Arctic Adventure: Paddling Alaska’s Noatak River

Most people think Alaska is all ice, but that isn't the case.
Canoeing through the Brooks Range.

Flarks and strangs, pingos and palsas, I’m thinking, and even though it’s a new language, it’s one all of us on this trip are beginning to speak here on Alaska’s Noatak River, while the canoe paddles bite into the water and the afternoon breeze kicks up through low willows.

The pingo, kind-of like an ice bubble blown long ago by a glacier, is visible for miles, and the 70-foot hill of it glows like a black light at a really, really good party.

Every landscape speaks two languages, and these words we use are one — the kind of words you use when you try to fill in the blanks on a map of the Arctic.

But when the wolf goes off near camp at 1:30 a.m., its lonely cry echoing off four or five different mountains, I have to figure he’s speaking the other language of this place, the one this land keeps mostly to itself.

This is the one we’ve come here to learn.

The Noatak River flows from a watershed gathered around the sharp double peaks of Mt. Igikpak, rising 8,500 feet (2,591 m) in the Brooks Range, somewhere around 67 degrees north latitude.

It’s above the Arctic Circle, which means that tonight the sun won’t set, but around the time the wolf starts howling, the sky will take on a pale-blue glow, a gentle color that somehow reminds me of seashells on wild beaches.

It’s not easy to get to the Noatak, which is part of its beauty. You have to fly to Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city, then switch to a small plane for the trip to Bettles — a small lodge, a few houses and a long runway in the middle of nowhere — and then switch again to a float plane for the final hour or so of threading through the Gates of the Arctic, more than 8 million acres of protected wilderness.

Alaska Discovery, one of the oldest adventure travel companies in the state, runs trips on the Noatak twice a year, and they have this down pat. Our guides, Jeff and Mo, have that air any good river guide does: pure competence wrapped in absolute relaxation. You know these people bandage their cuts with duct tape and laugh while they do it.

The National Park Service describes the Noatak as “one of North America’s largest mountain-ringed river basins with an intact ecosystem.” That’s government language, and what it translates to, as we slide the five canoes into the Noatak’s silty current, is that the untouched mountains roll away around us, covered with tundra getting ready for winter.

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