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.
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.
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.