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.