Writing this blog in the Seattle airport after a red-eye flight from Anchorage. The first darkness at night in over a month seems as if it is the closing curtain of a great Broadway play. Curtain drawn tight, the applause already fading. It’s all over now.
We successfully completed an 18-day, 400-mile canoe expedition down the Noatak River in arctic Alaska. It was a strong crew of ten with excellent weather and perfect water levels. Wildlife count included 14 grizzly bears, six muskoxen, two wolves (playful pups), six foxes, numerous sic sic, raptors, loons, ptarmigan,and three moose and three Dall sheep seen from the air. Fishing was also excellent for Salmon, Grayling and Dollies – yum. It is a spectacular river with different challenges and rewards around every bend.
Those familiar with my tripping style, especially on far north expeditions, know that I prefer an expeditionary regimen. I meticulously plan details of the journey, but I am always primed for emergent themes. I eschew creature comforts and strive to immerse, not barricade, myself and my crew from nature. Safety first, but not far behind, is achieving a sense of accomplishment all while relentlessly pursuing adventure. This year’s Noatak journey was no different. There were moments of fatigue, frustration, hunger and hardship. Those moments made the rewards even sweeter. The themes of this year’s journey were sun, bears, wind and solitude.
Our first float plane a DeHavilland Beaver went down in the weeds with four of my crew. Unhurt, and undaunted, and after extracting the plane from the muskeg, they tried again, only to be turned back by stormy weather while attempting to fly through a high Brooks Range pass. The third attempt was successful, and two loads of pak-canoes, provisions, and crew followed.
To fish for sport is one thing. To send a group of three up the Kugurorok River in search of a trout pool at 11:00 pm because of hunger is a different breed of dog. They returned with 16 fillets. Jubilant.
To see a grizzly from a distance is inspiring, but to have one walk right by your tent is visceral.
To paddle a canoe on a calm, sunny day is a pleasure, but to fight a gusty headwind, day after day, takes grit and builds stoic humility.
After a stalk, to pop your head above a ridge only to be spitting distance and eyeball to eyeball with a musk-ox is as different from viewing a zoo-caged musk-ox as trying to compare browsing the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to the real thing.
Surprising a big grizzly in the willows- the snort, the thrashing, the flash of golden fur, sharpens your senses and glues your feet to the tundra, poised for anything.
Finding comfort on a bed of stones in brilliant sunlight, wearing the same shirt you have worn for a week, some nights in sweat some nights in frost, dodging rocks in rapids and pitching a tent in a gale and all that other stuff and more, reminds us that we are all the children of nature, and we must learn to accept her capricious whims.
Like all my Noatak Expeditions it was an adventure. Two weeks of oatmeal, wild blueberries, bannock and dried meat reminds us that food is just nourishment for our body, and on an expedition has no purpose other than to fuel our quest for adventure. To seek a sheltered campsite and to leave that campsite as unmolested and free from litter as we found it earns us the sacred right to feel the wildness, in our bones, our hearts, our souls. No matter the bruises, blistered fingertips, aching back… what distinguishes an expedition from a vacation is that we return not rested, but empowered. Arrows and daggers of modern life shatter against the blue twisted steel of our core and an invigorated and indomitable spirit.
Not sure I will ever paddle the Arctic again. But one fact is for sure. I will never regret my time with paddle in hand, canoe beneath my knees and wild nature all around.
Thanks to all my partners on these far north journeys; canoe expeditions which have spanned almost a half-century.
PS For those that followed our expedition’s progress on Mapshare, thanks for your interest and moral support!