungus. It spends the night outside in the rain. One of the food bags shows evidence of critters. None of the letters mention bed bugs, so I guess we are safe.

The water is getting higher and we have to arrange some rocks so we have a dry place to step outside the door. That lasts a few hours. Now the only way to get in or out is to get wet, or to hang on the side of the cabin and take a wide step to reach land. The guys take this opportunity to use up some of their baking goods and we have blueberry muffins as one big muffin while the storm rages on. We eventually tie the canoes off inside the cabin, and I set my watch alarm for every two hours.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 9

Photo, ©Robert Stein III '94

How much rain can these clouds dump? This is starting to get annoying. The river rose a foot last night. Less than we thought, but that probably just means that it hasn't reached us yet. We are trying for the cabin at New Cottonwood. We must have a dry place. Another day or two of this and even my sleeping bag will be wet. Scott's already is. We load up on food and algae as we expect another long and hard day.

While cruising along I saw a baby caribou on the bank, all alone. There were no other bou's anywhere to be seen. It darted back and forth along the rivers edge, as if trying to decide to cross. It sees me. It does not run, and it must be old enough that it doesnt adopt the crouched huddle of the really young.

It momentarily advances toward me. Does it think I am a bou because of my hood ornament?
Maybe I can lead it across. It continues its confused movements, then darts off into the fog like rain. It's as good as dead. Six miles down I see another. Same thing. Same frantic movement. Same look of death. Later, a family of Loons parade by.

It takes several hours to make the cabin. It's in a braided area, so I do my best to keep right at every split. I pick the correct route and stop at a gravel bar a few hundred feet from the cabins, three red ones. I find a moose antler.

This place is impressive. It has the first "Forest" I have seen on the river. Forty foot cottonwoods, and plenty of them. The rain has subsided a bit. I can see the horizon. This must be a nice place to live. The guys show up and we walk up to the cabins. There is a small note on the front door. "This is the Property of Emma Thompson. Dont Come In".

We knock on the door. All we want is a weather report. Nobody home. There are some old atv tracks. Maybe she is out hunting. We move on, disappointed and wetter than before.

Looking at the small forest we think we'll go down river a bit to where the forest meets the river for a campsite and firewood. We must have fire. We pass Emma's gravel landing field, and it will be underwater in a few hours. We glide slowly through a few braids to get back to the main current. It turns out that we have misjudged the landscape and the forest does not meet the river. We catch the current and move on.

We reach the Nimiuktuk river. Another torrent. We move to the far side river to avoid the turbulence it creates. But wait. A cabin! It's on the far bank just down from the Nimi, but its a hard paddle to get to it before the current sweeps us by. I reach it out of breath. No body is here. The front door is a piece of plywood nail shut, with two hammers strategically placed.

Not bad inside. Corrugated metal outside, wood stove, a second inner door, window, and survival food. With such survival staples as Dorritos. There is a Registration Box and a note written in '75 requesting that we leave the dishes here. Have there been dish thefts on the Noatak?

I discover that my water filter is dead. So is Mike's. We use some of the pales here to collect river water an let is settle overnight. While starting my stove to boil some dirty water, it gets temperamental and flares up, taking all the hair off my left hand, and singeing my eyebrows, lashes and mustache. The guys got a good laugh out of it.

I take the first real bath of the trip, even if it was GI, with soap and hot water.
The river shoots up three feet that night.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 8

I awake to more light rain and hordes of bugs. It's as if they will be held down by the rain no longer and they will endure any obstacle to attain sustenance, me. I wear my head net most of the morning. Due to a law of physics that prevents you from getting food in your mouth when wearing such devices, I opt to eat down river. I pack up a throughly wet tent. It's gonna be fun tonight. Neoprene gloves an booties are the order of the day, and warm and dry they are. Rain, rain, it keeps comin.

About four miles down I run across Scott and Mike's camp. They must be asleep. I make noises like a wild animal.
No foolin these veteran wilderness wild men. We consume breakfast while they break camp.

