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.