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