Oatmeal, power bars, granola, chocolate bars and hot drinks. Also a large dose of spirolina and ginseng as we plan to exert our muscles beyond those of mortal men. We're all wet and look like drowned cats. Checking the map we figure a half day to Cutler Bar, but it's to far to the cabin marked on the map at New Cottonwood. A cabin would be nice. Cutler Bar is the eastern most landing strip on the river. If we're lucky there will be somebody there with a weather report.

We compare paddling times over the last two days. It's taken me nine hours to do what took them 16. Could this be right? We double check and conclude that the 200 more pounds they haul, along with the fact that their canoe sits too low in the water, would account for the discrepancy.

I take to the oars and reach Cutler Bar in no time. Lookie here, a cabin. Old ugly thing too, with the obligatory caribou antler over the door. I think I have seen this cabin before in a photo. I pull out on a sand bank. Fresh boot tracks. Must be somebody here. I walk closer and yell "Hello in the cabin". Nothing. I walk closer and try again. To the left I see an al fresco toilet. Hmm. I read that all the cabins are always left unlocked so that those in need can get some shelter, and even food. I certainly wasn't in need, so I took some video and left.



Several hours later I reach the Makpik river. This river is still clear, but its tinted a dark tea color, probably from peat. It's spilling into the Noatak at a frightening rate. It's a torrent. I filter water then look for the Ranger Station. Nothing here. Am I in the right place? It's difficult to get a bearing without being able to see very far due to the rain, but I have been paying close attention to the map and incoming rivers.

Scott and Mike catch up with me here. They concur, this is Makpik, and we are making very very good time. The river has picked up speed with the rising water. It's still early, about 15:00, and we take to the river again.

By 20:00 I've been paddling 13 hours. I hardly even noticed. Just another day in which time seems to stretch or shrink or something. I passed a great camp site about seven miles back and I should have stopped there cause I havent seen anything since. I finally reach a large site, well used. It's raining without letup now. No possibility of drying anything. Water is still rising. The dudes show up an hour later. Not much talking tonight, too wet and too tired. We haul our canoes way up the bank and tie them down like we've never tied before. I set my watch alam for every two hours so I can check the rivers height.

Havent seen any planes for days. Chunks of debris are starting to float down river. I thought I had done 38 miles today, but when I double and triple check back home, it was 66 miles.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 7

Photo, ©Robert Stein III '94

August 14th. Got a good start today. Looks like lots of rain. All gray. Almost no wind. What do you think the temperature is? I did a few miles in these braids before I had to stop and scout the shallow water here. Obviously, this braid would not have any water in a regular year. As I was pushing off again, I start my day off right by slipping in up to my waist.

I weigh the advantages of changing my cloths or just staying wet. I was already wet everywhere anyway as the relentless drizzle today has managed to work through my gore-tex. I'm not cold, so what the hell. I'll save my dry cloths for camp. Keep going.

And the rain just keeps on coming. With little variation in intensity, and it is everywhere. A solid grey mass in all directions. I plod onward and time has no meaning. The endless barrage of rain and the sounds that accompany it force me into an almost hypnotic realm where the only thing that matters is the paddle. The river is widening and the bordering mountain peaks of the Bairds to the south and the De Long range to the north, which use to be within ten miles, are now 30 or more miles away. In this soup, invisible. In fact, there is no real landscape at all, it just seems to blend with the sky. Visibility is about six miles.

Of course, this is a concern. It means that every creek, lake, stream and incoming river is receiving an overdose of H2o and it's all coming my way. The river is rising and I figure it will continue to rise for at least the next 24. I check my maps. There is about 20 miles more of this flat nothingness until I reach the Grand Canyon of the Noatak. I decide that I will make as much distance as possible until I reach the canyon. I'd rather be there if the river floods, than here in the flats. There is a ranger station at Makpik river about 80 miles down. Maybe I can get a weather report there.

No animals again today. A few hawks. I manage to get some distance before the wind returns and forces me off. There are no good sites. I camp in a bunch of willows at the highest place I can find, as I have no idea how high the river will get tonight. I am wet. My camp is wet. Wrinkled feet. Not bathtub feet. I mean unrecognizable as feet. They look more like those hairless laboratory mice. I air them out until they once again resemble a human appendage. It takes a while in this wet weather. It has rained all day and it will continue all night. My tent has held up well. No leaks and it handles the wind like a champ. My dry bags have kept the water from my sleeping bag and clothes. At least I can still sleep warm and dry.

