Arctic Adventure: Paddling Alaska’s Noatak River

Everything is trying to pull a last bath of sun-drenched nutrients from the impossibly blue sky.

Along the river, I spy spotted sandpipers and Arctic ground squirrels. Dall sheep browse the cliff opposite, and about an hour ago, something very large — bear? caribou? moose? There are signs of all three on the muddy river bank— charged across the river, out of the water, and was gone before I could even stand up.

When the hikers come back, they’re breathless: “The musk ox was so close we could smell him.”

Kind of a horsey smell, they say, as Mo, who turns out to be a genius with a four-burner camp stove, starts dinner. Already we’ve been on the river long enough, in this different world, that when Mo and Jeff start peering at a faulty gas valve, lighter in hand, nobody worries.

“I guess what calls me back,” Eliot says, as we gather a dessert of Arctic blueberries that have a fine, gently bitter taste, “is that the Brooks Range makes me feel small, insignificant. I think we need that.”

In the evening’s endless twilight, the physicists spend an hour or so measuring the river temperature. One’s high-tech thermometer says 57 degrees; another’s says 59, so there’s a long discussion of the discrepancy.

When most people think of the Arctic, they think snow and ice and polar bears, but that’s only the tiniest fraction of things. We all have very warm clothes with us, but at camp each morning, we’re in T-shirts, and there’s a run on sunscreen. I get the deepest tan of my life up here, and I have raccoon eyes from keeping my sunglasses on every waking hour.

Before we turn in for the night, the mountains now glowing like beating hearts, the river offers up a present better than a lullaby: the fresh tracks of a bear cub, following its mother. Mom’s tracks are about five inches across, which means she’s a pretty big bear. The cub’s are smaller than my dog’s.

In the morning, canoes are back in river, the sunlight making our river-washed clothes sparkle like Vegas lounge singers. I dip my hands into the cold water and watch a sandhill crane, its long legs like a kite streamer, fly past. After four days of paddling, my arms feel stronger than ever, and the stroke techniques that seemed almost alien at the beginning of the trip are pure reflex now. We eat the miles of the river like a fine banquet.

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