I leave tomorrow on a small expedition down the Noatak River north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Our route is just over 400 miles from the Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range to the Inuit village of Noatak — almost on an estuary of the Bering Sea. We have 15 nights on the river, which will make our run one of the fastest ever recorded. Not because I like to go fast, but just to squeeze the trip in the time we have allotted. Joining me will be my niece Karen Kelley, engineer and veteran of three other arctic trips with me in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories of Canada; Sue Plankis, friend, naturalist and canoeist extraordinaire; and my youngest daughter Zoe, a strong young woman with a heart of gold. That’s right, three women and me. Does that sound like a book title? I am feeling the itch to write another book. The Susie Islands inspired me.
Usually in the weeks prior to a big trip I get all kinds of jitters and feel remorse about leaving my wonderful family and comfortable home in the midst of a beautiful Minnesota summer. Then there always seem to be nagging injuries that threaten my ability for success (at least in my mind). So far that has not happened this time, but today I am feeling a little spooked. First time in Alaska since 1971 and that makes me nervous. It reminds me of what Eric Hoffer once wrote while journaling his life as a California migrant farm worker. For six weeks, Hoffer travelled northward in California picking peas and then the peas were done, and it was time to start picking beans. He couldn’t sleep that night. So I have some of that apprehension. When Merlyn Carter was alive, I never worried about problems, knowing that if I endured some catastrophe, even 500 miles from the road, he would find me and bring my crew safely home. I can still hear that old clunky piston Otter seaplane in my dreams and see his reassuring face. But he is gone now, and I am alone and in new territories with people I feel responsible for. The Noatak is not a difficult river and the grizzlies less cranky than their barrenland cousins.We should be okay. Lately, I have had a bad case of wanderlust so leaving the comforts and confines of Minnesota will not be hard. It will be here when I return and I will appreciate the environs all the more. Of course, more importantly being apart from my dear wife and family is always a difficult choice but I know I will love them all the more after some time off the grid and beyond the edge of civilized life. I always underestimate the impact my leaving has on them. I would think my wife would be glad to be rid of me for a few weeks but I guess she misses me and I am eternally grateful that my entire family supports my trips and tolerates my sometimes irrational passion to find out what lies beyond the bend in the river. Once on the expedition, I really don’t think much about home. I cannot afford to. I need and want to focus on the river, the journey, my crew. I wish like the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe books that I could just sneak out from my life at home, through a closet, have a long adventure and return joyous to see my family with no real time having elapsed. But life does not work that way. What a pity. Often at Expos and book signings people come up to me and say to me that they wish they could live my life. Be careful what you wish for. Finding balance in my life is often a struggle and a torment.
Injuries? Nothing trip threatening. My wrist is still sore from chasing, with an umbrella, a black bear around my friend Gray Wolf’s Wisconsin cabin. Knees are sore from a killer game of racquetball with my new son-in-law, Patrick, on the 4th of July. I won but likely for the last time, I only feel like I am 24. I am actually much older. These minor injuries will dissolve as the sun wraps around us, unencumbered by the horizon… as the buzz of progress is replaced by the music of wild nature.
One challenge is keeping our outfit under 1100 pounds for the Beaver float-plane. 4 people, 2 canoes, food and gear for over 2 weeks, under 1100 lbs! It’s a puzzle and we are at 1126 right now and down to very tough cuts. Looks like I will return thinner.
Please wish us tail winds, friendly bears and most of all adventure. I am not tracking our route in real time on the website as I did when Peter Lenmark and I did our 763-mile trip across the Arctic Divide. The SPOT is too unreliable in western Alaska so I don’t want anyone worried by missing updates.
That’s it, we are out.