I check my map to measure my distance. At four miles to an inch its not that easy to be accurate with all the oxbow bends in this part of the river. I estimate that I have covered 30 miles today. Later, back at home, I double check, and it was really 48. Good work. And I dont feel wasted either. With the cloud cover so thick overhead, this night was the first that was dark enough to resemble late evening. I slept like a log and had a plethora of wild dreams. Must be the melenonin, a chemical your body produces when the sun goes down to promote dreaming, among other things. This was probably the first night in a week that my body produced any.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 6

The 13th of August. An unyielding 50 degrees. I sleep late. After yesterdays exertion, I consume twice my breakfast allowance along with some of Mike's spirolina (algae) tablets and a ginseng root. They claim is good energy food. I take ten tablets, a quarter inch of root, and chew on an energy bar along the way.

A look up valley as I depart reveals a dense wall of rain upriver. It should be twelve hours before that water reaches me.

I stopped where I did because from that bluff where I stopped, I could see a good distance, and I didn't see anymore rapids. I thought I had reached the last of them and that today would be a float trip. Not.

Just two more rapids of small importance. The river slows down and spreads out into braids and wide oxbows. I stop at an island sand bar where I catch up with Mike and Scott. They are trying to filter water but their pump isnt cooperating. Probably all the damn silt. We use mine. We are now getting our water from the main river as all the incoming streams are dirty too. Seems the rain is everywhere and over running everything.

We leave as the wind starts to pick up. I feel rather energetic and battle it for two hours until I'm blown down a braid and off the main current, where my down river progress and a strong head wind seem to cancel each other out.

Camp sites are few and far between. I stop at an island with a high bank and good wind protection. Haven't gone far today. Only eight miles or so. I won't pitch camp yet, I'l wait to see if it clears up. So I lay down for a rest. Hours later its obvious that I am camping here. The sun does come out for a while and I am able to charge my battery for an hour or so. I find some fingers of the river where the current is nil and the water is relatively clean. I take this time to filter and fill all the containers I have.

No wildlife of any kind today. Except a seagull. There is just something wrong about a seagull 250 miles inland. It appeared just as I was about to pull out, diving out of the sun. Heading right for me, screaming all the way. I take evasive action. Incoming! Spat, ka-splat. He got one of the dry bags and the stern of the canoe.

Top Ramen and tuna, the last carrot, hot chocolate and dried fruit. Tasted better there than it sounds here. The water is rising. It's raining. I read a book called "No Shit. There I was". Tales about adventure travel gone wrong.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 5

Today is the big day. I had anticipated that this would be the most demanding day both physically and mentally. I am approaching the Rapids. "The Ledge" is the only rapid that any of the books I had read mentioned. The guide I talked to before the trip warned me about it, as did my bush pilot. I spotted it from the air on the way in, and with the high water there was an easy right on the inside. Is the water still that high? While I keep track of the rivers height when I camp, it is not possible to do while floating, and I therefore have no point of reference. I'll have to stop and scout the rapid before I decide what to do.

It's the 12th, very grey. Little wind. 50 degrees, yet again. I my thermometer broken? It feels much colder than that. The rain is keeping the bugs away.

From the air it looked like there were a few other rapids, of smaller scale, before and after, but yesterday I learned that these tiny little ripples were something to watch out for. As I was cruising with Scott and Mike we came upon one of these, and it looks a great deal bigger than from the air. They signal that they are going to run it. Mike is an experienced canoeist and Scott has never done this before. If I were alone, I would pull over and line along the bank, as I did the other day, but it seems I have a wild hair today.

My nimble steed performs beyond factory specifications. "That was easy" bubbles up in my mind between other thoughts of "Dumb shit" and "That was not worth the risk", but in the long run it was Fun.

Mike says its a class III rapid. Class III in an open canoe ? I have a hard time comprehending that. The "Ledge" is supposed to be only a class I. The river is high, but this still doesn't seem to be more than a II at best. In Mike's defense, the class system for rating river rapids states that a river gets a half a class for being remote, and a half a class for being colder than 40 degrees. In light of that, he may be correct. This river gets a class one just for being here. At this point I'm just confused by the class system, and I no longer care. All I know for certain is that she is cold.

