Arctic Adventure: Paddling Alaska’s Noatak River

Fall is the best time to experience Alaska's diverse wildlife.
Autumn is the perfect time for brilliant fall colors and incredible wildlife sightings, including the migration of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

“I don’t know what day it is, or how long we’ve been out here, and I don’t care,” Jan tells me after we make camp. “I just want to be right here, take all this in.”

I look up and see Eliot — an international health consultant — and two of our three nuclear physicists making the careful evening trash fire. Enough IQ points to start a new country, and these three guys are standing over burning food wrappers, smiling like kids on their first campout.

The last night, we’re on the shores of our takeout lake, everybody both dreading and anticipating tomorrow’s arrival of the plane south. We’ve been 10 days without the sounds of the modern world, and the loudest sound we’ll hear tonight are the cackling loons, calling to each other across the lake’s shores.

I climb out of my tent around 2 a.m., and the moon, which rose full and an unlikely shade of red, splitting the cleft between two mountains a few hours ago, has not so much gained altitude as it has skittered around the sky like a pinball.

It makes me wonder if there’s enough food left that I could just hang out here on the lake for another week, gather the delicate shells that litter the lakeshore like very fine origami and watch how much the family of ducklings grows in the late summer light.

And in the morning, yet another reason to stay: After we’ve packed up and are sitting on the beach, Eliot suddenly whispers urgently: “Swimming caribou.”

Five of them, coming a half mile or more across the lake, led by a female and her calf. All five swim at a steady speed, the massive antlers on the two males rising three feet or more above the surface of the water.

I don’t know how long we watch them. We are all almost afraid to breathe, for fear it will disturb the magic.

Finally, the female and her calf come ashore. They shake themselves like very big dogs, and we hear her snort as she scrambles up the low hill to the tundra plateau beyond.

A final lesson in the language of the place. A final reason for our response to be “thank you,” in any language we can think of speaking.

If You Go

Alaska Division of Tourism



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