Arctic Adventure: Paddling Alaska’s Noatak River

The bearberry is popping a bright shade of magenta, the river banks are littered with white flowers the size of pinheads, and each night, horsetails — which look like bamboo grown by a seriously demented bonsai artist — make a perfect bed for the tents.

The river is mostly Class I and II water — flat or just enough current to make paddling a little easier as our string of canoes starts to spread out. There’s a lot of talk between boats at first, running commentary on the scenery and on lives left behind, but it doesn’t take long for the river’s silence to take over; by early afternoon, whispers seem loud, and we’re looking for ways to muffle even our paddle strokes.

It’s not an unusual group for this kind of trip: highly educated (three nuclear physicists) and very well traveled (me, the travel writer, has been fewer places than any of the other nine people). Most of them have chosen this trip because Alaska Discovery is part of Mountain Travel Sobek, and they’ve been on adventures with them around the world.

But the real draw is the Arctic itself. There’s something about the way the sun slants, still blazing, long after the rest of the world has gone to bed. It lights the tundra a shade of gold that matches the shade of fur I’ve seen on the backs of the barren-ground grizzly bears when they are fat with fish.

We’ve all been to the Arctic before, we all know we’ll be back, so over lunch on a gravel bar covered with caribou tracks, we talk about the other Arctic rivers Alaska Discovery runs—the Hulahula, the Kongakut, the Sheenjek—and think ahead to other summers.

What is it about being this far north? Paul says it’s because the Arctic is always exotic, Milt says, “the light, the animals, a vista not choked with trees. Endless, empty vistas.”

But it’s anything but empty here. On a day when I stay behind in camp while everybody else goes for a hike — the trip alternates paddling days and hiking days, giving us a chance to see as many sides of the Arctic as possible — I listen, looking for a key to deciphering the landscape’s own language, and discover just how full this place is.

The low and constant drone of the insect buzz is like a platform of sound, holding up the warbling cry of a red-throated loon, followed by the splashes of the bird running on water. A brown butterfly, the edges of its wings lined in the color you see in old barns right before they fall down, stops to check out my river-dirty socks, while a raven kwocks past in flight, a black streak against the yellow mountains.

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