I take off again before they do. They say they will follow in about a half hour.

My new hood ornament leads the way. A few miles down river two bush planes fly over, one returns later, flying lower in my direction. It looks like Buck's plane, same colors and the first two letters are the same, N7, but I don't remember the rest. I wave, he wobbles back. He passes me and a few miles down river he circles twice over the approximate location of the Ledge. Is he warning me? He fly's back over me, wobbles, and is gone.

Fortunately, the wind is kind today and I can hear the approaching rapid well in advance. I stop on a bank before it and view it through binoculars. I then hike over to a point where I can gauge its movement. Just small standing waves. It proves to be no problem.

I can now see the grey cut in a hill that marks the location of the Ledge rapid (it has no official name) and the boundaries of the "Gates of the Arctic National Park" and the "Noatak National Wilderness Preserve, a Biosphere Habitat". Now a strange looking rapid bars my way. I pull out again. A rock wall impedes my view so I climb to the top of said wall. Blueberries all over the place. Too tart though. The Bearberries taste odd too.

The rapid seems to be caused by high water running over an island of willows and rocks, allowing two routes. I'll have to take the close route as I'm very near and wont be able to paddle far enough across the river to make the other route in time. From here I can see I'll need to pull out again just on the opposite side.

This bank is well used. Obviously everybody stops here to scout the Ledge. There is a path that runs the length of this curve in the river. All kinds of different boot prints. What's this? Mountain bike tracks? I don't believe it. I become momentarily obsessed with this track and forget all about the river. Brought on a raft? I remember a photo in Patagonia's catalog of a guy biking down the Hulahula river here in Alaska. Hard core.

I wait a while for my friends to catch up. They must have gotten a later start.

The rapid is impressive, but easy enough to get by. I thought the one before it was tougher, but if I were to go over the top of the Ledge it would eat me whole. I video tape a bit, then pass by. A mile down there is another rapid. I again perform the ritual of scouting. They are getting bigger. They're not supposed to do that. Lining here is too difficult and I choose to run it.

Sure felt the adrenaline that time. Another rapid. Scout. This one is hard to make out. Shallow rocks on the slow inside, which is wide. The main current runs along the opposite cliff wall and hits a big rock creating one turbulent mess next to a stagnant flat area. I dont like that flat spot. I spend some time trying to glimpse it's secrets, but it wont show me. I move toward the slow shallow water with the intent of pulling out if it looks worse close up. I figure I'd rather hit a small shallow rock than a rock wall.

As I get closer, the flat area shows signs of movement. Up river! My side of it, that is. It's a whirlpool. And its vortex tends to change in size. I scoot by with just a few feet to spare and I tag two rocks.

Just down from this aqua orifice is a victim. A male caribou, all but its antlers submerged in a sand bar. In all, I have run twelve rapids today, paddled 28 miles and walked nine. Do I hurt. I just want a good campsite.

While scouting the last rapid of the day, I climbed to a high bluff. From there I got my first, and only, video tape footage of caribou. While in zoom mode I noticed some rather larger Willow trees farther down. My camp. Got to get off this bluff before the mosquitos eat me alive. They follow me all the way down.

A good site, well used and still no trash. Wolf tracks. About five of them. I sit in front of my canoe and video my thoughts on todays events. Several takes to get it right. I pitch camp and fix my XGK stove. Just a clogged nozzle. Sand is in everything. Chili for dinner and hot apple cider. I want a Hagen-Daz.

Having crossed into the Noatak Preserve I've entered a different landscape. Leaving the majestic mountains for the Barrens, a nearly flat land of tundra where the only real landscape is the skyscape. I've progress approximately 95 miles from Pingo Lake. 280 to go. A part of the sky finally opens up to let the sun in and I hang all my wet cloths to dry. The harmony of sun and wind dries them quickly. So far, my Goretex gear has worked very well. I also need to remove the water collected in the canoe for rain and rapid.

Late in the evening my friends show up. They did get a late start. I got a total of two hours of solar charging for my video battery between 8pm and midnight. It was still rather cloudy with patches of rain, so what does that spell kiddies? .. Rainbows. Big ones. Full ones. Near death experience ones. Doubles. It's a parade. No, it's a Migration. Haven't yet seen the Caribou migration, but Alaska apparently has a rainbow migration that is just as impressive.


Photo, ©Robert Stein III '94

They were undoubtedly the brightest I have ever seen. It was as if they had extra colors. I took several photos, but they just dont do the scene justice. Scott shot 7 rolls. He brought 200. Later, while eating, we noticed a band of caribou cross down river, right under a rainbow. We scramble to get our cameras, it's a million dollar photo. Too late.

We spend hours watching this migration of color while sipping Crown Royal as they tell me of their battle with the Vortex. It's seems they had a more intimate introduction than I did. Mike states that all the rapids today were high II's and low III's, except for the vortex, which deserved a class IV rating. He called it a Keeper Hydraulic.

They had chosen to take the fast water there, as they did not feel comfortable hitting the shallow rocks in their Coleman Ram-X. I wouldn't either. It's not an appropriate wilderness canoe.

They did not see the flat water. Suddenly, when they thought they had passed the worst of the turbulent water that hits the large rock, they found that they were going backwards. All in all, it spun them around three times, opened up to a three foot hole, and just as suddenly spit them out. Along with a half a canoe full of water. To make up for it, the gods granted them another priceless sight. A Grizzly, on the bank, stands up and spreads its arms as they float by. Click.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 4

Photo, ©Robert Stein III

"I woke up this mornin" da- daa-da-da, "my camp stove was gone" da-daaa...well, not really, just not working. It seems to be the pump and that pains me deeply as, while I have two MSR stoves, I only have one fuel pump.
I've brought several redundant equipment items, and it should be no surprise that it's not one of those items that has crapped out. Murphy's Law squared.
This could be a problem. It's not that cold here yet (again, 50 degrees dropping to mid 40's in the evening) but I cant cook my dehydrated meals which comprise about half of my foodstuffs. There is wood here, small, wet, sparse, and would pose more of a hassle than help in anything but survival conditions.

I've already packed up camp as it was dry and it looked like rain was on the way. Now the wind is up a bit. I cant fix this pump in the open, I dont want to pitch one of my tents (I have a NorthFace Bullfrog with duplicate rainfly and poles, and a tarp tent for cooking...not advisable to cook in the same tent you sleep) so it looks like no hot breakfast today. Homemade trail mix, my own concoction of strawberries, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, cashews, granola, M&M's, sesame sticks, and anything else I could find. It's become rather popular among the yachting crowd here.

It turns out my friends are having trouble with one of their stoves as well. They're also missing a pot lid. They left it on the shore one night after cleaning, and it washed away. Scott has two new cameras, but one got wet and shorted out ..... started smoking.
I'm glad to say I have not lost or broken anything yet (I have faith I can fix my stove, I have a repair kit) but I cant find that first roll of 35mm film. It's got to be in one of the bags, a pocket .... I'll find it.

They are packed and hit the river within an hour, putting about two miles between us.

As I glide, I spy several small groups of caribou. All mother's with calves, no bulls with large racks. All so far away. It's much easier to get close to the animals in Africa. You can drive right up, or at least within photographic range that doesn't require a huge L-Series lens.
They are heading south and eating as they go. Take a bit, walk, stop, take a bite, run, stop, bite, walk ad infinitum. A group reaches the river as I approach. They are preparing to cross but stop when one of them sees me. A teen, spread its back legs and urinates on a rock with a sound loud enough I can hear it. This is a typical method of warning the group. The rest of the group looks at the teen, then in the direction the teen is looking. At me. I remain perfectly still, at least as still as a canoe in the water can be. Maybe they will think I am floating debris. Close enough to take a picture, but if I move to get my camera I know they will bolt, so I just enjoy it.
I'm still, they're still, the tension builds. The leader sniffs the wind, damn, I'm up wind. They're gone.

We camp together again at a nice site with the idea that between us, we should have everything we need to fix our stoves. I find two caribou antlers in the sand, sawed off. Subsistence hunters. I take one and mount it to the bow of my canoe. Will future crossing caribou think I am one of them and join me for a swim? Ya right. It looks cool anyway.

Fixed the stove pump. Sand had gotten in through the fill hole and lodged between the leather piston gasket and the wall preventing pressure from building. A simple cleaning job. How do you spell relief? But wait, the stove still doesnt work. What next! This stove has always been so reliable. Break out the Whisperlite. I'll fix the XGK stove later.

We banded together in my cook tent for a feast and more Crown Royal as they tell me a tale of woe. They had gotten their coffe mixed up with somebody else's, so they were now carrying a pound of whole beans. The had attempted to grind some on a rock. I took pity on them and gave them some instant Mocha Cappuccino.

Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 3

It rained 12 hours last night then cleared up nicely to partial clouds. Big rolling cotton balls. I time myself to see how fast I can break camp. 45 minutes. Pathetically long. I should be ashamed of myself.
A warm breakfast and the last of the homemade bread. Oh, if only you where a bigger loaf, I shall miss thee. I do not chew the last piece, I dissolve it. The wind is good today, so far. I push off and become one with the current.

Each incoming stream has such personality. It would be easy to know which stream somebody else was describing, without using a map, when they refer to it as the dark tea colored one, the quit one, or the noisy green thing.

Like the canyons, each one beckons you, and I cant help feeling that they are like the Siren's in Homer's Odyssey. That is, if I follow their song, I will be dashed upon the rocks. Each place you go, each step you take, seems to have some little danger. Even the grass here is tricky.

I make about then miles before the wind bitch slaps me.

I've waited about an hour and a half on the gravel bar for the wind to calm down. Back at the Igning river I spotted a few tents. There was nobody visible, and I did not stop. That group is passing me now. They are in rafts, five people in each, piled so high with gear, its above their heads as they sit. The first raft passes, all men, I waive, no return. The second raft is all women, they pull over.

They are a luxury tour group doing the first 50 miles from Pingo Lake to Lake Matcharak. Everybody but the two guides are in their 50's, and from Juneau AK. They keep asking me if I'm all alone and give me sad puppy dog looks when I repeat yes.
They struggle onward against the wind. I re-enter the water a while later.

Ran into Scott again. His brother is awake this time. They are camped out on top of a tall outcrop (looks kinda like a sea stack, but its all sand and tree roots). It's a tricky pull out.
We exchange pleasantries and compare wildlife sightings. They have had better luck than myself. Four baby foxes playing on a sand bar. Nice. We travel together for a while. Maybe some of their luck will rub off on me.

A small group of caribou cross ahead of us. We stop at a clear incoming stream to filter water, rest and ceremoniously partake of Crown Royal, followed by facial twitches and odd sounds.
I mount my video camera to the canoe facing back toward myself. We travel on and I let it record for 45 minutes when the tape runs out.

Photo, © Scott West '94

Camped together due to camaraderie and a serious lack of suitable sites in this area. Low to the water, far from rivers edge, no wind breaks, on an island gravel bar where the Ipnelivik enters the Noatak, this is the best to choose from. There is rain falling in all the surrounding canyons.

It takes about four to six hours for the rain thats falling there to reach us. We talk for a few hours and have dinner. I charge my camera battery with a solar charger. I notice they have a small container tied off in the water. "What's in there? Cheese! That would have gone great with my home made bread". Silence, while we all contemplate what might have been.

As we talk we wish there was more of the night, at least a few stars, perhaps the meteor shower that takes place this month. We really want a Aurora Borealis. A deep red one. The kind that comes low to the ground, and use to scare the native population, they said it could take you away.
That wont be possible till later in the month. The sun does not dip low enough yet. It just makes this big oval arc across the sky, dropping just below the horizon as it heads north but popping up again within four hours. A sunflower growing here would get itself all twisted up.

Windy rainy night. I awake every few hours to check the water level. It rose ten inches over night. I didnt know it yet, but this was the beginning of the flood.


Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 2

Photo, © Scott West '94

Wind shelter for a tent is hard to come bay around here. The Willows here are more like bushes than trees. Five feet tall but thirty years old. I wait for the rain to stop and the wind to dry my tent before I pack it.

Semi cloudy, 50 degrees, wind is light. Every once in a while I think I am hearing voices on the wind. Could it be those guys behind me? In trouble? I climb to the top of a small bluff, but nothing.

There is something so pleasurable about entering the current in a canoe that physically does not take place in a raft or boat. You're low to the water, the bow being 17 feet from the stern, reaches the fast water first and is pulled into it, increasing in speed. But it feels is if the bow moves faster than the stern, with the canoe being stretched out. And this passes like a ripple to the stern. Like the Enterprise entering warp speed.

The Old Town Tripper is one of the premier wilderness tripping canoes. 17'2"x37" wide at the middle, it can haul 1100 lbs, I and my gear weigh in at 400lbs. It can get wrapped around a rock in mid current, and bounce back to its original shape.

Also, with its superb shape, its a pleasure to paddle, even for a soloist. However, it's made for two, with seats front and back. To solo you really need to be close to center (18 inches behind center) so I ordered a solo seat from Old Town that snaps into the mid section. Now I have excellent control, easy paddling, and quick turning, at least, until the wind picks up.

Bear tracks! What a rush. They are old, all beat up by caribou tracks. There is no smell of rotting meat, so I dont think I am near a kill. Boot tracks too. A yellow bush plane fly's overhead and lands at Pingo lake.

Try to do a few more miles today. If I average 14 miles a day, that would divide the trip up evenly, but trying to stick to that would not be possible. I'll paddle to the next good campsite I tell myself. About an hour later I settle for another gravel bar with willows and sand. Good enough, been used before. An old fire pit. You can tell where the tent was by the boot prints.
Rain dents in the sand and caribou tracks indicate that its been a few days. A large group. No trash. That's one amazing thing about this place, no trash. Most of the gravel bars and flat tundra ledge show signs of campsites, yet everybody packs it all out. You don't see that at any other National Park. It makes me very aware of everything I do. Every torn corner of a food wrapped that attempts an escape must be chased down.



Solo Canoe Trip . Noatak River . 8/94 . Day 1


Robert on the upper Noatak. Photo, ©Scott West '94

The book said it's "A clear running, glacial feed, class I & II river with only one rapid".
The guide said, "You can see the trout, char & grayling swimming everywhere".
The bush pilot said, "That river can rise four feet in 24 hours".
The Inupiat lady said, "You be all alone? You funny".
The NOLS Instructor said, "You soloed that river? Bitchin. We lost our tent poles".

Alaska Airlines flight 742, a 737, lands at Kotzebue on a runway that, judging by the folds, must take a lot of winter weather abuse. Five bags and a carry on, 210 lbs, $90 extra baggage fee. Call a taxi. The pay phone doesn't work. The pay phone next to it doesn't work. The lady at the Alaska desk calls for me.

Taxi arrives. Dodge van with it's back doors being held on by rope. I can't open the front passenger door. The driver can from the inside. Window is locked in a permanent half mast position.

It moves. Bouncing through the potholes, I constantly check behind to make sure my gear hasn't fallen out. We arrive at the Nullagvik Hotel. I question my driver to make sure this is not Ice Station Zebra. 210 lbs of gear. Please, please give me a first floor room.

Buck Maxson of Arctic Air picks me up at 09:00. We drive to his shed for paddles and gas, leaving some of my extra baggage there, we go out to his floatplane at the far end of the airport. A Maule is not a very big plane. Room for 418 lbs including myself.

Clouds are low. Buck would normally fly up the Kobuk River, and cut across the mountains, but today we fly up the Noatak, giving me the opportunity to scout it out.

Rain and rainbows everywhere. Not big rainbows, just small parts of them, not bright enough to show up on film. From the air the river is such a calm looking thing. I didn't yet know that it was three feet above normal and this was the wettest year they have had in a decade.

I've been looking forward to that moment. You know, when all the gear is unloaded, the plane has taken off and the putter of the engine is no longer audible, the great veil of reality washes over you with the realization you are absolutely 100% ALONE.

Not!

As we approach Pingo Lake I can see my rented red Old Town Tripper is waiting patiently like a good dog. But what's this? A Tent? Two tents? People(s)? Six million acres in this park, 8 miles of identical shoreline on this lake, and they have to park their tents right on top of my canoe. It wasn't even a good campsite.



I talk with them politely. They have been there for two days stuck in heavy rains. Within 30 minutes I was out of there. I was originally going to stay at the lake for a day or two to get used to my canoe, but I didn't want a crowd. So I hit the river ASAP. This requires a portage for 300 yards to the river. The first an only time I would need to carry the 80 lb Tripper. My gear is divided up into four dry bags and two duffel bags. Everything must be tied down so 1) you won't lose anything if you swamp the boat, and 2) the bags, with the air in them will serve as flotation devices.

You need as much help as you can get in a northern river. The water is only 38 degrees. You have ten minutes or less to get out of the water before hypothermia prevents you from doing so.

About 50 feet wide at this point. Moving at a pleasant four miles an hour, but it's the dirtiest thing I have seen since Africa. It's not all dirt. Much of it is glacial silt. An extremely fine powder of rock carved from the surrounding mountains ages ago. Normally a glacial feed river displays a milky green color. The Noatak is only partially glacial feed, but as it is the largest watershed in North America, it receives a great deal of water from clear creeks and lakes.

Normally, it is clear to the bottom. Not today, not this month, not this year. The silt swirling in the water had a bazaar pearl-essence to it. Mixed with all this mud, you couldn't see one inch into it. Fishing was pointless. Bathing would be a joke. Filtering it for drinking water would be abuse of a filter. At least the water from oncoming streams was clear.

On the river at last. It rains sporadically. If I remain still, I can hear the silt brush against the canoe's hull. Sounds like a slow leak in a soda can.

I can see caribou tracks on all the sand bars. Only saw three from the plane. With binoculars I can see several dozen at great distances. White pixels are moving on the mountain slopes. Dall Sheep. The air is so clear it makes distances deceiving. If it looks three miles away, it's nine.

There are spots of sunshine all around me, but none seem to want to warm me. It's 50 degrees, but it feels colder. Rock falls echo from the mountains. They must be happening far up the valleys, for I never see them. Sounds may travel far, but when you yell out, there is no echo. The immensity of the land drowns out your puny note as if you weren't there. You are insignificant.

A loon cruises the water ahead of me, diving every so often, and maintaining its distance. One mile done, 374 to go.

The river here is at an altitude of 2000 feet, and the surrounding mountains are approximately 8000 feet. Each valley has a different look to it. Rugged, rolling, evil, inviting, they slowly drift in and out of visibility with the changing weather. I want to explore every one, but the terrain is more than just difficult. Being alone, I opt for drifting slowly, quietly.

I cruise along silently, staying in the slower inside water. Before coming here, I had weighted the pros and cons of wilderness traveling noisy or quite. Many Park officials recommend traveling with some type of noise maker. A bell, whistle, sing. This way you announce your presence in grizzly country, in an attempt to reduce the danger of a close encounter with bear and moose. Of course, by making all this noise, you scare off every bird and mammal for as far as you can see.

Now that I am here, it is clear to me that the only way I am going to see any wildlife is by remaining silent. This means a complete overhaul of my noisy paddle stroke.

About an hour down river I round a bend and there, on the gravel bar, a shape. Animal, caribou? laying down? No, a wolf? No, a human! Damn, they're everywhere. It's a photographer hunched up around his camera taking close-ups of a seagull. I pull over an introduce myself. His name is Scott, from Knoxville, a photographer with his own business. Been on the river for five days so far, his brother is asleep. They do a lot of hiking to the surrounding peaks. Great views but they are worn out. The distance is so deceiving.


Photo, ©Scott West '94

And now, several miles down river, at my first camp, I really do feel alone. When there is no wind, the silence is deafening. My ears feel swollen as if they are straining to pick up anything. I cup my hands around my ears to help. I only hear my own heart beat. It's past midnight. The sun has hardly dipped below the horizon, and it's too bright to be called dusk.

One last check of the rivers height, down two inches. To sleep.